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Writing

Get very frustrated you can’t think of anything interesting to write about. Discard several ideas as not interesting enough to write about. Wait, is that one interesting? Ah, you’ve probably written about it before. It sounds familiar, you’ve definitely thought about it before, so you’ve probably written about it before. Or, worse, someone else wrote about it before, and you read it, and you’d be accidentally plagiarizing. Better think of something else.

Consider working on another project instead. Remember that the next task in the game project is a huge detailed illustration that’s overwhelming to think about and which you’re not sure how to finish but which the game won’t be complete without. You could work on another part I suppose, but by the time you get back to the illustration it will be even harder to work on, and you might have to start part of it over again, and that’s too much to bear. Open it up, look at it. That’s so many lines! Why does it have so many lines? You have to add more lines to this?

You could think about how messed up it is that our self-worth is equated with our productivity, and bemoan the extent to which you’ve internalized this value system, that you can only feel good as long as you’re creating, are being productive. As an artist, though, your productivity is also your channel of communication, so what does it mean if you can’t create? Does it mean you have nothing to say, or is it that you don’t want to speak aloud the words that come most readily? How can you separate the productivity which is routinely exploited from artists from the productivity that gushes forth freely from a mind eager to tell stories? This overwhelming frustration must mean the words are ready to burst forth the moment fingers touch keys!

… Or not. Shit.

You could do something else. You could try to make something completely unrelated, a different piece of art or music. That kind of sounds recreational though. That sounds like something you do instead of doing work. It should probably wait for the weekend. So, as an alternative, maybe you can just do something that resembles work even less, like sitting around watching Youtube or reading news filtered through Twitter and stewing in anxiety at the knitting of apocalyptic threads into a disaster sweater.

Done. You feel better now (you don’t). Weekend’s coming up fast, the time when you’ll finally be able to relax and use that relaxation time to catch up on all the things you should have been doing this week, when you were relaxing instead of doing what you needed to get done. You need to have something written for the weekend, though – writing is one of the few endeavors in you life which people actually currently pay you to endeav, so you endeavor to endeav promptly. But you can’t think of anything to write about, which is very frustrating.

This is the advantage of writing on the artistic process, though. When all else fails, you can write about the failure of the artistic process. It feels like cheating. It feels like, when you’ve run out of wine to serve, just popping open a vein and serving buckets of blood. It might be straight from the heart but that doesn’t help the taste. It feels like there’s no process, no idea, no refinement. You’re not sure whether people actually carry away any new ideas from posts like this or just walk away feeling a sense of catharsis which serves only to reinforce myths of the nobility of artistic suffering.

But we’re riding the rocket now and our capacity for steering is limited. After a certain point you have to take it on faith that your impact will be better than worse. Creation requires thoughtfulness and insight, but you cannot allow the fear of negative impact to stymie the flow, only to modulate it. It’s good to write. It’s good to create. Maybe it’s even good that it’s so hard, sometimes – because only that struggle lets you see the many ways that everything that you’ve done you almost didn’t, every effect it’s had almost wasn’t. Only witnessing the carnage garbage strewn to the sides of the path you walk gives you a chance to find a route towards creating something that does more good than harm.

Eventually we must abandon whatever we make. Is it good? Will it help? If you look too hard for those answers you’ll never finish anything. Just keep putting one word in front of another, until hopefully, eventually, they lead somewhere that makes sense.

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“What does it matter, a dream of love or a dream of lies / we’re all gonna be the same place when we die”

-Kathleen Brennan & Tom Waits

“Listen: We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different!”

-Kurt Vonnegut

The hardest part of doing anything is confronting the question of why you’re doing it. Every question of intent inevitably leads to further questions – of whether that intent is likely to be fulfilled, of what the costs will be along the way, of what greater intent that intent seeks to fulfill… and each of these then leads to further questions, about what ultimately the purpose of existence and creation are, until eventually, inevitably, a negative end point is reached, at which no more answers are available. The tendency to ask “why?” is innate to us from birth, only given shape when we learn the word itself – the habit only dies off when we come to realize that at the end of the chain of why’s we will eventually find nothing.

So we stop asking why.

It’s only natural to shy away from the end of the knowable by becoming unknowing. There’s always this vague ambition of immortality through art or science, of extending one’s existence by the reputation and utility of one’s accomplishments, but this isn’t an ideal that holds up under scrutiny. One by one, the dominoes will be knocked over, and eventually the universe itself will cease to exist in any meaningful way. Perhaps longevity is possible, but immortality certainly is not.

We are finite – as a species, and as individuals even more so. Perceiving our own boundaries, our limitations, is uncomfortable. Any endeavor, no matter how noble or worthwhile, can be evaluated as pointless and worthless on the scales of long-term universal demise. If you ask yourself ‘why’ enough, you will be left empty-handed and beyond reason.

And yet.

As individuals, we fight for our survival, because to not do so is to embrace non-existence, and existence is the main thing we do. The society is an extension of the individual, and we fight for the existence of society because if it fails we fail. Humanity is an extension of society, and so society fights for humanity, because if humanity fails society fails, and so forth outwards – if the ecosystem fails humanity fails, if the solar system fails the ecosystem fails, if the universe fails the solar system fails. Though our ability to affect the highest tier is nearly non-existent from our positions as individuals, it’s all still connected. What we are left to strive for is, if not immortality, a kind of sustained long-term health of the systems we are intrinsically part of. We create things for the larger shared benefit of those things having been created.

What’s left is a kind of intellectual and utilitarian shared hedonism. We fight, we build, we work, for the shared joy and understanding of the system we are part of. For our own joy and understanding in making things, for the joy and understanding of others when we share them. There is no eternity, but we can make ourselves stronger, more thoughtful, and happier right now by sharing what we have. There might be no forever, but there is a tomorrow, and we can keep fighting for that for as long as there will be tomorrows.

We’re all in this together.

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Nostalgia’s not what it used to be. With a small delay, the standardized media practice of selling the same thing over and over again becomes elevated, refreshed, a satisfying throwback, a novel familiarity and a familiar novelty. Every new film franchise entry is a New Coke in Coke Classic’s clothing. They keep trying to make a new Star Wars, Lion King, or Ghostbusters and each time it seems like they miss the target, that they’ve changed too much, or changed too little, or somehow both at the same time. They miss the mark because it’s impossible to recreate the experience of experiencing something for the first time. They miss the target because there is no target to hit.

This is a struggle that all sequels have to contend with at one point or another, but the problem becomes more difficult and complex the longer the delay between entries. If you make a sequel to something that came out a year or two ago, it’s enough to continue the plot while still remaining relatively true to the spirit of the work – but if it’s meant to be a sequel to something released decades ago, then the desire you contend with becomes one, not merely of continuation, but of recreating an artifact of a bygone era within the constraints of a vastly different cultural context.

So it seems that when we make sequels, when we continue an old story, we must step beyond our nostalgia. It is uncomfortable. No work can compete with the selectively-edited memory of its predecessor. It’s hard to move forward and to be something new when you’re tied inexorably to your past. The twin demands of moving forward while being anchored in place are too much for most artists to handle. One-hit wonderment is not merely a symptom of artists with too shallow a well, but artists who feel constrained to be exactly the same person tomorrow that they were yesterday – or artists who don’t survive the backlash from fans when they fail to do so.

We keep hunting for something that can’t be found. Nostalgia is the pain of knowing that the ingredients of your existence have been discontinued, that there are things you have lost that cannot be regained. In our more positive moments, it’s easy to think of all the wonderful things we have now that we may not have had before, or to remember all of the awful and uncomfortable moments that plagued our past lives and we’ve left behind. But the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and the roses are always redder on the other side of our rose-colored glasses.

I finished belatedly watching through the third season of Twin Peaks a short while ago, and I keep thinking about the show’s relationship with the past. It’s hard to say exactly what a show as strange as Twin Peaks is about, but it seems a story about how trying to connect with the past is impossible. Memory is a game of telephone, and every repetition adds a little bit of noise and changes the message a little bit. Like a wax cylinder, you can’t play memories back without re-remembering them, without overwriting, embellishing, deforming the shape of whatever it was you experienced however long it was ago. Other peoples’ stories become our memories. Our personal history is just another TV show we watched 25 years ago. You can’t go home again, you can’t go back to the beginning, and if you try you’ll just find a disconnect, a spiral where you wanted a circle.

We keep trying to tell cyclical stories, stories of how history repeats, and it’s starting to seem like a form of denial. History will, eventually, cease to repeat itself, and we’re getting more and more nervous that that date, beyond which there will be no more dates, may be approaching. Much as ghosts are both terrifying and a welcome reassurance of life after death, imprisonment in endless cycles is terrifying and a welcome reassurance of life after life. So we beat back, boats against the current, borne on ceaselessly into the future.

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There’s this desire to make stories huge epics, covering vast expanses of space and huge worlds of consequence. There’s also a desire to make the same stories be personal, relatable, grounded in the lives of a few people and their struggles. There’s a third desire to make characters active rather than reactive, to make them the agents of change in their world. We want our Star Wars and our Marvel movies and so forth to be huge galaxy-spanning epics while also to relate everything back to a small cast of main characters who are the agents of their own destiny, and each of these desires are wholly narratively understandable and sympathetic.

Together they cause problems.

The narrative plane defined by these three points is one where every aspect of reality is defined by the actions of a small group of people. Every war, every plague, every problem and every solution is derived from the interpersonal conflict of this group of friends or family. Now, let’s throw into the mix our human tendency to favor characters who resemble us, and the current demographics of the monied creative class in Hollywood and other sectors with a broad audience. Let’s throw into the mix the pragmatic understanding that it’s usually those who are born into wealth and power that have the agency to create this kind of broadly sweeping change.

In this context, every massively accessible mega-blockbuster is a story where the important characters overwhelmingly skew white and whelmingly skew male, where their interpersonal conflicts drive massive events that cause literally untold (because it is deemed unimportant) suffering and loss of life, but where only this core cast’s personal losses are dealt with as important or meaningful. Every reasonable axiom of storytelling will, in concert with other very common and reasonable assumptions and presumptions, create a story of aristocracy, of an elite and privileged few who are granted the destiny of the world at their fingertips.

One might argue, “Well, that’s just how it is. A few people control the world.” This argument is not only incorrect, it’s also not actually an argument. First, it’s incorrect because, while a few people certainly hold an incredible and morally atrocious amount of power in the world, the actual driving forces behind change tend to be far more complex than the agendas of a small elite – however, stories of systemic change and broad social movements tend to be difficult to tell if we assume it to be necessary that the story be told through a small and memorable cast of people who are the active agents of change. It’s not even an argument, though, because it assumes that we’re constrained in storytelling to the power structure of the world as it is now – which, if we’re creating huge fantasy epics, we are decidedly not. Is it even fantasy at all if that’s the extent of our imagination?

We’re all writing with Chekhov’s gun at our heads. We try to conserve detail and make it count, but if we let this control us then we make contrived worlds ruled by snickering fate instead of worlds that live and breathe, worlds where the anointed few drive all consequence instead of the camera happening to settle on a few who are particularly central to the events which unfold. There’s a difference between the message “A great event can have distant reverberations” and the message “Everything interesting that happens ever has something directly to do with this small group of people” – but all too often these two messages twist together and conflate.

By telling epics exclusively through the characters directly manifesting those great changes, we repeatedly imply that the only meaningful people in history are those who visibly drive it. Who gets erased? Anyone who doesn’t have the power to overtly drive history. Anyone who relies on any sort of collective power to drive history. Anyone who is driven under by history. Our classical understanding of storytelling tells us, over and over, that these people are not important, that these people are beneath mention.

History is a form of storytelling, and these characters are similarly, often, excised from those drafts.

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When we experience art, we never experience it completely, just the parts of it we notice and that we engage with – merely a slice, and often a narrow one, of the whole. This is why we have so many enthusiastic consumers of overtly political art decrying the presence of politics in art, never noticing a contradiction. It’s easy to be contemptuous of those who ‘miss the point’, but seldom do any of us entirely get the point – even the creator usually has blind spots, and often accidentally ends up implying things they never meant to say or omitting things that might have added clarity. Even something very straightforward can be misinterpreted – or alternately interpreted, or malinterpreted, reinterpreted, deinterpreted. We can enjoy watching the same film or reading the same novel over and over again because each time this slice of interpretation is slightly different – and at no point is it complete. As these interpretations are context dependent, we’ll never be able to encompass all of them as individuals, but we can discuss the work to further our understand of, not just the work itself, but the many ways it can be viewed, the many ways it can be experienced.

This is not to make excuses for those who miss extremely overt themes and elements of works they love – and who often have very motivated reasoning to do so – but just to say that, to greater or lesser degree, this is something we all do. All interpretation of art is fragmented. All understanding is incomplete.

For every art there is a set of sub-arts, of interpretations – a set of viewings, each a distinct perspective. Depending on what mindset you approach a work with, the interpretation you come away with will be different. For instance, if you approach a work through a critical lens, a lens which examines its flaws and themes in much the same way as you would if you were constructing the work yourself, you will come away with a very different understanding than if you just approach it as a consumer who’s there for the ride. However, because the critical lens is in many ways similar to the creator’s lens, as the culture of creation shifts so does the culture of criticism.

After my reviews last week, I had a discussion about how it seemed like there was a cultural change in the way things were criticized, that they were evaluated more politically than before – my initial response to this was to essentially say that politics that you’ve internalized tend to be invisible, so things were still, in the past, being judged through a political lens but without the acknowledgement of those politics. However, I think something else has shifted apart from but related to these mores: I think that artists now are much more concerned with how to make the world an, if not a better place, than at least one no worse than it was before they created, and that this mindset of “first do no harm” extends to the critical mindset as well.

Once you accept the premise that art can do good you accept the premise that art can do harm. Thus, one of the criteria on which we evaluate art should be, as it is when we evaluate almost everything else in existence, whether it does more good than harm. Of course, this is impossible to know – because everyone has a different experience with and interpretation of a work, it also impacts them in completely different ways. Thus the overall impact of art is distant and unpredictable, and even the most admirable of works can have unfortunate side effects, and even the most vile garbage can have beneficial effects. You can’t treat art as a moral act in the same way you would treat passing legislation – but can you treat it the same way as you would giving a speech, a form of art itself? How overt do the messages of art need to be before it becomes equivalent to a piece of purely argumentative prose, a force of pure rhetoric? Propaganda is real, but how do you measure its effects in an environment when everyone’s interpretations can be so radically different?

You probably can’t. For every interpretation of art as anodyne or incendiary, there’s another interpretation, albeit perhaps a much rarer one, that sees the opposite. This collaborative work of interpretation is part of what makes art so powerful – the ideas that are imparted are as much your own as the creator’s, an act of collaboration potentially covering vast distances of time and space, divides of class and culture. The feature is also a bug, and the message so important that the artist dedicated a chunk of their life to craft a work around it can be wholly lost, twisted, undermined.

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One cannot observe without affecting that which is observed – this is true in physics, where even the bouncing of photons necessary for observation affects the outcome, but also more generally true of human beings than we often care to admit. Merely being seen tends to affect us sooner rather than later – and the act of seeing can change who and what we are as well. Observation has consequence.

This affects how characters in stories manifest. There’s no way to portray the experience of an unseen individual, to describe a wholly internalized moment. In order to be described it must be put into words, in order to be shown in must be given shape, and these experiences that rest outside the bounds of word and shape fall through the cracks. We can describe the cat that rests in the sunbeam and the rise and fall of the breathing fur, we can describe the purr, we can describe the collar and the name and the history, but we can never know what it is to be the cat – and we can never tell what it is to be us, who know and cherish the cat, either. When we try, we find ourselves back at describing the beam and the collar and the breath, the moment to moment concrete specifics, or we grasp at cardboard abstract terms such as contentment or anger or love – which describe barely anything at all.

The internal is inexpressible. We can suggest its presence by the contact points it shares with the external world – and this is how we craft compelling characters, by cunningly crafting these supposed contact points that map to their internal world – but it’s just a simulacrum, a mask, and just as masks are false exteriors given their shape by the face, and the face is given its shape by bone and muscle, these personae are false exteriors given their shape by a mind, and the mind is given its shape by internal and inexpressible memory and emotion. They can look real. They can look like a person, like a mind – but it’s all papier-mâché.

Because the internal cannot be seen, we have characters who constantly externalize, who are constantly being watched, under surveillance. Who we are and how we are seen, to us, are two separate things – but, for created characters, they are equivalent. These characters are comprised entirely by their exterior.

I’ve been playing around with streaming various games on and off over the last few years and, though my viewership is mostly restrained to a few online friends and acquaintances, the experience of streaming a game is still so curiously different from the experience of merely playing it. I become observed, and to make that observation interesting I must externalize my internal experience of the game. This is both valuable and burdensome – oftentimes I find myself being more harshly critical than I would otherwise be just because, when you’re searching for something to talk about, picking at minor inconsistencies, flaws, or other noteworthy features tends to be the easiest solution. At the same time, since I’m more busy verbalizing my reactions to the more obvious things, it’s easy to miss subtle things, to miss bits of story or mechanical information, and thereby make things harder on myself. For everything I miss or misrepresent, though, there’s the tradeoff of also having other people around who can offer feedback, offer corrections or additions or agreement. The process of playing the game, of consuming the art, gains additional steps – instead of the experience being between the art and me, it goes from the art to me out into the world through an unknown number of other people and back into me, more messy and complicated than before.

I keep wondering if it’s the right way to experience art, as though there could be such a thing, as though that’s even a question that makes sense. The acts of observation and presentation change the experience, and though the experience may be every bit as valid, I can still never access that completely internalized experience of art again absent the context of our shared experience. The situation comes to mirror the tradeoffs of spoilers and spoiler warnings – though we may enjoy a story more knowing how it turns out already, the experience of being surprised by how it turns out is rarer than that of seeing how it comes together with that foreknowledge. Similarly, though communally experiencing a game might be a more valuable experience, the act of internally and individually experiencing it will no longer be available to me.

It seems like quite a conundrum at times, but that doesn’t blind me to the fact that this whole dichotomy is actually a pile of specious horseshit. All experience is contextual and fleeting. No experience can survive beyond the moment, and there’s no perfect way to experience anything. Yet, still, I have this urge to preserve it all, to never let any moment go. I have a desire for eternity, to always be able to return to the moment I experienced something and revisit that, to observe, to understand. I tend to favor forms of art that last, recordings and objects, discrete creations, rather than fleeting experiences like performances – but they’re all still more or less the same because, no matter how lasting the piece is, that physical object isn’t where the artistic experience lies. No matter what it is, a sculpture or film or speech or concert, the point of artistic experience lies within your perception of the art, not within the art itself.

The thing I want to preserve cannot be preserved. The attempt necessarily externalizes my otherwise indescribable experiences, forces me to verbalize and make concrete my fleeting moments. My reasons for wanting to do this are stupid, quixotic – a naive ambition for eternity and immortality. Yet this attempt still takes me somewhere worth being. Externalizing, expressing, evaluating, understanding the game while I play it, understanding the life while I live it, and trying to put that understanding into words, I attempt to engage with an experience beyond the internal, a shared moment – but these things cannot actually be captured recordings or writing. The missing internal experience, between the game and myself, between the world and myself, is replaced with a new internality, that of me presenting, me outward-facing, me broadcasting the best approximation I can manage of what I am and what my experience is out to any observers.

Every observation affects me.

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When we search for meaning in an uncaring universe, what is it we search for? Meaning isn’t an object that can be found, isn’t an inherent trait of anything, isn’t even a truth that can be discovered – meaning is a trait of categorization. Things begin to mean something when you arrange them in your thoughts, place them in relation to each other, and begin to understand some sort of structure that holds them together.

Meaning is story. Story is meaning.

Thus, when we set out to find meaning, this is an act of construction and creativity as much as it is an act of discovery. It is building a narrative that we can place the facts of existence into – but building that context is still an adventure, an exploration, a search. This is why authoritarians have little regard for the arts – to be creative is to discover and to devise meaning, and to make meaning is to refuse to accept the meaning that has been prescribed for you.

People say the universe has no meaning – as though it ought to. The medium is not, in this case, the message. The paper is not the story. The canvas is not the painting – even the paint is not the painting until it is perceived by the eye and understood by the mind. Meaning is the lemonade we make out of lemons. That is not to say that we need to shape the world in our image – though people are often very enthusiastic to interpret it that way – but just that, when we view wonders, what makes them wondrous is our wonderment. Diamonds are just rocks.

I suspect I have approached the search for meaning from the opposite side that most approach from. Most people, I think, spend much of their life looking only towards an immediate goal, experiencing each moment in relative isolation, and need to seek within later to find some way to bind those moments into a narrative they can be comfortable with. Myself, I always just assumed that the path to meaning and the life I wanted to live lay in art, in its creation and appreciation and understanding, and looked within – but, as I’ve gotten older, and started to gather bits and pieces of a wider understanding, I start to see how tethered our art is to the context in which it was made. There’s beauty in these ties, but they also makes the fields of our view terrifyingly small. So, while others have had experience with no context, and have needed to search inwards, I have had context with no experience, and had to seek outwards – it’s not as simple as all that, of course, but since we tend to most keenly feel our own shortcomings it does often seem to be just that stark, that black and white.

The search for meaning is not one that has a conclusion. What would lie at the ends of such a search? Understanding? The degree to which we know ourselves to have understanding is the degree to which we understand the world to be knowable, and this belief, like belief in Santa Claus, tends to erode over time. Understanding is not attainable except asymptotically, and the closer we get to it the farther away we perceive ourselves to be. Contentment? Contentment is something you can feel in a moment, but content is not something you can be for a lifetime. You’ll still have bad days. You’ll still have regrets. Change will still wash over you, tragedies will still happen, and the weight of tragedies yet to come will demand your attention. How could understanding and contentment possibly cohabitate?

In the end all you have is a story. The story of your life. And you can tell it to someone else, and they can listen, and it will become part of the story of their life. As long as we’re all talking, as long as we’re all listening, our words converge. Together they are our story, and there are no main characters.

Our story is not over.

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