Tag Archives: 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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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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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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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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I’ve been having a hard time writing recently. Sometimes it feels like I’ve got nothing left to say – not necessarily there aren’t any ideas for topics, but that all of them seem thin or redundant, either something I could only say one or two facile things about, or something I’ve already written about, or something that anything I wrote about would be so close to the common pre-existing conception of the topic that I might as well not bother. Usually I figure something out. Every time, though, it gets harder – not consistently, since some are easier and some are harder, but steadily, over time, the resistance builds up.

The world is vast, though, far vaster than my meager writings. Even my chosen niche, that of games and art and how we touch them and they us, is wide enough that I ought to be able to write on it indefinitely. Still, it becomes more difficult to do so meaningfully. Every time, there’s a part of me that’s scared that maybe I’ve mined this vein out, that maybe I’m running dry and I’ll just be unable to say anything more that means anything – without, perhaps, going out and finding new experiences, without prospecting the stories out from the world at large.

This fear reveals a gap, a hole, a bleeding wound in my conception of what creativity is. I have a tendency to view creation as the act of taking something out of myself and polishing it and presenting it to the world, and in exchange I take whatever their response is, be it emotional or fiduciary, and digest it, and then along with other bits and pieces of myself use that to fuel the next work, and so on, and so forth. The factory model, the miner model, where resources are stripped away and manufactured and sold and then more resources are acquired to replace them. It is a very American mindset. I am colonizing myself, stealing my territory, stocking my shelves off of my shipments of vital supplies.

Why would I think about myself this way?

I am not plundering when I write. I am not burning resources – even the time and energy it takes to write are still mine, as much as any time or energy were ever mine. I am just mapping the territory, charting the ever-changing landscape of my mind, of the world as I understand it. The work will always be incomplete, because both my inner world and our outer world which it resides in are in a constant state of flux. The work will always be imperfect, because it is impossible to understand anything completely.

We do not understand anything in the world as it is, but approximate it successively through symbolic analogy. The painting The Treachery of Images, by René Magritte, shows an image of a pipe with the caption “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” or “This is not a pipe,” written underneath. This illustrates the difference between the real and the image – but even the physical object we call a pipe isn’t itself a pipe, at least not on its own. What makes it a pipe is its perception as and use of as a pipe – the ‘pipe’ symbol, stored in our brain, as it is applied to the pipe-shaped object with pipe-like properties. This is the way we understand the world: pipe symbols, tobacco symbols, fire symbols, smoke signals, none of which are quite directly related to the world objects they refer to, and we become adept at understanding how the real-world objects can interact so that we can abstractly model these interactions using the symbols in our mind. This is what applied mathematics are as well: A methodology for converting objects into symbolic representations and performing abstract operations on them in an effort to predict how they will behave.

All of this is a long detour to state that, no, I can’t strip-mine my mind, because my mind cannot store a language to completely describe itself, just as a book can’t losslessly contain the description of a book ten times its length. No matter how much of myself I can strain to successfully describe, there will always be uncharted parts of my mind, left covered in clouds, stamped with a legend that says “Here be Dragons.”

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