Thursday, January 10, 2008

Striving for Clarity

Last spring, my family spent a night in Flagstaff, Arizona. One of the places we visited was the Lowell Observatory, where Pluto was discovered. The evening we were there, overcast skies prevented any stargazing. It was May, but it was snowing. We were still able to see the Clark Telescope, the first telescope installed in 1896. Inside the unheated, domed building, we saw the huge, historic telescope and learned how men at the turn of the century developed systems to easily re-position the six-ton instrument. A few lucky kids got to come down and see how easy it was to move the telescope, and my son was one of them. The lighting was low and I was shivering, but the photo I got of him is remarkable.

The dim lighting looks other-wordly, and Cameron’s clothing is blurred with the motion of his steps down three wooden stairs. The docent’s back is to us, but Cameron’s upturned face has a ghostly clarity, caught in a moment of true awe. To the left, the historic telescope is in focus just enough for you to recognize its antiquity. I love looking at this photo every day, but it didn’t start out this way.

When I first printed the picture, the lighting was purple (a bad printer cartridge). Everything but Cameron’s face was blurry. Because nothing stood out clearly, it had a blunted feel to it. Through the miracle of photo editing software, I corrected all those things. I sharpened the interesting points around Cameron’s face, changed the color, and installed a fresh printer cartridge. A frame is all I need now.

The process of writing is similar. Within the rough idea, one thought is in focus. It’s up to us to clarify the details. When we edit, we’re sharpening the view to focus on our most interesting points. We give texture with the background, but it shouldn’t be distracting. One focused idea takes center stage, where it blossoms.

Fortunately, no one has created software to automate this process for writers. Can you imagine? One click to replace passive verbs with active ones, another to red-flag flat characters. Yikes! Considering what nutty suggestions Word’s grammar check gives, can you imagine? I’ll stick to my old-fashioned methods here at my desk. Maybe this is why photography is my hobby. I love that a few easy clicks gave me a wonderful picture of my handsome little boy experiencing the thrill of discovery; clear writing is much harder.
Photo information: My photo of the telescope Clyde Tombaugh used to discover Pluto, on display at Lowell.

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