Category Archives: Essays

Short and longform explorations of interesting ideas.

There’s a great gamer novel to be written. Ready Player One isn’t it

 

There have been many great American novels. The Grapes of Wrath. The Great Gatsby. Underworld. The idea, at this point in literary history, has become a kind of self referential in joke. The great American novel is what young, over-intense MFA students yearn to write. But it’s still useful as an indicator of what we turn to the novel for – the truth.

Or, falling short of that lofty goal, an at least partially accurate insight into reality.

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Ready Player One is not a novel anyone will ever turn to for insight into reality. It’s an escapist fantasy in the very lowest definition of the term. A story that doesn’t just create a fantasy world for its readers to slip into, but idolises the entire project of escaping into fantasy. Total immersion in fantasy isn’t just central to the world of Ready Player One, it’s how that world is saved.

Which is really a shame. Because if there is one sub-culture in the strange ecosystem of early 21st life that really deserves the insight of a great novel, it’s gamers.

Not simply because games are popular. In the casual sense everyone is a gamer now. Candy Crush seems to have more players than the extant population of the planet. But because within that culture spanning identity are a subset of people who are, in a far more intense sense, GAMERS.

“If I sound like a superior snobby a*hole about the negative effects of video games, it’s only because I’ve been there.”

I’ve been both. These days I play a few games of online chess a week. Like an alcoholic in recovery, I know my limits. Almost twenty years ago I was, for a short period, the world champion of a browser based strategy game called Stellar Crisis, a task that ate hundreds of hours I should have been spending on undergraduate studies. Three years later, a few days into a Counter Strike binge that would stretch over eight weeks, that would incite lower back problems I still suffer with today because of eighteen hour gameplay sessions, I was fired for no showing at my (admittedly crappy) job.

If I sound like a superior snobby a*hole about the negative effects of video games, it’s only because I’ve been there.

We live in a mass society. The world population, in my lifetime, has gone from 4 billion, to 7.6 billion people. The old world where, for better or worse, we all knew our place, within a community, nation and culture, is long gone. Now there are billions of us living in vast megacities whose only sense of identity comes from the media. From the tv shows we watch, and the video games we play.

“Gamers, whether they can see it or not, are the world’s underclass.”

Gaming, I think, is at the heart of this crisis of identity. We find in games an identity we can adopt  for a time. We find belonging and community in MMORPGs that we may never find in the world. We find status and, for the rare pro players, even wealth. And as global population rockets off towards 12 billion, we’re going to find ourselves in a world where billions of people live realer lives in games than in reality.

Which is a really fucking huge problem. Because gamers, whether they can see it or not, are the world’s underclass. It’s not the 1% of billionaires or the creative / professional class living vicariously in video games. Because those people get to live out their fantasies for real. No, gamer culture, with few exceptions, is the escape valve for people trapped in low pay service jobs.

Now THIS is a reality that needs a great novel writing about it. Gamer culture needs a Charles Dickens or a Victor Hugo, not an Ernest Cline. The drama of lives lived in poverty, serving coffee to your tech bros overlords, then “escaping” into the fantasy worlds of video games (made by the same tech bros) between shifts. And with no hope of this leading to a saviour-of-the-world conclusion. No, this is your life, a hero in games, but in reality, a servant.

The great gamer novel is yet to be written.

But damn do we need it.

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How did Billions become the best show on tv?

With its stark insight into the financial world of post 2008, Billions is a Great Gatsby for our age.

Tv shows do what they say in the title. Friends is a show about friends. Star Trek is a show about a trek through the stars, and Breaking Bad is a show about a man breaking to bad. Billions is a show about Billionaires. But it’s also a show about the society that gives rise to billionaires, a global society of seven billion people and rising – the society of here and now.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that Billions is a Great Gatsby for our times.”

There’s no missing the genetic fingerprint of HBOs prestige tv format in Showtimes production of Billions. Headline star Damian Lewis is no stranger to that format, having fronted Band of Brothers, the show that pioneered the 10 hour tv serial, and Homeland, a show that pushed the cutting edge of what that format was willing to say politically and socially.

Billions co-creator Andrew Ross Sorkin, a former columnist covering the New York financial world, culls real life events gathered over his career to provide flesh for Billions writers to feast on. The world post the 2008 financial crash, in which billionaires have gathered more wealth and power than at any time since the “gilded age” of the 1900s, is the world that Billions catalogues. It’s no exaggeration to say that Billions is a Great Gatsby for our times.

 

Billions is the most sophisticated example of “relationship driven” storytelling to yet hook binge-watching tv audiences.

Bobby “Axe” Axelrod stands as the billionaire founder of Axe Capital, surrounded by obsequious yes-men and ambitious traders, friends from his working class neighborhood who turn to Axe for favors, and wife Lara, queen to Axe’s king, who acts behind the scenes to aid her husband. Every character who relates to Axe is a courtier, and like a king of old, Axe holds in his grip the fortunes and status of everyone he controls.

Chuck Rhoades is a powerful public servant, a US District Atorney with authority over the financial district of New York. He is backed up by a team of conscientious assisstant DAs and dedicated FBI officers, all with an eye for their next promotion. Rhoades father is a rich investor, who secretly acts on his son’s behalf. Every character who relates to Rhoades is a player in a power hierarchy, within which Rhoades holds a high but not supreme position.

The key to understanding how the HBO television format hooks such intense attention from audiences — what else today do we give ten or twelve solid hours of our time to? — is to understand how the story is driven by its relationships. Every successful prestige format show of recent years uses the same technique, establishing a network of relationships that shift and evolve over time.

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Pick almost any scene in any episode of Billions, and you will find that the main action of the scene is a shift in the relationship between two or more characters present on screen. Lara losing confidence in her husband Axe. Chuck slyly dominating his idealistic assistant Bryan Connerty. The broiling jealousy of yes-man Wags to any threat to his status. And of course the love triangle between Axe, Chuck and the show’s lead female character Wendy Rhoades. We’ll come back to her pivotal role.

The relationship driven story certainly isn’t new. Playwrights have consciously worked with relationship networks since at least the 15thC and the Commedia dell’Arte of Venice, which, just like Billions, used relationship driven structures to critique and satirise the rich and powerful of the day. Shakespeare learned these techniques, and some of today’s best screenwriters, most notably Aaron Sorkin (no relation to Andrew Ross), borrow directly from the Commedia dell’Arte for shows like The Newsroom.

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The relationships between stock characters in the traditional Comedia dell-Arte.

Billions borrows a trick directly from the Comedia dell’Arte playbook. To manage the potential complexity of relationships between almost two dozen main characters, Billions limits its relationships to those that connect directly to its two central characters, Chuck Rhoades and Bobby Axelrod. This creates two opposing character nets, with Axe and Chuck at the centre of each, their orbiting characters only relating to each other in very carefully orchestrated breakout scenes.

The exception to this rule is Wendy Rhoades, wife to Chuck and therapist to Axe. Wendy is free to interact with any other character in the show, and it’s the shifting status of her relationships that, more than any other factor, drives the narrative engine of Billions. Wendy Rhoades is a “Columbina” character, the central figure of Comedia dell’Arte, whose presence allows the story to move freely through the social hierarchies it satirises.

Billions artful construction serves a razor sharp political purpose.
The conflict between prosecutor Chuck Rhoades and billionaire Bobby Axelrod is Billions central relationship. In the 12 hours screen time of Billions first season, Chuck and Axe share only four scenes together, each made electrifying by the stand out performances of Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti.

1_x6mRte6SI2Y1Hj3F4dRCkwBillion’s writers manage a hard narrative tricks in this relationship. Bobby and Chuck are dual protagonists, and each is antagonist to the other. The writers consistently hold our sympathies at a mid-point between the two men. Both are hugely intelligent and morally upstanding, but also hugely flawed and willing to violate their morals to win. It’s the irony that Chuck and Axe would, in better circumstances, be friends, that makes their conflict so powerful.

“Will the idealism of Millennials ultimately transform into the same corruption as their Baby Boomer grandparents?”

This central conflict also embodies Billions core theme, which is expressed openly in the climatic season 1 showdown between Chuck and Axe. Chuck calls Axe on a simple truth, he’s a criminal, profiting by breaking the law. Axe snaps back, Chuck is a leach, sucking from tax payer money. The personal conflict at the heart of Billions mirrors the political conflict splitting our society today. Public good vs private freedom. State vs enterprise. Left vs right. Red vs blue. Your side in this conflict will likely determine whether you empathise with Axe or Chuck.

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Asia Kate Dillon as Taylor Mason.

But Billions isn’t satisfied with being simply political. It wants to get to the heart of the personal conflicts that drive political strife. Season 2 introduces Taylor Mason, played brilliantly by Asia Kate Dillion. Taylor personifies the Millennial generation, a gender neutral digital native with huge insight into the light speed information flows that power the modern world. Taylor is hugely valuable to Axe, but we might expect the high morality of today’s Millennial generation to reject the rapacious world of the hedge-fund out of hand.

Instead, a much more complex picture of today’s Millenial is shown. Taylor is quickly seduced by the world of Axe Capital. But it’s not the allure of money, or the addictive quality of power, that lures Taylor in. The season 2 finale hits us with a final scene between Taylor and an idealistic assisstant DA, who thinks he can challenge the younger person on matters of morality.


Taylor is driven by the highest of all human drives, towards self fulfillment, towards experience over possession, and to creativity over all. All the drives that define the Millennial generation. It’s not entirely coincidence that Taylor Mason so closely resembles, in both ideals and appearance, the young heroes who emerged from the Stoneman Douglas school shooting.

But Billions season 2 leaves us with a disturbing final note. From the highest motivations, Taylor is nonetheless drawn towards the criminal, and the world of high finance that creates billions of victims globally. Will the idealism of Millennials ultimately transform into the same corruption as their Baby Boomer grandparents? It’s asking these kind of questions, through the structures of high drama, that makes Billions the best show on tv.

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How does M John Harrison enter a story?

M John Harrison is one of the all time greats, a “science fiction writer’s science fiction writer”, a creator of weird tales in the horror tradition, and a powerful weaver of fantasy. The Viriconium stories defined political fantasy in the 80’s, as the Light trilogy redefined literary SF in the 00s. As editor of New Worlds he was integral to the new wave of SF alongside authors like J G Ballard and Michael Moorcock.

He’s also out and out the most skilled storyteller working between genres today. In this video essay I take a deep-dive into Harrison’s recent short story collection to answer the question, how does Mike Harrison enter a story?

Read the short story collection You Should Come With Me Now: http://amzn.to/2FRLWT0

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Is there any such thing as Geek Culture?

There is no end, it seems, to the impotent outrage of geek dudes who feel hard done by because scifi films no longer exclusively feature geeky white dude protagonists. Here’s the latest dumb s*&t from those guys:

So, no. Of course, Ready Player One is not the “geek Black Panther” and I spend all of five minutes taking that idea apart in my video response.

 

Geek Non-Culture

We use the term “geek culture” as a shorthand, it’s useful in as far as it indicates the nexus of scifi movies, genre tv and books, comics, RPGs, video games and various other geeky shit.

“Ready Player One is basically a massive advertisement for corporate brands.”

But we might be better off calling it “geek non-culture”. Geek isn’t a cultural identity. It’s where many people end up because they no longer have a cultural identity, and instead fill that void with products that were mass marketed to them in the 80s and 90s.

Many of us today construct a cultural identity from a cross section typically featuring things like D&D, WWF wrestlers, superheroes and Staurday morning kids cartoons. The stuff we grew up with, on tv and in advertising.

This stuff is more than an entertaining distraction for many “geeks”. For millions of people who grew up in vacant suburbs, ghostly dormitory towns, and mass society of the 50s onwards, geek culture has become their surrogate culture.

I’m not here to kick that coping strategy in the nuts. It’s ok to do this. But it’s really important to recognise that these things we’ve formed an intense emotional attachment to don’t belong to us, or to the “geek” community. They belong to a handful of multinational corporations – and soon will all belong to Disney – who milk them for every cent they are worth.

Ready Player One is basically a massive advertisement for corporate brands. Turning up for the new Spielberg movie is like paying $30 to have McDonalds and Nike advertisements shoved down your throat, except the brands in question are slightly smarter about hiding away in “beloved” video games and kids cartoons.

 

We can rebuild you, Geek Culture.

A movie like Black Panther isn’t just important because it comes from a black creative team. It’s also part of a powerful movement to reclaim these corporate owned icons for the communities who value them. The recent Star Wars movies, Ghostbusters reboot and franchises like Doctor Who are all being powerfully influenced by the geek community.

Geeks have forcefully determined that the cultural product made for us should reflect who we really are – which is an epicly diverse assortment of people from all around the globe. Contrast that to the era of “geek culture” through the 00s and 90s, as celebrated in Ready Player One, when geeks were depicted exclusively as young white men, because the media corporations decided this yielded the greatest profit margins.

I don’t believe there was any such thing as Geek Culture…until very recently. We the geeks, people of all kinds, are MAKING geek culture. We’re making it by pressuring big media corps into making diverse content. We’re making it by supporting the creators we love on Kickstarters and Patreon. And we’re making it by having a real critical discussion about our culture, and what we want it to represent

Some people, mostly alienated young white men, hate that this critical discussion is happening. So, we end up with nonsense like Gamergate and the Sad Puppies. But let’s be clear. Black Panther and Star Wars are far, far more representative of geek culture today than Ready Player One, which in 2018 feels exactly like what it is – a relic. If any movie is the geek Black Panther…it’s Black Panther.

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Diagram of Geek Culture by Julianna Brion. http://juliannabrion.tumblr.com

The 4 skills of the Full Stack writer

A stack of 4 core skills are key to success as a freelance writer. Mastering them unlocks huge opportunities.

I landed my first paid writing gig when I was 14. I had a paper route, and one day the local Indian restaurant invited me in, made me a chai tea, and asked how to get a leaflet into the newspaper. In the end I wrote the leaflet, got it printed, and distributed. I think I made £50 on the deal. Or, about 17 weeks of delivering newspapers!

“The internet is full of words. They all have to be written by somebody.”

Fast forward two and a half decades, and I’ve been making a professional living as a writer for most of that time. I’ve written for The Guardian, BBC, Wired, The Independent, Buzzfeed, Aeon magazine and freelanced for major London ad agencies. I’ve published dozens of short stories, won Arts Council grants for fiction writing, lectured at a half dozen universities, published research with Oxford University Press, and studied with Neil Gaiman at the Clarion writers workshop. But that all grew from writing ad-copy for a leaflet.

Over the course of my pro career I’ve seen the writing industries transformed by technology. The internet is full of words. They all have to be written by somebody. And when I have a lot of deadlines, it sometimes feels like I’m writing them all! Businesses all over the world have a huge hunger for words, which has created whole new areas of work for writers. Right now I have clients in Bangalore, Idaho, Paris, Cornwall, Singapore and Shenzen. And this is a quiet month!

The gig economy, and freelance sites like Fiverr, have opened up a global marketplace for writing services. At the time of writing I am in the top 5 “Pro Writers” on Fiverr, and in the top one or two percent of writers by hourly earnings. The clients I have worked with via sites like Fiverr include Blue Chip corporations, tiny mom & pop businesses, famed entrepreneurs and hard working YouTube celebrities. The task of finding new clients, once a major problem for creative freelancers, is made easy by Fiverr.

The most expensive content is the content that nobody reads.

The recent Payoneer report into freelance earnings recorded an average income of $19 per hour for writers. But that average disguises a gulf in earnings between two very different groups of writers.

Read more.

Stop using guns as a symbol of personal empowerment

We don’t like guns because we like guns. But we DO like guns. Gun manufacturers don’t make $billions every year selling guns to farmers or even armies. The AR-15, America’s bestselling gun, is a sexy-as-hell consumer item. Like a lethal steel iPhone but significantly less useful.

I appreciate the vocal efforts of Hollywood A-listers campaigning for better gun laws. But it won’t mean much as long as Hollywood keeps churning out the high production value advertisements for firearms it calls “action movies”. Matt Damon wants you to do as he says when he says ban guns, not do as he does in a career based on shooting guns while looking super cool.

And super empowered.

I went on a mini-rant about guns-as-power-symbols over at my friend Ahimsa Kerp’s blog.

“Most guns, and basically all swords, only exist to kill people. Only a psychopath believes that killing people makes the killer powerful. And yet in stories we present guns and swords as symbols of personal empowerment, that heroes use to fight their way to self-realization. This is so pervasive, most people actually believe it. Imagine if we stopped using guns and swords as this symbol, and started using books instead? That would be closer to reality.”
–Damien Walter

I hate to break it to the middle aged dad-bods out there, but none of you will ever fight your way up 80 storeys of Nakatomi tower while shooting baddies to rescue your wife from Alan Rickman and save your marriage. You are, literally, 82 million times more likely to save your marriage by reading insightful books than by buying a Desert Eagle .45

And yet, from 24 to Taken, we watch the strange modern day ceremony of average middle aged men shooting their way to personal empowerment. And it’s not just the dudes. You can barely walk into a cinema or switch on a tv today without finding somebody liberating their inner agency by blowing somebody elses head off with a gun.

You could make this symbol ANYTHING. If our media churned out thousands of hours of entertainment a year in which average dudes found personal empowerment through the symbolic device of a monkey wrench, then average dudes all over America would manifest a fetisistic relationship to wrenches. They might even go around hitting people with their wrenches, but with a thankfully lower death toll than today’s sickening gun massacres.

People are impressionable. In the 1920s, an entire generation of women were persuaded that cigarettes, of all things, were symbols of personal empowerment, through a cleverly orchestarted marketing campaign arranged by Edward Bernays, father of “public relations” IE legitimised propoganda.

I doubt any Hollywood movie makers will see this blog post (but share it widely to increase the chances). However, you’ve heard the message here, and the chances are, you’re a storyteller. YOU can help change this situation, by using your gifts to NOT replicate the lazy, lethal story archetypes, that lead us to see the gun as a heroic symbol, rather than WHAT IT REALLY IS – a nauseating symptom of deep social sickness.

Replace the gun in your story with a book.

Or maybe a wrench.

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What does a nomad writer pack for 4 years on the road?

Hello! My name is Damien Walter, and I am the nomad writer.

I’ve been travelling since November 2013, across Thailand, India, Malaysia and Indonesia. I’m a slow traveller, staying at least two months wherever I go. My main base of operations is Chiang Mai, the “digital nomad” capital of the world.

Read Slouching Toward Nimmanhaemin: Digital Nomads are a 21st Century Counter Culture.

My travels are entirely funded by my work as a writer. I make words for The Guardian, BBC, Wired, Independent, Buzzfeed, Aeon and quite a few more. I’m a pro blogger / copywriter / wordsmith for more businesses and brands than I care to recall at this time. And I self publish under a few names that, nope, I am absolutely not telling you here!

I also teach writing. My course The Rhetoric of Story is a Udemy bestseller. Before escaping to travel I was director of the certificate in creative writing at University of Leicester, with research published by Oxford University Press and Cambridge. I spent a decade leading workshops and literacy projects as a community worker in Leicester, UK.

So, what does a nomad writer pack for the road? To mark four years of nomadic living, I’m going to show you everything I travel with. And, SPOILER ALERT, it’s much less than you might expect! I am a committed minimalist in nearly all things, especially travel. This level of minimalism, like my nomadic lifestyle as a whole, are only possible because of technoloy and the internet.

Follow all my nomad writer adventures, read all my stories, and get all my courses as a patron. $1 is great, most of my patrons give under $5.

You can find me on Twitter @damiengwalter or on YouTube where I will soon be beginning a new vlog series.

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So. Going from right to left, in a kind of up-down zig zag…

My backpack is a TT Carry-On 40 from Lowe Alpine. Now discontinued, but you can find similar alternatives. To keep travelling simple and cheap, I limit myself to a single backpack that I can carry on to international flights for no extra baggage fee, then walk out the other end without waiting for the carousel. I find 40 litres to be more than enough for my few posessions.

Camphor soap and mosquito spray. The downside of life in Asia are mosquitos and the dengue fever epidemic that they spread. Mosquito spray is always useful, and I buy these little bars of camphor soap wherever I find them because they smell amazing! Actually, the best way to avoid mosquito bites is avoid dusk times 4pm to 7pm when they are most active, so that’s my daily exercise time.

Creative Cards! I use index cards as part of my writing process. I went so far as to launch a kickstarter for deluxe index cards in early 2017, and had this prototype made. The kickstarter failed, but I got a really cool box for my cards.

Tarot Cards. I’ve been travelling with this pack of medium size atarot cards, the classic designs by Pamela Coleman-Smith, since 2011, bought during a three weak stay at Ocean Beach, San Diego. I do occaisional tarot readings for good friends and patrons. (Please don’t call this the Rider-Waite deck. A E Waite basically stole these designs from their true creator.)

Merrell Trail Glove running shoes. Running is, for me, the natural brother to writing. I run most days, although by last year I had lost so much weight that I replaced some runs with yoga or weights. Barefoot shoes are by far my favorite, giving a much closer relationship to the road or trail. They’re also hard to come by in Asia, so I do also have a pair of Adidas, as these old Merrell’s are on their last legs :(

Samsung A7 2015 model purchased in New Delhi for around $180 unlocked. I’d been travelling with an iPhone 4 until buying the A7, so it was a major upgrade at the time. It’s due an upgrade itself now, but I’m waiting for a good dual-camera phone that I can integrate into my workflow for video.

Kindle Voyage. My latest purchse, and an upgrade from my previous Kobo. Reading is a huge part of professional and personal life. It would simply be impossible for me to travel as I do now before the rise ebooks. The Voyage is a really great ereader, although this is probably the world’s most expensive model as I had to puy THREE sets of import taxes to get it to me in Thailand.

Samsung Galaxy Tab-A with S-Pen + Microsoft Foldable Keyboard + plastic stand. This is my main workhorse writing rig for the last year or so. It’s two main advantages over a laptop are a genuine all day battery life, and the S-Pen which lets me handwrite on the screen, both killer features. The Microsoft keyboard is superb, but I actually quite often write using the touchscreen. I’m a convert to tablets, and will likely upgrade this rig with a iPad Pro 10.5 as my next purchase.

Thule Stravan 13″ Macbook shoulder bag. So. Look. I have what I have to describe as a shoulder bag fetish. I spent YEARS searching for the perfect shoulder bag. And the Thule is it. It’s like somebody read my mind for every possible use case I might have, and covered them ALL. It’s also cheap, you can find them under $30 if you look around. Dear Thule…do NOT stop making these!

Mid-2011 11″ Macbook Air. These things are the workhorse of digital nomad’s everywhere. Go into a cafe in Chiang Mai, Berlin, Oaxaca or basically anywhere with mobile workers, you will see these everywhere. They’re lightweight, mobile and remarkably tough. My Macbook has fallen down flights of stars, tumbled onto concrete and had water and coffee thrown over it. In 2015 the Indian heat swelled the Macbook’s battery up into a giant chemical tumour. First the keys started to pop off, then the aluminum casing ballooned into a rugby ball shape. I was in the himalayan hill station of Dharamsala, so it stayed that way for three whole months. When I eventually installed a replacement battery in Thailand, the case popped back into shape and I’ve been using it as normal ever since! Today I only really use it for video editing. It’s perfectly capable of rendering 1080p 60f video in reasonable times. If you’re going nomad, I still think this should be your first piece of kit. But, I suspect I will finally retire my Macbook Air when I switch to an iPad Pro.

Macbook Charger. These bastard things are the weakness of the Macbook. I’ve had to replace this FIVE times in four years. They’re heavy, relative to the thing they charge. I’m looking forward to an entirely USB-c future withought bulky chargers.

Terrorist Scarf. So, if you’ve ever seen a Hollywood movie with a racist depiction of terrorists as the baddies, they will be wearing this kind of scarf. You can pick up one of these for almost nothing in any traveller district of the world. And they are SUPER useful. Worn around the neck you can use this as a face mask against dust. Unfolded it will protect against bright sun or gentle rain. Spray the scarf with mozzy spray and sleep under it if you are sharing a room with bitey insects. Stuck without a towel? This will do the job. Douglas Adams was wrong, a towel is actually a heavy, useless travel item, but a light scarf is essential. WARNING: do not wear your terrorist scarf through security checks…

Patterned Tablet Sleeve. Not an essentail item, but a light weight tablet sleeve is a fine day-carry that you can keep your essentials in if you are cafe hopping. This one is a handsome hand made fabric, but for the life of me I can’t find the maker.

Notebook(s). At one point I was travelling with 4kg of paper notebooks. I have to handwrite, it’s part of my writing process, especially for stories. I also love buying notebooks, so I really have to restrain myself! I now handwrite on my tablet, but always have at least one paper notebook as well.

Lamy Safari Fountain Pen. These are the best pens, bar none. Ink cartridges can be hard to find, so I stock up whenver I do.

Uni Kuru Toga mechanical pencil. These are the best pencils, bar none.

Tin Cup. I drink herbal teas based on nice ingredients from wherever I travel, with fresh cut ginger and lime as my default. I like to have a nice big cup to brew in. This one holds about half a litre!

The photo at the top of this piece is taken on my new camera, a Canon 200d, the lightest dslr you can buy and, as I’ll explore in a seperate feature, the best vlogging camera ever made. But for four years before that I travelled with this Sony Nex F3 mirrorless, itself a very good camera. I’ve published hours of video shot with this, and sold hundreds of photos for features and stock taken with it. Don’t believe anybody who tells you that a smartphone camera can match a dslr or mirrorless. It’s nonsense. For professional use they don’t come close.

Rode Videomicro. Getting good audio is the hardest challenge in vlogging / solo filmmaking. This tiny beast, here pictured with its dead cat windsock, makes it much easier. It’s a tiny, surprisingly good shotgun mic that is powered from the camera, so no batteries needed.

Baby Taylor 3/4 acoustic guitar. I really only do three things in life. Writing / storytelling. Running. And singing / playing guitar. I travelled with cheap guitars for three years, that were abandoned / destroyed in various situations. Last year I stole my brother’s Baby Taylor (actually exchanged for my old Faith Saturn) and now pay extra to ship it when I move, in total violation of my carry-on philosophy!

Things not pictured – various essential documents like passport, bank cards etc. USB cables etc. Clothing…I have some shorts, tees, shirts, 2x jeans, sandals. That’s it.

Things I don’t travel with – Asia is the land of cheap gadgets, so I end up buying things like bluetooth speakers over and over again. It’s actually cheaper to buy a new camera tripod than pay to transport them.

If you have questions about nomad writer life, drop them in the comments below.

Patron support helps me give free stuff to the world, and frees me up from paying gigs to tell more interesting stories. A dollar a month is great.

Read Slouching Toward Nimmanhaemin: Digital Nomads are a 21st Century Counter Culture.

Join my online course, The Rhetoric of Story. Course code STORYTEN.

One very useful thing to know about depression

Through the month of September 2017 I fought a small scale conflict, against an army of negative thoughts and emotions that had claimed the territory of my mind. I recognised this mental state well. It was what we commonly call depression.

To win this fight, I needed strategies. I went back and reviewed the best thinking on depression that I have found over the years. And with that work under my belt, I want to share one insight into depression that I find very useful to know.

Like many people who experience childhood depression, it began for me with a parent. My mother had all the symptoms of severe depression, and in my early teens I experienced severe depressive episodes. I went from an A student to a school dropout, and by age eighteen I was was living alone, working minimum wage jobs, struggling with drug addiction, and caught in a trap of poverty and zero self esteem.

The path out of the place was long and tough. It involved many insights and changes, too many to talk about here. By 30 my life had improved a lot. I had returned to my life’s passion – writing. A stroke of good fortune had sent me to America for a summer writer’s workshop. I enjoyed the experience hugely. One morning I woke up to the bright San Diego summer, looked into the mirror and thought.

This is what it’s like to not be depressed.

My second thought was…I will not go back to being depressed again.

I had many more life changes ahead of me to make good on that promise to myself. But, with some lapses, it’s a promise I have kept. I just turned 40, and for almost all of the last decade, I have been depression free. When I have had minor relapses, as occured last month, I’ve been able to go back to the ideas that helped end my depression. And in particular, one idea that I want to share with you.

“Once we recognise the state of depression, the next step is to understand it.”

Depression is a subtle and complex opponent, with many causes. But the experience of depression is quite consistent. The mind falls into a negative state, it becomes hard to see anything positive in life, and an overwhelming feeling of “depression” permeates all of our experiences. Depression, while it may be a slightly vague word, is about the best term we have for this state.

It’s my personal belief that many people, perhaps even a majority of people, live with depression without ever recognising it. Many people self medicate their depression with alcohol, or over eating, or other coping strategies. Others angrily deny that depression even exists. These people, in my experience, are victims of the worst forms of all engulfing depression.

So, a happy thought for those people honestly and openly talking about depression…you are ahead of the game. You recognise the problem. However severe your depression is, once you see it, you have everything you need to escape it.

Almost. Once we recognise the state of depression, the next step is to understand it. I did a lot of reading to try and understand the causes of my own depression. I found compelling arguments for the physical causes of depression. And I found equally compelling arguments for the psychological causes. Both are useful. Then I found one idea that, for me, pinned together both – physical and psychological – into a unified model of depression. That’s the idea I want to talk about.

Among the most established treatments for depression is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is a solution for many people. But it is also controversial. CBT trains people to examine their thought patterns, and to change or stop negative thoughts that might cause depression. I’ve never done CBT. I know some people swear by it. I know for others its ineffective, and can sound like a kind of “brainwashing”.

One issue with CBT is relapse. People often experience a cessation of depressive symptoms, then some weeks or months later, the depression returns. In an attempt to tackle this issue, a scientific study was conducted into combining CBT with Buddhist “mindfulness”, also an established treatment for depression. The approach proved successful, and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy or MBCT is now a widespread treatment.

This post is not an advertisement for either CBT or MBCT. I have done neither. It’s also not an argument for Buddhism, mindfulness, or meditation as the solution to depression. I am a Buddhist practitioner, but I don’t believe it’s a path for everybody. Instead, this is about one idea, that I first encountered when reading about Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, that I believe is very useful in understanding depression.

Anti-depressant drugs are the most widely used treatment for depression. They work, in many cases. I have never used them, but I am absolutely not here to argue against their use. Anti-depressants work by replenishing chemicals in your body and brain which, when their levels drop to low levels, seem to be associated with the depressive state. Topping up those levels can provide some level of relief from depression.

There is an ongoing debate about whether depression is caused by the negative thought patterns that CBT treats, or by the chemical imbalances that anti-depressants treat. The research into Mindfulness and CBT revealed a third possibility, that I find most useful. It’s the idea I’ve been working toward. It’s a little hard to explain, not because it’s complex, but because it doesn’t quite fit with how we think about thinking. In a single word the idea is.

Rumination.

Imagine a motor car, left switched on, with its engine running. With enough petrol the engine will run indefinitely. That is until it burns through its supply of oil. With the oil gone, the pistons and other moving parts in the engine begin to grind against each other. When that happens, the engine quickly starts to damage itself, becoming less efficient, and finally breaking down.

On the chemical level, your brain ia a little like this car engine. Your brain has chemicals that work a bit like oil, easing the connections between brain cells. In normal operation your brain can produce these chemicals at much the same rate it burns them. But when you start thinking really hard, you burn these chemicals at a faster rate than you produce them.

This is one reason why intellectual effort is literally tiring. As you exert your brain, these chemicals burn out, and thinking gets harder. Eventually, you have to stop thinking so hard and do something that uses little or no brain power, like watching Game of Thrones. Of course your brain is still doing things, even when you sleep, but at a sustainable level.

The real problems begin when your brain enters a state in which it can’t or won’t stop thinking too hard. One example are states of high anxiety. If you’re really worried about, say, a trip to the dentist, your brain can just kick into a high gear that you can’t switch off with an episode of Star Trek. We’ve all been there, and it can be awful. High anxiety can incite periods of depression. But usually these states are temporary, and the depression often passes with them.

A more dangerous situation arises when the brain begins to obsessively think about an issue on the unconscious level. Maybe there is a difficult situation at work. Consciously, you think about it now and again. But unconsciously, your brain is chewing it over all the time. And it’s burning brain oil* in the process. One name for this persistent, often unconscious thinking, is rumination.

* not actual brain oil, metaphorical brain oil

Rumination has many forms. We ruminate on short term problems. We ruminate on childhood traumas. We ruminate on imagined futures. You name it, your brain has a habit of ruminating on it. Sometimes rumination is conscious. You know you are doing it, but you just can’t seem to stop. Distraction doesn’t work, your mind carries on ruminating behind the scenes. Even when we sleep, the rumination just carries on.

Rumination places your brain into a state of overwork. Hours, days, weeks even months in this state use up the brain’s resources, and it begins to degrade. Like a dysfunctional app on your laptop or smartphone, a ruminative process can eat up all of your brain’s processing power and destroy its chemical balance, leaving you tired, unfocussed…and depressed.

Rumination opens up a different, and I believe very useful, way of understanding depression. Negative thought patterns and chemical imbalance aren’t sole root causes of depression, they are parts of a depressive cycle of which rumination is also a key driver. It’s not what you think that’s the issue, it’s the sheer repetitive length of time you spend thinking it.

Rumination overworks your brain, this depletes important chemicals, without which your brain functions poorly, which create negative thoughts, which you then ruminate on, which overworks your brain, which…creates the negative feedback loop that makes depression so very dangerous.

Rumination is the idea I find very useful to know about depression. It is not in itself a solution to depression. But many of the recognised treatments for depression intervene in the cycle that rumination causes.

  • Anti-depressants replace the chemicals that rumination depletes, but they don’t stop the processes depleteing them.
  • CBT and talking therapies unpick the negative thoughts that we ruminate on, but rumination will always find a new focus.
  • Sleep slows rumination and gives the brain time to recoup, but rumination can keep going even when we sleep.
  • A piece of cake, a pint of beer, a shot of heroin, provide a pleasure hit that can disrupt rumination, but it often comes back.
  • Distractions like a good book or video game session can push rumination aside but it can, again, keep going in the background.
  • Solving the problem that you are ruminating on helps, but a brain trained to ruminate will likely find another fixation to continue ruminating on.

If we can reduce the rumination itself, all of these treatments become much more effective.

I do not present rumination as equally useful for everyone. We all have our own ways of conceptualising the world, and rumination will not fit the model that everybody works with. But. If you do find the idea useful, I think there are two ways that it can help reframe depression in useful ways.

First. You do not have to stop having negative thoughts in order to stop being depressed. Which is good, because we all, however happy we are, have all kinds of negative thoughts. Negative thinking and depression are not the same thing. You can be happy, and yet often worry about whatever it is you worry about. These aren’t mutual exclusive states.

Second. You can’t think your way out of every problem. In fact, there are whole categories of problem that are completely insoluable to thought. When we’re depressed we often believe that if we can just think of a solution to this or that problem, then that will resolve the depression. In fact, thinking too much about the problem, IS the problem.

If rumination is the problem…how do we stop ruminating?

There is no way to reboot the brain. Stopping ruminative thought processes is very hard. I haven’t found an answer to the problem of how. My personal path to escaping the depressive cycle, and limiting rumination, included counselling, meditation, exercise, healthy diet and making important life changes. I don’t believe there is a singular “magic bulket” treatment for depression.

But understanding the role of rumination in the cycle of depression was, in and of itself, an important breakthrough for me. It reframed depression from a scary happening that I had no control over, to a recurring problem that I understood and could begin to control. And learning about rumination lead me to ask, when I felt depression approaching, what am I ruminating on? Identifying ruminative thoughts is, very often, all that is neccesary to defuse them.

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The full research on MBCT and its insightful model of rumination and depression is available in a new editions: Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression.

If you’re interested in exploring mindfulness further I recommend reading Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen vietnamese monk who founded the Buddhist sangha I attend in the city of Chiang Mai.

For a deeper exploration of meditation, I recommend American teacher Jack Kornfield.

I hope this idea is of some use to you as a reader. You can talk to me about this on Twitter @damiengwalter. And you can help reduce my existential angst about turning 40 by backing me as a patron.

Five questions the new Blade Runner must answer

Any Blade Runner fan who doesn’t have mixed feelings about the Blade Runner 2049 sequel probably isn’t much of a fan. Hollywood sequels have a bad track record of course. And while the presence of Harrison Ford might encourage some to hope for a sequel as mighty as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many of us also (vaguely) remember Indiana Jones and Crystal Skullymajig.

But let’s be crystal clear about one thing. Blade Runner has a strong claim to greatest ever scifi movie ever (with only 2001: A Space Odyssey really in contention for that crown). It also has a good shot at greatest ever movie, no exceptions. Agree with those claims or not, Blade Runner is a profoundly important story, with a place in our cultural life that only a very few works of art will ever reach. The chance to revisit that story is profoundly exciting.

These are my personal questions, going into Blade Runner 2049, that will act as a bellwether of the story’s quality. If the answers to these questions are absent, I suspect the film will be an empty, pretty husk. If they are present, even if the film is not the masterpiece of the original, there will be something there to satisfy me.

Did Rachel live?
A story that ends with the words “it’s a shame she won’t live” begs the question, which audiences will all be taking into the sequel, “did she live?” Rachel faces the same fate as Roy Batty et al. But while we saw them fail and die, and while we were told no solution existed, it remains possible…perhaps even probable…that Rachel survives. A high profile spat between Sean Young, who plays Rachel, and the Blade Runner producers, now looks like it might have been manufactured to cover secret scenes filmed by Young for the sequel. If so, the natural question becomes, what did Rachel do next? I think it’s very likely that the fate of the Blade Runner world in this sequel will be deeply determined by Rachel’s fate.

Is Deckard a replicant?
Most Blade Runner fans are aware of the popular theory, suported by Ridley Scott, that Deckard is himself a replicant. The prime evidence for this is the unicorn dream sequence, restored to later edits of the movie, and the origami unicorn left outside Deckards apartment, suggesting that his dreams – like Rachels – are known to his creators. While it remains a theory at the moment, Blade Runner 2049 will almost certainly confirm it either way.

Blade-Runner

Is Ryan Gosling a human?
No, this isn’t a dig at the acting talents of the Goslingator. He’s no Brando, but he’s waaaay less wooden than Keanu Reeves, and probably in a similar ballpark to the younger Harrison Ford. But as his character is the clear analog to Deckard in the original, we’re all going to be wondering about his humanity. As will he. I think you can expect Gosling’s search for his own human identity to be central to this sequel. That said, if the writers are really ambitious, the film won’t be about Gosling’s character on anything but the surface level.

Story is the operating system of human consciousness.

Are all the humans replicants?
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep is the original novel by Philip K Dick that Blade Runner is, very very very loosely, based on. It’s a broken work of genius, less incoherent that other classic PKD novels like Ubik or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. But it’s still dominated by wild concepts, at the expense of some very shoddy writing and flat pack characters. PKD spins his novel in an even weirder direction when Deckard visits a police station entirely staffed by replicants. The suggestion is that everybody in the world of the novel is a replicant. Story hints about Blade Runner 2049 tantilse with the possibility that it will explore this radical idea.

Can humanity recover its empathy?
Philip K Dick was the greatest myth maker of the 20th century, spinning metaphors for the strange new realities technology has thrown all of us into. Both his novel, and the Blade Runner movie, are modern myths about the human capacity for empathy. Replicants are a fiction, but our capacity to dehumanize and enslave other humans is as great as ever. Blade Runner 2049 has an incredible job to match the original as a treatise on empathy, and our human awareness of our own vulnerability and mortality, without which empathy cannot exist. I wish it luck in the task ;)

Tolkien’s myths are a political fantasy

In a world built on myth, we can’t ignore the reactionary politics at the heart of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

What is the Rhetoric of Story?

It’s a double-edged magical sword, being a fan of JRR Tolkien. On one hand we’ve had the joy of watching Lord of the Rings go from cult success to, arguably, the most successful and influential story of the last century. And we get to laugh in the face of critics who claimed LotR would never amount to anything, while watching a sumptuous (if absurdly long) adaption of The Hobbit.

“A balanced telling might well have shown Smaug to be much more of a reforming force in the valley of Dale.”

On the other hand, you also have to consider the serious criticisms made of Tolkien’s writing, such as Michael Moorcock’s in his 1978 essay, Epic Pooh. As a storyteller Tolkien is on a par with Homer or the anonymous bard behind Beowulf, the epic poets who so influenced his work. But as works of modern mythology, the art Tolkien called “mythopoeia”, both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are open to serious criticism.

To understand why takes a little consideration of what we really mean by the word “myth”. The world can be a bafflingly complex place. Why is the sky blue? What’s this rocky stuff I’m standing on? Who are all these hairless chimps I’m surrounded by? The only way we don’t just keep babbling endless questions like hyperactive six-year-olds is by reducing the infinite complexities of existence to something more simple. To a story. Stories that we call myths.

Science gives us far more accurate answers to our questions than ever before. But we’re still dependent on myths to actually comprehend the science. The multi-dimensional expansion of energy, space and time we call the Big Bang wasn’t literally a bang any more than God saying “Let there be light” was literally how the universe was created. They’re both mythic ideas that point at an actual truth our mammalian minds aren’t equipped to grasp.

Myths are a lens through which we investigate the mysteries of the world around us. Change the myth, and you can change the world – as JRR Tolkien well knew when, alongside other writers including CS Lewis, he began to consider the possibility of creating new myths to help us better understand the modern world – or if not to understand it better, then to understand it differently. Tolkien borrowed the Greek term “mythpoesis” to describe the task of modern myth-making, and so the literary concept of mythopoeia was born.

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Tolkien’s myths are profoundly conservative. Both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings turn on the “return of the king” to his rightful throne. In both cases this “victory” means the reassertion of a feudal social structure which had been disrupted by “evil”. Both books are one-sided recollections made by the Baggins family, members of the landed gentry, in the Red Book of Westmarch – an unreliable historical source if ever there was one. A balanced telling might well have shown Smaug to be much more of a reforming force in the valley of Dale.

And of course Sauron doesn’t even get to appear on the page in The Lord of the Rings, at least not in any form more substantial than a huge burning eye, exactly the kind of treatment one would expect in a work of propaganda.

We’re left to take on trust from Gandalf, a manipulative spin doctor, and the Elves, immortal elitists who kill humans and hobbits for even entering their territory, when they say that the maker of the one ring is evil. Isn’t it more likely that the orcs, who live in dire poverty, actually support Sauron because he represents the liberal forces of science and industrialisation, in the face of a brutally oppressive conservative social order?

The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings aren’t fantasies because they feature dragons, elves and talking trees. They’re fantasies because they mythologise human history, ignoring the brutality and oppression that were part and parcel of a world ruled by men with swords. But we shouldn’t be surprised that the wish to return to a more conservative society, one where people knew their place, is so popular. It’s the same myth that conservative political parties such as Ukip have always played on: the myth of a better world that has been lost, but can be reclaimed by turning back the clock.

Whatever the limitations of his own myth-making, Tolkien’s genius as a storyteller rekindled the flame of mythopoeia for generations of writers who followed. Today our bookshelves and cinema screens are once again heaving with modern myths. And they represent a vastly diverse spectrum of worldviews, from the authoritarian fantasy of Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game, to the anti-capitalist metaphor of The Hunger Games. The latter is so potent that the three-finger salute given by Katniss Everdeen has become a symbol of freedom. What clearer sign could there be that the contemporary world is still powered by myth?

Originally published in The Guardian.

The principle of creative opposition

I’m reading Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had reading a Pynchon novel. And I think I know why.

Creative. Opposition.

Pynchon is an ideas man. High-concept, conspiracy theorist, humanity as an organic mishap in a grinding clockwork universe kind of ideas.

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Inherent Vice is a small scale, comedy of errors, sundrenched California noir novel. It’s still Pynchon, but with the vast conceptual frameworks snipped into human insights.

This is a brave and good thing to do as a writer. Or any kind of creator. Figure what your strengths are, realise they are also your weakness, and locate a force to oppose them.

  • If you’re a writer of intimate character studies, place your characters in a galaxy spanning quest.
  • If you’re a sculptor of monolithic bronzes, apply those shapes to a pendant.
  • If you’re a songwriter of zippy pop ballads, work with an industrial techno collaborator.
  • If you’re a great cook of French meat dishes, experiment with a vegetarian menu.
  • If you’re an international businessman, spend a weekend running a market stall.

You get the idea. This might not produce your bestseller or top 40 hit, but it will reignite your creative engines. And it might produce your bestseller or top 40 hit.

Creative success can be its own trap. We always need something to resist, a force to challenge our strengths, a source of creative opposition.

Join my course for storytellers.

Or ask me a question on twitter.