Research is a Glorious Black Hole

I’m giving a talk on May 1 at UC Irvine and I want discuss the links between immersive theater and larp (live action role-playing). I’ve done some reading in larp — particularly in Nordic larp, as it’s highly theorized — but I realized my background in theater and performance studies was woefully lacking.

What a glorious black hole to sink into.

Have I mentioned before how much I love research? I really love it. The sense of exploration and discovery is magnificent to me. I love libraries because of the browsability of shelves, the happy serendipities of finding fascinating books a few spines away from the one you’re looking for.

Anyway, here’s what I’m reading this April, and it’s nearly all research-focused:

Performance Studies: An Introduction, and Performance Theory, by Richard Schechner.

The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, by Victor Turner et al.

(Syn)aesthetics: Redefining Visceral Performance, by Josephine Machon.

Beyond Immersive Theatre : Aesthetics, Politics and Productive Participation by Adam Alston.

And lots of articles. My talk is called “Towards an Interactive Theater of Resistance: Creating a Space for Rebel Protagonists” and I’m nowhere near close to having written more than an abstract… 


What I Eat

I really love food, and I love cooking.

I love variety… in theory. In practice, I end up making the same things over and over and iterating on them. Does anyone else do this? It’s almost like a game development cycle: I build a prototype, test it, make tweaks, build again. Or try the same structure with a new combination of flavors. Variations on a theme.

(Unfortunately it’s also how I write if left to my own devices which is why writing takes a really long time, as I’m always tweaking and editing as I go.)

Luckily my household partner seems to have a high tolerance for repetition.

Nearly every morning begins with a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal, often simmered the night before, and eaten cold in the summer months with frozen blueberries and a handful of almonds and sometimes, a drip of maple syrup. It’s become such a habit that I can hardly imagine starting a day without it. When I’m traveling, I find myself craving it.

Continue reading What I Eat

What I’m Reading This March

Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History by Rhonda K. Garelick. I’m usually wary of celebrity biographies but this one is great. It’s thoroughly researched and unflinching in its coverage of Chanel’s ties to Nazis and her role as an agent for the Vichy occupation. In the end, however, Chanel remains a shadowy figure and the biographer never really pierces the fashion designer’s armor to show us her inner self.

Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson. My word, this book. I’m not finished with it yet and I’ll update when I do but it is gripping me with iron and fire.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. Just started this. I love history and I love Ancient Rome and I’ve enjoyed Beard’s perspective and approach in a couple of televised series. Really looking forward to diving in. (The audiobook is narrated by the phenomenal Phyllida Nash and it’s excellent.)

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. Almost finished with this. A technically dazzling book, but a few elements of it perturb me. Have to mull it over. Will update after I’m done and have reflected on it a bit.

The Lyra Novels by Patricia C. Wrede. These are like popcorn to me (in the best way!) I can eat a whole bag happily in one sitting. These aren’t sequels, but are all set in the same world and each is very different, but they all share Wrede’s deep world-building, engaging characters, and fast-paced adventures.

The Secret Adversary and Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie. Part of the Tommy and Tuppence mystery series. I’ve always loved the idea of a romantic couple as sleuths (as in the Nick and Nora series!) and as a kid I think I enjoyed the vivacious banter between T+T a lot. But now… it’s hard to read the books without being struck by their sexism, xenophobia, and antisemitism. 

Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story by Ursula K. Le Guin. I blew through this book in an excited rush, because it was so inspiring, without giving it the time it deserves. But that’s all right, because it’s an exercise book. There are a series of craft prompts to try alone or, ideally, with a small writing group, and after my initial speed-read, I’m looking forward to going back and trying them from the beginning. 

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu. A bit cheating of me to put this in here, because I’d already read this collection last fall, but wanted to revisit it as I work on my own short stories. Each piece in here is a gem. He’s so fearless about striking at the emotional core of a problem, even when it’s searingly painful. I also love how often he uses (and remixes) historical settings. He’s a meticulous researcher as well, frequently including footnotes for his source material. Inspiring.

Writing Update: March

It’s spring and a time to refresh and renew. For me, the new year starts now, not in the depths of January when the mornings are still dark and cold. (Not that it ever gets THAT cold where I live, I grant you.)

As I head into a summer of industry, I’m queuing up a number of writing projects to work on, all short stories (although I might toss a novella in there, too.) Short stories are intensely difficult for me but I enjoy the discipline and challenge of limited word count, and I also revel in the uncommon (for me) situation of having completed a piece of writing. (Is it good? No good? Who cares! It’s done! — is sort of my general feeling of relief and satisfaction around that.)

Continue reading Writing Update: March

A Playcentric Approach to Storytelling

My day job is teaching game design. In our program we use a design methodology called playcentric, developed by Tracy Fullerton (and detailed in her excellent book, Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games.) The core idea is the experience of playing the game should guide design decisions.

We often urge students to think about what we call the Player Experience Goal — namely, what’s the experience you want players to have? And we always frame it as a *emotional* experience. What feelings do you want to evoke in the player? We try to get students to articulate it as specifically as possible, avoiding generalities which aren’t helpful in refining a design. So, instead of “joy,” which is too broad, the experience might be defined as “the feeling of returning to a place you loved and finding fresh wonder and joy” which to me would describe my play experience of The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker.

I don’t know why I never thought to apply this methodology to writing fiction! But a lightbulb went off in my head when I watched Pixar’s The Art of Storytelling (via Khan Academy.) The instructors suggested an exercise that’s very similar to one we do with our students: think of a vivid memory, and try to remember how you felt. Then use that as a prompt to construct your story. How can you evoke that feeling in the reader (or listener, or viewer)?

I thought about my favorite short stories and I realized that many of them evoke a nuanced, sometimes subtle, almost always unique feeling with shades of meaning. The short story is powerful because it conjures an emotion that I can understand, that maybe reminds me of something in my life or my experience, and, in the best cases, challenges me to revisit and learn something new about it. My approach to short stories, previously, was too intellectually driven. I thought a lot about systems of symbols and where the climax was and what drove the characters — all very important things, but now I think those need to serve the emotional core of the story.

Anyway, this approach has so far been fruitful! I’ve written two brand-new stories in the last two weeks and I’ve started notes on three others. We’ll see how it goes.

Mary Beard: Women in Power

Watching this now and finding it really interesting.

I’m working on a few stories set in a secondary world where matriarchy is the norm, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what female power looks like — or more specifically, what power divorced entirely from gender looks like, because there are men in power in my world, too (it’s just not as common.)

Back from the Snows

My sister lives in Brooklyn, and so last Friday D and I headed out to visit her and her family. There’s a new two-month-old baby we had to meet, and also we’d missed the winter holidays with them so it seemed like a good time to head out. I miss my sister and miss living in the same city with her.

Although I always start checking the weather report (somewhat obsessively) about a week before we go anyplace, trying to track how it’s trending, and I knew the East Coast was going to be cold, I was unprepared for exactly how cold it would be. I mean, I survived two winters in Boston. I used to dig my car out of the snow every two days for several weeks. It shouldn’t have surprised me.

But it did! As soon as we stepped outside of the airport, I felt that familiar wet cold blast in my face. I feared my nose would get frostbite. And it only got worse! On Tuesday, the day we were supposed to return home, we had our flight cancelled due to a snowstorm. The storm itself wasn’t really that bad, and we spent the day drinking coffee and watching the snow fall outside in between rewatching episodes of House of Cards on Netflix. (By the way the show is, IMO, even better in rewatch. There are marvelously subtle bits of character development that I completely missed the first time around.)

Anyway, we’re back after that adventure. By yesterday, I was finally starting to enjoy the cold and the snow and I remarked cheerfully to D that it’s fun as long as you have the right gear.

(Which, he reminded me sourly, we didn’t. And he was right, of course. My feet got cold and wet in spite of my wool socks.)

Read on the trip: Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History by Rhonda K. Garelick. A wee bit disorganized for my historian-brain, but excellent and very detailed, very well-researched. Unlike some other biographies, author doesn’t flinch from Chanel’s Nazi ties, her elitism, her disgusting anti-Semitism, and her self-serving greed. You get the sense that Garelick has reluctant admiration for the lengths to which Chanel was willing to go to preserve and expand her empire.

Also: The Secret Adversary and Partners in Crime, by Agatha Christie. These are Tommy and Tuppence mysteries. I’ve been on a mystery kick lately and plowed through all of Christie’s Miss Marple series in the last couple of weeks. My parents had every single book of hers so I’m pretty sure I’ve read all of these before as a kid, but as an adult, I’m disturbed at how casually anti-Semitic they are. I know, I know, signs of the times, but still. The Tommy and Tuppence novels are ridiculously xenophobic as well as anti-Semitic. Also, (and this is something I remember from my prior experiences with this series) I find it frustrating that while Tuppence is just as smart and in many ways more daring than her husband Tommy, he’s the one who gets recruited to work for MI6 or whatever and she has to stay home and play housewife. Ugh.

Writing: No writing got done. I didn’t take my laptop with me on this trip for the first time ever? Perhaps? I mean since owning my first laptop (IBM Thinkpad? I think?). However, I did start a bullet journal. I’m still feeling pretty ambivalent about that…

In any case, it’s great to be back in Santa Monica again. The temperature here is 67 degrees and all is well.

New Experiment in Magical Realism Memory

I started writing something and I don’t know where it’s going to go.

I don’t know if you still can, but back when I smoked, you could get these crazy amazing cigarette brands in Japanese convenience stores. Slender peach-flavored cigarettes for young ladies, mellow vanilla for older folks, and my favorite, unflavored, came in a stark white and blue box and it was called Hope.

In 2002 I was twenty-one and when I graduated from college with a near-useless degree in East Asian History, I decided to go live in Japan. The United States felt like the twilight of the republic, honestly. No one I knew had a stable job in the post-9/11, post-dotcom twilight. A man whose moniker was a single initial was our president. W. W stood for who, what, where, when, and most confusingly of all, why.

I think it’s sort of a magical realism memoir kind of thing? I started thinking about my mother and the time I went to visit her in Gifu and this started pouring out. Sometimes when that happens you have to just follow the path to see where it’s going to go…

What I’m Reading This February

The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt. Slow going, because of density as well as subject matter. But illuminating.

The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood. A series of loosely linked, semi-autobiographical stories about the author’s time in Berlin in the 1930’s. At times funny, at times poignant, never sentimental or romanticized.

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro. This is a reread. One of my favorite short story collections. Every story is like a punch in the gut (in a good way) and full of such complex emotions.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Another reread, but it’s been at least a decade since I read it, so I’d forgotten a lot of it. I love the ambiguous ending. I don’t love that race is not discussed at all, because Gilead seems like the kind of place that would absolutely reinforce white supremacy, and I wish Atwood had acknowledged that. Without it, the story feels thin and underdeveloped.

Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault. I don’t know why I’m having so much trouble getting into this. When I first discovered Renault, years ago, I loved her writing. I devoured The Bull from the Sea, her novel about Theseus. But somehow the Alexander novels are more challenging for me. It’s going slowly.

The Petrified Flesh by Cornelia Funke. I grabbed this because I absolutely loved Inkheart. I finished Petrified quickly but I have to say, it was disappointing. The first chapter is essentially a prologue that I think is unnecessarily confusing, and the protagonist is too superhero — he’s the best at everything he does, which becomes rather tiresome. One of the things I loved about Inkheart is that the protagonist is a young girl at a great disadvantage — she’s young, she’s powerless, she’s lost — but is able to step up and be brave. By contrast the protagonist of Petrified is a swaggering, unbelievably accomplished young man.


My Year of Not Buying Things

After D and I bought a home here in SoCal, we suddenly became intensely aware of how much we were spending. It kept us in a mild state of panic as we looked at the bills and wondered how on earth we could possibly have spent THAT much. There are always things one needs, of course: the car has to be repaired, we needed an office chair, I needed to replace my sluggish old laptop. But it’s my firm belief that it’s the every day things that you don’t really need that get you. Because each purchase seems so small, insignificant, really, you stop tracking them. You begin to practice a sort of deliberate forgetfulness around the fact that, for example, you go out for coffee every morning ($7 a day, which is $210 a month – more than our cell phone bills combined).

We also moved into a small condo, which meant that we had to curate our possessions. And we ruthlessly shed things, but we still wound up with a storage space that we pay for, every month.

So I decided that I would stop buying things. Continue reading My Year of Not Buying Things