500 Words is an email newsletter that we publish. It has its own podcast which is called “On a Call With …” It’s a series of conversations about creativity.

500 Words Podcast

Vikram Chandra

Ep 10: 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
On a Call with Novelist Vikram Chandra

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Chandra 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, which is in beta now with an official launch coming in October. You can try it out. Here’s the link: https://granthika.co  

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. 

Learn more about Granthika.

Read the blog that got me terrified about feeling you way through writing: Finding a Book: The Writer’s Journey

Check out Vikram Chandra’s books on his website.

Thanks for listening,


500 Words Podcast

Adrian Fisher

EP 09: Adrian Fisher, maze maker.

This week’s’ conversation is with Adrian Fisher. This is a man who believes in the power of the rough pencil sketch. He believes in having control, but not. 

My art form is parallel rows of things.

Adrian Fisher
On a Call with mazemaker Adrian Fisher

He is a maze designer. I can’t seem to get enough of interviews with people who design and construct mazes, so you’ll indulge me? Thanks. I think there is a parallel between creating mazes and writing stories and almost got Adrian to go along with the idea, but not quite. He was helpful, though, when I told him about the time I had an anxiety attack while in a corn maze, offering the wise explanation that I am a modern person who expects everything to work like a computer. This is true. 

It’s like playing chess with me except that I have to play all my moves in advance as the chess player, as the designer, and then I must lose. I must lose just before you’ve had enough. Because I’m here to entertain you. 

One thing to remember as you listen: This is a Skype, not a phone call. So it has the usual Skype blips and dropouts, which is why I don’t usually use Skype for podcasts. Adrian joined me on the call from his studio in Dorset, England, so Skype was the best way to go.

Since 1979, Adrian and his company have designed and created more than 700 full-size mazes in the grounds of palaces, castles, stately homes, zoos, wildlife parks, amusement parks, children’s museums, science centers, malls, universities, schools, city centers, and farms. He has written six books about mazes.

The Queen visited a maze he made to commemorate the Beatles.

Adrian has also created rides and puzzles for iconic visitor attractions across the globe including Legoland, Tussauds and the London Dungeon. He has made the tallest maze in the world, up the side of a building, and some of the largest corn mazes.

I want to make you the hero of your own story.

Thanks for listening, 


500 Words Podcast

David Tolzmann

EP 08: David Tolzmann, labyrinth maker.

This week’s phone call is with David Tolzmann. 

David is the founder of The Labyrinth Company, which designs and builds walkable labyrinths in all media. He’s designed and crafted labyrinths in churches, medical centers, hospices, friaries, retreat centers, and schools, and for spiritual counselors, businesses, and individual homeowners all over the world.

On a Call with David Tolzmann, labyrinth maker

He made his first labyrinth nearly 25 years ago because a church group asked him to recreate a version of the world’s best-known labyrinth. “They thought I was an engineer and they were trying to recreate the labyrinth from Chartres Cathedral which is very complex. But it happened that I knew the labyrinth and I was able to help them because I am mathematically inclined. I’m not an engineer, but I must have given that impression.” he said.

I have a friend who calls a labyrinth a left-brain jamming device. Your left brain gets involved in solving a puzzle that doesn’t exist.

David Tolzmann

A labyrinth is a single path to the center of a pattern. There is no puzzle. But when you walk the path, the logical side of your brain gets busy, leaving the other side of your brain to explore spirituality, creativity, and nonlinear thinking. That’s the “pop psychology” version of what’s going on, as David puts it, but it captures the process well enough. He believes walking a labyrinth is a superior form of meditation for Westerners.

The first labyrinth design, the Seed Design, was discovered in Pylos, Greece. It dates to around 1200 BCE. “There was a transaction about goats, and on the back of the tablet is a labyrinth doodle.” This simple starting pattern has been transmitted to our time.

It’s in every culture. It’s in the American Southwest. It’s in China. It’s in India. It’s in South Africa. The same design all over the place.

Thanks for listening,


500 Words Podcast

Christina Dunbar

EP 07: Christina Dunbar, storyteller.

This week’s interview is with Christina Dunbar, who has said, “Our culture is starving for story, for vulnerability, for truth telling, for personal story. Story creates meaning and we have a lack of meaning right now in the world.”

On a Call with storyteller and director Christina Dunbar

Christina Dunbar is a storyteller, director, and producer of women’s stories for stage and film. She is star of the one-woman show, Dirty Me Divine. Christina is the founder of RED, a circle for performing artists, and creator of She Takes The Stage, a one-of-a- kind program that guides women to hone their message through their personal story and share it at a live theater show. Christina has taken artists, authors, lawyers, and coaches through her story workshops, public speaking trainings, and creative retreats, and is passionate about supporting women with a message to take the stage.

When you share your story you begin to own the story, it doesn’t own you.

Christina Dunbar

Her one-person show has eleven characters in it, so of course we talk about her creative process, the work-outside-the-work that an artist has to do, like being in nature, doing yoga, recharging, and what sort of magic happens when she makes a safe space for women in her workshops.

If I come off that stage and I’ve been sweating, I’ve been crying, I’ve been laughing, I’ve been feeling, and I just really feel used up by life in that performance, that to me is very, very satisfying.

Thanks for listening,

Lee Schneider

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