Not a resolution

It appears I’m starting up again. Hooray! I stopped a lot of creative stuff at the end of last year mainly because work was so busy they asked me to go back to full-time and that included much longer hours. Anyway, my day job is more or less back to normal for now (although another longer stint of full-time is ahead) and, almost without me realising, I’ve picked up all my creative pursuits again.

I haven’t made any New Year’s resolutions because I’ve found that I inevitably follow through for a month or two like a total machine and then fizzle out and collapse like an overtired two-year-old. I’ve noticed that seems to be a pattern for me: I get all excited about a new project, tell myself I’m going to work on it every day, power on for a while and then eventually stop and feel bad about failing.

However, this year I’m trialing a new approach. I’ve set up a schedule of things I want to do—exercise, writing, photography—where I have a modest weekly goal. At the moment I’ve set myself the target of doing each of those things three times a week. More is great if I do it, but three times is the goal. That way I don’t have unachievable (for me) goals like a daily word count and I’ve massively reduced the pressure to succeed I put on myself. And the goals are completely flexible—I can do them on any day at any time and tick them off as successes. I’m hoping this way will also spread out the energy I put into projects so I don’t blow it all at the start in one huge burst. This is a big switch for me and kind of a strange reversal—by doing less and putting less pressure on myself, I’m hoping to be able to achieve more.

In line with this, I’m experimenting with different story formats. One of my writer friends wrote a blog post about how he discovered he was unable to write the sort of huge fantasy novels he wanted to because his drafts always petered out around 50,000 words. But in doing that he discovered he was really quite good at novella-length stories. It got me thinking because a lot of what Matthew said about himself could have come directly from my brain.

So I’m starting with really short stories, no more than about 5000 words, to see if that helps me stick with writing more. My ultimate goal is to develop a bunch of characters and weave them together through short stories into a much larger meta-plot but still have each short story more or less complete within itself. Not sure how this will turn out but it seems like it’s worth a shot.

Ice, black plastic and deep water

I have a mental illness. It’s depression and it sucks.

I was originally not going to mention this sort of thing in this blog. I wanted Heading into the Forest to be upbeat and more of a documentation of the steps I’ve taken, rather than an exploration of my personal feelings. Plus, for me, depression has a guilt association–there’s no external reason for me to feel like this because I have a good job, a nice place to live, physical health, friends and family. What more could you need to feel good?

But now, quite obviously, my depression has had an impact on the story of Heading into the Forest. For the last few months, I’ve done almost nothing creative, posted very infrequently and what posts I’ve managed have been kind of cop-out, wishy-washy ones. So now that I’m finally coming out of this latest episode, I thought I’d put it out there as a way to restart my writing and creativity.

See, for me, depression comes in waves, usually lasting a couple of months. In between these waves I’m fine. During, I’m definitely not. This last one was particularly bad, partly because it’d been long enough since the last for me to start to think that I wasn’t going to get any more (whoops), partly because it was quite a long one (almost four months), and partly because it was somehow worse than a lot of others I’ve had.

I’m quite lucky compared to many people with depression because I get time off from it, in between the waves. Which is nice, but doesn’t really help me during the episodes when the hateful self-talk and sheer exhaustion overwhelms.

On a more positive note, something a little interesting has come from this last depression wave. I finally connected my synaesthesia to my creative pursuits. (I seriously can’t believe this is only happening now.)

Synaesthesia is a union of the senses where two or more senses are involuntarily joined. One of the most common forms is grapheme-colour synaesthesia where letters and numbers have specific colours.

So for me, the start of the alphabet looks like this: A B C D E F G

Numbers look like this: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

The week looks like this: Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday

People with synaesthesia will get this, even if I have the ‘wrong’ colours. Those without will probably struggle to understand. It’s kind of hard to explain because for me it’s just a thing that is.

A colleague at my day job loaned me a copy of Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet. Daniel has synaesthesia to an incredible degree and savant syndrome, which allows him to learn languages incredibly quickly and recite pi to 22,514 digits. I’m not claiming to be able to do anything like that, but it occurred to me that incorporating my synaesthetic perceptions into my writing and photography could produce some interesting and slightly unique effects.

I made the connection because, for me, depression literally feels like drowning in a pool of cold water filled with icicles and black plastic. The water offers no purchase or chance to rest; the black plastic wraps around my limbs and covers my mouth and face, making swimming and breathing impossible; the icicles stab and freeze. Sometimes I’m so exhausted from fighting the water and smothering plastic that I can’t even get out of bed. While that’s the real feeling for me, it also makes a really good metaphor for other people.

Photo 10-10-2015, 4 22 55 PM

When I’m between the waves, I feel like I’m made of clear glass, floating in the air with a clean breeze blowing right through me. That description definitely captures the feeling, but also the fragility of it.

Sunlight is a mix of slow honey and bright lemon. Moonlight is tingly sherbet powder on smooth ice. Playgrounds crackle like Pop Rocks. Roads groan and hum…

I’ve just discovered an amazing catalogue of experiential descriptions that will enhance my writing no end and (with a bit more difficulty and creativity) could result in some really interesting photographic juxtapositions. Again, I can’t believe I only just realised this! Perhaps it’s because this is normal for me.

So here’s to once more getting out of the dark, cold water and back onto the path into the forest in the honey and lemon sunshine.

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One Year Later

Well, it’s been a whole year since I started this journey and I haven’t faltered or looked back yet. Hooray! I’ve kept up my blog posts (averaging 2.5 a month, which I’m really happy with). I’ve posted relatively regularly to my 500px gallery and my instagram (nathan_chester). I’ve written a lot, but still not finished anything, which bugs me. I’ve done some courses in photography and Photoshop that have really improved my skills.

All in all, it’s been a successful year though without any dramatic advancement. I’ve left the stifling and total security of my house and crossed the backyard, but I haven’t yet ventured very far under the eaves of the wild, creative forest. I am inching closer and that’s the goal for the next year–to be more adventurous, more dedicated and invest more of myself into this journey.

I’ve posted the photo below as an expression of how far I’ve come and as a promise to my future. I almost didn’t get this shot because I was standing safely on the beach, clicking away. When that egret landed in the water, I didn’t think twice about slogging through 100 metres of thick, slippery, above-the-ankles tidal mud to get close enough for the photo. A year ago, I probably wouldn’t even have taken a chance and headed to the coast for the possibility of a sunset like that. The future is bright (but with good contrast and properly exposed highlights).

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Sneaky universe

Turns out the universe is sneakier than I thought. I’ve been feeling very un-creative lately. I’ve been worrying that I haven’t been writing enough, that I haven’t been photographing enough, that I haven’t been blogging enough. I’ve felt like I was wasting my days off from my day job because I haven’t followed through with my plan to devote them solely to creative endeavours. Instead they’ve been filled with dentist appointments and grocery shopping and other mundanities.

And then the universe started sending me messages–little moments of synchronicity that have become impossible to ignore. More and more of my friends seem to be reaching turning points in their lives. Everybody seems to be discovering that where they are now is not where they want to be and, in order to get where they want to be, they need to make scary decisions. The theme coming out of hours of deep and meaningfuls is that in order to get what you want, you have to take a risk and jump in wholeheartedly. You have to believe that you have the ability and determination to pull off your dreams. I started this process last year. However, it’s becoming clear that I haven’t quite managed to follow through. Going part-time at work was a big step for me, but I haven’t done enough with the time. I think the universe is onto me.

Perhaps it’s just me, but the number of inspirationals about following your dreams in my Facebook feed seems to have doubled in the last couple of weeks.

And then there are those stupid gambling ads on TV that keep yelling at me to back myself. Even Masterchef the other night (I swear I wasn’t watching it and just flicked over in the ads) was going on about how I am the only one that can make my dreams come true and that if I don’t actually do anything, I’ll forever be just a dreamer.

So I was going to write a blog post about how I was failing at writing and failing at photography and failing at being the change I need in my life. But as I was doing it, I started to come up with a list of all the things I’d been doing instead of being creative. And I realised I’d made a mistake.

A couple of weeks ago I did two of half-day courses in Photoshop and started going back over old photos to see if I could improve them. Turns out I could…

I also started a document of random, incomplete story ideas the other day. So I’ve actually been doing a couple of hundred words of writing every day even though it’s not on one specific project.

And on top of that, I made up some Valkyrie wings for a fitness model friend for her next comp. image1   So it turns out that I’m a bit more on track than I thought. Instead of the horrible I-Haven’t-Done-Enough motivation I had at the start of this post, I’ve got more of an I-Can-Do-This motivation. It’s amazing how much more motivating that is. Thank you universe. I need to go write something.

Chasing an ending

2014 ended in an incredibly appropriate way for me…with a storm chase. It was only a few kilometres from home but it still counts. I saw the cumulus towers going up on the horizon, checked the weather radar and warnings and raced off to get a good position to watch it coming.

NYE storm 1

It wasn’t a very big storm, it didn’t get severe-warned and it fizzled pretty quickly.

NYE storm 2

But it still looked impressive and the chase took me back to the endless days driving across the endless plains searching for supercells in the American Midwest.

NYE storm 3

Because that’s what started all this for me. I found my passion for writing and photography and creativity on the plains, looking for storms. The swirling vortexes sucked me in, blew apart my old life and set me on a new path–into a dark forest, lit by lightning.

First serious steps

I made it. Today was my first day off my day job because I am now officially part-time. It’s kind of exciting and still a little nerve-wracking, but overall it’s a super positive step on my journey. My secure but confining house is behind me, I’ve passed the edge of the forest and I’m heading off in between the trees.

And in a great sign of things to come, the other day I saw that my turkey spirit guide had some babies. It took me a really long time to work out what the little brown fuzzballs scurrying around the street were. It must have a nest in some very tolerant neighbour’s backyard.

I spent the entire day today processing photos from my first portraiture/personal shoot. A friend from work asked if I would be willing to photograph her young daughter. By “coincidence” the day that worked best for both of us was the Saturday right before the week I went part-time.

The shoot was unpaid–a favour to a friend–because I really wasn’t confident in my ability to take good photos of people. Up until now, my photography has focused almost totally on landscapes and weather, with the occasional still life thrown in. In the end, though, it worked out really well and I got some shots I’m really happy with.

I have taken my first serious steps on the path to becoming a professional artist/writer/photographer.

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NEW PROJECT!!

I’m starting to realise that my attention span, in relation to creative endeavours, is slightly shorter than that of a sugar-crazed squirrel in a forest full of trail-mix and rabid dogs. I started this blog almost six months ago with an idea for a novel about storm chasing. I spent a bit of time on that and then progressed through a series of photographic projects. Then yoga. Then learning French. Then an idea for a visual novel. Then an idea for an urban fantasy. interspersed all that with a series of trashy romance stories that will only ever be published under a pseudonym, should I ever finish any. And now the next thing…

…wait for it…

…steampunk Christmas decorations.

I know. “WTF?!” doesn’t even begin to cover it. My turkey spirit guide has been hanging around quite a bit lately so something like this was bound to happen. But even I wasn’t expecting the sheer magical insanity of this idea.

And while I was busily cutting gear wheels out of cardboard the other night, I had the idea of a Christmas party to show off all my hard work, create an incentive to finish it all and also to somewhat justify the effort. So now I’m writing a steampunk murder mystery Christmas party for a bunch of friends who were gratifyingly excited by the idea.*

I haven’t quite decided how I feel about this revelation about my creative attention span. Every new idea is fun and exciting and I begin all of them with the intention of finishing. And it’s not like I give up on previous projects when I begin another; they’ve all taken up residence in a clearing at the back of my mind. It’s quite a little community now and every so often one charges out of the brush and grabs my attention and I spend a bit more time working on it…Until the next idea comes along.

The problem is that advancement on any one project is slow in the face of the torrent of new ideas. It makes me feel like I won’t finish anything and I think this is the real root of what I wrote about in my last post. I’m hoping that the extra time I’ll have when I go part-time next month will give me a chance to get ahead of the inspiration stream a little.

In the meantime…

gears

 

*I will post pictures.

Tempus f*#$it!

Lately time has been a major concern of mine. Specifically, the lack of it.

Actually, that’s a lie. I have lots of time. It’s just that, probably for the first time in my life, I have passion. There is so much that I really want to do. Every day I want to be out taking photos and then coming home and spending hours Photoshopping. I want to write and write and write and perhaps even finish one of the 21 stories I have going at the moment (I may have started a few more since I last posted about writing). Not all of them are good or going somewhere, but I need to write them to find out. I want to finish editing the manuscripts that writer friends keep sending me because it’s just so much fun to be able to in some small way assist these great writers. I want to practice yoga until I can do away with my blocks, touch the floor with straight legs and maybe even manage to hold the Half-Moon Pose. I want to read the mounting stack of fascinating photography magazines and books that my family keep giving me. I want to update this blog more than once a month.

Strangely, it feels like all of this has piled up on top of my long work days and I just don’t want to do any of it. Do you know how annoying that is? What kind of messed up freak discovers their passion, delves into it in earnest to make it the focus of their life and then turns all apathetic? That’s not how it’s supposed to work!

Yes, I should be losing interest in my day job because it’s stifling and toxic at the moment.

Yes, I should be getting more and more involved in my creative endeavours because they bring me joy and purpose.

No, I should not be coming home from work, glancing guiltily at my yoga mat, To Read pile, computer and camera, getting all anxious about the amount of stuff to do and spending the evening watching Big Bang Theory re-runs. WTF?!

A writer friend asked me if I wanted to join him in doing NaNoWriMo next month. I almost had a panic attack. It’s taken me a whole week to rev myself up enough to write a 500-word blog post. There’s no way I could manage upwards of 1,500 words a day at the moment.

My journey into the forest must have accidentally turned into a dead-end canyon. Filled with clinging brambles. And probably snakes, too. But with a very comfy couch…

On the other hand, I did spend all Sunday putting together a photo book of pictures from one of my most epic vacations, which has been on my To Do list since 2011. And I did spend ten minutes yesterday halfheartedly flailing around on my yoga mat, which is more than I’ve done in a few weeks and I guess counts for something. And, hey–I just wrote a blog post. So maybe this is just a bit of a block that I have to patiently work my way through.

And there’s only six weeks until I go part-time at work. Maybe that extra day a week will make all the difference.

Je suis un arbre

I’m learning French from a groovy little phone app by Babbel as something to do on the train to and from work. What has really struck me during this study are the differences between French and English. Some of them are only small, but I find them all the more jarring because of how similar these two languages are. It’s fascinating how two closely related cultures can develop such different ways of expressing the same thing.

Take numbers for instance. In English we have “two”, “twelve” and “twenty”. Just a glance shows how they relate to each other. The French, on the other hand, have “deux”, “douze” and “vingt”. Not sure what happened with the “twenty” but it’s a very cool word. And when you get to “eight”, “eighteen” and “eighty” it gets even weirder: “huit”, “dix-huit” and “quatre-vingt”. Translated literally they come out as “eight”, “ten-eight” and “four-twenty”. How fascinating and strange is that? Did someone sit down and say to themselves, ‘We’ve got “six”, “sixteen” and “sixty” but, just to shake things up, let’s go for “eight”, “eighteen” and “four-twenty”‘?

Of course, there are entire books written about the inconsistent madness that is the English language.

So why the post on comparative linguistics? Well, it occurred to me that this sort of knowledge is extremely valuable for sci-fi/fantasy writers, like me. We’re constantly looking for ways to make our non-human characters different and otherworldly. As far as language goes, there are three main approaches:

  1. The standard approach seems to be to drop articles and subject-verb agreement, and mix up tenses and maybe some syntax. As long as the author is consistent and doesn’t go too far, it works well. However, it can become annoying for the audience if they’re dealing with it for an entire novel or movie. At you looking am I, Yoda.
  2. Secondly, and sometimes combined with the first approach, authors sprinkle in some made-up words with just enough phonetic similarity to suggest a complete language. There are lots of examples of this but David Eddings’ Tsurani people in his Magician series were the first to come to my mind.
  3. Or they go completely verca*, like Tolkien, and invent entire incredible, beautiful languages–complete with dialects and scripts–from scratch. But let’s just calm down a little because who realistically has the time for that?

The thing is, writers generally end up with characters sounding like English-speaking foreigners.  If you look at Earth’s languages, there are radical differences that exist even between ones as closely related as French and English. Scale that up to non-human cultures and we should be looking at something a lot less recognisable than Yoda’s speech patterns.

Take trees, for example. At some point, everyone has suspected that trees can talk. Especially that time you were by yourself in the woods and night was falling and the feeling that someone was watching you was too strong to ignore. In one of my current stories, trees are going to be minor characters that somehow have to contribute to the story and interact with the protagonist.

But … should these trees really just talk like slow, old men with deep voices who roll their “r’s” excessively? For starters, they don’t really have the necessary vocal equipment. Sure, I could give my talking trees mouths and faces, larynxes and lungs. But then I’ve just got Tolkien’s Ents–some of the fantasy is gone and the audience is not going to be amazed a second time.

So I let my imagination go verca and came up with a couple of way less human methods of communication:

  • The wind–do trees have to wait for the wind to blow in the right direction to speak to their neighbours? If the prevailing wind is from one direction, a tree might ask its neighbour a question and never get a reply.
  • The shape of their branches and the position of their leaves–their conversations span lifetimes and everything they’ve ever said is written into their very shapes and selves.

Now, instead of a clichéd copyright infringement, I have a couple of fascinating ideas that, when done right, could certainly create a powerful sense of other. Of course, it also creates the problem of how to allow my readers to experience a language so far from human understanding. But getting readers to experience something new is what being a writer is all about.

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“Come closer, little human…”

 

 

*Elvish for “wild”–yes, I am a geek.

So many branches

It turns out that visual novels are insanely complicated, ridiculously difficult to track and an impossible amount of work. Who would have thought? After getting all excited I did some research and had a go at planning one. The problem was that every choice became a new branch and potentially a new story. The spreadsheet containing my first attempt quickly got completely out of control, branching and branching until I had more sticks than story.

So, after abandoning that attempt I discovered Twine – an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories. Twine allows you to create a more compact branching spreadsheet by building in ‘if this, then that’ constructions. Not only that, it allows you to assign values to each choice. This means that you can manage the size of the spreadsheet much better. It also gives you much more interesting branches that are based on, for example, how much other characters like your reader character according to the cumulative effect of their decisions.

It’s still really difficult. I haven’t even started anything like actual writing yet. I’m just trying to carve out the major events and choices in each of my story paths. After the initial spreadsheet jungle, I’m limiting myself to 6 or 7 possible paths–which still seems like quite a lot. But, because this is me, I’m complicating things further by having each of the paths interact with the others.

On the positive side, my rational, control-freak self loves keeping track of everything and creating the logic expressions so that the reader’s choices progress sensibly. And my creative, artistic self loves coming up with new and exciting ways to complicate things.  Hopefully, between them, I’ll end up with an interesting visual novel that actually works. In the mean time, I’m having so much fun!

 

Also, did anyone else spot the connection between the ‘into the forest’ theme of this blog and suddenly having to deal with the branches of visual novels? It feels like some kind of sign. Spooky…

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