Adventures in Writing and Game Design
The Immensity of the Sea
A new colleague asked me why this is one of my FAVORITE QUOTES:
“If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” —Antoine de St. Exupéry
I’ve been a full-time freelancer for a couple of decades, plugging into hundreds of creative projects with many dozens of teams—all stripes, scopes, scales, and levels. I’ve integrated as a follower, a leader, and an adjunct—an outsider with a specific task but not part of the long-term team.
What I’ve learned is that in the best projects:
- Everyone buys into a vision. If the vision seems just out of reach, all the better—more incentive and excitement to see it and make it happen. "Can we really do it???"
- Everyone stays on board because people listen, value every voice, provide feedback, and don’t skimp on encouragement and support.
- Even those who are “gathering wood” feel vested in something greater, and so go the extra mile. Happily. They also feel free to innovate, to suggest creative solutions, to do MORE than their appointed task.
- Progress toward the vision is marked, milestones celebrated.
- Setbacks and obstacles are discussed and examined: “There are no problems, only challenges.”
- It’s a joyous, feel-good experience to collaborate openly and honestly with other human beings, to create something new and truly great. That feeling is addictive—it's a powerful incentive to do it again and again.
All of the above is also very rare, in my experience. Positive leadership and a larger-than-life vision are crucial first steps. Communication and respect are the glue that keep it together.
How SuperScience Met Burning Man
Look closely at this photo of the inside of Múcaro, a giant wooden owl, and you'll see the many faces of Scott Froschauer, a series of his annual pictures from six months old to teenager.
We published that poster some 26 years ago, when I was the editor of SuperScience magazine, for our theme issue about "Growth." On the back of the poster is a series of hand x-rays that show how those bones change from year to year in growing children.
The poster accompanies a feature article about how the face changes proportion as it ages; early computer software was attempting to digitally age the photos of missing children to make them easier to identify years after abduction. The case study we highlighted, the 1979 murder of Etan Patz, was finally solved and adjudicated earlier this year (2017).
So, how did our poster end up at Burning Man, the annual desert art festival where installations like Múcaro are enjoyed, photographed, celebrated and then burned to the ground?
Scott is the son of the amazing Linda Froschauer, a nationally recognized science teacher and a key adviser to SuperScience magazine from the start.
Linda wrote our teacher's guides and dedicated a generous portion of her valuable time to helping me get up to snuff on the specifics of science education. I was primarily a writer, editor, and journalist, with a liberal arts background and a pair of literature degrees, so that STEM learning curve was pretty steep!
Thanks to Linda's patient help, I eventually fell in love with science and went on to write a couple of dozen science books for kids and make a bunch of science board games, among other STEM content.
Back to Scott. It's no small wonder that the son of such an incredible teacher would end up doing amazing and interesting things. He was the lead builder on Múcaro, a beautiful and complex artwork. Take a look at his handiwork, how the structure evolved, how the head of the giant owl pivots 360 degrees to give burners a spectacular view of the playa, on the installation's Facebook page.
Bravo, Scott! And Linda!
(Note: The lead artist on the project is from Puerto Rico, and the Facebook page also includes posts on the challenges that island is facing in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.)
My (Very Good) Addiction
I started my addiction to solving Acrostic word puzzles when I was about five or six, sitting next to my Dad while he solved them, and gradually chiming in as the layers of letter, word, and grammar patterns* began to make sense.
With pencil and eraser, I plowed through those giant puzzle books and then, later, confident pen in hand, solved them with my similarly addicted boyfriend-turned-husband. (Those were some of my favorite "dates.")
I eventually graduated to making acrostics for our sports bookstore, as a free handout to customers. I used multiple sets of Scrabble tiles to work them out.
Now, after a long and winding detour through other game-puzzle obsessions, the itch is BACK. It took me some 400+ puzzles to finally set an international speed record (heh, FWIW).
You'd think that victory would let me say, "whew, good job, Lorri, you can stop now." Instead, I am back at it. Surely, I can do it again. Right? And then AGAIN?
The nature of addiction.
*They're like crosswords, except instead of random words, the words spell out a quotation and the first letters of the clue answers spell out the speaker/writer and source. For the puzzle-curious: acrostics.org
A Creative High
Being a freelancer isn't about working alone, in front of a computer, inside your own head. Just the opposite. It's about adapting to all styles of team work: It's about plugging in seamlessly and quickly to new groups, figuring out your role and contributions, seeing and capitalizing on opportunities to mind meld with experts in other fields.
On two recent projects, for the Minnesota Historical Society and PBS, I LOVED finding the collaborative sweet spot on two large and very different teams, both on tight deadlines, both stacked with very smart and skilled people.
The first team included members from two diverse cultures as a large group of us gathered for three days to brainstorm a story-game about Hmong immigration. The second team, working remotely from several locations, brought together a critical range of skills—written, visual, code, game design, production, management, education—to produce an astonishing body of material in a very short period of time. Which we did.
Group dynamics don't always work that smoothly, but when people mesh, the collaboration is always far greater than the sum of the parts. The process feels like magic. I get a creative high from it!
The Connector? Me? (really?)
After yet another conference, I've morphed over the last six years of intensive mid-career pivoting from super-introverted creator type (my cave is rural, I tell you, very rural) to...
THE CONNECTOR—a maker of stuff who's been traveling between media for decades as a content creator... and between geographic regions, industries, personality types, skill sets, mindsets, agendas, etc etc etc to find new pathways.
Games and Meaningful Play conference: Academically oriented (which gave me pause initially, oy, pedagogy/parsing, not my strength), but populated by super smart and creative types who don't know what I know, haven't done what I've done, haven't met the people I know. And vice versa. That's what conferences are about, right?
Meaningful connections ensued.
A few takeaways:
1 Digital literature : Paul Darvasi and other teachers are embracing this new media approach and (soak this in -> CREATING it) as game designer-writers to move us all collectively into the future of storytelling.
They need help (hey, they TEACH, full-time, grading papers every weekend). Let's team up!!!!! They're hungry for games as lit, interactive stories as lit, RPGs as lit. etc etc.
Turn One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest into an ARG ("The Ward"). Shape The Odyssey into a first-person classroom game.
And a successor to Inanimate Alice, which pioneered some of this approach but has remained on an indie scale. What if a major publisher created the next generation of digital fiction from the ground up? I'd love to be in on that!
2 Co-creation, design process, iterative testing.
This is so ingrained now with me—from both a science and tech pov (a client :) AND a storytelling pov.
How about you? Invite your audience in, early and often, to figure out how to solve a problem, create something amazing. Messy, chaotic, at times... and perpetually beta, but MAKE IT WORK. Efficacy. Results. Real.
3 Know each other—and respect and talk to each other.
I've worked with language experts ("domain experts") and authors and artists and coder and project managers, and communications specialists... and it's critical to talk to and respect each other and share ideas toward a common vision.
Introverted as I am (by nature), I feel as if I've morphed into a natural collaborator, with tentacles. All along, my goal has always been: make great stuff. And that takes a team, all-in. Who's out there?
And a vision. <- My strength, eager to share, along with experience.
Thinking Globally, Disrupting Locally
One of my favorite events to attend is Learn Do Share (formerly DIY Days), which Lance Weiler started in New York some years ago as a way to help independent makers and creators collaborate and achieve their dreams. It's free—always free—and staffed by volunteer producers and helpers who are generous in spirit and intellect.
Lance has gradually shifted the focus from creators telling story in DIY innovate ways to solving global problems through storytelling and other non-conventional approaches (first education, then urbanism).
With Learn Do Share 2014 in NY, the transformation is now complete. It's no longer about making cool stuff. It's about making cool stuff that matters.
The group is like a loose anything goes, everyone welcome, just make-it-happen version of Games for Change, except games are a sliver of what's presented and what's possible at Learn Do Share. There are no labels or containers or categories.
The spirit is local -> global, fast and cheap prototyping: throw it out there and see what sticks, what needs fixing, what can work even better... and maybe it will scale and be sustainable.
As a traditionally published writer and content creator, used to creating draft after draft with layers of editing and management, I embrace that spirit gratefully and hungrily.
At the June 2014 event, I learned about tactical urbanism: Fix a city problem on the cheap and even on the sly ("unsanctioned") and see if the community embraces it and it becomes sanctioned. Then, we did it, thanks to Rotten Apple: We deployed simple improvements (a chess board, a fold-down seat, a doggie poop bag repository, a cell phone charger...) around the New School in New York.
Learn Do Share has spread to Los Angeles, Paris, Gothenburg (Sweden), London, and other cities.
Find Your Tribe
Writers tend to live a solitary life, spending a lot of time inside their own head, imagining. That works for me most of the time, but I've also enjoyed some mind-stretching experiences both working on and leading a creative team.
So, here's my number one advice for writers: Show up. Say yes, follow through, and leap out of that comfortable cocoon to connect with people.
For the past five years, I've made a serious commitment to attend more conferences, workshops, openings, mixers, networking lunches, and other outings. I've organized informal gatherings on my frequent visits to New York, each one a fresh mix of friends and colleagues.
I love talking shop, craft, and business with fellow writers, editors, and game designers, but I also make a point to reach out to people who have skills and experiences that I don't. Magic happens when you can combine divergent forces and create something fresh and special.
I welcome collaborations, especially in game design and digital publishing, where the solo act just doesn't cut it. Contact me if you think we're walking a similar path.
I Went to a Game Jam and Came Back a Writer (twice)
JANUARY 27, 2013, 2:10 a.m.
You know, at last year's Global Game Jam, at NYU, I went in, thinking, "I can make a board game in my sleep." That was my fallback. But, what I really wanted to do was connect with people who have skills I don't: coders and artists, mainly. A hidden agenda.
Pretty quickly, I was lured onto a video game team: a friendly designer and a tight-lipped developer and a talented drop-in artist. After hearing the theme (ouroboros—the tail-eating snake), we left the site and brainstormed over cheap ramen noodles.
I came up with half a dozen game ideas to fit the theme, many half-baked, and one pretty good and thematically appropriate one. Back in the corner we staked out, I paper prototyped it, and we made some progress on that game until site closing, midnight sharp.
I took the train back to Brooklyn and tried to sleep. Squirrel brain kept me up most of the night, and so I refined, fine-tuned, and honed that game design as I drifted in and out of consciousness. I came up with a brilliant solution to a problem. I expanded and extended the game, and then contracted it—streamlined it to its doable essence.
At 9 am, NYU doors open, I showed up at the site full of sketches and enthusiasm. BUT: Overnight, my video game team had gone in a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT DIRECTION, and the artist had jumped ship. The remaining duo had abandoned everything we did, didn't tell me, and essentially voted me off the island. Ouch!!!
Since I can't code fluently and have limited art skills, I turned my game design into a party game—a physical, two-team conga line challenge. I prototyped it with colored blocks and then couldn't find 10 people (!!!! I know) to help me test it. They were all glued to their computers, coding and creating pixel art. I was tired. Over the course of the afternoon, I introverted and withdrew from the scene, returning on Sunday afternoon to see what other teams had created.
A year later, I still have that game on the back burner, untested but promising. And, I don't at all regret going. I met some very, very talented people. WOW. I wish I had met more of them. (Stayed too long in one room, with one team, and then retreated.) The after-glow was that I came away with a bunch of creative energy that sustained me for the next week or so. I poured that energy into more profitable and doable ventures for me. A win, not a loss.
So, here I am, round two, for Global Game Jam 2013 (why did I come back? I don't know). And at 2 a.m. on Saturday night, I have squirrel brain again. But this time, it's my right brain, the writer in me. Our game is out of my hands, almost completely. The coders and the artists are manipulating their pixels and I can't test my design until they're done
So, I am writing a blog post. And thinking, I really *want* to write now. (I don't feel that way enough.)
What is it about Global GAME Jam that brings out the WRITER in me?
Who Taught You? Thank Them.
My favorite teacher? Lorraine Woodard. We even share a first name.
At Northville High School, I showed up to her Advanced Composition class exactly 59 minutes late one morning, a victim of that tricky EDT/EST switcheroo (I was never, ever a ”morning person”), and she didn’t bat an eye, no demerits, no fuss. For a graduation gift that year, she gave me a pen that lights up. She said, simply, ”For when you get your ideas. Write them down.”
And that, in a nutshell, is the secret to writing. It doesn’t do anyone any good at all, if it’s all in your head. You have to WRITE IT DOWN. If you don’t, it’s lost forever. Something was said at the time about not being able to step in a river twice, but I probably took that too literally as a teen.
I get it now. I wish I still had that electric pen.
I’m a professional writer, and Mrs. Woodard worked hard to make me a good one, but I’m still searching for my voice. You see, I keep getting these ideas. I need to write them down.
Mentor, and Be Mentored
On February 18, 2012, I attended the memorial service of my friend, editor, colleague, and mentor, Eric Oatman. Through generosity and a passion for education, Eric taught a generation of editors and writers best practices, while forging many deep friendships. With their help, I compiled this booklet of "Eric's Life Lessons" to share and spread the wisdom and kinship.
Make Yourself Squirm
I love my computer, I love my cozy home office, and I love writing. So, the thought of standing in front of a crowd at the very center of attention and spinning a yarn paralyzes me. By chance and good fortune, I met storyteller Regi Carpenter in Taos, and we talked a bit about her craft, and mine, on a long shuttle ride from the airport.
The next evening, I loved listening to Regi's polished and pitch-perfect tales of growing up along the St. Lawrence River as a "Carpenter Kid" and signed up for her workshop. Thanks to Regi's warm, skilled guidance, I now have the very beginning of a new story, one that, to my surprise, revealed some truths about myself just in the telling.
When it's practiced and polished, I will sum up the courage to stand on center stage, come what may.
That's a promise I just made to myself.
Just Go There
Whenever I've been home too long, I look at a map and say, "Where next?" Then, I tell myself, "Just go there." On a road trip from Michigan to New Mexico, I decided to take the long and winding route there and back. This beautiful redscape is near Devil's Tower, Wyoming.
Is this me? Believe it or not, it is! At the generous invitation of two of my English language students, I visited the busy, stunning country of Morocco, North Africa. I'm sitting near a beautiful pool and garden at the edge of Marrakesh. Behind me is an olive grove and, immediately beyond it, stretches a vast desert peppered by Earthy-red colored homes. Wearing a scarf is optional for Moroccan women, but my friends are traditional Muslims and, as they say, "When in Rome . . . "
I spent three weeks traveling around Argentina. My kind hosts in Patagonia were teachers Su and Sergio. Sergio brags that Argentina has "the best megabeasts, ever." I believe him!