Finding Burdick

So we’re playing our final session of Apocalypse World. At least we think it’ll be the last. We’ve all agreed that we’ll either end the game tonight or next session, depending on how things go. And I’m feeling the pressure.

See, I’ve become intensely invested in Burdick’s future. Burdick is my character, a Savvyhead with a greenhouse trying to get the earth to yield a bounty like she used to, rather than the weak, halfhearted crops she produces now. Burdick’s had her hurdles, including clashes with her Hocus brother, Always, who leads his people in a fire and brimstone, will of the gods manner, with ecstatic visions and draconian pronouncements.

Now Always is gone, disillusioned with his leadership and living alone in the woods somewhere. Burdick’s got the Battlebabe Kickskirt at her side, and a gaggle of scared people looking to her for fresh leadership. And the warlord Barbecue has moved in, threatening our territory and our way of life.

Continue reading Finding Burdick

Free Play 1 – The Sources

As promised a couple of weeks ago, I’m taking a look at Stephen Nachmanovitch’s Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art to see how it integrates with my current understanding of creativity, spontaneity and collaboration. It was one of my first encounters with the subject a decade ago, and I want to see how I relate to it now and deepen my understanding and practice.

Section 1: “The Sources” talks about creativity, what it “is” and where it “comes from.” He describes the goal of the improviser as “moment-to-moment nonstop flow.” The process looks something like: allow yourself to be in the moment, relax and let one moment flow into the next, sculpting your art in real time, daring to express your inmost nature. In that way you can free yourself to create for the sheer joy of the act itself, and ultimately “disappear” in the absolute immersion of the work.

Sure, sounds simple enough, but how, right? Well, there are lots of techniques and practices that aim toward this. But there’s no easy “spontaneous creativity” switch inside a person that they can throw and let it out. It’s a process, a wax-on, wax-off journey that develops the skill by practicing it until it becomes as natural as breathing. Continue reading Free Play 1 – The Sources

Free Play: a Flute and a Prologue

10 years or so ago I picked up a little book called Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch.  It lit up my whole switchboard and gave me a philosophy and direction for creative living. Its subtitle even found its way unconsciously into Story by the Throat’s tagline. This book was one of the first sources to talk about something I had a thirst for. I read it over and over, soaking up Stephen’s exciting ideas.

But now a decade later I find I’m barely closer to realizing these principles in my own life. So I’m going to take a closer look, step by step, and see how Free Play‘s concepts connect with the other things I’ve learned and experienced with creativity, spontaneity and collaboration.

I’ll begin delving into it in the next few days. Meanwhile, I present the Japanese folk tale from the book’s prologue. It speaks volumes all by itself: Continue reading Free Play: a Flute and a Prologue

Choosing Disadvantage

My friend Todd of Love is Concrete has been saying that “Love is a disadvantage that we choose.”

That phrase has really got a grip on me. It clicks something important into place. Because what’s the opposite of that? Using. If you’re not choosing disadvantage, you’re using, you’re manipulating, you’re keeping your guard up, you’re protecting yourself. It doesn’t mean you’re the most cynical or cruel motherfucker on the planet, it just means you’re primarily benefiting yourself.

Love, on the other hand, is giving, uplifting, being vulnerable, opening yourself to pain. It’s expending energy to the greatest good of others–a disadvantage that we choose.

It strikes me that this is what Story by the Throat is. It’s the kind of vulnerability I seek, in games, in telling stories together–letting our guard down and creating something that speaks. My hope is that it can carry over into living, and being vulnerable there, to not be afraid to make a story with each other.

I don’t know exactly what that means yet, but it’s a thing of power. It’s living without pretense, without manipulation, without fear and distrust and victimization.

I want that. I want that in stories, I want that in games, I want that in life.

Stories are a disadvantage that we choose.

Life is a disadvantage that we choose.

Love is a disadvantage that we choose.

Peace,

-Joel

Gets ya every time

onepiece-luffybloodyhand1Some friends and I were talking recently about the manga One Piece by Eiichiro Oda. It’s a seemingly innocuous story about goofy pirates and their physics-bending hijinx, but my friends and I find it irresistible. Why? My pal Jake put it best: “Oda’s a master of his craft. When one of the characters is beaten and bloody and almost dead, and struggles to their feet to say they’ll never give up on their friends–even though there’s a moment for every character in every volume–each time it pierces my heart.”

It seems like it shouldn’t work. It seems like once would be enough, twice bearable, three times too much. I mean, how many times do we need to see Luffy stand up for his friends, or Zoro fight on at the brink of death, or Usopp overcome his fear? But it works. Each time we’re on the edge of our seat. Each time we let out a little cheer. Each time we feel fulfilled.

Whether zany rubber pirates are your cup of tea or not (and believe me, ours is a love not often understood!), chances are there’s some story in your life that does this for you. Whether it’s Luke Skywalker confronting his father, Westley rising from his bed, sword in hand, or Jack slipping from Rose’s fingers and sinking beneath the ice, there are stories that “get us right here”–different for the individual, but repeating the same themes and delivering the same payoffs again and again. And we drink them up.

What need does this fill, that it never gets old, throughout human experience? What role does repetition play in our story-life as humans? Why do some tellings succeed, and others fall flat? What is that “craft mastery” that makes the difference? Is it personal taste or something more?

I don’t know. Do you?

Peace,

-Joel

Birth of a legend

niamh-with-eyes-openOn December 10, at almost midnight, Niamh Shempert was born. My daughter. It was a harrowing day and a half for Annie and I, her especially, as our home birthing stalled out from dehydration and we finally checked into the Birthing Center at Legacy Emmanuel Hospital after 24 hours of labor. At the hospital Annie was able to receive just enough anesthesia to rest and recover her wits and strength, and when she finally started pushing the process was swift and intense.

Annie smiled in her labor pains, proud and triumphant to be delivering her child at last–to the awe of nurses and midwives, and of me. She proved every person in that room wrong, with their thoughts of shoulder dystocia and C-sections and gestational diabetes, as Niamh (“neev”) came quickly and gloriously out to meet the world in perfect health. Then, while the nurses treated Annie’s hemorrhaging, I was Niamh’s guardian in the wee hours, holding her in comfort and love through Nurses’ tests and warding off invasive procedures. Our birth wasn’t what we planned, but we had it on our terms in as natural and nurturing a setting as possible.

I knew as I held Annie’s hand in pride and awe that I was in the midst of a great story, one that would be a joy to tell and retell–all the more for its factual truth. Now as last week’s events seep into my skin and stir about in my soul, I wonder things. I wonder about the place and value of story in our lives. I wonder about the virtue of seeking out such adventures versus letting them come to us. If our birth had gone as planned, I wouldn’t have such an amazing story to tell. I would have a much simpler and everyday tale that would elicit a few “aww, that’s nice” ‘s, not hold them in wonderment. But would I ever, ever willingly put my wife and my daughter through such danger and trauma just to add an epic to my repertoire? Not on your life!

So, I ask: what IS story in our lives? Is “adventure” something, as they say, that you hate while it’s happening, but love in the telling? Is there a way to pursue storied life without inviting needless sorrow and pain? I look at my daughter in the paradoxical knowledge that I want her to have adventures, but would never wish her danger or harm.

But for now, it is enough to glory in the epic of her arrival, and take joy in her present peace.

Story meets Life

My friend Eric tells great stories. I don’t mean that he makes up his own stories, or he tells tales of legends of old around a campfire, or anything. He just tells great, engaging, often hilarious stories about things he’s actually done and lived through. Like the time the transmission went out on his van and he tried to get it home by sitting in it to steer while his pal RC pushed the thing uphill toward a busy intersection and braking just in time to avoid disaster and praying to God the nearby cops didn’t bust ’em.

Eric’s got stories like that. I don’t. I mean, I tell stories about how my day went, and the bullshit I had to put up with at work, or nutty person I ran into on the bus. . .but never stories like that. Stories of real danger and crazy hijinks, often involving alcohol. Stories of narrow escapes from calamitous fates and real life that isn’t spent in front of a computer screen wishing for adventure in my life and seeking it through shared imagining and rolling dice.

Now, sure, a lot of Eric’s stories are the result of questionable judgment (like ignoring his wife’s advice to call a tow truck). . .but I envy him just the same. He lives a life of experiences, real ones, while I read books an watch movies and play characters and yearn. I don’t live a life of ducking danger, flouting authority, or daring escapades. I live a life of thought, not action.

The Society for Creative Anachronisms calls these “No shit, there I was” stories. I’ve enjoyed nights around a campfire hearing story after story of these funny, endearing, and outrageous life experiences. And silently regretted that I don’t have a “No shit” story. Not even close.

When I think about bringing story and everyday life together, this is what comes to mind. But what do I really want? A life of foolhardy danger? Less common sense than the little I already have? An existence divorced from the joys and responsibilities of founding a stable family?

Maybe I do. Or maybe I just want meaning in some form, and I instinctively grok that meaning comes not from thinking, but from doing.

Peace,

-Joel

So what the Hell does THAT mean?

Story by the Throat is a phrase I’ve coined to describe an approach to storytelling in all areas of life, but particularly roleplaying games. It’s something I’m seeking, not something I’m a master of, so I picture this blog being more of a fluid conversation, rather than a teaching or lecture dynamic, as I explore this concept with anyone who’s interested. That’s the hope, anyway.

Story By the Throat is a connotative term, not a definitive one. Meaning I’m trying to convey a certain emotional experience by painting with words, rather than codifying into conceptual law the exact parameters of a phenomenon that has no clear borders. Rather than wrestle that greased linguistic pig, I’m going to go with my gut and try to connect with you all on a more felt, instinctive level. With luck I’ll occasionally succeed.

Story by the Throat in the context of roleplaying is passionate engagement around the whole gaming table in making a story together. It’s roleplaying with heart and fearlessness that really shows what our protagonists are made of, in the tradition of the gutsiest fiction. It’s switched-on, fired-up, total excited attention to what’s happening right this moment. It’s Story Now, not Story Someday When We All Look Back Fondly, or Story Already Fleshed Out Fully in Our Mental Character Concept, or Story Already Worked Out in the GM’s Notes and We Just Run Through The Motions.

Story by the Throat in the context of individual storytelling is a reclamation of the Oral Storytelling art practiced in every culture in the world. It’s learning to use and appreciate a form of entertainment that’s interactive and personal, that’s living and breathing in way that a movie or television show can never be. It’s the age-old scene of the folk of a community gathering at the tavern or campfire to sing songs, tell tales, drink, laugh, and bond. It’s togetherness and participation fueled by creativity.

Story by the Throat in the context of art is boldly vulnerable self-expression, through whatever means speaks to you. It’s a poem, a play, a story, a painting, a woodcraft, a needlepoint, whatever. . .which truly contains a piece of your passion and your heart. It is not safe, paint-by-numbers “oh, isn’t that nice.” It is committing your whole self to expression and beauty.

Story by the Throat in the context of everyday life is realizing the wonder of the world around you. It’s both recognizing when the everyday events surrounding you are charged with the drama and portent, and living a life such that you’d feel proud of its qualities as a tale of wonder and beauty.

Story by the Throat is, in short, emotionally investing in life, being unafraid to laugh, cry, drink deep, and connect with other human beings in a dangerously authentic way.

All of these are open to discussion. I look forward to it.

Peace,

Joel