The Curse of the Writer

Yesterday I woke from sleep (or, rather, trying to sleep, because the process has always been a drawn-out one for me) twice to work on a story. Both times I was consumed by a fit of energy and a desire to write so fervent that it was just a step below a religious experience.

This energy is brilliant, it flows through me like a river flows when a dam has burst, it fills me with a joy that is difficult to describe because it is something so pure that it lacks words. It is purpose, completion, motivation, drive, flow, unification of the self, inspiration.

I’ve felt it before, but not as strongly, not as vividly. It still echoes and resounds in my soul.

But there are things that threaten to drive it away, and not just sleep deprivation.

Going back and getting a master’s in creative writing was supposed to help me teach, but the mere act of pushing myself into that stream has awakened the writer that has been dormant for some time. But it also opens a door to the unknown.

You see, for all the joy that I’m feeling as I give myself more permission to write and bask in the presence of like-minded individuals, there is a lingering shadow that comes along.

I’m losing the mysticism. Now, that’s not a literal statement. After reading Carl Jung, a part of me will always be drawn to mystery and secrets, a part of me that also knows that they will never be achieved.

But actually opening the door to craft, that’s something that’s scary. You step into a shallow stream, and you can walk across to the other side. You step into a deep river, and you’ll be pulled to the bottom.

I’ve only been a critical reader for a minority of my life, and one who reads for the sake of writing for a short time.

And it makes me nervous to go forward and take that plunge. I’ve been reading King’s On Writing, and one of the things that he talks about regularly is the idea that one grows as a writer by writing and reading.

But I’ve always read as a reader.

My first memories involve books. Most of my second ones too. I stop and read signs. I read all the legalese in contracts and license agreements (well, in contracts at least). I even play games you have to read, for crying out loud.

I’m slightly obsessive, in the sense that if I don’t have something to do I slip into anxiety. Reading is one of those things that can satisfy that, so that I don’t have to run around the room pacing (in multiples of five steps), wash my hands until they bleed, or chatter excitedly to myself. Usually I combine these things, when possible (especially the pacing; I like to get the steps for my fitness tracker and it makes the anxious reptile brain part of me very proud when big numbers show up), but in the case of the last resort reading by itself is enough.

And the curse of the writer is that you cultivate something inside you that reads in a different way than my adolescent reading for pleasure. You read to learn.

But, looking back on it, did I ever read except to learn? Poetry, perhaps, or the master-works of someone like Ishiguro or Dostoevsky (or Tolkien), whose prose can transcend the banality of life.

Isn’t the beauty just a way to teach? Isn’t the consumption of beauty just an attempt to learn?

In the introduction to his book, The Stuff of Fiction, Douglas Bauer writes of reading a story and analyzing it:

After coldly, ruthlessly, dissecting it, all you have to do to bring it back to life is read it again.

Douglas Bauer, The Stuff of Fiction, page 4

The problem is that I’m not sure I believe him.

But this joy of writing is something that could transform me. All change comes with the risk of destruction, but I also suspect that the changes we bring upon ourselves are not really changes, but awakenings.

So I will seek that awakening, risking the writer’s curse.

At the very worst, I’ll be pacing about wringing my hands at the end of it, which is not all that different from how I am now.

Going to GenCon (Part 2: Day 1)

The first day at GenCon was an experience bordering on something religious. I’ve had religious experiences, so I can tell you that it’s not quite there, but there is a reason why I’ve heard people describe a trip to GenCon as the nerd’s equivalent of the Hajj.

You might want to check out my overview of my trip to GenCon if you haven’t already, since I don’t want to duplicate a bunch of content from it here.

The convention center is unassuming when you approach it on foot, but it’s really massive once you get inside. I blame some of this on the landscaping; it feels kind of small at first because there’s some sidewalk and courtyard space around it, but you don’t realize that it occupies a 2×2 (or maybe more like 2×3) space on the grid layout of the city, compared to its nearest neighbors.

The result is that you step into the exhibition floor and it’s absolutely massive. I first arrived with the guy who was running our booth about an hour before general admission on the first day, and it’s like stepping into a cavern, if caverns were gigantic and had banners hanging from their ceilings to tell you where to go.

The best part of GenCon for me was getting to meet people that you only hear of otherwise. The very first day of GenCon I was walking around prior to everything starting and I passed Mike Pondsmith at the R Talsorian Games booth (their booth was not far from ours), and I immediately had a small fanboy attack.

Mike Pondsmith is the creator of Cyberpunk (along with other games), and although I’ve never actually played any of his games I have followed his work. His writings on cyberpunk and how to handle punk themes in storytelling were incredibly influential and helped shape me as a writer, now that I’m doing freelancing I can say that a lot of the quality of my writing came from his points on how cyberpunk forced characters to ask questions about not just what they should do, but what they need to do.

I also saw a few other people and things that I wasn’t very familiar with, so that was fun too. The booth I was at was shared between Studio 2’s various publishers, which also did stuff with Shadows of Esteren and Vermin 2047, plus another game (Fateforged?) which I have problems remembering.

Most fun, I was right across the aisle from FASA. FASA published Earthdawn, Shadowrun, and Battletech back in the day (a.k.a. my childhood), though they currently only have rights to Earthdawn (and a few of their own more recent titles). I didn’t do a lot of stuff with them on the first day, but it was a real mind-blowing experience.

Our booth’s immediate neighbor was the Delta Green booth. I liked Delta Green back when I was a game reviewer, but I haven’t checked out the newer edition and didn’t feel a strong pull to, though it was cool to be next to a great game and be able to comment on it.

Other than that, it was all pretty cool. Mitchell Wallace, of Penny for a Tale, and I went and grabbed lunch, and we talked a little about the games industry and his podcast.

One thing I learned fairly quickly on: prepare to lose your voice at GenCon if you’re exhibiting or doing stuff in any way. Not only is it loud on the show floor, but there’s also a lot of excitement in the air. It’s such a great positive experience that one doesn’t notice it, but if you don’t have water and cough drops you can really quickly do a number on your throat.

I used to be a schoolteacher, for crying out loud, and I was basically whispering by 11:30, only an hour and a half after the show opened. Fortunately, I was able to get most of my voice back. I felt like I was getting horribly ill because of how sore my throat was, but nothing came of it.

On the first day we didn’t have many sales. This is something of a simplification; a lot of people came and talked, and a decent chunk of those people bought a game, it just wasn’t the same conversion rate as later days. A lot of the people who came back and bought Degenesis on Friday or Saturday showed up on that first day.

I didn’t do anything special after the first day at the convention. I did a little writing and went to bed, so that was boring, but I was also pretty tired given the travel and I won’t whine and moan about it. It was what it was.

Going to GenCon (Part 1: Overview and Travel)

I went to GenCon for the first time this year, and it was an absolute blast. It was an amazing three days for me (I wasn’t able to stay for the convention on Sunday for a variety of reasons), and my only regret is that I wasn’t able to stay longer.

For my readers who don’t usually read my gaming content, I’ll start with a brief explanation.

GenCon is a yearly convention specifically targeted at tabletop gaming; it has a strong focus on Dungeons and Dragons and similar games, though pretty much anything that isn’t played on a PC or console (and a handful of things that are) features prominently.

It’s also sort of a general nerd culture convention, owing to the target demographic as much as anything else. People dress up in costumes as their favorite characters, hang out and play games until the wee hours of the morning, and generally get together to commiserate and follow trends.

As a game designer, I was there as an exhibitor for Degenesis, a game with some upcoming products that I’ve worked on. What that meant was that I stood in a booth from 10-6 (with a couple breaks; there were four of us and we only really needed two people), trying to sell games to people.

It was a great experience, barring the fact that I almost lost my voice a couple times. GenCon takes place in Indianapolis, where apparently everything opens late and closes early (including the CVS by the hotel I was staying at), though other than that it was a fantastic place to be.

It’s the first time I’ve gone to a convention as an industry insider, and it was great. I got to meet people (I’ll talk about this more when I get to it), and it went really well. I also got a couple leads on potential work, which will have to wait until I’ve done the work I’m currently working on, but means that going there and hanging out with people will definitely pay off for me in the long run if I can turn the time I spent at GenCon into the connections that mean more work and a higher profile in the future.

It was also my only recent time traveling by airline other than Southwest Airlines. As someone living in the Southwestern United States, I’ve been spoiled by the fact that our local airline has consistently positive experiences in my book, with low fees and painless customer service.

I flew out to Indianapolis on American Airlines. They’d overbooked the flight (fun) but fortunately enough people took vouchers so that I didn’t get bumped off my flight. If there’s one lesson to take from it, my impression is that American Airlines will treat you like a peasant if you don’t give them money, and the upgrades you need to get treated how a paying customer should be treated are not cheap.

I flew back on Delta Airlines. Other than the fact that my flight from Indianapolis to Phoenix had a connection in Detroit, I have no complaints with them. I was on a similarly basic ticket, but they were a lot friendlier and more on the ball. Admittedly, some of this might be the Phoenix ground-crew versus the Indianapolis and Detroit ground-crews; I’ve heard those are actually airport rather than airline employees though I haven’t looked it up to verify it so take that with a grain of salt. In any case, Delta felt more on the ball on both flights (with much friendlier attendants) and the only sign I was traveling super-cheap was how long I waited to board the plane (which I was able to do without incident, since neither leg of the flight was over-booked).

I was staying at a Hilton hotel a couple blocks from the convention center. It was nice. I don’t have a lot of criteria for hotels; it was clean, the room was stocked with towels, prices were exorbitant for almost everything at the hotel (there was actually a pizza room service deal that may have been less than atrocious, though there were definitely better dining options around). It had that peculiar hotel feel of stepping off the elevator and immediately stepping into a labyrinth of beige.

The Meaning of the Samaritan

I recently got to thinking about the story of the Good Samaritan. An outcast who is rejected by his society, the Good Samaritan represents someone who is good for goodness’ sake.

It is not for nothing that people often consider the Good Samaritan to be a Christ figure. After all, both were rejected by their society despite having a benevolent heart.

The Samaritan threatens us because he subverts our expectations. While other people, including those whom society would favor, ignore the problems around them, the Samaritan goes out of his way and takes great personal risk to help a stranger. Even more, the stranger is one who would consider him an enemy. He helped someone, possibly saving their life, at his own expense and without hope of a reward.

I’m familiar with the work of Carol Pearson, an academic who applied Carl Jung’s and Joseph Campbell’s theories to the field of personal development. One of her books, Awakening the Heroes Within (Amazon affiliate link), became a major part of how I taught students about the Hero’s Journey.

I believe that the Good Samaritan represents an example of the hero brought to fruition, in a sense that agrees with both Campbell’s theme of the transformative Hero’s Journey but also Pearson’s idea of archetypal wholeness.

The Good Samaritan is someone who has mastered their self. By bringing their own needs into subordination, an act which requires a certain amount of self-sacrifice, they were capable of gathering together the virtue required to live a good life.

The stoics write about virtue as a product of self-examination end of mastery over circumstance. Later, Christians would adopt many of the most notable stoics as virtuous pagans; people who were inferior for lack of knowing Christ, but who nonetheless could be granted some sort of credence as guides to a moral life despite their ignorance because their virtues aligned with the Christian virtues.

This Samaritan walks a similar path. Without the benefit of being included in what we would consider the religious elite, he nonetheless achieves virtue greater than any of the people in Christ’s parable who would have been seen as members of the in-group.

We often hear the story of the Samaritan presented as an injunction to do good, or an injunction to treat others as our neighbors who we would not considered be our neighbors. I would interpret it differently. There is certainly a valid element to both of those interpretations, but I think it is a story of perfected morality. The Samaritan has achieved virtue, and from an unexpected place.

Both Christ and the Samaritan are reflections of the same archetypal hero. The Samaritan represents a need to seek the same heroic Destiny in our own lives; it is a call to become what we need to become to make the world a better place. The examples of the travelers who passed the wounded man represent people who have not come to a full self. Many of them seem to be virtuous. However, this surface virtue merely hides deeper problems.

They live in fear, condemnation, or busyness. They fail to prioritize others as the highest good. They have not fully developed themselves, and are slaves to their needs instead of individuals who can contribute to society.

It’s only by learning to overcome these things, a process which Pearson equates with progressing through certain archetypes of the personality, that we can begin to contribute all that we can to make him the world bathroom. Before this, not only do we run the risk causing harm, but we lack the understanding that what appears to us to be detrimental or sacrificial in the short-term will be a benefit for everyone in the end.

Music of the Day: The War Still Rages Within

I’ve been a gamer as long as I remember. It’s not really something that ever really shaped my identity because it’s just been a thing that I do, in the same sense that being someone who eats breakfast isn’t a huge part of my identity.

However, one of the special things about gaming for me is the musical experiences I’ve had. A lot of games have, if we are being totally honest, mediocre soundtracks. It’s not that they’re terrible, they’re just not good.

But every once in a while you wind up with something that sticks with you because it’s really good or really interesting.

The soundtrack of Metal Gear Rising has stuck with me because it’s interesting. It’s eclectic, which is usually a plus for me, but the quality of the music itself isn’t anything stellar. It makes a good companion to high-octane action, but not necessarily for listening to by itself. The only song I really consider particularly stellar is “A Stranger I Remain”, and perhaps only that because I’ve played it in Beat Saber.

The only reason that I wound up listening to it again was the lyrics.

Metal Gear is an odd franchise, and it’s one that has been forever made more interesting by the fact that it waxes philosophical (or at least has pretensions toward being deep), and the songs of the Metal Gear Rising soundtrack.

I’ve recently gone through some pretty significant life changes, and one of the things that gave me the fortitude to go through with them was the Metal Gear Rising soundtrack.

This may sound a little hyperbolic, but I mean it. The lyrics to the songs all tie into political philosophies (at least that’s my interpretation of them), and “The War Still Rages Within” in particular has a message that I’d associate with the Hero’s Journey.

I’m an avid reader of Jung’s work (though I’ve only made it through a small fraction of his writings), and one of the things that I find incredibly interesting is the notion of archetypal being. At the risk of sounding a little new-agey, I’ve been pushed through a variety of events in my life and philosophical evaluation to take steps toward my own Hero’s Journey.

An interlude in “The War Still Rages Within” includes the lines:

The only way out of the cycle, is to strike out and pave your own way!

The notion of the way is an archetypal one, something you find in Eastern philosophy but also in medieval Western thought: the notion that there is a pathway in particular that individuals are supposed to follow in a dogmatic sense.

Right now, I feel like my life to this point has been nothing but cycles, and each year has been passing through a deepening process but not out of the cycle.

I’m living more boldly now, with a lot of my work on games and writing moving to the forefront, and I think that it’s a great step on the heroic path for me.

And while the music from a video game about fighting giant robots as a cyborg ninja isn’t a major compass in my life, there’s something to be said for reaffirming your guiding star anywhere you can and using that light to orient yourself.

On the Collective Unconscious

Jung’s collective unconscious is heavily misunderstood. It’s not quackery; it’s based on the assertion that there are biological or memetic imperatives that have been passed down from generation to generation, and also parts of the unconscious mind that function in a way that are common between people.

One can argue about Jung’s implementation, especially about whether or not the archetypes he identified are accurate and meaningful, but there seems to be a very concrete provable fact here: the psychology of people seems to bear commonalities, even in what would be considered extreme outliers.

Now, whether you want to argue about the more specific cases, like those of mythological figures appearing in unconnected contexts, Jung’s notion of synchronicity (mutual meanings, but diverse causes) is important as well: if dragons appear in mythology around the world, there does not need to be a real dragon or a social connection for those things to form. Instead, those can be independent functions of the way that people perceive the world and form a conception of the unknown.

Think of the collective unconscious as this: if you put three people in a white featureless room with a red circle painted on one wall, they will all see the red circle and Jung would argue that they all perceive the same thing.

The value they derive from that circle comes from the conscious mind. One person might consider it an eyesore, one might think that it has deep symbolic meaning, and one might fear the unknown entity.

However, they might have associations with the red that are common. If it were a crimson shade, it might evoke the effect of blood.

Thus, the collective unconscious may have deep and complex elements as Jung proposed, but it almost certainly exists at least in a form as a consequence of the brain’s physiology and common formative experiences with universal human concepts (like the risk of injury).

Disclaimer: I’ve read Jung, but I’m not a master of his work. This is sort of a rambling trying to make sense of his work rather than a masterful explication of it.