The Shape of Content to Come


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Or, Information Architecture, Minimalist music, LEGO bricks, and a visit from the President of the People’s Republic of China

As I sat stuck on the bus yesterday for an hour and a half, crawling through traffic delayed and re-routed by an impending visit from President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China, I listened for the first time to John Adams’ 1987 opera Nixon in China.

I grew up listening both to the masters of “traditional” classical music and to revolutionary 20th-century composers like Copeland and Stravinsky — the first CD I ever bought for myself, back in 1983 (the year CDs were released in Japan), was the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Later, I learned to love opera when I sang in the chorus for Carmen with the oldest active symphony west of the Mississippi (a fun fact about the Walla Walla Symphony). But despite passionate recommendations from Music Major friends in college, I’d never really dug particularly deeply into Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, Terry Riley, or John Adams. Hearing The Chairman Dances on the radio over the weekend, I realized I’d been missing something.

Whether writing software documentation earlier in my career as a technical writer, specifications and user stories more recently as a product manager, or poetry and fiction whenever I can find the creative and emotional space to write it, music has always played a significant part in my writing process. From Bach and Beethoven to Johnny Cash and Sigur Rós, just about any music helps me focus and concentrate, while the right music can help me maintain the emotional state I want to explore when writing poetry in particular.

This is not to say that music is somehow subordinate or subservient to writing. Music is in all probability the first art form that we humans created. Paleoanthropologists have excavated Aurignacian flutes from numerous sites across Europe — swan and vulture rib bones, cave bear femurs, and mammoth ivory carefully drilled with finger holes.

Flauta paleolítica
Aurignacian flute, ca. 43,000 BP. Photo by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez, via Wikimedia Commons

With such incontrovertible evidence from 43,000 years ago, there is no doubt that music extends far back into the Paleolithic and may even precede the emergence of our species in Africa 200,000 years ago (I think it’s only a matter of time before the historically understudied African Middle or Later Stone Age reveals no less incontrovertible evidence of our African ancestors making music). Music was likely already a major component of the ritual activities that took place surrounded by the cave art of Chauvet and Lasceaux.

But the written word did not emerge until tens of thousands of years later in the Fertile Crescent and China, and did not evolve to include what we would consider “art” until even later, with poetry such as the “Epic of Gilgamesh” from around 2,100 BCE.

British Museum Flood Tablet
The Epic of Gilgamesh, ca. 2,100 BCE. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Thus, music serves to aid my thought processes as it has for my ancestors for the past tens of thousands of years, and writing is just one potential outcome of the thinking process.

At the same time, what I write myself and work with every day (I’m the director of the planning and design team for a software company that builds tools for writers) has always had a definable shape. I’m not talking about the butterflies and triangles that writers of concrete poetry use or even the hierarchies and so-called structures that luminaries in the content business talk about at conventions and write about in thick books about content strategy. No, visual poetic devices on a page and cascading sequences of technical content are at best two-dimensional (and more often than not merely linear).

For me, content has the kind of shape you can hold in your hands. When I’m writing a poem, the experience is much like drawing a lump of clay up from the potter’s wheel into a plate, a pot, a vase. Carrying the simile perhaps one step too far, the carving, burnishing, and glazing that follows a pot’s drying process are much like the editing process with words — trim here, add there, change this and that.

From Point to TesseractThings get a bit … weirder in my head with complex business content — websites, software help systems, multilingual hardware manuals, drug labels and other pharmaceutical content. Beyond the tangible three-dimensional shapes I perceive when writing poetry, modules of content and their variations, the relationships between pieces of content, the content’s metadata, and the intended uses for the content all combine to begin taking a shape beyond the confines of three-dimensional space. If a poem is a beautifully crafted but rather straightforward cube, a drug label — with its relationships to regional and local prescribing information, varying approval statuses by regulatory authority, and forthcoming indications in Phase III clinical trials — is nothing short of a tesseract (the four-dimensional cube animated here).

Most people talk about content in terms of the end products (novels, poems, or documents) and their storage media (books and files). Even when we talk about the rich landscapes of great works of fiction like The Grapes of Wrath or The Lord of the Rings, we fall back to tired, linear mental models like the “inverted check mark” that every English Major has seen scratched on a chalkboard — tension building in a long line to a climax, with a short downward dip for the denouement after resolution of the story’s central conflict.

Inverted checkmark for The Lord of the Rings
A really boring story?

Despite fancy words we use in business content like “metadata,” “reuse,” and “modularity,” the way we actually describe and work with content is no less flat than the boring ways we analyze fiction. If language reflects the way we think, we’re thinking about content all wrong. Content is about complex relationships, tangible structures, and the interplay of ideas and their expression. Every piece of content has a shape.

One way I break out of linear and two-dimensional ways of thinking about content is by approaching it in a literally physical form. Thanks to my lifelong LEGO hobby, both my home and office are strewn with boxes of little plastic bricks from Denmark. When talking about content with colleagues, I often build what I’m describing, with specific colors representing certain content types and different bricks above, below, and behind to represent the relationships between the core content we’re discussing and other, related content. Not surprisingly, this mental model has worked much better with colleagues and customers than lengthy enumerations of content types and metadata in a spreadsheet or a linear hierarchy of elements and attributes.

Me!
LEGO Andrew plays with LEGO. Is the white tile the content and the red stud the metadata?

Interestingly, the language and processes of the Minimal music aesthetic also focuses on repetition, modularity, and complex structure. What I discovered this week is that the music itself creates a shape in my mind in the same way that both literature and complex business content do. For example, in Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” repeated phrases from the piccolos and a pulsing bass rhythm anchor the two ends of the score’s range and build on each other over the course of the piece, with transitions to variations on more traditional musical genres such as Big Band music from the 1930’s. The similarity to the Information Architecture concepts of modularity, reuse, and variation is even more evident in “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” with its persistent wood block percussion and varyingly repetitive trumpet notes. (I’m listening to Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach as I write this post, but my brain hurts a bit processing its shape.)

So, if music influences thinking, and thinking yields writing, perhaps we should be listening to more Philip Glass and John Adams while playing with LEGO bricks, and reading fewer big books about Information Architecture and Content Strategy…

The poetry of Thien Pham’s Sumo [Review]

As I wrote when reviewing Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, the graphic novel form enables the writer and artist to explore structure in ways that are more overt than the purely written word. In fact, I would argue that the techniques I’ve observed in great graphic novels — the way sections echo each other, how the artist alludes to things beyond the immediate page, and even the layout of the panels — shift graphic novels along the spectrum of literary genres away from “regular” novels and more toward poetry.

The structural similarity between graphic novels and poetry is, for me, most evident in Sumo, the first solo work by Thien Pham, published last year by First Second.

Sumo tells the story of Scott, an American who moves to Japan to pursue a career as a professional sumo wrestler after his girlfriend dumps him and his NFL dreams have been dashed.

But first, a few words about the greatest sport on earth.

I grew up following sumo in the era of Chiyonofuji and Konishiki. Back in Japan in the 70’s and 80’s, my classmates and I marked off a ring in the dirt of the schoolyard, stamped our feet, slapped our hands, and then slammed into each other until one of us fell over or stepped out of the ring. My hero was not, as you might expect, the American-born Konishiki, but Chiyonofuji — smart, and light on his feet. A chorus of 「ずるい!」 (“Not fair!”) would erupt when I’d side-step a much-larger boy and propel him stumbling from the ring with a shove between his shoulder blades. In my defense, I’d just mention Chiyonofuji’s most recent win against the likes of the monumental Konishiki and they would fall into grumbling acceptance.

I love sumo, from its ancient Shinto traditions to the way the modern sport has begun to open its doors to American, Russian, Bulgarian, and — most successfully of late — Mongolian wrestlers. It’s beautiful in ways that I can’t explain to someone who didn’t grow up watching it on NHK and mimicking the previous night’s bouts with your friends in a dirt ring you marked off yourself.

I don’t know anything about Sumo author Thien Pham beyond what appears on the book jacket — “Thien Pham is a comic book and visual artist based in the Bay Area. He is also a high school teacher.” Somehow, Pham manages in this small graphic novel — barely breaking a hundred pages — to encapsulate all that is wonderful about sumo.

Like the sport itself, Sumo is a minimalist work of art — as sumo is to ballet, Sumo is to poetry. Pham eschews both sound effects and thought bubbles. Everything you learn about Scott and his journey happens through action and dialogue. The beauty of some of that action lies in stillness and simplicity, with long sequences in Sumo showing nothing on the page but single-color illustrations.

Sumo is a story whose power lies in the convergence of three story threads — Scott as he prepares to leave for Japan; his early days there and friendship with the sumo stable master’s daughter; and his life as a wrestler rising through the ranks of professional sumo. Pham uses three separate colors to highlight each story, and intertwines them throughout the novel.

When Pham ties all three threads together at the end, the real emotional impact of Scott’s story becomes apparent. I won’t spoil it for the reader, but the hair stood up on my arms and the back of my neck.

Such a deep effect is something I encounter rarely, even in the best poetry. I heartily recommend Thien Pham’s Sumo and eagerly anticipate his next work.

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

As I clawed my way free of the grip of Modernism early in my literary life, Seamus Heaney was one of the first post-Modern, contemporary poets whose work I fell in love with the moment I began reading it. Heaney died today in Dublin at the age of 74. As fellow Irish poet Michael Longley said today, “I feel like I’ve lost a brother and there are tens of thousands of people today who will be feeling personally bereaved…”

I write a lot about “connections” — how archaeology connects us through our shared human heritage, but also how one can discover unexpected connections with a beloved poet. Having cast aside the New Criticism of the Modernists, I fully embrace the power that a sense of personal connection brings to the reading of poetry.

And yet, any sense of personal connection to Heaney was always tangential at best. I bought my copy of Human Chain at a bookstore in Dublin a block away from Trinity College, and I harbored a brief, secret hope that I would run into the poet taking a walk in St. Stephen’s Green. Earlier, I picked up District and Circle in London. In other words, my only connection to Seamus Heaney in life was through my purchase history — not really the stuff of inspiration.

What, then, about Heaney’s poetry do I find so personally attractive? It’s simple, really — and more than a little obvious, if you’ve read anything I’ve written: It’s the words.

Watch this beautiful compilation from footage over the years of Seamus Heaney reading his iconic ars poetica “Digging.”

Though I can assure you that the influence was entirely unconscious, astute readers will observe a straight line from “Digging” to my own “Waiting for Work to Begin” (which I wrote more than a decade after I first read Heaney).

There is an inevitable shared language among poets of the Pacific Northwest and of Ireland. From W.B. Yeats to William Stafford and from Seamus Heaney to myself, we set our poetry against the same backdrop of wind and rain, of moss and soil. We flit back and forth between the city and the wilderness; the interplay between fellow humans figures as prominently in our work as the balance between ourselves and the natural world around us.

Yeats, Joyce, MacNeice, Roethke, Stafford, Hugo, Wagoner, Kinsella, Longley, Heaney, Muldoon, and so many more — perhaps there is a “green” school of poetry that spans centuries, literary movements, and continents. If there is such a school of poets, count me among them.

I have a dream

It’s been many years since I’ve taken the time to watch the entirety of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial nearly 50 years ago, on August 28, 1963. Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, as well as the second inauguration of the first African-American president of the United States.

Hearing Dr. King’s aspirations once more, it’s clear we’ve come so far in the last 50 years, but we still have a long way to go.

Yeats at 4th & Madison

Girls in small glasses and men in long coats
wait for their buses. Beyond the bank,
behind the courthouse, the highway and hotels,
there are places you and I cannot see.

Stairs lead halfway up a hill. Climb them.
A hedge has no gate. Walk through it.
Leaves spin in the road. Step into the wind.
Piled stones shift in the grass. Stand atop them.

Above the highest step, through the hedge,
carried on the air with the whirling leaves,
balanced on rocks tumbling from beneath your feet,
you’ll find the world that shimmers and glows.

In the space between those buildings and buses,
take my hand and close your eyes. Go there with me now.