10
Aug
13

A story means itself

The Secret of Roan Inish dir. John SaylesLast fall, I took a Native American Studies course with the wonderful instructor Judy Bluehorse Skelton. Our text was extremely shallow and inadequate, but the best Judy could find, so we used this as an opportunity to challenge and interrogate the text as an opportunity for thought-provoking discussion. As we examined the book chapter by chapter, we arrived at the chapter on Native American Literature.

I was excited at the outset, because stories are dear to my heart and the thought of being exposed to a trove of new, rich authors was delightful. But the chapter bothered me on a deeper level than any previous. Its constant explanation of the themes in the literature was unwelcome and intrusive: I was being told what to think about these narratives, rather than getting to simply experience them. It actually robbed me of an important facet of that experience, by imposing an outside interpretation before I’d even gotten to read them for myself.

It was an essentially colonialist approach to appreciating stories; studying and cataloging, sorting by theme, and essentially treating them as a dead thing—no, more than that, even actively killing them in the name of preserving their valuable qualities. Since the text brought up the relationship of literature to language, I was struck by the parallel to language learning, specifically the value of approaching a language on its own terms rather than trying to translate the words into your own context. There’s a reason Willem Larsen, founder of Language Hunters, calls this “Killing Fairies“; something very real does die when you use analytical tools to hammer another language into your native language’s shape. The same applies to stories: a story is, and doesn’t have a “literal translation”; it means itself. When authors Kidwell and Velie  tried to nail down the “meaning” of a novel, the novel itself wriggled out of their grasp.

It’s a difficult paradox: how do you you appreciate and discuss stories when the language of analytics ultimately fails to truly describe a story in a fundamental and catastrophic way? I suppose the starting point is simply acknowledging the limitations of such discourse, even if we can’t entirely escape it.

Which is not to say I wish to disengage my critical brain when I encounter stories! But it’s a tricky balance, maintaining awareness of stories’ agenda while honoring and taking nourishment from them. For me, experiencing a story involves a sort of surrender to the internal reality and modality of the tale; it’s “true” (though that’s an inadequate and misleading word) in its own context, true in a felt, emotional, mythic sense, even if it doesn’t refer to “facts.” Examining the problematic elements of a story is an important part of the process, but that comes later. First comes immersion, the living and feeling of the story as it washes over me. If a story’s message or agenda is too noxious, I won’t be able to achieve that immersion (and probably be more well off for it), but that experience is my goal, and the standard by which all stories are judged.

Because I couldn’t engage with the stories dissected by Kidwell and Velie, which I hadn’t read for myself—novels like House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday and Ceremony by  Leslie Marmon Silko—my thoughts turned to a story which I do know, which also deals with the theme of connection to the land: the film The Secret of Roan Inish, based on the novel The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry, by Rosalie K. Fry.

In Roan Inish, an island off the coast of Ireland (Scotland in the novel) is deserted by the fishing community that lives there, as the younger generation becomes restless for the city and moves there in search of work. Only the old remain, living on the mainland in sight of the isle. All concerned is portrayed as broken and empty, needing connection with the island to be whole. (“Do you miss it greatly?” “Roan Inish? Ah, it’s only a place, I suppose. Mostly I miss the way of life. You’re surrounded by the sea, with your whole family about ye.”) A girl, Fiona, is sent by her city-dwelling, widowed father back to live with her grandparents on the coast. The country-dwelling family seems more connected with their place—with the land and sea—than the city-folk, but are still wounded by their severed tie to Roan Inish. Her baby brother Jamie had been lost at sea in the evacuation, forming a living symbol of the disconnect from their place: “The sea had taken poor wee Jamie. It was angry with us for leaving Roan Inish.” The old folk know they belong on the island, but are resigned to their lot. The next generation want nothing to do with the place. It’s only the children Fiona and Eamon who are able to provoke the family to action and reconcile them with the island. As I write these words, I know that I’m doing violence to these stories, as surely as the Kidwell/Velie text does violence to the stories it explains. I have to stop; I’ve said too much. The only words that have any life in them are the scant quotes from the actual film. I’d rather you hear ten words of it than a thousand of mine:

My words are not the stories; they are only a brutish finger pointing clumsily at the stories themselves. I don’t know how else to write about them, though. Game designer Vincent Baker is fond of saying that when someone asks him a roleplaying theory question, he can’t answer it, except by designing a game around it. In his interview on Clyde Rhoer’s Theory from the Closet [49.15], he put it like this: “I’m a game designer, not a statement creator! If I want you to understand [a particular game design concept]…I’m going to design a game and put it in front of you, and you’ll understand how it works in that game.”

Ultimately, the way to share the gifts of these tales would not be to write a paper about them, but to simply share them—give you a book to read, or sit down with you and watch a film. Or tell you a story. Or play a game together. I think it’s no accident that in so many traditions, elders and teachers answer questions with a story. The story isn’t an explanation or an example of the answer, the story is the answer. Even in Christian tradition, Jesus mainly just tells stories, and says “he who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Only when pressed, in a couple of Gospel accounts, does he finally concede and give an explanation to his closest followers, presumably reluctantly.

A story is itself. A story is lived experience, both of the teller and of the untold generations through which the stories have been handed down. A people who think in stories (and not in platitudes or in “rational arguments”) would, I feel, have a greater grounding in love and empathy and of relationship to the wider world.

Peace,

—Joli

31
Oct
12

The Bottom

When you step off a city bus

In Sellwood
on a bright October day
leave the sidewalk
pass through upright poles
stand in sunlight
gulp water from a fountain

that’s when you know you’ve stepped
out of the world you know
off the grid
out of the race

And into stability
into connectedness
back to the Earth

A world living
growing
whole.
Continue reading ‘The Bottom’

10
Oct
12

The Chickens and the Half-wild Heart

It’s been a few short months since the half-wild years ended. For two years Annie, Niamh, our dog Gunnar and I lived in the Scappoose/St. Helens area, a rural cluster of towns an hour’s drive out of Portland. We moved there to live on land; we moved there to raise a daughter away from the stress and grime and danger of the city; we moved there to raise animals and grow food; we moved there to know deep peace and let our souls drink deep of the song of stars and trees and hawks and dragonflies.

And after two years at two farms, we’re back in the city, having traded a field for a yard, a wild space for a domesticated grid. We didn’t make this decision lightly, and we made it for positive, proactive reasons: to finish school, both of us, and to partner with relatives in caring for Niamh. This is a step forward, not a retreat. But we did leave the wild place, which upon our departure Annie named the Big Green. It wasn’t that wild, honestly. We were just off the highway, and the second farm was bounded by a row of housing developments. But it was wild enough, wild enough to be alive, to speak to us, to breathe its breath through us, to make us feel that we were living on planet earth and sharing that life with other furred, feathered and leafy neighbors.

Continue reading ‘The Chickens and the Half-wild Heart’

18
Sep
12

Story is what we make.

Last month I tabled at the Portland Zine Symposium for the second time. My first year was fun and inspiring, but my success as a publisher and creator was limited: a few people bought books, a few more shared some brief, enthusiastic conversations, and mostly people gave a glance and passed by. That’s par for the course at an event like this—the interests represented are vast and diverse, nobody has time or attention for everything, etc. But I knew there was a lot I could do to improve my approach and have a stronger presence for next year.

And I did! This year I snagged a table for both days, which helped for a start. And I knew from last year that my game The Dreaming Crucible, while it’s at the low end of the size and pricing pool for most roleplaying products, at the Zine Symposium it’s a pretty high price point, even at a discount. Which led a lot of people last year to get excited, see the price, and sadly walk away. So I decided that I would keep offering the Crucible, but add something scaled better to the Zine environment.

And thus Wilding Tales was born! Wilding Tales is a mini story game that takes the form of 5 Pocketmod booklets, each containing a different character to play in a small, intimate story of post-collapse community. It’s an experiment in distilling storygaming to its barest essence, as well as providing as simple and accessible an introduction to the activity. And I think I succeeded! I’m still working out the kinks, but expect a version of Wilding Tales to be available online soon.

I tabled with The Dreaming Crucible and Wilding Tales for both days of the Symposium, and here’s what I discovered: first, several people I vaguely recognized made a beeline for the Crucible and said something like “Hi, I saw this at the last Symposium and held off buying it ’cause of the price, but I thought about it ALL YEAR, and I’m buying it now!” It appears there was a slow burn effect going on; the price point caused people to hesitate, but come back to buy it after thinking it over. I’m comfortable with this. I completely understand the desire to be cautious with one’s spending at a show like this, and it’s also very gratifying to know that folks who were interested, then said “I dunno, let me think about it” weren’t just blowing smoke.

My second discovery is that Wilding Tales was a perfect fit for the Zine Symposium! Lots of tablers at the Symp focus on small $1-5 products that are easy to impulse-buy without a lot of financial commitment, and the tales filled that niche nicely. I arrive with unassembled booklets, and I found they flew off the table as fast as I could cut, fold and glue them!

I did have a lot of learning to do in terms of how to package Wilding Tales. One book does nothing; you need two to play and three or more is ideal. So I ended up pricing them 3 for $2 to incentivize purchasing multiples, and by the end of the show I’d figured out that really, the set of five was the “unit,” and that’s what I pushed, 5/$4. I have dreams of a “collect the whole set” element, with different players having different books and clustering off to play new and surprising games with characters they’ve never seen before, in infinite combinations. But that’ll have to wait until there are many more characters designed, and I still will never sell them singly. The point is to be able to play right away!

All in all, the show was a lot of fun and more energizing for me than last year’s. I did a lot of trades, which always feels great: it puts the interaction on a footing of sharing passion and takes it out of the realm of commerce. I picked up a lot of neat stuff: highlights include vintage anarchist lit publisher Corvus Editions, with whom I traded Wilding Tales for Portland Oregon A.D. 1999, a century-old futurist writing;  delightful superhero relationship comic The Flying Mess by Whitney Gardner; cryptych, a tiny, beautiful book of e.e. cummings tribute poetry by Loren mccRory (a trade for Dreaming Crucible); and the re-release of Love Is Not Constantly Wondering if You Are Making the Biggest Mistake of Your Life. I admired the breathtaking Collective Tarot and got to flip over a card, finding one pregnant with meaning for me. Plus a huge pile of journal zines, silly comics and photos, screen printed decorative patches, buttons and stickers.

A woman from the Timberland Regional Library in Olympia bought a copy of all my stuff for the library; she said that a co-worker had asked her to look specifically for gaming zines, and I’m glad I could fit that bill. I had nice camaraderie with my tablemates, lots of friendly support from Symposium volunteers like Christina “Blue” Crow, and even met a few friends of Olympia friends while wearing my Fabricated Realities shirt. An afterparty with Karaoke and Beer at the Independent Publishing Resource Center topped of a wonderful weekend.

I can’t get over the wonderful thrill of PZS. Even a month later I’m feeling the creative and social high. It’s not just that it’s a great venue for small-scale self-publishers to hawk their wares—though it is that. It’s also a place where everyone’s voice is heard, where people are doing more than buying and swapping products, they’re swapping passions, swapping dreams, swapping stories. Because our stories are what we make. I can’t wait for next year, and I’m excited to continue exploring the intersection between crafting our own publications and making stories together.

Peace,

—Joel

26
Aug
12

A Beautiful Reality

Fabricated Realities is a story game convention in Olympia where games are played inside art installations. Last month I attended for the second year running. It was, once again, one of the richest, most socially bonding and energizing experiences of my life.

It’s hard to describe why. I mean, the art was delightful. And the games played were rewarding and emotionally resonant. And the folks at the convention are some of the sweetest, most thoughtful and wildly creative folks I’ve ever known. But it’s more than the sum of its parts. All those factors combine in an indescribable alchemy to produce something truly wonderful.

How does this alchemy occur? What’s the process? Well, let’s start with the most obvious ingredient: roleplaying inside FREAKING ART INSTALLATIONS. Seriously, from the moment I first heard of the concept, I knew this alone would be worth the price of admission. Even if nothing Olympiaelse was altered from my usual play culture and tecnhiques, it would be wonderful to play games inside art. Self-evidently.

Continue reading ‘A Beautiful Reality’

30
Jun
12

Sorcerer: inaction and consequence

After 7 years of anticipation, pondering, forum reading and false starts, I played an extremely satisfying game of Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer with some friends. Jesse Burneko of the Play Passionately blog and Actual People, Actual Play podcast was the gamemaster.

Jesse brought a craft and focus to the game that finally made Sorcerer “click” with me. I’d already learned a lot from my own failures with the game, but the “negative learning” of working out what not to do just didn’t compare with the positive learning of seeing what a well-run, super-charged and engaged game of Sorcerer looks like. It was the final piece in the puzzle of consistently fun and rewarding play of the game, for me.

Our game was called “Down by the Sea,” set in a West Coast town modeled on Venice Beach in California. Home to bohemian artsy types, small-business entrepreneurs and homeless beach campers, this cozy community was the backdrop for three characters: Sebastian, hedonistic nightclub owner  who led a cult of Dynonisian hedonism and whose club was a powerful demon that hungered for decadent acts to be performed within its walls. Kelly, an art director whose Demon, Kennedy, was a smoking hot babe determined to see him go far in the art world, at any cost. Gunther, a homeless anarchist shit-kicker whose leather jacket was a Demon named Vildgrim that craved mayhem and battle.

Continue reading ‘Sorcerer: inaction and consequence’

05
Jun
12

Body

I am carrying my body
Or maybe it carries me
A vessel of muscle and respiration
Of heartbeat and headache

Lifting me

From a place of relative peace
Into that river of fear and happiness
And sensation and tension and annoyance and excitement

That I call
“My day.”

It lifts me, and I drag it
Wheezing and protesting
Toward duties and desires
Straining toward outcomes.

Continue reading ‘Body’




Archives


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 36 other followers