Boar poker, vanishing crabs and the limits of imagination

Brother Eared is a mystic. The Many Worlds have been revealed to him, and he started the tale of his revelation over the past couple of weeks. You can find the comics in sequence here, here and here.

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It’s also possible that he cheats at cards, at least according to his brother Feared.

This chapter will be the longest that we’ve posted so far at Little Grey Pages and the first step into the bigger universe we’ve created. I haven’t done any large scale worldbuilding in a while. The whiteboard above my desk is busy again.

For me, this is the difficult work. It’s why I’ve avoided writing science fiction and fantasy in recent years; it feels much more natural (comfortable?) to write in unfamiliar terms about familiar people in familiar places. When these variables are known and shared, I feel that I better focus on the writing itself earlier in the process.

It’s funny. As artists and writers and musicians, we want to emphasize that the potential of the imagination is endless, particularly to students and novices, and perhaps it is as a starting point. But as you begin to work, the possibilities narrow with each detail, and as the work nears completion, the number of available paths becomes fewer and fewer at each intersection. At the end of Going After Cacciato, Tim O’Brien presents this problem as part of a larger discussion of personal/political obligation in a surreal press conference of sorts held between two of the main characters. I’m reminded of the passage often as I write.

“Even in imagination we must obey the logic of what we starred. Even in imagination we must be true to our obligations, for, even in imagination, obligation cannot be outrun. Imagination, like reality, has its limits.”

Frankly, it sounds a bit nutty to say that we have a duty to the characters we create, that once desert is established by the imaginary actions of one of these imaginary agents, it must be resolved, as if this resolution is a thing in the world. But the debt must be paid. The obligation must be fulfilled. So it goes with melody and contrasting visual elements. When time is a factor in art – in writing, music and film, for example – the resolution can be postponed, but not for too long and not indefinitely, unless that’s the thesis – that the failure must end in failure, that the man will never change, that evil will always exist if not prevail, that contrition does not guarantee redemption, etc. Even then, even the most open-minded of us must admit to some dissatisfaction, even if this dissatisfaction is the point. Sometimes it just feels like a stunt. Art for artists. Art that makes people not “in the know” feel like the joke’s on them. John Cage comes to mind.

I tend to think of my work as a puzzle in the making. Scattered pieces that need to be cut and fashioned to fit together. It feels productive, engaged in a craft. Some are too large or too small. Some, you find, are pieces of another puzzle entirely. But even then, when 97 pieces of the 100 are placed, the last three must be shaped to conform to the arrangement of the rest or else the puzzle will never be solved if there’s a solution at all.

Catching up

It’s been a good seven months. Most of my efforts outside of work have been concentrated on two new loves in my life: the Little Grey Pages project and my son Arthur. He turned one year old on the first of July. My silence here on the blog marks the point at which he started truly interacting with his new world. He changes daily and I change along with him.

Little Grey Pages is going strong. So far this year, with the help of Crow and others, Red Panda still runs free in Washington, DC.

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Brother Weird Beard created a need no one knew they had.

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Oscar got a haircut with a mind of its own.

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Henry and Harriet have just begun to dig into the mysteries of Fretter’s Creek: fiery mountaintop rituals, ghostly pruners, haunted corn mazes and phantom fauna.

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On the Little Grey Pages blog, I started a series of posts called “From the Bookshelf”, where I dig up old readings related to the comic or story posted that week. When Heather was drawing up the “Big Haircut” storyline for The Rescue, I thought it would be fun to share Aristotle’s ideas on friendship as love of a second self.

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But most of the work I’d like to do on that front will be more obscure – clips from old storybooks mostly forgotten, hidden among the millions of scanned pages on sites like Google Books and Gutenberg.

We have lots of new material in the works. As we’ve gotten our footing with the characters and where they’re going, the story arcs will be a bit longer. For example, in the case of Fretter’s Creek, I have a few more short stories to share before the main arc begins, which will read more like a serial novel than a series of discontinuous vignettes.

For the comics themselves, I usually write up a description of each panel on each page – what happens, who says what, etc. and then draw a mock up. The last step is probably unnecessary. My sketches are so awful that I have to sit down with Heather anyway to go over what’s on the page, but she gets a kick out of my terrible drawings, which may be the main reason why I keep doing them. It’s great fun working together to see our little worlds come alive.

In the flux I’ve been working on other projects when I can, focusing more on revision and planning than actual writing. In the fall, I completed revisions on the novel I drafted last year and have written an outline for the rewrite. But I need to find the time and the “feel” again. Part of the issue is a lack of daily practice and long form writing. But it’s as much a reading problem as it is a writing problem.

So I’ve set out a stack of books on the nightstand. Some to help find that feel for writing well: short stories by Raymond Carver, Middlemarch, Notes from Underground, Death of a Salesman. And some to remind me of why I chose to be a writer in the first place: Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, Out of the Silent Planet. I’ve read mostly philosophy texts over the past couple years, trying to find a bit of context for our current political and cultural climate, and while those ideas have provided new perspectives useful for fiction, I’d rather not find the tail-chasing writing quirks of philosophers cropping up in my work. I spend enough time fighting the tech writer’s tendencies.

Rain comes at sunset. The first few drops fall in the last light of day. Time to settle in again.