Monday, December 15, 2014

Backstage

Anytime a known writer speaks in public, at a library or a university, and the field is open to questions, there's always one adventurer who will rise from the audience and ask, "Where do you get your ideas?"

I have seen a number of answers to this question: polite answers, vague answers and academic answers.  I remember seeing Mordecai Richler speak (for non-Canadians, this is a 'famous Canadian writer' whom every body praises but nobody reads).  When the question came up, he became quickly incensed.  "From my BRAIN" he bellowed, having obviously answered the question a thousand times already.  Then he added, "Sit down, you stupid girl!"

On some levels, I think that may have been the best answer.

There's little difference between the question above and those who cannot help but ask, "How do you come up with hooks for a campaign?"  Or, "How do you make adventures the players will want to play?"  Every composer (for that is a nice generic term for everyone who designs or envisions something from scratch) will cast about - especially at the beginning of their careers - for a methodology or an approach that's better than the one they're using.

This is born out of a belief that some people find composing easy.  I reach for a book when I'm twenty and find myself mystified by the author's ability to create these profound characters, fill their mouths with dialogue and pull them together in these marvellous ways in order to bring the story to a conclusion that knocks me for six.  At twenty, it is impossible to imagine how this is done.

We presume that the composer's mind must somehow work differently that our own does.  We look at our own work and compare it to the composer and suppose that it must have something to do with their biology or intelligence or a special sort of damage that was done to their brain at an early age. Or we suppose that the composer must have discovered a trick, some magic formula that lets them organize their minds in such a way that we cannot.

In truth, it is all perception.

Compare writing to the way you see Christmas now - an example I'm choosing because the reality behind Christmas starts to hit home just before you reach the age of twenty.  This way, the metaphor should reach most of the readers here.

At six, everything about Christmas is magical.  You may have figured out that Santa isn't real, but you're not sure enough about the world yet to feel that is completely confirmed, especially as everyone insists on talking about him.  The lights, the stories about elves and reindeer and so on that you watch, the excitement of being given things by your family - particularly after that long drum roll for weeks before you open the presents - come together in a time of wonder.  All around you are cookies and sweets, things you eat until you're physically restrained from eating more, you get full or they run out.  You're not able to see these things with a jaundiced eye because you're young and easily amused - and you don't really understand how or why any of this happens.

As you age, however, you are slowly and steadily separated from the magic.  You begin to see the process from a wider perspective.  You see how the cookies and things come together.  Santa evaporates into a well-meaning lie.  The presents get worse and worse - and you recognize they are things that are actually available for purchase all year round.  Bit by bit the pretty decorations become paper and tacks; the ornaments on the tree grow tacky and worn.  You think less and less about Christmas, except for the chore of shopping, until the last moment.  In your late teens, you find yourself working on Christmas Eve, Christmas or Boxing Day, shortening the 'holiday' to just a few hours.

Yes, you'll find other things about Christmas that you'll appreciate.  As your kids grow, you'll enjoy Christmas through their eyes.  But Christmas will never be the same again, because you understand all about Christmas now.

Composing is the same way.  As you read or write more, as you plumb through more role-playing material and design more campaigns, bit by bit the bloom will rub from the rose.  If you return to read the books you read with eyes wide open as a child, you'll recognize where the characters are weak, now.  You'll see where the author took short-cuts.  Instead of elegant nuance, you'll begin to see how and where the composer hammered things together.

You may go too far and find yourself losing a taste for everything.  You may become so wrapped up with how obviously crappy everything is - especially your own work - that you quit composing altogether.  You may go one step further from there and take it upon yourself to keep everyone else in the world from composing, from the bitterness you feel that the world isn't the wonderful, beautiful place you were so falsely told existed when you were a little child.

Or you may recognize that composing requires a bit of knocking together to make it work.  You may begin to understand that success isn't getting it perfect (since no one does), but in managing the best you can.  Steadily, you may begin to realize that you can see things that others can't, because you've been walking around backstage all this time and they've been out in the audience.

This is what composers mean when they say, "Keep writing, keep working, keep composing."  They mean, "Keep walking around backstage.  Get into the habit of watching how it's done.  Don't worry that its all fake and pasteboard, that its wood knocked together to make it seem like it's beautiful - that's just how we do it here.  No, there's no trick.  No one back here is special.  It's only that we've been doing it for a long time."

I should add that there are some who will tell you otherwise - but believe me, they are trading on their time and your ignorance.  They're counting on you to think they're geniuses - they may even be deluded enough to think that they are.  It's all crap.  Everyone fucks up.  It doesn't matter.  We keep at it, we keep learning, we accept that it isn't magic and that we do it because it has become a vocation. We knock it together, slap some plaster and paint over the nails, cock our heads and call it, "Good enough."  Then we move on.

5 comments:

JB said...

Dude, this is one cynical blog post. But perhaps I'm someone who lives in a world of delusion.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Depends on how you look at it. Yes, the world does get a little crappier as we go on, even as we tell ourselves that we're content and happy and everything is fine. But JB, you saw this as cynical when I didn't mean it that way, because you recognize inherently that wisdom implies awareness.

Hell, so what if it is pasteboard? It can still be a good time. It doesn't have to be magic, does it? We can't just enjoy reality for all that it in fact offers?

JB said...

I don't think I dare answer those questions during the season of "Miracle on 34th Street." I'm unlikely to give a rational response.
; )

Ray Doraisamy said...

The world doesn't get more crappy. It has always been kind of crappy. Perhaps the problem, though, is one of articulation. Those who ask 'where do you get your ideas from' may be seeking the answer to 'what's your process- what mistakes have you made that we can learn from before we make those same mistakes ourselves?'.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Yes, Ray, that was my point. The world doesn't get more, I perfer to say, imperfect. But with experience, you begin to notice the imperfection; you see how it has always been there.

Greater than that, however, you begin to be comfortable with imperfection. Instead of viewing it as a negative, it becomes a constant, something that is simply consistent with design, because that is the way the world works.

The question, "What mistakes have you made so that I can avoid them?" is worthy of another blog post.