Learning to Write Again

Learning to Write Again

Last week marked the first 2017 meeting of the Oxford Writing Circle. We discussed our writing resolutions and inevitably they were often something like “I want to write and read more!”

Writing more and reading more are my writing resolutions too — and old readers will know I like resolutions. Yet in 2016, I intentionally gave up freelance writing to focus on Five out of Ten and my latest adventure, Reasonably Vegan. So these resolutions raise a couple of questions: what kind of writing do we want to write, and given the fact that everyone in the Writing Circle has the same resolutions — and the same as last year’s failed promises — how can we turn our desires into virtuous habits?

Note: this essay discusses techniques that personally work for me. If you require a disclaimer that they may not work for you, consider an alternative website that treats you with less intelligence.

Defining the problem

I don’t regret moving away from freelance writing. I enjoyed the exercise of writing, and the pocket money was nice, but it ate away at valuable leisure time that I’d rather spend with friends and family, recuperating from my day job. So I don’t want to write more of anything; I want to increase my output of blog posts for Reasonably Vegan and Split Screen (no, really!), features for Five out of Ten, and short stories. I used to keep a journal but… is it just me, or are journals a refuge for the mind in bad times rather than a record of the great times? I stopped writing notes in my journal when the novelty of great dates with Jess turned into everyday great days. Whether or not a journal should be for that purpose, that seems to be how I use them, and I don’t see the sense in forcing it.

The goal is to not to write incessantly in the hope that nuggets of gold will appear. It’s to keep the fires of imagination stoked with tangible writing projects of all shapes and sizes. Projects with clear endings on the horizon. I want to look back on what I’ve written and consider it done – and as a bonus, done well. Rather than writing eclectically towards a goal I’ll never reach, which seems futile, or writing towards the goal of “a novel” that I can’t visualise right now, I want to break it all down into satisfying chunks. If my masterpiece is revealed during this work, that’s great, but I won’t flagellate myself if it never arrives.

What didn’t work

‘Write more!’ isn’t a new goal for me, the writing group, and I suspect it’s not new to writers in general. Writing for pleasure is a luxury of time and energy: always the first thing to be jettisoned when you have other priorities, always the last thing on your mind after an exhausting day. While I love writing more than any hobby, it requires a certain state of mind to get into it and enjoy it. The rough hierarchy of my attention is:

  1. Netflix: Bojack Horseman, nature documentaries
  2. Netflix: anything else
  3. Video games
  4. Reading
  5. Writing

This also explains why I never committed to a “watch more Netflix” resolution.

If the problem is a lack of time and energy, then an oft-postulated solution is to get up earlier each morning to write. Picture the scene: the sun is rising, birds are singing, you’ve got a hot mug of coffee on the desk, and you type away whistling with joie de vivre. Before you know it – your finished novel appears! All because you weren’t such a lazy bastard!

Standing up for us night owls: this idea is shit. Stay in bed. Your body and brain will thank you for it. It takes me at least three hours to warm up in the morning – I block out the first half hour of every work day for emails, task planning, and other jobs that don’t require real mental resources – and getting up earlier leaves me feeling unrested and inadequate. Night owls should embrace the night: write for an hour before bed, but set a timer so you don’t burn the midnight oil too much.

What might work

Committing to writing regularly is simply wanting to make a habit of it. Our habits are unwanted vices because they’re low energy ones: watching too much TV, neglecting exercise, mindlessly skimming social media. If we want to give ourselves more time and energy, we need to get rid of the unwanted habits and encourage the creation of newer, more productive ones.

There are some low-effort ways to do this. Deleting Facebook and Twitter off your phone takes ten seconds and will dramatically improve your phone’s battery life.1 This year, I’ve also removed the Guardian and BBC News apps along with my RSS reader. (I’ve still got Instapaper on there since that seems more ‘real food’ than ‘junk food’). In place of the news on my home screen, I added my writing app of choice, Ulysses. The only people who need Facebook and Twitter on their phone are social media professionals, and in that case they should have a work phone they can turn off at the end of their shift. Install Facebook Messenger instead and get on with what you really want to do with your life.

In thinking about how to build habits, I thought back to David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology, which revolutionised the way I manage my tasks. I’d recommend reading the book but essentially, to ‘Get Things Done’ you make a comprehensive list of everything you want to do, plan a time and context in which to those things, and regularly review your list of tasks. Each of those three aspects is equally important!

I’ve started using an iOS app called Productive to track daily habits I want to build, like ‘Write an Elliott’ (i.e. 500 words per day – sorry, OWC in-joke2) or ‘Read five pages of a book’. This system is based on push notifications and good old-fashioned honesty. I find regular, nagging notifications and prompts a great way to stay motivated. Whether it’s the Apple Watch telling me to stand up, or my phone awarding me with achievements for difficult tasks like drinking water, apps work for me!

Productive also helps with the other aspects of GTD that resolutions typically forget, which is why we fail to keep them: it organises them by into contexts based on the time of day, and you continually review them.

But that’s a small piece of the overall plan. Every time I have an idea for a feature or story, I make a new task in OmniFocus along with some bullet point notes. If there are a lot of notes then I’ll write them by hand or in Drafts, then export to Ulysses. Then I’ve got a buffer of ideas ready for fleshing out. I wrote the first Elliott of this essay yesterday, and finished it off this evening.

I’m currently on a two day writing streak. I don’t know if that will withstand a full year, but I do know that I feel better prepared than ever to tackle the new year’s goals. I wonder how many words you need to write to plan a wedding?

  1. I got my mum an iPhone 5S for Christmas. We had to set up a proper data plan and thought 500mb a month was a reasonable allowance. Within one day she’d burned 50mb of it on Facebook alone. Facebook now only works over wi-fi on her phone.
  2. Kevin Elliott, one of our group members, writes 500 words a day. Apparently Joseph Conrad used to write 800 words a day, which is known as a ‘Conrad’ – a useful pomodoro equivalent for writing. Therefore the ‘Elliott’ is now the official term for a 500 word chunk.
Review, Resolve

Review, Resolve

It’s 2016! Where’s my flying car? 2015 was a great year for me: I achieved a lot of personal and professional goals. Unfortunately none of those were part of my New Year’s resolutions. Time for a post-mortem…

D346CEB2-BAE4-498D-B571-F0E00907007E1. Run a marathon in under four hours

I entered the Frankfurt marathon in March and started formally training in July, after running consistently well throughout the year (including an outrageous one in 33ºC heat in the summer). The training was tough – four runs a week including some particularly rough speed training – but I kept up with it until September, when I developed a pain on the inside of my right foot. I took a week off to let it heal, then ran 29km on my birthday, one kilometre for every year.

I finished the run, but developed tendinitis in my right ankle (i.e. it was absolutely fucked). I received physiotherapy in the hope of being ready for Frankfurt, but after missing a month of training it wasn’t safe to continue. Instead, I ran 5k the day before the marathon and received a medal shaped like a pretzel. Not much of a consolation prize, but I’ll take it.

What went wrong? I am tempted to say ‘bad luck’, and that’s probably true, but I could have trained better and smarter. Still, I am proud of my work – August was peak running at 225km, almost twenty hours of running, and over 16,000 calories burned.

resolution-running

 

IMG_34232. Climb the Four Peaks

This was a logistical nightmare. I had a few friends who would have liked to do this with me, but finding a time when we were all free was nigh-impossible. Aside from the problem of availability, there were other issues:  the aforementioned marathon training plan, lack of a car to drive to remote areas, life getting in the way. I thought this would be a reasonable goal stretched out over a year, but it was wildly unrealistic.

Robbie (Five out of Ten’s copy editor) and I attempted Scafell Pike in September, but the weather was terrible and we weren’t able to reach the summit. Beautiful scenery, though!

 

IMG_57123. Learn to play the guitar

“I reckon if I put aside fifteen minutes every day, I can get the hang of it in a few months.”

I didn’t put aside the time and never got the hang of it. This is one resolution where I had the time, but not enough determination, and that’s taught me a valuable lesson with resolutions: there must be a constant, daily yearning to succeed at these challenges, not just a nebulous feeling of wanting to be a rock star every time I walk past my guitar (sadly the lovely Björn Gelotte custom Epiphone guitar in the picture is my brother’s, not mine). No excuses for this one – I clearly didn’t care enough.

On the bright side, Lewis Clark and I started recording the metal podcast Cast Iron this year, so my services to rock were still significant.

IMG_47784. Learn to Code

There is no practical reason for me to learn a programming language. Any game ideas floating around my head could never be fully realised (let’s call it ‘Naive Kickstarter syndrome’) and since I’ve moved away from the world of tech support, I have no need for Mac automation besides Hazel and the odd Bash script. So what’s the motivation to learn to code besides saying you can code? I might as well learn Russian. This was a daft resolution to make.

In my defence, I signed up for Lynda.com: I’ve completed a course in Excel 2016 and will be working through their advanced InDesign and Illustrator courses this year. Those are skills I use every day, so it’s a much better use of my time.

IMG_6325Bonus Goal: Write Another Book

I made good progress on this. I joined the Oxford Writer’s Circle and wrote a few short stories, at least one of which is publishable. I finished the first chapter of a novel and finally figured out the outline of another, and that doesn’t seem like a huge amount of progress, but it was a big deal for me. Think of it as sharpening the instruments in the mental toolbox before getting to work.

That’s the difference between the guitar / coding resolutions and writing: I feel driven to write, and that drive makes the work so much easier and satisfying. I prefer a “done when it’s done” approach to my creative writing, so this is an unofficial bonus goal for 2016 as well.

Credit Where It’s Due

Contrary to the above resolution failures, I didn’t spend 2015 lazing around the house and scratching myself. Not the whole time, anyway.

  1. I met the wonderful Jess through the Writers Circle / Oxford Indies; we bonded through a love of heavy metal and Metal Gear Solid, which isn’t a sentence I thought I would be writing last January. Life is full of nice surprises! We’ve had a great first few months together and have lots of fun romantic adventures planned for 2016. I’ll try and write up some of those adventures for Split Screen. Perhaps that should be a micro-resolution?
  2. I made a new pen pal (hi, Alice!) and wrote letters to some other friends as well. I missed writing physical letters: they’re candid and spontaneous, the antithesis of my heavily-edited blogs.
  3. I made some great new friends through the Writers Circle, Oxford Indies, and Oxford Headbangers (check them out on Meetup if you’re in the Oxford area, they’re full of lovely folks). Most of my friends are in London or Edinburgh rather than Oxford, so it’s nice to have more local pals.
  4. We had a great year at Five out of Ten, bringing the amazing Lindsey Joyce onto the team and launching our Patreon fundraiser. As well as releasing five new issues and a special Haywire compilation, this year has been about refining our work and ensuring it is manageable and sustainable. Honestly, the most important thing for me was improving the “work-work-life balance”, and that’s a lot better now.
  5. In 2015 I received more freelance commissions than ever, mainly for MacFormat and Mac Life. There was a bit of graphic design work for VideoBrains, Loading and Meltdown, all available to admire on my Behance page.
  6. Gave a few talks at VideoBrains: Love Metal was my favourite, everything I love distilled into a fifteen minute talk. I’ve not had the time to attend most evenings because of the commute from Oxford, but hopefully I’ll be able to make a couple in 2016.
  7. Another talk, this time on ‘Design Matters’ as part of my day job. It’s not every day you can say you’ve given a talk at the Saïd Business School. Judging by the posters and graphics floating around the office, my advice was largely ignored, but at least people enjoyed the presentations! Off the back of this, I also gave a presentation design session for work colleagues.
  8. Visited Barcelona and Frankfurt for the first time. My German hasn’t atrophied as much as I had feared. Jess and I are visiting Berlin in February.
  9. General lifestyle improvements: apart from the running I renewed my membership of the local swimming pool, drastically reduced my meat consumption (for all sorts of reasons, mainly ethical / health / cost concerns), took up mindfulness meditation, and read a lot more books than in previous years. I spent the back half of 2014 improving my productivity and general work ethic, and it feels good to be able to channel my time and efforts in better ways. That doesn’t mean doing more stuff, though: it’s about spending more quality time with friends and family.
  10. Started keeping a daily journal. This has been great for my mental wellbeing: just making a short list of what you’ve achieved at the end of every day is a big positive step towards warding off feelings of unproductively and uselessness. You’ve already read some of these entries: using them for Split Screen is an added bonus, but not an explicit goal. They’re just for me –  most of the time, only me. Some days I write thousands of words, other days I write hardly anything – it’s consistency that matters. I’d recommend Day One for journalling if you’re on a Mac or iOS device.
  11. Gigs I went to in 2015: Amon Amarth, Skyharbor / Sleepmakeswaves, Ensiferum / Insomnium / Omnium Gatherum, Dir en Grey, Ne Obliviscaris, Bad Religion (third time!), Leprous, Megadeth / Lamb of God / Children of Bodom, The Cribs, CHURCHES, Nightwish / Arch Enemy / Amorphous, and Ghost. For 2016 I’ve got the following: Abbath / Primordial, Coheed and Cambria (second time), Slipknot, Tesseract, Dream Theater (second time), Enslaved, and Newton Faulkner. Not bad going at all.
  12. Finally completed Metal Gear Solid and Super Metroid. That’s two off the bucket list.

2016, then

After the 2015 resolution débâcle, I wanted goals that I felt driven to complete rather than ones that were “nice to have”. If my girlfriend teaches me how to play the guitar, that’s great, but I would rather that happen organically rather than in a regimented way. So with that in mind, these resolutions may seem unambitious, but I won’t be writing a blog of apologies and excuses this time next year. Probably.

1. Finish a marathon

The good news is that my foot injury has healed and I ran my second annual Christmas Day 10k in 2015. I’m hoping to enter the Brighton Marathon in April on a charity placement, which gives me four months to train. To avoid repeating the same mistakes as 2015, I’ll be going to regular core strength training classes and hopefully joining the local road running group in Oxford.

2. Learn to swim

I can run a half marathon without any significant pain or exhaustion, but after a few lengths in the pool I feel like my heart is going to explode. I’ve never been a competent swimmer, and I hate getting out of my depth in water. So when I talk about “learning to swim”, I mean attending lessons to improve my confidence and technique so that when friends suggest going paddle boarding on holiday, I don’t have to settle for a paddle instead. The swimming will also improve my fitness for running, so it’s win-win.

3. Visit three new countries

Dating an Australian has developed my love of Vegemite and Tim Tams, but it has also highlighted the wealth of culture and experiences on my doorstep. I think British people take our close proximity to Europe for granted: there’s so much to see and enjoy beyond the usual tourist resorts.

Berlin in February doesn’t count as a new country – thanks for nothing, Frankfurt! – but a day trip to Cardiff would. Aside from that there are loads of places to visit in Europe and perhaps even further afield. Travel blogging is fun, too!

4. Complete Dishonored

Happy now, Rick and Joe?

Alan’s Favourite Music of 2015

Alan’s Favourite Music of 2015

2015 was an exciting year in music, not just because of the launch of Cast Iron. As with last year’s roundup, the usual caveats apply: I generally (but not exclusively) listen to rock, metal, and punk, I didn’t listen to every album that came out this year, and this isn’t a list of the best albums of the year – just my favourites.

Read more →

Five Years Later

Five Years Later

Split Screen is five years old today! Help yourself to a cupcake and a glass of champagne.

New Stuff

Toy Stories the best gadgets don’t just facilitate memories; they are memories themselves.

A New Podcast – coming as soon as Craig gets it edited!

Five out of Ten: Control – hot off the presses. If you like what we do, pick up a copy!

Old Stuff

The Best of Us – Our favourite features of the first five years. The jokes that survived the test of time.

Why do you guys keep this thing going? – See Existence, and The Spark.

Will there ever be a Bit Socket vs. Split Screen rematch? – I can’t believe you would bring that up on our birthday.

Toy Stories

Toy Stories

Some people treat gadgets as interchangeable lumps of technology. A mobile phone or a laptop is a means to an end, like a utility knife or a bicycle. But I treat electronics as something special: not just the tools for enabling the creative process, but a part of that creativity. I think about the way they feel in my hand, they way they were designed, how they work, and how that changes my relationship with them. They don’t just create memories – they are memories themselves.

These stories are personal, self-indulgent, barely edited, and I make no apologies. Well, maybe some apologies, but you’ll have to read on to find them.

Mojo

mojoIn my last year of high school, my friend Tom was the first person I knew to own an iPod. Your teenage years are a time of musical awakening, and his tastes differed wildly from mine. I was into Maiden and Millencolin, he favoured Doherty and Dylan. We’d sit in Politics class listening to Steely Dan, Buffalo Springfield, and Jefferson Airplane. While everyone else talked about football, we’d discuss literature: A Clockwork Orange, One No Many Yeses, anything that felt vaguely countercultural or iconoclastic

Coming from a portable CD player that stretched my blazer’s pockets, the iPod was a revelation. Although it wasn’t technically more advanced than rival products, it was on an aesthetic and functional level all of its own. It was easy to sync with iTunes, unlike my brother’s clunky Toshiba Gigabeat. You didn’t have to arse about with Winamp playlists or burning a mix CD that pushed the limits of the Red Book format. Your whole (illegally downloaded) music library just a swipe of the thumb away.

That it was my friend’s iPod made it even more exciting. This small box contained a world of unknown music ready to be discovered. In the summer we went on road trips across Northern Ireland with my friend Steph, watching the fog roll across the Mourne Mountains while Jim Morrison’s haunting croon filled Tom’s Seat Ibiza. In those days you had to beam the music from iPod to car stereo via an illegal FM transmitter, and the flaky connection made those musical moments all the more magical. It was your own personal pirate radio station.

Then the last summer ended and we went off to university. Steph and I to Edinburgh, Tom to Exeter. On our first day in the city, we had lunch in Kilimanjaro Coffee – still my favourite coffee shop in the world – and across the street there was an Apple retailer. Not long after, I bought myself an iPod, and it was amazing. In my first year I commuted between Kings Buildings and George Square, walking along to L.A. Woman or the Mars Volta’s Deloused in the Comatorium. I loved my iPod, but I kept it a secret from my family, because its retail price matched the living allowance my dad gave me every month and I was a little ashamed. That Christmas, dad asked if I wanted any particular gift. “I’m alright thanks, I’ve got everything I want, I think”, I said.

You can see where this is going, right? I received a 30GB video iPod with an engraving on the back. I sold the old iPod, christened the new one ‘Mojo’ in reference to L.A. Woman, and fell in love all over again. A decade later, when even my watch is a small iPod, Mojo marks the point in my life when I fell hopelessly in love with music. From time to time I like to sit with my old iPod and a block of paper, disconnecting myself so I can be alone with my old thoughts while making new ones. Now we’re in an era of streaming music that old Mojo can never understand, but as long as I’ve got Razorblade Romance stored somewhere on my Mac, there will always be a place for that iPod in my life.

Katana

429028_10100174276600701_1956774696_nThis might surprise some of you, but I used to hate Macs. My first experience of the Mac was in primary school when one lurked in the corridor. It was weird, different, just wrong. Every time I tried to use it, it would protest, barking Sosumi at me. For my twelve year old self, that settled it: Macs were shit.

But in those days, all computers were shit. I remember when my dad and I stayed up all night trying to reinstall Windows 95 onto a blank hard drive. I remember this terrible scanner we had that daisy-chained onto a printer parallel port and never, ever worked. I remember when our new computer arrived with Windows ME installed. I remember IRQ conflicts, corrupt registries, corrupt Zip disks, Internet Explorer 4, and the endless, endless fucking drivers. And I hope that at least one of these things makes you recoil in horror, because that pain wasn’t worth it unless it’s a pain we all shared. Modern computers are incredible, bulletproof devices. We’ve never had it so good.

But anyway, Macs were shit. Then I went to university with a cheap Acer laptop – the only one I found within budget that had the graphical horsepower to run Half-Life 2, a game that now runs on mobile phones – and within a year the thing was falling apart. It had a fatal design flaw where the display hinge gradually stiffened over time until the hinges snapped off the display, exposing ugly bare wire. I used it for three years. All the while, little Mojo was sitting next to the knackered Acer, beautiful stainless steel with flashes of white.

I started lusting after the Powerbook G4, but there was more chance of me picking up a Bible than a laptop that couldn’t play games. The university library had a few token iMacs – for ‘design work’, of course – and I loved using it, even for things as basic as writing documents and surfing the web. I learned to use Command in order to take control, and it no longer barked Sosumi at me. It was a fun distraction until Apple transitioned to Intel processors and released Boot Camp with OS X Leopard. Then it became an obsession. Of course, students don’t have any money, and Macs require a lot of it. So I worked all summer in a Belfast call centre to save up for my first MacBook Pro.

It turned up at my grandparents’ house in a huge black case, like something from a spy novel. From the iPod to the Watch, the Apple unboxing experience is second to none: they put more thought into the packaging than some companies put into their product design. Great design matters, but great packaging design matters too. It’s part of the ritual, part of the feeling that you have purchased something special, and that feeling makes you treat the device as special.

We crowded around the aluminium monolith. I snapped in the magnetic power connector, turned it on, heard the soothing chimes, then the delightful video. It was worth every penny I had spent and I hadn’t done anything with it yet. My grandparents didn’t have an internet connection so I spent the rest of the summer learning how to use the Mac with David Pogue’s Missing Manual – that book got me where I am today, and I was later able to personally thank Pogue for writing it – and occasionally dipping into my Windows Vista install on Boot Camp to play Unreal Tournament 2004.

Katana changed my life, first in small ways, like messing around in iPhoto or having enough horsepower to work on page layouts at the Student. Then it began to fundamentally change the way I approach computing and even my thought processes – not to be confused with a reality distortion field. The differences between Windows and OS X are somewhat exaggerated, but the Mac just matches the way I think better. I appreciate the purposeful nature of design, Apple’s attention to detail and their willingness to change things. Even if they don’t always get it right first time, they’re usually close enough. In contrast, Microsoft’s design process is a largely additive one: see the Windows 10 start menu, which slaps the tiles from Windows 8 onto the start menu from Windows 7 in an unholy union that most people know how to use, but no one really loves.

k-k2When you’re writing, designing, or cutting a video, using that computer you love is creatively stimulating. You can focus on the possibilities of what you can create, rather than the technical hurdles you must overcome to achieve it. With Katana, my creative barriers dissolved, which led to things like Alan for President. When I graduated in 2009, I applied for thirty jobs in thirty days, and the only place that got back to me was the Apple store where I’d purchased Mojo’s predecessor four years ago. I then used Katana to build Split Screen and record our first podcasts. I was trained in Final Cut Pro through my day job, taught evening classes in it, used the knowledge to apply for a job in Oxford and uproot my whole life.

After four years, Katana’s graphics processor died while designing the first issue of Five out of Ten. I removed the hard drive, precariously hoked it up to my work MacBook Air, and travelled to Portsmouth to finish the design with Craig. Following a protracted conversation with Apple tech support, they fixed it for free, and I replaced it with ‘Katana 2’ – the first model of MacBook Pro with a Retina display. I needed a good retirement home for Katana, so I sold it to my brother. It’s now living the good life as a recording studio and recently produced the theme tune to Cast Iron. I love my new Mac, but I’ll never forget the first one and how it changed my life.

Fucking Macs though, eh? They’ve got the same specs as PCs half the price! What a rip-off. They can’t even play games.

The Long Run

The Long Run

I’ve had to make the difficult decision not to run the Frankfurt marathon at the end of the month.

On 19th September, I celebrated my birthday with a 29km run (one kilometre for every year) around Oxford as part of my marathon training plan. It went well, and although I was tired and sore that evening, it was to be expected over such distances. However, the next day my right foot felt terrible and I could barely walk. I spent Sunday afternoon with a bag of frozen peas on my foot. I assured myself that it would be fine. I’d recover and be up and running again soon.

Three weeks later and it was still fucked. I had a steady ache on the outside of my foot that wasn’t getting any better. I visited a physiotherapist who diagnosed me with tendinitis, gave me a sports massage and fired ultrasound at my foot – pretty cool, eh? – with some remedial stretches and exercises. He reckoned it would get better in a week, but two weeks later, I’ve not fully recovered. I went for a short one mile run last Thursday, and my foot was OK at the time, but painful the next day.

I’ve now missed a month of my training and am unprepared for the race ahead, risking permanent damage if I try to run on my injury. All of the sporting sentiment about Never Giving Up might work in Hollywood, but in real life, sometimes you’re just not ready. Never Giving Up can be stubborn and stupid, and I am often both those things, just not this time. I am gutted that I’m going to miss the race after putting all that work and money in, but it’s better to admit defeat this time and live to run another day.

The good news is that in the long run, I am Not Giving Up. Once I’ve recovered I will start running again, and am thinking about where to attempt my first marathon next spring . If you’ve sponsored my fundraising efforts, thank you so much for your support, and thank you for being the first to sponsor my next run – the funds will carry over.

Our Story

Our Story

PodcastOurStory

Episode 21

Alan and Craig play a videogame for once – Sam Barlow’s Her Story. This podcast discusses the game in detail, including the ending – please play the game first!

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Right Click Here and ‘Save As’ to Download!

(Fifty three minutes of detective work)

Your Questions, Answered

Your Questions, Answered

1. Frankfurt, at the end of October. 

2. Have you tried restarting it? Seriously, that will probably work.

3. Helvetica.

Daily Bread

Daily Bread

Wheaten bread – ‘Irish soda bread’ for readers outside Norn Iron – has a special place in the pantheon of Irish breads. Soda bread and potato bread are integral to the Ulster Fry; barmbrack and fruit loaf are sweet and sticky teatime companions; Veda is this strange malted loaf lurking in bread bins around the province, begging to be toasted. But wheaten is my favourite: a bread of real character, a centrepiece rather than a side dish, as essential as the soup or cheese next to it. It must be nutty and flavoursome to hold its own against the tangy cheddar, moist enough to linger in the mouth without sticking to it. Wheaten bread has a presence. Eating it should be a respectful ritual.

My housemate bought a loaf of Paul Rankin supermarket wheaten to accompany soup, but it was offensively bad: a dry, bland substitute for the taste of home. The Rankin bread wasn’t just a rank loaf: it was baking blasphemy. So I searched for a recipe: real wheaten, not some adulterated American junk filled in seeds, honey and god knows what else. Some recipes benefit from innovation, but others call for tradition.

I weighed the dry ingredients into a bowl, rubbing butter into them until they resembled fine breadcrumbs. After adding buttermilk, I kneaded the dough on the kitchen counter, driving my knuckles into it. It was relaxing, almost meditative. Once it felt consistently strong and sticky, I shaped it into a round and dropped it into a floured cake tin, slashing a cross into the top to form the four farls, sprinkling with rolled oats.

After waiting for half an hour in nostril-teasing agony, the bread was ready. It lasted five minutes cooling, both of us on different racks of a sort. I cracked into it with a knife, cut the loaf clean in two between the farls that were now small peaks of crust, and watched the steam drift out for a little while. It was beautifully moist inside, dense and perfect. It took me back to the wheaten from afternoon tea in my granny’s sitting room, piled high on a tray, spread thick with butter and jam.

Butter couldn’t wait to slide off the knife and soak into the bread, followed by a thin layer of jam – anything beyond that would have been sacrilegious, would have spoiled the sanctity of the culinary pilgrimage.

I enjoyed my daily bread for the rest of the week; the trespasses of the supermarket loaf were forgiven.

Love Metal

Love Metal

“If you love videogames, you already love metal – you just don’t know it yet.” I returned to VideoBrains to spread the love about heavy metal. If you enjoyed this talk, you’ll love my new podcast Cast Iron.

 

Ka

Ka

The wheel of fate is turning.

Dad kept his Stephen King collection in the dining room. It was a cold, unwelcoming place, rarely used for its designated purpose, still dark and freezing even now as the spare bedroom I use when I visit home. The horror books made it a place that genuinely frightened me as a child. I hating going into that room to retrieve food from storage, hate hate hated it. The faces of Cujo and IT watched me from the spines of the hardback horrors. There were also paperback copies of the first three Dark Tower books: the cover of The Waste Lands was enticing, daring me to unleash the (presumed) horror within. I dared not.

One summer, after my parents had separated and the King collection had been dumped in the garage to rot, I was vacationing with dad and my stepmum at a caravan site on the Causeway Coast. Dad had brought The Gunslinger, the first book in the Dark Tower series. I borrowed it, and it was like nothing I had ever read: a curious, delightful mix of fantasy, science-fiction, western, and a pinch of horror. I devoured it in a weekend. And then… that was it, really. Roland of Gilead and his adventures stuck in memory, but it wasn’t the right time to continue the quest for the Tower.

Do you ever think that there’s a right time in your life to appreciate a certain book? I’m not saying it’s fate – or as Roland would put it, ka – but sometimes your knowledge and understanding needs to catch up to the book to properly do it justice, and that can take many years, but you know when you’re ready.

Many years later in Edinburgh, I bought my own copy of The Gunslinger, fell in love all over again, wrote about it in the style of a videogame review and began to read through the series. Five years later – or over a decade, if you count from the first reading – I finished the seventh book, The Dark Tower, during an interval at an Elvis Costello gig. I was almost scared to begin it, my unfounded childhood fears now replaced by a real one: with most of my adult life spent reading or ruminating on these books, I’d lose my literary compass once it was finished. I squinted at the final pages in the dim lights of Oxford’s New Theatre, a world away from where I had started. I had come as far as the ka-tet had, far beyond what seemed possible. The world has moved on since Roland’s introduction in the “apotheosis of deserts”, all those years ago.

The Dark Tower is a divisive work, for good reasons. I loved the ending: King remarks that good stories are about the journey rather than the destination (which is what you’d expect from the author of The Stand, do ya kennit) and I agree. The final book isn’t just a great novel: it’s a powerful insight into fiction itself: what part of a story is under a writer’s control, and what’s the product of accumulated experience and unquantifiable forces – ka, if you will. It examines what it means to be a writer and what it means to develop a legacy: the last Dark Tower rewards the dedicated reader with a unique and vibrant tapestry of language, references and in-jokes. Yet at the end of such an exceptionally long journey, it was always going to be bittersweet. There are other worlds than these: I’ll read The Wind Through the Keyhole, the ‘eighth’ Dark Tower book. I’ll read Dune. I will no longer prohibit myself from starting A Song of Ice and Fire.

Taken as a whole, The Dark Tower is my favourite book, and that won’t change – I’ll set my watch and warrant on it. There are just too many great stories, too many personal memories that intertwine literature and experience: reading The Gunslinger in the shelter of a caravan while the Irish summer thundered outside; Wizard and Glass on a beach in Devon; Wolves of the Calla in a Montreal steakhouse, feeding the sparrows my baguette crumbs. I will remember Roland, Jake, Susannah, Eddie, and Oy forever, and they will influence the stories I write, just as Robert Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came influenced King.

Right now, I’m thinking about a story a long way from beginning: one that begins with a child in front of my Stephen King collection, reaching for The Gunslinger, beginning their own quest for the Tower. Ka is a wheel, after all.

Long days and pleasant nights.

Coda: Ranking

When I mention The Dark Tower on Twitter, some people love it, while others gave up early in the series. I thought it was worth giving a rough ranking: I don’t expect anyone to agree with this list, especially my top pick.

The Dark Tower books were written over a twenty year period, with years between many releases: it’s one long story, but there’s a lot of variation (the last three volumes were written concurrently). I struggled with The Drawing of the Three, but I’d recommend the books to anyone. If you’re not enjoying the books after Wizard and Glass, that’s unlikely to change – but by that point, were I you, I’d stand true to the quest.

Anyway, here’s my totally subjective, best to worst ranking:

IV: Wizard and Glass
VII: The Dark Tower
I: The Gunslinger
III: The Waste Lands
VI: Song of Susannah
V: Wolves of the Calla
II: The Drawing of the Three

Forging

Forging

What would you choose if you had to pick one: music, or videogames? Games are obviously important to me and have changed my life for the better, but music is life itself. It moves me in ways that games and films can never match. A life without games would be dull; a life without music would be unbearable.

Cast Iron is a new podcast about rock and metal, hosted by Lewis Clark and myself. We’ve recorded three episodes now, two are out in the wild – you can listen online, or subscribe through iTunes. (Please subscribe on iTunes.) I agreed to take part for the fun factor, and obviously to spend quality time with a friend, but the more work I put in – designing the logo, listing the albums we could cover, planning the format and our special guests – the more excited I became. I’m still excited about it: the nervous thrill of releasing a new episode, the messages from my brothers saying they enjoy it, the joy of discovering new favourite bands for the first time. We get a real kick out of it, and I think it comes across on the show.

It is a rare privilege to be able to share the things you love with an audience, hoping that it moves them in the way it moves you. Split Screen and Five out of Ten have been fantastic vehicles for that, and Cast Iron is another car in the garage, so to speak. It deserves to exist. As I say in the second episode:

Cast Iron is a discussion about music from two people who care a lot. It’s not objective, this isn’t a ‘marks out of ten’ thing. While our taste in music is inarguably impeccable, we’re not here to tell you what to like, just to share with you what we like, and hope that you like it too.

Otherwise, I’ve been under the radar lately, helping behind the scenes at VideoBrains and Critical Distance as well as Five out of Ten. You can find my writing hidden inside magazines like MacFormat, but most of my writing is in a private journal these days. In writing features and blogs for an audience, especially work that is deeply personal, I have lost sight of the fact that I was always writing for myself. I feel out of ideas and the energy to make them concrete, so I’ve mainly been reading and journalling while I restoke the fires of creativity.

To be honest, instead of writing, sometimes I just sit at my keyboard and watch the birds outside my window. Wood pigeons and magpies, gulls, the occasional red kite. I enjoy the carefree, aimless flying and birdsong for a while, then curse my lack of productivity later in the evening. But deep down, I know I’ve hit the natural limit of what my brain can actually do in one day, or even one week. My productivity and organisation are much better than they were last year, but the Getting Things Done method only informs you about the products, not the substrate – the need to creatively, emotionally nourish ourselves. The balance between the two is something you need to figure out on your own. That balance can be found – or perhaps, I have to believe it can be found.

My latest project is something personal, yet with an audience in mind. Yesterday I sat down at the desk, ignored the siren song of the birds, and the first few thousand words came naturally. One day I hope I’ll be able to share it (don’t expect anything in the short term). Whether destined for publication, or lovingly doomed to that folder of unfinished works I call ‘The Graveyard’, it feels good to be hammering away at the forge again, enjoying the creativity rekindled once more.

Get Well

Get Well

We write in order to be read. Some write for money, some for glory, others to crystallise our thoughts and get them out of our heads. But we all write in the hope that someone will read our words, even if that person is our future self.

Most of my writing goes into a daily journal – you can read it when I’m dead – and my best work is behind a paywall at Five out of Ten. When you write to be read, but you erect a financial barrier between writer and reader, this creates an obvious contradiction. Our Patreon aims to fix this by making the magazine free for everyone, but we’re not there yet, so it remains locked for now.

We had an unexpected gap in the lineup at VideoBrains on 27th April, so I gave a live reading of two essays: one by Jake Tucker from ME&R, and my own ‘Get Well’ from Five out of Ten #10. ‘Get Well’ was a feature that meant a lot to me. It was difficult to write, and perhaps even harder to read in front of a live audience: what if they laughed at the sad bits, or worse, didn’t laugh at the bits that were meant to be funny?

There’s nothing fundamentally different between giving a talk and reading your work in front of a crowd. You’re just telling a story, although your storytelling should naturally fit the medium. I try to pack my VideoBrains talks with videos and photos that I can’t include in a magazine, in the same way that when Craig and I are designing Five out of Ten, we’re designing things that are not possible on a website. ‘Get Well’ wasn’t design-heavy in the first place and used my own photography, so I replaced screenshots with video clips and worked my way through the slides as I read. It was great to share that essay with an audience of friends and sympathetic strangers: it’s not often I get to simply show what Five out of Ten is all about without it coming across as a crass sales pitch.

You can watch the video of the talk below, or on the VideoBrains YouTube channel. For some further reading, ‘Get Well’ is the second part of an unofficial ‘Existential Crisis Trilogy’ beginning with ‘Wild’ in Five out of Ten #7 and ending (sort of) in ‘I’m Alive’. I’d be delighted to hear your feedback on Twitter if you’d like to share it.

House of Pain

House of Pain

I received an email from a friend yesterday: no subject line, just this in the body. The sender will remain anonymous for obvious reasons, but I don’t think they’ll mind sharing their message as a framing device.

“We’re the same age but you’re doing so much more with your life…”

When I was a student in Edinburgh, I frequented the gym with friends. We nicknamed our troupe the ‘House of Pain’ since Andy’s workout regimes were fairly punishing, but it was really an excuse to hang out and feel a little less lazy – “we’re here so we can eat whatever we want!” was our rallying cry. The House of Pain had one important rule: no competition. Our group had a large variation in body shapes: some were heavier, some taller. I’ve never been great at developing muscle tone, and friends I’ve met online often comment “you’re shorter than I thought you would be” when they meet me for the first time. Those attributes make me ill-suited for a bench press competition, but better at long distance running.

People are different. We vary wildly in our genes, our development, our upbringing. It shouldn’t need pointing out. But in light of the email I received and Scott Alexander’s recent, fantastic blog ‘The Parable of the Talents’, maybe it does. The funny thing is that the friend who emailed me isn’t just someone I care about and respect – I have also envied their successes! Like Alexander mentions in his essay, no matter how good you are, there’s always someone better to compare yourself to. I’m not as mighty an athlete as Andy, as elegant a dancer as Sebastian, or as depressingly erudite as Stuart – and that’s just three friends from that aforementioned gym group. To compare is human; to compete, self-defeating. One of the reasons I enjoy running is because it’s a competition with yourself – that’s why it’s called a “personal best”, after all.

My friend’s email isn’t the first time someone has echoed that sentiment. A year ago I was in Ireland visiting my family, talking to my brother about Escape to Na Pali (it all started at The Desk, you see), and he said “I don’t know how you do so much”. That isn’t meant to be a humblebrag – many do a lot more than me, and they do it a lot better – but the truth is, I don’t know either. I get done what I get done. There’s a method to it, but there’s no secret, except from a voice inside thinking “what’s Future Alan going to think of me? Would he be disappointed that I didn’t stay up past my bedtime to finish writing this blog? Would he slap me in the face with his cybernetic arm? How did he get that thing, anyway?”

For all the things you do, there’s something you don’t do. I’ve been reading more in 2015, but I haven’t played many games. My guitar sits untouched, goading me into attempting the resolution. That same brother who was impressed by my work ethic is a talented guitarist, and he managed to refurbish and move into a house in six months last year in his spare time. In the same time, I made a couple of little magazines. How does he do so much more? It’s all relative – no pun intended.

When we set ourselves up in competition with our friends and peers, we downplay our own successes, and we set up an unwinnable battle. Instead, here’s a different challenge: I won’t compare myself to you, you won’t compare yourself to me, and we’ll make it through this House of Pain together.

To quote the armchair philosopher Chris Cornell, “to be yourself is all that you can do”.

VideoBrains: A Christmas NiGHTS Carol

VideoBrains: A Christmas NiGHTS Carol

videobrains-xmas-02

I returned to VideoBrains to talk about Christmas NiGHTS, the curse of nostalgia and how our childhoods influence our present expectations. If you like this talk, read my Christmas NiGHTS retrospective, or my podcast with Johnny Cullen on Sonic 3 and Knuckles. Or watch my other talk on Escape to Na Pali. So many options! But watch this first! Some of the slides don’t quite match up with the talk – sorry about that. You’ll just have to come see me in person next time…