“My God How Did I Get Here?”

Video Games Series: A Historical Introduction

I was born a long time ago (early 1970’s) before there were even a thing called video games. I thought Pong as a concept was amazing and eventually played it all the time. We were playing a game (only one) on the television. It was epic! Before Atari and the world of cartridge games came into our living rooms in the early 1980’s we played in arcades, elaborate coin operated centers of noise and confusion, where kids learned to focus on one thing for as long as possible – or until their three lives ended. Eventually, it all came to our living room, some awesome, some terrible, but it all came flooding in. From classics like Pac-Man to some obscure titles and connections, video games where the future. I also had a Texas Instrument TI-99 computer where I cut my teeth on computer coding (a lot of work for little output). The coolest part was when I got a speech synthesizer and made my computer talk. That was an epic moment.

Texas Instrument TI-99

Console and cartridge games continued through my middle school and high school days. I switched over to the classic Nintendo console and the games were more intense and fun to play. My best friend and I played hockey, Tecmo Football, Top Gun, and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. I also enjoyed the long and complicated Metal Gear, where hiding was just as important as coming out with guns blazing. That brought us into the early 1990’s and the emergence of the personal computer. Games shifted and we played solitaire and loaded games into our computer. They expanded, but I also disconnected. Games were getting harder and more intricate, and my life was about work, finish college and adulting. I didn’t really pay attention to video games until 1999 when my parents bought a PS2 for me to play games and to watch DVDs. Eventually, I was introduced to Grand Theft Auto III and other massively complicated and visually epic games. What attracted me was the stories, the immersion, and the art work. In terms of a visually thinking person (me), it was a connection to worlds already created. I liked reading (or playing) the next chapter, the next thing — and like reading it was less labor intensive and more about achieving, gaining, and exploring.

As body enhanced games like the Wii came out, it was interesting to play video games and expand the way we played. Bowling and Dance Dance Revolution were cool ways to get moving in front of the game. I didn’t play a lot of video games during that time, but I watched as PlayStation and Xbox emerged into the culture of gaming. I started reading articles by Jane McGonigal and thought about how video games can change the world and shift thinking. I immersed myself in Second Life during an election cycle to see if politics and augmented reality was really working (it wasn’t). I was reading books like Extra Lives by Tom Bissell, and reading about this thing called WikiLeaks where people could upload information and get it out into the world without persecution. AR headsets emerged and we were getting dizzy with the world of immersion. Our phones become smart, our watches were refined Dick Tracy devices, and I was playing more and more games on my phone. Everything from Candy Crush and puzzle games, to Subway Surfer and every other game I could try. Clearly in the last few years, I was looking for something, but I didn’t understand what.

Divsion 2 / Stadia

In the last few weeks, I jumped back in with Stadia, the Google based cloud driven game system that I can play on my TV, computer, or phone. And I am now playing video games again. And I feel like Stadia, for all its quirks, is great for me because I constantly shift from game to game, lose interest, or just don’t have time to play. For little investment (one time $100 and good internet), I can play really good games, and when I disconnect because of writing, teaching, and life — I can hit pause and come back when I am ready. This isn’t an endorsement for Stadia (although I do like it a lot). But it is a reconnection to things that are shifting and changing. I like the stories, and I do have my favorite games. But I also like the connection I have with my step daughter when we play. As I wait for new games to release, I feel like I am back into a culture of creatives, problem solvers, and thinkers. I feel like I am not far from the coders, the artists, and the social currency of video games. Gamers know how to solve problems. (I was reading an article the other night about game engine mechanics and how designers lacked the vision to have or not have the character crouch in battle. That’s an argument that was clearly thought out.)

I am a reader, and I continue to read a lot for work and for my own vision of creativity and writing. But I also like the option of playing. Video games have become an extension of the things I like, movies, stories, creativity, and to play in them is still a bit awe-inspiring. As I approach the halfway point of my life, I am glad I still like video games, I still like Star Wars, and I still think that these ideas have influenced the way I think. I am also a video game lifer. I played Pong in 1979! So, I know the thrill of video games. But I also know that they are part of the way people think and explore the world. Right now, young people like to be retro by playing 80’s music and watching the Breakfast Club. It was cool. It was amazing. And there was that day, in August right after I came home from working nine hours at a food stand that I knocked out Mike Tyson. And for a few minutes, I was the champion of the world.

 

Journal of Disasters – Problem Solvers (Journal Series II)

In a Paris Review interview with James Cain (1978), among his conversation, he mentions two points that help us examine the journal of disasters. He says, “But novel writing is something else. It has to be learned, but it can’t be taught.” The focus being on the experience of going through the process and writing them. The hope is that you write one and think: that was really complicated, hard, confusing — but I can make the next one better. That is a hard pill to swallow for writers who finish their first novel and expect to send it off to the agents and begin their book tour. What it suggests is that you may have to write more books to get to that moment of acceptance. I know when I was younger that would have been the last thing I wanted to hear when I completed my first book. Yet, many of the craft books that you read discuss the idea of pipe-lining novels, working on a book and getting feedback and editing — but then work on the next one. 

The next bit that James Cain mentions is closer to the idea that your journal is meant to be a place for all your mistakes and ruminations. He says, “Writing a novel is like working on foreign policy. There are problems to be solved. It’s not all inspirational.” I appreciate his tempered vision of the novel here. There is the inspiration that moves a writer to research, think about form, and finally get motivated to write. But after some page accumulation and some decision making, the shine wears off and you have to sit down and work. This is where your journal moves from a series of ideas, to a series of problems that need to be solved. Your journal now becomes your map of poor decisions. That is not to say that you will use these poor decisions, but you pose them and you build ideas around them. 

“There are problems to be solved,” is something that should probably be on my tombstone. If being a writer is about seeing your work on the page, discussing books, and sharing the literary culture — I am on the wrong floor. My life has been about solving problems. Not just solving problems in my novel – i.e. what happens next, but also solving my own problems of dyslexia, lack of focus, grit, and just not seeing what is right in front of me.  In the end we are all problem solvers, from the first decision you make in your novel to the last, you are constantly solving the problems. That is your job. Your journal, your place in the world that no one sees, is not only a place to write these solutions and connections, but they are also a place to try them and see where they take you. Sometimes, it feels like I write three novels to get one good one, meaning, that I write in my journal, write the novel, and then write more in my journal. Between cut pages, silly sidelines, writing in my journal, and everything else, I probably take on 700 pages of writing. But it is also a way to refine the pages that people will see. It is a way to think and be creative. It is also a way to generate things that won’t make it into the novel, but will come back to your writing life. Nothing is wasted. No good idea will go away, it will just be set aside. That is what the journal is for. 

I realize that I am being hyperbolic when I say it is a journal of disasters, but it makes the point that we are problem solvers. My journal isn’t for rumination, it is to solve things and figure out how I got here. It makes the point that when the inspiration wears off, the work is hard. What can you live with? When is it right? What solution to your characters can you live with? What’s the right answer to a question that only you know about? How can you live this way? When you come to these questions, you are emerging as an artist. You are emerging as a thinker and a problem solver. We don’t get a chance to watch a Youtube video on how to solve the problems in our novels. We don’t always have someone to immediately ask. We have to read other novels, we have research, study, think – deeply. And this is deep and meaningful work. And when you get there (if you are not there yet), it will feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. But isn’t this where you always wanted to be? You are a writer. And as long as you have a problem to solve, you will constantly move back to the process that has crafted you. 


When Things Disappear: Books On Memory and Loss

I’ve noticed an emerging theme. In the last six months I have read books that deal with the disappearance of things. In some cases, the lost things are things we never thought we could lose. In other cases, it is the act of losing that is so devastating. These books have been fascinating and terrifying all at once. Here is a look at some of these books and why this type of idea is emerging in literature. 

The oldest book in the group is a very innovative and probably the most upbeat book titled Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn (2002), the deals with the disappearance of language. In the book is described as “a girl living happily on the fictional island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop was the named after Nevin Nollop, the author of the immortal phrase containing all the letters in the alphabet, ‘The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.’  Now Ella finds herself acting to save her friends, family, and fellow citizens from the encroaching totalitarianism of the island’s Council, which has banned the use of certain letters of the alphabet as they fall from a memorial statue of Nevin Nollop. As the letters progressively drop from the statue they also disappear from the novel. The result is both a hilarious and moving story of one girl’s fight for freedom of expression, as well as a linguistic tour de force sure to delight word lovers everywhere.” This book not only shows the absurdity of how we define rules and social construcut, but it also physically oppresses the reader. Each letter that is dropped from the language, gets dropped from the prose, making it harder and harder to understand. Until it becomes absurd, it feels complicated and oppressive. This brilliant short read feels like a silly parable, but the implications of the novel are deep and meaningful in terms of who makes the rules, who follows them, and the absurdity of principle over common sense. 

Avid readers tend to read a lot of books and many of them are the same. If you read genre murder/mystery novels then you come to expect some of the same common techniques and elements in these books. Novels and stories that stick out to me are the novels that innovate. They aren’t experimental, but they do something I’ve never seen before in a novel or in the genre. Sometimes, that is just a small element of the story. Sometimes, it is the whole book. The Book of M by Peng Shepherd (2018) is a novel that innovates in many different ways. Not only does this book innovate in terms of plot and conflict, it also uses language in innovative ways to close the gap between the unthinkable and the possible. In Alison Walkers review of the book, she describes it as this: “What if your shadow inexplicably held memories? And what if, one day, shadows began to disappear? One day in a busy Indian market a man’s shadow disappears, and with it his memories begin to unravel. Soon, the affliction spreads across the world, as more and more people slowly lose their memories—and with them their ability to reason. We see this catastrophe unfold through the eyes of Ory and his girlfriend, Max, who have gone into hiding in an abandoned hotel. When Max loses her shadow and disappears into the forest, Ory pursues her and heads south, hoping to find Max before she forgets him.” The ideas and language in the novel are so innnovative and compelling that the novel seems like the only place that this idea can happen. While this book has been optioned to the screen (or television), it will be very difficult to handle the range of loss and vision without the narrative and language in the novel. The book is always better, but in this case, the best parts of the novel can never be captured by visuals on the screen. That being said, the loss here is fascinating, overwhelming, and catastrophic. As a result, everything is at stake and the book is filled with the tension of complete calamity, personally, universally, across all realms of thought and feeling. This book is innovative and so exciting to read. And the sense of loss is complete in its effect on the reader. 

The last book on our tour of things lost, is The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (2019). This book not only considers the loss of things to our memory, but it also implies that there is a task-force that enforces that loss. While all these books could fall in and out of dystopian literature, this one feels the most oppressive. The book is explained here: “On an unnamed island off an unnamed coast, objects are disappearing: first hats, then ribbons, birds, roses – until things become much more serious. Most of the island’s inhabitants are oblivious to these changes, while those few imbued with the power to recall the lost objects live in fear of the draconian Memory Police, who are committed to ensuring that what has disappeared remains forgotten. When a young woman who is struggling to maintain her career as a novelist discovered that her editor is in danger from the Memory Police, she concocts a plan to hide him beneath her floorboards. As fear and loss close in around them, they cling to her writing as the last way of preserving the past.” This book feels like the dystopian classics, but also has a pointed and ironic sense of our contemporary times of authoritarian vision of oppression in a interconnected vision of being seen through the eyes of the technology and systems. 

Over the course discovering these novels, I found a vision for dystopian novels and ideas. The layers of self-reflected irony is often an element that adds meaning and empathy in a novel. It is clear that classic dystopian novels have meaning because they are close to the surface of our vision of society, relationships, government, and power. Orwell’s 1984 is still a stunning vision. And we often feel like we are moving closer to it rather than moving away. There is also The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood (now a television series), which envisions the darkest places in a society ruled by pain, suffering, and authority. Yet in these three novel, there is a sense that loss isn’t about moving through things that you can’t have, but the existential precipice around the idea that you may never know you had them to begin with. And that power, that fear of forgetting, or letting something go because it doesn’t mean anything any more is where the fear and anxiety derive. 

Is the world shaping these ideas through our vision of the world? Authoritarianism, war, refugees, and environmental disasters have shaped the last fifteen years. And with it has come a different way of seeing the world. But I also think technology has eroded the way we interact in the world. I think technology and the vision of the world is better. But, it also feels like technology is also scrubbing our brains from the act of deep thinking and retaining long term memories. That is not to say people don’t do these things, but we are pushed and shoved along the information highway and we are moved along from one devastating idea or construct to the next. We all know the exhaustion of just being overwhelmed by what is happening. That is also taking a toll on how we see the world. And perhaps these novels are a result of that idea. 

These novels represent some amazing innovation in writing. This article is meant to highlight these fascinating book around theme of memory and loss. But as a writer and someone who is constantly looking for innovation in novels, these book matter. In the end, these visions of what is possible should strike a chord. In terms of writing, we should be looking for the social messages that are woven in these novels. Writing novels are fascinating because they are complex and each element within the book has to connect with another. That being said, without context or memory, we couldn’t read novels. We couldn’t remember how parts connect (or who committed the crime), and these novels remind us through the innovation of memory, there is the unfathomable idea that we could, unknowingly, let it all slip away. 


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Journal of Disasters

Over the years, I have been an active proponent of keeping a writing journal. This is typically a writing journal based on the writing in the moment. It is an on-going dialogue with the story or novel that I am working on. Not only do I think this resolves the concept of writer’s block, it also gives you space to type and put words down beyond the image of the writer. Some people feel like free writing or writing on the page is a place where perfection is the goal. But in the journal, things can be messy and incomplete. I often have my journal open while I am working on a novel so I can take notes, add something to write about and resolve.

My rules, if you’ve read “What is a Writing Journal,” creates some guidelines. 1) Only write about what you are writing. 2) Only write about what you are reading. And of course, they should intermingle. It is a place to write about books you like and dislike, it is a place to think. It is your mental workshop.

That is what I’ve always thought about my journal. It is a place to document where I am, what I am thinking, and how I feel about my writing at any given moment. It is part of the process. But in the last year, I thought about it with a different light. What if my journal is a workshop of problems that need to be solved?

When I went back into my journal and looked at some of the entries from places where I was writing, I was thinking out loud. What happens if this happens? Why does this happen now? Why this and not that? Does it matter?

That is when I realized that my journal is an accumulation of my failures. And I don’t mean that to sound hyperbolic or depressive. No, this is the process. Novels need to have a path and there are so many places to get stuck and draw out into something that doesn’t work. And it takes bravery to realize that you may have failed somewhere and it needs to be fixed. I see it all the time. So, why not map out some of those things and think about them in the journal? Why not run that vision through a test, not on the pages of your manuscript but in your journal. In that linear thinking tool that doesn’t judge because it is never seen by anyone.

There is also a sense that the pages we wrote, that came from the “muse” or at one brilliant moment – that those pages become sacred. I’ve heard people say, “I wrote those pages while my mother was dying.” And honestly, those are special and sacred pages. I wouldn’t want a writer to change them. But they also may not be the best element for your novel — a novel that will change and shift around you for months or years. Some people are often star struck by the words they create in a specific moment. And that can be a problem if you can’t or won’t change to innovate. That is the concept behind killing your darlings, pushing yourself and writing something new. Those sacred pages can be in your journal. You don’t have a word limit. You don’t have an idea limit. Annie Dillard said “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. The impluse to save something good for a better place later is a signal to spend it now.” Just get it all in there and use it all. It also suggests and confirms the idea that we may have to stuff pages into a drawer and forget them for awhile. Sometimes, that is six months. For me, it has been years. And when I came back to the pages, I saw things clearly and was ready to make it something that I couldn’t tame before.

Your journal should be a disaster. It should be places to think and move, and try. It should be your muse, your tool, your guide. It can be a fucked up mess. And it can be everything you want your writing to be.

I would really enjoy teaching a class or having a discussion around this concept. If anyone is interested, reach out to the email in the contact section. 

Quoted: The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

What Is A Writing Journal?

New Writing for the Hollihock Writer’s Conference 
“Your writing journal is a record of your thought process through time. It will evolve as the months and years pass, and it will become a powerful tool. Not only can you think and process your ability on the page, you can also see the history and the arc of ideas as they develop. It can be very powerful to see where you’ve been and realize where you are all at once.” – Read More Click Here 

https://www.hollihock.org/single-post/2019/07/19/What-is-a-Writers-Journal

Unquestioning Writing – When Good Is Good Enough

by Ron Samul 

As writers, we are constantly thinking about the audience and the impact of our writing. It is a fundamental element of teaching, thinking, and writing. It made me think, when I saw this tweet by Maha Bali, when she mentioned this moment. 


This is a complex idea, and from a writing standpoint, it is also a brave idea. Writers as communicators and creative generators always seem to humble and diminish their craft. In this case, Maha is confident and sees that sometimes – no one comments because of the “powerful”. I really admire the confidence and the realization that sometimes – that the power of writing can overwhelm. Why? 

Social Media 

The concept of finding something meaningful and important on social media is relevant to me. Online courses, MOOCs, connected learning, creative spaces — all interact through social media. For me, learning, thinking, and listening to very smart and creative people comes from my interaction with social media. However, not everyone comes to social media to find that kind of connection. 

Some people are connecting with family and friends, some are just passing by while they watch their favorite TV show, some are broadcasting on Periscope as they walk to work. Why people use social media is tailored to each person. The depth of reading and interaction really comes down to the user. And it isn’t happening in real time, it is happening along a timeline that could be shifting through time zones and cultures. Sometimes, the most important statements or blog posts don’t get the attention I think they deserve, merely because I posted them on a Friday afternoon before a holiday (fail). 


But more importantly, people are looking for an interaction that is quick and reactive on social media. Things that make them stop, think, and experience deeper level thinking, (which relates to selective solitude, pausing, and deep reflection), may not fit into the “Like” or “+1” world of immediate reaction. This has spurred the age of important, meaningful quotes on stunning images. 


In this scan and click age, deep thinking and impactful ideas sometimes need a difference venue. It sometimes needs a blogpost, or some area where things can be expanded and slowly unpacked. And sometimes, the “Like” or the “Share” simply doesn’t relate the importance of meaning at that moment. Sometimes, I see an image or a concept and I want to keep it. I want to hold on to it. But where would I keep it? Social media lets you keep it on social media terms. But when something is meaningful, we want to do more than just throw it on our timeline. Perhaps it is merely my personal need to embody ideas, art, and writing in tangible ways. Social media isn’t going away and perhaps a thirty-year archive of my Facebook posts will allow me to go back and find that poem I recall so sweetly. But I want to make moments my own – outside of the screen. I want to print them out and save them. I want to fold them up and leave them in a book to discover them in a few years. 

Student Writing 

Being a writing teacher is a complex beast. Following syllabus standards, rubrics, college standards, your own vision, and the student’s vision – we create a position where we are looking for the right answer to the assignment. Writing is subjective and I am looking at process, not the right order of words in a sentence. I am looking at critical thinking, how you cite sources, how you can create a document that convinces me. There is some excellent writing that comes by in terms of student writing, but I find that those elements are the product of good thinking, critical research, and planning. It comes from students who engage the learning process. And sometimes, compared to the whole class or the entire writing section, you have to acknowledge excellence as it comes to you. And sometimes, after two or three rewrites and a clear process of thinking and learning – there comes a moment when you don’t need it better. They have learned – they have more than met your requirements, and they deserve to stand in that moment and feel the significance of their work. 

Creative Writing 

Creative acts are a different beast. When you apply rubrics and grading schemes to a poem or a short story, it gets awkward and complex. The “powerful” concept that Maha tweets about can be emotional, formative, and change the way we see the world. That is what art does. And sometimes, from a creative writing mentor point-of-view, you have to judge something that isn’t vetted through a rubric or a course guide. It comes from emotion, it comes from form and content magically aligning to make a moment (perhaps in time if read or spoken) that matches our time and space with the ideas of someone else. 

I always question my role in interfering with the creative process. It isn’t my story to tell, it is my job to make the writer think about making the story better. That is complex. And my suggestions are never – “throw this out and start over,” because I would be devastated if someone told me that. But this “powerful” part of writing and speaking is fascinating to me. And there has to be a moment when we realize that expression and time meet you when you need it. There are so many poems, books, and important things written all the time. When I need them (personally), they will be there. I don’t always see them now because I am looking at different things that I need now. We are all on different paths and moving in different ways. We find those moments that are “powerful” because we are looking. We need to stop counting “likes” and stats, and imagine that if one person moved forward because of the power of our words, it is always… always worth it. 


I don’t think I am done defining Maha’s “powerful” because I think there is a lot to the creative elements here. There is an important conversation here in defining the “powerful” in our writing, in our expression, and in our ideas. We need to value them – make an earnest and important effort to value those words and ideas that can change lives. It may not make you famous or popular, but it is a rich and deeply thoughtful life, one without regrets. 


by Ron Samul — want to know more about me… go here. 


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Writing and the Act of Immersion

Find my new article about the immersive act of writing at Harvesting Creativity.

Oddly, when I am scuba diving I think about writing. Long boat rides, open space, and the feeling of being insignificant on the vast ocean plays with the mind. Five or six miles out on the Block Island Sound, the ocean opens up. It is hard to see the shore, and with the typical New England fog, you may not see the shore for hours. Guys chat about their gear, exotic dive sites, and skills they have acquired. I listen and join in, but I think about writing. When we are gearing up to dive, we stop chatting and we get to diving. Gearing up for a dive includes settling into a mental process of checking and rechecking your gear and getting into the water. Click here to read the rest.