Writing Matters

Writing Matters

“Writing Matters” is the best creative writing program I’ve ever taken, and it was obvious from day one that our professors weren’t screwing around when they chose that title. Marilyn was ruthless when it came to amateur screenwriting mistakes like overusing exposition and flashbacks, and she’d get up in your face if she thought you were doing classical story structure wrong—even if you happened to be Don, her fellow instructor. Don ran the poetry and short story side of things, and he would constantly remind us of William Faulkner’s maxim that all good writing concerns “the human heart in conflict with itself,” and can serve to challenge our “certain certainties”1A phrase from T.S. Eliot’s poem “Preludes.” about the world and our fellow human beings. Even now, Faulkner’s speech at the Nobel Banquet (pronouns notwithstanding) remains one of the most rousing and powerful arguments I’ve ever seen for the value of art and literature in our lives.

The cover of "A Small, Good Thing," a short story by Raymond Carver.
One of my favorite stories we read in “Writing Matters.” If you feel like crying your eyes out sometime, give it a read.

I loved that program, and if I could take it again, I’d do it just to relive the experience. But, of course, it wasn’t completely perfect. Marilyn and I butted heads a little on classical story structure, as I was thoroughly bored with it by the time I got to Evergreen. However, in a bout of arrogance I’m still embarrassed about, I decided I didn’t need to, you know, prove I understood it in any of our coursework, which…yeah, how obnoxious is that? On the other hand, Don happened to be a bluff old traditionalist who thought that the fantasy genre was a colossal waste of time—a problem for me, since fantasy is pretty much my reason for living. Hell, if any writer embodies the spirit of hope and triumph running through Faulkner’s speech, it’s J.R.R. Tolkien. But in his defense, he never let that bias get in the way of evaluating my work on its own merits (or lack thereof). Quite the contrary. Too many prominent “intellectuals” need a lesson in that kind of integrity.

Now, at this point, I’m tempted to talk at length about the one or two creative writing classes I, frankly, hated, but that would take more time than we have here. Suffice it to say that they saw literature and art as indulgences, with nothing to offer in terms of insight, beauty, or solace, just a bag of cute toys for us to screw around with.

While there’s certainly a place for the “cute toys” view, it’s just not the whole story: reading increases empathy2Although the article’s dismissal of all genre fiction, even that which takes the inner pyschological lives of its characters seriously, seems to require a great deal more support than this study offers. and may help stave off the mental decay that comes with age, if you believe all the science cropping up on the subject. From my own experience, getting absorbed into any story (whatever the medium) feels much like meditation, in that the sense of self (with all its burdens and neuroses) fades into the background. Stories can also help us feel just a little less alone in this increasingly atomized world, if the characters are well-developed and their actions believable. For me, fiction and poetry are defined by their capacity to offer us such things; without them (as Don would say), “you’re just pissing into the wind.” In that, I stand firmly with the bluff old traditionalists.

Game art for the Dark Souls franchise, featuring the "Dark Souls" title and a kneeling, fully armored knight.
Just one of many fictional worlds we’ll eventually dive into, and perhaps the most subtle and multilayered.

However, I veer sharply away from them when it comes to more popular media like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and the fantasy genre in general. Video games, too, have some fascinating stories to tell through both narrative and gameplay. The Dark Souls and Elder Scrolls worlds stand among the richest fictional universes ever created, easily rivaling Tolkien’s Arda in historical detail, and in some ways surpassing it in metaphysical/philosophical depth. And Mass Effect…oh Mass Effect: one of the most incredible science-fiction stories of the 21st century, and rivaled by no story I know in the self-destructiveness of its ending. Seriously, I can’t think of any work of fiction in any canon anywhere that so thoroughly demolishes its own plot, character development, and thematic structure in the last five minutes. To paraphrase GLaDOS, it would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

And speaking of video games, Dwarf Fortress! This thing is a fantasy writer’s dream. Not only does it offer one of the deepest city-building experiences ever, it generates an entire fantasy world for your fortress(es) to inhabit, complete with legendary beasts, historical figures, whole civilizations, and oodles more. It’s pretty much one gargantuan writing prompt, and plenty of people have crafted amazing stories from the raw material it provides—most (in)famously, the doomed fortress of Boatmurdered, whose descent into madness and death makes Moria’s look quaint. More recently, a fellow named Kruggsmash has set up shop on YouTube, creating beautifully edited and illustrated accounts of his antics in both Adventure and Fortress modes. For my own part, I’m still working my way through my first game, and writing an in-world log in the voice of whichever dwarf happens to be expedition leader or mayor of the fortress at any given time. Not quite sure when that’ll be ready to go, but it’s in the works.

A screenshot from Dwarf Fortress, showing the very simple (perhaps too simple) graphical interface.
The gates of Boatmurdered, done up in the game’s utterly inscrutable ASCII graphics. You, ah, might want to download a tileset.

As for what else we’ve got in store here, well, fortunately I have a nice large backlog of material to draw from, encompassing lore from Dark Souls, Star Wars, and Tolkien’s legendarium. Digging through well-wrought fictional universes is fun all on its own, of course, but I also hope to convince you that they have genuine substance just waiting to be uncovered if we don’t dismiss them as mere entertainment or “geek stuff.” At the same time, I’m not the worst English major in the world: we’ll also discuss writers like like W.B. Yeats, Aeschylus (not to mention the other Greek playwrights), Alfred Tennyson, Keats, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (which, unfortunately, remains just as pertinent today as it was in 1952), and so on. Hopefully, this’ll help bridge the divide between these two camps3Thank god that’s not too hubristic, or anything., showing that not all “great” literature is stuffy and boring, and not all popular media need be shallow dreck.

And hopefully it won’t scare too many of you away if we get political from time to time. “All art is political,” as the saying goes, and really, if Don was right about good writing challenging our “certain certainties,” should that really be a surprise? Anyway, in an age of such alienation and toxicity, with the original book-burners themselves slithering through the streets again, we desperately need, as Urusula K. LeGuin once put it, “writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope.” We’ve touched briefly on a couple already.

An image of the iconic opening text from the Star Wars movies: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away."
…is where the first several posts on this blog will take us. It should be an interesting ride.

So, all that said, what’s the plan? Alas, Halloween has passed us by this year (barely), but…well, we’ve got a new Star Wars movie coming in December, don’t we? The last one (supposedly) of the main Skywalker saga, no less, so I think my first “real” posts will have to take us through that wonderful galaxy far, far away. We’ll start with some plot surgery on The Force Awakens, followed closely by a discussion of Luke and the Skywalker legacy as depicted in The Last Jedi: where it succeeded, and where it might have done better. Once those go live, we’ll see how much time we have before The Rise of Skywalker; maybe there’ll be time for another couple glances at Star Wars lore.

I say “maybe” because, at this point, I’m not sure how often I’ll be able to post. By day, I go slowly mad work in the Microsoft data mines (not the Skype department, thank god) for what they tell me is a “living,” so my time and energy are way more limited than I’d like. Still, I think I can safely promise one decently long, well-researched and -edited piece a month, more or less. Once I fall into a rhythm, I’m hoping I can crank them out a little faster. We’ll see.

In the meantime, if anything in this crazy, eclectic maelstrom of subjects interests you, or you’re a fellow writer looking for some interesting material on literary analysis and writer’s craft, then I hope you’ll join me here in the coming months and (hopefully) years.

Last, but certainly not least, I’d like to give a shout-out to my friend Page Bonifaci, who helped brainstorm ideas for site names and whose technical know-how was vital to getting this place up and running. If you’re looking for some new Forgotten Realms content to spice up your game, definitely give his site a look.

Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you back here in the very near future!

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