The Commencement Address

This year, the graduating class at the high school where I work asked me to deliver the commencement address. I was honored to do so, and I took the task to heart. It was a rare opportunity to speak to a group of young people at a transformative point in their lives. And with the parents, family members, and friends of graduates, as well as colleagues and members of the larger community gathered in the gymnasium, it was the biggest audience I’d ever had the opportunity to speak to. I’d like to share these words with you as well, so what follows is the speech I gave, pretty much word for word as it was delivered.

COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS

Delivered on June 9th, 2018 by Matthew Lowes

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I have to say, I am deeply honored to speak with you on this momentous occasion.

Some people expressed surprise that I would accept this task. But honestly … this is an honor I could not refuse. I am immensely grateful for the education I received, and for all my teachers, both in and out of school. So to me, to stand before a group of graduates and address them like this, is one of the highest honors imaginable.

Of course, I quickly realized that being honored is not really enough in a situation like this. It’s more of a … you know … you have to say something meaningful kind of situation. And so here I am, charged with saying something meaningful to you — something that might make a difference in your life and how you see yourself and the world.

It’s a tall order.

A few of you seemed concerned about what I would or wouldn’t say. You came around and asked me to say something specific, or asked if you could see the speech. But frankly, I turned down all requests. What would be the point of me speaking if you all knew what I was going to say. Also, I admit I didn’t entirely know what I was going to say yet. But since you all asked me to speak, I knew that I would have to speak from my heart.

The truth is, I know you just well enough to know that I don’t know the funniest anecdotes to tell, or the greatest accomplishments to highlight. But I know you well enough to know that I am grateful to have met you. And I know you well enough to know that some of you have struggled to be here, and others have overcome incredible hardships. And I am immensely proud of every single one of you.

Your accomplishments have encouraged us all. Your struggles have touched our hearts. And your presence has brightened our days.

Each one of you is worthy of far more time than I have here.

Nevertheless, I hope that I can give you some piece of advice, or a perspective on life that might be helpful. And with that in mind, I don’t want to reminisce about past glories, nor speculate on all the great things you may do in the future. I don’t want to pretend that there haven’t been hard times, or that there won’t be hard times to come. I’m sure there were, and there definitely will be.

Instead, I would like to talk about this moment, right now. For it is always in the present moment that we are living. It always has been, and always will be now. In this way, everything that has ever happened has happened today, and everything that ever will happen will also happen today. That is when our lives are unfolding. And this will always be the case, for you, for me, for everybody.

So let’s think about this. The past, as we remember it, is already gone. The future, as we imagine it, will never really arrive. It will always be now. This present moment that we are experiencing goes on throughout our entire lives. So how we live, here and now, is always what really matters.

This may seem obvious, but it’s a fact that is so easy to lose track of. It’s so easy for us to become distracted, unconscious of our remarkable existence in this present moment. And it’s so easy become wrapped up in our thoughts about what has happened and where it’s all going, or to become entranced by our ideas about who we are, what we’re doing, what we’ll become, what we’re capable of, what we should or shouldn’t do in the future, what could happen, and what it all means.

Of course we need to remember the past, to acknowledge and learn from it. And we need to plan for the future as well, to set course now for our greatest aspirations. But never forget that the present moment is all there will ever be. Whatever you do, even when you’re remembering and planning, you will always be doing it now. And even when you are not really doing anything, you cannot help but not do it now.

So whatever joy you seek in life, you can only find it in the present moment. And whatever you intend to accomplish, you can only work towards it in the present moment. And whatever problems may arise in your life or that you perceive in the world, you can only solve them in the present moment. And whatever kind of person you wish to be, you can only be that person now, in the present moment.

Life can seem incredibly complicated, but the truth is very simple. Moment by moment, we live these beautiful lives. They are filled with soaring heights, mundane plains, and abyssal depths. But whatever happens, have courage for the moment. For all we can do is attend to ourselves and the situation at hand, always living in this present moment.

Wisdom has not changed throughout the ages. But it’s up to you to discover what it really is. I can only give you a taste, point in the general direction, and encourage you to discover it for yourselves.

To all those ends I say: Be kind, be curious, be loving, be truthful. And I say all these things in the deepest possible sense.

Endeavor to find out who you really are and what your true potential is. I assure you, it’s way bigger than you can imagine.

And through it all, always strive to understand what it is to be a good person.

It won’t always be easy, but moment by moment, if we can just be that, everything else will take of itself.

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Thank you, and congratulations to the Class of 2018!

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The Art of Josephe Vandel

Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls and Devil’s Playground have both been the fruit of a wonderful collaboration between myself and artist Josephe Vandel. The rich world of dark fantasy he has created in the cards has been the perfect representation of the adventures, ideas, and themes I have been endeavoring to evoke in the rulebooks. And yet he has surprised me again and again with the scope and the imaginative originality and detail of the artwork.

Josephe’s skill as an artist were evident from his prior work, but the Dungeon Solitaire art has exceeded my expectation at every turn. So many pieces arrived on my screen to wide eyes and an agape jaw. The unexpected, the beautiful, the horrific, the weird, and the wonderful are all on display. He has delved deep into dark realms of the psyche, and researched rich architectural details. Time and again he has delivered pieces that are highly original and highly evocative.

We were absolutely thrilled by the funding success and reception of the Labyrinth of Souls, and are super-excited that so many backers have already made the Devil’s Playground Kickstarter such a success. We’ve had a lot of fun working together to create something incredible and unique for the gaming community. We talked quite a bit about what the Labyrinth of Souls and the Devil’s Playground are about thematically, and while Josephe has always been incredibly receptive to feedback and any direction I wanted to give, it has rarely been needed. I have been more than happy to give him plenty of latitude to express his vision, and the incredible results speak for themselves.

I am so grateful to have the opportunity to collaborate with Josephe and for his contributions to Dungeon Solitaire. He has created something extraordinary in the Labyrinth of Souls and Devil’s Playground decks. At once, his illustrations are evocative, dark, and filled with symbolic depth. And ultimately, the cards have the same classic and timeless quality I hoped to achieve with the rules. Taken as a whole, the decks present a unified vision and a grand space for the imagination to play in.

This is just some of the incredible art featured in Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls and Dungeon Solitaire: Devil’s Playground.

Check out the Dungeon Solitaire: Devil’s Playground Kickstarter now!

Never Too Late Gifts

With the holiday season in full swing, I probably should have posted this sooner, but hey it’s never too late for great gifts for yourself or loved ones. With that in mind, I’d like to highlight the ever increasing line of Dungeon Solitaire and Labyrinth of Souls books and games. So below are some links, including one for a free game. Book links are through Amazon where you can still get two-day shipping, but note that books can be found through other online retailers as well.

Dungeon Solitaire: Tomb of Four Kings is a free print-and-play game that uses a standard deck of playing card — perfect for whiling away the holiday hours and indulging your inner introvert at family gatherings. Download the PDF here, find a deck of cards, and you’re ready to play. A Spanish Edition is also available.

Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls is an expanded tarot version of Dungeon Solitaire. The 152 page rulebook contains Basic, Expert, and Advanced versions of the game, as well as a variety of exciting variants, including Two-Player, Dragon’s Lair, Undead Hordes, Megadungeon, Campaign Mode, and Cartomancy! This game can be played with any tarot deck, or with the custom Labyrinth of Souls tarot, with 10 extra arcana cards. Cards are sold separately and available through Gamecrafter with PDF Basic Rules included.

 

Labyrinth of Souls fiction from ShadowSpinners Press offers a series of stand-alone novels inspired by Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls. The Labyrinth of Souls is a manifestation of a mythic underworld, existing at a crossroads between people and cultures, between time and space, between the physical world and the deepest reaches of the psyche. It is a dark mirror held up to human experience, in which you may find your dreams… or your doom. Each Labyrinth of Souls novels features an adventure into a unique vision of a mythic underworld. Get ready to delve into the Labyrinth in a totally new way! Click on the book of your choice below, and look for more Labyrinth of Souls fiction coming out in 2018!

    

The Importance of Inspiration

tesla

Thomas Edison famously said “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” While the spirit of this quote is most certainly true — it takes a lot of hard work to excel in any endeavor worthwhile — this saying has been used far too often in a manner that downplays the vital importance of inspiration.

Depending on how well Edison did his calculations, he may have exaggerated his point by quite a bit. After all, Nikola Tesla, Edison’s chief rival, not so famously said, “a little theory and calculations would have saved him [Edison] ninety percent of his labor.” You do the math.

In a practical sense, inspiration is not a magical feeling that randomly overwhelms you, or a fairy who whispers in your ear. These things are more usefully cast as motivation, which can be disciplined, and skill, which can be learned. Inspiration, on the other hand, is a thought that gives rise to form. It is the very reason a work comes into being the way it does.

As a writer, it’s important to figure out what your story is really about. What idea, or feeling, or effect do you want to convey to the reader? If you haven’t figured out what you’re trying to do with a story, your chances of succeeding are pretty random. Hence the need to understand your inspiration.

Whether you’re a person who likes to write first and figure out the story while rewriting, or the type who likes to figure out a few things before starting, a conscious examination of what inspired you to conceive of such a story will go a long way toward shaping what you’re trying to write. Inspiration gives focus and vision to the creative process.

A story might be inspired by any number of thoughts, ideas, images, or characters, but the more clearly you understand your inspiration, the greater your chance to realize its full potential. Edgar Allan Poe thought a short tale ought to be inspired by a singular desired effect, preconceived by the author, and that every sentence should work toward building that idea.

Inspiration can be found anywhere, if you look for it. I found the inspiration for this piece in an interview with Horacio Pagani, a designer of hand crafted super high performance cars. His parents were bakers in Argentina, and while he certainly worked hard to create his dream, what struck me most was the specificity with which he described his inspirations, and his passion for turning them into amazing cars.

Many great artists can clearly articulate their inspirations, and this is probably not a coincidence. So yes, there will be perspiration, and I dare say there will be blood, tears, and sacrifices along the way too, but don’t underestimate the importance of inspiration, especially if you aim to create something extraordinary.

*First Published on ShadowSpinners, February 2014.

Writing Fights Scenes 2: Dramatic Elements

greek-persian_duel

My last post dealt with the importance of understanding the tone of a fight scene, but there is something even more important. Real fighting, be it on a small or large scale is not inherently entertaining. Nevertheless, we are drawn to the story of a good fight because of the dramatic engagement of the characters. Without drama, the action can be a tedious, boring, or otherwise off putting.

Whether you’re writing something like the battle for Helm’s Deep or the duel between Hamlet and Leartes, the buildup to the fight is arguably more important than the fight itself. It is during the buildup that we come to understand why the fight matters. Ask yourself what’s at stake for your characters and in the larger context of your story. “The readiness is all,” Hamlet says at last, and because the entire story has built up to this moment, we are prepared for a fight of truly dramatic proportions.

Think of your fight scene as a kind of story within the story. It should be a necessary part of the overall narrative. It should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should have a setting, a plot, and characters. It goes without saying it should have external conflict, but it should also have internal conflict. These elements should be established in the buildup, so when the action starts they all come crashing together. The fight should be a climactic focal point for dramatic elements in the narrative.

In terms of plotting the action, things should never go as planned. There should always be surprises, turns in the action driven by the elements in play. Perhaps reinforcements arrive, treachery unfolds, or fear strikes. A good fight will have at least one or two good turns, when the advantage shifts from one side to the other before the final victory or defeat.

*First published on ShadowSpinners, December 2013.

Writing Fight Scenes: Graphing Fictional Violence

Physical violence and fighting can be a wonderful source of conflict in fiction … when it’s done well. A fight should tell a story that’s integral to the overall narrative, and the tone of the action should not feel out of place.

Most violence and martial arts portrayed in fiction is filled with various levels of fantasy, even in otherwise realistic stories. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but frequently I think writers are attempting one thing and doing another.

When writing a fight scene it’s important to understand the kind of fight you want to write. You can imagine your fight existing somewhere on a graph with realism vs. fantasy on the x-axis and serving the story vs. the inconvenient truth on the y-axis. Great scenes can be written anywhere on the graph, but it helps to know where you are and what you’re up against.

graphing-fictional-violence

In this context, realism is an adherence to the laws of physics and the demonstrated behavior and abilities of real people. Fantasy may break these rules, but should have a set of internal rules the characters and actions adhere to.

Serving the story is the necessity of certain actions or outcomes for the sake of the overall narrative. The inconvenient truth is everywhere the rules of realism or the internal rules of fantasy are in conflict with those actions and outcomes. Sometimes it’s okay to break the rules, but go too far and readers will be put off.

Martial arts and fighting are rich fields touching upon physics, culture, technology, anatomy, phychology, history, and human ability. It pays to do some research! As with most things, the more knowledge and experience you have, and the clearer your objectives, the more confident and convincing your fiction will be.

russian-martial-art
The author receiving some experience in Russian martial arts

*First published on ShadowSpinners, October 2013.

Beautiful Corpses

About a year ago I did some extensive research on mummies and mummification for a story. This kind of research is one of the perks of writing fiction. I watched documentaries, read articles, and went to see one of largest collections of mummies ever assembled from around the world. I was a bit mummy obsessed for a while. I got my story too, and eventually wrote a bit on the subject that was first published on ShadowSpinners:

mummy
Photography (c) 2002 Zubro and released under GFDL

Beautiful Corpses

There’s no doubt death discomforts the living. A long history of adaptation for survival has assured we are repelled by the sight and smell of a rotting corpse, especially the corpse of human being. We are disturbed by possible threats to our well-being and reminded of our ultimate mortality. We are heartbroken at the loss of friends and family, and at the horrible absence a corpse represents.

Through the ages, we have developed countless ways of dealing with the dead. We have burned them on funeral pyres and interred them in lofty tombs. We have buried them in the ground and shelved them in catacombs. We have drowned them in the sea and left them on mountaintops for scavengers to pick clean their bones. Perhaps none is more fascinating than mummification, when the flesh of the living is preserved in death through the ages. The word “mummy” come from the Arabic word for bitumen, thought to be used in some Egyptian mummies, but different types of mummies exist from around the world.

To create a mummy the process of decay must be halted, usually though desiccation, but sometimes through chemicals, cold temperatures, or submersion in an anaerobic fluid. While many cultures deliberately mummify the dead, many mummies are a product of accidental conditions. In either case, once the body has stabilized, if the environment is favorable, a mummy may remain intact for thousands of years.

When decay ceases, and the grief of the living has passed into history, a strange beauty remains in the dead. You can sense this beauty gazing upon an ancient mummy. It’s difficult to put into words. This silent face … this still flesh … stirs thoughts of life as much as death, of hopes and dreams, of love and loss and longing. The beauty of this singular person, who walked the earth so long ago, is still here, like a shadow cast forward through time.

Ancient Egyptian culture flourished for 3000 years. An estimated 70 million people were mummified and entombed in the burning sands. For all that time, tombs have been broken into, desecrated, and robbed for the valuables they contained. In the 18th and 19th century, there thrived an international market for mummies as souvenirs and curiosities, and to be ground up and used in paints and medicine. They were even used as fuel for the fire on cold desert nights when wood was scarce.

Thankfully, these practices have ended, and mummies today, from Egypt and around the world, are being treated with care and respect. They are meticulously preserved and studied for the wealth of scientific and historical information they contain. And they are admired by those with an imagination for history, horror, and yes, beauty.

*First published on ShadowSpinners, August 2013.

On Finishing …

the end

For twelve years I have been working on a trilogy of fantasy books. In that time I have lived in two different countries, three states, and six different homes. I’ve had eight jobs, gotten a Master’s degree, and gone through one marriage, one divorce, and two deaths in my family. Through it all I have been writing, among other things, this single epic tale. During the process, moments of boundless enthusiasm and despair mixed with long periods of just moving forward, doing the work, writing the next scene, the next chapter, the next book.

Last week I wrote THE END. I finished the last chapter of the last book and sat back, stunned by the moment and the magnitude of what I’d done. I had before me a single complete story spanning 300,000 words, roughly 1200 pages, and the occasion has gotten me thinking about finishing things, and endings in general.

I’ve talked with a lot of new and young writers who say they enjoy writing, but have trouble finishing anything. The reasons vary. Sometimes writers get stuck on a problem they never solve, or lose interest in what seems like an idea that didn’t pan out. Sometimes their story isn’t really a story, but rather a series of events with no central conflict demanding an ending. Sometimes writers just lose faith, or have a moment of doubt that brings their work to a halt and they never go back to it.

If the problem is technical, there is probably a solution if you work to find it, but sometimes the problem is psychological, a reluctance, for whatever reason, to finish. Either way, if you’re passionate about writing, you must persevere to an ending. At the very least so you get practice writing them. We all know a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s why writing short stories is such good practice for the craft as a whole. They provide an opportunity to practice endings nearly as much as beginnings and middles.

Elizabeth Engstrom says to “find your ending in your beginning.” I always think about this when I’m coming to the end of a story. It’s important to end the story you started writing, and not some other story you picked up along the way. A strong central conflict really helps make this clear. The end must match the beginning in a way, and I found this to be just as true in a 300,000 word story as in a 1500 word story. The end must deal with the same protagonist, issues, and conflicts introduced in the beginning. So if you’re searching for an ending, that’s a good place to start.

When you get there at last, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of finishing a work of fiction. There’s a bit of magic in fiction, a sense of creating something tangible from the nebulous dreamscape of your mind. And when the last sentence is written, especially if it’s a good one, there’s a sense of triumph and relief like no other. If your project happened to take twelve years like mine did, there’s also a bittersweet sense of loss. All the unwritten scenes and plot puzzles and character arcs I carried around with me day after day … they’re all resolved now. The story is finished.

The work is far from over, of course. I already have a number of other projects I’m working on, and in a week or two I’ll dive back in for more editing and rewrites. Eventually, I’ll start thinking about the next big project, and what I want to accomplish in the next twelve years!

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*Simultaneously published on ShadowSpinners.

A Picture is Worth (x) Words

Everyone’s heard the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but does it hold up when you’re actually counting the words?

Among writers, the subject of outlining seems to be a fundamental ongoing process question: to outline or not to outline, and also when, and in how much detail, in what form, and how closely to follow it. For the record, I’m a firm believer in outlining, and tend to make progressively more detailed outlines as a project unfolds. I also tend to sketch various ideas for the scenes I’m working on, and collect photographic references.

Visual references may not be talked about as much as outlining, but I think it’s a great tool, and at the recent Wordcrafters writers conference in Eugene, I noted both Terry Brooks and Elizabeth George talking about the use of visual references in their work. Mine tend to take the form of little maps or sketches of characters, visual details, or dramatic moments. I also look for ideas and take photographs at various locations, and use image searches on the internet.

Today I thought it would be fun to take a look at a few sketches from recent chapter outlines and do the math to figure out how many words a picture is really worth. In most cases there were multiple little sketches per chapter, so I took the number of words in the completed chapter and divided by the number of sketches. Here are a few pictures with their associated word counts.

2014-04-09 09.52.41

481.8 words

2014-04-09 09.54.39

298.4 words

2014-04-09 09.56.57

509 words

2014-04-09 09.57.45

410 words

2014-04-09 09.57.58

679 words

When I averaged everything up it turned out a picture is actually worth about 445.33 words. It was a lot less than a thousand, suggesting that pictures, while incredibly useful, may be slightly overrated. However, this was a very limited study of only a few sketches made by a single writer for a small sample of chapters. More research is needed.

Surely this doodle is worth a thousands words, but I haven’t written the chapter yet.

2014-04-09 09.59.25

*First published on ShadowSpinners, April 2014.

A Strange Habit

writer's desk

There’s a story that Robert E. Howard used to envision the ghost of King Conan behind him, ready to lop off his head with an axe if he didn’t keep writing. Never mind that this is probably an apocryphal story. It’s still a great image, and whatever Howard was doing to get his stories written, it worked!

Work habits are a subject of endless conversation when it comes to the creative process of writers. Numerous books and excellent teachers suggest various methods of accomplishing the noble goal of putting words on a page, and offer plenty of encouragement along the way. The most consistent truth, however, is simply that writing is hard work and the methods for getting that work done vary from writer to writer.

I have a lot of tricks to keep me writing: new locations, graph paper, computer setup, a cup of tea, timed sessions, word counts, and so on. We develop habits, of course, particular to our individual sensibilities. Sometimes these habits become rituals, even obsessions. There’s plenty of room for eccentricities.

Hemingway wrote standing up. Nabokov wrote everything on notecards. Ibsen wrote in the presence of a giant oil painting of his greatest rival. Hugo wrote naked, and had his valet hide his clothes to ensure he wouldn’t go out. The ancient Greek writer Demosthenes accomplished the same thing by shaving one side of his head before beginning to write. The list goes on, from Balzac’s coffee and lucky monk’s robe, to Dickens’ ritualized desk arrangements, from Dumas’ fresh apples to Schiller’s rotten apples.

As it turns out, there’s even some neuroscience to explain why these weird rituals work. Like a Pavlov’s bell, rituals associated with writing may cue creativity and productivity. (See “Why Weird Writing Rituals Work” by Rosanne Bane)

Most of the habits of writers we will never know, because they are done in solitude. But the purpose of some seemingly strange behaviors is almost always the same, and that is to help one engage in the most important habit of all: actually writing.

*First published on ShadowSpinners, June 2013.