As I both create and consume art it’s often striking just how much successions of considered changes and details, mountains of very specific decisions, leave only the vaguest impressions in the mind of the audience. I’m probably a more detail oriented audience than most, but even for me I think the majority of the lasting impressions I take away from a work have more to do with the general tone it sets, and emotional state it invokes, than with any specific content.

However, even if what we remember is mostly vague fragments of tone and atmosphere, if the artist focuses on tone to the exception of content and structure then that tone isn’t conveyed: What people remember then is just the maudlin piece of mediocrity a work without structure or detail inevitably devolves towards. What people take away from an experience is vague, the seeds of nostalgia, but what plants those seeds is often intensely structured and specific.

It’s strange and kind of disappointing the way all the details in a work become ‘it was detailed’ in the aftermath, all the research boils down to ‘well-researched’, all the jokes to ‘funny’ and all the tragedies to ‘sad’. Every work of art gets chewed up and swallowed and digested, and it’s sometimes painful for the artist to see that happen, to witness the process of destruction and digestion that is experiencing art. It’s hard not to feel like our beautiful work is being unmade, unappreciated, turned to shapeless and incoherent mush, by the very process of its consumption.

When you eat a steak, though, even as you chew it up it still matters that it was once whole. The fibers and greases, composed in this particular way, create a specific experience – and, even if what you remember is merely ‘delicious’, something else is encoded in that experience as well. As you live your life and eat different meals, the details that go into them start to cohere, beyond the specifics of a single meal, into a generalized understanding of what food is and can be, and what that means to you. To create food, to create anything, is to resign yourself to the eventual act of consumption and digestion – and to believe that, as the experience you worked so hard on fades away, everything you put into it still will be worthwhile, even if it is now only a memory.

Each new work of art, each novel or game, may not leave its specific thumbprint on each person who consumes it – they may not remember every detail, or even the general plot or structure – but the details, the craftsmanship, those still matter. When we digest each new work it subtly modifies our ideas of what art is and can be, and through that what the world is – or can be. We can nourish with beauty and provide nutrition with new ideas – and, even if we know no idea is ever truly transmitted completely, can still revel that the seeds we plant may one day bring forth surprising fruit.


A work of art is both a single object and a collection of individual choices – sentences in a novel, assets in a game, instrumental parts in a piece of music, each of these is added and shaped with intent to achieve the overall goal of the piece. This is pretty self-evident, but often is not explicitly thought about by the creator during the creation. In some ways, it’s better not to think about it – for reasons I’ll get into in a moment.

You have the theme or message or whatever of the work: Sometimes you know exactly what this is, sometimes you have to hone in on it carefully in the process of working on the piece. With each new stroke you add to the composition, you can choose to support this theme, to add to its message by echoing it; you can contrast with this theme, to push against it and by so doing ground and emphasize it; or to layer new elements onto the theme, add details that seem completely disconnected but add complexity.

Say you have a picture of a gigantic statue: To support how gigantic this statue is, you could add comparatively tiny human figure to show how it dwarfs the scale of humanity; to contrast, you could add a field of stars behind it or pull the viewpoint back, to show how even the greatest creations of humanity are minuscule in the greater scale of the universe; or you could add something different, a mural or a small scene between characters or some strange creature, to show that the story of this statue and the world it lives in is more complex than we might at first imagine.

Naive artists will, given the choice, always pick the first of these. I have been this kind of naive, and still often discover this kind of naivete in myself. It makes sense: I’m an artist, I know the impression I want to create, I should use everything I have in my toolbox to create the feeling I’m going for. And yet, most of the time, this kind of approach leads to something which feels flat, manipulative, and obvious. All bombast, all sorrow, all silliness, with no leavening by contrasting or diverging emotion, will inevitably feel flat and numbing.

This is why I said it’s probably better that most artists don’t think explicitly about their high-level intent and how to achieve it most of the time: The mindset of trying to achieve a specific emotional impact is difficult to separate from the mindset of how to most effectively bolster that tone in each particular instance. Much better to take freely from the chaos of the mind, to harness opportunities to create threads that flow alongside, flow against, or flow perpendicular to the main thread of the narrative as they occur to us.

However, for those of us who have a hard time not thinking about intent, have a hard time getting out of our heads and have a hard time not hammering the same points home with each individual component of a work, it might be worth it to keep these three thoughts in mind: Support, Contrast, Layer.

A tapestry is not woven out of only threads in parallel.

Man once they finish those sleeves they're going to get really bored. Until the devil starts playing with them I guess.

The first lesson I was taught about drawing was: Don’t draw what you know to be there, draw what you see. We know the hand has four fingers and a thumb, but sometimes fingers hide behind each other, sometimes the thumb clutches into a fist. And, sometimes, that which you know to be there is not: Some hands have fewer than four fingers.

Some hands have more.

I find this to be an approach with many applications. It’s kind of like critical thought: Never assume that something has to be a certain way just because that’s the way things are. Never let yourself see what isn’t there.

Each week I try to write something new, here, for Problem Machine. Ideally I’d like it to be interesting and insightful, and nearly every time I end up with something where I’m unsure whether what I write about is just painfully obvious and trite or is actually incisive and insightful. I’m starting to think that this may, in fact, be a good sign: Insight is often is a matter of saying the obvious, of not seeing that which isn’t there, and sometimes seeing what is. The things we never see are just as often those under our eyes as those over the horizon.

And this, too, seems at once obvious and insightful. The emperor still has no clothes.

There are a few ways this manifests strangely. One of them is that we tend to regard with contempt those truths which are repeated too frequently. We became sick and tired of love and peace. If everyone knows that kindness and gentleness are beneficial, then those who deny kindness and gentleness feel that they have access to a new knowledge of the world, that they are wolves among sheeple.

Trading knowledge for ignorance can feel a lot like learning. It can be hard to tell the difference between forbidden fruit and rotten fruit.

Another odd manifestation is that it becomes extremely easy to sound insightful just by echoing the consensus, whether it’s true or not, whether it’s overlooked or not. Many people become very wealthy on the lecture circuit telling people exactly what they want to hear. It can be hard to tell the difference, then, between what we want to hear and what is true, between what is insightful and what is vapid.

I don’t have an answer to the challenges this poses.

All you can do is keep looking, and try to see what is actually there for yourself.


How is a number like a hero? How is an equation like a tragedy?

First: The world as we perceive is not the world as it is. As we perceive the world we live in, through our sense of sight and sound and touch, we break everything down into symbols that our brain can comprehend and work with. Because those symbols are internally consistent, we can still interact with the world as though we are part of it – which, of course, we are. Our minds are always at one level removed: The brain sees the world, converts it into a symbolic understanding, and then operates on those symbols to decide what to do next, sending instructions to the body which thereby affects the world, and so forth.

This symbolic system is unique from person to person, comprised by the specific tissues and issues of each brain. Therefore, we create an other symbol system, language, to translate between these. It’s kind of like the same OS running on different kinds of hardware: The programs are the same, but the metal that interprets them is different, and sometimes this causes problems. Realistically, the languages we use are prone to a lot more error than actual programming languages, relying a lot more on abstractions and inferences. Much gets lost in communication. It remains to be seen whether this aspect of language is feature or bug.

We have another language we created, one that’s not prone to losing information: Mathematics. The only thing that makes mathematics useful and relevant is that it’s possible to convert real world systems to mathematical systems, operate on them as mathematical systems, and then convert back to real-world systems and have the effects translate perfectly.

Couldn’t we do that with any internally consistent system? Actually, we have: Geometry is a discipline separate from mathematics, though they are often used together, and itself represents an internally consistent system. Perhaps the different instruction sets of computer hardware could be regarded as such, though they are so mathematically grounded and implemented that it is difficult to separate them from the field of mathematics. It’s scary to think, though, that maybe we missed one. Maybe there’s an internally consistent system of symbols that, if we were to use it, could completely open up a whole new fields of thought. Maybe there are an infinite number of such systems, each one boundless in its applications and implications.

It’s interesting how, viewed through this lens of internally consistent simulations built of symbols, the mathematics we use start to resemble the stories we tell. We craft a reality that operates on its own internally consistent rules (build the world), operate on it (tell the story), and then translate that back to our own world (find the message/moral). Mathematical problem solving is a form of very specific parable for solving very quantifiable problems.

And now we have the video game, which exists with one foot in each world; built on mathematics, scripted by storytellers, a literal world of possibilities waiting to be expanded. What could we discover, as we did with storytelling, as we did by math and geometry, with the parables these worlds could tell us?

I keep on circling around thoughts about how not to be manipulative, how to respect your audience, and I end up not writing them down because, well – obviously, right? It seems obvious to say you should respect your audience, but in practice it’s often quite difficult – not because we’re inherently driven to be contemptuous of those who enjoy our work (though this is a problem for some creators), but because respecting an audience as an equal means striving beyond yourself, creating something beyond what you now know.

Now: I should clarify that I don’t mean that all creations made from the perspective of superior knowledge are contemptuous, or even without artistic merit. Sometimes we need to teach others skills and perspectives that they don’t have, and they come to us specifically because we are more learned or experienced in a particular topic. This is the foundation of all education. And, in the course of passing on this knowledge, it’s only natural to try to embrace the craft and aesthetic of art. Nevertheless, didacticism itself has little place within arts and entertainment, and art that sets out to be both fun and educational more often than not fails to be either; however, art that sets out to build entertainment on the basis of knowledge is often extraordinarily successful, whether it be the programming games of Zachtronics or the lurid history-inspired fantasy of George RR Martin.

In respecting your audience, you regard them as equal to yourselves; and, to provide someone who is equal to yourself with an experience that seems novel, you must exceed yourself, exceed the creativity that is familiar, and open yourself up to experiencing your art as your own audience, your first test audience of one. The tricky part about respect is that it’s not a coat of paint you can apply to a complete work, not a lacquer or a finish, but something that shapes from the ground up. If you want to respect the people who consume your work, you will have to respect yourself, to believe that you have hidden depths to be plumbed, because otherwise everything will be self-evident, obvious, cliche.

The art of creation is that of drawing out. We cannot, with pure intent, create the whole work; what comes feels trivial and contrived. We can create the first string, hooked into place, and then pull on that string gently and persistently until the tapestry emerges. This metaphor is useful, but is also limited because that makes it sound like what we then create isn’t really our creation, is actually some kind of divine inspiration. Really, our intent permeates, each aspect of the creation a decision made. We are neither quite an architect nor quite a prophet: We draw out, but we build; we plan, yet we intuit; we surprise, we are surprised; we are the artist, we are the audience. We must be both. It is craven for the artist to hold their self apart, to try to create something enumerable. We should be trying to create something that can never quite be described except as itself.

If we do our jobs right, we make the rock that’s too heavy for even us to lift.

Say something true.

Now say something else true.

Keep doing it. An hour or a day, or whatever pace you feel comfortable with; any pace will eventually take you to the same place. Don’t repeat yourself. Say something new, say something true, every day, every week, every month.

It gets harder, the opposite of practice. The easy truths dry up quickly, though occasionally you find one you missed, a rare delight. Soon, though, it becomes a full time job, simply thinking of what to say next, something true, something new. And you’re constantly afraid you’ll run out. And you’re constantly afraid that tomorrow you’ll just sit there all day long and wrack your brain and nothing will come out, that there’s nothing left, nothing to say. You’ve said it all.

The world keeps moving, though. There’s always new truth being made, old truth invalidated. What was true yesterday is not true today. Some things are true when told one way but a lie when told another. Do you contradict yourself? You can’t not. Words have their limits, and where they divide the world there are crumbs left over.

You can never say it all, but it feels like you already have. It’s impossible and humdrum at the same time. Maybe there are only a few truths within reach at any moment, and trying to catch them is like fishing. Maybe there really is such a thing as divine inspiration, bolts from heaven that strike us right in the brain to give us the right idea at the right time, and all we can do is wait in place and try to make ourselves look like lightning rods.

What can I say, past that it’s difficult except when it isn’t? All you can do is wait until you think of something. All you can do is keep talking until you stumble upon something, even if you have to sift through mountains of lie and cliche. But someone, maybe, is waiting to hear what you have to say. The world needs truth, and heretofore you’ve taken pride in finding it, prospecting it, providing stepping stones for other people. Who knows why? You just do.

But sometimes it’s hard – to say something true.


I’ve spent so long feeling I am training to create greatness that I cannot countenance the idea that anything I’ve created might be good already, or to describe it as such. Every creation is a learning experience, it’s true, but every learning experience is also a creation, and creditable as such in its own right.

But the sad fact of the matter is that creating good work isn’t enough. You have to convince people that it’s good: Convincing people that it’s good starts with convincing yourself that it’s good. It’s a hard first step to take.

Listen: It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with my work. I don’t think anything I create is bad – well, except when it obviously is, but that’s quite rare as I mostly just don’t put in the time to finish work like that in the first place. No, I just fail to believe that it’s good enough; good enough that I should be going around telling people to spend their precious time with it, much less spending their precious money on it; good enough to compete in a marketplace of ideas and creations that were each conceived and created by their own experienced artist.

I enjoy my own work. I enjoy creating it and, often, I enjoy consuming it: I like reading my old essays on here when I take the time to, I like listening to my music quite frequently on trips and while working on art, and I’m pretty sure that if I can ever finish a damn game I’ll enjoy playing it as well. But, you know, I consider myself a biased source. Maybe I made something good, but maybe it’s just narcissism. Do I want to try to market my work, knowing that risk? Do I feel confident enough that I’m selling something good, and not just my puffed up self-delusions?

Is this how all artists feel? Can they possibly be so confident in their own work to carry on despite that? Or does it just not occur to them? Do they just create and sell art, and feel confident in the audience’s ability to discern whether or not it’s worth their time?

Not only am I my own worst critic, I’m my own worst curator, distributor, and marketer.

There’s a lot of ways I can see this breaking. One, obviously, is that I give up. Doesn’t seem likely any time soon, but if I’m still in basically the same creative place in five or ten years, well… Yeah, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Another is that someone convinces me I’m good and that my work is worthwhile. I’m very difficult to convince in this regard; if someone tells me they like something I created, I immediately start concocting reasons why their viewpoint is biased in this particular or why obviously this one work is okay but doesn’t indicate anything about the quality of my work overall or, you know, whatever. Third, I could get really broke, and need to get a lot more aggressive about selling my work. This keeps happening by half-measures, and I keep getting broker and broker, but I seem to have a high smoking point for desperation and so far it hasn’t pushed me into being more aggressive about creating and selling art.

I’m grateful I’ve made it work so far. Three or four years now, I’ve lost track, basically self-employed, scraping by bit-by-bit; but I know I could be doing better. I know I need to be looking for places to take my work, rather than just leaving it here, hoping it comes to life. I never knew that the hardest part of art wasn’t figuring out how to make it, but figuring out where to put it. It’s been a difficult realization as, even as I spent years learning to create, I never learned how believe in my creations.

So: Now it’s time to learn.