Archive for the 'Articles' Category
Last week, the city of Los Angeles officially celebrated Ray Bradbury Week in honor of his ninetieth birthday. All across the sprawling urban landscape, plays were performed, films were screened, and books were signed. Circumstances, unfortunately, dictated that I could not attend any of these incredible events, but my heart, as always, was ablaze with the same reverent passion as their participants. As upsetting as my absence was for me, I knew that, much like Christmas, the most important part of any celebration is keeping its spirit alive and well all the year round. In this case, it is stoking the flames of inspiration every day for the remainder of a lifetime, and beyond. That, truly, is how you honor Ray Bradbury’s incredible contributions to the world and universe.
It is the beyond portion of the above sentiments that has been captivating my thoughts as of late. This can, of course, be strictly defined as one’s legacy, but I believe that the term’s connotations unwittingly limit the scope of endeavors to only those that are retold and printed in history books and literary journals. Bradbury, beyond a doubt, will have such a legacy, stretching as far into space and the future as his own imagination has taken him and us. However, not all of us will have the historical literary clout that Bradbury has earned over the course of his thus-far seventy-eight years of writing. And yet, he still issues to all who hear his words the same decree that was given to him at age twelve by Mr. Electrico: “Live forever!” How do we do that?
I unknowingly began contemplating this very question when I began working on Of Sirens and Sand. I suppose it was inevitable the moment I put pen to paper, for the very nature of writing was born out of a need for at least a certain semblance of permanency. Indeed, the core inspiration for the book was my inability to capture in some physical (and therefore permanent) medium the beautiful images that were quickly rotting away in my mind. I was, in essence, trying to make my memory live forever. Over the course of writing the six stories, two vignettes, and single poem that compose Of Sirens and Sand, I discovered what I decided was my personal lesson to be taken from the experience, and the secret that I believe is the key to truly living forever: Realizing that our work is never done, even in so-called death, and the torch must always be passed to another.
We pour our love, our spirit, and thus ourselves into our creative endeavors. When I hand a copy of my manuscript to someone to read, I am giving them more than just the words on the page; I am scooping out a cup of my core self and asking them to drink. All of us have been the receivers of such an offer, because we have spent lifetimes building our minds out of ideas the same way we do our bodies from the food we eat. We consume and digest countless thoughts, notions, and philosophies, laying them down as bricks in the foundation upon which we construct our own tower to the unreachable heavens. In choosing these materials, we continue the work that was begun by their creators, make them a part of who we are and what we do. Through us, and our actions, they continue to live on, their spirit carried from the past and into the future.
I see this as a metaphysical, across-the-ages version of a subject I have touched on before (“The Creative Geode” & “The Tiles”): the need to make connections. Just as we’ve the biological drive to have our genes passed onto another generation, we also have the similarly intense desire to have our ideas (and thus ourselves) be integrated into the stream of time as it flows forth into the infinite future. This is because, on some level, we instinctively grasp what Mr. Electrico knew and Bradbury has been driving at all these years: there is indeed a way to live forever, through your ideas and the connections they make.
It might be argued that such a sentiment only holds true for those whose names history has decided are worthy of documentation, but I must respectfully disagree. The remembering of names and specific actions are indeed great honors, but hardly a requirement. Ultimately, names are meaningless. Anyone can know my name. It can be recorded, written, and recited for all the ages, but it is meaningless and empty without my ideas attached to it. Sure, legends will have their names and philosophies forever bound, but this is simply additional recognition. Who I am, the nature of my actual spirit, is contained more in my words and thoughts, and therefore my work, than it is in my name. In the end, “John J. Walsh IV” is nothing but a label on a container. It is what’s inside of that container that is most important, the stuff in which I dip my inked quill. Therefore, I do not concern myself with tapping history on the shoulder so that it might take notice and jot me down, but rather about making sure my ideas connect with people, whoever (and however few) they might be. This is my ultimate goal as a writer, not fame or widespread recognition. As creators, we must never lose this distinction, else we will most likely fail and fall victim to our own premature hubris.
In this same vein, I harbor no delusions as to my own place in the universe; we are all so small against the backdrop of Creation. Yet, I cannot ignore that we make up some part of that infinite fabric: threads that may be finite, but can be stitched and lashed together to form a string that stretches far beyond our own individual reach. Our spirits carry forth as far as our ideas’ connections. Against common conception, it is not who you know, but who your ideas find. The creative efforts we pour out of ourselves may not reach an audience of millions, but all they need is to connect with one other person, who can make it a part of themselves to be passed on in turn. This is the nature of creation.
In fact, it is this very nature that has led me to the realization that our work will never be finished, no matter who we are or what we do. There is always another story to write, another picture to paint, one more song to be sung. The inevitable death of our physical bodies always draws the line somewhere, and rarely (if ever) where we would draw it ourselves. It forces us to reevaluate how we fit into such a strange and seemingly random universe. If, by definition, the soul is immortal, and we’ve poured that very soul into our work, then we live on in those it affects, no matter who they are, and the great chain continues.
The lesson is simple: put everything you have into that which you create, and even if you think it has no effect upon the world, put it out there anyway. Toss messages in bottles into the sea and let the currents of time carry them. Let your ideas find their own connections; don’t force their direction. If you’ve truly put yourself, your spirit, into your words, your brushstrokes, your musical notes, then they will find their way.
Seventy-eight years ago, that was exactly what Ray Bradbury did when he sat down to write his stories. He wrote to preserve some part of himself and his love in words, and then tossed those words out into the world. Some sixty-odd years later, a bottle landed in my hands in the form of Dandelion Wine. I popped the cork, drank deep of its words, and it changed my life forever. His philosophies were the magic elixir that granted me the secret of immortality:
Do your work, that thing you love above all other things, pour your entire soul into it, bottle it up, and toss it into the universe’s infinite expanse. When it washes up upon another’s shore, when your ideas, and thus yourself, make that connection across time and space, you will continue on into the future. It is in this manner that we can all hope to live forever, even if our names do not long outlast our bodies.
And so, with ninety amazing years of life to celebrate this year, we all wished Ray Bradbury, “Happy Birthday!” In return, he decrees as he always has, “Live forever!”
I know that he will. And, with his words as my guide, I do believe that I shall as well. I raise this bottle in toast, and then toss it into the digital sea.
Since the first people drew on the walls of caves, art has been a collaborative effort. The creative talents of one has helped nourish the creative talents of another. One inspires two, two inspire ten, and in the end there is this vast community of people connected by a love and passion that drives them beyond reason. And it’s when people cherish that web of creativity that amazing things happen.
That is an (unedited) excerpt from one of my very first correspondences with artist Martin Abel. I was, at the time, trying to explain why I, a complete and total stranger, was so willing to assist him in his endeavor to help his then-girlfriend (now fiancée) Hannah return to Australia. At this point, I wasn’t even thinking of asking him to illustrate Of Sirens and Sand, because the project was honestly of a much smaller scale, as this was a mere few days after its extremely humble inception.
My primary aim was the butterfly effect of creative efforts, pushing forth influence in time, but as I look back now at this small chuck of text, I realize that I predicted my own future, in a way I hadn’t considered: a creative loop. Martin’s artwork had certainly been an influence on me, but after the ball got rolling on our friendship, I found myself in his shoes, with my writing influencing him. And so the cycle went, eventually turning into a maelstrom of ideas flowing freely between us. The lines I wrote were the ones Martin inked; the lines he drew became the ones I scrawled. This is an experience I emphatically wish upon every kind soul who wishes to create.
What this has fostered for us is an environment of constant sharing. He peers into my journals, and I into his sketchbooks. As such, I get to see those rough drawings that the (unfortunate) public will probably never get to see. This causes the occasional friendly battle between us, over ideas that I simply cannot bear to see him give the axe. “But I can’t even remember why I drew this!” he’ll say. “The knowledge of inspiration fades, but not the power of what it forged,” I’ll fire back. And so it goes. Sometimes I win this war, sometimes I do not. Ultimately, this is his artwork and his choice. I am, after all, just giving him private feedback, nothing more than my own opinion. However, it does make me think about the nature of this whole interpersonal creative process, and the path of creativity in general.
What I am really saying to Martin when we have this debate is this: Don’t give up on that particular piece, concept, or idea simply because you don’t understand where it currently fits into your scheme of things. Perhaps you aren’t the person who is supposed to figure it out.
When I bought his sketch “Message in a Bottle” from him in 2008, he didn’t even want to let the piece see the light of day, let alone be sold. Hannah (having returned to Australia) pretty much twisted his arm into doing so. The minute I saw the piece, I had to have it; I connected with it right away. When it arrived, I saw that its actual title, penciled at the top of the page, was “Rest Your Soul.” My mind was already at work. Shortly thereafter, I wrote a poem by the same name which eventually morphed into one of the major components of Of Sirens and Sand. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but that was a key point in the evolution of the book.
When I sent a copy of that poem back to Martin, it was only then that he began to understand what his sketch had meant, just as I had to see his sketch for me to begin to fully comprehend what the ideas in my own head were leading me toward. It took two of us to solve these particular mysteries. This experience is a major reason why I believe that you need to open yourself up to the very real possibility that your work will connect with someone else, even if you don’t understand yourself just how.
The other night, Martin and I got into this discussion once more. Looking to explain further why I thought he shouldn’t abandon a particular piece, I finally compared it to a rock:
Your work sits before you, a seemingly dull piece of stone. You look at it from every angle and fail to find any redeeming value. You are tempted to declare the endeavor a complete loss and throw the seemingly useless rock aside as so much creative garbage. But something, or someone, tells you to keep at it. You pick up the chisel and mallet, proceeding to work on the idea. You continue to chip away at it, until suddenly the thing bursts open, bright with glistening crystals. Somewhere, in the middle of what once seemed so dull and ordinary, there lies brilliant meaning. See what you would have lost if you had abandoned your efforts?
One can give the counter argument: But what if you get to the middle of the stone and find no geode awaits you? Is this a waste of time? I contend that it is not. I had several ideas which did not make the final cut of Of Sirens and Sand. However, many of those ideas that did were constructed of the remnants that came from chiseling away at those ideas that didn’t. (In fact, many of the ideas were from a wholly different project, a prior attempt at a one act play.) Breaking apart the big ideas into their components many times allowed me to discover small crystals that would fit into the picture I was composing. Sure, I hadn’t hit a mother lode, but these small concepts added up and sometimes lead me to put together pieces I would not have otherwise considered.
It is my belief that if something comes out of your mind, you should not discard it. Perhaps it doesn’t fit into the project at hand, but it fits somewhere, for someone. That sketch you did, just sitting in your car on a cliff overlooking the sea, the one that you didn’t believe amounted to anything, might just be what becomes the keystone of an entire imagined universe, or the start of an incredible friendship.
This subject has been on my mind a lot lately, ever since completing my first round of Dead Space. I was invited to play the game by David Boyd, and was subsequently delighted with one of the most incredible gaming experiences of my life. Granted, I am not what is traditionally defined as a gamer; I don’t even own a next-gen gaming system, which is why the aforementioned game of Dead Space was played at David’s house. I provide this information because I hope that it will help you, the reader, understand that this is not some fanatical general devotion that I harbor, by any stretch of the imagination. What I’m trying to say, in so many words, is that I hold no bias toward or against video games.
I suppose that the first step, given the title of this article, is to establish some rough assemblage of what a good definition of art is. Rather than resorting to simply tossing out a canned response from an online dictionary, let’s try to get at the root of it by dissecting that which is commonly referenced as art.
I’d imagine traditional art, in the form of drawings or paintings, is probably the first image that comes to mind when asked to think of what art is. At their core, these are excellent examples of individuals transferring their creative energies into physical form via pencil, pen, or brush. Some idea or experience rests in their minds that is compelled to force its way out into the world and be transferred in some manner into the mind of another. The same can be said of sculpture, music, dance, writing, acting, and film making, just to name a few recognized outlets. These recognized artists/creators use their individual or joint talents to bring forth into the world something they believe special and worth sharing.
Now, even in these established areas of art, things can go awry. If I draw a cruddy stick figure on a napkin, I doubt the majority of people would recognize it as art. If I stuck a bicycle in the middle of a parking lot and attempted to call it a sculpture, I’m not kidding anyone. So there are boundaries. I believe that good indicators are the amounts of genuine thought and skill that are put into the creation of the final product. You need to have both of these factors lined up for something to be considered art.
So, given the above, why should video games be considered as much art as any of the previously noted forms? Let’s break down the core basics of what goes into a video game:
- Characters/Environments - Someone has to design them. Established artists created these essential elements. Have you ever seen some of the concept art that goes into the creation of a video game’s world? Depending on the picture, without the knowledge of its ultimate purpose, you would have a hard time knowing it was for a game as opposed to a stand-alone piece of art. These are some seriously talented individuals.
- Music - There’s someone sitting down and composing these scores. In the early days it was simple, given the relatively primitive nature of gaming systems’ sound capabilities, but regardless, someone composed that music. There are games today that have scores which rival (if not surpass) those of movies.
- Story - What’s the point of a game if nothing happens? Perhaps games like the original Super Mario Bros. don’t have complicated plots, but there’s no denying that there’s storytelling involved in something along the lines of BioShock. In a game like that, you are basically looking at an honest-to-goodness script, no less so than for a Hollywood film.
- Programming - You can’t just take concept art, music, and a story and throw them into a game as if it were some sort of digital blender. There’s a whole team of programmers working to bring about the presentation of those elements. They build the invisible stage upon which everything else performs.
The first three I believe explain themselves. How are these elements any different from those involved in a traditional film? If the individuals that created these aspects of a game were to do so for a movie, their status as talented creative individuals wouldn’t lie in dispute. However, since they employed their talents toward a video game, their contributions are somehow seen as being inferior to those of their Hollywood counterparts. I say hogwash to that. The medium does not in any way diminish the quality of their work. Good design is good design. Good music is good music. Good writing is good writing. It’s as simple as that.
So were are left with the odd man out: programming. This is ultimately what separates video games from movies. (Especially now that CGI has become increasingly present in the latter.) Whereas a film is completely and solidly predefined by the time it reaches a viewer, a game comes with certain unknowns. Granted, players only have as many options available to them as they are given, but game developers must strike a balance between telling a player what to do (in one manner or another) and letting them have free reign. This is all part of the art of creating a game. The skill comes in letting a player make as many decisions as possible while still providing the desired experience.
As an example, I would like to use the manner in which music is presented in Dead Space. As events happen, the score alters to reflect these changes. The simplest instance of this is the basic interaction with the game’s monsters. There are haunting notes when they stalk you, loud horns while they are attacking, and an elegant transition into the ambient music when you finally kill them. The music remains completely seamless during all of these changes. Never once do you hear one sound file stopping while another begins. To your ears, it is as if the composer knew precisely when and how long your battle would be waged. But he couldn’t have known. I could have killed the creature with two blasts of a plasma cutter or been out of ammunition and had to run, extending the length of the skirmish to well over a minute. Somewhere between the composer’s music and my ears, there is the invisible, yet genius, work of a programmer. Someone (and if I ever find out who, I will write them a love letter) put amazing amounts of effort into designing a sound engine that could dynamically compose the final music you hear as you play. It takes the beautiful compositions that would otherwise be straight sheet music and rearranges them to match the player’s experience, on the fly. Can you even begin to fathom the amount of skill it takes to do that? This is not just some no-talent hack pressing a few buttons on a computer keyboard. This is someone with real skill, putting genuine thought into the final product. One would have to understand the nature of music, be aware of the experience of it, and then (on top of all that) also have the knowledge to pull off the intended result by writing lines of code. I don’t know about you, but that’s an artist to me.
And so all these elements come together to form what we call a video game. Perhaps it is trash. There certainly are horrible games out there, a complete waste of the discs upon which they are stored. But there are also equally bad movies. That’s just the nature of art. However, there are amazing games out there. I defy anyone to come away from BioShock and not contemplate the question of where humanity sits in the shadow of industry. Sure games like this are few and far between, but so are films. And that is ultimately my bottom line: Video games are an art form, which can be executed in any countless number of ways, with varying degrees of quality. They hold the same potential for intrinsic value as any painting, film, or play. All it takes is the desire to see the possibilities. Where some see a blank canvas, another sees a sweeping landscape. Where one sees a video game console, some see an experience ready to come to life.