Thoughts On Building A Novel

Posted June 27, 2014 by fencer
Categories: Art, Awareness, Science Fiction, Writing

Tags: , , , , , ,

I’ve had ambitions towards writing most of my life.

I wrote science-fiction short stories as a kid from time to time for my own amusement.  I did find them frustrating, unsatisfying.  They never quite turned out as well as I imagined they should.

I liked to write stories with unexpected endings for school.  Typical what-I-did-on-summer-vacation fare, with the last sentence something like, “Then I turned into a wolverine.”  This amused my friends more than the teacher.

But the urge for writing wasn’t so strong that it shaped what I wanted to do with my life.  I haven’t known what I wanted to do, really, for most of my adult years.

I went to university and got a degree in psychology, figuring it was more valuable to understand what makes people tick instead of learning how to be an engineer, to mention one alternative.

I learned more about rats in psychology at that time and school than about people, I’m afraid to say.

The Urge for Writing

Then I thought, what about writing, as a reporter?  I went on to more university to study journalism.  That didn’t work out so well, either, although I did eventually end up working in one ghetto or another of that field.

I still had ideas about stories though.  I should be able to write a novel.  I read them all the time — science-fiction, modern day thrillers, even an historical novel or two.

My big ideas about subjects for novels — almost always science fiction — came to me in the form of settings or milieus.  I would start collecting material and background information, but when it came to actually write anything, the lack of any characters to speak of left me completely bogged down, as one might expect.

One lengthy period when I was out of work, just as I turned thirty, I did force myself to write a first draft of a novel by slogging through three pages a day, every day.  Then the same thing to revise it.  It was a non-science fiction story, this time, kind of an adventure/thriller, about an out-of-work character getting into trouble while on a canoe trip around the Bowron Lakes.  This is a famous location for canoeing here in British Columbia, a journey over a group of lakes, rivers and creeks that form a rough circle that can be travelled during a week or so.

The geography of the location helped give coherence to the structure of the novel’s story, and its grandeur and variety were something to ground and inform the main character.  This journey mechanism is a useful one, I would learn later.  But at the time I just floundered on with it and got to an end.  That effort now sits in a drawer someplace in this house.  Again the result felt very unsatisfying.

There have been many more ideas since then.  Some would take seed and sprout into mind maps of spaghetti notes on a big sheet of paper on the wall.  Others might get elaborated in a notebook in the first flush of enthusiasm, before realizing that what I thought could be a story was going nowhere.

I Don’t Know How to Write a Story

But now, most recently, I have a science-fiction idea that seemed to come this time with characters dimly attached.  It’s become more than just an idea over the last few years, as I collected notes and reference material.   But again, just as I started to get going with scenes and world-building, it all bogged down again.  I really don’t know how to write a story.

The last post or two on this blog have been about my struggle with story, and my efforts to learn more about it.  I have no craft.  I have read many books on writing that sounded good and were full of advice but gave me no tools.  Although probably I wasn’t ready to receive what they did have to offer.

But working through John Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story, I’ve found a guide that I’m actually able to bring to bear on what I want to write.

Many years ago, in yet another novel-writing attempt, I tried to follow Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript by Robert Meredith and John Fitzgerald.  It actually has most of the structural necessities I’m learning from Truby’s book, but it is presented in a more abstract English Lit kind of manner that I was never able to fully take in.  I thought it was a great book at the time though, and looking at it again now, I still do.  (I still have the same paperback, $2.50 in the US, $2.75 in Canada.)

This Time, It’s Going to Work!

So where am I now?

I’m working through Truby’s 22 steps list — an expanded version of his minimum Seven Story Steps — to build a novel.  It’s not like a three-act or any other imposed structure — besides being much more detailed and contoured to every kind of story, it allows creative flexibility.  It’s not so much an overlaid scheme, as one that grows out of the characters’ “yearning” (to borrow Robert Olen Butler’s term for the desire lines in a story), and associated obstacles.

I’ve got about 25 pages of detailed notes about the wheels and gears of the story itself — what will turn and drive the events of the novel.  A kind of story treatment….  This is all new stuff for me — I never had the advantage of having done that kind of work before.

Besides that, I’ve come to learn, whether or not it is ultimately true or not, that it is most useful to think about a novel as something that I, the writer, discover.  The parts of the world or characters that I don’t know yet, I am beginning to have the confidence that they will reveal themselves, at least partially, as some already have, while I fill in the pieces around them.  At the same time, all is in a partially obscuring fog, subject to change.

I forget which writer said it, but writing a novel is something like driving down a road in the dark with your headlights on.  You can only see a little ways ahead.  You can still get to your destination.

The thought of world-building, especially in a science-fiction story, can be overwhelming.  But I’m coming to realize that only where the world intersects the characters, like a cross-section in an engineering drawing, does it need to be so detailed, and the rest can be alluded to in the background.  Specifics can stand for the whole, and they are much more writerly.

There are aliens, or at least alien artifacts, in this story.  How can one portray the really alien?  I haven’t figured that one out yet — or I should say, I haven’t discovered what it might be.  Giant ants or robots with laser eyes are so… human.

Now, I haven’t actually gotten back to writing the novel yet, after seizing up after getting a few scenes done.  The next major job in my preparation is what Truby calls the scene-weave.  In some ways again it is like the process that Butler describes that I posted about a number of years ago.

It makes me think about learning guitar.  I’ve practiced hard and I think I’ve learned a piece, and then when it falls apart when I try to play along with a backing track or to show somebody, I realize I’ve just started the process of learning it.  There is much, much more practice necessary.

So the novel-writing preparation will go on for a while yet.  It’s just that this time, I have real hope of being able to write with somewhere to go.

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Notes:  There is a whole industry built around selling advice to would-be writers.  This takes the form of an avalanche of books on writing, magazines and also software which promise to make your novel writing a breeze.  I’m tried a couple of the novel-writing programs over the years in my desperate quest.  They don’t work very well, because the story that’s going to live for you can’t come from a ready-made scheme or formula.

Related to that, but also possibly useful in some ways, are various story-planning worksheets, or beat sheets.  These feature various versions of what their authors see as the necessary structure of a story, coded as “beats” or the major plot events that a story must have.  Such a beat sheet might have the “Four Major Beats” and the minor beats to fill them out in a table to allow you to script your story events.

(As with many of these story-planning worksheets, a lot of well-meaning and even useful story advice comes out of the National Novel Writing Month — or NaNoWriMo — endeavour where people make a commitment to write a novel during the month of November.)

I’ve also read that editors can spot any story based on these beat sheets a mile away.  The method tends to give its products a certain artificiality.

The question is, does Truby’s guide lend this artificial aspect?  I don’t think so, although it could degenerate into formula.  In Truby’s words, he wanted to “lay out a practical poetics — the craft of storytelling that exists in all story forms….

“You are the never-ending story.  If you want to tell the great story, the never-ending story, you must, like your hero, face your own seven steps.  And you must do it every time you write a new story.”

An Even Better Book About Story

Posted May 24, 2014 by fencer
Categories: Awareness, Book Review, Science Fiction, Writing

Tags: , , , , ,

“Human growth is very elusive, but it is real, and it is what you, the writer, must express above everything else (or else show why it doesn’t occur).”
John Truby, The Anatomy of Story, 2007

In my ongoing quest for story, in which I unconsciously emulate the character in a novel seeking essential answers about writing and being thwarted at every turn by external circumstances and the weaknesses of my own character, I’ve encountered John Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story.  (Or maybe that’s just barely consciously….)

In any case, Truby’s book is like the main course after the appetizers of the previous post, “The Synergy of Two Books About Story.”

Truby is apparently something called a “story consultant” in Hollywood, and comes more out of the screenwriting milieu than novel writing, but his book on story is universal enough to cover all the varieties.  It is rich with ideas and in depth, even more so than the previous two books I looked at here.

He wants the writer to get away from artificial divisions like “three-act structure” to get to grips with the natural characteristics of compelling stories.  His goal, he says, is this:

“In simplest terms, I’m going to lay out a practical poetics for story-tellers that works whether you’re writing a screenplay, a novel, a play, a teleplay, or a short story.”

truby--anatomy_smallHe has no use for terminology like “rising action,” “climax,” or “progressive complication,” or any other approaches without real practical value for storytellers.

I’m not going to attempt to mention everything he covers in 421 pages, but I will try to hit some of the high points that appealed to me.  Perhaps this can serve as an introduction to what I think is one of the better books on story, and writing, that I’ve read.

The dramatic code is central to his analysis, and the foundation for most of the structural elements he describes in stories.

In the dramatic code, change is fueled by desire.  According to Truby, the dramatic code is at the core of human psychology.  It’s an artistic description of how a person can grow or evolve.

Premise and Designing Principle

The writing process is about decisions, Truby says, and the first important guide to those decisions is the premise of the story.  “Your premise is your inspiration.”  It should contain the ingredients of the first flash of excitement when the idea of the story first arose.  The premise allows the writer to explore the story, and the form it might take, before it’s actually written.

Truby counsels that finding the gold in a premise, takes time, a lot of time.  He recommends taking weeks to sit and sift the premise.  And he provides a suggested methodology to get the most out of it.

I’ll list the steps he discusses without going into them in detail.  I’ve found them fruitful and their names are quite descriptive:

1) Write Something That May Change Your Life
2) Look for What’s Possible
3) Identify the Story Challenges and Problems
4) Find the Designing Principle
5) Determine Your Best Character in the Idea
6) Get a Sense of the Central Conflict
7) Get a Sense of the Single Cause-and-Effect Pathway
8) Determine Your Hero’s Possible Character Change
9) Figure Out the Hero’s Possible Moral Choice
10) Gauge the Audience Appeal

That’s a lot to think about.  In my own case, with the story I’m working on, I’ve already sorted a lot of this out, perhaps more by luck than design.

Finding the designing principle, no. 4 in his list, gave me a lot to chew on.  It has a very specific meaning to Truby — it’s the internal logic of the story, the organizing principle that unifies it.  And he says, the designing principle is difficult to see, and in order to work, it must be original.  He gives the example of the movie Tootsie to illustrate his meaning:

Premise –  When an actor can’t get work, he disguises himself as a woman and gets a role in a TV series, only to fall in love with one of the female members of the cast.

Designing Principle — Force a male chauvinist to live as a woman.

Or taking James Joyce’s Ulysses:

Premise — Track a day in the life of a common man in Dublin.

Designing Principle — In a modern odyssey through the city, over the course of one day, one man finds a father and the other man finds a son.

The Seven Key Steps of Story Structure

According to Truby, a good story has a minimum of seven steps (it may have more) in its progress from beginning to end.  These are not external structural requirements, such as imposing a three-act structure.  He says, “They are the steps that any human being must work through to solve a life problem.”  How these steps are linked will be up to the author, in order to provide the greatest impact.

1) Weakness and Need.  The main character is missing a crucial characteristic, has a profound weakness that is holding him or her back from gaining what the character truly needs.  Our hero, though, should not be aware of his need at the beginning of the story.

2) Desire.  This is different from need, which is the character overcoming a weakness.  Desire is a goal outside the character.   Desire is more obvious and allows the reader to want along with the hero, and provides what the reader or audience thinks the story is about.  Need is more hidden and linked to self-revelation by the end of the story.

3) Opponent.  Truby says seeing the main character’s opponent as purely evil “will prevent you from ever writing a good story.”  The opponent must be seen structurally: the opponent not only wants to prevent the hero from achieving his desire, but is competing with the hero for the same goal.  Truby gives the example of a detective story: “It appears that the hero wants to catch the killer and the opponent wants to get away.  But they are really fighting over which version of reality everyone will believe.”

4) Plan.  The hero’s plan is organically linked to desire and the opponent to be overcome.

5) Battle.  The battle is the final conflict over the goal between the hero and opponent.  This could be an overt event of extreme violence, or a confrontation through dialogue.

6) Self-Revelation.  This most completely can come in both psychological and moral forms.  The hero sees himself or herself honestly for the first time, and takes action to prove that changes have occurred.

7) New Equilibrium.  “The hero has moved to a higher or lower level as a result of going through his crucible.”

The Character Web

Although there’s much more to explore in what Truby presents, the final thing that I want to mention, and that made a great impression on me, is what he calls the web of character.  All the characters must help define the others.

Many of the characters serve as opponents to the main character, although they may be a friend or lover, and may be even better people than the hero.

Truby talks about allies, fake-ally opponents, fake opponent allies, subplot characters and the story functions served by them.  For instance, he thinks of subplot as a very specific device — a way to show how the hero and a second character deal with the same problem in different ways.  “Through comparison, the subplot character highlights traits and dilemmas of the main character.”

He goes on to detail how to create a great hero, how to create character change in the story, and how to build conflict.  For instance he describes how better stories go beyond a simple opposition between the hero and main opponent and often use what he calls a four-corner opposition.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the nature of story as presented by Truby.  But I’ve found the book very useful and even inspirational.  And with my own work, it lets me see the way forward.

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The Synergy of Two Books About Story

Posted April 2, 2014 by fencer
Categories: Art, Book Review, Writing

Tags: , , , , , ,

“The writer is a man who seeks a larger world.”
– Dwight V. Swain, in Techniques of the Selling Writer

“You are the slave of your story, not its master.  You don’t make decisions, you make discoveries.”
Brian McDonald, in Invisible Ink
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I don’t like the word “synergy” very much, although I’m not so sure why.

I am a whole-greater-than-the-sum-of-my-parts kind of guy, but the word smacks of marketing, as if it’s the name of a used-car dealership.  Maybe my skepticism is because it’s a description of process that’s everywhere anyway, of emergent properties arising out of separate elements.  It probably has a lot to do with the management-speak where I work, of “incentivizing proactive synergistic visions, going forward.”

But in the case of two books on fiction writing I’ve been reading, the word actually seems to have some meaning, in the sense of the “cooperative action of two or more stimuli, resulting in a different or greater response than that of the individual stimuli.”  But then maybe the word I’m really looking for here is “synchronicity”, the seeming purely coincidental occurrences that take on meaning….

The two books are Techniques of the Selling Writer, published in 1965 by the late Dwight V. Swain, who wrote prolifically for magazines and films, while teaching writing at the University of Oklahoma, and Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate, 2010, by Brian McDonald, screenwriter and teacher.

I’ve been working on the first draft of a novel, just getting started really.  I’ve written a few scenes, I know my primary characters pretty well, I know how the story begins, how it ends, and what the main character thinks he’s doing.  But I slowed down, and then came to a halt.

I’ve been realizing I don’t know what a story is.  I know one when I hear or read one. But I don’t know how to make a real story, what propels it, what keeps it moving, what gives it heart and meaning.  Characters, setting, plot, dialogue, scenes, conflict, all those elements of so many books on writing, don’t give me what I need to know about story.

Techniques of the Selling Writer sets out to do just that.  With that title, you might think it’s a book about being as commercial as possible, of following some set formula in whatever genre can make you the most money.

In fact, it’s not that at all.  It’s about the survival of the fittest, the fittest way to tell a story that can stand out amongst serious competition in the marketplace of fiction publishing.

It’s about the basic bolts and nuts of story framework, from building scenes and character development to larger issues of what makes a writer.  It’s a handbook about getting to grips with story.

It’s not about avant-garde writing, of encouraging the James Joyce in each of us, but about the craft of story as we may find it widely distributed in the culture about us, of books and film and games, although often we will find that such stories are lacking.

These comments won’t be a review really, just the main things I got out of each book in my quest, almost like that of a character in a book, for story….

Most Useful Description of Technique

Techniques Selling WriterSwain starts his useful description of technique for me when he begins to write about “motivation-reaction units.”  That almost sounds like widgets from a factory, but he’s really talking about building feeling as the character confronts situations and reacts, which the reader then begins to participate in.  There is cause and effect at the core of effective story, and these motivation-reaction units link together as you write to provide a thread of meaningful causation.

Something happens of significance to the character, and of pertinence to the story: the reader sees that an active response is necessary from the character.  The character’s reaction ensues.  There is some change, perhaps small, in the character’s state of affairs or state of mind.  This should precipitate another motivating stimulus and then another reaction.  These linked units gradually build.  “The chain they form as they link together is the pattern of emotion.”  The chain should be strictly chronological so that the writing leaves an impression of a continuing stream of reality, with appropriate “haptic” (bodily) sensation and involvement.

There is much more detail in Swain’s teasing out of this basic story process, of course, but this gives the gist.  And each M-R unit, as Swain calls them, must be pertinent to the story as a whole.  It may be harder to do than to say….

But at its simplest, for a beginner: Write a sentence without your character (becomes motivation).  Follow it with a sentence about your character (becomes reaction).   Of course, as one becomes more skilled, the units of each type may be somewhat larger.  And although this method might sound simple, or simple-minded, it “sometimes poses problems of choice that are little less than fiendish.”

The next level up (can we say storey?) in the tower of story is that of scene and sequel.  I kind of know what a scene is, but I hadn’t really thought about sequel as a technical term in this context.

Scene and Sequel

Story, Swain says is built with those two basic units.  A scene is a unit of dramatic conflict lived through by character and reader.  Sequels are the transitions between scenes.  He makes it sound so simple….

A scene functions to provide interest, and to move the story forward.  It provides opposition to your character.  It’s a unit of conflict.  The structure of a scene is 1) Goal 2) Conflict and 3) Disaster.  I like that no. 3!

What is disaster?  Swain says it’s the scene’s hook — providing logical but unanticipated developments.  It often comes in the form of new information received.  If a scene doesn’t end in actual disaster, it must raise an intriguing question for the future.  The skill in this may be to make the disaster potential, rather than actual.

Swain insists that all this can succeed for the literary work as much for the potboiler.  But one can’t be afraid of drama.

What then of sequel?  “It sets forth your focal character’s reaction to the scene just completed, and provides him with motivation for the scene next to come.”  The sequel functions to translate disaster into goal, to telescope reality and to control the story’s tempo.  Swain says its structure is 1) Reaction 2) Dilemma 3) Decision.  (I’m continually impressed about how logical Swain is about these creative tools.)  Our hero decides on a new goal and the next scene, with its struggles, begins to arise.

Swain says the source of story satisfaction for the reader is the release of tension.  Or from another angle, the way the story turns out is your reader’s key source of satisfaction.

He goes on from scene and sequel to discuss the beginning, middle and end of a story, and what constitutes each.  The beginning ends for Swain when the main character commits to action against the danger or threat he realizes he faces.  And then the middle of the story becomes how the main character becomes more and more constricted as to his avenues of action.  Towards the end we see more clearly what the main character deserves, and what he gets.

Populating the World

Swain’s chapter on story characters, The People in Your Story, is refreshing in its straightforward and common-sense approach.  Use the least number of characters to do the job of advancing the story.  If a character is not in some way either for or against your main character, then they’re not serving a useful story function.  And remember that stress reveals character.

Each character must appear to move under his own power.  So one must supply each character with 1) Lack and 2) Compensation.  What makes a character interesting?  Contradiction.

There’s much, much more to all of this of course than I can relate here.  Swain’s strength is his logical analysis of the mechanisms of how to move a story along, while leaving in the would-be writer’s hand the extent of the creative variations that can be devised.  He has an old-fashioned (but perhaps ever present) sense of what the novel can accomplish that’s definitely not postmodern.

So, Swain made me all optimistic about being able to get my hands on the levers of story.  Then I read Brian McDonald’s short book (only about 150 pages), and my optimism took another turn for the better.

Invisible Ink

Invisible InkIn Invisible Ink, McDonald has let me finally understand what theme is and more importantly how it functions in a story.  Lots of books about writing place importance on thematic purpose and consistency.  I just could never feel what it really meant in whatever I was trying to write.

McDonald’s description of the armature as a way of talking about theme suddenly made the whole thing much clearer to me.  He likens the armature to the internal framework upon which a sculptor supports his work.  The armature is the moral of the tale, the purpose of the story, the point of all the drama.  What does one really want to get across?

As an example, he refers to the animated film The Iron Giant.  The intriguing armature of this work is: “What if a gun had a conscience and didn’t want to be a gun anymore?”  If the armature works, in the end it will move the reader.

Armature provide the same kind of focus that makes jokes work.  McDonald says he uses jokes as an instructional tool.  “Just as all elements of a joke support the punch line, so should every element of your story support its armature.”

Bring in the Clones

The concept of characters as clones was another aha! moment in McDonald’s discussion of the invisible strands that tie a real story together.

“Clones are characters in your story that represent what could, should, or might happen to the protagonist if he or she takes a particular path.”  Clones can display, often very subtly, the shades of meaning in the story’s world.

For instance, the cravenness, corruption and pitiful nature of Gollum in Lord of the Rings represents what could well happen to the hero Frodo if he gives in to the Ring.  We can measure the success of one character by the failure of another.  Dorothy’s companions in the Wizard of Oz — the Scarecrow, the Lion and the Tin Man — are another example.  They are all artful clones of Dorothy.

This concept allows characters to serve the needs of the story, to make it more powerful, and not just be random personalities that the writer allows to wander onto the set.  Not every character has to be a clone, but it is obviously a powerful tool for illustrating the armature.

 Ritual Pain

“…It is your job as storyteller to apply as much pressure on your characters as possible.  You must back them into a corner and force them to change.  Make it as painful as you can.”

The thought of causing other people pain usually gives me the horrors.  But as a writer you have to put your poor fictional people through hoops of fire on the horns of dilemmas.  This is a bloodymindedness that I definitely have to work on in what I want to write.  I should think of it, though, as McDonald recommends: “Ritual pain means painfully killing off one aspect of a character’s personality to make room for something new.”

He notes also that you have to find the right kind of ritual pain for each character.

The Masculine and the Feminine

McDonald takes the politically incorrect, but intuitively true, notion of real differences between men and women and applies it to storytelling.  Men do tend to prefer action flicks.  Everything is on the surface and introspection is not much in evidence.  Woman do tend to prefer depictions of people emotionally involved with each other, with not necessarily a lot of forward movement in the story.  His main point is that to get readers to care about what they’re reading, both these aspects need to be evident and in balance.  They deepen each other, just like men and women.

Sacrifice

Sacrifice is another mechanism by which an author can show the extent of a character’s change, of his sincerity, of growth.  “Simply put, the climax of a story puts the protagonist in an intense situation that forces a choice that shows growth or lack of growth.”

Superior Position

McDonald describes “superior position” as one way to cultivate either suspense or humour.   It’s when the audience knows, or suspects, something that the characters do not.  He says this bit of craft is what made Alfred Hitchcock a masterful storyteller during his fifty-year career.

There’s more, of course, in McDonald’s book but these were most of the kernels that I took from it.

It remains to be seen of course if I can incorporate what I’ve learned from these two books in my own writing.  But I do feel more confident.  At the same time I seem to aspire to what Thomas Mann (cited by McDonald) once wrote: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

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The Escape Game

Posted February 22, 2014 by fencer
Categories: Culture, Games, Internet

Tags: , , , , , ,

This is something I hadn’t heard of before:  The Real Escape Room Game.  Apparently the first Real Escape Room Game has opened in Richmond, just south of Vancouver, Canada, where I live, and must be one of the first in Canada.

Teams pay money to be locked in variously themed rooms and must find a way out within a time limit.  It’s a craze popular in Asian countries at the moment and now is beginning to appear more prominently in North America.  The game apparently began in Japan several years ago, and the wave of its popularity has worked its way to China, Malaysia, Singapore and much more recently to a few places on this side of the Pacific.

It used to be that cultural innovation and trendiness might come from the eastern United States, especially New York, or from Europe, say Paris or London.  These days, and what will increasingly be the case, the Asian countries are exerting their own brand of cultural sway over the young and hip.

TimeTravelLab_640It makes sense that the game would appear in Richmond, which has Asians from many different countries but especially China making up about half its population.

The version of the game that just started here has four themed rooms: the Lost Ship, Ancient Egypt, Prison Escape and Laboratory Escape.  Four to six people pay $23 each to enter one of these rooms to work together to find their way out within 45 minutes.

The proprietor claims that it’s perfect for speed dating.  Put three pairs of guys and girls in a locked room with a few clues and they will learn about each other’s personalities in short order.

Apparently only about one percent of the teams are successful.  They are photographed and put up on the Wall of Fame, while the other 99 percent are also photographed and clipped to a Tree of Shame, which is apparently the way it’s played in Asia.

Of course, there can be frustration.  The owner charges $50 for broken props.  He showed off to a local newspaper a table top strewn with broken locks. “Use intelligence, not violence,” he says.

It can be a combination of role-playing, depending on the theme, and those Solve A Murder Mystery parlor games, with considerably more intensity involved.

There’s a few YouTube examples: Escape from the Werewolf Village and Trapped in a Cathedral are just two.

I discovered online at least one other Canadian outfit running the game in Ontario called “Adventure Rooms Canada.”  They describe their way of doing it:

Your group has 60 minutes to find its way out of a mysterious room.  This is accomplished by using logic, searching for clues and using unique items in the room to help you get through obstacles like locks and doors, etc. Once your team makes it through all the of the puzzles contained within the room you will find the final key; and unlock yourself to freedom. Only 30% of teams have escaped so far. Will you?

The adventure is very thrilling, but not dangerous at all.  It contains no horror elements, requires no physical exertion and is suitable for ages 11-77.   Our game is unique in the genre because it focuses on the puzzles and experiments with real objects, rather than being based on a specific theme or story.

We may feel we lack adventure and community in our daily lives, often especially the young, as we put widgets, systems of widgets, or instructions to systems of widgets together, and perhaps commute long distances together in isolation to do so.

This remedy seems a little artificial and perhaps too theatrical for me though.  I think I prefer to go on a good hike in beautiful scenery with my wife or with a friend.  But it might be fun to try it out, as another form of escape.

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Note:

The image comes from an American company called SCRAP in San Francisco, California which runs their version of the Escape Room game.

Growing Up With the Weavers (and Pete Seeger)

Posted February 16, 2014 by fencer
Categories: Art, Culture, Heroes, Music, Remembering

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

“For songs are the heart of our memory and let us live the search for meaning in our lives again and again.”
Judy Collins

I wrote about aspects of this a couple of years ago (Coming of Age with the Folk Music Revival), but with the recent passing of Pete Seeger, musician and human being extraordinaire, I wanted to revisit The Weavers.

The Weavers were the arch folk group of the 1950s and even into the 1960s, with Pete Seeger as one of the main quartet, along with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman.

In essence, they sparked the entire folk music revival which in time led to the emergence of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and many others such as Dave Van Ronk (apparently inaccurately portrayed in the recent film Inside Llewyn Davis by the Coen Brothers), of folk rock and of rock itself in the cauldron of the 1960s.  The Weavers could even be seen as precursors of “world music” with their willingness to interpret and sing songs from many nationalities and traditions.

220px-The_Weavers_at_Carnegie_HallIt’s odd to me how little one hears these days of The Weavers or the songs they made famous, such as “Goodnight Irene” or “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.”  It’s true they are the songs from a slightly older generation than mine, and I’m getting old too.  But I would still like to hear Beyoncé or Lady Gaga give them a try….

I won’t go on too much about The Weavers’ or Pete Seeger’s history — there is a lot of detailed information about all that online.  But I would like to write a little about The Weavers’ meaning for me, and about Pete Seeger’s worth and appeal.

After my father died of a stroke when I was twelve in 1963, my younger brothers and I were introduced to the Weavers when our mother brought back three LP albums from a trip to Seattle.  She had gone there to see her mother  and to apply for veteran benefits from my Dad.  There was a My Fair Lady recording of the original musical, an album of swinging Bach and other composers by the Swingle Singers on the album Going Baroque, and The Weavers At Carnegie Hall, from a 1955 live performance still considered to be one of the best and most stirring by any folk group.

In central northern British Columbia where we lived on slim pickings after Dad died, it was exciting to have these brand new long-playing records.  Unfortunately, at first we had nothing to play them on, and resorted to bothering some church-group friends by always taking those three albums with us and insisting that we had to listen to them.  It was probably with the first veteran benefits’ cheque that Ma went out and purchased a battery-powered portable record player to listen to first those albums and then to all the many more that we, mother and boys, collected in the next few years.  The record player had to be battery, because we lived for quite a few years without electricity.

Sierra Exif JPEGIt strikes me now, as I recall some of this, how important recorded music was to the four of us, in a way that wasn’t quite so strong for many of our neighbours or friends.  None of us in our small family were particularly musical: I struggled to play the guitar poorly, and although we all sang boisterously along with “Wimoweh” and other such songs, we were out of tune mostly I’m sure.  But music is crucial to the memories of my boyhood and our lives together, and it began with The Weavers.

As the three boys grew into teenage-hood, our tastes in music changed of course, to the Ventures, the Beatles, then Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, and of course eventually Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks!

Pete Seeger After the Weavers

So after those early times, although we might still go back to listen occasionally, The Weavers and Pete Seeger faded from our preferred listening.

I would hear about Seeger from time to time through the years, usually as an activist during the civil rights and anti-war movements in the States, with his anthem “We Shall Overcome” (derived from a gospel song), and would sometimes listen to his songs “If I Had a Hammer”, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, usually performed by others.

Later, in the last few years, his status as the grand old man of folk only grew.  Bruce Springsteen produced the “Seeger Sessions” and tour, dedicated to many of his songs.  Seeger’s album At 89 won a Grammy in 2008.

If you put “Pete Seeger” into a search engine now, you will run across many obituaries recounting his incredible influence as a musician and as an activist through the generations.  A good one is at the New York Times: “Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94.”

But among the references to him I like best are ones like Bruce Springsteen’s introduction at Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration, where he finished off his remarks, noting Seeger’s toughness, with:

“The very ghost of Tom Joad is with us in the flesh tonight. He’ll be on this stage momentarily, he’s gonna look an awful lot like your granddad who wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad could kick your ass.”

Bob+Dylan++Pete+Seeger+2943980698_ec9703aeec_oThere are the performances on Youtube like a rousing one from 1993, “If I Had a Hammer”, with Arlo Guthrie.  He could always get audiences to respond to him, to form impromptu communities of song around his presence.

And then there’s this performance from the Johnny Cash Show in 1970 that illustrates, to me, that same point in a magnificent way.  The clip shows Seeger’s versatility as he chats with Cash while singing and playing with a fretless banjo and a guitar.  Then he gets up and starts to rouse the audience with “It Takes A Worried Man to Sing A Worried Song.”

At first the audience is hesitant and quiet.  We look at Seeger from the rear, a lone wooden chair on the stage, a spotlight beaming down, the audience in darkness beyond him.  The audience begins to join in a little; Johnny Cash comes striding into the scene with his guitar, adding his voice.  Pete waves his arm briefly at the audience, but so sure, as if it would automatically connect him with the people in front of him, and it does.  They begin clapping, they start to smile, their voices rise.  Pete calls out “You know, these old songs, they’re never going to die…. This song, it’s the whole human race!  …But you got to have hope….”  The two men tear into the last verse, playing face to face, and the audience claps and cheers as they finish.

You can see Pete vibrating with song, moving his feet a little, bending his knees, singing his heart out.  For those moments, he embodies the song, and its recognition of struggle and perseverance shines out of him.

He’s gone now.  That embodiment has given way.  The songs go on.

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Note:  The photo of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger is from the Broadsheet website.

Thoughts on Aikido Promotion

Posted January 17, 2014 by fencer
Categories: Aikido, Awareness, Heroes, Martial arts, Remembering, T'ai Chi

Tags: , , , , ,

I wanted to mark the occasion of promotion to 2nd Dan or Nidan in aikido by writing a few words here.

First, it’s an opportunity for a mild pat on my own back, and if you can’t do that on your blog, well, where can you?

Second, it’s led me to think more about why do I practice aikido, anyway?  What is the nub of it that has kept me at it over the years?  (Although I do practice less now than I used to.)

I came to aikido through t’ai chi chu’an (as a martial art, and some of which I’ve chronicled in the post Adventures in T’ai Chi Ch’uan).   I boxed – very amateurishly – and wrestled in high school.   I also did a little judo in university, and a lot of recreational Western fencing afterwards.

While I was in San Francisco for less than a year in the late 1970s and making like a t’ai chi bum in parks and various studios, I got a copy of the book Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere by Westbrook and Ratti.  Published in 1973 in hardcover, it was one of the very few books available on aikido.  It has the most wonderful, flowing diagrams of the art.  I still have that book.

aikidoI had to give aikido a try, so for about seven or eight months I joined the old Aikido of San Francisco on Turk Street as the rankest of beginners in the midst of what seemed like hundreds of students.  The dojo was run by three of the most famous non-Japanese teachers of their generation, although perhaps not so well known in those days:  Robert Nadeau, Frank Doran, William Witt, all sensei’s of the highest calibre and with different stylistic approaches to aikido.

Robert Nadeau was the most “California” of the trio, with some unorthodox training exercises and discussions of energy in the body.  Nadeau is featured in books related to aikido by human potential pioneer George Leonard such as The Ultimate Athlete and Mastery.

Frank Doran was a practitioner of almost magical technique, who could be quite severe in his teaching.  This reflected his background as a former hand-to-hand combat instructor in the US Marines.  He always moved and pivoted with such an erect, precise, and effective manner — watching him (as I’ve just done on You Tube), I’m inspired again by how he moves.

William Witt always seemed the most accessible to me, with his often humorous and down-to-earth straightforward way of teaching.

After I left San Francisco to return to British Columbia and resumption of life as a reporter and photographer for small newspapers, I wouldn’t practice aikido again for a number of years until later in the 1980s.  Even after that there could be interludes of a year or more between dojos and teachers as I moved around from job to school and back to work again.

I used to say, after returning to practice after being away for one of my lengthy periods, that aikido “gets in your blood.”  I’m not quite sure what that means, other than to indicate the attraction is not purely rational or intellectual.

In some ways, I am almost a reluctant aikidoist.  Japanese culture does not intrigue or attract me very much, although I fully appreciate the instructive helpfulness of aikido’s Japanese nomenclature.  Attending seminars now that I’m in my sixties is not something I push myself to do.

But I do enjoy teaching beginners which I’ve started to do on a more regular basis under guidance of my sensei.  I have no inclination at all to be a “teacher” but I do find satisfaction in helping people who are newer to the art than I am.

I am blessed to still be relatively light on my feet and with a range of motion only minimally curtailed as yet by sore toes and tight hamstrings at almost 63 years old.

I think the attraction of aikido comes down to interaction, which is a cerebral word for the very physical experience of throwing and being thrown, of understanding where the other person is in space by touch.  (This is a wonderful and subtle process of learning, one shared with t’ai chi — and even greater there.)  There is a great deal of satisfaction in executing a throw properly at speed, or even slowly, and in receiving one well too.

It’s something to do with that touch and relationship with the person you work with on the mat.  It can make you smile.

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Notes:

The illustration is by Oscar Ratti from the book Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere.

I’ve written before once or twice about aikido.  One such post is called “The Irony of Aikido”.  There are a number of aspects to that title, the main one being that my father fiercely fought the Japanese in the Pacific during WWII.  He died when I was quite young.  I often still wonder how he would receive my participation in aikido.  I like to think he would be okay with it.

Prisons We Choose to Live Inside – A Book Review

Posted January 1, 2014 by fencer
Categories: Awareness, Book Review, Culture, Heroes, Politics, Science, Writing

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, 1985, by Doris Lessing
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The writer Doris Lessing died recently in November.  She was 94 — born just after the end of WWI, only 15 years or so after the Wright brothers made their first airplane flights.  She lived on into our days of computers, the Internet and smartphones.  Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007.  The Nobel committee described her as “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny.”

She is perhaps best known for The Golden Notebook in 1962 which was embraced by the feminist movement, and which is said to chronicle the life of women in a fragmented society, as they struggle through emotional and intellectual chaos.  Interestingly, Lessing refused the feminist label.  She was to write, “Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women?”

My familiarity with her writing is not through that book or through some feminist lens, but by bumping up against her more esoteric and science fictional writings.

Back when I was reading William Irwin Thompson’s works, and listening to his talks while at Lindisfarne, he often cited Doris Lessing’s novels as examples of “planetary culture.”  (See notes at the end if you’re curious about what “planetary culture” might mean.)

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing

Lessing’s novel Briefing for a Descent Into Hell was her work that most influenced, and reinforced, Bill Thompson’s thinking.   In Bill’s book Passages About Earth, he writes: “Whatever failings the book has as a novel…, it is an incredible act of seership and clairvoyance.”

He goes on, “Lessing moves out of our conventional world view to see a different universe, a universe that is, in fact, the paradigm of the new science and the new world of our emerging planetary culture.”

Lessing herself has called the book “inner space fiction — for there is never anywhere to go but in.”  In brief, the story is about an educated man, a sensitive man, sensitive and perceptive perhaps of a wider universe than we are usually aware of, and his treatment by psychiatrists and the medical establishment with drugs and contradictory methods that reflect the narrow world of the conventional in society and science.  There is much more to it than that, of course, which the reader may determine to examine on their own.

I did read it, and to my recollection did not understand all that she meant to say.  But it made enough of an impression on me that in later years I went on to read several of  her Canopus in Argus series, which although deliberately set out as science fiction, were what she called a framework to “explore ideas and sociological possibilities.”  (She reminds me of Ursula Le Guin in this way.)

The first novel of that series, for instance, called Shikasta, has been summarized as: “A secret history of Earth from the perspective of the advanced Canopus civilisation that is thinking in eons rather than centuries. The history spans from the very beginning of life into our own future. The book ends with a metaphorical telling of the trial of Socrates.”

The Prisons We Choose

When I heard of her death, I realized I wanted to experience again the unadorned clear independence of her voice.  I came across this series of lectures, a collection of essays really, from 1985, called Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, only 76 pages long.  They form one series of what are called the Massey Lectures, which are in part sponsored by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), analogous to Britain’s BBC.  The Massey Lectures typically are a venue for various intellectuals and writers, such as Margaret Atwood, R.D. Laing and John Ralston Saul.  They were, and are, something like TED lectures before the Internet allowed that forum to be.

The first lecture is entitled “When in Future They Look Back On Us”, and sets the tone for the other four essays.

A lot of her focus is on the irrationality of what we humans choose to believe and to act on.  She tells stories of a farmer who slaughtered a prize bull for in effect, being a bull, or a tree  “executed” for being associated with a disgraced general.

“I think when people look back at our time, they will be amazed at one thing more than any other.  It is this – that we do know more about ourselves now than people did in the past.  But that very little of it has been put into effect.  There has been this great explosion of information about ourselves.  The information is the result of mankind’s still infant ability to look at itself objectively.  It concerns our behaviour patterns.”

She wants to strengthen her historical, objective eye, she says, so she has considered long and hard this matter of how we might seem to people who come after us.

She notes that the passionate and powerful convictions of one era can be completely overturned in the next.  Lessing gives the example from the Second World War, while the Soviet Union was deemed an ally against Hitler, how affectionately that country was regarded in popular opinion.  During the ensuing Cold War, of course that kind of feeling became completely un-American and considered treasonous.

Lessing, although born in what is now Iran, grew up in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in southern Africa.  She moved to London when she turned 30.

The Enjoyment of War

She returned much later to Zimbabwe after what was in effect a race war there “that was very much uglier and more savage than we were ever told.”  Lessing found that many, especially former combatants on both sides, appeared to be in stunned, almost blank states of shock.  She attributed this to the participants’ knowledge of what we as humans are capable of, and the difficulty of taking this in.

But for the purpose of her discussion, the more interesting fact was that many fighters on both sides, black and white, had thoroughly enjoyed the war. It enabled them to put qualities they valued to full use in the midst of extreme brutality.

“People who have lived through a war know that as it approaches, an at first, secret, unacknowledged elation begins, as if an almost inaudible drum is beating … an awful, illicit, violent excitement is abroad.   Then the elation becomes too strong to be ignored or overlooked: then everyone is possessed by it.”

I have even experienced this, or something like it, on the verge of a riot, although still far away from the strength of passions that give rise to war.

After wars of course, everything becomes sentimentalized, and no one really speaks truly of the physical and psychological damage caused both to the soldiers and civilians.  Perhaps a sign of the damage is how difficult it becomes to address it.  We are left with the subtle glorifications of war that go on constantly and culminate each year in such rituals as Veterans Day.

Lessing says: Beware talk of “blood” in public or political discourse — it is a sign of reason about to make its departure.

Lessing notes psychological experiments that were well known even at the time of these essays that show how easily people can fall into the traps that catch mobs.  She cites one experiment where a large number of people from a town adjoining a university were invited to a large open area by a team of psychologists.   The townspeople showed up, but the psychologists couldn’t be found.  Two camps formed as to what the situation was and what needed to be done.  Conflict arose, tempers flared.  Young men started pushing and shoving.

After this rather arrogant social experiment, one of the psychologists came forward.  As Lessing describes it, the psychologist said, “You, the crowd, have only been here for a couple of hours and already you are separated into two camps, with leaders, and each side sees itself as a repository of all good, and the other camp as at the best wrong-headed.  And you were on the point of fighting about absolutely non-existent differences.”  And there are similar experiments that come to my mind about how simply putting a colored armband on people easily leads to division, strife and suffering.

“You are Damned, We are Saved”

The entire point of her lectures, Lessing says, is that we should not be surprised by this behaviour and all the examples of similar mis-applied passion.  This should be expected.  But we should “build what we know from history and from the laws of society we already have into how we structure our institutions.”  Unfortunately she does not go into great detail into how this might be done.

She does rely on the minority who do not always join the herd, who are not afraid to be independent in thought and deed.  She recommends that we should be thinking of ways “to educate our children to strengthen this minority and not, as we mostly do now, to revere the pack.”

Lessing describes her own time as a young woman when she became for a while a devout communist, and the groups of which she was a part believed that because of communism, everyone in the world could soon be living in harmony, love, plenty and peace, forever.

“This was insane.  And yet we believed it.  And yet such groups continually spring into existence everywhere, have periods when such beliefs are their diet, while they hate and persecute and revile anybody who does not agree with them.  It is a process that goes on all the time….”

“Switching Off to See Dallas”

She points out that all of us to some extent are brainwashed by the society we live in.  “We are able to see this when we travel to another country, and are able to catch a glimpse of our own country with foreign eyes.”

Brainwashing goes on all the time, through three common processes.

The first is tension followed by relaxation, as in the example of the Good Cop and the Bad Cop alternating during an interrogation.

The second is repetition, saying the same thing over and over again.

The third is the use of slogans or catch phrases — the reduction of complex ideas to simple, easy repeatable, sets of words.

Governments, corporations, religious groups use these all the time.

“The point I am making is that information we have been given about ourselves, as individuals, as groups, as crowds, as mobs, is being used consciously and deliberately by experts, which almost every government in the world now employs to manipulate its subjects.”

This has become almost a common place observation, now, in our world.  It can be observed in every election.

And what, we might ask cynically, is a possible response to this?

“It means, and I hope that this won’t sound too wild, choosing to laugh…. The researchers of brain-washing and indoctrination discovered that people who knew how to laugh resisted best. … Fanatics don’t laugh at themselves…. Bigots can’t laugh.  True believers don’t laugh.  Tyrants and oppressors don’t laugh at themselves, and don’t tolerate laughter at themselves.”  I think of Putin here, for some reason.

“Group Minds”

Lessing observes: “It is the hardest thing in the world to maintain an individual dissident opinion, as a member of a group.”  There are many psychological experiments which show how easy it is to sway the individual when a group thinks differently but is incorrect.

As her own experiment (and as a good example of her rebellious and contrary spirit), Lessing wrote two books under the assumed name of Jane Somers.  The books were submitted to publishers and critics.  She says that she deliberately sent copies of the books to all the people who considered themselves experts on her work.  Not only were the novels not recognized as Doris Lessing’s works but they were described in the most patronizing ways.

In the end as she predicted, when the farce was revealed, the British reviewers who were fooled decried the novels as no good, while critics in other countries thought they were quite wonderful.  It ended up leaving her sad about her profession: “Does everything have to be so predictable?  Do people really have to be such sheep?”

She goes on to mention the famous Milgram psychological experiments where people comply with instructions to give increasing shocks to people who eventually start shrieking with (simulated) pain behind a curtain before they fall ominously silent.

“Can you imagine this being taught in school, imagine it being taught to children: ‘If you are in this or that type of situation, you will find yourself, if you are not careful, behaving like a brute and a savage if you are ordered to do it.  Watch out for these situations.”

She later goes on:

“Imagine us saying to children: ‘In the last fifty or so years, the human race has become aware of a great deal of information about its mechanisms; how it behaves, how it must behave under certain circumstances.  If this is to be useful, you must learn to contemplate these rules calmly, dispassionately, disinterestedly, without emotion.  It is information that will set people free from blind loyalties, obedience to slogans, rhetoric, leaders, group emotions.’”

She notes that it is hard to imagine any government or political party allowing an education that might help to free people from governmental and state rhetoric and persuasion.  On the other hand, there don’t appear to be any democratic movements either that make a point of educating their membership about what is well-known about crowd psychology, group psychology.

In the end, Lessing was hopeful that as was happening in some places during the eighties, some countries that were tyrannies and dictatorships were moving to democracy such as Spain, Brazil and Argentina.

There is much more nuance in her discussion than I am able to indicate here, but what struck me the most was that if we really cared about democracy, the environment (which Lessing doesn’t touch on at all), and an equitable economy, we would be teaching our children what is already known in quite factual ways about the human animal and how it behaves and how it is influenced.

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Notes:

The photo of Doris Lessing is from a site called Tacno.net.

For a good overview of the ideas of William Irwin Thompson, an article by him called “It Has Already Begun” at the Context Institute website shows off in fairly concise form some of the insights and surprising turns of Bill’s “mind-jazz.”  It was written at about the same time as these lectures or essays of Doris Lessing.  To me now, it reveals two things: 1) the great optimism and breadth of Bill’s vision about “planetary culture”, and his hope for it despite ourselves and 2) how sometimes he would force events or trends he observed into a vision that he would have to twist around to accept those observables.  This article was written in the era of Reagan and before the Soviet Union succumbed.  His observations about Reagan, as one example, are pretty thin to me….  But “civilization as militarization” certainly rings true.

For more on Bill and his Lindisfarne Association see his site.  (For free recordings of talks from Lindisfarne, including Bill Thompson’s, see this site at the Shumacher Centre.)

For a little more on my experience of Lindisfarne, please see the posts “Of Warbikes and Wind Harps” and “The Art of Tony Stubbing.”

And as a side note, let me refer you to an article on The Twelve Virtues of Rationality, by Eliezer S. Yudkowsky.  My own …feeling… is that reason needs to be checked by gut feeling, and feeling checked by reason, but in this description of true rationality, I was struck by the twelfth virtue that comes before the other eleven.  Yudkowsky calls it the nameless virtue or the void:

“More than anything, you must think of carrying your map through to reflecting the territory.”

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