Ansel Burch is a writer, performer, creative polymath, and a friend of mine who specializes in re-enactments and professional radio dramas. His use of Pinterest as a way to curate visual representations of the places and people he writes about led me to interview him over the weekend. I’m a big fan of the social media platform, but usually reserve my inspirations in secret boards so as not to tip my hand on projects. Ansel is less concerned with that than I am, which allows others to gain more inspiration from his curating work. You can follow him on Pinterest as captfrobisher, or on Twitter @dndisms.
1. When did you start using Pinterest to organize your inspiration?
Probably about a year ago – I was against it initially, but my wife convinced me that it was a good idea, and I came around eventually. It’s currently the best way online to categorize and keep images for a specific project. Google Images seems to use textual parameters around the articles attached to an image, rather than the image itself; and Pinterest also loads faster on the smartphone, which is my main means of interaction with it.
2. Why do you find Pinterest useful for this?
You and I both work mostly with the written word, which can become very ethereal if you let it. Especially with my radio plays, when you’re writing, there’s sometimes this dream aspect where the characters move from point a to point b with no real description.
But if you have a visual concept you can refer back to, you get a more solid concept of “the rocket is so big, and people have to go from here to here …” You can narrate it more effectively. The characters have to get through the airlock, get around the bulkheads, etc. Getting that concept of where you are visually is so key when your work is mostly verbal and textual.
3. Do your ideas generally lead you to images, or vice versa?
I look through my feeds and pin things to the various projects I already have going on. I’ve not yet been inspired to a new project by Pinterest, but it’s given me a lexicon of imagery to work on for future projects.
4. Where do you start looking for your inspiration online?
My feed is made up by following boards rather than following people. I’ll look for an image that’s iconic for what I’m working on, then investigate what board it was pinned to, and follow that board. Then I investigate the lineage of pinning – looking for where similar images or boards exist, and follow up from there.
5. About how much time a week do you spend researching on the site vs. actively creating?
Probably 2-3 hours a week on the high end, mostly during my train commute. I only focus on it if I’ve got a specific project that I need inspiration for. For example, I may spend some dedicated time to get images of important locations or individuals for a storyline. But it’s mostly what I call distraction work.
Active creation usually takes 10-12 hours a week. Less than I’d like, but more than I can justify given the job situation. I’ll give all that active creation time in a day on a single project, rather than splitting the time between projects, and days of the week are devoted to specific projects – Monday I write the radio scripts, Tuesdays before a game are devoted to the upcoming scenario, etc.
6. Do you have a specific project or board you’re proudest of?
The curation for my constructed world of Tendar is probably my most well-designed board. Lots of architecture and landscape which show people exactly what I’m thinking of. There’s less “creep” of unrelated pins and pictures on this board.
7. What feature of Pinterest do you find most useful?
I honestly enjoy the “recommended for you” feature, which I know we disagree on and which my wife finds creepy. But it really delivers things to you, rather than requiring you to go look for specific images and hunt them down. I find it convenient, though of course it’s not perfect. For example, I wind up with a lot of women’s fashion being delivered to me because of the costume boards I frequent.
I delivered an original speech yesterday. Well, not completely original, and not completely a speech.
The Storytelling manual is an interesting bit in Toastmasters. Like Interpretive Reading, it’s one of those which is right up my alley but which feels a bit like cheating. These aren’t speeches so much as solo performances, which I’ve already got plenty of training in. In fact, one of the commenters yesterday pointed out my “unfair advantage as an actor,” which I understand. I’m doing this manual as what they’d call a quick win in the business world, a way to progress swiftly through the checklist to the next level of the organization.
Project Three is “The Moral of the Story,” which asks you to either write an original story with a moral lesson at the end, or to adapt an existing fable into a new story. I decided to go with the second option, again, working toward that quick win.
There were a few comments that stuck out to me both as a speaker and a writer.
- “Maybe a bit too dramatic / Try a more natural mode of speaking.” Well, guilty as charged. As a fan of Kipling (his writing, not his imperialism), I used many of his tricks from Just So Stories, which makes the language seem a little archaic. I personally enjoy that stylistic difference and chose to make use of it, but I can understand others can find it off-putting. In terms of the performance, I chose to deliver it as though I were speaking to a room of children – since lecturing adults on morality is something I’m trying to step away from in my personal and public lives. Perhaps I should have made that clear at the outset. Either way, the drama was a choice I made, so it’s good to have the comments.
- “The mother’s really just a plot device.” Argh, argh, argh. True. Excellent point. While I’m working toward simplicity in a five-minute story, that shouldn’t reduce any of the characters to mere devices. And of course, it’s the mother who gets the short end of the stick, because I’m writing automatically as a man and not being as attentive as I should be. I’m embarrassed by this comment and ashamed of its accuracy, but I can take it as a reminder to watch more closely next time.
- “Dogs can’t talk. That was a big surprise, but it gave the moral greater impact.” I … okay, I don’t know what to tell you about this one. It’s a fable, of course animals can talk. That’s a staple of the genre. Happy accident that you felt it punched up the purpose, but an accident nevertheless.
- “I was so happy to see this bratty kid get his comeuppance.” I didn’t think I’d written the little boy as a brat, per se. Just as a little boy, with the tendencies I’ve observed in all little kids. They cry and cajole when they want something, and things don’t hold their interest very long when they involve work. Is that bratty? I’d call it human nature, but I wonder if this says more about my thoughts as a writer or the commenter’s experience as a listener and mother.
A couple things for me to remember. It’s always good to get feedback like this, that I can actually work on. Sometimes the comments are too positive when I do well, which is obviously nice, but doesn’t help anything except my ego.
The story was adapted from “The Goatherd and His Wild Goats,” one of the Aesop stories I’d never heard before looking for one to adapt; and I’ve included the story below.
The Mother, Her Child, and His Two Lost Dogs
Once upon a time there was a woman named Claire who lived in this very town, and this woman had a little boy, and because of this we will call her Mother Claire and we will call her little boy Caleb, for that was Caleb’s name.
Like all little boys, Caleb was sometimes quiet and sometimes he was loud, and never was he louder than on those occasions when he wanted something, and never EVER was he louder than on those occasions when he wanted something which Mother Claire would keep from him. And like all little boys, one of the things Caleb wanted more than anything in the world was a puppy to call his own.
And after asking and pleading and crying and shrieking for the better part of a month, like many parents, Mother Claire became so tired and worn out from the noise that one day she brought home a puppy for Caleb, and they named that puppy Buddy because Buddy is a very good name for a puppy.
Now Caleb had promised to take very good care of Buddy, and so he did – for a little time. He kept Buddy in his bed at night to keep him warm, and he fed Buddy the very nicest of scraps from his table, and he walked Buddy proudly around the block, and he even picked up the things which Buddy left behind, which I will not talk about because I can see by the way you smile that you know what I mean.
But after a while picking up after Buddy seemed like a nasty thing to do, and so Caleb stopped doing it, and Mother Claire had to pick up where Caleb left off. And after a while walking Buddy became a chore, and so Caleb stopped doing it, and Mother Claire had to walk far around the block before and after she went to work.
And after a while Buddy became roly-poly and round, and so Caleb called him Fatty and stopped the feeding of scraps, and Buddy got so big that Caleb had no more room in his little bed and he made Buddy sleep on the hard floor.
Then one evening in the winter – and you know how cold winter gets, my loves – one winter Caleb heard a scratching and a whining at the door, and he opened it up, and there was a little lost puppy who was long and lean and floppy-eared and so much more handsome than Fatty Buddy.
Caleb felt very sorry for the new little puppy, and he showed Mother Claire how handsome and young and friendly the new puppy was, and he took the puppy into his room, fed him actual pepperoni (which is the finest of snacks for a puppy), and tucked him up in his own bed sheets to warm him and make him a friend.
And Mother Claire saw this, and she saw that Caleb liked the new puppy best, and so she called a friend who lived on a big farm and she told him to come and he could have Buddy for his own. And Caleb said that was just fine, for the new puppy was so much more to his liking.
Now the next morning, when the snow had stopped and the sun was out and the day was fine, Caleb opened the door to walk his new best friend. But! The new puppy was much smaller than Buddy, and he slipped easily through the leash and easily through the door and ran down the street.
Caleb called after him, “But wait! Come back! You bad dog! You ungrateful dog! Didn’t I treat you better than my own Buddy?”
And the puppy called back, saying “You did, and that is why I will not stay! Because if I stay with you, one day I will be an old friend, and you will throw me aside like you did Poor Old Buddy for a new friend!” And the puppy ran off into the wide world, never to be seen again.
And as for Caleb, he grew into a man.
But Mother Claire never again brought him home a puppy.
I am not, as a rule, one to write in or mark up books.
There are exceptions. I took notes in my college textbooks, of course. And I love workbooks, those companions to books designed to help you better some aspect of your life. I enjoy filling out the forms, ticking off the boxes, noting what’s most valuable to me. It would never occur to me to make those same notes in the primary book, though.
This may stem from the fact that I’ve got a 1st edition game book in my library which sells for over $200 on eBay, into which I scribed my name and address with magic marker as a child. Ce’st la guerre.
With that said, I adore finding marginalia that others have created. In used bookstores I’ll look for them most well-worn versions of whatever I’m interested in, hoping for dog-ears, annotations, long-forgotten mash notes.
I love the fact that my wife writes in her cookbooks. Sometimes it seems as if the entire recipe is crossed out, replaced with new ingredients and instructions; while at other times a simple “YUM” in capital letters lets me know I can prepare this dish without an issue. And a sweet friend recently presented me with a book simply riddled with highlighted passages, gifting me with a glimpse into what they find valuable and important.
There is something I adore about people who take notes like this, who treat the book not as some sacred relic but as a living part of their world. In a time where guarding ourselves seems so central to “getting ahead,” notes like these are a way to look into someone’s soul, to better understand the secret heart of the previous reader.
It also seems I may be in the minority when it comes to this reluctance to adding ephemera. A recent article in Business Insider, with the unfortunate click-bait title Five Principles That Will Help You Read More, included this gem:
One day I came across this idea where a book should be like a conversation between the reader and the author (…) and it just clicked. I realized that for me, books were too much like lectures. I could talk back. I started writing and making notes in the margins.
I don’t know. I understand the appeal in doing so, and as admitted, I delight in the fact that others work this way. It’s something to try, I suppose; starting with one of those self-improvement tomes that’s been assigned by the dayjob and which, miraculously, could actually be a decent read and of import to my current state. This is a revised edition of a book titled Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, and while I’ve technically borrowed it from a co-worker, he’s made a gift of it. It seems like a logical place to start changing this habit.
One of the things I did with my time away from the day job was sit down and catalog all the ideas I’ve had for projects swimming through the fishbowl of my brain. I put them down in Excel and counted them up.
There are twenty-eight of them. Mostly novellas or full-blown multi-novel series.
And here I’ve historically decried my lack of ambition.
That’s a fair criticism, however, if all I’ve done is think about them. Not a single one has more than a few thousand words devoted to it; and those words are just starting character sketches, plot outlines, errant scenes that wouldn’t leave me alone until they got on the page.
That’s why I wrote them all down, and why I chose Excel. In theory, if I pay attention and apply intention, I could finish one a year and be through with my output before I turn 75.
Historically speaking, that’s a pretty big “If.”
Now this isn’t a resolution. But it makes these dreams look a lot more solid, and at least somewhat more real, more important. It provides a framework against which I can theoretically prioritize and plan, set goals and deadlines.
Again, this isn’t a resolution.
In many ways, to be honest, it’s another form of procrastination. I get that. Making lists and making plans is just sooo seductive. It feels like making progress! And when you’re done planning, you’re done for the day! The work is planned for tomorrow. And if something knocks tomorrow off the plate, well, you did build some wiggle room into the plan …
Planning is a part of work, but it’s not the real work. You need an architect to build a house, yes; but you need a bricklayer more.
Which leads me to the second form of planning. Oh yes, mid-post turnaround, ha HA!
Planning how to spend your time is all well and good, but it’s not as good as tracking and monitoring what really happens. I learned that in Weight Watchers. You can plan good meals all week long, but if you actually eat pizza every night and call it a salad, well, your plan’s a bit crap.
So I set up a second Excel sheet, not to plan my days, but to track my time. I’m a big fan of the visualizations at Podio.com of The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People, and initially I’ll follow their buckets for the most part – I am including a section for “hearth work” based on my earlier post on improving our living conditions.
I do have a few pieces in my daily or weekly routines I’m unsure how best to categorize:
- Reading seems to fall under Leisure for the Podio purposes, so I’ll reluctantly adopt that.
- My public speaking and Toastmasters work will be either Creative Work (writing, delivering, critiquing speeches), Administrative (in my official capacity) or Other (attending conferences, etc.)
- The commute is currently part of Dayjobbery, and I don’t see that changing. Given that I often listen to podcasts or audiobooks, I could count it as Leisure, but honestly there’s nothing leisurely about the two hours a day in traffic, and I would use the time differently if I were working remotely or at a closer location.
I’m going to keep this tracking private, at least initially, but I do plan to share trends as I see them.
SPOILER: I hope to see Creative or Hearth Work increase 6 days a week. I also plan on it.
The first thing I ever “cooked” was … well, something I didn’t cook at all. I planned the menu, though. And we all paid the price.
I was in my elementary school’s “gifted” program for a while. In the seventies, this was a place they put kids who either showed an awful lot of promise or a lot of trouble paying attention, on the grounds that maybe they’re just under-stimulated. I’ll let you guess which camp I fell into.
One of the books we read was Old Yeller. I know, right? Deep end of the pool for young kids. Now, part of the gifted program involved taking the literature we were assigned, and doing something different with it, often something tactile.
(As an aside, I think this is where I first heard about the different types of learning – at the time, classified as visual, auditory, reading and kinesthetic. That fascinated me then and it still does today.)
One of the many things I wanted to be as a kid was a chef. Before they were celebrities, before they were world travelers. I just loved eating, and I loved reading about good cooking, and I wanted to share that with people. So, when I saw “cook a frontier meal” on the list of sanctioned activities, I grabbed it, then went home to tell my mother, bless her heart.
My mother’s a saint, and my memory is that we sat down to plan the meal we would serve to my classroom. It was all set out in the book.
A more reasonable child might have gravitated to the turkey suppers, or the pork which Old Yeller is introduced as stealing. A less indulgent mother might have insisted. But that wouldn’t do for me. We ate pork and turkey all the time, that wasn’t a frontier meal. No, we had to do something to show I’d paid attention to the novel, that I was invested in the process, and one sentence in the book had leapt out at me:
“After that, Old Yeller caught onto what game we were after. He went to work then, trailing and treeing the squirrels that Little Arliss was scaring up off the ground. From then on, with Yeller to tree the squirrels and Little Arliss to turn them on the tree limbs, we had pickings. Wasn’t but a little bit till I’d shot five, more than enough to make us a good squirrel fry for supper.”
Squirrel fry? Squirrel fry?
FASCINATING. MOTHER WE MUST DO THIS THING. WITH CORNBREAD.
Did I mention my mother’s a saint?
Now, our family wasn’t a hunting family. Dad was a scholar, not an outdoorsman, and this was before girls were encouraged to take up arms. Fortunately, one of mom’s friends had a son who hunted, and he was able to deliver a reasonable number of pre-skinned rodents without too much advance warning.
I have no idea if mom butchered them herself, or if they were pre-delivered as discrete chunks of protein; but I know for a fact she went the route of stew rather than fry, because the seventies were the start of the health-conscious craze and mom was right in the thick of it. I could tell you stories of tofu’s first appearance in the Midwest that would roil your stomach, but I digress. Stew she was willing to make, stew it would be, though I vividly remember she dredged the meat in flour, salt, and pepper before browning them to drop into the stew. I’d never paid so much attention to food prep in my life.
Potatoes, carrots and celery were staples. Black-eyed peas featured heavily in the book, so in those went, and a pan of cornbread to spoon the stew over. We drove to school with the unplugged crock pot feeling very proud of what we’d managed.
The class was excited, too, to have something besides the industrial lunches of the educational cafeteria. A room full of third-graders and their teacher, tucking eagerly away into a hot home-cooked meal, smug and self-assured. One of my classmates, about halfway through, mentioned that “this chicken stew is a lot better than cardboard pizza.”
“Oh,” I said, “it’s not chicken.”
I like to imagine the teacher paused here, spoon halfway to her lips. I do recall her asking, “Well … what is it, then?”
“Squirrel,” I said. Pandemonium ensued.
If you’re a parent, I want you to imagine this. Really imagine it. Today, as I understand it, a single peanut is classified right below an AK-47 in terms of no-nos for your children to bring to school. Try to picture your precious little Madison or Jayden texting you, “Ivan just made me eat a squirrel! OMG. And cornbread isn’t even Paleo!”
I don’t know for a fact that this faux pas got me removed from the gifted program. It’s possible that I just wasn’t keeping up.
But I do remember coming home with a lot of leftover stew, and I remember the phone ringing quite a bit that afternoon, and a few days later I was in a different program altogether. One which featured a lot more one-on-one time with a counselor.