Things have been slow here, for me, for a number of reasons. Let’s talk about them, honorable blog reader. Or rather, I’ll write about them and you’ll read my writings.
(If that doesn’t work for you feel free to go)
Recent posts here have taken the simple-to-understand format of an image, created by me, along with some text. Usually funny text. This has been going on since the first quarter of 2011, when I stopped trying to say smart things online and just concentrated on getting better at drawing and painting with watercolours.
This has worked out pretty well. I’m feeling confident about my ability with watercolours and drawing. People have started asking me to draw things for them, which is amazing (thanks guys!) and fun, and something I love doing. I’ve sold work at auctions, and even turned down sales (sorry guys!) and just generally had a lot more fun than when I was doing things with computers.
But the thing that’s missing is words.
Without the little bit of text that goes under my images, they’re just watercolours. Sometimes they’re not the best watercolours, but I’ve got a story I want to tell, and the combination of words and text work well. This is a problem for putting my work into a visual domain, as you can’t hang a picture with a bunch of text next to it. Picture galleries are really unfriendly to anything that breaks the mould of thing-on-wall-in-frame, because they want to ignore contemporary art (apart from the price-tags).
As you might tell from this blogpost, I can usually stick words together fine. Not for any meaningful stuff though – that always gives me the yips, and means I have to stop. I totally have a thing to write about my time in Liverpool (in April!) that I haven’t done yet. This year I tried to do NaNoWriMo and failed, because I found myself stuck in my office chair all day, slowly typing garbage into a word processor, while wishing I was drawing.
My problem with NaNoWriMo was twofold; the aim of producing 50,000 words by the end of the month was something that I had not prepared enough to do, and secondly, I didn’t enjoy writing fiction. I’ve recently discovered a fascination for history, and the strange stories it throws up (like the world’s first roundabout being visited by Stalin, or the Viking discovery of America).
But the big problem is that I just have no support groups to talk to. I have no like-minded souls here in Bedfordshire – I’ve got some excellent friends here, with busy and interesting lives, but there’s no creative community that thinks about making things. For a while, I tried to get a book group I was part of to make a fanzine about books, but the idea was just too foreign for them to carry it through.
I try not to talk about the other stuff I don’t have here. For the longest time, I’ve been holed up in a small market town, recovering, and the lack of a peer group (or even people in my age range) has been useful. Relaxing, even. I’ve not had anybody around me with whom I could compare myself, not even slightly – no need to “keep up with the Joneses” when you’re an artist and they’re an IT professional. But, without a creative community to be a part of, when does a lone artist start looking like a crazy fool?
So, in some ways, the slow-down here has been me trying to understand what to do next. It would be easy to fall into a despondency, to say “nobody understands me!”, but that doesn’t get stuff done. I like writing words, but can’t make pictures when I do. I enjoy making pictures, but they need words to mean something. So… some kind of words + pictures type deal?
But I am slow, dear reader. So very slow at doing things. I really struggle to make things happen, and I often get caught up in the minutiae instead of getting down to making things fast.
In her book about creativity, Twyla Tharp mentions the idea of “the Bubble”. This is when a creative person strips away all the extraneous stuff of their life, and commits themselves to making their art, structuring their life so that they focus exclusively on creation. Tharp gives the example of the writer Phillip Roth, who lived alone in the countryside, producing some of his most acclaimed work in a monastic existence.
This is pretty tempting. You see, I’ve been reading and researching into creativity – what it is, how we use it, and where we get the sense of what we want to do when we are being creative. One of the most interesting books in this area is a book about improv, the drama school thing of “making stuff up”, which is talked about at length by Keith Johnstone in his book “Impro“.
“As I grew up,” begins his book, “everything started getting grey and dull.” Johnstone asks why we change from playful children to locked-down adults, and unpacks that shift from creativity to sober adulthood. He lays a lot of blame at schools, and I have to agree with him; I have never had a good learning experience at a school, college, or university. In fact, what I am doing today (writing, drawing, and making jokes), is stuff I was either told I couldn’t do, or I was actively told not to do.
So I’m pretty mad about my schooling.
If you do any research into art history, it soon becomes apparent that the people who are the best in their field are the people who started young. What our education does is set people up to have an understanding of many fields, but a specialisation in none – great if you’re going to be a manager, but crap if you want to specialise as a tradesman.
Of course, I couldn’t leave school at 14 and train to be an artist. I had a friend who left school at that age and trained to do carpentry for building sites, and he’s doing pretty well for himself. But there was a slot for him to drop into; there was a route for people to become tradesmen, like he did, but not a route for people to stay creative.
I find myself wondering if the current glut of stand-up comics is made of people not suited for the median-style management education, who have both intelligence and creativity but are taught to reject more traditional forms of expression as childish. Without being able to use any other media than language, where else would those people turn but comedy?
I went out on Sunday to do some more sketches from the area, but the park I was headed to was closed (thanks a bunch, local council) so I ended up sitting in the graveyard with my watercolours, totally paranoid that I was going to get locked in because it was getting late. Eventually, my bladder won out, and I returned home.
Just as I was crossing the last road before my house, I saw a bottle of malibu lying next to the path and bent down to pick it up… and then the above happened. I’m not sure how I feel about comics. I came to the conclusion recently that if I tried to write them I would go insane, so I’m quite surprised this popped out when I sat down to draw.
Last week, I went into Cambridge to meet my old friend Liz. We wandered around Cambridge, drinking coffee and catching up. We also went to the amazing Zoology Museum, which I have mentioned before, and looked at their collection of (mostly disgusting) animals in jars. I had a great time talking with Liz, who knows me from my university days and after, when I was living in Newcastle.
That night I was exhausted, however, and I tried to watch “Me, You, and Everyone We Know” by Miranda July. I hated it, and decided to return it in the post to Lovefilm. Sometimes, on these late-night walks out to the post office, I find a bunch of petrolheads hanging out in the car park, but this time my walk out was uneventful. Until I got home.
On the grass outside my house, Lucky the cat was teasing a mouse. Lucky is somewhat ironically named, as the first time I found out what his name was was just after he had been neutered. An attractive black tom, he is forever fighting the other cats in the area for dominance. That night he had caught a mouse, and mistook my interest in it for an offer to team up. I distracted him long enough for the mouse to crawl, slightly broken, off into the far grass. I considered picking it up and taking it home, but I thought that neither the mouse, the cat, nor me would be entirely happy with that idea.
The next day I drew up these events as postcards. I send a lot of postcards; I feel really stymied at the moment, and I don’t know what to do next. To be honest, I’m a bit lost, and it’s like these postcards remind people that I’m still around. Hello outside world! How’s it going out there?
My iPhone has started to autocorrect the word “others” to the word “otters”. I’ve managed to catch it before I sent out any confusing texts, but it’s only a matter of time…
“Are you coming down the pub?”
“Be there soon. Are there any otters out tonight?”
After reading Jessica Patient’s blog-post about distractions, I thought I’d chime in. I’ve spent this year so far re-discovering my creativity, and a big part of that is getting over the distractions and inertia that regular life offers – after all, couches are designed to be comfortable, and TV is made to be watchable. But part of being creative is working out why you’re not just relaxing on the couch with your favourite box set…
You can’t really list your distractions until you know what your work is. I once knew a guy who was an impoverished musician; for as long as I’d known him, he had been short of money. I’d regularly see him busking in town, and his clothes went through various states until they could best be described as “threadbare”.
One day he turned to me and said “money’s getting a bit short. I might have to go back to my old job – being a dentist”. Colour me every fucking shade of surprised! Steve, the genial musician who lived on nothing, had what I’d been looking for; the secret entrance to pots of cash and a steady career. Before he’d just been another guy on the same economic strata as me; now I saw that he was slumming it.
Of course, I was wrong.
“I just couldn’t take all the kids crying because of me”, he said. “I spent all day doing kids teeth, and they all hated me at the end of the day. So I quit”.
Steve wasn’t a penniless musician out of choice. He had walked away from one of the most profitable careers around because his distractions came at a base level of humanity. A level that he couldn’t ignore. I think a lot of distractions really function at this deep level, and that the things we use to distract ourselves are just tools.
Most of the time, we just don’t want to fail at doing something. We don’t want to make something ugly or clunky, something not perfect, and so we end up reading the paper or watching the TV rather than putting in the hard work to make something beautiful. That’s what I’m doing now; I’m not writing a short piece about distraction, I’m distracting myself, because when this is finished, I have to pick what my work is going to be.
I hate it
when you think
what I am.
I hate it
when I think
you know what I am.
One of us
to have to back me up
when I do
And I don’t want to put that pressure on you.
Part One: The Introduction
The following is a review I really laboured over. I’ve joined a book group, and as part of that group’s activities we’re doing a bit of writing on the books over at a blog devoted to that purpose. Being a sort of informal, often drunk, slightly shouty book group, the blog hasn’t really been fully sorted out, and anyway, it’s purpose is to host the reviews of books.
About somewhere in the second draft of this review, I felt that the material I was throwing out was as interesting as what I was keeping in. On my own blog, I can bore the pants off you about deserted supermarkets as much as I want; I think writing for somebody else’s blog means sticking to a point, or at least agreeing to set of rules. Those rules are what makes blogs like Daring Fireball or Coilhouse great – focused entertainment. A topic, around which to circle about, diverge from, and return to. Both the audience and the writers know that there will be a pay-off for attention.
So the essay I was going to post on that site would have been shortened. It would have missed out some stuff that I really wanted to mention. Those topics will be mentioned briefly, as a list of links, in a third part. For now though, here is the review.
Part Two: Review of Warlock of Firetop Mountain
The nerdery levels of the 1980s were high. In the 1960s, and for a long period in the 1970s, Lord of The Rings had carved a massive swathe through popular culture. This wasn’t the same swathe that the movies would carve in the 2000s; instead, people read the books, devoting a huge period of time and mental energy to imagining – for themselves – Tolkien’s world.
Some people did it because it was the done thing. Some people did it because they were massive nerds who wanted to live in Middle Earth. And, I suppose, some people just wanted to read a good story (although I won’t get into the literary merits of LotR at this time). But if you ever wonder why Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth is a sort of ur-myth for fantasy, it’s because we live in a time when the nerdy kids of the sixties and seventies have worked hard, created art inspired by Tolkien, and in turn inspired others.
The range of Fighting Fantasy books is one instance of that inspiration. It’s authors were steeped in the subculture of roleplaying games, where nerdy individuals acted out fantastic stories. Contemporary roleplaying has been co-opted by the computer industry, but in the pre-internet eighties roleplaying was about meeting with some equally nerdy friends, rolling some dice, and acting out a story co-operatively.
What made the Fighting Fantasy books (and their American Cousin, the Choose Your Own Adventure series) such a hit was that they made the roleplaying experience a solitary one. As computers got better they replaced the need this unwieldy combination of book and game, and instead offered the same experience in an easier-to-consume package.
That experience is that of a person who acts. Somebody who does things. In the Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the things you do are an awful lot of killing. Mainly, you are killing the henchmen of the evil warlock. You act decisively and without regret, never thinking about the trail of devastation left behind you.
What is lost is twofold; both the original roleplaying experience (perhaps you would befriend the minions of the warlock, and – by play-acting with your friends – convince them to help you, like Frodo convinces Gollum in Lord of the Rings) and the experience of becoming wrapped up in a narrative.
This review is, therefore, not a book review. Rather it is a review of a book-like object; it has pages, but you do not turn them one by one, forgetting where you are as a story whisks you away. Instead, you shuttle back and forth between different numbered paragraphs, roll dice, and consider whether going “north” up the corridor is better than going “south”.
In truth, it doesn’t matter. Your character is alone in a maze of choices, trying to find that individual path to victory, and if you succeed you have succeeded alone. The experience is so unique that you cannot even discuss it with somebody who has also succeeded in the quest, because they will not have read the same parts of the book as you. You can discuss something similar, but without a joint entry into some other narrative, it isn’t a shared experience.
And without that commonality, there is nothing to review.
Part Three: An Appendix in the Form of Links
- One Book, Many Endings: an analysis of the American counterparts to Fighting Fantasy, using sophisticated animations to show how they progressed. Worth reading.
- Fighting Dantasy: a blog which reviews individual Fighting Fantasy books.
- Firetop Mountain iPhone App: the contemporary version. Reviews of this game often skip over explaining exactly what it is
- Enemy of Chaos, Leila Johnson’s witty and affectionate take on gaming books. I played it as an iPhone game, but it is also available as a real physical book-like object.
- Nethack, the venerable dungeon-crawling game, dates from around the same time as the Fighting Fantasy books.
- LotR in the terminal: type
cat /usr/share/calendar/calendar.history | grep "LOTR"at the command line of any Mac to see just how influential Tolkien was. When the basics of the computer age were being written, some neck-bearded nerd snuck in a lot of references to LotR into a file. They’re still there.
“In the past year, I graduated from college, got a desk job, and bought an iPhone: the three vertices of the Bermuda Triangle into which my ability to think in the ways that matter most to me has disappeared. My mental landscape is now so altered that its very appearance must be different than it was at this time last year. I imagine my brain as a newly wretched terrain, littered with gaping chasms (What’s my social security number, again?), expansive lacunae (For the thousandth time, the difference between “synecdoche” and “metonymy,” please?), and recently formed fissures (How the fuck do you spell “Gyllenhaal?”). This is your brain on technology.”
From “Sad as Hell”, by Alice Gregory. Read the rest at N+1 magazine’s website. I highly recommend it.
I would also recommend N+1′s publication, “What was the Hipster?”, which can be obtained from the London Review Bookshop, or for an extortionate amount from the N+1 website. Word to the wise though, N+1 seem to be having some trouble with distribution in the UK.
“Maybe some of you know politicians. Maybe you hang out with them, went to school with them, exchange Christmas cards with them. I’m guessing not, though. Politicians tend not to hang out with people like you, almost by definition. Typically, someone interested enough in the arts to be reading the Believer has spent a lot of time doing things that disqualify you not only from a career in politics, but from even knowing people who have a career in politics. While you were smoking weed, sleeping around, listening to Pavement, reading novels, watching old movies, and generally pissing away every educational opportunity ever given to you, they were knocking on doors, joining societies, reading the Economist, and being very, very careful about avoiding people and situations that might embarrass them later. They are the people who were knocking on your door five minutes after you arrived at college, asking for your vote in the forthcoming student-representative election; you thought they were creeps, and laughed at them behind their backs. Meanwhile, they thought you were unserious and unfocused, and patronized you irritatingly if you ever had cause to be in the same room. I hope that, however old you are, you have already done enough to kill any serious political ambition. If you haven’t wasted huge chunks of your life on art, booze, and soft drugs, then you’ve wasted huge chunks of your life and we don’t want you around here. Go away.”
Nick Horby, the Believer, March/April 2011