Tag Archives: Writing

After you spend a little while doing creative work, you tend to notice certain themes recurring throughout your creations. I have written here about my current project, EverEnding, but seldom in terms of its story and themes – I haven’t spoken at all about the project I thought of first, and which is on extended hiatus, Mechropolis. The themes of Mechropolis are, as may be evident from the title, artificial intelligence and life after death; following a set of three characters all straddling the boundaries of dead and alive, organic and synthetic, and using them to explore ideas of what it means to be made for a purpose – and then to be discarded.

Incidentally, I suspect that when artificial intelligence does come to manifest itself one way or another, it will take a very long time for us to notice. Consider how poor of an understanding and how little respect we have for animal life and intelligence – hell, consider how poor of an understanding and how little respect we have for the life and intelligence of humans who look slightly dissimilar to us. We convince ourselves of patent racial falsehoods every day, make manifold excuses to not perceive or understand the intelligence of others, and you would have me believe that we have any idea that artificial intelligence looks like? It may have already arrived, for all we know. Given our history of treatment of those we deem our social inferiors, it would certainly be in the best interests of any artificial mind to keep on the down-low.

Anyway. The themes of EverEnding are less immediately obvious, but similarly have to do with beings who were created for a purpose and exist somewhere between life and death, long past the purpose they were originally crafted to serve. Noting themes which you’re consistently drawn to, which have ended up woven into your every idea without ever making a specific decision to include them, can be mildly unnerving. What anxieties do they reveal? Are you doomed to always circle the drain of the same few grim fascinations?

I think what fascinates me about the idea of artificial life is a sense that we exist in ways that are far more similar to those of an AI, a golem, or an angel than we generally care to admit. Though we weren’t made explicitly to serve a purpose, many of us have had purpose instilled upon us, or claimed purpose for ourselves – and, once you make a decision to be something, it warps everything in your life around that focal point. The question, when meeting someone for the first time, when wanting to quickly understand who they are is: What do you do? What is your job? What is your function? I have a sense of this as being a particularly American outlook, but I have little basis for comparison having not left the country.

So we find ourselves a role, and we begin building ourselves to fit into it. We learn skills and forget others, we embrace passions and forget others, make friends and forget others, snip off bits and pieces of our personality that jut outside the mold we’re trying to fit into. We tailor ourselves to suit a purpose, and live defined by that purpose. Then, very often, we outlive that purpose and have to figure out who or what we are afterwards, slowly forgetting the things we learned and remembering the things we forgot, regaining a shape we abandoned long ago. After this little death may come a little rebirth, a new sort of life less shaped by the purpose it must fulfill – but this new life, being defined in different terms, can never entirely coexist with the lives of servitude to purpose that surround it, and always will straddle these invisible boundaries, always be out of place, undeath, unlife.

Both games are about the aftermath of some sort of disaster or collapse – in one case the end of the world and in the other the mere collapse of a nation – and the reshaping that happens afterwards. As we all drift, unmoored and unmanned, captained by greed and idiocy and sailing off the edge of the world, I know now why these are the themes I’ve felt compelled to explore. At this point I only hope I get a chance to actually complete these projects – and that there’s still an audience left for them if I do.

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“Come in, come in,” he mutters, edging around the heavy dark desk, moving carefully, perhaps a bit stiffly, to avoid knocking over the books and papers piled, half-read, along its outer reaches. “I’ve been hoping to see you for a while. I want to talk to you,” he pauses a moment, looking somewhere above the left side of your head, “about showing – and about telling.” You wait for him to proceed. The sun shines in through the window, lighting up innumerable particles of dust, and where the light shows through the band of stained glass at the top of the window it dyes the particles red and green. Somewhere outside there’s the muted beeping sound of a truck backing up.

“We taught you always to show, rather than tell, your reader what was happening, So, for instance, rather than saying you got a note from your kindly if somewhat odd instructor and proceeded to have a conversation about whether ’tis better to have shown or told than to have never written at all, you’d instead talk about, I don’t know, my desk or that window. You set the scene, describe it through concrete elements instead of the bare facts of what transpired and what it meant.”

The band of green and red light from the window slowly crawls along his desk, delineating the topography of old mugs of coffee, half-read books, and ungraded papers. You hear the sound of machinery moving, and then a distant crashing sound. “Sorry about that,” he says, “they’re demolishing the next building over.”

“I see,” you lie.

“Anyway: We have this rule of writing, to show instead of tell, and the reason that this rule exists is because humans so desperately want to tell. We want to convey information! We care about things, and we want to impart that care to others. What are you even doing writing if you don’t want to say things?”

“I-” you begin, as the sounds of demolishing outside get louder.

“Exactly! All the showing just becomes a medium for the telling! You insert vague, poorly defined characters whose only role is to be the mouthpiece for your ideas. No name, no description, just a vague picture of paternal authority, with a big desk and dusty office, where the last remnants of the band of green and red light from the stained glass top part of the window has almost tipped off the edge of the table. That’s got to symbolize something! Death, probably.”

“Probably,” you’re forced to agree – literally, by me, the writer, just now. How quickly is the light moving? How much time has passed?

“But if we elevate showing over telling, how is that helpful? Surely for every artist who conveys too much through rote exposition there is another who conveys nothing of substance through description and metaphor. Why are we giving tools a hierarchy? Should a hammer outrank a screwdriver, and we think less of a craftsman whenever he must resort to the inferior tool?” As he speaks, or yells really, he’s pulling tools, hammers and screwdrivers, out of his desk and slamming them down. It’s barely audible over the sounds of the deconstruction getting closer. The room is shaking and the towers of books are toppling, adding slightly to the mess, as used mugs fall over and muddy coffee rivers fill out the topography. This, too, probably symbolizes death.

“We’re so incredibly talented at lying,” he cries out as the walls began to disintegrate, “that we seldom can tell when we begin to lie to ourselves. We make promises to ourselves than then break them and then convince ourselves we didn’t. We pretend to show while telling, tell while showing, we pretend to be writing shallow entertainment while pouring out our deepest-held beliefs or pretend to be making great art while describing our sexual fantasies.” The room has collapsed. Existence has ended, so you have very little to distract you now.

“I can tell you or I can show you, but in the end it’s just me and you, having a conversation.” How does he speak when there is no air to carry sound? “It’s just me and you… and by that I mean it’s just you, because for me these words died the moment I wrote them but for you they are alive right now, in you, spoken through you and by you and for you.” The world has ended, wholly deconstructed, uniform in topography. Somewhere nearby, though, there is a band of light.

There is a blank piece of paper. You begin to write.

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The lights are projections on slate-gray screens
A sneak preview of a nuclear winter
The orange seeps in like rusty water
A sneak peek at a burning eternity

Every moment is a tiny apocalypse
The world is ending for somebody somewhere
There's no way of knowing what will be witnessed
No path back to history once we fall out

The sky is falling just a bit lower
Her blanket smothering us from above
The days are getting a little shorter
The sun slowly setting on that which we love

The flaw in our hearts
Is that we solely see
smoke on our own side of the horizon

The grass always presumed green
When it bows out of our sight
All's well that we can't rest our eyes on

The sun's benevolence extends to the atmosphere
And when that fades away so does good will
That which warms us also can burn us
Breath, once given, can be taken as well

We test and are tested, find limits to power
And once it cuts out we're left in the dark
All we can see are the flames that are billowing
Filling our fire sales, everything must go

At times like this it helps to remember
That there's no ending that isn't a beginning
It's clear that the future cannot be seen
But this unclear winter will one day be Spring

Decades ago, a friend told me a logic problem that had a big impact on how I see the world. Two workers emerge from the coal mines after a long day of work: One’s face is covered in soot, the other is mostly clean. The clean one wipes his face, the one covered in soot doesn’t. Why?

The answer, of course, is one of perspective. The clean miner sees his friend covered in soot, assumes he must be the same, and wipes his face – likewise, the dirty miner sees his friend and assumes he must have also come out clean. This took me a little while to puzzle out at the time, because from my omniscient perspective I can easily envision what they look like – but I have to work harder to understand what they think they look like. I have all the information, but I have to put it into a certain context before I can actually understand it.

When we learn something new, the context in which we encounter it determines how we categorize it. We determine information’s veracity and meaning based on who communicates it to us, why we believe they are doing so, and how it fits into what we already believe. This is why people from different cultural and political backgrounds often seem to have completely different understandings of the world: The same information conveyed to two different people takes on a drastically different meaning based on the existing context of their lives.

This is the basis of most surprise in art. We are presented with information, and then later on presented with new information which recontextualizes the things we’ve already learned and forces us to reevaluate them. This is what a twist or surprise ending is. This is what most jokes are. This is how characters get developed and fleshed out – and, even in less narrative forms, we achieve moments of the sublime by carefully shifting contexts. We hide details in paintings which completely change the meaning of the scene, we shift harmonic chords under the same melody to completely change its tone and impact. These shifts in meaning extend into the past and future, and when we come to understand the situation in a different way because of them we carry that understanding into interpreting both the antecedents of the situation and what will proceed from it.

But we’re all just mineworkers out here, and our understanding of the situation is necessarily limited. When our friend wipes his face, despite it being clean, what should we infer from that? Change in the world sometimes happens so slowly that only later, comparing it against the context you’ve come to understand it in, do you realize your understanding of how things work must be incomplete. Sometimes we ourselves change over time, and slip out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves and, emerging out into the sun, must be reborn and learn everything all over again.

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Writing has been difficult recently. Every idea I think to write about feels obvious, trivial, or disingenuous. I like to take threads of ideas and follow them back, to see what each idea implies about its underlying antecedents, to tug on each thread until the construct begins to unravel. Most of the time, when I do that now, I just find myself back where I started, thinking the thoughts I’ve thought before, writing the words I’ve already written, or words which sound nice together but don’t actually add up to anything meaningful.

The hard part for me has usually not been in finding the words to evoke an idea, but in finding an idea interesting enough to be worth evoking. Or, just as often, the difficulty comes in finding a way to cut each topic away from other topics, to somehow find a discrete pattern that can be described in the midst of the noise of infinite interconnected patterns.

If half of the challenge is in writing something interesting, though, the other half is in somehow convincing myself that it’s actually interesting. Even just trying to write about a game I’ve played or a show I’ve watched is difficult, because everything seems obvious, trite, contrived – and, of course, the stakes of art criticism seem agonizingly low now. Art and how we react to it, how we make it, how it shapes us – these are things I value, and things I think are important, but everything is relative, and it feels awful and tone-deaf to talk about anything but the elephants that are crowding the room. So I try to tie it all together. I try to find ways in which the way we relate to art ties into the way we fail to relate to human beings. I try to find ways in which media has lead us into these horrors and which it might help to lead us out. To talk about anything less seems insulting and self-indulgent.

What do I have to do that’s better than playing music while the Titanic sinks? Nothing in particular.

I’d rather, though, be writing about problems which I feel capable of solving, futures which seem tenable, paths that seem navigable. I miss the trivial thought exercises. I miss the search for enlightenment underneath the couch cushions. Everything is too important for me now. It’s outside my skill set. I can’t escape the sensation that tremendously important things are happening, the world rotating out of place like a secret bookshelf, and I’m not a part of it. I am a witness, and that is all. It might be a privilege to be present, but my presence is not required.

I’m committed, though, to whatever it is that I do. I’ll keep finding stupid words to write. Everything still needs to be sorted out, to be put in order, to be thought through – and, though indulgent musings won’t shape the future, they may at least have a tiny part of shaping those who shape the future. Overthinking things is, at times, a necessary skill set. For now, I’ll cling to whatever shred of relevance this sort of writing can muster, another breeze in the storm.

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I think words are important. This is, perhaps, an unusual trait – even many of those who make their living with words seemingly have little respect or affection for them. Often we treat words with contempt, as imperfect vessels for conveying ideas to one another – but they do much more than that. That very imperfection allows for ambiguity, complexity, and nuance which can make ideas much more complex and interconnected than they might at first appear.

The way I express this belief in conversation, though, often comes across as a young man’s game of trying to establish conversational dominance. I am constantly trying to drill down into the specific meanings of words, what they are intended to express, what they come to mean to those who read or hear them, how they fall short of or supersede their intended purpose. I ask these questions all the time of myself, but when I apply this perspective in conversation people often find it annoying – because when you ask these questions it sounds like you’re trying to catch people out, to pick a semantic argument, to show what a big smarty-pants you are. This is particularly frustrating because I used to be that smarty-pants, and have tried very hard to abandon those pants. However, because these questions of semantics and what they express are still ones I believe to be important and interesting, I find myself perceived by others as that regrettable past self again and again.

Why are these semantics important to me? The words we use provide a glance at our mental model of the world around us. By paying close attention to the words people use and how they use them, we can derive information about how they view the world – but, perhaps more importantly, we can turn this lens on ourselves, note the words that come out of our own mouths, and glean information about what we think, how we see things, what we believe, and how we’re primed to express those beliefs. The relationship between words and beliefs isn’t just one way, though, not simply belief springing forth from the lips in the shape of words – we can also choose to think about the words we use, think about what they mean and why we use them, and by changing the way we speak we can affect change on those internal models.

In other words, if we change the way we talk and write, we also change the way we think. We’re all telling stories about our lives, so we have to take editorial control, to take care in how those stories are expressed. Or, as Kurt Vonnegut put it, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

This is formative of my sense of humor. I love double meanings, creative reinterpretations, extended byzantine analogies, and making up absurd descriptive neologisms. When you operate in the realm of ideas, these kinds of word play become very powerful, a way of fusing metaphors together into complex systems where everything is symbolically and meaningfully interconnected, where every observation can have many meanings and any one of them can be a powerful message. All of this may sound trivial or twee, but many of these tools of colloquial confluence and ambiguity can also be used in far less humorous ways: Dogwhistles, veiled threats, and plausibly deniable racism.

The reason that people can get away with these violent forms of ‘word-play’ is because we don’t take words seriously. To believe that words are important is to also believe that they can be dangerous. Incitements, slurs, dehumanizing language, these can hide anywhere – and, though many recent examples are anything but subtle, what has allowed the huge and obvious versions of these violent words to flourish today is the absence of scrutiny applied to the nicely-phrased and polite forms of bigotry which we customarily embrace.

Words have power, and can do great harm if we don’t respect them. If one dwells on this too much, it could lead one to never speak at all. This is something I struggle with. Starting this blog was a big step for me in becoming confident in my words and their meaning and relevance – but continuing it has been a weekly struggle in convincing myself that what I’m saying is non-obvious and also non-gibberish, that we wouldn’t all be better off if I just kept it to myself, and that whatever half-ignorant thing I say this time (because I believe even the best of us seldom manage better than half-ignorance) won’t do more harm than good.

It’s a leap of faith.

Every time I try to say something new, though, I feel like I must leap further, and it becomes harder to express the idea I’m holding in my mind. I already feel as though many of these posts must border on nonsense to many readers, that only a few people see the world similarly enough to the way I do that these descriptions and analogies make sense. I worry that I’m writing in another language that only I speak. Even voicing this concern sounds self-aggrandizing, as though I must believe I’m such a unique and extraordinary thinker that no one really ‘gets’ me – but I’m just worried I spend so much time in my own head that I may forget how to actually communicate with another human being.

I guess everyone writes in their own language, though, and everything we read is just a translation. Sometimes the idea carries across. Sometimes it does not. This is why I take care to pick the most precise and descriptive words that I can, to carve out as much precision as I can manage. Without that precision, whatever you read, it won’t be what I meant to write, only what you’re expecting to see.

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Big things are happening. The sheer cruelty of the systems that drive the world have been laid bare, and right now people are trying to see if they’re going to find a way to somehow sweep the blood under the rug again.

I’m thinking about cop games and other media, which tend to disturb me not so much for how they portray police – though these portrayals are often misleading – but for how they portray ‘criminals’, as a discrete class of human being who is inherently dangerous and who needs to be addressed by violent means that belong to police alone. This ‘criminal’, a person who is solely predator and never prey, solely acting and never acted upon, existing only to satiate unknowable personal greeds and lusts, for the most part simply doesn’t exist. However, most police media requires his presence, so despite Crime Man’s scarcity in the real world he is ubiquitous in media.

I suspect many of you do not believe me. We all hear about terrible crimes, and I need not go into the grisly and horrible particulars of these, and wonder “what sort of person would do these things” – and the specter of Crime Man pops into your mind. Though these crimes may seem inexplicable violations of social norms and common decency, most of them manifest within some degree of social sanction. We have cultural narratives for violence against women, against children, we have cultural narratives for the importance of money above all else, we have cultural narratives of hate and racial supremacy, and every day we’re actors looking for roles, and every day there’s a casting call.

This might sound like it seeks to justify the horrible actions that people take. There’s a difference between explaining and justifying. What I want to explain is that no action comes from nowhere. Every action emerges from the roles people expect themselves to play in society. So we end up with a few people who, due to whatever their circumstances are, take on the role of Crime Man, because Crime Man is such a potent cultural archetype. We view these criminal acts as transgressions against law and against society – but, most of the time, they are calculated choices for either personal or cultural survival, and are made within the context of societal narratives.

However, as long as we believe in Crime Man, we must also believe in Police Man as the solution to Crime Man.

This is the core problem with police media, even beyond the naively benign portrayal of the police themselves. The characters who the cops pursue and punish are criminals, with any other characteristics being secondary to that, and their very existence justifies the core concept of what the police are and do. As long as this is the extent of how we understand crime, the underlying structure cannot be fixed.

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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There’s no such thing as a line.

Lines are wholly conceptual. They are a thing that we perceive rather than a thing that exists. The lines that we see emerge wherever we perceive a division between one thing and another thing. When we see a yellow banana resting on a red tablecloth, we don’t see lines visually separating the two, but we conceptually understand they must be there. And, when we see a long thin black rectangle, we consider it to signify such a boundary – not so much to be a line itself as to be a marker which shows us where the line must lie.

And yet we can perceive a collection of lines as depicting something real, and this is fascinating to me. Lines become another language, where we encode what we have seen into a linear depiction of its bounds and the observer interprets back from that outline into a visual image – or, more likely they interpret it directly into a symbolic model without wholly parsing it as a true image. This is seemingly a language that does not have to be taught – or perhaps it is taught stealthily in the background, unrecognized as universal language, through the process of learning other forms of expression.

On at least a cursory search, I cannot find any information about when a human comes to be capable of interpreting a set of lines signifying the boundaries of an object as a representation of that object. I also cannot find whether any other animals are capable of doing so. Maybe I just don’t know where to look, but this seems like an oddly fundamental question to have seemingly no available answers to or information on. Everyone seems to assume that lines just make sense, and that everyone can understand what object those lines are meant to represent – even as certain optical illusions, such as the Impossible Trident, reveal that interpreting lines as visual representations can often be deceitful or nonsensical.

The steps of encoding and decoding images to and from lines is one that is seldom actually regarded as a discrete act of interpretation. Though, when we study drawing, we often discuss learning to see things as they are and not how we imagine them to be, it is quite rare to acknowledge that lines themselves are clearly incapable of directly reproducing that visual information, and that it’s only through an act of learned interpretation that we’re capable of making them do so. This cognitive leap may seem so obvious to many students of art that they never have to explicitly learn it (or explicitly notice that they’ve learned it, anyway): However, I personally am bad at lines, and have had to learn to improve at that skill specifically, and that has forced me to observe the process of interpreting line into shape into line, line into shape, very explicitly.

Broadly speaking there are two approaches to creating art: Blobs of color and value which reproduce the asymbolic image the eye perceives, and lines which reproduce the image through a symbolic representation of the represented objects’ boundaries. I tend to be better at the former approach, creating blobs and shaping and shading them until they approximate something I’d actually see, than in placing lines to create the bounds of what I want to portray. These aptitudes may have something to do with my nearsightedness. They may also have something to do with my tendency to see things as fundamentally unified and undifferentiated, as all part of the same greater structure. They may also have something to do with my fascination with continuity and continuum, and questioning of where the bounds actually lie between a thing we can generally agree is good and a thing we can generally agree is bad, where and how it flips over.

Sometimes our outlook is motivated by our abilities. Sometimes metaphor doesn’t have to reach very far. It turns out that some people are just better at seeing lines.

Some people, as well, are better at drawing them. Because the process of interpreting line as image is invisible to us, we will interpret any lines that are drawn without questioning whether there might, perhaps, be an alternate interpretation, an alternate set of lines, that would make just as much sense or more. If lines can contextualize a sea of difficult-to-interpret blobs of color and value into a picture that makes sense, we tend to believe that picture – even if one or two lines are out of place, that’s fine, we can still see it. Perhaps that’s what the role of the artist is: To take a sea of undifferentiated data, a mess of events and places and people and things, and to draw lines deciding where the boundaries lie and what they mean.

What a terrifying responsibility to bear.

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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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