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There’s a desire, when making something, to have the creation be somehow new and unprecedented, unique, unlike anything that has come before. This can create issues – while ideally every work should offer something new, it is not necessary or even desirable that the entire piece be founded on novelty. The search for perfect uniqueness is similar to the search for perfect anything in that it is an ass-backwards waste of time.

I’ve been thinking about the ways this impulse holds me back. I’m not sure how many ideas I drop in their nascent phases because I’ve already written about them or read something similar – likely it happens to many ideas before I even think of them as ideas. Sometimes it probably isn’t even a topic I’ve written or read about, just something I’ve thought about enough times that I feel like I must have, which makes it a really unfortunate idea to discard – though if I’ve thought about it so much then I suppose I’ll probably think about it again before too long. Probably. Sometimes an idea discarded because I’ve already used it might have branched away and turned into another idea, a whole new way of building out from a common foundation, if I’d only bothered to think about it a little bit longer.

Aside from keeping me from writing certain pieces, this tendency may also make some of my pieces worse. I avoid covering ground I think people will already be familiar with, even if it’s necessary to understanding the thrust of my point. I rush through, assuming everyone’s familiar enough with my line of logic to follow, and am often unconcerned with whether everyone even started on the same page as I did.

I have a concept of the most perfect form of every piece as being that which strips out the most unnecessary elements, that which is most precise and concise, like a polished gemstone. This concept of perfection, too, is useless: Sometimes less is better, sometimes more is better, it is entirely conditional, entirely a matter of what the extraneous adds or detracts. The details add up, and can either accentuate or clutter. Longer words are sometimes better than shorter synonyms because they feel more satisfying to say and paint a better image. With every piece, there’s a core, a kernel, and the details wrapped around it, the aesthetic and expressive choices used to give voice to that core idea. Repetition can be mere redundancy or it can be rhythm. And, the same way that seeds and eggs must provide their own nutrients to themselves before they can become self-sufficient, there must be a certain amount of ‘extraneous’ text for the ideas to grow.

If you just say something once, no matter how eloquently you state it, people are likely to forget it soon. Even if you find the perfect phrasing of an idea, if you fail to ever repeat or restate it your audience won’t retain it. No matter how well an argument is framed, it won’t stick the first time it’s read.

Yet laying this groundwork can be just as treacherous as omitting it, at least when it comes to imparting the ideas I want to impart. Whenever one of my pieces gets boosted and more widely read, I inevitably get responses either taking issue with or inspiration from whatever the first idea presented in my essay was, even if it wasn’t the idea I was trying to get to or found interesting. Often it’s not even an idea I would take credit for, just a relatively commonplace concept, that many other writers have argued for far better than I am prepared to, that I was using as a stepping stone to get to another idea. When you place ideas in sequence, it’s little surprise when many people don’t make it through the entire sequence. If they have seen less far, it’s because the shoulders of giants keep blocking their vision.

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The way art happens, I think, is much the same way pearls are made: A tiny grit of something gets inside of our shells, grinds its way into us uncomfortably, and we have to weave some softer facade around it to keep it from hurting.

I’ve been very tired recently, so I’ve been dialing back my ambitions for the month. I’ve relaxed my scheduling, I’ve let myself feel okay with getting less done every day, and I’ve been generally taking a bit of time to lean back and think about why I feel so tired, so discouraged, so unenthusiastic.

For the most part I live a fairly solitary life. I sit around in my tiny room and I try to make art and enjoy art and that’s basically how it goes. I can usually do this because I believe in what I’m doing and I believe that it’s intrinsic to who I am to want to make things that are interesting and, perhaps, even beautiful.

The more I think about it, though, the less certain I am that this life is any more intrinsically a part of who I am than any other life I might live. Certainly I have certain priorities or activities I might be predisposed to, and certainly I value art, but I have learned to view certain aspects of my existence, certain priorities and values, as solid – as immovable. I have learned to believe that only one type of life could possibly suit me, and the only choice I had was to see what else I could fit in around those immobile points: That this was my nature, the core of who I am. However, when I ask myself questions about why I feel uncomfortable, why I live the life I do, I then also must question how much of this identity I inhabit is intrinsic to me as a person – and how much of it is just habit, just the memories called up by being in this room, living in this body, and having each day follow its predecessor in a chain that seems often to be unbreakable.

The tricky part is, even if you identify your current life as imperfect, it is at least one life that has worked. Out there, there’s an infinite number of lives that may or may not work. Once you identify that something that you thought was constant is a variable, you have to wonder what else could fit in its place… and, if it might be moved, what else could fit in around it that couldn’t before?

I like the idea of being an artist. I like the act of creating art – usually. However, I see very few models of how being an independent artist can be compatible with leading a happy and rewarding life. Not being able to see these lives being lived is unfortunate, because while I believe it can happen, I also believe it is a difficult life to build, and made more so by the lack of any reliable guide. In a context where many people exploit and abuse artists, in a context where what is considered good entertainment is increasingly consolidated into the coffers of a few megacorporations, in a context where social safety nets are getting sawed away by bandits, in a context where we are told that we must constantly be working and constantly be making or we are worse-than, less-than… How can one halfheartedly create, and hope to get anywhere? What can I do with these doubts besides diminish myself?

Yet halfhearted creation may sometimes be all I have, as I do not always have a whole heart available to create with. I’m split in so many directions, the projects and ambitions and the leisure and the longing, I feel like I have no time or energy left over to seek to rectify the holes I perceive in my life. I keep feeling I ought to give something up to make room for something else, and yet I have no idea what to give up, like ceding any territory is self-annihilation. I keep feeling that there has to be some way to rearrange things to make room.

I keep feeling so tired.

When you’re an independent artist, with little to no audience, and you lose interest in what you’re making, there’s no real reason to keep working on a thing that no one wants to exist – or, at least, a thing no one knows they want to exist. The only resource I have at my disposal for creating my passion-projects is passion, and if I let that slip I really don’t have anything. Which raises the question of how I can be consistently passionate if I want to do another project every month. Which raises the question of why I want to do another project every month.

I keep getting caught in these feedback loops, where I nudge myself to make progress, stall out, nudge again, stall, nudge, stall – and this process, even when I don’t actually do anything, consumes a huge amount of energy. While I burn energy this way, I burn even more energy getting angry at myself for not doing anything while I’m stalled out.

This, I think, is how a person can burn themselves out while doing absolutely nothing at all.

The nice thing about working for other people is you can know at least one other person wants your work. The nice thing about working for other people is you can blame someone besides yourself for feeling tired, crushed, hopeless. The nice thing about working for other people is that it doesn’t have to be your identity, it can just be a job.

The terrible thing about working for other people is that, because the richest have so much more power, the value your time and effort creates, in the form of the money you need to survive and thrive, is the value of the change in their pocket and is utterly without significance to them. The terrible thing about working for other people is you have no power to change your approach if you feel tired, crushed, hopeless. The terrible thing about working for other people is that they won’t let it just be a job for you, they want it to be the reason for your existence.

And at the end here I would like to come to some big meaningful conclusion, something with impact, something Important. We always want what we write to be important. And that which is important compels change. So if I conclude here with something Big and Important, I need to change my life afterwards. If I want to claim insight, I have to make a change. I wonder how much of my confusion stems from trying to regularly create viewpoint-shifting insights, and having to believe them. Is this another way I’ve sabotaged myself?

I suppose the next day will be much the same as today, and I won’t be compelled to make some huge lifestyle change. Perhaps this is just my process of finding point of discomfort and encasing them, softening them, beautifying them. Or perhaps my role, here, is just to be the tide that brings sand to you, and to make you uncomfortable – but just uncomfortable enough, and in a way that you can work with.

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I always had trouble identifying with the parts of kids’ cartoons where the main character wishes they were normal. I think that this is partially an indication of privilege: I’ve never really had to suffer much for being a weirdo. I mostly kept to myself and, always having been on the big side, was never a very attractive target for bullying. Maybe that’s why I never found ‘normal’ a very appealing thing to be. Perhaps this means that I really internalized those cartoons’ lessons about how it’s okay to be different, that everyone is unique and contributes something of their own, but as time has gone on, as I’ve found myself isolated and struggling, I’ve come more and more to see the appeal of normalcy.

There’s probably some sort of difference between opting out and being unable to fit in. I’ve always strenuously avoided having to think too hard about which, exactly, I’m doing at any given time.

I don’t really believe that any existing human being is not, deep down, a huge weirdo. We are a fundamentally neurotic species, overloaded with crossed wires, beliefs connected to anxieties connected to fetishes connected to fears, all of it coated in a vague post-hoc rationalization we call a personality. Normal is a set of behaviors, a standardized interface between you and society that you can fit on top of your natural impulses, and some people have an easier time of making that fit than others. Normal is a thing that you do and that is done to you rather than a thing that you fundamentally are – a distinction far too fine for me to grasp as a child, or for these children’s cartoons to attempt to impart.

And this allergy to normality might sound like a good trait to have as an artist – I sure thought it would be! But art is communication, and communication gets a lot more difficult when you have semi-intentionally disconnected yourself from the standardized interface of your culture. What I mean when I say this is that the most generic, uninspired, boilerplate boring design-by-committee extra-smooth-applesauce piece of art has a huge advantage relative to anything I create, no matter how careful or inspired or well-thought-out my work may be: People know what it is, how to engage with it, and what it means.

When I’m in art classes, teachers frequently tell me that I needn’t try to be so representational, that I don’t have to get every color and proportion perfectly accurate – which is, of course, true, but is also unnecessary advice. I know how to not do the obvious thing. What I need to learn is how to be expected, predictable, how to meet people where they are at. Maybe this leads me to overcompensate, but I figure practice is the best time to fixate on technique. Everyone is probably going to come at this challenge from one side of the divide or the other: Every artist is going to either find it relatively easy to make generic art that everyone can appreciate but is soon forgotten, or to make weird art that few people enjoy but is extremely distinctive and perhaps offers something difficult to find elsewhere. For passionate creators, they’re probably going to start pursuing whichever one they perceive themselves to lack.

As hard as I work now to pursue an understanding of shared language, cultural norms, realism, and ‘polish’, others are surely working just as hard to define a unique voice, a look and sound, a bit of grit and identity. Perhaps we are working towards the same thing from different directions, some searching for a truth occluded while others for words to speak a truth perceived.

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Art is like clothing: It displays and it conceals at the same time. We open parts of ourselves to the world while closing off other parts, we express our self through artful concealment – projecting our light in certain particular ways; creating shadow puppets.

I often hear writing in particular, and art in general, discussed as an act of radical vulnerability, of pure honesty – opening up to the world in a pure and unfiltered way so that other people can engage most directly with your internal life. They say that to write is to reveal – and I think, like so many creative maxims, there is a bit of truth to it but that, but that it is incomplete. There is much of myself I’m not prepared to talk about in public: I don’t think that inherently makes me a worse writer or artist. There’s parts of my brain that I take care not to expose because the time isn’t right, the place isn’t right, because it makes me uncomfortable or because it’s inappropriate. I think that’s true of everyone to varying degrees, and artistic success is not reserved solely for those who manage to escape that gravity, to become emotional nudists. The aim of art, then, is not full exposure, but the careful decisions of what to expose, how much to expose, when to expose – and, conversely, what to conceal and how to conceal it.

That’s still not right, though, is it? That black and white balance suggests that concealment and exposure of the self are inherently in conflict, that we lift up a piece of our soul and choose to show or hide it based on the compositional needs of the work. I don’t think that’s actually the case. We are faceted – we have many faces. We wear many masks – and every mask serves a dual purpose, it both expresses a persona and conceals the face underneath. The act of choosing to express one aspect of our selves is also the act of choosing to conceal others.

“Write what you know”, they say. “Write with absolute honesty and openness”, they often say as well. Also, “Show, don’t tell”. These pat bits of advice are, again, scraping at a truth, but not wholly representing it. The truth is that absent care and attention it’s easy to end up on auto-pilot, mimicking other art, mindlessly copying styles and scenarios, because these are the things that are closest to the surface when we cast out the fishing lines of our imagination. These are just tricks to force you to Pay Attention. Writing what you know ensures that you have details and nuances at hand to work with, absolute honesty pushes you to access your own personality and opinion with care and attention. Showing, not telling forces you to think about the details of each scene instead of glossing over them* – and all of these work, but are really just ways of making sure that you’re actually thinking about what you’re doing and why, what each word and sentiment actually signifies, and aren’t on auto-pilot.

If your work is dishonest, if it’s misleading, then that’s fine: Mislead for a reason. If it’s truthful, that’s also fine: Decide what truth it is you want to tell. No matter what your intent is, whatever the end product is going to be is probably going to reveal something and conceal something. Art is a lie. Art is the truth. It’s not a contradiction, it’s a necessity of how we see the world, just from one angle at a time when infinite view-points are possible, two-dimensional minds occupying a three-dimensional space.

* As well as working to prevent structural analysis of culture, likely one of the reasons the Iowa Writer’s Workshop was funded by the CIA.

 

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I always come here to relax, too. The music is so peaceful, but there’s also this sense of loneliness that’s hard to put into words. Surrounded by people but still alone, beloved by all but still abandoned…

Do you know the story? Of the Chime Tree? I’ve seen you come here with your family to hang an offering from the branches, but it seems like no one remembers why we do it any more. We just do it because we’ve done it. And because the music sounds nice.

So: A long time ago, before this was a city, when it was just a port and a village, there was a monster. There used to be a lot more monsters back then. It walked on two legs and was as tall as three men and it was covered in long matted tufts of black hair. Some said it was a man that was left to die in the woods but instead grew there like mold, got bigger and more rotten, more in pain and more in anger. Wherever it came from, every week or two it would wander into town, moving with complete silence, and kill someone and drag them away into the forest. Maybe it ate them, but no bones were ever found. If anyone tried to stop it, with spears or fire, it would kill them too. Hunting parties went out to kill it and came back empty-handed and with fewer hunters with fewer limbs.

It’s remarkable what you can live with. Some towns have rivers where children drown and some have dangerous cliffs and some just have bad luck: We had a monster. Eventually, you just come to accept that you might get snatched by a hellish beast the same way you accept you might get stabbed in a bar fight. No one ever saw it coming, it just appeared from the darkness and grabbed you and took you away. Maybe it was a peaceful way to go. I hope so.

One day, though, one of the village lads got a clever idea into his head, and was stupid enough to be unable to forget this clever idea. He made a little bell, and he set out into the forest. It took him a few days, but eventually he found the monster standing in a clearing, staring off into the distance. It didn’t react, but stood there, making a quiet sound in between a moan and a howl. He was terrified, but as stealthily as he could he came up behind it and tied the bell into its hair. It stayed motionless, and didn’t move an inch even as he ran away as fast as his legs could take him.

Now, at least, there was some warning before the monster could claim someone. It didn’t really matter much, because it could still outrun anyone in the village, but it at least meant the fleet of foot had a chance to divert its attention to easier prey. And, after the young man returned, it became a sort of dare or rite of passage for other youths to tie a bell or chime to the monster. It turned out he needn’t have been stealthy at all: Clumsy youths fell and dropped handfuls of chimes around the monster, people yelled around it, all sorts of youthful chaos and enthusiasm happened around it, and it never reacted, except to keep making its quiet howling moan. A couple of idiots, forgetting what had happened to the hunters, tried to attack it, and they were killed, but the rest knew to let well enough alone – and tied more bells and chimes to it.

Overnight, it seemed, the monster had become a monument. The wind blew the chimes in its hair and made the forest around it seem so peaceful. We laughed and played and made love around it, and over time the attacks slowed down, to every month, to every two months, to once or twice a year… and then they stopped. It stood in the forest, listening to its chimes, and didn’t move an inch. Eventually it took root, and grew into a tree: This tree, the Chime Tree.

Over time, though, people forget. This tree became just another tree in a forest. Few people remembered it was ever there, or that it once stood and walked. There was a sense, particularly in the man who had tied the first bell, who was no longer young, who was older than I am now, of something forgotten, something important, but none could say what. Until, one day, the storm came, suddenly, moaning and howling, the wind ripping people up and away and off the streets. It lasted three days, dozens perished. After the first day, we were certain it would never end, that it was the end of the world. But it did. The old man, who man who tied the first chime, asked us to follow him, and we did, out to the forest, where most of the trees were flattened or stripped of branches except one, a weird twisted black tree, covered in the rusted remnants of bells and chimes, strings and clappers waving in the breeze. He hung his bell once more, and it rang in the wind.

We hang the chimes once a year. Maybe we’re scared of the monster still, somehow, but I think it’s more of a penance. How could we care for something and then abandon it? How could we adopt a monster, dress it in music, and then leave it to be alone again?

Even though the music is beautiful, the wind still moans and howls through the branches. This place is still a little bit sad and a little bit scary. But, like most things, if we care for it properly it will not hurt us.

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Game design is a trust exercise. The player has to be able to trust that the game designer’s decisions make sense, that when they take an action within the system the resultant reaction will make sense and be predictable. “Predictable” might sound overly constraining, but there’s a lot of room in between a “technically possible to predict” result and an “immediately obvious” result – that is, as long as the player can still generate a mental map of how state A became state B the system as a whole will seem trustworthy, even if they never in a million years could have predicted that state B would have been the result.

A good example of technically predictable design is Spelunky: Every object in the game interacts with every other object in mostly very simple ways. For instance, a rock, flung through the air, will damage anything in its path. While each interaction is, individually, very easy to understand, in aggregate, they become wildly unpredictable (while still being technically possible to predict). The rock might only fly through the air and do damage, but in so doing it might also knock out the yeti who falls on the landmine which blasts the rock back up into the sky which knocks down the UFO which falls on you and explodes and kills you. There’s a certain kind of satisfaction to dying to something so wildly improbable and byzantine but completely mechanically predictable.

If the player loses trust in the game design, though, everything in the game becomes suspect. A hilarious fluke may instead start to seem like a dirty trick. Goals no longer seem worth striving for because they could be snatched away. Failure seems arbitrary and no longer worth actively avoiding. The game becomes a gamble, with unknown odds and random payout.

I’ve recently been playing through an extensive Dark Souls mod called Daughters of Ash. There are a number of really interesting ideas contained within the mod, but it’s difficult to trust the decision-making behind it. Part of what made Dark Souls such a valuable experience when it came out was that it flouted a lot of the conventional rules of ‘good game design’ – sometimes it wasn’t clear what the game expected of you, movement was heavy and clumsy, and the story was distant and confusing, requiring careful attention to piece together. However, it established its own set of rules to replace these, rules which you learned through hard experience: Caution and exploration were rewarded, if you can see a place you can go there’s usually a worthwhile reason to go there, and if you pay careful attention then you can usually avoid traps and ambushes.

Unfortunately, while Daughters of Ash correctly perceives that Dark Souls broke many rules, it had little appreciation for the new rules created to replace them. Invisible traps, baffling cause and effect, huge detours and difficult acrobatics to get useless items – in the first place it’s harder to trust a mod than the game it was based on, and each decision like these just makes it even harder.

Trust isn’t uniquely important in the medium of games though. Trust is important in all forms of art. You have to be able to trust the painter for long enough to see the painting properly, to appreciate the forms and structure. You have to be able to trust a movie or TV series to be going somewhere, to have some sort of structure of intent and planned payoff. The recent wave of disappointment in the conclusion of the Game of Thrones series is an interesting example of what happens when you start to lose that trust. Retroactively, people start to regard earlier episodes less well, knowing that they don’t like where they end up, and decisions that people might otherwise be forgiving of are judged harshly knowing that there’s no longer any possibility of a long distant future payoff.

I find myself having a hard time trusting most media these days. There’s a few reasons for this. One is technique: There’s a lot of similarity of approach in most popular entertainment, and once you get acclimated to this you tend to see where each scene is going as soon as it starts. It’s hard to trust the artist to take you anywhere interesting when each step along the way seems rote. The other difficulty comes from my increased critical awareness of the tacit implications and arguments forwarded, often unconsciously, by popular art. The weight of the stories that center around a person who is usually some combination of lone genius, borderline abusive, incredibly wealthy, white, and male becomes crushing, the myth-making of a society that has become overtly and obviously cruel and unjust, creating heroes in the mold that coincidentally resembles those who benefit most from that society.

Thus I have become suspicious. I have lost trust. It sort of sucks, because it means that I can often only enjoy movies on a second viewing, only once I know there’s something worthwhile there. It means I avoid watching television or playing new games a lot because the sheer energy output it takes for me to enjoy things is so much higher now.

I don’t mind, though. I prefer this to naiveté. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing correctly – even if it’s harder to enjoy things, I can enjoy things in more different ways, on more different levels, now. It’s better to be aware, even if it’s more difficult. It’s not like trust is impossible, I just can no longer give it by default. The benefit of the doubt has eroded.

Perhaps trust was always meant to be precious. Do your best to earn it, and do your best to bestow it where it is deserved.

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Well I’ve finally gone and done it. I finally made myself a Patreon. Largely this is because they were about to change their payment structure in an unfavorable way and I wanted to sneak in before that deadline, but this is something I’ve wanted to try for a long time. I wrote a bit about the reasons why on the Patreon page. The fact of the matter is, I’ve put an awful lot of time and energy into this blog over the years and been extremely broke for pretty much all that time, so it feels worthwhile to see whether I can use fact A to resolve fact B.

But, more than that, I wanted to take this step because it’s very easy to stop taking steps and stand in place. It’s very easy to just not make something like a Patreon page, to never ask for anything, to never presume your work is worth anything, if you can survive without doing so. To me that has been the path of least resistance for a long time, to just quietly do work and ask for nothing, not even acknowledgement, in return, and to quietly hope that perhaps it will be of value to someone somewhere. Eventually, though, if you have something to say you have to start saying it loudly. Whispering gets so tiresome. If you’ve enjoyed my work here, I hope you’ll consider supporting me on this new endeavor.

For the most part, though, things are going to stay basically the same here: one post a week on various game and art-related topics. The only real difference is there’s now going to be a week’s delay between when I write new posts and when they come up here, since I’m giving each new micro-essay one week of exclusivity on the Patreon before it gets posted on the blog. Over time, as I get feedback and new ideas percolate, maybe I’ll make more changes. Who knows what the future will bring? As long as it’s something different than what the present is bringing.