Some Semblance of Sentience

Today I promise to bore the bejillikers out of a goodly percentage of readers, but I hope a few–those inclined to games and gamification, at least–will find some use for the prose below.  If you are averse to seeing a grown-ass man nerd out, you’ve probably come to the wrong place.

Recently I’ve returned to tabletop role-playing games after a hiatus of about eighteen decades, and my poison of choice this time around is a game called RuneQuest.  As systems go, it’s quite a bit different from the TSR Hobbies games I grew up on, and the folks I now game with are a different breed as well.  When I was a whelp I might dive into a prefab dungeon with a few friends, kill a few critters, and steal their stuff, but the folks I game with today run bona fide campaigns in fully-realized worlds, worlds invested with histories, mythologies, and multiple cultures.   The players are fully-formed as well, with careers and backstories,  passions and ambitions, vices and grudges, and allegiances to families, friends, and factions.  We might wind up killing critters and stealing their stuff, but we’ll do so as citizens of the milieu, and we’ll have to live with and live out the consequences.

The game design mirrors this deep, serious, organic sensibility.  The old games I played involved a handful of more or less static attributes, the acquisition of stuff, and the more or less linear improvement of expertise (and I’ll credit this primarily to the way we played, not to the systems themselves).  Fighters were strong, and as they killed critters and stole their stuff they got better at killing critters and gained access to a better class of stuff (with which they could kill tougher critters).  Magic-users used magic and, as they participated in the killing of critters, they learned new critter-killing spells.  Paladins spent most of their time being sanctimonious killjoys, and as they killed progressively tougher critters they became increasingly adept at killing joy as well.  RuneQuest, however, asks players to be far more conscious of and open to developmental possibilities, as very few fates are foreclosed to them–so long as they are willing to invest time and experience to realize those fates.

The old games I played had cumbersome, often exclusive mechanisms for multi-linear development.  (I understand they’ve changed quite a bit in subsequent editions, so please forgive the archaism of these dated impressions from my playing days.)  A nimble mage, for example, could learn to pick locks, but he would be obliged to table his magic to do so.  At day’s end, the player who wanted to become a half-fighter/half-cleric could learn both trades, but he’d be at a fairly serious disadvantage against those who’d simply pursued a single game vocation.  In RuneQuest, expressions of complexity occur on a localized scale, and why they might defer other sorts of development, they do not preclude them–though the narrative may.  If Chuck the Mage wants to learn to pick locks, he needs to spend some time in the game world fumbling with locks or hunt down someone willing to teach him.  If he’s prepared to make a significant initial investment, he can open up Lockpicking, but doing so diverts time and energy from  the development of other skills in the short term; continued investment will then allow him to improve his lockpicking incrementally, in very small steps, but he can develop his magic side by side with it.  It’s a much more fluid, organic process, and much more challenging to play.  And, for the purposes of a writer, far more valuable.

In the RuneQuest world, story drives the developmental engine.  Let’s draw up a provisional critter, Misty the Mystic.  In the character generation process Misty would need to explain how she came about her mysticism (which involves membership in a group that could teach her the requisite skills), and then she would need to invest an initial pool of developmental points augmenting the mystical tricks of the trade.  Since Misty does not live in a vacuum, she’d also need to invest in the qualities of her culture as well as the skills required by her profession.  (My character in the world is a courier, for example, so I invested my initial points in those skills that would make me geographically and culturally familiar with the area in which I normally make my deliveries.)  From there, Misty can flesh out her existence however she likes.  The most material constraint on what she can do, however, is interaction within the milieu.  If she decides she wants to master a very specialized skill that a Mystic does not natively learn, for example (such as lockpicking, trading, or seafaring), she’d have to connect with an individual or group that already knows how to do what she wishes to learn to do and then earn their trust and tutelage.  With access to training, she’d then need to diversify the experience she earned over the course of her adventures, using some to beef up her mystical skills and some to beef up those skills she chose to open.  If she wished–and if she spent a great deal of time in the world cultivating the connections, fathoming magical mysteries, and investing the necessary experience–she could even gain expertise in a brand new sorcerous tradition (which might be commensurate to a .  There’s calculation to be done along the way, since opening up a new skill merely gives a player a modest chance (around 25% on average) of succeeding at a new endeavor, while deep investment could make our Misty really, really good at her mystical business.  It’s all up to the player’s ambitions.

Or, better still, it’s all up to the character’s ambitions.  That’s perhaps the most important lesson I’m learning, and one that’s of greatest utility for a writer.  (It helps that I began playing RuneQuest while teaching Stephen King’s On Writing, in which he glosses how an author’s initial sense of a character might be erroneous.)  As a player, one with a growing familiarity with the game mechanics, I have begun to discover how one might best take advantage of the features of the system.  All the skills one might open up, for example, are expressed as percentages, and if one joins a brotherhood or sisterhood in the game and develops several skills valued by the group to 50%, 70%, 0r 90% expertise, one can unlock useful, powerful features of membership.  Misty the Mystic, for example, might invest a great deal of energy and effort in serving her cult of fellow mystics and, by improving her cult skills determinedly, could learn to penetrate illusions or see the future, mystical abilities safeguarded by members of higher rank.  If she wanted, she could be extremely purposeful and tactical about development, allocating just enough effort to each required skill to reach the needful percentile threshold.  It’s a legitimate way to play the game, but it’s one I’m trying to understand and resist this time around.

Rather than imagining how to best empower my courier via the RuneQuest mechanics, I’m trying to imagine–given his personal history, attitudes, and alliance to a syndicate of city spies in the service of the throne–what he would do to better serve his own interests.  With a focused effort I could develop a pair of skills (one is at 48%, one is newly opened) and get them up to 50% in a matter of months; those improved skills, when coupled with existing skills already over 50%, would allow me to access some pretty nifty spy syndicate benefits.  Serious reflection on my courier’s qualities of character, however, suggest that he’d prioritize other avenues of growth.  He’ll profit from this growth, of course, but as a living, breathing being, not as a collection of percentages.  What the courier needs and, by extension, what the group he belongs to needs, call for a more responsive, more lived arc of development.

Giving the story over to the character, insofar as doing so is possible, is hard imaginative work.  It goes against the grain of my will to efficiency (which would normally spur me to maximize gameplay benefits) as well as my obsessive-compulsive tendencies (which would normally prompt me to develop a wide array of skills as evenly as possible, so that I am left with no glaring vulnerability in any area).  But it is teaching me to give the reins over to the courier, to take his volition and sentience seriously, to subordinate all other developmental motives to the elaboration of his story.  It’s a tough tale to tell, but nice work if you can get it.

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Severance Pays

Last night, shortly after The Witching Hour, I rounded a cognitive corner.  I lay awake in bed, fascinated by the auditory qualities of my newish humidifier (face toward it and it sounds quite like rain on the roof, face away from it and it sounds generically gurglesome, face the ceiling and it sounds like wet whispering), meditating on the psychology in Hannibal, reflecting on Carl Phillips’s Riding Westward, and scripting my Thursday.  These are things one might do, at least on Wednesdays.

This particular Wednesday was a little different, however, insofar as I received a rejection notice for a poetry manuscript I submitted long ago earlier in the afternoon.  It was not a surprise; I had expected that notice for quite some time.  In fact, it was something of a relief, for I feared the manuscript had been pixelspindled in an electronic submission manager, and the rejection spared me the awkwardness of having to write the editors a letter of inquiry.  The sting was minimal, but the notice was surely somewhere in the subliminal mix underneath all the casual conscious processing.

Because I am not especially nostalgic, I shunted the file for the collection into another, more general folder of past projects, since the content in the collection is a little dated and it’s certainly time to move on from it.  Because I am terribly nostalgic, I took a little time to read through the poems I’d included, remembering the work of composition and assembly by which the collection came to be.  I can’t disinterestedly speak to the quality of the verse, of course, nor can I speak to the cohesiveness of the whole.  Change is perpetually possible when it comes to writing, and I’m sure that I’d revise and rejigger even the better bits if I intended to put the manuscript back into circulation.

The decision not to revise and resubmit the manuscript, however, has apparently cleared out a great deal of space in my brainpan.  I’ll certainly cannibalize the collection–I’ve been watching a lot of Hannibal, after all–but any pieces I opt to reclaim will be salvaged in the service of Something New.  The rejection has allowed me in effect to disconnect an old cathexis, one that’s been drawing existential current from my Wandlessence since 2013 or so.  Like most folks, I have plenty of longstanding cathexes–stuff I revisit daily and gladly, even when the memories are bittersweet, stuff that will float around my frontal lobe until the cerebrospinal well runs dry–but the collection to my thinking belongs to an outdated repository of possibilities, one that’s no longer viable.  As an investment of Wandlessian wattage, it’s a plug that needed pulling.

I realized that I had rounded that corner in the same way one generally realizes one has rounded a corner:  I could still hear the old sounds, those wet whispers, but new objects entered my field of vision.  I jotted down a few notes concerning a notion that occurred to me, and I waited for morning, that I might give them a second look in better light.

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Deference and Reference

Every now and again, especially during rotten weekends like this one, I like to dive into my file of forgotten and/or misbegotten short stories to see if there’s anything in there worth salvaging or cannibalizing.  I often come up empty, but the delving does me good.

The story I plucked from the file this time around is a fine representative of my earliest efforts at fiction.  I can still vividly picture the protagonist, a burly amnesiac squeezed into clothes a size too small (for reasons, I tell you, reasons!), and I can still lay out the major plot beats onetwothreefour justlikethat.  That particular draft, however, was (shall we say) overwritten; I say “overwritten” in kindness, in case the author should chance by the blog someday, poor mixed-up kid that he is/was/isapttobe.

The errors I made are both understandable and egregious, given the benefit of hindsight.  The dialogue was exhaustive, making sure every facet of the mystery was rotated before the reader’s eyes, and this despite an economy of context, one that I thought suited the interrogative necessities of the situation relatively well.  This, in short, means that my two leads were all sortsa talky, and that the space they occupied could have been just about any space in the known cosmos.  Even now, however, there’s a bit of charm in the interaction of my two principals, a real spark–perhaps the unavoidable result of rubbing two bone-dry pieces of kindling together for close to 10,000 words.  Quite a few of my stories from this early era are staged in this way:  two or more folks consulting with one another, trying to make sense of some bizarre set of circumstances.

In retrospect, it’s no surprise that the first pieces I published tended to be soliloquies and dramatic monologues in effect, found testaments from those who had met with gruesome fates or taunting letters sent from beyond the grave.  (I’m still quite enamored of that mode; I stage derangement well.)  Those stories allowed me to play to a different set of skills, while discriminating dialogue and context-building took me a little more time to develop.  Soon after, however, a host of variations followed; once I could throw a single voice with some measure of effectiveness, I found I could throw many voices, sometimes in the same direction.

The old amnesiac is probably beyond salvaging.  What struck me as a subject deserving of 10,000 words way back when really has about 750 words of story in it.  The premise is not especially novel, the dialogue is labored, the prose indefensibly dense.  I’m very glad I had the chance to meet him, though.  He might have been a mediocre character, but he proved to be an excellent character reference.

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All Roads

For the past several weeks (predating Christmas, actually, if the born-on date may be believed) I’ve been chipping away at a poem.  I finished it just a few days ago.  It’s not a monstrous thing (just twenty lines, all told), but it involved a problematic process of composition.

I originally sought to describe a common procedure in this post, to explain how a project normally unfolds.  I’ll begin with a situation (I planned to say) and, given the point of view, characters, and setting, see where that situation takes me.  It’s a premise Stephen King describes in On Writing, and it’s extremely generative and often surprising.  Endow a character with enough history and agency and she’s apt to do things you didn’t anticipate.  When I examined my own practice, however, I realized there’s nothing common or normal I can refer to as Standard Wandlessian Procedure.  I come at projects in a dozen different ways, some more challenging than others.

The recent poem was difficult because it had a beginning and an ending from the get-go; I knew the pairing belonged together, and I had to develop a line that would travel the distance between those two points in an engaging way.  Sometimes, however, I’ll have only an ending in mind and no sense of where or how to start; sometimes I begin at a beginning and have to trust that I’m writing my way toward someplace worth going.  Sometimes I use the situational procedure described above, which is a great head filler.  (When I exercise in the morning, especially if the activity is essentially automatic, I’ll think about characters, the lives they’ve lived, and the way they might respond to various developments.)  In the case of some poems, I’ll begin with a well-crafted, satisfying line, even if I have no idea where it will appear in the poem it belongs to.  Sometimes, especially in the case of short stories, I’ll combine two superficially unrelated ideas and see what happens at the site of the collision.  All these methods (and others) work, but each involves a different set of demands.

The next two projects I plan to tackle appear to be hybrid types.  The first, a short story, originated in a context, developed an ending, and gave birth to corresponding characters, yet the elaboration of those characters in my imagination has yielded changes to the context and ending I hadn’t anticipated.  In my first crack at a draft, for example, the protagonist adopted a stray dog, but as I began to understand the father figure in the story I realized that he would never let her adopt a stray.  With adoption off the table, I had to consider the other ways she might come into contact with that dog and map out probable responses from the father.  That may sound like banal business, but the story has become denser and more intense as a result.  The second, a poem, involves a seriocomic inversion of method:  an image occurred to me, and that image gave rise to a corresponding premise, but as I considered the image in light of that premise I knew it no longer belonged–the premise was electric, but the image was weak.  Instead of having brushstrokes to build on, I’ve now got a concept and a blank canvas.  It will involve a different kind of composition.

Perhaps three years ago I would have tabled these projects, turning instead to options with a clearer sense of procedural predictability. This time around, with a stronger commitment to completion, I’m going to go where these roads lead me, by whatever means they seem to require.

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Menagerie Management 101

The spring semester has begun, and I am making an earnest effort to get all my proverbial and professional ducks in a row.  Alas, I fear that duck alignment may not be be my strong suit.

The chief challenge, one that trips me up more often than I care to admit, is contingency.  When I am at my most effective, I attend to the obligations that fall to me unhesitatingly, almost automatically.  This Sunday, for example, I did a great deal of reading, created a Powerpoint presentation, threw in some laundry, oiled the chain on my rowing machine, purchased a few DVDs for use in class, and took care of a bunch of other stuff.   That’s by no means a sprawling catalog of major humanoid achievements, but what’s important is that I tackled each job the moment it occurred to me.  When you pile up such tacklings over time, stuff gets done.

It’s not an impeccable method (the Powerpoint I assembled, for example, may not be critical, but it struck me as useful, and so it got itself did), but it’s a solid, self-consistent one.  One of my ambitions this year is to focus on and deal with all those things that fall to me without worrying too much about the stuff that doesn’t.  I mentioned this in passing to a colleague not long ago, and he likened it to my own variation on the Serenity Prayer.  To my thinking, however, serenity has nothing to do with it–I don’t care if I work placidly or angrily, so long as the stuff I want to do gets done.  Courage, acceptance, and wisdom are fine ambitions; I’ll leave them to better people.  My own bar is set much lower.

Contingency, however, is inevitable, assuming I wish to leave the house or read my email.  People need stuff, and I’m disposed to provide it if I can.  The needs are not as various or as many as they were during my administrative stint, but they still involve  extra exertion, a divestment of energy I’d rather devote to the doing of personal/professional stuffs.  I am, alas, a pretty intense investor when it comes to my cathexes.  (Someday, when you’re all a bit older, I’ll tell you about my unholy fixation on opera cake and how my thwarted desire prompted me to destroy an entire bakery with my mind.)  If I’m willing to put myself on the hook for someone or something–taking some initial step and asking them to take the second so that I might take the third–then I’m in it.  I’ve gotten somewhat better at resisting the urge to overstir (sending follow-up emails, for example, when that second step is still pending after a few days), but I will keep checking to make sure I’m ready to do my bit the moment my turn arrives.  It is, I know, a pointless practice, but I suspect it’s bound up in some essential of my identity.  I conceive of myself as a caretaker, as a fairly reliable critter in a fairly unreliable world, and for that reason I probably overinvest in my portion of the proceedings, whatever they might be.  Those pieces fall to me, after all.

How does this bear on writing? (I’m glad you asked–this post was going nowhere until you came along.)  The same get-stuff-done impulse is, when it comes to writing, a peculiar problem.  The diligent, assiduous facet of the Wandlessian self is pretty good at tackling complex obligations, so I can task myself with a sestina or a story with weird engineering and get it done, given world enough and time.  That facet, however, does not eclipse all the others, so the generative, creative facet is still bursting into the boardroom of my brain, pitching ideas with an enthusiasm that’s hard to resist.  The get-stuff-done impulse is not a great deal of help when multiple, equally-appealing stuffs line up in the cognitive queue.  Diligent Bill understands that the Flamingo of Fecundity is is among the lovelier bêtes noires to have in the mental menagerie, but the temptation to tend to her is one he needs to resist.

Ultimately, if I wish to get stuff done, the same principle that informs my housekeeping habits also needs to inform my menagerie management:  one cage at a time.

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The Force

Most of the time when one sits down to the keyboard, one knows in advance what one will type.  This is not one of those occasions.

The inspiration for this post, if inspiration is a fair name for it, is twofold.  First, I have not posted a thing since December 31st, which suggests that the time to post a thing has come (or passed, or nearly arrived).  Second, I am attempting to adopt better, more regular work habits, which means that sometimes I will need to forgo the pleasures of inspiration and simply make prose happen.  It mayn’t be pretty, but I assure you, it’s necessary.

Inspiration–which to my thinking combines a creative prompting with a corresponding felicity of execution–is on most occasions a consequential artifice.  When we are ready to write (when an idea has been formulated, thought through to some degree, and some of the conventional problems of where and how to start have been resolved), then the writing comes easy, or seems to.  When we are less prepared, we may have to turn to gruntwork, whatever keeps the keys a-clicking.

When I’m writing poetry, the gruntwork normally involves trying out lines for sound and sense, building on and around whatever images I’ve already committed to pixels.  (For a variety of reasons I think these uninspired stretches are a bad time to revise; if I’ve only got a few lines more or less polished, I’m apt to rethink and refine them so much that they get disconnected from the impulse that got me started off.)  That process is not apt to yield fully realized verse, but it may leave me with new images or language I can hammer out later.  It prevents me from starting from the same sticking point day after day.  Prose is a little easier, insofar as revision-as-expansion is an option on the table.  I avoid trimming and whittling at such junctures, but if I think I can augment what I’ve got by adding depth, dimension, and detail, that seems like a fair and wise use of my writing time. If I’m writing my way toward a known (or guessed-at) ending, I can at least line up some of the incidents I’ll need to arrive at that destination; if I’m writing based on a situation–if I have a notion, a character, and little else–then the gruntwork is a little chancier.

I’ll exemplify, because there’s no lack of situations I’ve yet to develop.  Here’s a pitch from my monstrous File of Unwritten Things:  a story called “No Outlet.”  All I know at this juncture is that the story will feature a twentysomething heading home (or elsewhere?) on a late-night drive, that he or she will take an exit ramp off a highway, and that something will ensue.  That’s not much to go on, I know, and it smacks a bit of Sartre’s No Exit, which could be problematic or profitable.  Were I to start on it tonight I’d probably need to do a bit of research, since I don’t think the signage I have in mind actually occurs all that often in highway contexts.  I’d also need to do some mulling, since our era of technowizardry might make the premise of sketchy mapping rather quaint.  The opening incident is an actual one, however, and potentially promising:  I was once awakened (as a passenger, I should probably note) by a panicked driver who was pulling off the highway to get gas but in doing so spotted a sign that implied we could not return to the highway…ever.  I am vaguely persuaded that such signs exist (in rare cases when the off ramp is in one place, for example, with no mirror-image ramp to get back on a given highway), but if they don’t, I could shift contexts without much trouble.  Getting a story like that started strikes me as manageable: a lone driver spots the sign, or a passenger is awakened by the anxious driver, who fears he’s about to make a major mistake.  The bigger question is, of course, what happens next?

If I were working on a novel, there’s all sorts of flesh I might stick to those bones.  In a short story, however–and that’s how I envision this project, an intuition I’ll trust for the time being–the need to arrive at some sort of happening in 5000 words or less makes the gruntwork much more troublesome.  I can’t just start adding description and character features willy-nilly.  Anything I opt to include needs to add up in a hurry to produce the payoff, to give the reader something fully realized and complete.  Any forcing of the story I do is apt to be experimental, leading me down avenues which might (ironically enough) prove to be dead ends.  A good line of verse that pops up in the wrong poem can always be salvaged and set aside; a thousand words of prose that don’t tend toward a satisfying end are far more difficult to repurpose.  With short fiction the gruntwork might well produce a complete draft, however, one that might be set aside and revisited down the road.  That, I think, is far better than an unstarted project, much as these 871 words are far better than the blog post I never attempted.

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Make It New

Here we are, on the brink of 2015, and the festivities have begun in good earnest here at Wrackwell Abbey.  I’m halfway through my first mug of cocoa, and I may have a second.  This is why I’m apt to wake in the backyard on New Year’s Day, splayed out among the unraked leaves and miniature marshmallows.

According to my watch it’s resolution o’clock, or else it’s pointedly-note-that-resolutions- are-bunkum o’clock, depending on your time zone and/or denomination.  No matter how one approaches such determinations, however, most folks do consider the arrival of a new calendar year as a call to plan and prepare, to set their sights on objectives great and small and head out toward them.  It’s a fine trick of time, that sense of anticipation that attends a satisfyingly sharp demarcation, a feeling that “something ere the end,/ some work of noble note, may yet be done.”

Can we really make it new, in a substantive, meaningful way?  Probably not, but I offer that sentiment in the least cynical sense possible.  When Ezra Pound urged his Modern comrades to “make it new” he was himself just pilfering a good idea from an old source, and when we attempt to effect change in our lives we tend to renovate the self in similar ways, authoring new biographical arcs with phrases we already have on hand.  What’s new, or at least newish, is our way of orienting our reflections on the materials of life.  We take a look at where we are and where we’d like to be in the coming year, then we see what we have on board that will make the journey possible, what we’ll need to leave behind if we want to make good time, or what we lack and we’ll need to pick up on the road.  The success of the enterprise generally depends on the frankness with which we take stock and identify needs and superfluities.  That’s doubly true when the journey ahead seems long but we’ve gone too far to turn back.  (Road metaphors are sobering like that.)

The not-very-cynical sense of the sentiment arises from an awareness that what we have, need, or wish to leave behind are all products of perspective and self-determination.  The same person who resolved to eat more home-cooked meals in 2014, for instance, might build on the aptitudes acquired over that stretch in several ways, finding ways to cook better, to trim the bills, or to lose weight.  Rather than starting from scratch we instead only need to consider what we think we are and think we can do in a new light.  Then we can act on what we believe.  Like the good book says, “Time is the mind, the hand that makes”:  the conceptual gives way to the instrumental, and intentions yield behaviors.

It’s not the newness itself, but the making that matters.

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