Musings

[Blog] Stretch Fingers, Write

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I’ve missed writing. I’ve missed chasing the words across the page and catching them on the tips of my fingers. I’ve missed building cities and starships and space stations, and imagining the conflicts and the stories that take place in them. I’ve missed the exploration– of themes, of characters, of imaginary places.

And it’s funny to say that, because it’s been years since I last took off an extended period from writing. I didn’t get half so much done while I was in Armenia (at least, not when it comes to fiction), but I didn’t stop either. All the same, though, now that I have a little more free time again, it’s like stretching muscles that haven’t had a chance to work hard for too long. It’s a little rough and rusty at first, but once it gets going, it feels like coming home.

I’m still surprised by how much practice it takes, and how little time it takes to fall back out of practice once you’ve gotten yourself into it. If writing is a method of recording your own thoughts, it almost seems that it should come more naturally. And yet there’s a divide between the things we imagine and the words we manage to put onto the page, and for most of us, it takes a lot of work to bridge that gap.

I can’t help but find it fascinating that language, even when it comes naturally and almost as quick as thought, can’t always express the ideas that build their homes in our heads. Things get even funnier when you realized that a particular language might not have the words you need to describe exactly what you want, and while another language might get closer, it’s still not perfect. And, funniest of all, that’s okay.

Because of its limitations, writing forces us to understand our own thoughts better in order to more fully express them with the words you have available. It would be one thing to be able to transfer a complete idea to another person’s mind, just as it exists in our own. It’s quite another to write as we actually do, knowing that each word we choose may evoke subtleties in the minds of our readers that we have no knowledge of.

But perhaps I’m rambling, letting the words take me where they will. I suspect it means that I haven’t thought all this through entirely, or at least not as completely as I thought I had. But that’s okay too. God knows I don’t have all this figured out. And besides, a little rambling now and then is healthy. How better to remind ourselves that there are a thousand things we don’t understand?

Musings

[Blog] Great Big Planetary Empires

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Across the planet today, there are around two hundred different countries, between three and eight thousand different languages, and more cultures (and subcultures?) than anyone could possibly count– if they could even find a reliable definition of culture in the first place. Or put another way, our Earth is both very big and very small.

This is the sort of thing that comes to mind after watching entirely too many episodes of Star Trek in a row. Or pretty much any science fiction TV show or movie or video game or book, for that matter. Compared to our own, all the biggest, grandest worlds that we’ve created are just so small, so limited.

And some of that is by necessity. Take the aforementioned episodes of Star Trek*, for example: if you only have a little less than an hour to tell a complete story, then you just don’t have time to develop a complete and complicated set of geopolitics for your strange, new world, and to try it would be to take away from the story you actually want to tell. When a bunch of humans, Klingons, and tribbles all end up on the same space station, we don’t need to know anything about the inner workings of Klingon geopolitics in order to enjoy the episode.

Even in the infinitely more complex Deep Space Nine that spent numerous episodes exploring the conflict between the Bajorans and the Cardassians, both species have only a single culture, and any hypothetical divisions among them are ignored. It seems there is no such thing as Northern Bajorans and Southern Bajorans, and even those separate groups that appear as the series progresses all stem from the same basic culture, only different in the way they react to their common history. And again, that’s not a bad thing. Even as simple as it is by real world standards, it’s plenty complex enough for the purposes of the story.

That being said, I’d love to see a story that plays a little more with the ramifications of multiple major powers on a single planet with the capability of interstellar travel. What would happen if American explorers made contact and formed an alliance with the Greys from the planet Heru at the same time that Russian explorers hit it off with the Purples on one of the same planet’s other continents? And what would happen if the Greys and the Purples didn’t get along?*

I’m inclined to think that that’s exactly the sort of question that science fiction was born to answer.

 

* It strikes me as I write this that I’m poorly enough read in science fiction that someone may have already written such a story, and I just don’t know about it. If you happen to know one, do mention it in the comments below, as like I said the idea fascinates me!

Musings

[Blog] A Good Reread

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I like books. If you’re here, I suspect you have at least a passing fancy for them as well, which means we’ve already got something in common. I imagine it also means you are familiar with the phrase “so many books, so little time”, and you may have even, in passing, considered having it engraved on your headstone. Or perhaps not.

What I mean to say is that we understand in our bones that we will never be able to read everything there is to read, because there’s just not enough hours in the day, days in the week, weeks in the month, etc. There’s not even enough time to read everything that you would enjoy reading, as evidenced by massive stacks of books and an outsized to-read list on Goodreads (or in your head or wherever you keep it).

And then, to add to the trouble, there’s the books you want read again. For me, those are the ones that get neglected the most, because when I start looking for my next book to read, I automatically go to the stacks of books I haven’t yet read.

I can’t speak to it’s efficacy, but I’ve tried to get around the problem by just reading more books at once. I used to try to stick to one or two at a time, one fiction and one non-fiction, just to keep things simple. I don’t remember exactly when I started breaking that rule, but once I started it’s been getting worse and worse, and right now there’s a stack of books almost a foot high on my bedside table.

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My bedside table.

The thing is, some books need to be reread. You’ll catch things you didn’t see the first time through, that you couldn’t have seen the first time through. Aspects of certain characters will suddenly make more sense. Foreshadowing will be that much more foreboding. Themes and symbolism will become that much clearer, and their arguments will be that much more potent.

Or, to put it another way, you’ll enjoy it even more the second time around.

All this is probably coming to mind right now thanks to the fact that I just finished my second read-through of Pierce Brown’s Red Rising (which if you haven’t read, I would highly recommend and suggest you follow it up with the rest of the series), and I noticed so many things that I didn’t see at all when I read it the first time. Heck, it even woke up my sleepy inner English major, and when I finished I had at least three ideas for short essays.

But I digress. Regardless of your feelings, if any, for the aforementioned book, the fact remains that there is great benefit in rereading. I don’t know about you, but that’s something I forget a little too often.

Musings

[Blog] Writing, Writing, Rewriting

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When I was in junior high, I distinctly remember having a conversation with one of my friends in which we expressed our doubts on whether or not all the famous authors we were studying really meant to infuse their works with all the themes and symbolism that our lit teachers said they did. If I remember correctly, we admitted that at least some of the structuring was done on purpose, but we figured that it had far more to do with the author wanting to write a good story than to make any particular point. Looking back, my only defense is that we were very young and very foolish, and we both grew a great deal wiser in the years that followed. It turns out there’s an awful lot that thirteen year olds (and the rest of us) don’t know, despite their opinion to the contrary.

That being said, I think (hope?) that I had formed that particular belief in part because of a faulty understanding of the way the vast majority of people write good stories– specifically, I had not yet realized that “all good writing is rewriting”. On that first run through a story, whether it’s a vignette or something novel-length or longer, there’s only so much crafting that can be done as you drag the words onto the page and pin them there in something roughly approximating what you had in mind in the first place. Hopefully, you have some idea of the point you want to make, but most of us are going to have to edit, coax, and generally manipulate the words for even longer than it took to write them in the first place if we want them to say everything we want them to. And, of course, some of the things I’ve written that I’m happiest with are the ones I stumbled on and realized after the fact that they worked better than anything else I’d tried, but if it weren’t for rewriting I doubt I’d ever have recognized them.

That being said, it’s entirely possible to get stuck in a neverending editing process. Or, worse, it’s easy to start the editing process prematurely, before the whole rough form of the story has made it onto the page. I won’t deny that restarting before reaching the end is occasionally helpful, but more often it seems to just be a good way to get stuck rewriting the same thousand words in a vain attempt to make them perfect. Nine times out of ten, the parts that actually need retooling will only become obvious once you’ve gotten to the end.

Musings

[Blog] A Place to Land

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It’s been about a month since I returned to the States, and somehow it feels like it’s been even longer. Coming back in the midst of the holidays probably had something to do with that, as did a trip back to Idaho to visit my family. And then there’s the unpacking and resettling, too, not to mention everything else that goes into adjusting to a new routine.

What all this means is that now, five weeks after boarding the plane in Yerevan, I’ve finally slowed down enough to start processing those four months in Armenia. At the moment, it mostly just feels like a flood of all the emotions I haven’t had time for since getting back.

And I miss it. I miss it so much more than I thought I would. I miss it so much more than I thought I did.

It’s the people, mostly– the friends I gained and everyone I met: my host family, the Birthright staff, the other volunteers, the amazing people I worked with. Now that I’m finding a new sense of normalcy, it’s strange to think that these people who became such a big part of my life are so far away.

Beyond that, though, it’s also the fact that I have to find a place for myself again, at least when it comes to working. There’s writing, of course, though that’s taking more wrestling than I was anticipating, and a whole slew of job applications to fill out, certifications to get or renew, resumes to write and write again. It’s hard not to get discouraged, especially after the simplicity of volunteering and the five years spent at the same job before that.

But, I’m making progress. If nothing else, I’ve gotten unpacked and my room is starting to feel like my own. It’s been a while since I’ve had a dedicated writing area, and I’m already wondering how I managed to survive so long without it. (Well sort of wondering. Coffee shops do a wonderful job of filling the gap.) There’s still a long ways to go, but at least I’m on the road.

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And what room is complete without a fuzzy, feline window decoration?
Musings

[Blog] Static Friction

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The last month has, to say the least, been a little busy. Between traveling, moving, and the holidays it’s hardly surprising that I’ve missed a few days of writing, and while the rest was welcome and needed, it hasn’t made it any easier to get back into the swing of things. If the storytelling process can be compared to pushing a block of stone up a long, slow incline (and believe me, it can), then I’ve let my block come to a stop while I catch my breath and prepare to get it going up the next segment of the path. I may have needed to stop and catch my breath, but it’s still going to be difficult to get it moving again.

I’m tempted to compare the whole thing to the torment of Sisyphus, but that might give the wrong impression. I enjoy writing. (No. Shush. It’s not Stockholm Syndrome. Stop looking at me like that.) I’m just also keenly aware that if I want to get anywhere with writing, there’s an awful lot of work involved. Plotting, planning. First draft. Second draft. Editing. And that’s before there’s even a finished product that needs to be marketed and promoted. Sure, today I just need to write a few hundred words, but then I need to do the same thing tomorrow and the day after that and again after that until I’m done.

On the bright side, I’ve done this whole starting-and-stopping thing enough times that I know it’s going to get easier again as soon as I hit my rhythm. The cursor on the screen won’t feel like it’s mocking me quite so much. Words won’t play hide and seek with me for ten minutes before I can find the one I want. My inner editor will stop muttering and fluffing its feathers and will remember that it’s turn is coming soon enough. The block will be moving up the hill again, and I’ll just have to keep the pace.

Musings

[Blog] Home

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This week, the way it always does when I’m visiting my family, my mind wandered back to that old saying about home and how you can never go there again. And, if pressed, I’d have to admit that I think it’s true. Once you move away from home, it will never be quite the same again. You’ll change, home will change. The pieces will never fit together quite the way they did before. But really, that’s only part of the story.

For one thing, change isn’t something that only happens when you leave. It makes it more visible, sure, and might make it happen faster as you adjust to a different set of circumstances and surroundings, but if you stayed, things wouldn’t remain static. Children grow, towns expand or shrink, new people come and old ones age or move away. Your hometown in 1998 is not the same place as your hometown in 2008 or 2018. Not entirely.

But then again, even if years pass between visits, there’s still familiarity. When I visit my family, I might not be sure which of my siblings is sleeping in which room, or even which ones are actually still living with my parents, but when we all come together I can guarantee that there will be exuberant conversation, giddy tickle fights, and more than a few terrible puns. It brings another old saying to mind: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

It’s not something exclusive to your first home, of course. If– when I go back to Armenia, it won’t be the same as it was while I was a volunteer with Birthright Armenia. Hopefully some of that will be because the country has continued to grow stronger. Some of it will have more to do with the fact that it won’t be my first visit. And some of it will be for other reasons entirely. But however it has changed, it will still be Hayastan, my homeland and the place I spent four crazy months in late 2017.

So, no. When you leave a place, you won’t be able to go back to things exactly as they were. But maybe it won’t be so different as you think, either.

Musings

[Blog] The Book’s Not Always Better Than the Movie

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A few years ago, one of my friends introduced me to Mass Effect, and it didn’t take me long to fall in love with the game. The characters, the setting, the adventures– the hours I spent as Commander Shepard proved incredibly fun and as deeply inspiring as any of my other favorite stories. And some of that is because of the way the story was told.

Different mediums have different strengths and work better for certain stories than others. It’s why the movie adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, as entertaining and as grand as they are when shown on the big screen, will never have the same depth as Tolkien’s written masterpieces: there’s just not enough time, even in the twelve hours that make up the extended editions, to do justice to the depth and history of Middle Earth. What’s more, trying to match it word for word would have resulted in films that sprawled even more and probably wouldn’t have been half so enjoyable.

Now, before you start reaching for your torches and your pitchforks, I’m not saying that the movies were flawless adaptations. Any number of characters were changed in ways that made them so much less than they were in the books (Faramir, anyone?) without adding something back in exchange to the structure or the pace of the movie. However, even if all the characters had been spot on and true to who they are in the books, the films would still have been missing something of what made the books as wonderful as they are.

It goes both ways, too: some stories work better as a movie than as a book. Take The Princess Bride, for example. While we get more details about pretty much everything throughout the course of the novel, the story itself profits from the quicker pace and the tighter structure of a film, and I’m inclined to argue that that’s what made it the classic it is today. Of course, I’d still recommend reading the book if you get the chance, but that goes without saying. The fact remains that the movie is the reason we’re all saying the lines along with Inigo in the gif below.

Bringing all this back around to video games, it’s fascinating to see how this “new” medium stacks up against the ones we’re more used to. The biggest difference, I think, is how we interact with the story being told, and vice versa. In a book or a movie, we have a far more passive role. The story will go the way it always goes, regardless of what we do. The only way we can change what happens is by stopping, and really, that only delays it. The words have still been written, the scenes have still been filmed, and no matter how hard we throw the book against the wall or how loud we yell at the screen, what will happen will happen. In video games, that’s not necessarily the case.

Going back to Mass Effect, the game forces the player to make different choices along the way that tie in with the general morality that each Shepard develops. Regardless of the path chosen, the story will progress through the same events. However, the tone of the story will feel entirely different depending on whether you play more as a hero or an anti-hero. In one, the story is that of an epic space opera with great heroes and steep odds. In the other, it’s a gritty space marine tale, where even the best people are deeply flawed and broken.

And what’s more, because you are the one making the decisions throughout the game, you feel each one more deeply than you would if you were just watching or reading about the hero making those choices on their own. When you have to press a button to confirm that you really do want Shepard to do something, it immerses you even more deeply in the story. It makes you think about the actions taken just that much more, and that’s the greatest strength of any story.

Musings

[Blog] Place Magic

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When thinking about the most important aspects of a story, the first things that come to mind are plot and character– the things that happen and who makes them happen. And to some extent, that’s entirely true. The characters we meet in a piece of fiction and the journeys we take with them are what make our favorite stories so compelling. But perhaps there’s a third part that is just as important to a good story: the setting.

It’s entirely possible that this is common knowledge, and I’m just a little late to the game. Even so, I think it’s fair to say that we tend to focus a bit more on the two elements that I mentioned first. Stories are retold in different settings all the time– think Shakespeare’s plays– and, at least when we like how it turns out, we don’t have any problem saying that it’s still the same story. As long as the plot and the characters remain the same, it’s easy to say that the story is fundamentally the same.

Of course, the fact that so many of the Bard’s plays have been retold and given a different location in time or space serves as evidence that the setting is a large part of what makes each particular story what it is. If it didn’t, there wouldn’t be any point in changing it in the first place. When Hamlet’s tragedy plays out in a modern day setting as opposed to medieval Denmark, different aspects stand out. One might expect to encounter a ghost in a drafty castle, but if that same ghost stalks the halls of a twentieth century military base he might seem a little more out of place, and even though the characters will ultimately react in more or less the same way in a faithful retelling, the incongruity draws our attention.

That’s a specific example, but the point holds true: a story might tell how a scrappy hero rises from nothing and fights to topple an oppressive dystopia, but if the story is set in a fantasy world with swords and magic, it would have a different theme than if the events played out on a space station in the distant future. The first describes what we are capable of doing to each other. The second makes a similar point, but also makes sure that we know that it’s not something relegated to a barbarous past.

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Sixteen, It’s Not Goodbye

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I’ve been writing this post all week, a few words here, a few phrases there, trying to convince it all to come together into something that might help me share a fraction of the thoughts and emotions that are spinning through my head. Now that I’m so close to the end of this trip, the conflicting feelings of wanting to stay and go are even stronger, and my excitement for going home again is tempered by the fact that I don’t want to leave. These past four months have proven more meaningful than I ever imagined.

It’s funny: a year ago, I wasn’t even certain that I would apply to the Birthright program. It seemed like such a wild idea to drop everything and travel to the other side of the world, especially when I wasn’t even certain that Armenia was “my” homeland. My family’s roots are in Kessab, Syria, not the area that now makes up the Republic of Armenia. I assumed that I would be able to learn about the history of my people generally, but that it would feel far removed from that of my family. I was wrong.

I feel a connection to this country that is far stronger than I ever expected it to be. I want to see it grow and thrive, and I want to do what I can to help that happen, whether from the Diaspora or from Armenia itself whenever I get a chance to come back.

Of course, the fact that it’s a beautiful place doesn’t hurt. I spent the majority of my time in Yerevan, and I’ve already talked about how much I love the rose-colored stones that give the city its distinctive look, and our trip to Artsakh in October took us through mountainous territory that captured my heart and my imagination, as is evident in the absurd number of pictures I have from those four days alone. And this past weekend I got to go on one last excursion, this time to the city of Gyumri in the northwest of the country.

 

The city is far smaller than Yerevan with a population of around 120,000, and if I had more time I could see myself taking advantage of the option of volunteering there. I don’t regret staying in the capital for the full four months I was here, but I also know that that choice meant that I haven’t seen huge portions of what Armenia has to offer. In case I needed one, I suppose it’s an excuse to come back again.

This won’t be my last post about Armenia. There’s so much more to say, and in the coming weeks and months and longer as I process this wonderful journey, I’m sure I’ll bend your ears about it again. Probably, in part, to complain about reverse culture shock. But that’s tomorrow’s trouble, and I’ll deal with it then.

As we say at Birthright Armenia: It’s not “goodbye”, it’s “see you later”.