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Bastian’s Reign

What would happen if you got everything you wanted?

No, I’m serious – imagine your most base, secret desire, your weirdest pipe dream, the thoughts that hide in pillowcases and shower drains, and imagine what it would be like to be given that.

Now imagine it in more detail.

And more.

And more.

Spend a good 10 minutes plotting out the logistics.

No, don’t let go. It’s not stupid. This is important. Really, think it through in detail.

How would people treat you, now that you have this thing? How much would your life change? Would you be able to handle that change? What would your life look like? What would you forget about yourself, about your journey to getting the thing, about who you really are deep down? And, most importantly, what would you desire next?

I am not trying to encourage the practice of visualization preached in The Secret. I am actually very anti-Secret, as the book plays into the fundamental attribution error, a cognitive bias that we need to overcome, and this inspires some real human verbal feces. (In short, it’s fine – delusional, but fine – to believe The Secret works for yourself; never make any assumptions about other people.)

But visualizing what you want is still very important.

This shouldn’t be difficult. We’re wired for desire, encouraged to want things from a very young age – from commercials for breakfast cereal to the sly seductiveness of native advertisements hidden in your favorite book. We are barraged with things to want constantly, told what to want. But it is difficult, isn’t it?

When was the last time you went a full day without seeing one ad? When has been the last time someone’s asked you, “What do you want?” and meant it, without trying to sell you something?

Now, I want you to keep visualizing getting your most secret desire until its most uncomfortable, realistic level.

And I want you to ask yourself: Is this dream version of you happy?

I would argue … maybe not?

Bastian's (1)


I have been working on the same fantasy series for nearly 15 years. Recently while moving from one apartment to another, I came across an old outline of the story I wrote while still in high school. The notes are messy. The characters’ names have changed. But the heart of it is the same: a sad story in which a bored teenage boy manipulates his way into heaven, only to find himself unhappy there, all why treading on divine feminine power.

I particularly like my younger self’s notes at the end:

“Happy Ending….

…kinda…”

(If that’s not my brand, I don’t know what is.)

The story plays with meta-narrative, messes with the reader, calls back to the differences between reality and fantasy, and pays with concepts like wishes, memories, subconscious desires and power.

But that’s … a story for another time.

Little did I know, I was retracing the narrative steps of a much more accomplished writer, whose work has been severely misunderstood.

Today, I wanted to write about Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, and how it relates to so many disparate things: the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, occultism, the woes of late-stage capitalism, hipster minimalism, and even that dumpster fire, Aleister Crowley.

(“Abusive Aleister Crowley and the softest of dragon puppies Falkore are somehow related?” you ask? Yes. We’ll get there.)

THAT “REVOLTING” MOVIE

That _Revolting_ Movie

You probably know about The Neverending Story via the film, because most English-speakers do. You might be interested to note that author Michael Ende called it a “disgusting” film, referring to it as “that revolting movie.” He went on to say, “The makers of the film simply did not understand the book at all. They just wanted to make money.

And his contempt wasn’t just based in aesthetic choices. He actually filed a lawsuit against the film’s creators, saying,

“My moral and artistic existence is at stake in this film.”

He lost the case.

Knowing what I know now, despite the fact that this “revolting” movie is one of my all-time favorite family films, I agree with him. He should have been angry and was right to sue. I believe he should have won.

Unlike Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Coraline, or the Harry Potter series, all of which had their authors involved in the process of film-making, this film had nothing to do with the author’s vision, or the author’s intent. It goes beyond petty complaints of an attention-sucking egotistical diva and goes more into destruction of an entire work in the public’s eyes – the whole reason copyright exists in the first place. To me, if copyright didn’t help protect the art in this case, I don’t really see the point of using copyright to protect art at all. There’s the death of the author, and then there’s the people making money off of the author’s books while pissing on his grave and saying they’re watering the flowers.

Why all the rage from Ende? What could possibly be so abhorrent as to warrant a massive lawsuit? Was Ende just being an ungrateful artist?

Let me just say that the film stops in the middle of the book. Its whole narrative, thematically, is nothing like its source material at all. Here is a short summary description of the changes:

TL;DW: After Bastian gets the seed of creation from the Empress at the end of the 1984 movie, Bastian basically turns into an anti-hero after going mad with power from all his desires, wishing himself to be the smartest, strongest, sexiest, most powerful, most influential influencer in that realm of existence. (And who’s to blame him? That’s a mood even adult me can get behind.)

bastian meme

Then he forgets who he really is, even his own name, until he learns to love his damn self, whatever that pesky “self” thing is. He struggles to get out of the hell he created for himself out of a innocent and utopic fantasy. He emerges from his fantasy world strong – not in the physical sense but in the Nietzchean sense – with a strong will and sense of self, and the thing that brings him out of this world is seeing his clinically depressed father’s tears.

WOW. WHAT A DIFFERENT THEME FROM A MOVIE THAT PREACHED TO DREAM YOUR WAY OUT OF PROBLEMS AND CHASE DOWN YOUR BULLY ENEMIES WITH AN IMAGINARY DRAGON.

Not only is the content cut in half, but the theme was also completely, utterly neutered. The Dom’s comparison of “It’s sort of like someone making a Romeo and Juliet movie and stopping at the marriage” is an accurate one. In the end, you have a film that not only doesn’t capture the source material, not only captures a different theme, but captures the complete opposite theme.

The book warns us, the readers, directly through this meta-loop of reading about Bastian, the dangers of escapism, dreaming, wishing, fantasy, and wants – that you can literally lose yourself in desire, and compassion for others is the only thing that can bring us out of that spiral of hedonism which will never be satisfied.

The movie, however, follows the same narrative that a capitalism needs: want, as much as you can, as hard as you can, as often as you can.

A Dream

Why would they gut it that much?

Well, Hollywood likes to tell us to dream. Disney’s identity is built on the concept of dreaming, even still.

  • “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” – Cinderella: This most #basic of wanting-stuff-is-good songs.
  • “When You Wish Upon a Star” – Pinocchio: This is basically The Secret for kids.
  • “I’m Wishing” – Snow White: I’m wanting.
  • “Once Upon a Dream” – Sleeping Beauty: I wanted this while it was sleeping and now wowie it’s real.
  • “Part of Your World” – The Little Mermaid: The I-want song is now happily more specific, but not really. I just kinda want to get to heaven (or land).
  • “Belle Reprise” – Beauty and the Beast: What I have now isn’t good enough and I want something vague and cool to happen to me.

I could go on and on, but you see the theme.

Dream is just another word for want in the Hollywood lexicon. If you think about it this way, content for young children in our capitalist society that’s catchy and pleasant is “Want want wishy want wish want want.”

Think of it this way and it’s … fairly disgusting, isn’t it?

What Hollywood did to The Neverending Story was to cut it up into a lovely, pre-established framework of telling kids to dream big, but they stopped completely short of telling kids what were the consequences of doing so.

That’s not new as a millennial’s experience of media as a kid. If you were growing up in the 80s and 90s, it might be fairly obvious to you, because we were subjugated to the same themes over and over, with very little regard to the severe emotional consequences and eventually lending itself to burnout culture. But the most crushing part of all this is that …

… Ende didn’t. He kept going, in a way that no one had.

The slicing up of this story and the subsequent lawsuit seem to me an obviously inevitability of capitalism’s first dying breaths. Even the less-successful, half-hearted sequel and TV show which fail to tell the second half of the story makes sense to me as a consequence.

(Oh, yeah, and if you’re wondering if the second film hits any of these themes … no.)

So what was the lesson? How are we supposed to deal with our dreams?

“DO WHAT THOU WILT”

A lot of people recognize (… and somewhat ironically buy necklaces of, and tattoo on themselves…) the Auryn, a symbol with twin snakes biting the other’s tails, which Bastian uses to fulfill his every wish.

This symbol in its book form is a reference to the Ouroboros, a Gnostic symbol used in magic that also represented somewhat of a yin-yang symbol as well as the life and death of the universe. It’s an image that’s been repeated in many subcultures and religions – Ende probably picked it up from Jung, who saw it as a mandala of alchemy.

Chrysopoea_of_Cleopatra_1download

But I don’t want to talk about just the symbol – I want to talk about the inscription written on the Auryn in the book: “Tu, was du wilst.”

That translates into English in the book as, “Do what you wish!”

Or, put another way, “Do what thou wilt.”

This is the basic tenant of Thelema, a religion/philosophy invented by none other than Mr. Crowley.

Dapper

Who is Aleister Crowley?

Once upon a time, there was a Cambridge-educated trust-fund baby from London who took a break from chess club, mountaineering, and writing pornographic poetry to learn about this hot new thing called Spiritualism. He was into it late and got a little snobby about it.

Then he visited basically any country within English control while treating anyone who was brown like a pack mule or a prostitute. And while he was out and about chilling with artists and mountain climbers who had out-and-out zero respect for him, he learned some stuff about Eastern philosophy, Egyptian religion, and magic (which he later re-dubbed “magick” because … why not?).

While he was in the Middle East, he heard his guardian angel speaking to him and decided to write it all down. (In my opinion, he probably heard about the teachings of Muhammad and thought … hey, if writing stuff and saying it was an angel worked for that guy, why can’t it work for me?) This notes from his guardian angel became The Book of the Law, the basic tenants of Thelema.

What is Thelema?

You see, Crowley had grown up in a puritanical cult where you were only allowed the bible, had no toys, and everything that came naturally to him – like enjoying nice food, bisexuality, or really sexuality in general – led him to be actively abused. He was also possibly a little autistic, and a little reactionary, and, in my non-professional opinion, a little bit borderline.

His logical response was to say “fuck the system” by writing up a religion in which sin is a myth, everything is an illusion, and basically do whatever you want. It’s kind of why punk rockers love him so much.

But it’s also kind of a sloppy system made up by someone who was abused by his mom in a philosophy that, boiled down to its essence, is basically, “Let me do what I want, mooooooom!”

Crowley, the man, was simply reclaiming a lost childhood. Thelema, the religion, is hedonism with a new anti-Christian face. Rooted in rejecting Christianity, pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain, Thelema wished to bring on a new era.

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Love is the law, under will.”

-Aleister Crowley

Yeah, so, anyways … he died a heroin addict.

That’s kinda what happens when you build a religion on only pursing pleasure and avoiding pain.

By the way, this is my reaction to reading every single biography about Aleister Crowley:

(I’m piling heaps and heaps of disrespect onto this guy, but Crowley is a complicated figure in British history. He also was fond of asthmatics and kind to women who were being mistreated by their families for their sexuality and a pretty normal father. He was … a dude. It’s important to humanize this person. But humanizing trash doesn’t make his philosophy good or sensible.)

Crowley’s Thelema and satanist teachings didn’t exactly take the world by storm, at all, though panicked conspiracy theorists would claim otherwise.

And luckily, newer versions of his religion tend to empathize personal responsibility. (I mean, Jesus … I should hope so.) But a religion based on pursing pleasure, avoiding pain, extreme individualism, encouraging double-think and alternate realities, and largely ignoring the needs of others is …

… the ideal doctrine for a privileged upper class.

Doing What You Want Under Capitalism

What’s a better message for a capitalistic society is to want, keep wanting, to know what you want, and to get what you want, fuck the consequences?

For the people in power who aren’t pursing needs but can pursue quite literally whatever they want, this isn’t to different from a doctrine you would claim organically. Besides the rituals and the dogma, what is the real difference between Thelema and the capitalist Disney ideal to dream big that we push onto children? I understand the aesthetics of the differences – singing an “I want” song as a princess is different that a Satanic cult – but what are the philosophic differences?

Because it seems to me, Crowley didn’t originate an idea, but was a symptom of a society with too much power held in one place. His philosophy wasn’t new and it wasn’t unique; it was an echo of more intelligent philosophic discussions before, during, and after his era. Crowley was a symptom, not a cause. Crowley’s ideas have gravitated to people, typically very privileged people, because his simplistic ideas affirm a growing sense that they already have: that it’s good to pursue what you want and to get it, and to not have guilt in the process.

In modern American capitalism, the doctrine of “do what thou wilt” is not only encouraged, but it may even be considered healthy! Knowing what you really want, your “true will,” even despite being told what to want over and over since birth, despite not being born with any real consumer-oriented desires, despite being crushed by the weight of so many options, can be or at least seem like an admirable quality. But it breeds this odd over-confidence not unlike what would find among the con artists of Silicon Valley.

Yes, Crowley was a trust-fund, wealth-stealing conman who funded his paradise heroin den in Sicily. Is he that different than Elizabeth Holmes, who created the completely fraud health tech company Theranos? Is the Abbey of Thelema any different than Billy MacFarland’s Fyre Festival? I don’t know. I can’t honestly say.

Capitalism is at a weird turning point. We’ll either continue to breed sociopath-like super-wealth that will make Crowley seem like Big Bird, and continue to praise our shutting off our natural empathetic responses as an admirable skill, or we will have to grow up as a culture and take responsibility for our “true will,” to respond to others’ suffering, to raise up other cultures and countries that are struggling to meet the basic human needs of their populations. In other words: will we put will over love or love over will?

Anywho, let’s get back to Bastian.

A TURNING POINT: MOONCHILD!

Now I know I’ve already introduced enough concepts for a pearl-clutching Christian to want to strip The Neverending Story from every Midwestern library, but let’s keep these things in mind: A. the story does not stop there, B. Ende shows us, in detail, the consequences of getting what we want, and C: the Auryn is an artifact with consequence, pulling Bastian’s memories and self-identity with every wish, and so the book seems to be a criticism of Crowleyan thought and capitalistic tendencies rather than any type of support of them.

At least after the film ends and the second half of the book begins, anyway.

There is a turning point in the book where Bastian and the Empress are caught in an infinity loop, living lives up until that moment over and over – which is likely based on Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence – until Bastian does the right (the Ubermnesch) thing and calls out her new name.

Her new name, as a friend likes to dub, “MERHNWECHERALLLRD!” in the original version, because none of us nine-year-olds knew what he was saying in that moment. In the era of VHS, the name was hidden in thunder and swelling music. It wasn’t until one bought the DVD, threw up subtitles, and watched with a keen eye that one realized what he was saying: “Moonchild!”

And most modern viewers would say, “huh, weird name,” un-pause the movie, and leave it at that.

Moonchild was also the name of a novel written by Aleister Crowley. It was a masturbatory, ego-driven re-telling of his battle within the cult of the Golden Dawn where he demonized his rivals like W.B. Yeats. It’s also not very good.

Moonchild

The “moonchild” he speaks of is an other-worldly being conceived under magical means. Supposedly, this was based on black magic used during conception to capture the perfect soul. (Forgive me for not immersing myself Crowley’s self-important prose.)

Why did Ende chose the name Moonchild? I don’t know. I’m barely scratching the surface of the symbolic references here. Perhaps Bastian is the son of the perfect being, as Moonchild was the name of his mother. Perhaps Bastian as a character is a combination of an imperfect and perfect being.

Moonchild and The Neverending Story don’t have much in common, but  I think the painting of a calm, good, God-like figure as female is perhaps the key takeaway.

Both Crowley and Ende paint a benevolent universal force of good as a feminine energy, contrary to Crowley’s male-God upbringing. This is a re-framing of the blame-everything-on-Eve tendencies to see women as less divine than men. The scene where Bastian is handed the seed of creation happens in a garden that calls back to the Garden of Eden. That Eve/Adam narrative is completely flipped on its head.

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The official Google Doodle for The Neverending Story

Crowley was by no means respectful of women, likely only flipping the godhead’s gender to stir up religious dissent, but in The Neverending Story, the Childlike Empress Moonchild is a benevolent force and ultimately a flipped representation of an older male God.

Then, when Bastian abuses his power, when he decides to fight God, when Bastian makes the final bid to take over the Ivory Tower, which is rife with sexual imagery as the flower-shape of the castle closes to him, he is forcing his male, dominating presence on a female, divine force. We see how men oppress women, oppress the natural, oppress anyone who protects them from their desires. In the end you have a slightly more feminist story.

BASTIAN’S REIGN

Bastian spends a lot of time trying to figure out what it is he really wants. He attempt to be the smartest, the strongest, and etc., but nothing really makes him feel happy, or good. We follow him on  numerous adventures in his slow decent towards becoming a real jerk.

When the world is literally not enough, Bastian goes to attack Moonchild, or the personification of the perfect being. He wants to be in charge of this universe, or really, his own subconscious mind, but he simply isn’t. But he is simply a man railing against God (in this case, a female God). For all his wished-for strength, he is very weak.

You’re likely not a 10-year-old boy, but the attitude of pursuing one’s desires until they point where you know that they can’t possibly make you happy anymore isn’t unique to living in Fantastica. If you were given everything you wanted, would you just want more?

When will enough be enough?

“There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”

-Oscar Wilde

People learning to do what they want without guilt, shame, and constriction may sound like a positive thing to a 70s hippie, but Kantian ethics and life experience tell us otherwise. And so does Ende.

The Auryn takes away Bastian’s memories. Essentially, Bastian loses himself, piece by piece, in the pursuit of his desires. It destroys him, slowly. It takes his heroics and turns him into a real monster.

The pursuit of getting what he wants literally destroys him from the inside out.

“He no longer wanted to be the greatest, strongest or cleverest. He had left all that far behind. He longed to be loved just as he was, good or bad, handsome or ugly, clever or stupid, with all his faults – or possibly because of them.

But what was he actually?

He no longer knew. So much have been given to him in Fantastica, and now, among all these gifts and powers, he could no longer find himself.”

– Michael Ende, The Neverending Story

Eventually Bastian completely loses himself and burns out on the practice of pursing his desires. (Millennial burnout for Bastian Balthazar Bux was pretty serious.)

cabernet malec

I joke, but I also don’t.

We have had more opportunity than anyone to find and learn what we want, and to try to get it, but basic needs like health, sanity, free time, and space are constantly out of reach. We are a want-based culture, not a need-based one, and it can be extremely disorienting.

We were told to dream big only to be constantly trapped in the hampster wheel of desire, all while not having basic needs met. It’s no surprise that many of us can feel like Bastian, trapped in Fantastica, ruling the world while having no control over it or our subconscious.

In a world that’s focused on pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain, it can be very easy to make mistakes.

No one told him, and no one told us, these basic truths of happiness:

  • Happiness takes self-awareness, self-kindness, and understanding of our own subconscious.
  • Happiness takes lowering expectations, not raising output to reach high expectations.
  • Happiness is a state of mind that can be reached no matter if you have what you want, so long as some basic needs are met.
  • Happiness takes practice.

Rejecting Capitalism

We find that many people are wholesale rejecting the concept of consumerism and attempting to practice more responsible capitalism. Wanting to take responsibility for our actions and reject the system is why hipsters are so obsessive about the sources of their products. Despite having hundreds of choices for clothes, many millennial shoppers will thrift shop, buy records, eat at restaurants with grass-fed, free-range chickens.

We make fun of them for it, but this is likely a positive shift. Hedonism on its own isn’t sexy; hedonism with responsibility, Nihilism memes, cultural responsibility, grass-fed chickens, thrifted overalls, calling people by their preferred pronouns, disapproving colonialism, helping the most amount of people, being a patron (or Patreon) of the arts, paying your taxes, driving a fuel-efficient car, not supporting oppressive corporations or systems, that’s sexy.

It’s not because millennial are suddenly better people than baby boomers and gen Xers; it’s a survival tactic, because if we don’t practice self-reliance, kindness, and responsibility, we will be crushed under the weight of the pursuit of our desires.

But it’s possible that responsible consumerism isn’t enough. It’s possible that we’re stuck here in Fantastica, like Bastian. How can we get out?

It’s so ironic that the generation who really needed the full version of The Neverending Story never got it.

HEDONISM AS SELF-DISCOVERY

Ende understood that getting what we want can be a terrifying thing. In a land where the subconscious fills in the landscape, Bastian’s lonely walk through the world is one of existential dread.

“You wish for something, you’ve wanted it for years, and you’re sure you want it, as long as you know you can’t have it. But if all at once it looks as though your wish might come true, you suddenly find yourself wishing you had never wished for any such thing.”

– Michael Ende, The Neverending Story

He is lost in a way that many modern people are. In America, depression is on the rise, mistrust is on the rise. We are living in an era where many of us are pursuing what we want in life and losing ourselves, like Bastian.

But then? He gets a little bit more specific with his wishes.

The last few chapters of the book are an incredible journey, because he’s making the journey from what he thinks he wants to what he really wants. 

First he unconsciously wishes for community, coming across a town of Borg-like people. Then, he realizes he wants friendship. Then, his memories. Then, a mother’s love. What he’s doing is working downwards rather than upwards on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which makes complete sense because Ende himself was a humanist. So much of Fantastica provides the upper, self-actualization portions of the pyramid, but it’s useless because Bastian doesn’t have his most basic needs met yet. Jumping up the scale is useless and exhausting. (Why have an iPhone if you have a broken foot and no way to pay for health insurance?)

In the end, he realizes that he needs something that’s at the absolute bottom of the Hierarchy of Needs, something simple and physiological: water. He needs the Water of Life.

The ultimate lesson of The Neverending Story is to learn how to be aware of, and a master of, your own subconscious, to get to know your true self (rather than your true “will”) and to learn how to be happy by fulfilling the most basic needs first. 

So, repression and avoidance of pursuing one’s desires isn’t the answer, to Ende, and neither is Crowley’s endless pursuit of pleasure and rejection of pain. In the end, learning to be conscious of what one truly wants via the path of hedonism is the path to take, and the thing that pulls it all together is empathy.

Bastian went through some horrible things, but he leaves Fantastica stronger than ever, confident he can climb down the school’s window, now having learned his own strength of character.

To end, and to others, the answer to Crowley’s bad example of hedonism is not repression and rule-setting, but more hedonism. We must dig even deeper to bury through our daily wants to figure out what it is we really need. That’s how you find happiness. But it’s quite a harrowing journey. 

So I hope you now know a little bit more about The Neverending Story, and how it’s a much more complicated and fascinating work than meets the eye. I hope we can all appreciate the deeper meaning of the original text, and take Ende at his word in that the story has much more to offer us than a great 80s riff. (Which I hope is stuck in your head right now.)

I’d like to talk more about Crowley, escapism, and my fantasy story…

…but that’s a story for another time.


Micheal Ende studied anthroposophy and had no childrenHe was married to a Japanese wife, and loved all things Japanese, especially Kabuki. He was a humanist, and it bleeds forward into his work. His father was a surrealist and banned by the Nazi party, his studio later ending up engulfed in flames. He lived through, and resisted, the Nazis.

“There were thousands and thousands of forms of joy in the world, but that all were essentially one and the same, namely, the joy of being able to love.”

  • Michael Ende

Trapped in the Dark Closet

I have a very powerful memory of coming across an enormous textbook in my school library, one that – for a moment – washed away some of my smoldering inferno of fear that had been roiling across my subconscious nonstop since I was very young. The book was Homosexuality and Civilization by Louis Crompton and it was fucking massive.

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I didn’t take it out of the library – I didn’t dare let my family see it. I barely even glanced at it besides shakily, casually flipping through – I didn’t want my friends to catch me in my curiosity. If I recall correctly, as soon as the librarian saw me looking at it, smiled, and began to walk over, I darted away like the little Capri-sun-sucking coward I was at fifteen. I was shook by so many emotions at once. I shuffled back to break the computer’s firewall and watch Flash animations of Foamy the Squirrel like a normal sophomore.

But the simple notion of the book merely existing struck in me such an intense certainty and resolve that I daresay I would be a very different person today if I had never seen it.

Merely by existing this title destroyed the following walls that had been built up by those around me, brick by brick:

  1. Homosexuality was a choice.
  2. Homosexuality was a recent trend.
  3. Homosexuals could easily make a different choice, but they’re sticking to their guns because they hate society, and family, and more specifically the religious nuclear family.
  4. Homosexuals were, by their very nature, promiscuous troublemakers.
  5. More homosexuals were “popping up” because, like a virus, this “problem” was “spreading.”
  6. At no point was homosexuality ever acceptable until today. We’re just a tolerant society now, which is why we allow them to exist.
  7. Marriage was always a man and a woman. No other “civil union” has ever existed and thus even that too was unacceptable.

Now, writing that out, these notions seem pretty … disgusting. Fairly gross. But early ‘00s America featured a lot of conversations churned from these axles of thought – gears, spinning wheels. Only 38% of Americans said that gay and lesbian relations were “morally acceptable” in 2002, compared to 63% today. People had pivoted their focus from race issues (in which there was no choice, and hence it was considered unethical and immoral to treat people badly based on something they had no choice over – which isn’t to say there was not racism, of course there was, but that’s a whole other can of cognitive bias worms) to sexual ones (in which people thought sexuality was a choice).

People were discussing and battling out each one of these points in turn in a variety of arenas, from academic communities to talk shows. And one of the unfortunate consequences of the LGBTQ+ community making a fast dart for acceptance in the late 90s and early 00s was that now a certain lexicon of new words had wandered into the mouths of “yer dad”’s across American dinner tables. Mine was no different.

“You know what?” my own father had said when I was around sixteen. “I do want gay people to get married!”

I was astonished – I had argued with him and his Catholic family for years at this point on the notion of civil unions being okay. (Getting them to refer to it as “marriage” was absolutely out of the question.)

“Yeah?” I asked him.

“So they can get divorced!”

(His own divorce had cost him tens of thousands of dollars and resulted in extreme emotional turmoil.)

He smugly smiled and ate a forkful of peas.

After being a part of this and so many other painful conversations, I’d realized all these narratives I’d been sold were just destroyed with one image: the words “homosexuality and civilization” on a cover of a book with nearly 700 pages of evidence.

Homosexuality was something found in nature, going back millennia, often at a fairly consistent rate. Homosexuals are unable to “choose” differently, are consistently and often members of important, structured society, often extremely accepted or even encouraged or enforced in certain cultures, and were often in a position where long-term partnerships were perfectly normal.

It’s hard to put into words how much it relaxed me. For a moment, I could raise my hands against the wall and fight it.

In an instant, I could stuff my heel into solid ground, turn, lift up my hands, and say, “No, homosexuality isn’t a new, hot thing. Erasure, antagonism, and oppression of homosexuality is the new, hot thing.”

But sometimes, evidence, confidence, and persistence isn’t enough.

Sometimes, when faced with evidence to the contrary, numb repetition becomes willfully ignorant, hateful rhetoric.

Even when I went to college, I still saw brochures for conversion therapy camps at my campus church. I would not come out as bisexual for another 10 years. To certain family members, I’m still not “out.” Some people even within the LGBTQ+ community are not super understanding about why I came out so “late.” (After all, my situation wasn’t so bad, right? No one beat me or threw me out of the house … these small things people said didn’t really matter. Most gay people are forced to accept who they are. Why is bisexuality so different?)

But ignoring the repeated phrase “this is gay; this sucks” from my peers and the quiet refusal to accept new ideas from my family members, the absolute worst part of my road of discovery wasn’t any outside force; it was self hate and repression.

Not being out is mentally, emotionally, and even physically exhausting. It was a daily weight that hung in my guts, my everyday thoughts a double-, triple-, even quadruple-think labyrinth. I frequently kid that “repression is a hell of a drug” these days, but what I mean is that policing homosexual urges, thoughts, micro-expressions, eye contact, reactions, curiosities, and actions was a consistent active role that a part of my brain was constantly dedicated to. It made my own brain an unsafe place to be in, where bad thoughts were landmines and one wrong step could land me in a spiral. I was a master at compartmentalization, and queen of rationalization, and after a while various aspects of myself genuinely began to break down – first my emotional well-being and mood, and then other aspects of my “self.” I suffered from depression, anxiety, even intense physical symptoms like exhaustion, muscle tension, and IBS. The body can only hold in so much repression at once.

In short, I was forced to internalize twin beliefs: that I had homosexual urges, and that homosexuality was bad, even evil, and thus… logically, I must be evil.

When I look back at the tapestry of late 1800s, early 1900s Western culture, I know for a fact that I was not alone in my assessment of myself … that others, for better and for worse, made the same exact logical conclusion.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

  • LGBTQ individuals are 3 times more likely to experience a mental health condition.
  • LGBTQ teens are six times more likely to experience depression symptoms.
  • LGBTQ youth ages 10-24 are 4 times more likely to “attempt suicide, experience suicidal thoughts, or engage in self-harm.”
  • Those who faced rejection after coming out to their families were 8 times more likely to attempt suicide than those who had gained acceptance after revealing their sexual orientation.
  • Nearly a third of the LGBTQ population abuse substances, compared to 9% of the population.
  • Rates of mental health issues “are particularly high” in bisexual, questioning individuals, as well as those who do not reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity.

At the end of the day, the “just don’t think about it” rationality and the belief  that homosexual urges are a choice and the hope of “maybe it will go away” or “maybe I can train myself to not be gay” caused me to take on an intense cognitive workload, one that other people never had to take on, one that I was taking on for no good reason.

The dark closet of the mind turns normal coats into bogeymen and perfectly average needs into demonic forces; it takes your own body and makes it a terrifying place to be in.

But, listen, I am not trying to say my experience was uniquely hard…

I am living in 2019 and shit’s legit. We have LGBTQ+ sci-fi best-seller lists and Steven Universe and smash-hit fantasy authors who use they/them pronouns and fucking UNHhhh and ContraPoints and gay children’s books about penguins and queer theory classes in colleges that produce excellent books like Homosexuality and Civilization. Sure, my friends and family said dickish things, and being bisexual was hard to embrace, but life’s pretty fucking grand.

It’s not like I’m living in a time where you would be put in jail for having homosexual sex (anymore).

image
Unrelated image of Oscar Wilde

But speaking of the historical homosexual experience, can you imagine what it would’ve been like to be bisexual a hundred years ago?

aleister-crowley-young-chair (1)
Unrelated image of Aleister Crowley

Besides the sheer terror of being caught and the likelihood of discovery, can you imagine all of the internal pressures of the dark closet of the mind truly having no release? Could you imagine going through what I’ve gone through, but having no real way of crawling yourself out of it? No one to relate to, and no way to find other people like you? Believing that you were evil and debased, that your natural thoughts, which naturally turned into obsessions the more you tried to repress them, made you horrible?

Can you imagine internalizing the belief that you were evil so much that you eventually became that? If your pansexuality made you feel like a constant freak? And yet when you continued to find other people who were also sexually experimental, you began to believe everyone was a freak? You went around manipulating and abusing people for your own amusement, because the entire world to you seemed like a sick joke? You decided to abandon all notion of morality, because it was all a lie anyway, right? People had lied about this being wrong, about this feeling good, about this being okay, after all…

And what if you just … never came out? Never acted on anything? Kept up the game of that cognitive workload, never really being comfortable in your own skin, over-crafting every single word? What if history has totally lost all notion that you could have possibly been bisexual – what if beyond the occasional slight hint in a poetry verse or a strange passage in your autobiography or a odd exchange via letters or a few oddly specific circumstances in your later years, there was no real notion of the possibility of it being the case, besides the head-scratching of a blonde bisexual woman 100 years later who may relate intensely to many of these specific experiences – the obsession with masks, for instance – and consider them to be quite … odd for a straight man of his time?

The thing about LGBTQ history is that, unfortunately, there are blank gaps for obvious reasons, and “proving” someone is bisexual is always dependent on the energy and focus of an LGBTQ researcher. In other words, it’s the unfortunate fact that people are assumed straight until proven otherwise, and even then most times that different reading will not be embraced until an enormous amount of evidence has been piled up. 

There have been, and will always been, hundreds of historical people who stayed trapped in the dark closet. There was no Homosexuality and Civilization tome for them. There was no pulling out of that frightening mindspace. There was no evidence of their existence in the dark closet, just the hallmarks of the suffering, doubts, and experiences that tend to come with it.

And it’s almost impossible to drag them out. It’s a well-designed research impasse; LGBTQ+ people of certain eras were forced into the closet for their own safety, unable or unwilling to share or record any of their other sexual experiences, and modern communities will refuse someone’s alternative sexuality unless there is ample and excessive proof behind the claim.  

And even now, quietly suggesting that that person could have been something other than straight might result in intense negative reactions or personal attacks to the author.

At the same time, a fictionalized account of a story such as this might be necessary for another young person to pick up, inspect the cover, fiddle with, and decidedly run away from.

Maybe it will secretly mean the world to them.

Who knows?

Mary Belle and Blondie

Guys. Guys! GUYS! (╯°□°)╯

Check out the absolutely beautiful commissioned art done by the wonderful Céli Godfried! (and also check out her portfolio on Strikingly and follow her on Twitter)!

SHE DID SUCH A GOOD JOB!

The Madonna Updates:

Right now The Madonna has been sent out to alpha readers and so far, so good! I intend to have this project properly edited this spring.

I’m so excited to see the responses and share these beautiful people that have been trapped in my head for literal years!

I’ve also updated my project page – check it out! Hopefully I’ll be able to put up a new excerpt soon.

If you’re interested in this project, feel free to sign up for updates on my site!

When Art is Useless

In “The Mother of Demos” (cough. ahem.) in December 1968, a man named Engelbart first publicly introduced the concepts of basic modern computing: the computer mouse, hypertext, windows, graphics, and even video conferencing.

His contributions have changed the world. Why did he do it?

In this interview, he said, “I realized that I didn’t have any more goals than a steady job, getting married and living happily ever after.” He later asked himself, “How can my career maximize my contribution to mankind?”

“I thought, ‘Damn, I never realized the world is so complicated. If we don’t improve our ability to deal collectively with complex things, as the problems grow more urgent, we’re in trouble.”‘ – David Engelbart

(Well, Engelbart, we ARE in a bit of trouble, but maybe your contributions will be enough to get us out of hot water.)

This is all well and interesting, but what does it have to do with Oscar Wilde? 

Authors are usually seen as frumpy aesthetics who make very little impact on the world. They live in the popular consciousness hiding from contemporary issues and shoved off to the side, chipping away at only timeless concepts, as only timeless concepts are worth noting on.

The more I research noteworthy authors, the more it becomes absolutely obvious that this is not the case.

Charles Dickens wrote in disgust of child poverty during a time of child labor, and though he didn’t exactly pull Britain up by its bootstraps himself, his works continue to highlight issues of poverty decades later.

“‘The boy is Ignorance. The girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.'” – Charles Dickens, The Christmas Carol

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the first science fiction success (written by a woman, I might add), speaks to many concerns about the growing nature of science, but it also spoke about our duty to children and the oppressed.

Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame was written to help save crumbling Gothic architecture of Paris, which was in disrepair at the time.

George Orwell may have been writing about communism, but he was also writing about his own government, as he had spent time policing the citizens of Burma. Over time, he grew to sympathize with the locals and was disturbed by the way they were being treated. He had a dark and unique view into systems of oppression.

Of particular notice to me recently is the life of W. B. Yeats, who wrote about a free, mystical, and powerful Ireland while its citizens were being horribly oppressed, but when violence broke out wrote of “a terrible beauty” being born. His life and work was intrinsically political, modern, plugged in, even into his twilight years.

“Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.”
– W.B. Yeats, September 1913

There are hundreds of examples of this intense well-meaning behind words, and yes, obvious ones we learn about in our high school class like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Jungle.

These are all reactions – proactive or passive ones – to the world as it is now, and the books are often strategies or warnings for either making the world a better place or avoiding disasters. 

The art form is about avoiding the unappealing preachiness of politics and activists, which will never be listened to, and mastering subtly behind emotion-based storytelling.

Meanwhile, there’s a danger in being too subtle as well, as what one generation finds ironic and funny, the next generation takes literally.

Rarely are media actually “art for art’s sake.” Rarely is it about ONLY the aesthetic, and I daresay that the more it claims to be so, the less it is.

In other words, the author is absolutely rooted in, if not politics, then methodologies for expanding and improving upon humanity or the world, usually in the form of human empathy. 

Chasing the illusion of “timelessness,” of creating the perfect romance or the perfect adventure story, or making a story for the ages is not only usually fruitless, but it’s very much not the point to writing fiction in the first place. The only reason why the classics I’ve mentioned are considered to be “timeless classics,” is that problems or goals the works point out happen to be still relevant today, or we’ve somewhat reinvented the work to make them still relevant (for better and for worse).

If your story about mermaids can help a queer young person discover themselves, good. If it’s a gripping story that anyone can relate to, better. But if it can do both, you’ve done something greater for yourself AND the world.

“But I don’t want to make my book political!” Then don’t! But don’t pursue “timelessness” or “wider appeal” instead in the hopes of bettering your career. As soon as you step out and publish, you’ve joined what goes by that ugly term, the “free market of ideas.” You’re a part of it now. Don’t water down the wine. At the very least aim to make at least one person (even if that person is your mother) uncomfortable.

Frequently “timeless classics” are politically-minded, now-focused, future-looking works of extreme opinions that make people (especially those in power) feel very uncomfortable. Don’t believe me? Here’s the most challenged and banned classics of all time. They’re almost taught in high school curriculum.

banned books

 

Art is functional, and frequently uncomfortable. Putting it to the use of the ruling class is propaganda; creating only art for the use of “the people” is communistic censorship. We need to be wise to which ideologies we’re pushing, of course, but it’s alarming to me how many people – writers, authors, bloggers, creators – haven’t even considered whether their work would improve someone else’s life at all.

If this feels off, it’s because it’s skirting around a particular ugly fact that most vain, ego-driven writers like me don’t like to think about: writing isn’t about you.

While there is so much to be said about the power of writing as art therapy for yourself, the most powerful ideas you can promote in your fiction helps people help themselves. This is why people both support and revile escapism of high fantasy, as high fantasy may (pro-escapism) or may not (anti-escapism) get this needed emotional labor done.

But what’s more noble than just pushing your own agenda is giving people the tools and framework to express and discover their own repressed thoughts or new ideas. The most successful creators of our time – arguably J.K. Rowling and George Lucas – created worlds in which people felt at ease to express themselves, rather than preachy, unsubtle, politically-minded narratives. (Though both J.K. Rowling’s and George Lucas’s works were incredibly politically minded in terms of showing how one would easily dismantle a democracy. Em. Whoops.)

In that way, a high fantasy author is exactly like someone showing the world how to interact with a computer – we show off a completely new framework for how to solve important problems. 

Okay, back to Oscar Wilde, the aesthetics-focused, cape-wearing, fabulous man who’s life was a tragedy enough to rival his own work.

His preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray is possibly my favorite page of classic literature, because there are so many direct and somewhat contradicting statements that explore the function of art that it’s hard not to taste the flavors of irony.

“There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written, that is all.” – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

I would say very much that this is true.

And yet, the book itself is somewhat of a morality tale, in which the morality is to destroy false binaries between morality and immorality.

And yet, at the time, the book was considered to be horrifically immoral.

And yet, this preface of his book was actually quoted in Wilde’s trial, in which he was convicted of several years of jail time for what was essentially immorality at the time (homosexuality).

People used this concept and quite literally attacked him with it.

But, at least until the trial, he was fairly comfortable at other people’s dismay:

“Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.” – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

And yet he goes on to say:

“All art is quite useless.” – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Can a thing be useless and vital?

It’s a strong, and necessary, opinion to promote art for art’s sake. But let’s not get confused: Oscar Wilde’s statements about art being useless and vital and neither immoral or moral was very much STILL a response to his times.

In his time, there was a real danger of an author being attacked for making the reader feel a certain, new way.

Art for art’s sake is a political statement that promotes the protection of creators, encourages holistic readings of texts, and increases more and better art production on the whole. 

Saying art is “useless” gives it permission to exist.

Can art be functional or useless? Can it be moral, immoral, or neither? Can it be a response to the times, or an attempt of capturing the timeless? Can it be beautiful, admired, ugly, or uncomfortable? Can it be created for one’s self only or can it really help people by discovering new paradigms, shifting our views, changing focus?

Well… yes.

What Roleplaying Taught Me About Writing Fantasy

Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Game

While it’s definitely not a universal perspective, it’s been my personal experience that writing and D&D go together about as well as oil and vinegar.

Experienced writers who take their craft very seriously and later come to the table as a dungeon master tend to leave like a furious diva exiting an opera, because the players haven’t found their beautiful plots, or they aren’t reacting how they’d imagined the characters would (leading to bickering on whether or not the players are being “in character”), or they aren’t grasping themes or elements that the writer worked really hard on, or the experience isn’t creating the story they want. Most writers struggle to write in a partnership, let alone a team. (Unless they work in TV. In which … good luck, God speed.)

Whereas experienced roleplayers who come to take writing seriously later tend to focus far too much on the worldbuilding – building encounters rather than plots, creating finished character sheets rather than organic, real-seeming characters, and creating creatures, languages, towns, and world-stuff that has nothing to do with the core story.

And typically their characters suffer – why wouldn’t they? The players bring that to the table after all. If they don’t feel cookie-cutter, they probably are an amalgamation of a bunch of cool roleplaying stories and experiences mushed together; they suffer from either being boring or they’re victims of being a weird celluoid hypercool. Roleplayers-turned-novice-writers are not focused on creating characters that echo real people, but archetypes of what they and their players think are cool characters. Is that bad? Well, it’s the difference between learning to draw anime via doing still lifes of real people or imitating other anime.

I’m not trying to shit on role-players-turned-writers. They tend to get over those growing pains after only a little bit of experience, maybe a novel or two. But roleplaying people new to the craft of writing stick out in specific ways compared to other writing newbies. It’s not a problem – just something to work on, just as experienced writers really need to work in order to learn how to be good DMs.

Experienced writers have a lot to learn from D&D, and roleplayers have a lot to learn in order to become good writers. In other words, fantasy based on roleplaying is at least somewhat like a sexy emulsion.

So, what could writers learn from tabletop roleplaying that they couldn’t figure out on their own? Get your salads ready, because I’m going to create a vinaigrette of weird life experience.

Now, it should be said that I’m NOT coming at this combo as a person who played 2nd edition D&D in the 1980s when he was fifteen. I’m coming at this having first played as a twenty-something trying to impress a boyfriend by attempting to quickly come up with the most badass 4th edition swordmage possible over pizza and Stewarts orange soda. My experience of D&D more often resembles parodies (“WHERE’S THE MOUNTAIN DEW?!”) more than the epics that I’ve been heralded with. But I’ve also had a really great time with it, and I’ve come to enjoy tabletop a lot, well after breaking up with the aforementioned person.

And this life experience has taught me a ton about writing fantasy.

So here’s some tips on writing fantasy that everyone should learn and no one wants to.

1. No one remembers your impossible-to-pronounce names.

No one.

“Hello, I am Ai’W’ether’aRtharac’Wrama of Theramintheianai from the clan of Ur’ethntheam!”

I guarantee you within the session everyone is calling them “bard” or “elf” or “elf guy” or “quill guy” or some other clever nickname. If they don’t “accidentally” get him killed.

Very rarely do players have the patience for this kind of thing, and neither will readers.

And this doesn’t just apply to character names – how often do the players forget your main antagonist’s name? Do their eyes gloss over whenever your town name is pronounced badly and corrected and pronounced again and asked to be spelled out in someone’s notes which they then lose and then everyone is like “Where are we again? What town is this?” and Jimmy tells us confidently the name of the town three towns ago over corn chips and french onion dip? Do they lean into their diet cokes over their pizza and sigh when elf guy sucks in a breath to say his whole formal name properly for the third time in a session? Do they create nicknames for your NPCs?

While fantasy fans might have more patience for weird names than the average Joe, most people want a phonetic name while reading a book. If you cannot hear it in your mind, quickly, then it doesn’t stick in memory nearly as easily. If you cannot pronounce at least a version of it in English, comprehension will lower and the reader will be slowed.

You’re taking basic phonetic comprehension and hitting it with a sledgehammer for no real reason.

There’s a reason why Star Wars is so successful at this. The names are based on American Western and Japanese sounds (mostly), which both contain sounds that are easily pronounceable: Jabba, C3PO, Leia, Han, Jango, Kylo, and Thane. And typically they’re less than three syllables. Major characters are one or two syllables. The weirdest names tend to be the most minor of characters, but even they are limited to about five total syllables, all of which are simple, practically baby sounds.

But Steph, my main character’s name is U’ther!ane of the Thesoooth Sea because I’m basing it off of X culture. Screw your Western European crap. Are you saying that all non-England-based stories are illegitimate?

Of course not. It’s not wrong or bad. It’s just making your life a little bit harder. And you should know about it.

It’s easy to keep your weird names without confusing or boring people. Just create situations to help the reader out.

Can you simplify the names so that Greg’s girlfriend who’s worked 12 hours of retail today and is being kept alive with store-brand energy drink that tastes like nickles will remember that town, main character, or person? It’s okay if the name is “Arathoneean” and she calls him “Arath Guy” or just “Arrrr”; she still remembered him! But she won’t remember him if you have three characters that start with “Aratho.” (For instance, if you have a cast that includes Arathoneean, Arathonarrack, and Arathontheya, that’s a fucking disaster.) Be careful with names that rhyme, have the same vowels, or are – again – too many syllables.

But unless you’re setting out to build cool, non-Western cultures, why would you limit your audience in this way?

Such a small amount of our population reads. A smaller population reads fantasy. An even smaller population is willing to memorize your glossary of terms and odd names.

Find your tribe and all, but keep in mind that you’ll turn people away. Just how people are impatient to learn the name and will assign nicknames at the table, they’ll mentally do that reading your book too.

I once picked up a novel who’s main character’s name was so long (about seven syllables) that it had to be shortened to an acronym (which was a bizarre Americanism, and not very cute). I couldn’t read more than five pages in; it was so unpleasant. And I love fantasy. And I love elves. And I love weird stories.

Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Don’t let your elf become “bard guy.”

2. If the conflict has nothing to do with the characters’ backstories or arcs, why would the players care?

And ergo, why would a reader care?

They wouldn’t and they don’t.

Conflicts that block or entice the characters’ wants, morals, wishes, and hopes are just more interesting. Players are likely to have a good time and remember the experience beyond the “experience points” they gained. In general, pay attention to what players do and do not remember, as well as what they do and do not lean forward in their chairs for. See what they have to consult their notes for, and what they tell their friends about later. It’s all important feedback for a novel.

Yes, a team will get together to play and kill goblins even if the setup is dumb, but the difference between a bored party and an excited party is conflict. The DM has not only convinced the players, but the characters themselves, to be invested. That’s what a fun session is.

If the answer to “why is your character here?” is not answered, it’s much harder to rationalize in a novel.

“But this is partially on the players,” you say. Yeah, it is. But when you’re a writer, it’s all on you. Build and find ways to relate the characters and conflict together.

Does it still sound like an alien concept? Some roleplaying systems actually build in mechanics to do this. A great example that I love is (yes, okay, I’m a Star Wars fan) the Fantasy Flight Star Wars Roleplaying Game. In it, you need to create “obligations” as a player, and the GM will role a d100 to see who’s cool awesome backstory is actually going to come up as a side-plot during the “episode.” FATE and Savage Worlds are also systems that encourage players to create backstories, flaws, or at the very least things that the DM can work into the main story.

No, you don’t have to make every encounter or conflict 100% related to each character, but each major arcing conflict should result in personal growth of at least one of the characters.

Think about your favorite shows about roleplaying; they all do this. HarmonQuest is a masterpiece for this reason. Critical Role, Doraleus and Associates, and The Adventure Zone do this too. These are all shows about people playing D&D, essentially, but they’re successful because they’re more about the characters, their relationships, and their emotional growth more than the greater world.

2.a. A hint of a terrible, lazy character backstory is still 100x better than no backstory.

In D&D there’s a saying, “Don’t be a murder hobo.”

Don’t make murder hobo characters who have no backstory and nothing to drive them forward. They just hack things. Don’t make a character who feels like a bored person playing the character because they want to “win” at D&D.

Throw in just a tiny hint of the laziest, lamest, most “ugh, whatever” backstory (“My brother’s killer is still out there.” “I don’t want to talk about where I’m from. They kicked me out.” “He’s more machine, now, than man.” “Oh, God! I don’t remember who I am! Except for this thing…”) and it’s still better than a major character that we spend time with who’s a completely blank slate.

No one is a blank slate. Characters need to feel real, even if they’re a 6ft 7inch Dragonborn mage.

Of course, take this with a grain of salt and don’t get indulgent. Just know that something is better than nothing and less is more.

3. “Rico Yafuego” it; make actions – even small, stupid ones – inform character.

I played with someone who had a particular character: Rico Yafuego, perhaps you’ve heard of him?

And he wouldn’t just fight; he’d twirl and parry. He wouldn’t just distract the orc; he’d cut down the chandelier on him because he’d heard a bard sing about that once. He wouldn’t just hustle down the stairs to help his friends; he’d try to slide down the railing, vault, and land with his blades in the man’s head. He did this flourishing of actions so much that it annoyed many of the other players.

But you know what? I did remember him.

Rico Yafuego went about things certain ways, and your characters should too. Don’t just walk; float, slide, sashay, march, hustle. Use cool verbs, yes, but also make every action just so … them.

Use those minor minutes between big actions too – the way they drink their glass or goblet, the way they slouch when they’re tired, the way the ask for a room at the inn. All of these are little character-building moments.

4. “Why can’t I just shoot him while he’s monologuing?”

Well, shit. You can, can’t you?

(Watch as the DM scrambles for twenty minutes to try and convey what the evil guy was going to say in a different scene.)

And yeah we’ve all heard and seen this, but it goes so much further beyond that one situation.

One of the great things about D&D pushing experienced writers out of that comfort zone is that players will come up with stuff for your characters to do that you’d never have thought of.

As human beings, we’re limited to our one mind and experience. As a writer, you need to juggle the thoughts, arcs, and motivation of dozens of people. Sometimes, you forget stuff. Sometimes, there’s no reason why your characters wouldn’t just shoot the bad guy when giving his grand speech. Sometimes, your rogue might run off with a new boyfriend he was never supposed to flirt with. Sometimes, players will talk their way out of a problem that almost required physical force.

Weird notion: All characters are doing and thinking about interesting stuff in your novel whether or not you show it. D&D is an excellent and sometimes jarring reminder of that.

And, yeah, as an experienced diva writer who thinks she knows everything, that can be infuriating. But it can also be a super important mental exercise. When your players are being the most annoying is usually when they’re being the most informative about the nature of your storytelling. 

What are your blind spots? Which character did you forget? What story arc did you not think through enough?

5. Scene descriptions are never as cool as the DM imagines.

Players zone out during setting description and perk up at blocking, action, dialogue. So do most readers, especially young or inexperienced ones. Sorry, Faulkners of the world.

That doesn’t mean you can’t go to town (literally and figuratively) with your flowery scene descriptions. It just means you shouldn’t linger – or if you do linger, give them interesting tips and rewards for listening and paying attention.

J.K. Rowling is a goddess at this – even her most flippant and seemingly unnecessary descriptions have drops of foreshadowing or hints. You don’t need to be writing a fantasy mystery to do that, however. Pique a specific character’s interest, or mention a cool history piece without going into an info-dump. (It’s strange to think about, but info-dumps in D&D are optional. In books, they’re not.)

Give each scene and setting description purpose. Imagine a DM stuttering through your scene description and see if you should keep it.

Also, if players have questions about blocking at the end of that scene description, that’s typically a bad scene description.

“So, where are we?” is a bad question to hear. In a novel, that means confusing prose. Make sure each word is doing its job.

In sum, what’s happening at the table is just as interesting as what’s happening in Faerun.

This is a very “this is not a pipe” way to think about tabletop roleplaying, but sometimes it’s important to see the people themselves.

In other words, the person arguing about whether Mountain Dew or the Stewarts generic brand is better while trying to convince the DM that their rogue can use acrobatics to climb over that castle wall and picking out the right, pink-and-yellow-colored die (because it’s luckier and “my other dice are in time out”) is more important to understand deeply than the rogue character herself. You must understand what is, in addition to what is cool.

If you want to appeal to this audience, you must know what they say they like, and what they actually like, and understand that there is a difference in order to build a thing they would like. 

For a writer, a tabletop RPG is a field day of information – how people behave, how they want to behave, how they’re seen, how they want to be seen, what they project, what they think they know, what they’d rather be, who they really are, who they think would be funny to be, how they solve problems, and how they think they should solve problems.

This is, of course, a deeper topic on escapism for another time (perhaps when I’m fully ready to talk about my giant epic fantasy project). But, for now, I’ll say that writers should open their minds to study people as they are, not just as they want to be.

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Poetry Publication

My poetry is being published this fall!

Check out the new Exploits in the Adirondacks anthology. It’s written by local authors about the world-famous Adirondack aesthetic. These mountains hold cultural, spiritual, and mystical beauty, and this book explores our awe and underlying dread of these wild places.

My poems, “Thirsty,” “The New World,” “The Supermoon in Speculator,” “Cold Fingers in Seneca Falls,” and “The Prospects” were inspired from different aspects of living in the foothills of the Adirondacks for more than twenty years, and all the contradictions therein, touching on subjects from feminism to fracking.

The book is available for pre-order right now on Kindle. Print copies will be available mid-September. The 518 Publishing Company was wonderful to work with. (See their updates on Facebook and Twitter!)

The Illusion of Progress

I’ve been thinking very intensely about time – a necessary result of writing a time-travel novel – and though I’ve been gathering thoughts on the subject since stumbling in off-campus attics as a freshman in college, discussing seconds passing while slobbering over solo cups of mysterious blue liquids, interrupting myself with “man” and “like” and “whoa” as much as a 90s rad dude stereotype, I’ve come to no firm conclusions on the topic. But it has never failed to fascinate me, and continues to completely boggle me while staring at vistas or sitting in my car alone or staring at blank walls. In popular culture, in the public eye, it’s a topic sidelined to either enthusiastic, poofy-haired physicists drawing maps at CERN or open-minded surfers who are “spiritual, not religious, man.” It’s regulated to the far corners of society, but it touches all of us: What is more ubiquitous than experiencing the strange sensation of time passing along our bodies like the current in a pool?

Some academic-minded English and Psychology majors would say that fear of mortality is a primary motivation for most things, if not everything, from creating a pyramid to writing stories.

I would argue, however, that fear of time and fear of mortality are separate from each other. Death is an event, either desired or feared; time passing is constant. Its motions never stop. It continuously drops on our foreheads as we’re waterboarded by minutes, to the point that, as a thirty-year-old, it’s both blindingly fast and hard to notice.

This latest project, which I have decided to name The Madonna, demands something impossible of me: to imagine an existence outside of time, independent of it. It goes against the whole narrative of our world. There is a beginning, middle, and end.

Of course there is. Indeed, it goes against the whole idea of narrative in the first place.

Something happens, then something else happens. Existence is this. If you’re reading this, you’ve patiently read down the page and are now further along than you were before.

Some who meditate or enjoy illegal substances might claim to tap into the world of the timeless, to let go of ego enough to not feel its weight and float above the waters of time like a buoy.

I believe them; however, no matter what temporary (temporary, temporary) experience you might have with the timeless, you’re always dragged back under.

It’s something I struggle with a great deal. My mother’s illness makes me very uncertain events in the past at times. Guilt and memories can be crushing, and the lack of them is even more terrifying.

And it’s impossible to see the future – but that doesn’t stop me from having ruminations so terrible that they stun me to a catatonic state as I struggle to control, to see, to master the possibilities, trapped between choices like a child between two walls.

And the now? What is now?

Until very recently, I felt a victim of time, as a climber feels the victim of a mountain. It’s taken me many years to realize that, really, now is the only time that not only matters but exists; everything else is a fiction we tell ourselves to make sense of things.

Yes, actions have consequences, and we – as time-based Earthlings – need our consequences to form our moralities, else life would be very difficult. But there’s a reason why AA members tend to “offer up” their past sins to a higher power at the beginning of their programs. Carrying all the weight of it all is too much for them. It cripples them from all action, positive or negative. And if you walk around trying to anticipate a thousand of the most negative and positive possibilities, you will never do anything. For many years, I’ve been frozen by looking up and down the long tunnel we’re all in, petrified by the two mirrors on either side of me showing a row of an infinite amount of objects that that don’t exist.

The past and future are full of distractions, and real meaning is only found when one burrows their eyes into the depths of the present.

To be present. To see. If you cannot see, you cannot create art. If you cannot observe, you cannot judge. If you cannot be present, you cannot be happy.

Perhaps my new book will only be enjoyed by trip junkies and very angry physicists (I’m OK with that), but I want to bring readers to a place where their imaginations can fill in a world in which time exists, surely, but is irrelevant in every sense, powerless next to greater forces. Just because we are trapped in time, that doesn’t mean timelessness can’t exist. We’re not its master, and it’s not a master of us.

Wish me luck, friends!