Words Take Over   Leave a comment

Time and energy for making astronomical observations has been rather scarce of late. My interest in matters astronomical has never been stronger, but writing has taken such a firm hold of my life that other priorities have been set back a notch or two. (Gardening is one of these. You should see the weeds out there!) Until relatively recently I had the time to devote to astronomy (and horticulture) because I’d given up on writing. The creative energy once soaked up by writing needed to go elsewhere. It went into the Earth and out to the stars.

It’s not really a surprise that a return to writing has rearranged my life as it has. Now that modern self publishing (independent publishing, as many prefer to put it) has turned being published from a bottleneck to an open outlet, I have no reason to hold back. And for the past year and a half or so, I haven’t held back at all. Getting the words down, getting the stories told, is priority one, without question. So I turn my eyes back to the Moon and stars only at those times when I have gotten enough writing done that I feel comfortable taking some time at the eyepiece.

Writing follows me to the eyepiece, and has changed the way I practice astronomy in a way that I didn’t expect. With my mind so focused on making words work for me, these days, I find myself wielding a pencil less often, when I record observations. Instead of sketching each object, I find myself taking ever more detailed notes. It was a subtle drift from one method to the other as the dominant technique, and it’s far from a complete change. I still apply graphite to the blending stump on a regular basis, especially when working on something like an Astronomical League observing project. But for observations made for the sake of observing, I just don’t sketch things as often.

Many artists focus on one form of self-expression to the near exclusion of others. (People who can draw, sing, and play a musical instrument with equal facility leave me awestruck.) The art I practice is that of wordsmithing, and it has always suffered competition without much grace. I suppose for me it’s a sort of artistic monogamy. And the more involved with writing I am, the more ways writing finds to express itself in my daily life. For astronomy, writing always had a role, but for years I spent as much timing illustrating observing reports as I did writing them. Words are my thing, now more than ever, the medium in which I best express what I see and think and feel while out under the stars.

I crossed a divide of sorts when I started using a digital voice recorder, instead of scribbling in the dark. Even a faint red light reflected off a white piece of paper (and it doesn’t matter if I’m sketching or scribbling) reduces dark adaptation, a necessary trade-off for effective sketching. With a DVR and a sense for words, I don’t need to reduce my night vision as much, though reading star charts still has an effect. Use of the DVR promotes spontaneity as I search for ways to describe what I see. The following day I use those spoken words for a foundation, and write essays to fill my observation reports. Allowing the medium that comes most naturally to me take over when recording observations has made visual observing a more vivid experience for me. As was true of sketching, making the effort to come up with just the right word or phrase focuses my attention in ways that links my mind more clearly to the process of observing. Just as it happens with sketching, that focus means I see more, and see more clearly. The act of observing becomes an interaction between lenses, eyes, and mind, and not a merely passive collection of photons by the retina.

As with any art, the more you write the more you can write, and with greater facility. The desire to write also grows. The more writing I do, the more I want to write, so it really is no surprise that I practice astronomy the way I do, these days. At least, when I manage time to do a little observing, that is. The writing habit that has taken the sketch pad out of my hands also keeps me working on the next book or short story. That leaves me with little time for star-gazing as I work to get another book written and published.

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