Your Write to Live

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Everybody’s got a story to tell. Whether you’re recounting your real life experiences or engaging your imagination as you day dream about fictional characters, we all connect through stories. Storytelling has been around long before the written word and has been a vehicle to illustrate life lessons.

Back in the Hunter Gatherer days, a hunter may have recounted his run in with a deadly boar and lost a limb, so he would gather everyone around the camp fire and tell his story to make a point: “don’t mess with the boar or you get the horns. Now let’s make long pointy things to stab them with so we don’t have to fight bare handed.”

Yes, that’s a true story. To some degree.

Now I’m pretty sure they didn’t talk like that back in the day, but the lesson and experience is universal: mistakes were made and a committment to improvement was made to mitigate any future problems. That’s all stories really do in the end. They reveal human folly, illustrating just how flawed and fallible we are, but also celebrate our capacity to correct course.

Think of your favourite stories. What do they all have in common?

Whether you’re aware of it or not, they all feature a variety of fuck ups made by the main characters, and you got worried about them. You wanted them to achieve their goals, but something got in the way. You related to how they felt when they didn’t get what they want, thus invoking a sense of panic in you to the point where you couldn’t help but turn the page or watch the next episode to find out if they could escape a dreadful situation and come out on top.

Now think even deeper, further beyond the surface situation your favourite characters were confronted with. Think about what their goal was and what it meant to them, what it meant to those around them in their immediate world, and to the entire world at large. Was there a higher purpose to strive for? A moral principle to be uncovered? Some hidden nugget of human knowledge, new or old, that would benefit the growth humanity?


If that sounds too abstract let me give a few brief examples of how there’s so much more beneath the surface when it comes to popular stories:

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold is fundamentally about grieving the death of a child, as the story goes, but also serves as an allegory for Alice’s survival as a rape victim herself. She may have survived physically, but mentally, a part of herself died and was reborn into Susie Salmon, the novel’s main character.

Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs is fundamentally about human adaptability. How we are much weaker we are compared to other species, but it’s our wit and human invention that allows us to conquer even the most dangerous of beasts and environments.

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes is fundamentally about self-ownership and personal choice when it comes to suicide. It may have the basic components of a romance novel; boy meets girl, boy can’t stand girl, but will later need girl. But at it’s core, it’s about the difficulties of living with a disability and the moral complications of suicide.


Now before I go on a long winded bender pointing out the deeper meanings of stories and shamelessly advertising my old BSBS Reviews (for those of you who clicked the links per title), here’s the bottom line:

Storytelling is fundamental to the human experience.

The human experience is fundamental to storytelling.

Writing and telling stories is how we validate our experiences in stylized fashion, emphasizing certain details to illustrate a point and engage each other. Stories invoke empathy, inspire action, and challenge our preconceptions of the world.

Consuming a story is basically putting yourself in a state of voluntary vulnerability in order to experience somebody else’s point of view and learn from their trials and tribulations so you can further improve the use of your own thoughts, words, and actions.

And then on the flipside you can tell your story to provide that experience for others.

It’s Our Write to Live.

My Write to Live

blood on paperWhen I was a teenager I had suicidal thoughts, and on some unfortunate occasions, suicdal tendencies. I was bullied by the other kids and wanted to turn to the school staff for help, but most of the teachers I had were authoritatian tyrants or simply uncaring of my well-being. A vice principal I once had talked at me with throwaway advice without taking any time to understand how I truly felt. That same vice principal would later in the year fail to prevent a fist fight I got into, even though I had provided him a ton of evidence it was going to happen. Needless to say, I didn’t have the school staff’s trust because whenever I would defend myself from bullies, I would be the one who would get in trouble and shamed for my behaviour, for my emotions. With nowhere to go and no one to turn to, not even my own family, I felt completely and utterly alone.

Or so I thought.

One of the few things I would find solace in was the music of Korn,along with other angsty nu-metal bands, but Korn was my all time favourite since I was a kid. I related to the raw frustration Jonathan Davis’ lyrics were written with and they inspired me to write some of my own in the same vain. Whether the lyrics were about the bullies I wanted to take down, the girls who rejected me, or the general feeling of emptiness by the end of the school day, I wrote lyrics to release these feelings somewhere safe where I wouldn’t get in trouble or be shamed for my behaviour, or my emotions.

Fast forward to my adult years, there was a time where my life was falling apart far worse than I had experienced in my teen years. To name very few issues I had out of a myriad of others, I was getting into intense fights with my family, had to leave a writing critique group due to fundamental philosophical differences, and worst of all found out that an ex-girlfriend of mine had committed suicide.

It was August 2014, I was unemployed and directionless. I had very little money left from a caregiving job I was severely underpaid for and felt empty. Now having grown up and survived my adolesence, I no longer contemplated suicide, especially considering the tragedy of my ex-girlfriend. I no longer cut myself and no longer imagined myself beating my chest until my heart gave out, but I still felt like my life was meaningless and that I didn’t have much reason to live.

Not until I journaled about everything that has been going on for me at the time. Not until I remembered that I had a half finished 2nd draft of a novel just sitting on my computer left untouched for many months. That novel of course was It Starts at Home, the very same anti-child-abuse themed novel that I had fundamental philosophical differences about with my writing group, likewise with my family, both of which, of course, are stories for another time.

For many months after leaving my writing group, I felt discouraged from ever writing again. But when I got back into it and got on my way to completing the second half of the 2nd draft, those feelings of inadequacy and meaninglessness disappeared. Those feelings of regret over my existence were all gone as well, for I rediscovered the joy and meaning I found in writing this story. Sure I picked myself up, applied for work, and got two jobs I put a ton of passion into, but they could never compare to my true calling. My true calling that I drowned out with the noisy distraction called “work.”

Of course! The answer to the question “what am I gonna do with my life?” has been right in front of me all this time, right under my nose, hiding in plain sight: I need to write.

And I stress the word need because writing is a necessity to my life just as much as blood is. To me there is no difference between the blood that drips through my veins, and the ink I bleed on to the page.

I was born a writer. Even when I was as little as seven years old I would skip school to write stories and draw comic books. I’m in love with stories. Whether they’re acted out in a TV show or film, printed in a book or set of lyrics, stories are what makes my life worth living. Not to mention the stories of our lives as I also find a great interest in the real life stories of those around me. All of our lives on this planet are a bunch of stories complete with their own twists and turns, character development arcs, and crossover narratives.

Stories, in any form, help me feel like I’m not alone. To know that others feel the same way I do about life and the human condition, that makes my habitual confusion and anxiety managable. From the lyrics and books I’ve read, movies and TV shows I’ve watched, all my favourite stories have resonated with me on an emotional level. They put the storm in my head into words and action, sequenced in honely crafted narrative that express the growth of character and the universal human desire to overcome life’s many obstacles.

As a writer, this is what I want to achieve. I want to strike a chord in those who read my lyrics, comfort those who will read my books, and let them know that all these confusing and conflicting emotions are all part of simply being human, and although there is no cure to them, they can be managed and understood.

As a writing coach, this is what I want to inspire in other writers. I want to help other writers, as I’ve painstakingly helped myself, to realize the power they have in putting their innermost vulnerable thoughts into the written word. The power to make readers, like myself, feel a lot less alone when life gets them down and when meaning seems all but lost.

The written word is My Write to Live.

It’s Your Write to Live.

 

Blooper Reels and Humility

woopsI don’t know about you, but I personally love watching blooper reels from TV shows and movies. It’s nice to see the imperfections in performances before the piece gets polished up into consumable perfection. But while it is enjoyable to watch highly skilled and highly paid actors mess up their lines, break character, and fumble over their words, it is often hard to look at our own mistakes with the same amusement.

Why is that? I think I’m starting figure out what it is about blooper reels that make them so appealing, and before I shed my thoughts on that that, allow me to share the process that sparked my revelation.

Today, I am trying to edit my BSBS Review for The Girl on the Train and the whole recording process took about an hour and a half to do last night. This includes me gaining momentum in delivering my point, only to lose steam, delete the recording, and start all over again. The more I record, the more I have to edit, and I often fear that process.

It’s the same almost every time; I feel like I need to get it right the first time or I shouldn’t keep the recording. Then I eventually  tell myself that this is what I have editing software for! To cut through the awkward pauses between my points and compress them together in a deliverable format. Even then, it’s a battle between getting it perfect and getting it done.

When it comes time to editing, that’s where the real fun begins. That’s where I can create the illusion that I am a coherent speaker who can stay on point and deliver my message clearly and concisely–when in reality, everything that happened in between some of the cuts is anything but concise, clear, or coherent.

The more mistakes there are, the more shame I feel about it. I have all these thoughts and opinions about a story locked up in my head, all begging to be expressed or it’s going to bug me for not being able to share it. Having difficulty in conveying my thoughts adds to the pressure of wondering if it’s even worth doing these reviews considering that my videos have had hit or miss engagement in terms of viewership, comments, and likes.

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Did I Really Just Say That?!

After an hour or two of editing the initial recording and cringing at my mistakes, I eventually start laughing at myself for not only the bloopers, but also laughing at how stressed out I get from them. I know it’s horrible, but I often compare my moments of impeded speech to the way that Jimmy Valmer kid from South Park stutters when he speaks. Sometimes to the point of taking a whole minute to say a simple five word sentence. And Jimmy has it worse!

When I’m finally done experiencing all this creative mania, I relax and decide to just get the job done.

It’s not about the viewership, the likes, or even the comments–though of course, these are things I would greatly appreciate. It’s more about me having fun with reading these books and giving myself the treat of watching it all play out on the big screen. Not to mention  the chance to goof off on camera and deliver my thoughts in a place that doesn’t remain stuck in my head are huge pluses.

Sometimes…

  • The first recording gets edited to completion and uploaded anyway. I realize it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.
  • The first recording gets edited to completion, but it still sucks despite my attempts at polishing it up. I see it as a rough draft/rehearsal to show me where I can improve in the re-recording.
  • Right away, I see how horrible it’s going to be. At least I don’t have to fear messing up THAT badly again, and I can jump back into the studio with much more confidence! I know I can do better, so I’ll do better.

Cut! Action! Print!

movie-production-clapper-board_249x201I’ve been doing BSBS Reviews for 9 months now and this is how it’s been for me. Today, I resolve to accept it as all part of the process. As much as I would like to get it all right the first time, it is incredibly rare for me to record a 15 minute video with not much editing required vs the usual 30-60+ messy minute mania.

Maybe one day I’ll be able to deliver my point without any editing and master this lip flapping, tongue slapping, noise making device installed in my face. Until then, I’ll keep practising and polishing up my craft.  I will accept that this may be my process for now or forever.

This is what made me realize why blooper reels are so fun to watch. There’s humility in showcasing some of the mistakes actors have made before post-production. It’s to show that they’re human too and just trying to find their way through the scene.

After all the missed cue lines and involuntary laughter, they eventually get it done. And more importantly, even though there is work to be done, the production can still have fun in the process. It’s nice to hear laughter erupting in the background from the people who are off screen, along with the ones on screen, because that signals to us that it’s okay to make mistakes and try again.

We just have to keep working at it until we get it right. If we care enough about what we want to create in our lives, we push through all the difficulty and learn from our mistakes. After all, every expert out there was once an awkward novice. No one is born skilled. Talented maybe, but I agree with Will Smith when he says talents are useless until you practise to turn them into skills.

The final product may be close to perfect, but the process doesn’t have to be. Creation is usually a messy experience, but that’s where the fun is at!

The Four Pillars of Fiction Part 2: Characters

Your story’s objective is only as powerful as the characters that convey it.

Each member of the cast must represent opposing sides of the main argument, thus providing several different angles to perceive your story’s philosophy.

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I’ve already written a couple of other posts about characters, both of which you can check out here for more:

Crafting a Character Series

Goal, Motivation, and Conflict

–but for today, let’s focus on why characters  should be as extensively explored as I have in previous posts.

Me, Myself, and Who Am I?

Fundamentally, every story’s main character is on a quest to achieve self-knowledge. This goes for both putty characters and pebble characters. Think of throwing a pebble at a wall, the physical structure of the pebble remains the same, whereas throwing a blob of putty will cause it to reform.

That’s what characters experience; being thrown against a wall, so to speak, and they either change or don’t change throughout the course of your story. Either way, their purpose remains the same; to argue for one or several sides of the objective.

I know that there’s a plethora of stories where morality is ambiguous (and that they’re usually much more interesting), but for the sake of simplicity, let’s take the basic concept of Good vs Evil to illustrate how characters argue for each side. And by argue, that could mean verbal or physical combat, or in just the way that they conduct themselves.

Generic Good Guy is a law abiding citizen, doing some good for his friends, family, and community. Everything he does in the story is for the benefit of others or for himself without hurting anybody except possibly…

The Typical Bad Guy whose sole purpose is to watch the world burn. He causes destruction everywhere he goes, expressing his preference to be evil and not care about hurting others because it’s what he intends anyway. Generic Good Guy may hurt other people unintentionally, but he usually owns up to it, while Typical Bad Guy has no remorse for the pain he causes.

In this basic story dynamic of Good vs Evil, the argument is (usually) that good triumphs over evil, all the time.

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Who Would You Be Without Adversity?

To convey this, Typical Bad Guy will have to test Generic Good Guy on the grounds of his ethics, philosophy, strength, and integrity by throwing obstacles in his way. Perhaps Generic Good Guy’s objective is to a safe and adjusted life, but TBG is getting in the way of that by hurting GGG’s social circle and disrupting his day to day life.

It is through adversity where Generic Good Guy will discover or grow into a force for good. If he’s a putty character, maybe he’s a weak underdog type who has to train in order to defeat the almight Typical Bad Guy. Or perhaps he’s a pebble character that has strength and prowess, but hasn’t had the chance to exercise any of it because he hasn’t been challenged yet.

In either case, the end result is the same. The character has developed some level of self-knowledge by fighting for what he believed in, whether he won or lost against his opposition. He now knows what strength he’s capable of, or made himself capable of it through hard work and determination.

Pouring Some Sugar in Generic Brand Oatmeal

Now, that was a very very basic example I had to keep simple in order to elaborate on a more complex concept. Stories these days have many more layers in their examination of the objective, and even more layers in their characterization.

Ultimately, characters are meant to represent several sides of an objective, and they do that by trying to express their personal preferences, only to have them attacked or dismissed by the other characters.

The key ingredient to conveying Objective is having characters disagree with each other and fight over who gets to assert their preference, or if any common ground can be met between them in less black and white type of stories.It is through disagreements between characters that we are given the opportunity to passively experience different sides of an argument–and decide for ourselves which characters we agree with, if any at all.

Stay tuned for The Four Pillars of Fiction Part 3: Setting…

What I Learned From Being a Spy

First off, if I were an actual spy, I’d blow my cover easily by writing this post.

What I’m actually talking about is how I’ve gotten my spy on this past month by revisitting the hit series Nikita and playing a whole lot of Invisible Inc on my free time. I don’t normally hunt for achievements on Steam or Xbox360, but I love this game so much that I woke some completionist part of me to get as many achievements as I can.

One of those achievements, of course, is one you can get for beating the game in Expert Plus Mode, THE hardest difficulty of an otherwise already difficult game.

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Spyin’ Ain’t Easy!

Invisible Inc. is a turn based strategy game where stealth, strategy, and perserverance are the keys to survival. You play as the operator of secret agents, commanding them to infiltrate corporations in order to steal their weaponry, technology, and many other useful resources to help rebuild and relocate the agency of tactical espionage.

What’s awesome about this game is that there are several mission types and every map is randomly generated so that you get a fresh and new experience every time. And you only uncover as much of the map as you explore, otherwise the unexplored remains unseen (kinda like life!).

There’s also a huge roster of agents all with their own unique abilities, personalities, and synergies depending on which ones you choose at the beginning, and the ones you rescue in recovery missions. It’s up to you how to play their strengths and weaknesses together to formulate the perfect team.

The possibilities are endless!

As you command your agents to infiltrate these corporations, you have to be careful not to blow their cover and be seen by the guards. In most video games, your initial instinct is to inflict as much violence as you possibly can and stun or kill all the guards you see, but that can only work against you and make things unnecessarily harder than they need to be.

When guards wake up from being stunned, they’ll suspect someone has broken into the building and begin to hunt for you, thus making it harder to predict where you can safely venture out to.

If you kill any of them, it significantly advances the alarm tracker, and the higher it gets, the more obstacles get generated. These can include higher firewalls for devices (making them harder to hack), spawning extra guards, and turning on extra surveillance cameras.

So I’ve been playing Expert Plus Mode where all of these already daunting aspects of the game get even more challenging, and I gotta say, it really pushed me to my limit!

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Repetitive Failure Can Only = Future Success

As you can see here, I have two agents hiding from possible detection. The red tiles indicate the vision range of the guards, and in the earlier difficulties of the game, you can see them so you can plan out where to tread. In Expert Plus Mode, the danger zones are not shown unless you can see the sources (guards, cameras, turret machines).

That means you can easily walk into a safe looking area, only to find out that a structural intrusion originally blocked your sight from seeing a guard that’s ready to shoot your agent down on sight.

I must have restarted my agency 20+ times because of how hard this mode is, and when you get caught and have all of your agents killed on a mission, you lose ALL of your progress and have to start from scratch.

Your stat boosts, all that high tech gear, and all that money you acquired can all be thrown away due to one mistake. Something as simple as not closing a door, causing a guard to see you snooping in the next room, could easily mean death.

And I’ve made that mistake. Along with many others. Several times!

When I said I loved this game, I wasn’t just speaking from the geek within, but also from the very depths of my entire being. What I learned from playing this game is learning to maintain composure in pressuring situations and to approach challenges with determination.

I think that when you love something or someone–this could be building your business or dating your possible future spouse–you learn to take the good with the bad, the easy and the challenging, and embrace it all with all you’ve got.

So many times I’ve had agents die and require reviving just when I was about to exit the level, or needing to rescuing them from a detention center in a later mission while having an agent fly solo. And trust me, you want to have at least two agents at a time to uncover as much of the map as possible and to help each other out in a bind.

So many times I had acquired some of the best gear during the highest security levels, surviving the mission by just a hair away from detection and death.

So many times I had upgraded my agents’ stats and equipment, only to lose it all because I got greedy for more credits and equipment during a mission, instead of heading for the exit when I had the chance.

But still. I kept shrugging it off and starting over, because that’s what you do when you’re committed to something. You do everything you can to maintain your standards and continue reaping the benefits of your hard work.

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Gotta Lose a Lot Before You Gain a Lot

And in some cases…you also need to learn to let go of everything you’ve built if it means a better start later. That was the case with this particular screenshot. When you’re surrounded and have nowhere else to go, you can make an agent speak some final words before they’re shot to death.

Nika’s spoke my mind perfectly after a campaign that took 5 hours to build.

“Just get it over with.” That was my mantra when I got surrounded and really had no way out.

There was even a time where I lost so much progress that I kept starting over only to fail early on because I was playing on tilt. I was impatient and deliberately making the same mistakes I knew were horrible, but I was just so frustrated with the game.

But then I remembered what I wrote about in my Gamer, Know Thyself series and reevaluated my approach.

I started playing more vigilantly and more strategically.

I stopped trying to get extra credits from safes or items, and started taking guaranteed exits when I saw them.

I stopped walking into danger zones and started ensuring visibility of the map before moving onward.

I stopped stunning and/or killing guards and started to save the violence for when it was absolutely necessary.

Otherwise, I avoided violence as much as I could to mitigate the ramping difficulty of each turn taken. As I mentioned earlier, KOing or killing guards advances the tracker. Yeah well, so does taking a turn, but it doesn’t advance the tracker as much as committing acts of violence do.

Most importantly, I learned from all my mistakes and kept in mind what were some good or bad things I’ve done in previous campaigns in order to survive longer in each passing attempt.

Hell, I could have easily allowed myself the option to use the REWIND function where you can rewind to a previous turn in case you make a mistake.

Nope, I played hardcore Ironman Mode along with Expert Plus so that I can be even more responsible for any missteps taken.

In the end I achieved this:

EP+ Completion screen

With these stats and equipment per agent at the final mission:

I normally try to max out their stats, but I had to make do with what I got in the end and it was more than enough to complete the final mission.

As I’ve said before, video games are a good source for self-knowledge, and now having experienced what it was like to really love and commit to something to this degree, to something as simple as a video game (or in this case, NOT so simple video game) it’s time to apply that attitude to real life!

This game and many others are great and safe training grounds for such mental fortitude, and if more gamers transferred that dedication to real life pursuits, the results would be astronomical.