Posts Tagged ‘Ramblings’

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Run, And Find Out.

June 11, 2011

“[Tell Science Stories] about nature that are true and complex… but still have the power to enthrall, to excite, to remind people there is a deep and many leveled beauty in the world”

In that vein, let’s start with a story.

Two years ago, I was working as a substitute primary school teacher. On this particular day, I was teaching 3rd Class (8-9 year olds.) I found some time, later in the day, when the work their teacher had left them was done. So I looked at their Science books, and discovered that they had yet to do a science lesson. (3rd class is the first class where Science is its own subject.)

As I flicked through the first few lessons, my eye fell on the lesson which demonstrated that sound could travel through solid objects. Somewhere in the depths of my memory, something flickered. Had this been my first Science Experiment in primary school, 16 years ago? I remembered saying something belligerent, and insisting that I be the one allowed to go outside to verify the results. Sound through solid objects, I thought? Nonsense! I won’t believe it, until I hear it!

So I began, outlining in the simplest terms that sound travels from (for example) the teacher’s mouth to the childrens’ ears. No talk of wavelengths, or even vibrations. That wasn’t the point of this lesson. The point was the question.

“Do you think that sound can only travel through air? Can it travel through solid things, like the walls, or the desks? Hands up who thinks it can?”

The class was evenly divided. Not, as I had expected, along lines of ability, or curiosity, or history of reading. The division seemed random, each child forming their own opinion from their own past experience. I banged my fist against a desk in demonstration. It got their attention. “So,” I asked “When I banged my fist on the desk, the sound travelling from here to your ears?” I mimed a line of sound travelling from the point of impact, through the air to their ears. “No sound travelled through the desk itself?” I asked one boy to put his ear to the other side of the desk. As he did so, I spoke about how Native Americans tracked the movement of herd animals by putting their ears to the ground. Then, I banged my fist against the table again, and the boy’s head flew up in surprise.

“Wooooooah.” He exclaimed, putting Keanu Reeves to shame. “That was waaay louder than before!!!” Surprise to excitement in a moment. And there it was. A moment of wonder and discovery as his idea of the universe’s workings shifted. The other children saw that look of wonder, and mirrored it. Without warning, the classroom descended into chaos, with children placing their ears against desks and urging their neighbours to bang their fists against it. Laughter and gasps filled the room.

What happens to that wonder? It gets trained out of children. In a few short years, getting that enthusiastic about knowing and discovering is going to social poison to them. Some will simply keep their enthusiasm quiet, waiting for a time when they can go to college and surround themselves with other people who managed to retain their passion for science and knowledge. Most won’t. Most will find themselves with a slightly anti-science attitude, one of apathetic avoidance rather than outright rancor.

The Anti-Science Narrative isn’t a monolithic tract that creates extremist anti-science activists. Like so many similar stories, it is told in the form of isolated fragments. Each of the statements above will act on People in isolation, the words creating a collage of ideas never explicitly linked up into an Idea, but rather creating an implicit social context that reinforces a grand story that has never been expressed as such. The same is largely true of sexism and racism. The narrative isn’t presented to us as a manifesto, but rather as a collection of little pieces that don’t seem too bad alone, but thanks to our minds’ ability to pattern form unconsciously, we end up with a tapestry woven from these threads without realizing we’ve done it. Scientists (and other rational minded sorts) find ourselves constantly arguing against the irrational beliefs held by others. Homeopathy, prejudice, conspiracy theorists… the list is long. We try to change minds with facts. Surely, we think, that should be enough to win the argument. We go away shaking our heads in disbelief, knowing we were right and failing to understand how people can be quite so irrational.

It’s because irrationality has the Bigger Story. It has many threads that twist throughout popular culture and everyday discourse. Scientists are cold. Scientists are amoral. Scientists change their minds all the time, you can’t trust what they say. It’s only a theory. Gut instinct is a valid reason to do something. Scientists are uncool. Scientists are arrogant elitists who look down on “normal people.” People would rather elect someone who seems “folksy” than someone who seems “smart.” Scientists dabble in things Man Is Not Meant To Know and the result will be terrible Horror Movie Gene Spliced Monsters or conquest of mankind by Talking Apes.

That story is out there, and there is one way to beat a story.

Tell a better one.

 

Communicating the facts is vital, no doubt.. Lots of people change their behaviour based on facts. But there are those who don’t. There are those who reject science as a wordview because they see it as Cold. They see it as actively removing beauty from the world by a process of reduction, of breaking down the world into its elemental constituents without a care for the breathtaking majesty of the whole. And sometimes, even we scientists forget that this isn’t true. We reject metaphor and symbol as the weapons of the irrational, and get far too literal minded. To steal from Alan Moore: “We distance ourselves increasingly from the marvelous and spell binding planet of imagination whose gravity drew us to our studies in the first place”

Science has a gloriously beautiful story to tell. It’s not a story about a Grand Design perfectly executed, but rather the improv jazz masterwork of a quartet of Weak Force, Strong Force, Gravity, and Electromagnetism. It’s a story about subatomic particles dancing to that tune and building conga-lines of Carbon that started making more of themselves, mass producing the sheet music of life . It’s about Sex and Death, and how they let each new organism put their own ragtime riff on the genome they were born with. It’s a story about how one of these animals realized that they realized and started passing information to the next generation without the use of bodily fluids and starting building our own symbols with scratches on cave walls and arbitrary shapings of sound. It’s a story about layer upon layer of emerging complexity that defies any one mind to understand it. It’s a story about thousands of great minds giving their life’s work to perfecting their own tiny slice of human knowledge, hoping that someday, our picture of reality will fall together, and be beautiful all the way down.It’s a story about a children experiencing the wonder of discovery .

 

The story we need to tell of science isn’t one about how it’s right. The story we need to tell about science is one about how the scientific picture of the world is more breathtaking and beautiful that one with willful gaps in it. It’s a story that speaks to the curiousity and wonder we all come into the world with, and it needs to be told to those who haven’t had it trained out of them yet, and to the ones who still have it lurking in their memory. Changing the course of a story as told by a whole society is a terribly difficult task, but it starts with a few people telling a better story, moving one or two people ever so slightly. One story is not enough to overcome the inertia of society. It would take millions of little stories of wonder to do that. But science gives us no lack of source material.

 

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“Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtaxed.”

May 10, 2011

I have a bit of a bugbear about how “insanity” is written in a lot of fiction, in particular in popular fiction (regardless of the medium, but TV/Movies are the worst offenders, since they don’t tend to provide any kind of internal monologue, and thus rely on behaviour to communicate “insanity”) I have a lot of problems with “insanity” as a concept, which sets up a feedback loop. I disagree with how people think about insanity, so the portrayal of it as such annoys me, and the portrayal further feeds into those erroneous ideas in the popular consciousness.

In popular discourse, the words “insanity” or “insane” (or other synonyms) are used to indicate that a character has gone “out of his mind.” They’re not simply “mentally ill,” or a “eccentric” but rather have crossed some imaginary line which places them into another category – one which labels the character as fundamentally different in his way of thinking than everyone else. Insane characters say, believe, and do things that are in no way based on the reality that every other character shares. More often than not, a “diagnosis” (I’m getting a lot of use out of quotation marks today) of schizophrenia (or a subtype) is mentioned.

A characters’ schizophrenia generally manifests as either lighty comic, with characters spouting chuckle-worthy nonsense in the vein of “Crazies say the Darndest Things.” Not a great start. More often, however, insanity is portrayed as something sinister and dangerous. This is understandable to a point – that which we don’t understand is scary, and it’s very hard to understand a person whose motivations are based on a reality that is not the same (or similar) to yours.

In particular, insane characters are generally portrayed as prone to violent outbursts.

Some real data: (From http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19668362)

Schizophrenia and other psychoses are associated with violence and violent offending, particularly homicide. However, most of the excess risk appears to be mediated by substance abuse comorbidity. The risk in these patients with comorbidity is similar to that for substance abuse without psychosis. Public health strategies for violence reduction could consider focusing on the primary and secondary prevention of substance abuse.  (Emphasis mine)

That is to say, the drunk/ drug using guy is as dangerous as the schizophrenia patient.

And despite these comic-mocking or fear-mongering portrayals of insanity, we get one other facet of insanity in popular fiction – Truth-Seers. In particular in genre fiction where psychic phenomena or supernatural forces are at work, the insane are portrayed as seeing something we don’t. Except for one problem. Vindication that what that character has been “hallucinating” is actually real is usually enough to provoke a significant improvement in their mental health overnight. They weren’t crazy, you see, just misunderstood. Like I said earlier, true insanity involves crossing an arbitrary line that divides you from everyone else. Once it’s established that their reality is real, they can’t really be insane, can they?

The foregoing is one of the reasons I’m really enjoying Fringe. I watched the pilot long ago, and it didn’t grab me – I thought that, in Walter, we were getting another Savant/Miraculous Cure type insane character. But when I persisted, I was pleasantly surprised. Or perhaps pleasantly is a poor choice of words…

Walter’s “insanity” (indeed, they rarely use that word) is portrayed in a way that is both tragic and human. . I wasn’t expecting there to be this kind of treatment of insanity in a show so obviously billed as a “mad science” show. Which it is, and there are certainly plenty of moments in which Walter gets very excited about a morally ambiguous or outright bizarre experiment. (Which, to be honest, I find more endearing than threatening. Because science is exciting.)  There are moments of comedy, and there are moments of threat, but at the heart of it, Walter is a sympathetic character.

Walter is evidently a very, very intelligent man, but the damage to his mental health has left him unable to properly care for himself, and perhaps more tragically, barely able to remember things he once grasped so easily. The Walter Bishop we come to know is, intellectually, a shadow of his former self – and this must be particularly devastating for a man who made his intellect and rationality a pillar of his own self-image. The joy he feels (and intellect he demonstrates) when he starts to understand an event or sees something fascinating and new to investigate is heavily contrasted with his sadness and embarrassment at his problems with basic functioning. His obsession with food and narcotics, while often funny, still has a shroud of pathos over it – each slip into a food conversation during something important is another example of his mind betraying him.

What I really enjoy, however, is the portrayal of the journey back from the rock bottom we first encountered him at. Despite being removed from St. Claire’s, despite his theories being frequently proved correct, despite being reunited with his son, there is no miraculous fix. The road to self reliance is long and tortured, and as sad as hell when you see him stumble. But there is progress. Insanity/Sanity is not portrayed as line that is only crossable in one direction, or even as a binary state. It is a continuum, one which you can move along in either direction (though it is tragically easier to go one way than the other. Overwriting old behaviour and thinking is far harder than acquiring it in the first place.)

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It’s a Scream, Baby

April 21, 2011

I’m on a bit of a horror movie kick at the moment, and no horror binge is quite complete without the Scream movies. In this case, they were what kicked off the whole thing. After all, Scream 4 is opening today, and despite my usual reservations about any sequel after a third movie, I find myself being quite hopeful for Scream 4. So a rewatch of the trilogy was in order.

And I’ve been left with one thing rattling around in my head – what is Scream 4 going to be about?

Spoilers (for Scream 1 – 3.) below. You’ve been warned. But you’ve watched them already, right? Also, I haven’t seen Scream 4 yet, so no spoilers for that in the comments please…  

Any good horror movie is about more than just jumps, gore, and making the audience squirm. A good horror movie needs to do that too – and some are so good at it you forgive their lack of any real depth. But the vast majority of horror movies that are merely that aren’t actually all that good at it – and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. For a horror movie to really be able to scare the audience, it has to tap into something bigger than visual nasties. It needs to have a subtext that touches on something we fear, as individuals or a society.

Scream, as a series, was about making a lot of that implicit meaning explicit. It’s most famous for making “The Rules” explicit, and moving them into the mainstream pop culture sphere. But there was a little more to them than that.

There are a number of themes that run through all three Scream films. One of the main ones is about violence in the media, and how that has effected “the young people.” On one hand, the movies seem to be warning about a wave of desensitization (Quoth the Fonz “You desensitized little shits!”) The kids in Scream organize a party to celebrate days off they got because two of their classmates died. They drive off to celebrate the murder of their principal. In Scream 2, a murder happens right in front of a cinema crowd who are already baying for on-screen blood and glorifying the villain.

Glorifying the Villain is something that Wes Craven has commented on before, most explicitly in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare – which has a lot of similar ideas to the Scream trilogy. (And is really, really worth a watch, but watch the original first.) In New Nightmare, Wes (as himself) comments that in the sequels to Nightmare, Freddy Krueger became less and less dark, and ended up being the character that you were rooting for. Especially since the victims were always cardboard cut outs. And this is why he has the power to push his way back into the world in New Nightmare – because the audience had forgotten the true horror of him, because the truly horrific story wasn’t being told. In the Scream the public glorify the killer and wear his face (the pranking kids in Scream 1, the “Stab” audiences in the sequels) which makes it all the easier for the various Ghostfaces to stalk their targets. Also, you’ve got Gail Weathers, who takes terrible things and spins them into bestsellers, and the movie producers who turn it into a profitable franchise. The media, as the agent of desensitization/glorification, could be seen as responsible.

In addition to that, the killers themselves don’t truly realise the evil of the acts they are committing – [Billy’s Partner], [Billy’s Mom’s Partner], and Roman all think of their acts as “making a movie” in some way or another, as if their actions are guided only by narrative rules. (The Lumis’ have more traditional motives of revenge, and Roman also has a real motive; he combines into one character what the other movies had two characters for. Because we were expecting two killers at that point, after all.)

All of this could make it seem like Scream, as a trilogy, was a parable about the evil influence of the media, desensitizing our kids and glorifying our worst urges. However, our heroine, Sidney Prescott, refutes this notion strongly in all three final confrontations – in particular in the third installment, where she opines “take some fucking responsibility for your actions.” When all fingers seem to be pointing at media fed desensitization and villain glorification, Sidney breaks it down for us – No-one’s responsible for murder except for murderers. Blaming the media and desensitization just gives the murderers an excuse for what they’ve done (see Scream 2.)

Given the prevalence of this theme in the Trilogy, it would be hard to imagine it not rearing its head in Scream 4. Horror movies aren’t the bogey-man any more in that debate (Grand Theft Auto may have stolen that crown,) but the basic themes remain. And then there’s the internet. Communication technology has changed utterly since Scream 1 (“What are you doing with a cellular telephone, young man?”) and I’m sure Scream 4 will be making use of that. I fully expect there’ll be a good amount of social networking involvement. I’m also predicting that the killings will be broadcast on YouTube. (Or equivalent.)

The original trilogy draws heavily on classic horror movie themes and references to articulate “the rules.” I can’t imagine someone writing Scream 4 and not using it as a platform to reference and commentate on horror movies in the last ten years.

Mainstream horror in the past decade has mostly been about sequels (The unkillable Saw franchise, most obviously,) remakes (Halloween, Nightmare, Friday the 13th,) prequels (Texas Chainsaw and the Exorcist) and imports.(Lots of J Horror, and a smattering of others) Not a lot of novel horror films made the mainstream.  I’m expecting that Ghostface will be trying to “reboot” the franchise in Scream 4, recreate the first story all over again, possibly with Sidney not actually being the main target (someone new has to play the heroine in the reboot.)

Aside from remakes/homages/reboots/prequels/sequels, the other thing that stands out about contemporary horror is the “horror porn” genre. Gratuitous violence for no purpose other than making the audience squirm in their seats. To an extent, this potentially extends the “desensitization” theme of the original trilogy, with audiences now baying for not only blood but suffering on their screens.

Finally… what are the rules of the fourth movie in a series?

By the time a 4th movie rolls around, the focus is usually on the villain. It was the 4th Nightmare on Elm Street where we learn about Freddy’s birth. Saw IV is all about “understanding” Jigsaw. The villain focus also results in villains whose capabilities become even more superhuman – To take Jigsaw as an example, by Saw IV he seems to be able to predict human behaviour with ludicrous precision.

That said, Scream 3 already did the backstory retcon where we saw who “birthed” Ghostface. So that ground has been trodden, and furthermore, Sidney’s actually still in the movie. This is pretty much unprecedented: That the original protagonist is still involved in the story by the 4th movie. The villain is usually the only source of continuity, which is usually why it become all about them as the numbers get higher… so perhaps we won’t see that in Scream 4. Scream has a tendency to appear to follow the rules to the letter in the first two acts, then subvert them in the final act.

So, quick capsule predictions:

1)     Killings on Youtube.

2)     A “reboot” motivation for Ghostface.

3)     Villain focus (reboots and 4th movies both tend to focus more on the villain. See Rob Zombie’s Halloween)

4)     Sidney’s not the main target. There’ll be a “new” Sidney, and Ghostface will want “old Sidney” to watch. Perhaps even approve.

5)     Ghostface will get called on being totally unoriginal at least once. In true arrogant fan fiction fashion, he will believe he is improving on something he purports to love.

I’ll do a follow up post after I see the movie, to see how much of my rambling was even loosely relevant.

I’ll be right back.

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Story Archaeology

March 21, 2011

I read this story on Wired today about a Dad who found tape recordings of his own father reading bedtime stories.

In it, and in an article linked within that article, the author mourns the fact that physical media, like cassettes, CDs, and books are on the wane. Personally, I find myself torn on the issue. On one hand,  I love physical books. My individual history with stories is too bound up in actual paper-and-ink for me to get away from, as much as I generally embrace new information technology. In reading John McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, the book itself was as much a part of the experience as the words. It is printed on paper so thin you’re afraid that every page turn will be accompanied by a tearing noise. The story itself has the same feeling – you know, from the very beginning, that the everyday experiences it describes are stretched taut, ready to be torn by something truly terrible.  It’s a fragile and beautiful story, and the physical experience of fragile pages just drove it home for me.  Intentional? I don’t know, but that doesn’t really matter. Any story is tied intrinsically with the medium, and Words on a Page are subtly different from Words on a Screen in the same way that a story being read aloud is different from one you read to yourself.

And on the other, I recently rediscovered The Storyteller series, thanks to the wonders of digital media. The physical collection itself is hard to come by, either prohibitively expensive, or, more often, incomplete.  But I was able to obtain a copy in mp3 format, and it has been an absolute joy to re-experience them. I have found myself mouthing the words to poems I couldn’t name two weeks ago, instantly reminded by the musical cues and the rhythym of the reading what line should come next. I’ve listened to stories and felt the very same as I did hearing them as a child, the gut reaction to the words coming back to me as easily as the memory of the words themselves.

This is what digital media gives us – a place to put art and ideas that will last far beyond any physical artefact holding the same thing. Once we have scanned or uploaded a story, it will be there to be found. I count myself terribly lucky that I grew up in just the right era that I could find these stories again. The tapes I once had are old and worn out – in fact, they were already worn when I listened to them, and of the 40 something tapes I inherited, only half survived my constant use of them to be passed on to my sister, and pretty much none of them survived long enough to be enjoyed by my youngest sister by the time she was of an age to do so. (The book, by contrast, is a far more durable piece of technology than the cassette)

But if I come across a complete collection of the tapes and books when I have money enough to buy them? In a heartbeat. There is still more of the childhood experience that I’m missing. As I listen to the mp3s, the chimes remind me that there are pages I ought to be turning, and artwork that remains only half-remembered even as the words come back to me. There is the scramble to turn over the tape and hear the next story.  There is a lot of good in digital media, but we’ll never replace the physical. That said, physical vs. digital is one of those false dichotomies. Embracing digital media does not necessitate rejecting the physical. Loving the contents of your bookshelves or your CD collection doesn’t mean that backing them up in digital form isn’t a good idea. I look forward to being able to buy a book and receive both a digital and physical copy at once. One for the experience, and one that will last forever, so that at least some part of that experience can always be relived.

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Some musings on writing scenarios for conventions.

March 10, 2011

It’s been a while since I wrote a pen and paper RPG scenario for a convention. The last one, I believe, was for Confess 2008.  In the intervening two years, I’ve been writing LARPS.

Today, I’m finishing up my scenario for Itzacon

 

Famous Last Words

Come One! Come All! And witness the finest outing of the White Hart Players! Marvel at a tale of fornication, opium, and murder most foul! Be amazed by exploits of daring, acrobatics, and skill!

Will the many splendoured talents of the White Hart players aid them in reclaiming Christopher Marley’s mysterious last stage play in the face of nefarious betrayal and thievery?

A 7th Sea Scenario

 

The best part about writing a LARP is that you know that you’re it’s only going to run in one room, with the author(s) running it. Because of that, the only thing you actually have to put on paper are the characters. The rest, you can have loosely in your head and allow plenty of space for improv.

 

With the Pen and Paper variety, there’s a good chance of a second or third table, which will be run by someone else. So you have to write everything down in such a way that someone else can run it. This is more work that you think it is. Even when you’ve done it before. You think “It’s all in my head, I’ll just transcribe that.” But we all know how much sense one’s internal monologue really makes when you do that. You’ve got to put a structure on it. A real, actual structure.

 

I’m never sure of the best way to write scenarios for others to run. I don’t neccesarily know the person who’ll be running the other table(s), so I don’t know how much they’re used to improvising – do they prefer a loose plot, and then let things roll? Or do they like it all laid out clearly for them? The latter is the safer, if more boring to write, option for a RPG writer to take, because the former kind of GM will be fine either way, and the latter kind will be a bit lost if you’ve left them little to work with.

 

The other thing is timing. Pen and Paper RPGs involve combat scenes, with dice, and these always take longer than I expect to resolve. I think for a simple combat system, three combats (of any real size) is the most you want to be handling. I think back to con games I’ve played in that went well and were well written and that’s the shape I see. 2-3 major combats, with investigation bits in between.  So that’s what I’m going for. Even if I find it hard to resist the urge to pack in more because I’m writing 7th Sea, and in swashbuckling games the massively dramatic action scenes are the best bits.

 

The last thing is the Rules Stuff. I think it’s good practice to write a 1-2 page “cheat sheet” of the system’s rules in case you end up having a table run by a poor random staffer who doesn’t know the system. Most game systems can be boiled down to a simple enough rules set. It’s also useful for players – there’s a good chance some of them won’t know the system either. It’s also a good idea to note, in simple form, what the stuff on the character sheet means and how they use their skills/abilities. Luckily for me, 7th Sea is pretty straightforward that way – most things do what you’d expect. I really hate writing Con games for D20 though. Blargh. Them’s a lot of rules to explain on a character sheet.

 

And a last thing to round out this not-very-informative rambling:

‎”Ours is a high individualized culture, with a great faith in the work of art as a unique one-off, and the artist as an original, a godlike and inspired creator of unique one-offs. But fairy tales are not like that, nor are their makers. Who first invented meatballs? In what country? Is there a definitive recipe for potato soup? Think in terms of the domestic arts. ‘This is how I make potato soup.”‘ – Angela Carter (via Tanya Dean and the wonders of Facebook)

 

This is true for all art, but I think particularly true for convention games. In the history of the Irish Con Circuit, someone has probably already written and run a game a lot like the one you’re writing right now. There are no completely original convention games. (Campaigns have a bit more wiggle room to become properly unique, if not 100% original)  But that’s not the point. How do you do your amnesia game? Or your dungeon bash or swashbuckling? Even though the 3 hour slot is restrictive, you can bring a lot to a game you’re creating that other people can’t.

Try and make it so players tell other con-goers afterwards “You had to be there.”  That’s the thing that RPGs/LARPs have, that so few other media do.

 

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World’s Blankiest Blank.

February 25, 2011

I hate blank pages.

Blank pages are the second hardest thing to deal with when you’re writing.

 

They stare at you, waiting. Expecting you to write something on them. But picking up a pen (or reaching for the keys, or whatever) and making the first marks on it is always a slightly terrifying thing to do.

 

Ideas are easy. They’re better than easy. They’re addictive and wonderful and make you feel like Superman on steroids riding a Tyrannosaur. You move through the day, and all the little fragments of information flow through your brain. Fact and fiction, random banter, that thing you overheard on the bus. Then fragment the first latches on to scrap the second, and the third thing jumps in and all of a sudden it all falls together and you know it’s going to be something and then it’s Something. You scribble it down on the nearest scrap of Thing That Holds Ink (the back of your hand and up your arm is perfectly acceptable in an emergency) and before you know it you’re grinning like The Joker in a Candy Store filled with Policemens’ Children.

 

That’s the easy part, and it’s a huge amount of fun, and absolutely the best part of being a writer because you’ve just Thought Of Something New and you tell yourself that’s what makes you a writer.

 

Then you go to turn the idea into a story.

 

You try to get in touch with the mood you were in when you had the idea, and only get the dialing tone.

 

And the blank page looks at you.

 

You don’t want to start writing. It’s scary.  There is nothing there, and because of that, it still has the potential to be anything. It’s just an idea in your head – and there, it’s free to grow and move and mutate. As soon as you begin to commit it to a page, the possibilities are culled. Every scratch on the page reduces the potential from Anything into more of a Something, and by the time you’ve finished it it will be a very definite thing and that Thing might not be very good. It almost definitely won’t be as good as that initial Idea felt like it could be. Collapsing possibility into actuality… if you do it and you make a mess of it then maybe you’re not a very good writer.

So you hold off, waiting for the idea to develop, until you have it “fully formed.” Until it’s “ready.”

 

The problem is, it never will be.

 

And if you don’t write it, you’re not a writer. You’re just a guy who has ideas.

 

That’s what I keep telling myself anyway.

 

But blank pages still scare the hell of me, whether I’m writing a story or a thesis chapter. The Thesis is the biggest piece of writing I’ve ever undertaken, and I want it to be good. But the fear of words being written that aren’t has had me not writing anywhere near enough for the past two months.

 

I had the idea flood this past week. It felt pretty damn awesome. But the ideas aren’t finished, and I want to  keep them in my head while I read more and “refine” them. I had to tie myself to my computer for a silly amount of hours this week, but I actually managed to get words on paper. They’re not very good.

 

But they exist.

 

And that means I get to say I’m writing.

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Cryptozoological Dreams

January 17, 2011

I have been dreaming some deeply unusual dreams these past months.

I usually enjoy that bit of the sleep cycle that occurs when you wake up mid-dream and you drift in and out of waking and dreaming. While in that state, my dream recall is better and I get to write down what I’m dreaming about when I drift into awake without really waking up. It’s a fantastic palette of strange imagery and events that can inspire stories and games. Some of my best bits of strange storytelling have sprouted from this kind of dream.

But more often than in recent memory (by which I mean “they’re happening at all”) I have been dreaming dreams the likes of which I haven’t had since I was very young – the kind that leave you with that creeping feeling, an adrenaline feedback hum that tenses all your muscles and makes you want to leap for the bedside lamp. The kind that puts sentences in my head like “Do not go downstairs after having a nightmare – they are heavy, like treacle, and gather thickly at the bottom of the stairs to entrap you again.” Admittedly, this line has managed to generate a children’s story that is gathering shape quite nicely indeed. However, it remains an unusual character for my dreams to have.

As far as the “Meaning of Dreams” goes, I am not a fan of any of the “systems” out there. Since Freud, psychology has remained pretty quiet on the subject. Mostly because Freud made it up as he went along. But despite that, I’m still fascinated by the content of my dreams, and often wonder where it comes from. I’ve come to think of the content of dreams (rather than their actual psychological function, which remains difficult to pin down in psychology last time I looked – admittedly, I don’t look often… but I may have a gander now while it’s in my head) as not dissimilar from one’s internal monologue. When you honestly appraise your internal stream of consciousness, you’ll discover it’s a lot weirder than you think. Try sitting and writing literally every word that passes through your head, without thinking about it, commenting on it, or judging yourself for it. (Particularly when you are stressed or excited about something.) If you were to keep that as a diary on a daily basis, any casual reader unaware of the premise would probably think you’re slightly unhinged. It certainly reads the way many writers write pathologically scattered or crazy people. But the words that actually run through our heads on a constant ticker are not often organised or at all linear.  I find that the way in which your internal monologue meanders between ideas to have a not un-dream like quality to it. There are beginnings of good ideas or insights there, and on occasion, actual ideas and insights, but for the most part it’s simply an idle brain firing out arbitrary bits and pieces and trying to paint a picture over it.

And another thing…

I noticed this morning, shortly before I was jolted awake by the aforementioned adrenaline tingle, that dreams have what I can only describe as “the wrong emotional soundtrack.” Those bits of TV soundtracking that exist only to set the mood – the horror movie’s deep vibrating note of tension, the action movie’s rising brass… the “mood” soundtrack. In many of my dreams, the underlying mood of the dream in no way gels with the imagery and narrative that is apparently unfolding. The mood of the dream continues to be light hearted and merry as terrible and strange imagery surrounds you, and the waking happens because you become suddenly aware of the rats swarming out of drainpipes and leaping onto the stairs into your house as you climb them. And of course, they’re the damn terrifying stairs that don’t have risers. Rats have never been a particular fear of mine, but stairs without risers freaked me out immensely between the ages of Learning to Walk and Four, and my first home had a big set of iron steps up from the back garden (kind of like a fire escape.) So, good work, unconscious brain, for dredging up that imagery from the deepest vaults of childhood horror.

Other highlights include trying to escape from a zoo populated by Very Strange Animals. And I would swear  that I was on a perfectly benign tour of Something Indoors But Interesting moments before. Animals involved included a massive constrictor snake with the face of a androgynous person, a kangaroo that leapt very high indeed and then proceeded to have its already substantial feet grow to massive, shadow-coming-down-on-your-head-that you-can’t-quite-escape-from-as-it-descends proportions, and something lizardy with a leonine mane made of strips of golden scales.

And then there’s that dream with the Thing That’s Outside The Bedroom Door that only exists when you believe in it, and you’re okay because you know it’s only a dream, but it’s very fast and nasty so if you forget for too long that it isn’t real it’ll be able to get you before you get to the bedside lamp and banish back to imagination.

It really seems like my dreams are loving the “childhood horror” and “evil animal kingdom” genres these days. Which has been wonderful fodder for a children’s story. But still darned unusual fodder for my usual dreams.

This all inspired me to look back on Tweets I’ve made about dreams… highlights include:

“People using scalpels to extract eyeballs from their abdomens. Also, people vomiting snake hatchlings” Um… not for use in the childrens’ story.

“Dream Diary: “Of course it’s Sarah Palin, the squirrel is playing paddleball”” Um…. Your guess is as good as mine. The only thing I remember from that dream is that “soundbite.”

“Dream Diary: Airport Snafu leads to being at a High Fantasy Style Asian Temple during a service/blood splattery massacre”

“If dreams are rehearsals for dangerous situations, then my brain is primarily worried about Lions, Dogs, Orange Things, and Daleks”

The “rehersal for danger” theory is one fairly popular psychological theory for the purpose of dreams, but given the content of mine, I think my brain is either still stuck in childhood, or working in the extreme abstract. Unless you can feasibly add non existent animals and old schoolmates pretending to be Grimlock to that list. And the predominance of Highlighter Orange as a colour in my dreams which veer towards the scary is a really odd motif.