Notes on Genre and Wants

Notes from Graeme Duffy’s Soap Opera genre workshop at VTSL, which was run with their new intensive gym format of two weekend afternoons followed by a performance:

These are general notes, not specific to the form, although the observation that the soap opera form provides a template for relationship drama that can be transplanted into different contexts–medical, legal, whatever–really helped focus on how the stories are always about relationships.

1) Things gel. Our first run-throughs were rough and awkward. We were trying stuff out and sometimes it felt not so good. We trusted in ourselves as individuals and a group and it all came together nicely. This has become a common enough experience for me that by the time we were on our second run-through on the first day I was confident in our ability to get it amazing in the end, even though I didn’t see how w we could get there from here. This is similar to the process in technical problem solving where you reach a point that you know you will find a solution to a problem even though you do not yet know what that solution is.

2) The inner life of characters. Graeme commented on the life-history of his hunchback character, to the effect that, “That guy as has been in thousands and thousands of scenes. All of that informs who he is.” This was a really lovely way of identifying the value of characters who recur in your own work, because you are discovering how that character reacts in a wide range of situations, which is especially useful because…

3) Play the scene, not the narrative. Let your character do what they would do in the scene, with only local, in-scene concerns as the focus. The narrative will (mostly) take care of itself. Stories want to be told. Carrie later mentioned a thing by TJ and Dave where they talk about how all the stories we tell are going on before we tell our part of them, and they go on after we have stopped telling our part of them. Terry Pratchett talked a lot about this too, as have others. Narrative causality will take care of the big picture. All we have to do is be that character in that scene.

4) Wants. We only started playing wants heavily the second day, and it both made everything easier and made manifest how wants affect the story.

It made everything easier because every story became the story of various people pursuing their wants and either failing or succeeding in fulfilling them. It’s that simple. That is what a story is: someone with a want either fulfills it or does not. If there is more than one person in the story there are multiple wants and they can come into conflict, but that conflict is not what drives the story. The wants drive the story.

Given that, it’s no surprise that when the wants changed, the stories changed. We did a couple of run-throughs where characters had different wants, and it was like a little controlled experiment on how wants change the story. It might be interesting to do a “Wants Workshop” where we focus on a few characters, and simply do repeated scenes with different wants and see how that results in different stories.

It was also interesting to see how individual characters’ wants sometimes diffused out of their own storyline and into the broader narrative–Joe Jone’s desire to do down Tate Powers ended up as a pretty general conspiracy against the poor guy.

Overall this was one of the best improv workshops I’ve done, easily in the top three. Graeme did a fabulous job as always, and I couldn’t have been with a better group of people. Thanks, guys.

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In the firelight stories grow
between the shadows, with the glow
of ember’s heat and flame’s soft light
while the darkness of the night
presses in and all around
the shadows dance across the ground.

Here within the circle’s magic
legends rise: comedic, tragic,
strange, compelling, sad, uplifting,
while the smoke is softly drifting
toward the stars where heroes dwell…
of their lives the stories tell:

Andromeda strains on her rock;
Heaven’s Shepherd guards his flock;
Crooked Running Water flows;
Great Fisher plants the summer rose;
Rahu and Ketu eat the Moon;
Haft-owrang’s seven sisters loom. [*]

Beneath the ever-changing sky
As the dawn is drawing nigh
When the fire is down to coals
Bodies curl for warmth, and souls
Entangle in the dark
Warmed by stories’ living spark.

[*] Greek/Sumerian/Chinese/Native American/Indian/Persian

I’ve been doing a lot of musical improv lately, thanks to the brilliant and wonderful Jennifer Pielak, whose work as a teacher and performer I cannot recommend enough. It has got me thinking a lot about music, and the human voice. Poetry in my world is speech before it is anything else, and music in some primordial sense is the sounds we make with our bodies. Instruments are great, but the vibration of the vocal chords, the clap of hands, the slap of flesh on flesh… these are the core of music. Without them, we would never have gotten to the piano or violin or whatever.

All of which reminds me of an idea that Matt Bernardo told me about once, that music, not mathematics, is the fundamental thing unifying all intelligence in the universe (it sounds way flakier than I intend when I say it that way, but so what?)

So I found myself thinking about hominds in the circle of firelight. The use of fire predates modern humans by at least half a million years. The smoke of burning woods smells pleasant to us, whereas other animals are generally not so keen on it. Fire, and the love of fire, is in our genes: we are descended from and evolve from fire-loving creatures. Who gathered in the darkness around the light, who made music. Not words, but sounds, rhythmical, melodic… together.

This poem doesn’t reach that far back in time, but it grew from the idea that gathering in the firelight to make music together is a primordial experience, uniting all human cultures everywhere.

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Improv and Elaboration

This is a simply brilliant article by Lloyd Alexander on the challenges of story construction in a fantasy world, which is pretty much every world there ever was.

The creation of a fantasy that starts from the ground up is something else again. Melancholy men, they say, are the most incisive humorists; by the same token, writers of fantasy must be, within their own frame of work, hardheaded realists. What appears gossamer is, underneath, solid as prestressed concrete. What seems so free in fantasy is often inventiveness of detail rather than complicated substructure. Elaboration — not improvisation.

Reading that, I find myself thinking, “Isn’t improv mostly elaboration?”

That’s what “Yes, and…” means: we elaborate on the offers that have come before. The trick with improv is that we mostly build the foundation we are elaborating on as we go. So there is that difference. But one of the basic tricks of improv is that it is more elaboration than improvisation, and that’s what makes it amazing to audiences: they think we are improvising when we are mostly elaborating.

After Spoiler Alert!‘s recent Twilight Zone show a student said to me, “You must have rehearsed parts of that, right?” This is the greatest compliment an improvisor can get, and it happens because people assume we are improvising rather than elaborating.

Improv is impossible. Unless, rather than “make it all up” we instead elaborate on some commonly understood, agreed-upon story structures in the context of the offers that have gone before.

180 Improv, a troupe I co-founded (shameless plug) has the goal of “Performing Amazing Human Stories”, and we do it by elaborating. We do the simplest thing in the world (which is hard as hell, because “simple” and “easy” aren’t the same at all): we take a character on a meaningful journey.

There are plenty of other improvisors out there doing the same thing. Sin Peaks, Vancouver’s improvise soap opera, is a great example of this: a long story told over time, engaging audiences via continuous elaboration on well-established characters. Improv.

We don’t have to make it all up, even though we make it all up. The Hero With a Thousand Faces is already in everyone’s mind, in everyone’s soul. We don’t have to make that up: it’s just given to us. What we have to do–what the secret is, what the magic is–is to use that knowledge effectively.

Improv is elaboration. It is elaboration both on pre-existing expectations in the audience’s mind, and elaboration on the offers that have gone before. If we can make those two kinds of elaborations work well together, so we figure out how to elaborate on our scene-partner’s offers in such a way that we also elaborate on the audience’s expectations, we will make magic.

And perform amazing human stories.

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Surprised by Joy

I made a list of things I’ve done or that have happened to me in the past 22 days. 2 days were “peaceful” in the sense that nothing requiring exceptional effort happened. One day had four exceptional events, a few had three, many had two, and as the number scaled down the significance scaled up.

And by “exceptional” I mean things like, at minimum, “Your doctor has some not-so-great news” (not anything on the scale of “you have two weeks to live”, and pretty fixable, but definitely “not so great”). Or “Here, do this musical improv thing that will validate your work as a poet in ways that nothing else possibly could, and confirm that your last fifteen years of artistic choices might have been basically OK.” Life changing. Those are among the least exceptional events on my list. Really.

I had planned February to be a busy month, and there was a four day period that was supposed to be “peak busy”. The universe apparently took this to be a sign of “the new normal” and has kept up the pace ever since.

The good news is that unlike the last time I passed through a period like this–which lasted for almost five years, so I’m ready for the long haul–no one is dying (yet, and I will say a prayer to a God I do not believe in to keep it that way). So that’s no bad thing.

I’ll never show my 22 day list to anyone, in part because almost anyone who knows me would be impressed by some things on it and pissed off by others, and one of the immediate outcomes of this period of intense stress is that I’ve ceased to care about explaining or justifying myself. It’s not like it ever did any good back when I did it. I am, as the great stoic philosopher Popeye was wont to say, what I am. I have returned to my beginnings, and come to know the place for the first time.

What I care about is what I make. I have written code that will still be running when I’m gone–which despite my doc’s best efforts is going to be a good long time from now. Some of my poems may survive the test of time. And I’ve still got a few “works of noble note” in store, some of them personal, some of them public.

In the meantime, I live a ridiculous life, full of incident and adventure. I do unto others and god knows others do unto me. Sometimes in ways I enjoy, sometimes not.

I have responded to this ridiculous 22 day period full of completely random events layered on top of planned ones by falling into myself and away from myself at the same time. It feels pretty good.

I have not lived a particularly joyful life. My moments of joy are few enough to count on the fingers of one or two hands: holding my newborn children for the first time and some incidents in their growing up, and then on the other hand a few particularly stunning sexual escapades, some times of deep emotional connection–which is extremely difficult for me–and a few days on the water sailing, canoeing or diving.

Yet I found myself this morning overwhelmed by joy. Despite all the bullshit that has happened in the past 22 days. Despite the challenges I know are still awaiting me.

Partly it was a friend telling me that after talking to me last week she had clarified events in her own mind well enough to take action, which may be a leap in the dark. Falling free. That is a joyous thing. The joyous thing.

Partly it was realizing that the fix I’d put into a poem from long ago was precisely right for all kinds of weird reasons, some of which are still to come.

Partly it was that it was a gorgeous day, and I took a long and vigorous walk in the morning sunshine before another amazing and transformative musical improv class.

Partly it was the cumulative effect of the improv community on me over the past year. Surround yourself with dedicated, genuine people and you’ll learn a lot and grow a lot. This is a good place to be. And as Graeme Duffy says, “If you’re doing art right, it changes you.”

Partly it was knowing I’d be paying a ridiculous amount of money for new hearing aides today. I’m wearing them now and man is the world full of sound! I can hear the rain. My cat’s meow sounds different. I’m slightly worried that maybe I’m a lousy improvisor when I can hear.

But mostly I think it’s the sense of profound autonomy I’ve felt these past 22 days and more. I’ve been doing what I want to do. Some of it has not necessarily been entirely wise, some of it has been so far beyond my control it’s stupid, and some of it has been just plain weird. I have been required to react to events that in any well ordered universe would simply not be events.

But it has all been me, and that’s a good feeling. After far too many years of putting far too many other priorities first, I’m in a position to do nothing but what I care about. Which is making: poetry, code, prose, machinery, improv, connection, love (in every sense of the word).

How joyous is that?

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Theory of Poetry

This is based on something I wrote a long time ago, and in another place, not here. I’ve informalized it a lot and added a bit of stuff that I’ve learned in the intervening years, much of it quite recently. It really needs a total re-write, but I’m happy to say that while it’s limited and narrow, after a whole lot more growing as a poet I don’t think these naive observations are totally wrong.

Poetry is rhythmical speech. I’m going to get all formal about that in a bit, but that’s the short form of the basic idea. It is what matters, because we are rhythmical creatures.

Consider the following examples of increasingly poetic speech. In each case, the same thought is expressed several different, increasingly poetic, ways:

I heard from an old man that there’s a river that flows between where the sun rises and where the sun sets

He told me a river runs between the setting and rising sun

And he whispered, “There a river lies
Between the dusk and dawning skies”

Or this:

Whoever you are, as you do your job, think about Phlebus and remember he was alive and is now dead

No matter what you believe as you sail through life, consider Phlebus. dead, who was once handsome, tall and strong.

Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward
Consider Phlebus, who once was handsome and as tall as you

Or this:

I saw you on the beach, by the water, near the pier on a day when the wind was whistling through the pilings that hold up the pier.

I saw you on the beach by the water, as the wind whistled through the pillars of the pier

I saw you on the beach today
Standing by the pillar
Between the wind and the wave
Where grey mist swirls the sand fleas dance
To the skirl of the wind
Through the pipes of the pier

In each case, the final instance is from an actual poem (William Ashbless’ The Twelve Hours of the Night, Eliot’s The Waste Land and a bit of my own stuff) while the preceding two are increasingly poetic prose translations of the poem’s content.

There are three things that we can observe as the lines become more poetic. The speech becomes more rhythmic, more evocative, and more concrete or immediate. Of these three features, rhythmicity is essential to poetry, as we can see from consideration of other examples, such as this from Lewis Carol’s The Mad Gardener’s Song:

He thought he saw a Rattlesnake
That questioned him in Greek:
He looked again, and found it was
The Middle of Next Week.
‘The one thing I regret,’ he said,
‘Is that it cannot speak!’

One could hardly find a more abstract notion than “the middle of next week”, and part of the fun in Carol’s nonsense is that he is playing off our expectation that poetry is concrete, because it usually is. But it doesn’t have to be.

The existence of nonsense poetry and abstract poetry demonstrates that neither concreteness nor evocativeness is required for speech to be poetic, although I will argue that most good poetry is both concrete and evocative.

So the concept “poetry” refers to rhythmic speech, or at least has something to do with rhythmicity. To get a more precise idea of what it is about rhythmicity that makes speech poetic, we need to look more closely at how rhythmicity can be achieved. Before doing so, a few words about the genus, and what it is we are differentiating poetry from.

I’ve taken the genus of poetry to be “speach” rather than “text” or “language”. The reason for this is that the effectiveness of the rhythms of poetry are intimately tied to the natural, physical rhythms of spoken language. Neither text nor mental language have any natural rhythms associated with them, because they are not mediated by anything that imposes rhythmicity the way our vocal apparatus does.

We are made out of meat, and we communicate by flapping our meat.. In more ways than one.

Given that poetry is a kind of speech, the kind of speech we are distinguishing it from is prose, which is first and foremost grammatical. Prose is speech that is by dominated grammatical structure; poetry is speech that is dominated by rhythmical structure. All speech has both rhythmical and grammatical structure, and the difference between poetry and prose is in the preponderance of one or the other. To understand what this means, an understanding of rhythmicity is required.

One of my favourite lines from Cindy Lou You is:

She patted the morse with nerves all aflutter
her brain seemed to melt like summer in butter

which is not grammatical at all, but makes perfect rhythmical sense.

The dominance of rhythmical structure explains a lot about poetry, from rhyme to verse and beyond… Speech has rhythmical structure at many levels or scales. The smallest scale normally recognized in English poetry is the metrical “foot” of the poem–the pattern of repeated stresses such as the unstressed/stressed pattern of the iamb. The following table shows some of the more important scales on which speech can have rhythmical structure:

Rhythmical Scale Explanation
foot pattern of stresses
meter number of feet per line
rhyme repeated sounds of words
words repeated words
metrical scheme variation of meter across lines
lines repeated lines (as in a villanelle)
stanza repeated metrical scheme
narrative conceptual patterns within the poem

This table has many fine distinctions–one could argue, for instance, that repeated words are merely a special case of rhyme, but because words name concepts the repetition of a word brings added emphasis to the concept it names, which is not the case with repeated sounds, whose significance is primarily sensual.

The first few entries in the table should be fairly familiar. There are many different kinds of metrical foot: the iamb (di DA) is the most common English poetry, but there are a bunch of others, from trochees (DA di) to Seusian anapests (di di DA) and there complement the dactyl (DA di di).

It’s worth noting that in different languages, the same rhythmical effect is achieved in different ways. In ancient Greek poetry, for instance, syllable length rather than stress was the medium of the meter. In Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry, the sound of first letters was the source of the basic rhythmical structure.

The foot is the smallest scale of rhythm in modern English poetry, mechanically linked to the rhythms of the tongue and mouth of the speaker. Free verse has no feet, no regular pattern of stresses, but depends instead for its rhythmical structure on variation in cadence and tone.

Meter is the number of feet per line–the most common form of English poetry is iambic pentameter, consisting of five iambic feet per line. Variations from monometer to ten or twelve feet per line are not impossible, although most poems cluster in the range from four to eight feet per line. The line length of iambic pentameter is closely matched with the rhythm of breathing–the time it takes to speak a line of iambic pentameter is the time it takes to exhale:

Like as the waves make toward the pebbled shore
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before
In sequent toil all forwards to contend

Each line from this opening quatrain of Shakespeare’s Sonnet LX is the length of a single inhalation or exhalation, making the poet’s words flow easily and naturally through the lips of the speaker.

Rhyme is often given great pride of place as a defining characteristic of poetry. It should be clear from this discussion that I consider it just one element amongst many that give a poem rhythmical structure, and it is entirely dispensible. While rhyme certainly has a large role to play in much good poetry, it is easily subject to abuse. Robert Frost reputedly likened writing free verse to playing tennis without a net; rhymed poetry can at it’s worst be reduced to playing tennis against a backboard, bouncing a ball off of a regular, reliable surface that has simple properties and is always sure to bounce the ball back at you just as you expect, with no top-spin and no harder than you like.

Rhymed poetry at its best is profoundly beautiful, and it’s possible to achieve effects that can’t be had any other way, but to make rhyme the defining element of poetry would be to miss out on nine tenths of the kinds of rhythm that make poetry such a beautiful, sensuous experience.

That said, the primary role of rhyme is to give structure to the poem across lines. Repeated sounds can link together lines on quite large scales, running throughout the whole length of the poem. Rhyme is a rich technical subject within poetry that it would be unprofitable to go into here–like most technical subjects poetry is full of special terminology designed, apparently, to scare off neophytes. While it has its uses, such a detailed technical knowledge is rarely required to appreciate or understand a poem. One of the odder bits of technical terminology is the “feminine rhyme”, which is a rhyme that covers the last two syllables of a word, rather than just the last syllable. Ordinary, one-syllable rhymes, being “masculine”, apparently don’t need to be identified as such, masculinity being the universal norm.

End-rhymes are the most common, but rhymes between words in other parts of the line can be used with effect as well:

There is no end to the world
No stopping point where all grows cold
Or hot or dead or old and dry as dust
No place where lust for life and fire
Wither on the dying vines while angels
Pine for bright ambition’s passing time
The world goes on

In this example, picking up the sound from the end of the previous line adds a kind of rhythmicity that draws the voice on, giving it no pause. This also illustrates an important use of poetry, of why rhythmicity matters: it allows the structure of the poem to reflect its conceptual content, providing an immediate, concrete representation or reflection of that content.

The larger scale rhythmical structures–the metrical scheme, stanzas and narrative structure–are a large topic in themselves. There are many defined poetic forms that name variations on these. The Shakespearean sonnet, for example, consists of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter consisting of four quatrains with an ABAB end-rhyme scheme and a final end-rhymed couplet. The total number of named forms runs into the dozens at least, and any discussion of them here would be unprofitable, particularly as they are more closely linked to the conceptual content of the poem, and so have less visceral impact than the rhythms at smaller scales, which are more closely linked to the mechanics of speech.

The larger-scale structures of poems, being linked to the conceptual content, are closer to the structures of prose. Lines and stanzas, like sentences and paragraphs, should have an internal unity and be in some sense complete, even though their meaning or beauty won’t necessarily be apparent if taken out of context.

Structure at all levels is important to poetry. We are creatures of structure. Visually, we like scenes and textures that have structure at all levels of detail, and the same is true of poetry: structure at one level is not enough. Our brains want more. It is simply the way we are made.

Having described what I mean by rhythmical structure in the foregoing, and presuming that everyone knows what grammatical structure is, I can offer the following definition of poetry, and a corresponding definition of prose:

Speech that is dominated by its rhythmical rather than it’s grammatical structure
Speech that is dominated by its grammatical rather than it’s rhythmical structure

So that’s what I think poetry is. But what’s it good for, and why would anyone want to read or write it? Part of the answer to these questions can be found in looking at what rhythmicity brings to speech.

As mentioned above, the power of rhythmicity arises first and foremost out of its reflection of the natural rhythms of speech. It is a way of experiencing the meat we are made out of, and one that has a low risk of pregnancy and STDs.

If we were creatures who communicated purely by long ululating howls, it is unlikely that we would be poets. Human speech is richly punctuated, and poetry is parasitic on the natural rhythms of that punctuation: the motions of the tongue, the pauses of the breath, the opening and closing of the lips and the trachea.

As such, poetry lets us experience the act of speech itself in a special and particularly gratifying way. It emphasizes the sensual pleasure of speaking. When the first creatures walked the earth who could communicate using sounds, some of them discovered that it was pleasurable to make those sounds in patterns, rhythmically, poetically. As such, poetry is possibly the first amongst the distinctly human sensual pleasures.

I wrote the above paragraph a long time ago. Today I believe that “poetry” in this sense plausible predates speech. It may well be that we communicated by rhythmical expressions long before anything as grandiose and weird as a concept or word came along. Poetry may well be the primordial speech, and grammar parasitic upon it.

The rhythm of a poem can also carry with it a reflection of the content–the pounding of the spondic foot (DA DA) makes it suitable for Kipling’s more marshal ballads, for example.

At the level of conceptual content rather than evocative imagery, repetition of key words, sounds or phrases can effectively emphasize them, building up their power to almost hypnotic force. Even used sparingly, repetition of a single line can add considerable force to a poem:

One day I will stand on the edge of the quiet sea
Infinite and dark, welcoming me home
I will stop there on the shore
Stand in the silent breeze across the water
At the edge of a summer night
And lay my burdens down
The things that I have carried for so long
Leave them there on that dark shore
While slow-flooding night engulfs the sky
Long purple twilight, endless cloak of stars
This is the night
When I step into the wine-dark sea
And lay my burdens down

Finally, rhythmicity of all kinds is an aid to memorization, as knowing what the structure has to be gives us clues as to what the words have to be.

And really finally, rhythmicity gives the audience expectations, which can be both reassuring (when they are fulfilled) and delightful (when they are cleverly violated).

Rhythm is what gives a poem structure, in the same way that grammar gives prose structure. Unlike grammar, the essential nature of rhythm is repetition: the simplest rhythm is a steady, monotonous beat. And monotonous is what poetry rapidly becomes if there isn’t some variation in it’s rhythms. As in music, which is rhythmically structured tones, too much regularity leads rapidly to boredom. The ear–the mind–craves variation on a theme, and the structure of poetry should reflect this.

Rhythmicity does not therefore mean perfect regularity or banal repetition. These can be used to effect in rare cases, but most thoughts expressed in poetry require something more. One of the great benefits of modern poetry has been to create a more relaxed atmosphere about irregularity of rhythm, whereas in the preceding few hundred years saw an increasingly stuffy attitude toward the least irregularity, creating poetry that is often boring to the modern ear. Modern poetry, while notable for its excesses of irregularity, has given us the opportunity to explore the baroque delights of intermingled, complex and irregular rhythms, giving us richly structured and intertwined poetry.

My own writing has involved a lot of what I think of as “broken sonnets”, which are almost sonnets but don’t quite make the grade. Weirdly, I can’t seem to find an example in my recent stuff, so I may be totally making it up.

But T. S. Eliot was the master of this art. Consider the opening lines of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo

The rhythm flows and rolls from line to line, never repeating, yet never quite losing its basic shape.

Poetry is subversive. It involves us in its rhythms, slips past our defenses and touches us in intimate places, where we might not otherwise let ourselves be touched. For example, the words of James Joyce–one of the most deeply subversive poets of the past century–can slide smoothly past every defense of those of us who would rather not recall much of our childhoods:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man has been described as a poem in five acts, with considerable justification.

But poetry has a more important use than subversion. Poetry is the quantum of narrative art. It is the art of small things, of moments. Although sustained poetic narratives are possible and valuable, in a modern context we have many other forms capable of dealing with extended narratives, and nothing else able to capture moments: a quiet night; waking up beside a lover; the face of a dead child… Our lives are made up of moments, and our lives are valuable, and so it’s important, sometimes, to be able to capture those moments as entities.

Poetry is the best instrument we have to capture those moments, to make them breathe with the living rhythms of our speech that reach down to touch the quiet depths of our soul.

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Valentine’s Day

Some years it’s better, others worse, but then
that’s to be expected. The ebb and flow
of chemicals within a fleshy brain
determines, more-or-less, just where I go:
up today and down tomorrow, yes?
Then down again the day and after that
a dance of chaos, something of a mess,
graceless as a dog beside a cat.
Limping through tomorrows on and on,
damned and yet alive against all odds
waking every morning to the dawn
dreaming of a world devoid of gods.
Time that heals all wounds is passing slow
And toward my own long home I slowly go.

Posted in life, poem, sonnet | Comments Off on Valentine’s Day

Some Notes on Failure

“One word characterized the most strenuous of the efforts for the advancement of science that I have made perseveringly during fifty-five years; that word is FAILURE.” — Thomson, Lord Kelvin

I think about failure a lot. It’s my default assumption: that what I do will fail. It makes for a pleasant surprise when things do work out.

I have failed at most of the things I have attempted in my life. Most of the startup companies I’ve been involved in failed. Most of the relationships I’ve been involved in failed–some quite spectacularly. This makes me deeply grateful for the few that didn’t. I have failed friends and I have failed family. I have failed myself.

And there are other failures, deeper failures, mortal failures, that I’m not going to talk about here beyond this one oblique mention. As such, I am something of an authority on failure. And as engineers we are taught that the study of failure is one of the most important things we can do.

So it always irritates me a bit when I see a successful person giving advice, because I have a pretty good idea of what separates them from the vastly less successful people I have worked alongside over the years: one decision.

In the 1990’s I worked with a guy who was without question the best software developer I have ever encountered, at least judged by the standard of pure meticulousness. I maintained his code for six months or so after he left the company and encountered one bug in all that time. He was working off my designs, so I’ll take a tiny bit of credit, but I was working off my designs too, and let’s just say I wrote more than one bug.

The thing about Joe (not his real name) was he had made one bad decision. In the late 80’s he had graduated at the top of his class at a very good school, and been offered a job at Microsoft, just before Windows 3.0 came out. Which was followed by Win3.1, which was followed by Microsoft exploding into the stratosphere. He turned them down. The compensation wasn’t that great, the stock options were pretty thin based on past performance.

If he had taken that job, he would have been a millionaire by 1995, a few years before I met him. He told me that rarely a day went by that he didn’t think about that decision.

In the 2000’s I worked with a guy who had co-founded a WebMD-style company that WebMD wanted to buy. His co-founders didn’t want to take the deal. He was not able to sway them. The crash came and the company went out of business. Again: he was one decision away from never having to work again.

The tech landscape is littered with people like this. People no one would ever ask for advice because they are just ordinary working stiffs in the technology landscape.

This is not to say that people who are successful don’t work hard. They do. But so do a lot of people who aren’t nearly as successful, and the dividing line between them is trivially thin.

This doesn’t lead me to conclude that we should all do what we love. That’s bad advice as often as it is good. It suggests that we should do what is enough. That what we do should be satisfying and rewarding even if we fail to follow the path we planned.

I don’t regret my years in academia despite my eventual exit. I don’t regret working in startups despite the prevalence of crashing and burning. I don’t regret the relationships that have failed. Even the spectacular failures serve as fodder for me as a maker of stories.

I do have regrets. Failures I’m ashamed of.

It seems to me that failures are of two kinds: regrettable and non-regrettable. The non-regrettable ones are of the “one bad decision” type. The regrettable ones cover a great range, but mostly involve metaphorical weights that are too heavy to lift, despite our best efforts and our strong feeling that we ought to be able to lift them.

These are not reasonable judgements, but they are judgements we stand by never-the-less. As I am apt to say of my greatest failure: “I believe to this day that I made the right decision. And I will never forgive myself.” This is the fundamental nature of the human condition.

Contemplating our failures, analyzing our failures, owning and acknowledging our failures, is one of the better ways to get on the path to being better at this whole humanity thing. Insistence on our own perfection–trusting in our own righteousness–is not a great way to motivate self-improvement.

There’s a trade-off, of course, as there so often is. Too much focus on failure and we’re paralyzed and depressed. Too little and we’re narcissistic. The optimum, as someone once said, is the middle path.

Me, I lean a little harder in the direction of “focus on failure” than I might, which makes me off the scale in today’s mostly narcissistic society. It’s my Puritan roots. But those same Puritan roots give me sufficient bloody-mindedness to have the strength to go on in the midst of failure. Others may find different balances work better for them. Go for it.

But it’s important that we never lose track of our failures entirely. Our failures and our failings matter. They define us at least as much as our successes do. We should recognize them and accept them. They are part of who we are, and when we cut ourselves off from our failures we cut ourselves off from ourselves. That’s never a good thing.

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Naming the Dragon

Action is hard.

I’m a very action-oriented person, but even for me, especially when I was younger, taking action–doing stuff, writing stories, writing poetry, making career choices, you name it–was hard.

There are at least three major impediments to taking action:

  • Identifying the problem
  • Figuring out the appropriate action
  • Worrying about what other people will think

Of these, the first is the key: do it right and the others will fall into place with relatively little additional effort.

Words have power, and names have the most power of all. They don’t have any power over things, but they have enormous power over us. We can use this.

I think in highly metaphorical terms, although at the end of the day I’m apt to strip away the metaphors and come out with the plainest, most literal language I can find. That’s a critical final step. But the metaphors are a vital tool for getting to that point.

So I think about problems, sometimes, as dragons to be slain. Slayed? Killed.

Dragons are fierce creatures, prone to anger, full of fire, and old in war. Some are bigger than others, but all of them can be commanded if you know their most useful name.

In fairy tales it’s their “true name”, but I’m not entirely comfortable with the concept of “truth”, whereas I have no significant doubts about “useful”. Pilate sounds almost wise when asks “What is truth?” whereas he’d sound kind of stupid asking, “What is useful?”

Useful names for dragons are ones that let us figure out how to slay them, and motivate us to do what is necessary to that end.

Dragons come in many forms.

Some are desires, for sex or money or power or art or experience or love or friendship or connectedness, which I think covers the basics. By “art” I mean “creation of art”. “Money” covers “ownership of art” (and everything else). The categories aren’t quite orthogonal: in a world were a 53 year old former supermodel gets engaged to an 84 year old billionaire media mogul, money, sex, power and experiences are all bound up with each other. And as Oscar Wilde said, “Everything is about sex but sex. Sex is about power.”

But while they may cross over, each of these kinds of desire can and often do stand alone. Me, I’ve always been more interested in sex, art, experience and love than money or power, which is kind of too bad because more money and power would likely make sex and experience more accessible. Love and art have to be paid for in their own currency, though.

Admitting and understanding our own desires is a hard problem. The Dragons of Desire have names like “lust” and “pride” and “acquisitiveness” and “loneliness”. In less enlightened times some of these things were called sins, but the sin is in how a person reacts, not in the fact of the desire.

Naming our dragons includes naming our desires. “I want to get laid”, “I want to be the best poet in the world”, “I want to own a nice home”, “I want friends I can count on, who make me feel like I’m not alone”. Those are the dragons whose names are Lust and Pride and Acquisitiveness and Loneliness.

A desire is a dragon when we’re afraid to pursue it, which is often because of worrying about what other people will think, and sometimes because it would be bloody stupid to do so… either way, it pays to name it.

The keys to happiness are simple:

  • Think about what we are grateful for
  • Name our negative emotions
  • Make decisions based on sufficient, not complete, information
  • Hugs are good

There are variations on those themes, and naming our dragons is one of them. It’s a way of naming any emotion that we might not want to name, not just nominally “negative” ones. Naming our dragons and then taking action against them based on sufficient but incomplete information is the basic trick to getting stuff done, whether it’s solving problems or pursuing ambitions.

We often know what we need to do but are afraid or otherwise unable to do it. Naming that dragon–the emotion, the fear, the specific thing that is holding us back from taking action–is the best way to fight it. “I am afraid of rejection” and “I am afraid of failure” are two of the biggest dragons in almost everyone’s life, artists and entrepreneurs doubly so. What are their names?

“Rejection” and “Fear” will do, but “Isolation” and “Terror” could be more motivating, or “Critic” and “Monster”, or some random but vaguely evil sounding name, because, why not? Would you rather fight “Rejection” or “Nobskel”? Or something else? But whatever the name is, it let’s us perform a clever trick, which is to reify our fear–to “make it real”, and by doing so isolate it.

A named fear is no longer an aspect of us, which we might think a shameful weakness. It is a separate thing, because that’s what naming does: it separates the named thing from everything else in our attention by identifying it as an entity. Entities are created by the edges of our attention, and names are way of focusing our attention. We give separate things names. We don’t (usually) have names for our fingers, say, or our left eye, because they are part of us. To name them would be to separate them.

As it is with our bodies, so it is with our emotions. What we name, we isolate (naming happy emotions is not always a good thing for this reason, but there can be value in that, too.)

A fear, a problem, a desire: name them and they become a thing to be managed, a problem to be solved, not a mysterious and possibly shameful aspect of ourselves.

Once named–and to be named, it must be identified, we must know what we are naming–a dragon can be killed, or tamed, or sometimes even just avoided. Running away from dragons is often an advisable tactical move, although in the long term it creates its own problems, especially if we decide to wear those metaphorical running shoes known as “drugs” and “alcohol”.

And there’s a final thing: sometimes naming the dragon isn’t enough. Sometimes the dragon is bigger and fiercer than we are, and there’s no where to run. Then, hopefully, we turn to others for help in fighting it. And sometimes the best help is the fourth item on that list above. A lot of dragons have been killed by hugs, or at least hugs have given a lot of dragon-fighters the strength they need to persist, and to win.

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Books 2015 (partial list and scattered remarks)

I’m away from my library, including my virtual library, so this is partly from memory. I checked Amazon’s e-mails to me over the year to see what stuff I bought, and it looks like this, with some additions from memory and what’s still on my e-reader (most of the books are e-books, some aren’t):

0 “Bone Clocks”

I would read David Mitchell’s laundry lists as I’m pretty sure they would be more interesting than any prose I will ever write. I’m impressed by how he has sold straight-up SF as literature and no one notices because he writes so well. The episodic structure of this book works well, but I found the final distopia implausible (“Hi, my name’s Tom… I’ll be your technological progressive optimist for the evening!”) I wish we had more time with sociopath Hugo Lamb, and less on the wizarding world, but it’s still a pretty good book.

1 “Eichmann Before Jerusalem”

This was an interesting exploration of Eichmann’s life between 1945 and 1960 by a German independent scholar who has taken the time to look under rocks that many people would rather have left in place. Eichmann was an awful person and while we never really come to understand how such a stupid little man could have been such a central figure in such an enormous evil as the Holocaust, it pays to look such people in the historical eye. They are, after all, still around us.

One thing that really struck me is the weird combination of denial and ambition amongst Holocaust-denying NAZIs after the war: they claim the Holocaust never happened, that it would be unthinkable and “un-German”, and that they’d do it again if they could.” It’s as if they can perfectly well comprehend how enormously evil genocide is, but by claiming that what happened did not they can excuse it, and if given the opportunity they would do it again and claim again it did not. They are disassociative.

It made me appreciate that the post-modern Right of Cheney and Trump is not a new thing. Derida’s lie of truth as a social fiction has been pursued by the Right (as well as the Left, of course) for centuries, and whenever anyone anywhere tell us that 2+2=4 is a contingent, historical, subjective, Jewish, etc… way of looking at the world that is no better than any other, there are death camps following not far behind.

The NAZI way of knowing was explicitly ethno-racist, and rejected “Jewish physics” (which happens to be the kind of physics I do… not because it is Jewish but because it is the most plausible kind) and any internationalist, universal, liberal philosophy. There is only one way of knowing, and it is the Bayesian way. It produces knowledge, not truth, because truth is probably not achievable (and any good Bayesian will be happy to entertain evidence to the contrary.) The fight against the totalitarian movements of the 20th century was hard in part because the defenders of liberal democracy were often in the grip of the same basic epistemic errors as its enemies. We know more now, and the 21st century is not going to go particularly well for people, like Eichmann, who believe that facts are social constructs and plausibility is a matter of political diktat.

2 “Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie”

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders by Islamists practicing the perfectly ordinary dictates of their religion (just as Christian and Buddhist and Sikh terrorists are practicing the perfectly ordinary dictates of theirs) I got interested in putting the current wave of blasphemy-motivated murders into some historical context. This book is mostly focused on European history, and therefore deals primarily with Christianity, where “blasphemy” and “heresy” were generally conflated. It has some interesting stuff about the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and how we got from theocratic states in the 1500’s to secular states today, but wasn’t as broad as I’d hoped. Blasphemy is under-studied.

3 “Old English: Grammar and Reader”

I can read Middle English–Chaucer et al–without too much difficulty, but Old English is a completely different language. This book was sufficient to convince me that my desire to read “Beowulf” in the original language is not enough to motivate me to learn a completely different language.

4 “JavaScript: The Good Parts”

I’m pretty sure this book helped me get my current job, as one of the interview questions was what interesting language stuff I’d done lately, and I mentioned learning me some Haskell and talked about the strengths and weaknesses of the language, and the interviewer said, “So that’s basically what you’ve done this year?” and I said, “Actually I’m reading ‘Javascript: the good parts’ and they laughed and realized I was kind of a language geek.

5 “Is There Anything Good About Men?”

This was an interesting book that I can’t really recommend, but think everyone should read. If you value diversity of opinion and you hang out with mostly liberal progressives, as I do, you will want to read this book, which is data-driven even if wacked out in some of its interpretations of those data. The author looks at the tradeoffs that men and women have made, and to some extent our biology may make, asking “How do cultures make use of men?” One thing he completely misses is what a huge, liberal, social innovation monogamy is: the current socially and technologically facilitated changes in masculine and feminine roles are trivial compared to moving from a society where most men don’t reproduce to one where men have almost the same odds of reproducing as women. Creationists and other anti-Evolutionists will hate having this pointed out, which does not make it any less plausible.

6 “Station Eleven”

A humane and contemplative post-apocalyptic story that focuses on the meaning of ordinary lives no matter what is happening in the world at large. Highly recommended.

7 “The Forever War”

A re-read. Travels pretty well in a lot of ways, although the clone thing was pretty implausible then and even moreso now. Great action, great vignettes of the soldier’s life, engaging protagonist. Terrific story.

8 “The Curve of Binding Energy”

Another re-read. Scary. Ted Taylor gives far more away than I am comfortable with, although the absence of mushroom clouds over major cities suggests he was successful in getting governments to take nuclear security seriously.

9 “Urban Shaman”

I’m not sure what led me to pick up this fairly recent urban fantasy but it’s not bad for people who enjoy the genre.

10 Various improv books

Mostly borrowed from Carrie. None that stand out enormously, except maybe “Improv Wins”, which was quite insightful.

11 The Age of Global Warming

Very interesting review of the politics of AGW with a more-skeptical-than-warranted take on the science, although the science is far more complex than simplistic nonsense that Warmists promote as “settled”. Worth reading to understand why some deals may be worse than no deals at all.

12 Florence of Arabia

Christopher Buckley’s post-9/11 comic novel on Mid-East politics and culture. Probably as funny as the topic allows.

13 Those Who Write for Immortality

Really good study of Romantic poets and novelists who have not survived the test of time, but who might well be as good as Wordsworth or Byron or Scott. Excellent example of the application of empirical, Bayesian methods to historical and literary questions.

14 Gloriana’s Torch

The last of Patricia Finney’s Gloriana trilogy, which started with “The Firedrake’s Eye” and continued in “The Unicorn’s Blood”. I found the first in the series extremely evocative, the second a bit strained, and this one very good, especially as a perspective on the life of a galley slave.

15 Loneliness

Good study on the social and psychological consequences of being alone. This issue affects men far more than women, and may partially explain why men die so much more often than women.

16 First Men in the Moon

Re-read of H. G. Wells’ classic. It travels fairly well.

17 Lady Windermere’s Fan

Oscar Wilde at his insouciant best.

18 “Geometric Numerical Integration: Structure-Preserving Algorithms for Ordinary Differential Equations”

I did some playing around with orbital mechanics and was told that if I wasn’t such a complete and utter moron I’d use symplectic integrators. This book seemed like the best introduction to them available and it was OK.

There’s a fundamental constraint on physical motion that it preserves the local density in the phase space around the trajectory. This is sometimes called “Liousville’s Theorem” but goes by other names as well. Ordinary 4th-order Runge-Kutta integrators don’t natively have this property, but there is a class of integrators that do, which for obscure historical reasons are called “symplectic”.

For a reasonably advanced student (upper year undergrad or graduate student with a pretty good background in numerical methods) this is quite a good book, although it doesn’t actually have a lot in the way of algorithms in it. In practice, I’ve found sympletic integrators to be fast, but more complicated to implement and not necessarily more accurate, and I’m enough of a curmudgeon to stick with RK4 as my primary workhorse, particularly given the specialized nature of the problems symplectic integrators can solve (nothing involving any kind of friction, for example.)

19 Various graphic novels

I find these things interesting examples of story-telling. Memorable ones were the first two collected volumes of “Rat Queen’s”, the first two collected volumes of “Southern Bastard” and a Hollywood noir thing whose name I can’t recall.

So, a year that was pretty heavy on the heavy and technical, overall. I’ve still got a bunch on my e-reader or in my book pile that are waiting to be read. 2016 may be a year of catching up. I’m already further behind, as four people gave me books this Christmas, including one 4-book series, and I bought myself a book on the Indus civilization.

2016 will likely continue to have a pretty technical bent, but I’d like to work through my backlog of lighter stuff too. So many books, so little time. It’s a good problem to have.

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2015 in Review

I’m in the habit of looking back on the year past to figure out what went on, what went right, and what went wrong. 2015 was not just a good year but a fantastic year. My standard for a “good year” is very simple: the same number of people I care about are above ground at the end of the year as at the beginning. Not a high standard, maybe, but having seen too many years where it was not met, it’s my bottom line. This year was touch-and-go at a few points, but in the end it came through.

My years have themes, which I discover rather than impose. 2015 was the Year of Improv, or maybe the Year of Story (or that may be next year… stay tuned to find out!)

Last year was very story-focused too. It’s kind of a theme in this phase of my life.

Last year I wrote:

I’ve still not figured out what I’m going to do with my life. I’m getting closer, though. There are a few wheels left to turn.


The next year is going to be a branching point, I think. If things come together, I go in one direction, otherwise, I go in a different one. Or maybe I just press insistently on. That’s kind of what I do.

I have turned the wheels: I am going to be a writer.

And this year was indeed a branching point: I lost my job in June–not entirely unexpectedly–and picked up a new gig in July which was a plunge out of a purely technical role where I was comfortable to the point of complacency back into a management and executive role where I felt so far out of my depth for the first month or so it wasn’t funny. But I knew I could adapt, and I did, and it’s turning into one of the most rewarding employment experiences of my life.

What I didn’t predict at the end of 2014 was returning to one of my very first loves–theatre–by way of improv. Carrie said in February, “Hey, let’s do an improv class at VTSL/ICI”. I was already taking an art class at Emily Carr but I said, “Yeah, sure, sounds like fun.”

Fun doesn’t half cover it.

I had spent a lot of time in 2014 studying story, and had developed a pretty good grasp of what I thought story was and how it worked. Improv is like graduate school for storyology (and if that isn’t a legitimate area of academic study, it damned well should be).

There’s an old proverb that says, “When the student is ready, and entire field of study and a whole institute dedicated to their needs will appear.” Or something like that. On this basis, my personal needs conjured the Improv Comedy Institute into existence, which seems like a bit of an arrogant claim even for me.

But ICI and the other improv schools around town–Blind Tiger and Instant Theatre, and hopefully Second Storey Theatre in the new year–are pretty much made to feed my creativity and curiosity.

Call it narrative engineering. Improvisors create stories, scene after scene, on-the-fly, out of nothing but imagination and common experience. It’s a profound exploration of what makes stories work, and I’ve learned more from it than any of the more formal story-study I did in 2014, with courses on film and short stories. I’ve also had more fun and found a community of like-minded oddballs who are astonishingly inclusive and open-minded and accepting. How do I know? They’ve accepted me, and I’m kind of an awkward individual.

Last year I was whinging about “some work of noble note” still left to be done. I knew perfectly well what it was. When I was 16 years old I recognized I had certain ambitions. I wanted to be:

  1. a father
  2. a scientist
  3. an engineer
  4. a businessman (to use the term current when I was 16)
  5. an inventor
  6. an academic
  7. a writer

I have now been all of those things except the last. Ergo: time to fly.

Easy to say, but not easy to recognize. It took the inimitable Joe Bill‘s astonishingly good, literally life-changing improv intensive in August of this year to set me straight. That was a remarkable weekend. After the first day I came home, went for a run, went for a swim, dumped my brain into a blog post, slept hard, and went back for more. After the second day I accepted reality: I’m going to be a writer.

Since then I’ve sold a poem for more than I’ve ever been paid for a poem before ($32! which is like almost $45 in real money!) and gotten much more deeply involved in the local film community, as well as roughing out a new novel and doing a deep re-edit of my previous one, and attending the Surrey International Writers Conference where I had positive responses from a couple of agents.

My life experience tells me that when I set my course and am clear about my objective, I get where I want to go. It also tells me that clarity about objectives is a Very Hard Problem for me. I have been clear about my objective exactly six times in my life, and now I’m working on refining number seven.

Being part of a community where so many people have clear objectives–“More musical improv”, “Come back to Canada”, “Expand into teaching”, “Form a company”–is a huge source of role-models for me. Having people to emulate is a big deal.

So maybe 2015 was the Year of Community. The community happened to be improv, although that really isn’t accidental. Theatre people are my tribe. Always have been, always will be.

The year to come? I dunno. I never know why I do what I do until I’ve done it, and I never know where I’m going ’til I get there, and then look back and see the inexorable logic of the decisions that determined my way. I have another book or two in the fermentation phase beyond the novel mentioned above. There’s one about god and there’s one about science and there’s something to do with iron, or coupled stochastically driven oscillators, or something, which is apparently why I upgraded my Mathematica license. Whatever they are, they are the kind of books that make me think, “Bring me a fast ship, for I mean to sail in harm’s way.”

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