Reflections on Aphorisms #5

Another day, another bunch of aphorisms. I’m hoping to get on a schedule of just doing an aphorism or two as a morning routine (namely, reading them in the evening and writing about them in the following morning), but if I’m being honest I can’t get the reflection process down to a consistent amount of time.

That’s probably better than forcing it, though.

Aphorism 7

Writing is the art of repeating oneself without anyone noticing.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

I’m not sure if Taleb is being sardonic here or not, but I’m going to treat this as a sort of double edged statement.

On one hand, we know that the brain is relatively poor at taking in abstract information. It requires repetitive exposure to a complex concept or environment to form what we would call an accurate picture, and even then you need some variance in input data or you can end up with a faulty understanding.

It also helps to have solid arguments based on facts, and rather than just blurt out all the information at once and then try to address all the points at the end. The interspersed presentation means that you do wind up going through a cyclical presentation that leads to some duplication of previous ideas.

The other side of the coin is that writers often blather, especially those of us who are paid by the word or are particularly verbose. However, our brains get bored of hearing the same thing over and over, and to make our work “worth it” we need to keep people from realizing that we generally don’t have that many good ideas.

My Life

This is basically me, though I think it’s a little more complicated. I believe in constant revision and analysis, so I often repeat myself.

There’s also the blog format I’ve used for much of my writing, which requires a certain repetitive element because even entries in a series of posts are not necessarily going to be read together, so important concepts need to be repeated.

There is an upside to this, however, which is that you move toward perfecting your ideas. As a teacher, I often found myself wishing I had taught differently and finding a better method after finishing a lesson.

Writing is like that too. You stay dynamic, but you lean on the same core body of work. If you do too much variety you wind up devaluing your own expertise by stretching it too thin.

Resolution

Make what I have to say be worth reading, perhaps even more than once.

Keep in mind that I have my limits, and balance novelty with depth.

Consider whether what I have been said has already been said better. Learn from exemplars.

Aphorism 8

Late resounds what early sounded.

Goethe, quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

Goethe was one of the earliest members of what in America we just call the Romantic movement (technically he was part of the Sturm und Drang movement in Germany), and while he wasn’t necessarily a true member in the sense that he “grew out of it” as it were, he was nonetheless quite influential in the form of his Faust and The Sorrows of Young Werther, the latter of which I’ve had to read more than twice in my college career.

One of the ideas of the Romantics is that you have an inner guiding star that you should follow, which sort of sounds like me when I’m waxing poetic.

However, it’s worth thinking of them as being somewhat reactionary. They were among the first nationalists (before most of the negative things began to be associated with nationalism), and really believed in finding a cause, even if it meant finding destruction along with them.

Another way of putting it is that they’re very into the “die young, leave a beautiful corpse” way of life. The Sorrows of Young Werther sparked a suicide wave that would make 13 Reasons Why look like a palliative (though that doesn’t make either good for society), though now we can look at it in a little more detached a fashion–Goethe himself was the basis for Werther, and he was attempting to chronicle his mistakes, so the protagonist’s suicide was actually a hypothetical exercise in idiocy in an otherwise autobiographical work, one that Goethe himself tried to make a counter-example rather than a role model.

To get to the aphorism, however, I think that this really does tie in with the Romantic period’s prevailing philosophy in the sense that greatness tends to start early. If it’s something that’s put off, odds are it will stay put off forever.

My Life

I’m not sure I’ve followed this well. I’m still “young”, but I’m probably not young enough to be on the earlier side of this analysis.

However, I think there is something to be said here by translating it away from the language of time and into the language of procedure: “What is begun will likely continue.”

Basically, if one behaves like a child forever, one will be treated like a child forever. If one is wise in youth, they will stay wise.

I don’t know that this is an absolute, but it’s certainly something that’s measurable and observable in life. My friends who were highly disciplined in college about doing what was meaningful for them (even if that meant dropping out of college) remain on a path that brings them meaning, and those that were not find themselves in flux and with less success.

I, as someone who falls in the middle of this equation (I am good at doing what has been suggested for me, but not at finding my own path), find myself in a situation now where I have a chance to really make a name for myself and find opportunity.

Resolution

Seize the day and work toward greatness.

Strive to do today what I want to do tomorrow.

Make plans to build a better future, but don’t worry about what comes next.

Reflections on Aphorisms #4

Figured out yesterday’s aphorism that I couldn’t get a satisfying break-down of, so that’ll be one of the two today (it’s the Taleb one).

Aphorism 5

The most depressing aspect of the lives of the couples you watch surreptitiously arguing in restaurants is that they are almost always unaware of the true subject of argument.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes (Amazon affiliate link)

Interpretation

I’m not really in a significant relationship, so I’m not going to cover the relationship aspect of this so much as a simple truth here:

You don’t necessarily know what you’re looking at until you put it into words, and even then you might have done it wrong.

I think that a lot of arguments arise from what goes unsaid on purpose, and what goes unsaid on accident, and this aphorism deals with the latter.

You need to have a good identification with a life of meaning to really notice when things have gone astray.

My Life

Today was my last regular day as a classroom teacher for the foreseeable future. I’m doing some freelance writing in the immediate future and then I’ll be getting back to school to complete a master’s or maybe a doctorate program.

And, to be honest, it’s painful to say goodbye. It’s been an emotionally draining week for a variety of reasons, and teaching is just emotionally draining in general, but the fact remains that it’s still something that brings a lot of meaning to my life.

I wouldn’t say that I regret leaving; this is the perfect time to make a move for me, since I still retain almost no financial obligations except to myself.

However, it’s certainly not easy. Most of the kids were pretty sad to see me go, even more so than I expected (to be honest, since almost none of them were going to have me next year unless something changed in my position, I didn’t expect quite so much of a response).

I’ve probably had something like two hundred and fifty or three hundred students in the past couple years, and it’s sort of crazy to think about not seeing most of them after next week.

But, of course, such is the nature of things. If there is any lesson I’ve learned at a dear cost this past week, it’s that you can’t always anticipate change, so the best you can do is accept it.

Reflections

Find the hidden and secret things that have a tendency to sneak up on my life.

Never forget how meaningful the teaching experience has been in my life, even if more lucrative opportunities come along later.

Value authenticity, pierce the veil of easy explanations.

Aphorism 6

A book calls for pen, ink, and a writing desk; today the rules is that pen, ink, and a writing desk call for a book.

Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

This is another aphorism that begs context. I think that it’s referring to the way in which we interact with books, namely comparing the act of reading and reflecting on things.

Nietzsche is often very concerned about the advent of modernity, and I think that part of this is the transition from having eyes on the past to focusing on the future.

Part of the old tradition is to go into texts as an end to itself. The contemplation on and analysis of the old masters is got necessarily lower than striving for personal mastery.

This is a lot of what Montaigne does in his essays, but while Montaigne may be “the first modern” in his philosophy and interests, he is also distinctly classical in his methods.

Now the fashion is to create and change, to pursue power before wisdom and influence before virtue.

My Life

I am beginning to write a book. I may not finish it, since I may find it unfit, but I am perhaps falling into what Nietzsche is warning about here.

However, I think that I’m not all bad.

Obvious self service aside, I feel blessed to have an inquisitive mind. I enjoy digging deep into everything, and I am reaching a point soon where I can pursue self perfection as a primary goal.

Resolution

Don’t waste my current shot at self improvement.

Learn from others.

Make sure that nothing I do stems from mere desire to do but rather from purpose.

How to Write Every Day

I don’t update this blog as often as I perhaps should; I’m trending toward a post on at least a bi-weekly basis, but I do update the Loreshaper Games blog for my company every day.

It’s something that requires a lot of discipline and time, but I think it’s worth it in the long run for the practice it gives in becoming a better writer and the social networking that it builds.

One of the hardest parts of writing daily is just figuring out stuff to write. I keep Loreshaper Games on-brand as much as possible by sticking to gaming; not always our own products but always something that is industry-significant.

However, when worst comes to worst it’s just important to write every day. A lot of the posts that go up here are products of weeks of development, and writing so much tends to burn through all your inspiration quick.

You need a way to replenish that if you want to keep your creative juices flowing.

Be Creative On Demand

As I was reading the Harvard Business Review the other day, I came across an article that touched on some productivity techniques, and one of the quotes stuck with me.

Do things that don’t interest you. Early in my career, Will Marre, the founding president of the Stephen Covey’s training company, admonished me to subscribe to a handful of business journals he listed, then added, “And every time you read one, be sure to read at least one article that holds no interest for you.” I’ve been rewarded time and again for doing so. Many things that end of up in my shoebox have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things “boring” simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.

Harvard Business Review

I try to keep up with a certain amount of news every day. I’m a subscriber to Foreign Policy, for instance, and I follow a couple video-based news outlets every day.

These, however, rarely give me any meaningful inspiration.

You find that a lot of things repeat. While news is great for having a conversation starter, it’s not great at giving us a whole ton of inspiration.

It’s also a matter of lacking an ability to comprehend things that you need to explore to move past your current stage of understanding. Being a good writer is part of an evolutionary process: every time you write you should reflect and improve, but you can’t do that if you’re not giving yourself fertile soil in which to plant roots.

Varied reading goes a lot further in giving that inspiration and opportunity

How-To

One of the things that I’ve been using a lot is the Recommended by Pocket function in Firefox (which I use both on my desktop and smartphone). It pops up some interesting stuff, and whenever I’m tempted to “waste time”, I go there and read. I think I’ve probably had more “eureka” moments as a result of little articles I’ve read in the past year than from any conscious attempts to seek out inspiration (and, probably, improved my writing style by osmosis).

However, I’m also an Audible (affiliate link) subscriber, and I get two credits each month. I use one for something that interests me or something that I’ve been recommended, and the other for something more or less “random”.

One of my best experiences last year came when I accidentally purchased a copy of Educated (affiliate link), Tara Westover’s memoir; a consequence of having too many tabs open and not enough attention. Amazon One-Click is the bane of my existence, apparently.

However, I decided that my penance for carelessness would be to read a book that I had actually ruled out of the running for a late-night book search, and I was really glad that I did (you can read my review of Educated here).

New Horizons

One of the advantages of this more hap-hazard selection of readings is that you have an opportunity to broaden your experiential horizons.

The brain is funny in the way it works: it’s not a computer with neatly categorized information in separate files. Everything that it experiences and records goes in a sort of soup, and while our consciousness is fairly good at putting the most important stuff at the forefront, anything learned can resurface at a later date in an unexpected way.

It’s also just good practice. I don’t think I put Educated down for more than a few hours to sleep from the time I purchased it to the time that I finished reading it, and that’s an experience I’ve had over and over again with these random things.

Learning new stuff is, frankly, fun, something that we’ve drilled out of ourselves with our industrialized education system and its love of meaningless tasks.

Improve yourself, broaden your horizons, and give yourself something to write about. Not everything that inspires me makes it to public view, but if you write even a little about something every day you’re more likely to write something that goes out to the public.

Right now I’ve got my Loreshaper Games blog, this blog, and freelance writing on the side, and having a little bit of everything in my literary diet makes doing all that writing (and maintaining a day job) a whole lot easier

Being a Good Reviewer

Before I started making games, I reviewed them. I see a lot of novice mistakes in reviews I read, and I made them too. Heck, sometimes I still do.

However, at a certain point people started evidently caring about my reviews, including to the point where I started not just getting regular reviews but actually wound up writing for publication from time to time.

At a certain point I hit burnout and stopped reviewing as frequently, and now I’ve got a conflict of interest for reviewing games (so I mostly just review the biggest names around or things I really like), but I still feel the reviewing itch from time to time.

I’m also testing the water for doing a whole series on this, so let me know if you have any feedback, concerns, or good thoughts. I’m going to outline a number of different things here

Professionalism

The first rule of reviewing is “Don’t be a jerk.”

As a reviewer, you are obligated to both the audience and the creator of anything you are reviewing.

Your first commitment is to your audience. You want to treat them with respect and dignity. Don’t inflate value to drive sales (ah, affiliate programs!), and make sure to respect their intelligence.

Some of this just comes down to writing good reviews. Be detailed but not manipulative. That’s basic stuff.

The part of professionalism that doesn’t come across as often is your obligation to the creator of anything you’re reviewing.

You can call out garbage, that’s one-hundred percent fine. One of my greatest regrets as a reviewer is not calling out a particular product enough on some of its flaws, in part because I wound up going a little too soft on it, and while my voice probably won’t change the universe, it’s worth noting that a person who shared my preferences and followed my reviews may not have realized my true feelings about the game.

However, you also want to respect the effort and time that a creator put into their work. If it’s fundamentally flawed or entirely schlocky, then that’s the sort of situation where you come down hard (the example I mention above was fundamentally flawed in execution), but a good reviewer is not an internet troll.

Can you be colorful?

Yes.

Should you be mean-spirited?

No.

The general rule of thumb is that if you wouldn’t be okay with someone saying it about the product if you made it, don’t say it about something someone else made. Speak critically, but not rudely.

Communication

I struggle with clarity.

I’m a fan of long sentences and weasel words. I studied English in college.

As much as I used to make fun of communications majors, there is something to be said for the art of effective communication, especially in a review.

Make sure to format your review in such a way that you have clear points.

Always start with an introduction that talks about the product and makes clear which genre it’s in. I don’t suggest assigning a target audience (I occasionally see reviewers do this; it’s usually either unnecessary or patronizing). Give an initial first impression if doing so isn’t prejudicial to your later review content.

Wrap up with a clear conclusion. Make it clear whether you recommend the product, and if you have any concerns with it.

Remember that your most important part is the conclusion. If you whine about something for 80% of your review, then give a glowing conclusion, the people who skip to the end will see the glowing conclusion.

Though, generally, whining is not a good idea, which brings us to our next big topic…

Rapport

 You want to build a connection with your audience. Let people know what you think and how you feel; give them an insight into your judgments.

The big idea behind this is that you want to give your audience a feel for what you generally like or don’t like.

If I were to review a wargame of incredible complexity tomorrow, I’d have to be really clear about where I’m coming into my review from. Yeah, I work with games all the time, and I also have a decent interest in military history, but I won’t be describing anything for which I have a giant corpus of experience.

I always suggest drawing a lot of comparisons to other similar products to draw a line between what you like and how the product you’re reviewing either does it well or doesn’t. You want to be careful here (you are, after all, not reviewing every product simultaneously).

However, if you look at any major serious review (Consumer Reports stands out to me for this), you’ll see that a few references to other products slip through.

This is because the reviewer needs to build a rapport with their audience, and that’s including shared experiences. I’ve played more video games than I care to admit, so if I review a video game I share my experiences with seminal works that are similar to it (if possible), or otherwise draw comparisons to literature or film as I can.

You also need to be clear about what you like and don’t like. I’m not a huge fan of death spirals and complicated resource management that leads into death spirals. I’m the sort of guy who plays Forza Horizon with the rewind mechanic turned off to build up the challenge and I just restart a race if I’m doing poorly (in single-player, of course), to get practice in doing it right. That tells you a lot about my gaming preferences; I’m skill-driven, but I hate losing.

If I’m playing a survival game with really onerous resource mechanics, I need to make it clear in my review that a lot of my criticism comes from the fact that I don’t enjoy playing a game where eating becomes a concern every three minutes.

Qualification and Quantification

Qualification and quantification are two of the hardest parts in reviews, and I generally don’t like doing them unless I have to.

Qualification involves categorizing, tagging, and describing things, and it’s going to make up the majority of your review in a broad sense.

More particularly, however, the act of qualification in a review is boiling down whatever you’re reviewing into coherent units.

The big problem I see most people do with qualification is treating all products the same. If I took a roleplaying game like Rowan, Rook, and Decard’s Spire (link leads to my review) and compared it to GURPS Lite, I’d have a hard time qualifying them in the same way, even though they’re nominally in the same genre.

I like them both, but I am forced to confront the fact that different audiences will like each, and that I can’t do an apples-to-apples comparison with them.

In other terms, it would be like comparing Monopoly to Sim City. Yes, both offer play experiences, but they are very different experiences.

For this purpose, I suggest simply finding the four or five main “selling points” of the product and then trying to qualify them. For instance, in Spire I love the dice mechanics, the narrative-game interactions, the setting, the artwork and layout, and the prose. In GURPS Lite, I love the dice mechanics, characters, flexibility, speed, and robustness.

Quantification is something I have gotten much less fond of over the years. I used to try to do 1-5 scale ratings on multiple categories, now I do a 1-5 star scale overall if I’m required to do so.

Honestly, quantification is a bit dangerous. It can lead you into a lot of issues with practice; a 10/10 from one reviewer is meaningless, while a 7/10 may be high praise.

Notwithstanding all the controversies about games journalism, the problem with such a quantification is that it is entirely subjective in most cases, or too complex for the audience to appreciate in others.

Remember that reading a review is not a major investment. People are looking for guidance, not scientific dissertations on other things.

The one thing that I would even care to quantify is when that is an integral part of the experience. Cars have a lot of good quantifiable elements: how likely is it to break down in the first year, how much fuel does it consume, what is its resale value?

Games and literature, the two things I tend to review, have nothing like this. You can describe their general length, but that’s not necessarily going to reflect individuals’ experiences (or, for that matter, whether the time is well spent).

Cost can be mentioned, but I find this to be more important in tabletop roleplaying where pricing schemes are less standardized and value tends to be more wildly fluctuating than in video games, where costs are pretty standardized.

Even here, I tend to qualify. Does it offer more value than any other game?

Wrapping Up

I have more to say on each of these points if people are interested, but I think I’m beginning to go outside the bounds of a general overview.

Reviewing is a process of determining value, and estimating how the value you find applies to other people. I’m not a giant economics buff (though I am a bit of a dilettante and my interests have led me to that a little), but value assessment is one of the most important skills to have in daily life, to say nothing of difficulty.

A good reviewer is careful to make judgements, rather than emotional decisions. They can’t just follow a formula, but they need to make their ideas clear.



Writing Again

I’ve mentioned the Dust collection before. It’s my experimental science fiction collection that I have been using to explore writing methods.

One of my goals for it once upon a time was to get it to the point where it would be worth publishing.

I think I’m going to take some time to do a few more short stories for it and also update some of the older ones to fit into the continuity and post them here, since I don’t use the Wattpad account I posted them on anymore.

I’m open to criticism or feedback on these. Many are writing exercises, so they’re not exactly intended to be perfect, merely test my ability to do certain things.

Separation

After seeing his name on the list, he was almost relieved when the black car arrived at the far end of the street. At least he had a few moments left.

He turned to his wife. He could tell by the look in her eyes that she’d wait for him, but he wasn’t coming back. He bent over and kissed her forehead, trying to ignore the quivering of her thin nervous lips. They would put on a brave show for each other.

The only way that they would leave her alone is if he was there to meet the car as it pulled up. He drew in a slow, lingering breath and cursed himself in his own mind, wishing that he’d made different choices in his life. He ran his fingers through the dark tresses of her hair, falling as elegantly as ever like a funeral veil.

He could hear the motor pick up a little, the tires plowing a fresh path through the freshly fallen snow. If they had to go into the other house, they had been very efficient with their time.

He grabbed his coat from the hook, shrugging it over his shoulders. She said nothing, standing frozen in stillness. It was time to go, and he looked away, reaching for the door.

He could swear he heard a sob as he stepped out into the chill of the winter night.

Trying to Write a Character with Meaning

I’ve been trying to keep on top of writing recently, and while I’ve been fairly bad about actually writing anything fictional (at least on purpose), I’ve been doing some musing about why a lot of the stories that I’m coming up with the seeds for turn out to be non-starters.

Continue reading “Trying to Write a Character with Meaning”

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Reader Response Theory

One thing that used to bother me as a writer is that I would always have a point I wanted to make, and not really know how to make it.

My attempts to be obvious were heavy-handed and artless, and when I was subtle I found that the stories I wanted to tell didn’t say what I wanted to say.

This was the cause of no mean frustration for me, since younger me wanted to make a point with everything, to the point of ultimately giving up and writing either stuff that I considered meaningless drivel or stuff that was so chock-full of symbolism and heavy-handed ideas that it lacked any real development or originality.

Continue reading “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Reader Response Theory”

The Importance of Reading

Since beginning a voyage of self-improvement in March, I’ve read 200 articles and at least 10 books just for the sake of reading more.

I spend at least one hour every day dedicated solely to reading, and I spend a fair amount of time reading stuff written by people who are wrong disagree with the beliefs that I hold.

And I’ve noticed a few positive trends in my life.

Continue reading “The Importance of Reading”

Happiness

While I was drinking my tea today (apple, if anyone’s interested), I had an interesting realization.

I have been happier in the final weeks of March and April than I have been at any other time in my adult life. Probably more so than at any point in my adolescent life, either.

Some of this has to do with a spiritual re-awakening, since I’ve been more involved in my church and the Scriptures, but a lot of it has to do with simple changes to my life.

I write about two to three thousand words a day on average. I’m more or less equally productive on my previous projects, but I have taken up blogging regularly.

Continue reading “Happiness”