August 10, 2015
This is the final installment (for now) of “Dad the Writer.” We’ve gone over how to keep mind and body sane and healthy while you juggle being a parent and an artist. Obviously, as cliché as it sounds, we end with keeping the soul sane.
Whether or not you believe in the soul is immaterial. If you’re an artist, if you want to create something, make an idea tangible, then you have a soul. Maybe you didn’t have one before you started. If you’re reading this and want to be a better artist, congratulations. You have a brand new soul.
It’s not enough to simply be good at something, though. It’s also not enough to keep your mind sharp. Anyone can sit at a computer and just type at normal speed, maybe even half speed, and write a novel within a week or two. Anyone can buy a camera and take pictures of animals, landscapes, and people. Anyone can shoot videos or write poems. Doing any of these well, though, is another matter. That takes practice and dedication.
And a healthy artist’s soul.
A healthy artist’s soul means being willing to fail. Again. And again. And again. If you’re doing whatever you’re doing for the chance to get rich, you’re doing business, not art. You’re looking at trends and what’s hot and jumping on the bandwagon. You’re not creating. You’re selling. Creating something that rings true to people, something that can last generations and change people’s minds, something that has, for lack of a better term, a piece of your soul, is difficult.
This takes time.
No piece of writing is ever good on the first try. Or the second. Or the third. Maybe, a handful of times in your career, you’ll stumble onto the perfect line, the perfect shot, and that’s fantastic. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it requires patience and determination. And failing is the last thing artists want. I know it’s something that gives me nightmares to this day. I’m afraid of creating something, pouring my history and my troubles into it for others to see and learn from, and then finding out it’s complete garbage.
Do not be afraid to fail. You will. Just remember that your work is not final until you put it out for the world to see. You can make changes, go back and redo your work, or do anything that needs to happen in order for your art to be better. Embrace failure, but reach for perfection. And don’t be disillusioned when your work isn’t perfect. It never will be. Every writer, for example, can look at old stories and find mistakes. I look at my work from even six years ago and find not just errors in grammar but also plot holes and clutter that I would strike out in the first editing session today.
Just think what you’ll learn in another six years.
Your work does not have to be perfect, just as perfect as you can make it at the time. At some point, you need to stop and say, “It’s done. I can do nothing else.” Otherwise, you’ll spend the rest of your life checking work that needs to go out and be seen.
Which brings me to one of the Ultimate Truths About Art™ that you need to understand to keep your soul healthy.
You will always improve, as will your work, if you have dedication and support.
Surround yourself with people who can encourage you, be honest, and promote your growth. Find those who will give you honest feedback, and maybe a little ego-boost, when things get dark. You need someone who will tell that your work is the greatest thing in the world even if you don’t believe it. Balance this with actual criticism because constant failure can wear you down.
It’s not easy to have that kind of dedication and will. That, like anything worthwhile, takes practice. So go ahead and fail. Cry. Drink that six pack and pass out. Cry again. Curse the day you thought you could do this.
And try again. And again. And lean on those around you. The loner artist is a myth, a romanticized idea that rarely works. You need that support to keep you grounded or your ego will kill you one way or another. If you gain an audience, it will make you think things are easy and you’ll flounder. If you don’t do well, it’ll tell you it was never meant to be.
Use your support network. Use your loved ones. Bring them along for the ride.
And now, to help you pass the time between reading and working on your own work, here’s the trailer for a feel-good family movie about parents and their children.
Okay, maybe not so much.
One of the many things I’ve been trying to get off the ground in the last two years, more like three, is the Gnosis RPG. It’s a new game system and campaign setting designed to be gritty, dangerous, and easy to play and set up. The campaign world is the modern world, except it’s really not. See, all those conspiracy theories about rock music being a tool of Satanic cults, or that NASA is hiding aliens in Area 51, or that big businesses are really a front for an ancient conspiracy to rule the world after they kill most of the human population, are actually true.
Yup. Every. Last. One.
Magic is real. Science is being held back. Aliens are constantly trying to invade. Religion is a front. Tin foil hats really DO protect your brain from the spy satellites. And if you try hard enough, you can become the thing the monsters fear, become a monster yourself, or start your own conspiracy.
One of the things I wanted to do with this setting, though, was to give everything a “real-world” explanation, even if it involved fringe science or a stretch of what science said was allowed. Clearly, conservation of energy, momentum, and all those silly physics laws prevent pretty much all of this from existing, but by minimizing or at least giving some semblance of explanation, even if it’s flimsy, the game seems just a little more real. Respecting established science is one of the best ways to come up with a setting that feels fantastic yet plausible.
Take, for example, the simple matter of angels and demons.
I say simple in the same way that designing the space shuttle from scratch is simple.
I wanted to bring religious horror to Gnosis, and the idea of demonic possession and even angels as alien beings far removed from the fluffy-winged images of modern society appealed to me greatly. They would form two sides of one of the major conspiracies in the game’s universe. However, how to make them semi-realistic or at least sound plausible?
Firstly, I needed to figure out what was an angel and what was a demon.
I quickly settled on the idea that both angels and demons were not so different. In fact, in many myths, demons are fallen angels. That being said, perhaps the difference between both is more philosophical than physical. In that case, I needed a new name for this new creature and settled on the Elohim and that the titles of “angels” and “demons” were just one of the many cloaks they wore when seeking worship, an act that fed them psychic energy. The name is the ancient Hebrew name of God, and I figured a race of beings that present themselves as gods and divine beings would certainly approve of.
The most common ability both angels and demons seem to have is the ability to communicate with people despite not being in the same room, so telepathy is a must. Possession is also popular, more so for demons that angels, so that needs to get rolled in there. Barring that, what’s left?
Angels are often described as warriors, but the original texts describe them as beings that would not be out of place in a Lovecraftian horror story. They are supposedly massive, alien, and powerful. To even look at an angel is to invite death and destruction. In other words, their true form might not even be possible to have in-game. Demons are also usually described as horrific, so again there is some common ground between both camps of Elohim.
Of course, maybe the shapes and wild visions of angels and demons in the old texts are not real images, but rather hallucinations and deceit. Maybe Elohim wanted to appear as huge imposing wheels of fire and titanic beasts covered in a thousand eyes. Maybe this is part of how they bring worshippers to their side, and how, as demons, they torture others. Illusions, then, would be another power to have, but just letting them have the power of illusion is too broad. Maybe they can specifically alter the mood of those who see them in order to inspire fear. In high enough doses, that fear could manifest as visions of giant monsters. Consider how someone who is arachnophobic, for example, might see a tiny spider as a beast the size of a horse. Is this power psychic? Hormonal?
That brings up the next aspect. Should Elohim even have physical bodies? Making them flesh and blood makes them real, but it also makes them supremely vulnerable. It also makes things like possession more difficult. How to justify a physical being entering and overlapping with another living creature’s body and mind? That pesky mass has to go somewhere right? Making the Elohim energy or gas or something similar would then make more sense.
But what about a compromise? Maybe Elohim are physical beings, but their effects on this world are entirely psychic. The only way they can communicate is through telepathy, providing a conduit for their powers to present themselves as gods and demons. This would also provide a path for the power of possession. Maybe they don’t exactly “possess” a person, but rather use people as puppets, and the sheer mental power from the angel or demon mind is enough to grant the possessed some powers of their own. If they ever actually crossed over into our world, though, then the physical aspects would come into play.
So what are the Elohim like physically? What would our heroes need to fight if these beings ever actually crossed into our reality?
They need to be tough. Very tough. Rhino-hide tough. Small caliber weapons should bounce off them and nothing short of an assault rifle with armor-piercing bullets, or maybe a bundle of C4, should faze them. Humanoid? Maybe, but at least in the sense that Elohim will have legs, arms, a torso, and a head. The proportions should be suitably alien, as should the face. In keeping with the disturbing aspect to the uncanny valley, the face should be somewhat human but alien in minor aspects, certainly the eyes, but also in the placement of features. The skin would likely vary in shade between different Elohim, but that’s a detail I can’t quite place yet. I am, however, a fan of the general color scheme of the angel in the Masters of Horror episode “Cigarette Burns.”
Wings? Maybe, but not bird-like wings, or if they are bird-like, they should be large, powerful, and convey the image that this creature is a killer, a warrior, and certainly not a messenger with fluffy wings. The Elohim would need to be big, too, maybe as ten or twelve feet tall, in order to truly convey the power of an angel or demon from hell. They’re basically going to be organic tanks, super-strong, and with enough psychic power to make people fear them on sight. Most of their interactions with the world will be through their “possessed” victims, and once they actually manage to cross over… things get interesting.
Figuring out the mechanics is another matter, but at least having a solid image is enough to get going.
In the meantime, enjoy the feeling of having your imagination bring you real adventure…
July 22, 2015
In continuing last week’s “Dad the Writer,” I need to point out that keeping mentally active is not the only thing needed in order to be an artist and a parent. Yes, you need to keep sharp, but your body can suffer if you neglect it.
While many of us would be happy living on a diet of tea or coffee and whatever we can throw in the microwave, very few of us have the Kryptonian physiology to not die after a few years of this. Luckily, my wife and I have some experience making do with small budgets and trying to eat healthy, so these habits very much informed our current situation.
I’ll be the first to admit it: I dropped the ball when it came to taking care of myself. After the baby was born, and even about a year before, I focused so much on work and taking care of my then-pregnant wife that I did gain weight and neglect my exercise. Now, with the Little One more or less in a stable schedule, my wife and I are getting back to a routine to better ourselves.
I’m by no means a nutritionist, but I have found a few things that work for me to eat healthier and not go on some fad diet, and I’m not a personal trainer, so take my advice with a grain of salt. Just because it works for me, doesn’t mean it can work for you.
Learn to Cook
Most of us are more than satisfied with just opening a bag and mixing in water or simply putting a plate into the microwave. That might do in a pinch, but I discovered many years ago, long before I’d even met my wife, that learning to cook means having control over what you consume. Diet sodas and even “healthy” meal options often pack in the sugar to mask the fact that they’re basically cardboard.
It takes a little time, but you can choose exactly what you put in your body, and cooking is a good way to de-stress or at least step away from work long enough to refresh your mind.
Our diet right now is almost vegetarian and focused on greens like kale, collard greens, spinach, and other goodies. We add plenty of garlic, lentils, brown rice, and couscous into the mix and some turkey when we want meat. Once in a while, we’ll go for actual red meat, but this is a treat, both for nutrition’s sake and for health’s sake. Sodas and anything processed is also right out.
Alcohol? Well, in reality, we should cut that out to a drink a week, but a little bourbon once the Little One goes down once in a while is a good way to help the day just melt away. Suffice to say, though, that any sort of mixed drink goes right out the window due to the sugar.
Works Out for the Meek
You want to know how I lost twenty pounds in a few weeks once? I walked. A lot. At least an hour a day, five days a week. Yes, I did also cut back on sugars and soda, but the main thing is to keep moving. That sounds easy enough when you’re taking care of a tiny human learning to walk, but you need to combine it with something else.
Given that time is more precious than gold right now, I had to find some way to keep in shape that didn’t eat up the clock. I’m not talking about getting on the cover of Men’s Fitness. I mean doing something to keep flexible and strong and even have some energy and keep my metabolism up. I chose to do tabata workouts because they’re easy, require no equipment (mostly), and they can be done in less than fifteen minutes.
The short version is that you pick a small number of exercises (jumping jacks, squats, push-ups, sit-ups, etc) and do them, one at a time for twenty seconds with a ten second break in between. You do as many reps as possible in those twenty seconds. After you do four exercises, you repeat the cycle once and then rest for thirty seconds or a minute before you start again. Doing two sets takes no more than ten minutes and kicks your butt if you’re not ready for it.
Sleep When You’re Dead
I used to joke that sleep was for the week. Well, I’m weak. And tired. And Mattie woke up at 3 AM today and figured it was time to play. A lot.
Sleep is SO important. I didn’t realize until becoming a father just how much I didn’t appreciate it. I’ve been tired before, either studying for tests or staying up grading tests. The difference, I finally realized, was that I could step away from my work. I could just tell myself to go take a nap and come back to it in a few hours.
You can’t do that with a baby.
This is where the focus from the last article comes in. Yes, do the work you need and push yourself to sit and actually write or create something in the precious few minutes you can spare, but if you need to rest and have the chance, TAKE IT. You don’t know when that opportunity will come again. And really sleep. Don’t just lay there.
Seriously. I need a week-long vacation after every tooth comes out.
That’s it for today. Stay tuned for more goodies and, in the meantime, enjoy this trailer for Clown, a movie that was surprisingly creepy, if not silly.