Thoughts from Starbucks: On the purpose of Language, the Story, and My experience with a Beta-reader
Recently, I had a conversation with one of the employees at the local Starbucks in which I often visit (caffeine addiction, so...). In the conversation, I found that she is a writer as well. It was a brief encounter, but it was still enough to spark thoughts into my mind——thoughts primarily on the essence of the story itself.
Language has one function: Communication.
All language is designed to do this one thing.
I remember my Intro to Composition 2 class during my second semester of college. The professor began his class by writing the word “SIGN” in big, bold, letters on the board. At the age I was, I was not prepared for the simplicity in which this word would begin to imply, and it was not until much later that the lecture would “click.”
He said: “A word, is a sign.”
It is such a bare——such a plain definition of the concept, yet it is the greatest definition I have yet to encounter. It is because words are signs.
A word represents a concept: Abstract or concrete, moving or stationary, true or false.
This applies to the story, as well. A story, at its most basic——most cellular level——is a variety of words which, when placed in particular combination, convey an idea. This idea, in terms of stories, creates the illusion of the world, or a world. The writer of fiction, then, is alike the magician; the storyteller is an illusionist and a weaver of words. The job of the storyteller is to combine these words into the right order to make the reader (or listener) care about non-existent people, in a non-existent reality, doing non-existent things.
On my way home from the coffee shop, I considered this; I considered how these things could make me a better writer, then, I thought about my beta-reader. Having a beta-reader has been, for me, the ultimate example of the importance of using words to create the illusion mentioned above——and using words correctly. The thing is this: I never realized just how blind I was——just how little I knew about writing the story——just how blind I was because I knew the story in its entirety.
So, what do I mean?
I mean that I know what I mean. I know the story; I know what the story is supposed to say. My reader, on the other hand, does not. This, then, means that the reader only knows the story through the information I give her. There have been many times when my beta-reader has come back and said something like “So [CHARACTER] is really...” or “So [THIS] is [THAT]?”
Conversely, these times fill my pulse with anxiety as I think “Oh no! What have I done to make her think that?”
What the reader thinks about your story, whether true or false, is not their fault. They only understand what has been communicated to them; they only comprehend the ideas that the writer’s words have conveyed to them.
I have learned, through many semi-anxiety-attacks as a writer, just how crucial it is to watch my words. When I edit, I ask myself “Does that word mean ___?” and “What am I trying to convey? What am I trying to tell the reader?” Through my experiences with the beta-reader, I am learning to be a bit more discerning with my diction.
That said, I am glad that writing is, like all arts, an incremental process. I am merely learning and have far to go. That is my contemplation for the week, and I can say is this: Next time you edit, watch your words and say, “What idea am I trying to convey?” :)
However, there are things in this post that one might consider SPOILERS FOR KINGDOM HEARTS 3, but idk.
READ AT YOUR OWN RISK :)
So, I finished Kingdom Hearts 3 last night, and I thought I would talk a bit about it.
And by the Aeons, I am NOT okay!
So, I wanted to talk about a technical storytelling aspect in Kingdom Hearts that I personally find intriguing. This would be what that I also think to be one of the greatest staples of the series: The usage of mystery over actiony suspense. The story has a way of using cryptic language and imagery to propel itself and hook his audience. Think about it: The opening of the original Kingdom Hearts begins with Sora’s unclear dialogue, saying things like “I’ve been having these weird thoughts lately...Is any of this real, or not...?” Not to mention that the first place we see in actual gameplay is the enigmatic Station of Awakening.
Throughout the entire series, from the first battle with Darkside all the way to the final clash with Xehanort in the sky above Scala ad Caelum, the story has the essence of a mysterious dream.
So, why do I find this storytelling strategy to be so captivating? We have all had dreams; we have all seen the Oracle or Soothsayer spin their omens and fortunes. In the beginning lines to Aristotle’s work on Metaphysics: “All men, by nature, desire to have knowledge.”
It is bred into us——from the moment we are born, we have such a driving curiosity. Consider: The infant tests objects by putting them into its mouth; children wander around the back yard, taking in the sights around them; teens wish to know what love and purpose are in a world that has been made new to them; adults desire to see things they could not see with younger eyes.
And it is that—--it is that primordial attribute of the human nature that makes Kingdom Hearts an exciting story.
It is no different than the stories of Greek myth, in which the hero or heroine encounters a world in which they did not know before——a world new to them, or perhaps a world made bare, manifest, or even true.
The same is true for Sora’s journey.
In the beginning, we have Sora, who, through each installment, has his character and spirit tested with each new thing he discovers about the world. Through this, we see a world unfold before him, be it through the loyal companionship of Donald and Goofy, or Sora’s striking desire save his friends and protect the ones he loves, or even in his encounters with the members of Organization XIII.
It is the “Myth.” Even the final installment for this arc itself mirrors the heroes of ancient myth—--a hero who hears a call to adventure, then journeys forth to meet his greatest challenge yet. He is brought to the brink of death, and failure consumes him. But not for long, as he overcomes——and through that resilience, he is victorious.
The final installment of the Seekers of Darkness Arc has closed, and I personally felt that it had been done by tying as few knots as possible. But. That in itself is the beauty of the series: A story full of characters, plots, and settings that keep us guessing.
The ending was somewhat bittersweet——we see a more human Xehanort, and we see the story laid out in the metaphor of a game of chess between the duality of Darkness and Light. And, though I told myself that I would be done after Kingdom Hearts 3, I must say:
The Alchemist-Writer and the Library of the Human Experience
Not to get on a serious note or anything, but I wrote this little blurb, and I figured that I wanted to share it. It is simply a small observation about writing theory that came to me in a conversation with a friend as we drove down the street to Dunkin' Donuts. Anyways...
As a writer, I spend most of my day in the worlds that inhabit my mind. I will not pretend that writing came easy to me, as it did not. I began writing as a hobby when I was sixteen. The way this occurred was a somewhat unorthodox and incremental process, and, though I started at sixteen, I was not comfortable with my writing until I was twenty-three. I did not know this when I began, but writing involves reading, careful study, observation, and perception of the World around us. Writing is art, but simultaneously a science. A writer is an alchemist of the abstract, who gazes beyond the external world and into the unseen themes——the mechanics of the machine we call the soul or the “True World.” Like the alchemist, they are (and must be!) acutely aware of the elements that compound and consist the recipe we call prose or poem. Before the writer lies this multitude of elements——a Library of Themes that he or she must consider. The books of this Library have almost all but been told by the storytellers of ages gone. In the words of the unnamed teacher of Ecclesiastes, there is “nothing new under the sun,” but has merely been told time and time again.
For this Library is but a collection of the Human Experience, a plethora of our ideas and identity from which one must concoct something grand. This Library——this mortar and pestle in which the Alchemist-Writer uses to crush the ingredients is but a picture of us. The writer does not play merely with voice, meter, rhyme, character, setting, or plot; the writer tampers at the most atomic level with the pieces of the Human Experience. When one writes a poem, they write a message to the Spirit of Man; when one tells a story, they simply draw for their readers a mirror in which to gaze into. Ultimately, that is what the reader of the story yearns for (whether known to them or not). We not only want to read a wonderful tale, but we also want to see ourselves within it. And so the writer, then, has a crucial job: To remind us of who we are, and to tell us who we can become. This is the job of the Alchemist-Writer; this is the job of the one who peruses the Library of Human Experience. So, with that, next time you sit down to type a page, ask yourself: “What do I see in this mirror? And who is gazing back at me?”
It just happened like one of those 2 a.m. conversations, me and him just sitting in the Dunkin' parking lot before he had to clock in. I mean, the conversation didn't go exactly like the above, but I found myself wanting to spell out this idea in my mind. It was pretty much a realization to me. I felt one of those "that makes sense" feelings about it. Anyway, I thought it would be a great way to kick off the revival of my blog (from the grave). I hope you enjoyed! :)
Suicide is the ultimate symptom of mental illness. It is called “a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” However, what exactly is this “temporary problem”? I once attended an upstart church here at my hometown in Northwest Georgia where I heard a pastor preach on suicide. He was fiery in his polemic as he exclaimed his words with passion, asking, “Would you want to leave your family and friends in grief because you were a coward?!” His words thundered throughout the auditorium and into the ears of the congregation. Cowardice? Is it cowardice that leads a man to end his life? According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 44,193 people commit suicide each year in the United States alone. Suicide is not a result of cowardice, but rather an epidemic of hopelessness. The coward doesn’t hang a noose; the coward doesn’t swallow a whole bottle of pills; the coward doesn’t put a gun to his head and pull the trigger. No, the coward does not do these things, but the hopeless man does. The hopeless man is one who sees no way out; he sees no answer for his despair; he sees through gray lenses. The hopeless man seeks rest, and, pushed daily by the weight of his darkness, finally decides that he has had enough. The loss of hope is a heavy vest around his torso, and he walks slowly. It is a voice that desires an end to his pain, and, pushed to the precipice, he wants to go to sleep. Hopelessness is the culprit of suicide. It is not cowardice nor selfishness; no, it is despair. That brings me to my reasoning for writing this article: to ask a question. What, exactly, does it mean to be “hopeless?” Furthermore, what is hope? Unquestionably, to be hope-less implies that one does not have hope. What then is hope? To hope one must hold to the faith that the future is favorable. One does not project hope onto an unfavorable probability, that is as long the unfavorable probability is somewhat favorable to them. One hopes he/she will receive a promotion; one hopes he/she gets accepted by his/her desired university; a child hopes Santa Claus will bring his/her choice of a video game. Hope is only existent in foresight, and hope correlates with faith. Hope is an expectation or desire for a favorable outcome. Hope is always for something favorable. Even when one hopes something bad will happen to someone else, one could say that unfavorable outcome to said person would bring a favorable effect to the one who hoped it would happen. They receive the favorable outcome in that their hope was realized. Humanity hopes; and hope itself is the aspiration to the favorable imminent. You cannot hope for something you do not wish to take place. To do so would no longer be hope, but rather it would be dread. So, therefore, what does it mean to be hopeless? The hopeless man cannot see favorability in his foresight. To be hopeless is to be unable to see a favorable imminent. The hopeless man has no projection of positivity in his foresight. It is this that leads a man to suicide. Why would a man with hope end his life and thus forfeit the probability of his positive prospects being realized? Suicide is a result of a jaded perception. Inside of his head, he is subject to his darkness: his failures, mistakes, shortcomings. The way he sees it is that nothing will get better. Instead, he perceives a future of grim and inescapable pain. Without hope, he writhes in agony. He thinks himself a laughingstock, unable to see the full picture; he is blind to the good of the world. The hopeless man becomes cynical. Cynicism may lead to depression, depression may lead to utter hopelessness, and when all hope is gone, suicide is an ultimate outcome. So what does the hopeless man see through his eldritch eyes? Even the afterlife becomes a gamble he will take. He does not know what his creator will say to him(if there is a creator, that is). He does not know if Hell awaits him or not, but he has a twisted faith that there is a possibility God will give him sympathy. If by chance death is annihilation, he holds to the idea of rest but weeps at the thought that his life was in vain. In the excruciating pain he experiences, the hopeless man will chance God himself to find any solace. He will leave his family and friends. The thought of his funeral hangs above his bed. Will his friends come? He laments their tears. He knows it is not the way, yet he is a cornered animal in that his pain will not cease. His mind is warped, and the tears of his loved ones justify his pain. He is not afraid of his pain, only desperate to escape it. With his last bit of strength, he musters up one hope. The hopeless man has one hope; he sees one favorable imminent. He sees death, and death calls to him. Death offers to take his burden, but at the sake of taking his life. He sees no hope other than the hope of his end. Given that he only sees the answer in his ultimate end, the takes the Reaper’s hand, and his body goes cold.
Logic spits flames as a voice in his head. He sits at the edge and looks down below.
"Get up, young man! You don't want to go, to spiral to the bottom.
For at the end of this emotion lies only death, but I'm going to tell you you can make it not so.
You don't have sit, at the edge of that ledge like your perception tells you so. Perhaps outside the box you're in the sun shines upon the snow?
Sure, life is bleak, and many come and go, but outside of that box you're in the sun shines upon the snow.
Have you ever seen it? Outside the box, where the sun shines upon the snow?
I know you feel your pulse go by in every moment now, and you look off the ledge to see the darkness down below.
Perception is a tricky thing when it seems so doom and gloom, but perhaps you only see that way because you are so low.
Perception is a box, you see, from your eyes unto your brain emotions are a byproduct of the thoughts your head has made. Perception is little box that grows smaller when we are low, but until we look outside of it we will never see if the sun shines upon the snow.
So how can you say it is the end, and can you truly know, if you've never looked outside that box to see that sun shines upon the snow?
My point here is you are quick to draw but not so quick to know that all you feel is in this box where you sit with your fear and woe.
But if you hear not one more word to heed before I go
I would ask that you remove that box to the sight of the sunshine upon the snow."
When I was 16 years old, I was diagnosed with Bipolar 1 Disorder. Bipolar 1 Disorder is a severe mental illness where those afflicted suffer from mood swings that range from manic highs to depressive lows. There are a few variations of the disease, such as Bipolar 1 and Bipolar 2, and I believe a few others. Bipolar 1 Disorder is categorized by the presence of psychotic features. Basically, the person afflicted by disease has mood swings so drastic that it can impair how they perceive reality. There have been times in my life in which I believed that I was a prophet or Chosen One sent from God or something bogus like that. The disease is caused because the chemicals in the brain are not balanced properly. Also, scientists have discovered a number of genetic mutations that appear consistently in the brains of bipolar people that are not found in the brains of those without the disease. Most of the time, simply getting from bedtime to bedtime is challenging. That said, I will probably also be medicated consistently for the entire duration of my life. All of this I have found empirically true. Since dealing with a disease that affects my perception of reality is often extremely difficult and requires much determination and strength on a daily basis, I have found that one thing has proven to be my voice of reason among the maelstrom that is Bipolar 1 Disorder. Writing helps me on a daily basis. Often, my perception causes me a great deal of pain. One day, I feel anxious that I have annoyed a friend, or perhaps I feel one day that I am worthless or that no one loves me. Maybe I feel that I am a joke, and that no one respects me, or that I will never escape my pain. Some days, if I am on the high, more manic side, I will feel paranoid, like people are watching me. In these times, when my perception is warped, I feel as if I am in a box. I try to reason with myself, but it seems that sense is far from me. That is often when I write. Sometimes, we don’t know what to say to justify the magnitude of what we feel. We stay silent. But, after a while, our hearts know what to say. Even if our minds don’t. If I am able, I write in one of my many small journals. If I am not able to do that, I write in a college ruled notebook. If that is not available, I always make sure to have my phone with me. The Evernote app is one of my favorites. I can open it at any time I have my phone, and I can write on the go. When I am trapped in the box, and my brain is in wild shambles, I open myself to the first thing that comes out of my mouth. I ask myself: “What is it you want to say?” Last night, the poem above is what I had to say. In the midst of the unrelenting Hell that Bipolar 1 Disorder, I write messages to myself. I wanted to share the poem because I thought there was a message that could be taken from it. Depression and Bipolar Disorders are some of the many mental illnesses categorized under what we call “Psychosis.” Psychosis is defined by the medical community as a state in which one loses touch with reality. We, humans, all perceive reality through our senses. For instance, our eyes see the blue sky and send messages to the brain. The brain then processes the information and determines that the sky is indeed blue. The brain, realizing just what a bright blue the sky is on that day, reacts in a way that makes the heart flutter and increases blood flow. Those reactions are what we call emotions. We live the entirety of our lives as slaves to that chain of reactions. That is what we call “perception.” I have dealt with my illness for almost eight years now. Along the way, I have learned about my disease and how it affects me. I had to learn psychological techniques and theories, and I also have picked up a few pointers of my own as well. Statistics say that about 5.7 million Americans are diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and about 15 million with some variation of Depression. In the poem, a young man sits at the edge of a ledge with a box on his head. From the way he sees it, he can only peer below him to see that the chasm is very deep and dark. There is, however, a voice on the outside of the box. This voice sits beside the young man, asking to take the box off of his head. You see, the young man can only see within the box and the chasm below. He cannot see outside of the box. If he could, he would realize that what he perceives in the box does not agree with what lies around him. Because of the box on his head, he cannot see that around him, the sun is shining on the snow. It is the tail end of the month of August here in northwest Georgia, which happens to be what many of us call our hottest month. With temperatures into the high nineties, I would love to have the right weather for snow. This young man, because of the box on his head, cannot perceive that all around him there is some kind of beauty. Everyone has or will see tragedy in their lives. Yes, life can be bleak. That is true. There will always be bad things happening; there will always be bad people doing bad things, and everyone, at some point, will go to sit on that ledge and put that box on their head. In the box lies pain. In pain lies agony. In agony, there is always the chance we will look down to see how deep the chasm is. At the bottom of the chasm lies death, and the box is there to make sure we see no other way. Perception works in that way. If our brains interpret the world in darkness, we will never be able to see the snow outside. The trick comes by understanding that what we perceive is not definite. It comes with the understanding that everything we feel stems from how you think. If you think you are worthless, then you will feel worthless. We must understand that the box of our perception is based upon what we think about ourselves and the world around us. The daily defeat of Depression and Bipolar Disorder comes by realizing that our perception is not always true. Life is only as dark as we allow ourselves to perceive. As we allow ourselves to believe, that is. If we never take the box off of our heads, we will never know if the sun shines upon the snow. And until we lift the box off of our heads, we can never truly say we know it doesn’t. If you are prescribed medication, I encourage you to take it and take with integrity. There is no shame in taking it. You are not broken nor of any less value for doing so. Basically, your brain has a problem. That’s it. There is no morality involved with a mental illness. It is far too pragmatic for that. There are physical elements at work inside of your head that results in the symptoms you feel. I take medication; I have taken it since I was sixteen. I will be twenty-four in March. Medication will not take the disease away, but it will make it tolerable. Some of us see therapists very frequently. A therapist is good, but their job is not to make it go away. A therapist teaches techniques. What I just wrote about is a technique I have picked up along the way. In summary, I call it “Thinking outside of the box.” When we realize that what we feel is caused by out impairment of reality, or that what we feel is a symptom of our illness, it is an opening for this technique. In this instance, breathe. In through the nose. Hold. 1... 2... 3... Now out through the mouth. Let’s walk around a bit. Let’s get you out of that box. I encourage you, next time the darkness is all you see, and you look down at chasm below; take a moment to hear that voice, and see the sunshine upon the snow.
Pearl- a gem in a valley, as Churchill once described it. A description on point, as I would testify- despite my sweat.
I was a sight. Mzungu: white guy who "runs in circles" riding over chaotic potholes in a landscape with no welfare to the vendors on the streets, while Bastille beat drums in my ears, a tether to the privilege of home.
On arrival, I heard a mosque- on speakerphone, bellowing five pillars out into the streets across from the school, where I spoke to the child.
Mzungu- a louder curiosity than the call to prayer.
Mission work- I told him a mute salvation as he rubbed my wrist to test the myth, and see my "blue blood."
This- is what history has given him: imperial inferiority, contrived. Smoke and mirrors.
This young boy in the slums, to him I am simply "Mzungu," a reminder of the pervasive regimes his family talks about. I am the one with blue in his veins...
I still wonder, to this day, what he would have done if I had sliced my hand to show him-
that oxidation makes us all red.
In 2011, I had freshly graduated from high school, and with a 2.2 GPA under my belt, I had no desire to go to college. I apathetically watched a vast majority of my friends as they all packed their bags to go to blah-blah University. Meanwhile, I stayed home and wrestled with my desire to see the world. I wanted to see change, but most of all, I wanted to be a missionary. I chose Uganda pragmatically, and upon arrival to the Pearl of Africa, I was overcome by the lush environment, the dry heat, the busy streets of Kampala, but most of all by the resilience of the Ugandan people. I wrote the above poem in 2015, in recollection of an experience I had. One day, we were evangelizing in a slum on the outskirts of Kampala. The slum was near a school that had just dismissed its students, and as the school boys and girls seeped through the rusty gate of the schoolhouse, I found myself surrounded. "Hello, Mzungu" was a standard greeting I received. Although they say it with a smile, there is a darkness to it. The darkness is not in the intention of the one saying it but is intrinsic to the word itself. The word "Mzungu" can be translated to "wanderer without purpose" or "one who runs in circles" and implies constant, but useless movement. I did not learn that until I had revisited the country in 2013 and though the word is said with a smile, my college history class illuminated the subconscious frustration behind it. Continuing my story, the teen students surrounded me and stared at me in pure curiosity. I did what I had come to do. I spoke, and the kids dispersed. Happily, I took my translator(Vincent was his name) and walked ahead of my group. In politics, religion, and ethics we like to preach our ideologies to portray that we have "an open heart." At age 18, my heart was closed. My heart was closed because my ears were closed. A little boy started following me, pointing and shouting, causing a ruckus about the Mzungu— aka me. Yelling at me "Mzungu, Mzungu" with a smile plastered on his face, his bright eyes filled with wonder. I looked this boy in the face and playfully pointed back, yelling: "No! YOU'RE Mzungu!" This was my time to listen. The boy giggled and said something in his native language. I turned to Vincent for a translation: "The boy says that we are not the same because your skin is white and my skin is black." "Ask him if he bleeds when he gets cut," I questioned to the boy through Vincent. "Yes," the boy replied quizzically.
Sure of myself, I asked the boy what color his blood was. He replied, "Red." "Me too. So we are the same." This tiny boy could not have been older than eight years old. The boy pointed at my hand and said: "No! Because your blood is blue." If there were ever a time in my life where I have felt an ineffable voicelessness, it was there as I stared at my blue veins. I am twenty-three now. If there is anything I regret out of my small handful of experiences, it is that I didn't bite the hell out of my finger. I would have held it low enough for him to see that we were not so far from each other just because my skin is pale and his is dark. Two years later, I attended a European History class at a community college. There, I learned about the horrors of European Imperialism in Africa. It was then, two years later, that I opened my heart to the lesson that boy taught me. How would it have blown his mind if he saw me bleed red? Would it have undone the hundreds of years of walls people have built? Would he have even believed if he saw? I wonder. I plan to visit again, perhaps next time as a better listener and less of a talker...