On a Call With … was an informal kind of podcast I did the mode of a phone call. Like, you know, a phone call. No video. Minimal editing. Underscore, promos, and stings: None. It’s more notebook than book, more jam than song, more sketchbook than a painting. As a listener, you get inside the minds of creative people and hear their stories in their own words.
Joel answers my questions about how he starts his workday, why bike rides are important, his sources of inspiration, where creativity comes from, and why he loves composing music. Creative work is life-affirming for him. The podcast is eleven minutes long, suitable for listening to while you are waiting for brunch to start.
Joel has scored more than a hundred films and TV productions that have received five Oscar nominations, 20 Emmy Awards, and 30 Emmy nominations. His music is in my podcast drama Privacy Pod. You can experience Joel’s music in films like Being Elmo, many episodes of American Masters and American Experience, Obit, and also Outside the Bubble: On the Road with Alexandra Pelosi.
This was another one of my favorites in this series. Bobbi Lane was my photography teacher.
Bobbi Lane said memorably, “If you don’t have a concept then you don’t have a picture.” What she means is that all the photographic technique in the world isn’t going to do you any good if you don’t have an idea for your image.
Bobbi is an award-winning commercial photographer specializing in creative portraits on location and in the studio. Her corporate and editorial work includes corporate websites, annual reports, and hundreds of environmental portraits for a wide variety of magazines. She’s also an amazing teacher of photography and was once my teacher.
It’s easy to shoot a million pictures in digital but that doesn’t mean that you have to. — Bobbi Lane
Photographs nowadays live amid a vast ocean of their fellow images. We consume them like potato chips, quickly flipping to the next set on Instagram. This has changed the way we consume images but not the way we make good ones. As Bobbi explains to her students, the path to making a memorable image is to be aware of everything in the frame. Don’t rely on post-production too much — get the image you want when you snap the shutter.
You have to love your project. If you don’t love it, why shoot it?
Bobbi is a Fujifilm X Photographer and does presentations for Fuji around the country. She teaches at the International Center for Photography in New York City, Los Angeles Center of Photography, and the Light Factory in North Carolina. With her husband, Lee Varis, she teaches daylong workshops at Hunts Camera just outside of Boston four or five times a year.
On the call, Bobbi and I talk about her trips to Venice for Carnival — this year was her eighth trip. She does a regular series of photo travel tours. This summer she’s taking a small group to Tanzania during the wildebeest migration. In September she’s headed back to Iceland for her second photo trip. Next January she will be returning to Myanmar for her second trip. In February, she’ll be back in Venice.
She and Lee have a website and it lists all their upcoming workshops and events, and has a variety of image galleries about places they’ve been. Her Instagram is worth a look. It has a pretty rad icon of her holding a falcon.
I can’t build this archive without including this call with Vikram Chandra, novelist, software developer, and deep thinker about the creative process. I first discovered his work when I read his bestseller Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty, a book about the creative drives and lives shared by writers and coders.
One of the book’s most mind- blowing sections (I am re-reading it this week) is about the precision of Sanskrit as a language. In 500 BCE, a scholar named Panini wrote a grammar of Sanskrit that fit in just 40 dense pages. His work has influenced Western grammatical theory for centuries, and that theory “became the seedbed for high-level computer languages,” as Vikram points out in his book. You can draw a line connecting Sanskrit with how computer programs are conceived and written.
That was my point of entry into his work, but I wanted to interview him because he wrote something that terrified me.
I learned from reading a blog he wrote that he doesn’t outline his long, complex novels. He writes with purposeful ambiguity.
As you begin, you know very little about what the book is. But the thoughts and visions persist, which means that this character and her world have some kind of special energy for you, and you want to know more about this character, what her situation is. - Vikram Chandra
This means that he may spend years writing his way into a story, leaving big plot holes, learning about the characters as he goes, until the novel comes into focus. >This seems like a scary way to write, but it has successful practitioners. His first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, won the 1996 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. Sacred Games is a literary novel that is also a crime novel, a detective story, and a thriller. It has a hundred characters. It became the first original television series from India on Netflix.
So feeling along in the dark might be a good way to write a book. Novelist E. L. Doctorow described his writing process like this: “You know the headlights are on in the fog and you can see just so far, but you realize you can drive the whole way like that.” Joan Didion wrote something like, I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what I think it means.
I can keep throwing quotes at you all day. They will do nothing to push back my terror of wading into a long book without an outline. On the call, Vikram and I talk about his discovery process and my planning process.
Since he is the rare person who values purposeful ambiguity and also has an engineer’s mind, he is working on a kind of super-software for writers that keeps track of who, what, where, and when.
You can use kind of hacky solutions like the old-time honored index cards on the wall, your hand drawn or a software based timelines. But the problem is again that none of this knowledge is attached to the text. And so that’s what I obsessed about for nearly a decade and discovered that it’s actually a pretty hard problem, attaching facts to text, which has a very honorable and long effort. - Vikram Chandra
His answer is called Granthika. Easily as mind expanding as Sanskrit grammar forming the conceptual basis of computer programming languages, Granthika is an AI word processor that tracks and corrects continuity errors in your timeline, characters, and events. It’s an editor by your side who constantly tests your story’s factual correctness. As Vikram suggested in our call, “if you move the inquest up before the murder, it tells you” and you can fix it.
On a Call With … was a 10-part series. Listen to all the episodes on Apple Podcasts
(c) Lee Schneider 2021. Take care of each other. Subscribe.