How to Build a Brain


Lately, I’ve been fascinated with the field of artificial intelligence.  I don’t have the math to dive deep but I do understand the concepts at play.  Ladies and gentlemen: I urge you to pay attention, as it’s our future.  hal

Here’s a quick layperson look at how a computer gets a brain that I wrote for the cool online journal Primer Stories.  What I’d like to do next is a look at how it gets a heart. Can a robot tell right from wrong, display empathy, exhibit compassion?  Can it operate according to a moral code? If it had to choose between saving you, or a chicken in the road, or a busload of strangers, or even itself, what would it choose and how would it make that determination? As these machines grow smarter and smarter, we will need rock solid answers to these sorts of questions.

“Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?  Dave, I really think I’m entitled to an answer to that question.”


Image credit: Google Images, licensed for noncommercial use. The supercomputer Hal’s camera eye from Stanley’s Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Generator, Burlington’s makerspace

Victoria Taylor & Yours TrulyGenerator is a maker space in the heart of Burlington, Vermont. It’s three years in the making, the first spent with my energetic and talented co-founders at a cafe table in August First Bakery. Little more than squatters, we went to work and transformed an unused 6,000 square feet of a city building.  At our opening, 900 of the curious and committed wandered through to see what we were up to.  In year two now of operation, we have six thriving labs, 150 members, courses, lectures, and more.  We couldn’t do it without our partners to whom we owe a HUGE  debt of gratitude.  A Vermont PBS film crew came through the other night with former Reddit star Victoria Taylor asking questions.  Despite a long day, she’s looking pretty perky.  Thanks, Victoria, for your interest! Stay tuned for her documentary on the maker culture in Vermont.

UPDATE: Generator is on the move!  Look for us on Sears Lane, the warehouse space at the end of the block. We open our doors on January 1, 2017 and are happy to offer 8,000 square feet, more studio spaces, six well equipped labs,  a huge dedicated classroom, a spray booth, plenty of parking, a new lounge and kitchen, common work space, project storage, a gallery, and so much more.

Open house: January 18, 2017.  Please join our 170 members, 5 staffers, and 13 board members to tour the new premises. If you like what you see, we invite you to take a class, attend a tool training, drop in on a lecture, or become a member. It’s a fine community lacking only you.


Work in Progress


shovel to dig on the farm

Two essays in the works.

The first is on my complicated relationship with music, how it stops time, triggers memories, fills the brain to the exclusion of all else, and promotes jealousies that interfere with my writing world.  It explores as well the many years of classical training I’ve had, the awards and achievements, piano, cello, voice . . .  So how is possible that I only now realize I can’t read music?

The second is for Primer Stories, an online journal dedicated to exploring the interesting, little-known details of life. The piece “How to Build a Brain” is on artificial intelligence and the human-computer interaction, out this month, November, 2015.

Thanks for visiting. Come back soon.


What We Do For Love


What wouldn’t we do might be the more accurate inquiry . . .

The first frog appeared on the deck far above the lawn, a tiny green creature apparently lost. I relocated it to more hospitable turf.

The second turned up in the screen room, which had to have been a trick for the little fella, since the only way in was through a cat door. And no, the cat wasn’t responsible for its appearance; cats have no use for cold-blooded creatures.

The third frog was on a second story window, eye level in the upstairs hall. That’s a long way to climb, shingle by shingle. A delicate, nubby, grass-green creature, same as the rest, no bigger than the first joint of one’s thumb—a tree frog, no matter that they’ve never appeared in the twenty-five years I’ve lived at this address.

The fourth was on the bird feeder. The fifth, the one that broke the camel’s back so to speak, was in the house. There it sat, right next to my morning coffee, staring at me. That’s when I called my mother.

Stories of my marvelous mother could fill volumes: the spirits she summoned, the mind readers and psychics who were her dearest friends, the spoon-bender at the dinner table, the pair of crazy Russian ladies whose manuscripts on parapsychology we smuggled out of Russia, the same zaftig souls with whom we walked on fire years after. Of course, my mother, 87-years-old this week, would know the symbolism of the frogs.

What I wouldn’t do for my mother (nothing); what I would do in the name of love (everything). Including the writing of a novel. Never mind that I’m a confirmed nonfiction writer. Duty called and I sharpened my pencil.

The plan was to write the book that would set everything to right, that would redeem history and lay ghosts to rest, that would clear family names, unite the far flung culture, and establish once and for all a simple, powerful thing: the truth. Not for nothing was I educated as a lawyer, after all. The writing life came later, and was inevitable, though of course these things are only clear in hindsight.

That novel: a twenty-year saga, as it happened, with a decade off for various diversions and disasters. Throughout, I had written other things, published two books, nearly a dozen literary essays, a couple of short stories, and received two Pushcart Prize nominations and an honorary doctorate in letters, but down deep I had no idea what I was doing. Ever. That novel born of trial and error, was the project where, really, I learned to write.

Did I finish it? Of course. Many times.  It was, by the end, a passionate work, a beautiful, rich, and fast moving tale. My mother named my heroine. My mother translated for me as well, when I went to see all my aunties, ate the sweets they served and drank innumerable cups of Turkish coffee while they told me how it was: the Old Country, the dangers, the murders, the elaborate escapes, the exile. My mother and I inverted our tiny cups and they read our fortunes. Prophecies told. Warnings bestowed. All the while, I took notes, made recordings, researched, outlined and wrote. Thousands of pages before I was done. First person. Third person. A brief flirtation with second person (okay for Jay McInerney, perhaps, but a bad idea for this). Then came omniscient, which was liberating, but too sprawling in the last analysis, so I went back to an intimate first person voice.

I wrote. And I wrote. Draft after draft tossed to the garbage pail, nothing saved, never quite measuring up to what I had in mind.

All the aunties died, one by one. Then the cousins, the older ones who still knew the history. The priests—gone. The archivists—gone. Anyone with direct knowledge of the survivors and who heard firsthand of the events that shaped my family’s history—gone. Only my mother remains.

“What’s taking so long?” my mother asked. And asked.

The paltry talent brought to the task, that’s what. The wood I couldn’t seem to get out of the dialogue. The plotting, the trajectory, the sustaining of tension. The proliferation of characters, the bit players squeezing into the limelight. The perfectionism, enemy of the good. The obsession, which by any measure surely tips into some form of insanity. The pressure to get it right, to redeem an entire culture’s history, to work into the tale everything that must be said and nothing extra. The insecurities of a self-taught writer.

From the start, it was complicated. The research turned up horrible things: loss, agony, deceits, and such terrible decisions required of such tender beings. Who would read a tale filled with such pain? I cast around for a narrative mechanism, a scaffolding on which to erect a story, a dressmaker’s dummy on which to pin the fabric, and at last hit a eureka moment. My big idea, the only really good one in the entire project, was this: put a beautiful face on it. Of course—why hadn’t I seen it before now? I would write a love story!

Everything fell into place after that.

“I love your sentences,” my agent said, and how I loved him for that. Fired him. Loved him. Parted again. Had a pick of suitors, rare in this business, all of whom professed undying devotion to my sentences. One died. One drank. One wore impeccable shirts with French cuffs and ran everything past his mother. The others? I don’t remember. Today, I am back with my original champion. “He’s the only one you ever made any money with,” my practical husband observes but he should know, he who knows me well, money had nothing to do with it. Had it been otherwise, I’d have written “The End” long ago.

This wasn’t for money, this was for messy, glorious love: of the written word, the writing process, of the pure joy of well-executed expression. And not just love of process but a love story, for goodness sake, a tale of tenderness, defiance, missed chances, unspoken declarations, and dreams left to molder like the bruise that defeats the peach—but wait. What kind of ending is that? Doesn’t love conquer all, trump evil? Yes and no. This was a big book, a lot hanging in the balance. This was mother and motherland, a culture near annihilated, and the burdens of a childhood taken up and never let go. This was art, in the words, in the story, and in the Oriental carpets that wove throughout the narrative. In short, this was one big fat story told with the spare hand and delicate sensibility of a poet. It was like trying to build a life-sized cathedral from toothpicks and Elmer’s.

The manuscript, once completed, made the rounds, through assistants and readers, young editors and their bosses, and then the boss’s boss, lunches, Chardonnay, consultations, at last rising to the tippy top of the publishing world just as it came crashing down, my manuscript with it, but I never felt it was good enough, so there’s that, too.

And then? I put it away. Turned to other things. Turned the calendar pages.  treefrog2

Which brings me to the frogs. I called my mother.  Symbols of renewal, of prosperity and spiritual cleansing, she said.

“It’s a sign.”  The spirits were trying to me tell me something.

“Tell me what?”

But I had my suspicions. Hop to it, writer? Let’s go, already? Nubby, green proof that the saga of this novel is not done yet, the ending not yet written?

Insanity! Utter folly to take it up again!

But what wouldn’t we do for love—you tell me that, reader. What wouldn’t we do to make something right with whatever humble tools we might possess? What crazy, absurd thing have you undertaken, or can’t let go, or obsess about when the moon is full, or on sleepless nights, or at traffic lights, or when you’re doing the dishes, or walking the dog, or supposed to be working? What insane thing resides within? Put it here—I invite you—and absolve yourself.  Take as many words as you need. I’m here, listening.  A kindred soul. Just that, no judgment.

And do it quickly, before the frogs appear.

P.S. The neurologist and author Oliver Sacks just passed away, 82 and far too soon for this devoted reader.  If you don’t know his work, you ought to find it. Here’s a passage from the New York Times obituary that resonates:

“I am very tenacious, for better or worse,” he wrote in “A Leg to Stand On.” “If my attention is engaged, I cannot disengage it. This may be a great strength, or weakness. It makes me an investigator. It makes me an obsessional.”

See why I loved him?

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

What’s Next?

Tomorrow begins a two-day affair in which I will receive an honorary degree in letters from the University of Vermont, my new best friend. It’s a lovely honor meant to acknowledge a body of work, especially as it relates to my abiding interest in the creative process.

The university has supplied details of what to expect, including the specifics of the hooding ceremony, a ritual dating back to medieval times, involving velvet—presumably white to reflect the arts. The only color velvet I’ve worn for the last thirty years has been black. This alone causes me to reflect.

The event includes some beautiful meals, parking passes, bar-coded tickets, an escort, hotel rooms for my guests, a citation, a twenty-four page script, two pair of shoes, and speeches before a very large crowd. I will be quoted as having said that “what’s next is what matters.”

That brings me to what’s next for this blog—recently hacked (!), recently honored. Soulofaword has evolved from infancy to headstrong toddlerhood, incapable of fear and impervious to reason.

These posts will continue but irregularly—which yes, I know, breaks all the rules. And they will remain fixated on the nature of creative work, as if there is a choice when you are  dealing with obsession.

And what’s next for this writer?

Well, I could, maybe, write Book A, that I’ve been contemplating for a mere twenty years, and that a writer friend encourages as “getting that monkey off your back.”

Or I could write Book B, aimed more commercially but still with a voice and perspective that another friend—okay two friends—have called “twisted.”

Or I could write Book C, combining the two. Like a tinkerer who wanders the aisles of a hardware store in search of everything and nothing, I could just set off and see where I end up.

Here’s what I know for sure about the creative process:

You need a very big trashcan and a sense of humor. Uncertainty is your friend. Turn something on its head. Perseverance pays. Curiosity matters. Do no harm. And keep an open mind.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Meanwhile, thanks for stopping by—and be in touch. I always answer.


Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo of glass of champagne by

How to Innovate

Happy accidents can set you off into new and dynamic directions, but intentionality is also a path forward and one more in your control. Consider this example.

Music-video maker Chris Milk had begun to feel his medium, which includes YouTube, was stale, when he met up with web star Aaron Koblin who was also frustrated with the limits of his medium: digital art.

They started talking, their skills and perspectives mixed, and before they were done, created something new—a kind of storytelling that fused animated images with real-life emotion. Drawing upon audience participation (crowdsourcing), the pair combined music and visuals with startling results, such as “Sheep Market” composed of blended images of sheep from thousands of artists, and “We Used to Wait”, which allows the viewer to “drive” to his or her childhood address while the music plays.

To create something new, the collaborators—as well as any of us who seek to create— needed three things.

First: they needed an appreciation of what had come before both in the tech world and musically. Every medium at first imitates the last. Koblin notes: “The first radio is people reading books; the first photographs are similar to paintings; the first films were of the theatre.”

Second: they needed a willingness to give up the constraints of the old. Says Milk: “When cinema started, nobody saw it as ‘the Godfather’; no one saw it as closeups and music and creating shots in color and dialogue and emotion. It grew to be that. . . fooling around in the dark.”

Finally: they needed a healthy curiosity. They had tools that knew no limits, like the web and computer animation, so they went off exploring. They asked, is this good? Could it be better? The result Kolbin characterized as “experiments on what this medium will  eventually be.”

It seems to me that we writers are on the same voyage.

We seek to create, to innovate, to take an ordinary word and use it so remarkably as to make it stand for an entire world. (Vagina Monologues comes to mind.)

We start with what came before, which is where we learn, and then we leave it behind on a personal, intense, but please Lord playful journey of discovery. Is this good? Could this be better? We ask the same questions. And in the end, we hope, like the collaborators, to have to have created something compelling.


For the full story, see Tom Vanderbilt’s, “The Director and the Techie” (WSJ Magazine, May 2012).

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo of the illuminated light bulb by MartinPhotoSport; shattered bulbs by nate2b (catching up).


Is the Postcard Still Worth Anything?


Here are three postcard stories. Decide for yourself.

While a sick (now robust) friend of mine was going through cancer treatment, another friend sent him a handmade postcard every single day. He kept them displayed on the kitchen counter, and some of us sneaked a peak when we dropped off meals. Snooping is within the rules of postcards, which are, after all, open to inspection—and more private, when you think about it, than an email or blog bounced through all the time zones all over the globe.

Each was a marvel, as you might expect from an artist’s hand—a tiny treasure the patient turned to for cheer and encouragement, and I had no doubt they aided in his recovery.


The next involved a mother and daughter with an ocean between them. The ocean was no accident, for they didn’t much get along. Still, for decades, whenever one traveled, she sent the other a postcard. This small act spoke of a connectedness that the women could not otherwise express. And, the postcard endured—on a desk or a countertop, or tucked into a book, or pinned to the bulletin board for the indefinite future. In the deliberateness of the gesture and in its tangible persistence, it functioned like a gift.

The final story was my own recent experiment. On vacation, I sent postcards to my sons who were hard at work at their respective colleges. From the schlocky to the provocative, the beautiful to the comic, I had a grand time picking them out. Penned at leisure in cafés and beer halls, I kept it short.

“What they can do with a potato around here!” “Great news about your internship!” “Have you fixed your bike yet?”

They were funny, even ridiculous—especially in volume. There must have been a dozen apiece before I was done. But, as it turned out, both my sons were long out of the habit of checking a physical campus mailroom—where dust and dinosaurs collected—so I had to prompt them along.

The Ohio missives arrived before the Massachusetts ones. And I was home a good week before the last one turned up, a tiny postcard featuring a restaurant. The stamp took up a lot of it.

“Steak frites tonight. The real deal.”

It was an inside joke, a reference to a longstanding family debate on the proper presentation of this dish.

What’s the value of a postcard?

A laugh. A keepsake. A connection. A pause in the hectic day. This is enough for me. Besides, as writing goes, it doesn’t get much better than one choice sentence and you’re done.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo of postcard by fugue; steak frites by



Apologies if you haven’t found me. I’ve been hacked!  Just about back together and with a new look.

See you Friday, same time, same place. Thanks for stopping by.

~ Denise

Does Your Reader Trust You?

There’s a famous photo of Lyndon B. Johnson sitting despondently, with his head in his hands after he learned that, in a rare moment of editorializing, the venerable CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite characterized the Vietnam War as all but lost.

For nineteen tumultuous years, millions of Americans had tuned in every night to hear Walter Cronkite report on the state of affairs. When Walter Cronkite spoke, America listened.

Do our readers trust us that much?

Trust is a multilayered thing built over time. Here are a few qualities that Cronkite had that writers who seek to cultivate trust should consider:

1.  Authenticity

As writers, we have to speak the truth as we know it, no matter our genre. Sometimes this requires that we show parts of ourselves we’d prefer to keep hidden, including perhaps our vulnerabilities.

2.  Accuracy

As writers, we must recognize our biases, acknowledge what we don’t know, and avoid distortion or otherwise lift things from context. We have to separate fact from opinion, and give credit where credit is due.

3. Consistency

We must also present a consistent level of quality. If we have cultivated a voice, that voice has to be there as resonant as ever. If we have adopted a position or a theme, our treatment of it has to build in a direction a reader has come to expect.

4. Delivery

Cronkite set the bar for eloquent, measured, and calm delivery—exactly what you’d want from a news anchor. Even in the most emotional of times, his voice held the ground and in this, his listeners felt safe, which is fertile territory for building trust. The anchorman cultivated an effective voice—a perfect fit for delivering the news—but any writer needs to do the same. Fiction or nonfiction, whatever our purpose or goal, we too have to consider our delivery. Our tone and voice must fit the work and be such that the reader is able to absorb our words.

5. Faith

If we want our readers’ trust, we can’t do anything halfway. If we’re bored, or our emotional life is a mess, or we are writing by rote—these things will show. If we have lost faith in the value of what we do, this too will show. A good writing day or a bad one, it comes down to caring—and doing. Perhaps we need to take a break. Perhaps we need a vacation. But nothing goes out until it’s as perfect as we can make it.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo of Walter Cronkite widely cited in reverse image search including at; LBJ at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, Life Magazine, November 4, 1966; General Westmoreland in the foreground, among other sources.

Taking Stock

This is the third look at the numbers. The firstwas at 6 months. The secondwas at 1 year.  This one is late at 2½ years.

Choosing the metrics for it is never a value-free process, and collecting the data is an occupation, but even a loosely gathered set of facts can be revealing.

At post number 150, for example, I figure we’re now into Blogging 201.

0 missed days. 0 tardy.

Brand, though tweaked, remains at 5 words: clean, visual, informative, encouraging, and real. The only addition is “real” but perhaps “straight” or maybe even “opinionated” are more to the mark.

Posts still at 400 +/- words. Still like that focused, quick length.

Still carried high on Alltop. Still with enduring champions and many more ping backs from around the world, of late, Brazil, Holland, Korea, and Singapore. Chinese readership is growing. Monthly visitors  6,600; monthly page views 12,600. .

Posts inspired from wandering museums and galleries: dozens.  Posts inspired from the peculiar goings-on in my tiny, wonderful town: 7.  Subjects I tend to return to: 5 process; storynaming things, breaking rules, and going for it.

Permissions sought and received: 4. Permissions refused: 1 and it was a most awkward moment, and a shame, as it’s a story I really wanted to tell.

Number of attempted posts that just didn’t work: countless, or at least I’m not counting them.

Most popular of late: How to Write a Villain and Open to Interpretation. Also How to Write a Query LetterWhat’s in a Name?, and Three Writing Principles a Long Way Downstream.

Most successful title: “How to. . . ”  Used 14 times, or 9.3%.

Reader response: roughly 50% female, 50% male. Twitter favored.

Most pushback: Do You Need to Know the Ending? and Prayer or Plan? and The Most Important Skill for a Writer.

Total word count approximately 180,000. By comparison, my novel has roughly 115,000, an essay in progress 3,500, while a set of notes taken on the fly and pretty much on a daily basis might have 700 words.

Number of times profanity appears: 3 – once  in a photo, and again in an expression, and finally in a symbol of an erect middle finger sculpted bigger than life by the bad boy artist Cattelan and positioned not incidentally in front of the Italian stock market.

Most fun: 100% choosing the photos.

Most valuable player: my editor who says it like it is and has some ideas on how to fix the broken bits. And my tech guy, without whom survival is out of the question.

Most surprising turn of events: One honorary doctorate in letters forthcoming in just a few weeks and earned in part for recognition of this blog.

Atahualpa WP 2.92 Theme with 5 widgets and 1 favored classification: “mechanics.” Akismet with 46,850 filtered bits of spam and 106 suspects in the queue as we speak.

The next post, next Friday—number 151.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo of sextant by United States Pacific Fleet and the numbers board is by

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