Archive for the 'Literature' Category

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

25
Jun
10

Weave richly the dream…

A couple of experiences from Go Play NW last weekend: first, I played my game The Dreaming Crucible with Joe McDaldno and Jackson Tegu. Jackson has a little Crucible experience, so for once I was able to turn the role of Dark Faerie over to another and just play the Hero. This meant that the other players were in charge of bringing the world of Faerie to life. And we had the most descriptively rich game of The Dreaming Crucible that I’ve every played.

A Well-Dressed Man who commanded the inanimate whisked young Aaron on a flying carpet to a vast clockwork plain and commanded him to repair it. A Stickboy borne on a raven persuaded the boy to flee the place, and secured a dog for him to ride through a forest pulsing with life. Aaron met an apple tree who was delighted for company but sad to think he might rob her of her apples. Then he lost his companions and the forest path turned to tile and walls rose up to hem him in and he almost spent forever in a bare room with a vanity and a chair. He came to a cottage where an old witch became an alluring girl and traded him the lives of his companions for passage to the Well Dressed Man’s black spire. The girl skinned the dog and Aaron wore him, still living, as a cloak as he and the Stickboy climbed the spire to confront his suave enslaver. Continue reading ‘Weave richly the dream…’

16
Apr
10

The Relevant Dickweed

One of the issues that’s puzzled me longest in roleplaying is how to provide socially functional opposition in a game. When is fictional murder, thievery, trickery, or hostility all good fun, and when is it “griefing” or bullying in real life? In other kinds of games this line is a lot clearer; players may argue over a foul in basketball but everyone has a clear expectation that yes, it’s your job to put the ball in the hoop and it’s my job to block your shot.

But in roleplaying games we’re telling stories. Some RPGs may have very clear opposing roles, like “It’s my job to try and kill you, and it’s your job to try and survive.” But where the storytelling goals are more subtle, things can get hazy.

Ron Edwards, co-founder of the Forge and author of cool games including Sorcerer and Trollbabe, was recently interviewed by Kevin Weiser for the Walking Eye podcast. At about the 30-minute mark of Part 2 (the interview is QUITE extensive, but worth it if you’ve got the stamina), he remarked, “There’s nothing wrong with playing the guy that I like to call the ‘dickweed character’, who’s causing trouble for the other characters all the way through. The best dickweed character in all of fantasy literature is Gollum. But the point is, is that that character is providing RELEVANT adversity.” Continue reading ‘The Relevant Dickweed’

08
Apr
10

What’s YOUR trajectory?

Last week I wrote about a couple of game experiences that really nailed a certain emotional desire for me. I rambled on for quite a bit about it! The bottom line was, I’m pursuing a certain element of intimate tragedy, through characters who care passionately for others, but whose presence can’t help but cause them pain. But now I’d like to hear about others’ experiences.

So how about it? What sort of narrative is YOUR heart seeking in the storytelling that you do or the storytelling that you receive? And by what sort of trajectories do characters approach that narrative in their inner qualities and fictional circumstances?

If I get a couple of answers there’s follow-up questions. But start with that for now!

Peace,

—Joel

30
Jan
10

Free Play 1 – The Sources

As promised a couple of weeks ago, I’m taking a look at Stephen Nachmanovitch’s Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art to see how it integrates with my current understanding of creativity, spontaneity and collaboration. It was one of my first encounters with the subject a decade ago, and I want to see how I relate to it now and deepen my understanding and practice.

Section 1: “The Sources” talks about creativity, what it “is” and where it “comes from.” He describes the goal of the improviser as “moment-to-moment nonstop flow.” The process looks something like: allow yourself to be in the moment, relax and let one moment flow into the next, sculpting your art in real time, daring to express your inmost nature. In that way you can free yourself to create for the sheer joy of the act itself, and ultimately “disappear” in the absolute immersion of the work.

Sure, sounds simple enough, but how, right? Well, there are lots of techniques and practices that aim toward this. But there’s no easy “spontaneous creativity” switch inside a person that they can throw and let it out. It’s a process, a wax-on, wax-off journey that develops the skill by practicing it until it becomes as natural as breathing. Continue reading ‘Free Play 1 – The Sources’

14
Jan
10

Free Play: a Flute and a Prologue

10 years or so ago I picked up a little book called Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch.  It lit up my whole switchboard and gave me a philosophy and direction for creative living. Its subtitle even found its way unconsciously into Story by the Throat’s tagline. This book was one of the first sources to talk about something I had a thirst for. I read it over and over, soaking up Stephen’s exciting ideas.

But now a decade later I find I’m barely closer to realizing these principles in my own life. So I’m going to take a closer look, step by step, and see how Free Play‘s concepts connect with the other things I’ve learned and experienced with creativity, spontaneity and collaboration.

I’ll begin delving into it in the next few days. Meanwhile, I present the Japanese folk tale from the book’s prologue. It speaks volumes all by itself: Continue reading ‘Free Play: a Flute and a Prologue’

26
Aug
09

Making Middle-Earth our own

I had a unique opportunity this month: I was paid to visit Middle-Earth.

I got to work for a week at Trackers Northwest’s “Welcome to Middle Earth” day camp for 8-10 year olds. The camp uses the trappings of Elves and Orcs and the One Ring to teach nature awareness and wilderness skills, by framing activities as a fantasy quest. I jumped at the chance to be involved.

I had a blast tromping through the woods with nine boys, practicing stealth, riddling with Gollum, finding clues, singing in Elvish. We journeyed to Rivendell (a cabin in the woods) for our last two days, met another group of adventurers and combined our quests–ours to destroy the One Ring, theirs to safeguard the Elven Ring Nenya.

I learned a lot about storytelling, group facilitation, and, well, kids. For instance, it was very important to establish that we were telling our own story, not recreating one from books or movies. This is especially hard when your story is based on a series of books and movies. People of all kinds are well versed in the use of knowledge for power and dominance–this is usually called “expertise.” With kids this is especially raw and potent: I’d say, “look, it’s a letter from Gandalf,” and a 10 year old would shout, “Gandalf’s dead!” this made it important to get all the kids on board with the concept that we’re all working together to tell our own story.

Next time I’ll lean hard on that right from the start. By the last day of camp, everyone was pretty focused and bought in to our “quest” and its fictional framework.  When I led the troop into the woods of Rivendell (our Rivendell) to find the Fires of Mt. Doom (our Mt. Doom) that had bubbled up there, that we might destroy the One Ring (our One Ring) and extinguish the flames from the land, nobody balked or heckled. In fact, I never saw so much focus. I’d been pleading in vain all week for these kids to practice moving quietly through the woods and watch for hand signs from the person in point. But this time, they did it. They crept in silence, the tension palpable. We moved as one, halting, crouching, looking and listening. As we neared the spot where foul Orcs guarded Mordor’s fire, the anticipation was nearly unbearable. Some kids whispered, “I know it’s just a story but I’m actually scared!” Then we fanned out with our foam arrows at clearing’s edge, and struck! When they were too much for our arrows, we drove them away with Elvish Song, and were victorious!

I think my young charges were slightly shocked that I was really going to let them throw my souvenir replica One Ring into a roaring fire, and not fish it back out. I saw the last vestiges of cynicism drain away as it sailed into the embers.

Imagine if I could get that buy-in right from the start. Imagine if, by the end of the first day, I had nine kids all committed, primed and ready to enter into a shared Dream together, to all shape that dream as equal partners. The emerging narrative of our week together was primarily shaped by me and my ideas and props, secondarily by the books and movies, and only tertiarily by the kids’ imaginations. I can only dream of what that would look like flipped on its head–children boldly and brilliantly seizing story in their hands, learning to break down and eventually ignore the constraints of popular culture and consumer entertainment they’ve been bred to. next year, I hope to see that firsthand.

That’s what I strive for, in all arenas, with Story by the Throat.

Peace,

-Joel




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