Going to a writer’s group in Second Life

About a month ago, I logged back into Second Life for the first time since 2007, when I’d signed up an account to see what all the hype was about. Back then, I’d spent a couple of hours staggering around and crashing into things with a ridiculously proportioned (and shirtless) avatar. As I recall, in those hours I did discover the avatar could walk under water and fly, and I did end up in a remote shrine that someone had built to a deceased loved one … then I checked out.

Moments after sunset from the Church of the Dawn Treader

Enjoying a virtual sunset from the Church of the Dawn Treader

Second Life is a virtual world, mediated by a 3D rendering machine like that used for immmersive console games. Everything in it is built by users, so it represents a vast, interactive and habitable canvas of human imagination. Virtual items (from houses to body shapes, furniture, clothing and hair and scripts to make your avatar move in a certain way) can be bought with virtual currency (Linden) that has real-world equivalence.

I’ve very little experience of 3D computer games, finding them quite dull. Every time I’ve been persuaded to pick up a controller and race around a virtual racetrack or shoot things, I’ve wanted to drive to the mountains in the distance to get a closer look. As I found, you can’t do this in most games. However, you can in second life.

The learning curve for someone who is not familiar with virtual reality (VR) environments is very steep and if you’re a noob, it’s obvious. The two big time sinks at the outset are adapting and outfitting your avatar, so it doesn’t look generic, and learning to control the avatar and virtual camera seamlessly, so you can go where you want to and see what you want to. Then there are matters of etiquette to learn before you can interact socially with confidence – just like the real world. I’ve easily racked up over 30hrs ‘in-world’ to get to a point where I’m reasonably comfortable.

Second life (SL) has been the butt of fairly disparaging press. There’s still a perception that it’s all about cybersex and a place for pathetic people who don’t have a real life. The relative anonymity that avatars give ‘players’ is also seen as inviting dangerous and unhealthy behaviour. This is all unfair. All the ‘Adult’ activity is banished to specific parts of the SL world that can’t be accessed by mistake. Sims (sections of virtual estate) have their own rules down to how much ‘flesh’ your avatar can show and even whether it can carry weapons in that area. This leaves the newcomer free to explore and discover all that’s good.

Exploring the beautiful surreality of HuMaNoid on the LEA6 sim

Exploring the beautiful surreality of HuMaNoid on the LEA6 sim

There’s spectacular virtual artwork on display in galleries and fully interactive installations, with whole sims given over to showcasing the fruits of SL designers and builders’ imaginations. There are educational opportunities, music venues, support groups, role-play environments, museums and accurate virtual rebuilds of architecture from antiquity to the present to explore. In my first week back on the grid I went (in avatar) to a summer solstice ceremony (put on by a community of fairies), attended a couple of ‘live’ concerts and hung out at a jazz club. I attended a couple of church services, a meditation group and a storytelling circle (also attended by some imps and fairies). I visited some art galleries and chatted with the artists about their work. I even bit down and went to a writer’s group, which has since become a fairly regular fixture in my weekly calendar.

Here’s an account of how that was for me and my avatar (who is called Klaus, by the way).

The Writer’s Group

A little blue box pops up in the corner telling me that a poetry group is about to start and giving me a teleport link to go there. I check the notecard I picked up in the ‘Written Word’ sim earlier and see that this looks like the kind of thing that I might be able to try – they are going to pick a word and write a poem using it as a starter. I can scribe under pressure, I’ll probably manage.

Teleporting is a little scary, just as it would be in real life.

Once you’ve clicked, you can’t change your mind while it’s happening – and it’s terribly easy to click on a teleport … It doesn’t give you much time to have second thoughts before it dumps you into the destination sim. If it’s busy, you can easily land on one or more avatars in what quite genuinely turns out to be a heap of tangled limbs. You never know what’s waiting for you at the other end – I’ve learned to hover near CTRL+SHIFT+H as Klaus ‘rezzes’ into a new sim, just in case I want to jump out and go home quickly.

Once I’ve landed, I quickly try to move away from the landing area, find a bit of space and get my bearings while the graphics render, which can sometimes take several seconds.

I see Klaus come out of the teleport, a grey shape, falling into a suspended assortment of shattered-glass shards that quickly arrange themselves to resemble modern furniture. There are a few chairs around a table on which there appears to be a tall hourglass shape. People are there already. The other avatars are taking a while to render, so there are wigs of hair and odd textures floating in their places.

I’ve got my ‘avatar impostors’ setting on 3. This helps to speed up the rendering by only fully showing 3 other avatars – the remainder will be shown in outline only, like grey paper statues.

I do my ‘find space after teleporting’ manouvre and get myself wedged behind something that might be a pot plant and something else that turns out to be a wall.

“Hello Klaus” pops up in local chat.
“Welcome Hostarius” pings another greeting.

I realise I must have both my ‘display name’ and my ‘user name’ floating above my avatar’s head so – not for the first time – there’s confusion about how to address me. You either have to switch one of them off, using one of about a gazillion sliders and check boxes embedded in the preferences menu, or quickly let people know what you prefer to be called. I’ve since dropped ‘Hostarius’, not least because he acted like a total noob at a gathering of fairies on day 2.

While I don’t want to be unfriendly, I’m acutely embarassed by my faux pas with the pot plant, and I want to do the whole entry thing again with more dignity.

“Come and join us, we’re going to write a poem,” the host chats.”You’ll need ‘voice chat’ on.”

“I’d love to join you, thank you.” I chat back, discovering that Klaus has managed to find some space again and get out of the corner, but he’s also turned his back on the group and walked away.

I mange to swivel him round, and I see an empty seat at the far end of the table. That’s a relief! The chair could save Klaus from the indignity of making jerky, drunken nooby-avatar moves across the room: if I can just plant a right-click on that chair, it might let me sit on it from a distance.

Success! A right click brings up a wheel menu with the inviting option I’ve come to love: “Sit Here”.

Klaus teleports to the chair. Most of the furniture in SL has built-in scripts that arrange your avatar in a relaxed pose when you sit on it, without you needing to think about it.

Klaus relaxing at home

Klaus relaxing at home thanks to scripted furniture

Next, I do two things quickly. I snap the camera to front view so that it looks down on Klaus from the front. Mainly I want to make sure he looks okay. The furniture has done its job and seen to everything; he’s settled, even looks like he’s a regular. Directly to his left sits the looming figure of a fox in a battered top hat. Again I’m struck by how much ‘larger than life’ the avatars are in SL. Everyone’s huge. I’ve been at pains to keep Klaus under 6ft, so as not to stray too far over my real life (RL) height, but he might as well be a pixie. It doesn’t matter what he sits on, his feet don’t touch the floor. I’ve since found out that there are communities of ‘normal sized’ avatars on the grid. I guess they exchange notes about how difficult it is to find shoes and furniture that fits.

I may write more about pixies and shoe sizes later. In the meantime, I’m frantically opening up a help page to find out how to turn on and use ‘voice chat’ and clicking through menus in the hope that I’ll get lucky and turn it on by chance.

I manage to activate voice and give it all the permissions it needs to use up even more of my cranky CPU, then turn my attention back to text chat.

Things have moved on. The conversation is about someone known to the rest of the group who has come and gone again in the previous minute, possibly because someone else tried to sit on her. I’m pretty sure it’s not me, but I do chat a quick apology in case I’m sitting in someone else’s chair, and the group proceeds.

Most of the time, the host is doing the talking. She has a soothing, affirmative voice: materteral, unhurried and unharried, but slightly wry. I’m going to realise how very important people’s voices are and the way they use them in this alternative reality. She’s talking to another group member; they are choosing a word by picking a random page in a book, followed by a random verse, line and finally a word in the line.

The host explains for the benefit of ‘Klaus’ that once they have a word they are going to start a timer for 20 minutes and everyone is going to write.

I’m not quite following the process, I’m too busy reading the wiki on how to write a new notecard because I’m assuming we’ll have to share our work at the end of the session by pinging a notecard to the group or something. Notecards are the in-world method for sharing chunks of text.

We have a word …

It’s ‘doom’ – oh dear. We now have 20 minutes to produce the goods. I step away from the screen and go to kitchen to make a coffee and think about ‘doom’.

When I get back, Klaus’ head is drooping onto his chest in the classic ‘away’ pose that avatars assume if their puppeteers become inactive in the window.

I type something in Evernote, planning to paste it into a notecard if I need to. This is a new one on me. I always compose poetry longhand: I’ve never typed a draft directly. There are 7 minutes left on the clock … tap, tap, tick, tock:


A point

Of no return

Thick with regret

Turning of locks and
Sliding of bolts and
Everything behind but
The last card on
A dark table with
No pips and
Coming up short

Played out
At the mercy of
No mercy and
A maelstrom of
‘If only’
If only
If only

Time’s up!

It turns out we’ll be going round the circle, reading out our work. The host is careful to mention that each can read if they have something, including ‘Klaus’ if he’d like to. This is what voice is for.

I’ve been on conference calls many a time, and it’s important to take turns when speaking and let the chair person control things. You have to be smarter in SL because there’s text chat ticking along in the background all the time. The official stuff’s happening on voice, in an orderly fashion, each person manually toggling their mics on and off when it’s their turn to speak. An unofficial commentary continues in text chat. This is another thing that takes getting used to, seamlessly switching between typed/read and spoken/heard communication.

We go round the circle. I’m very interested to hear what other people have managed to write – and what their voices sound like.

If I’m honest, this is the bit that has kept me away from real-life (RL) writing groups. I’m not good at being enthusiastic and encouraging if I don’t genuinely like what someone has written and shared. It turns out that’s not a problem with this group; the writing is good. In fact, it’s excellent considering people have only had 20 minutes to draft. Klaus joins in with the applause and commenting with relief, and I feel encouraged by the response to my thin offering.

Then it’s time to hear the original poem from which the hand of fate drew the word ‘doom’ at the beginning of the session. It’s a familiar one to me, “The Deer’s Cry” (aka “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”):

… I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgement of Doom …

Well that’s just about it. Ensues the very same awkwardness of saying goodbye and leaving at the end of a meeting in real life when some people seem to be hanging around to chat a bit more. I feel like I’ve done ok, and Klaus will definitely come back here. I chat-type a cheery farewell, hit CTRL+SHIFT+H, and Klaus jumps into the sky, heading home at the speed of pixels.

Where next?

Well, I’d like to go to the ‘Dr Suess Party’ at the leopard lounge … but I’m out of Linden and can’t afford green eggs and ham, let alone a Lorax avatar for the evening!

I thought it would be fun if we blog hopped

My blogging badly needs a shot in the arm, nay an intracardiac dose, of blah-blah fuel, so it is with great pleasure I’ve accepted Rob Rife’s invitation to a blog hop.

Rob Rife - Ascendant Canadian Bard

Rob Rife – Ascendant Canadian Bard in Yakima Valley

Basically, it’s a writer’s pyramid scheme, blog-based chain letter, tasteful tag-fest thing. I’m one of three writers Rob’s asked to answer four questions about writing and the writing process.

It is hoped that this will entendril the blogging writersphere ecosystem with fruitful vines of interconnection, lead readers to discover new and lovely writers and give others an insight into what makes some of us tick.

Not only because Rob’s said nice things about me in his post but also because, in my opinion, he’s “one to watch” as he climbs steadily the ladder of latter-day bards, I really hope you hop back up the vine and check out his writing. I think it speaks for itself in a unique voice and it takes a lot make me think, as I do, “when that book comes out I’m buying it” whether the author is my friend or not.


1) What am I working on?
When I’m not writing for others, I’m mapping the terrain between my subconscious and conscious realities, my dreaming and waking worlds, and dredging up short stories as I go. These are broadcast semi-regularly as a podcast at Stories from the Borders of Sleep. They are stories for hearing rather than reading, so any book that may come from them in the future will be more of a spin-off than a substantial target met.

Borders of Sleep illustration by Robyn Trainer

Borders of Sleep illustration by Robyn Trainer

This is a long-term project. I intend to continue it until the twelfth of never and would be quite happy to let it be my life’s work. It provides a creative discipline through the need to continually bring out new material and is immensely satisfying as I know it goes straight to an audience that, my stats tell me, downloads on average a hundred stories a day.

Alongside that, and not a million miles removed from it, I’m working on a book that probably sits in the ‘self help’ section. Broadly, it’s about using different parts of the body as a way of connecting inner reflection with outward action. If that sounds too wooky, then it could alternatively be described as a book about anthropology and time management.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I honestly don’t know because, with perhaps one exception, I don’t really read the stuff that might be similar. The exception is that I have derived a lot from the works of George MacDonald. He occupies the high points of mythopoeic romance to which I can only aspire.

To feed myself, I study literary classics, folklore and history, watch TED talks and look for books in brooks and sermons in stones. I should probably be reading Paul Coehlo, Haruki Murakami, Susanna Clarke and Neil Gaiman, but I don’t have time.

3) Why do I write what I do?
It has always been the same motivation for me, that simple line from the screenplay of the film about CS Lewis, Shadowlands:

We read to know we are not alone.

Books have been my greatest comforters and companions in helping me make sense of this way between earth and heaven where we all have the temporary use of a body, a mind and some words. Therefore, put simply, “I write to let others know they are not alone either.”

4) How does my writing process work?
I need to work in long stretches of time so it only really happens when I have a few uninterrupted hours in the dead of night or the wee small hours. Saturday mornings are good, too.

I write standing up because I constantly need to fidget or walk away to calm down or let the kinks work out in my head.

Actually starting something is Mount Everest, everything after that is Cool Runnings (apart from editing, which is K2). Finishing something is a serious hit on my dopamine receptors.

I usually only need one or two ideas, the rest takes shape as I go along. So I might start just knowing I want to write about a couple of trees I saw with intertwined limbs. Then it’s just a case of letting my imagination play out and making sure I take notes and keep up.

That sounds easy but it takes quite a toll on me. I think I write in a trance – it’s a bit like getting drunk. I get elated, then I get hung over. Maybe a better answer to the previous question is just that I’m an addict.

And on to …

This is the bit where I tell you who to hop on to next … I’m still recruiting victims, but here’s my first:

Justin Lau – Writings of a Vagabond at Peace

When Justin first appeared in my life, I felt an immediate connection – although I suspect he has a gift for making most people feel like that. In spite of our very different backgrounds, our few conversations have got straight to the heart of the things that most interest me. We’re both multi-instrumentalists and we both love writing. We both see our creative calling as not fitting the box of one particular medium or art form although writing seems to be the brightest thread. We’re both gnawed by the great question of  ‘where is home?’ as people who have been geographically adrift among cultures from an early age. We’re both intrigued by Japanese culture – although he has more of an inside track on that. He introduces himself very well and explains why he’s a ‘Vagabond at Peace’ in this blog post.

Justin Lau's cheeky face

Justin Lau’s cheeky face

Justin describes himself as an ‘aspiring author’. That’s brave and honest. The title brackets him with millions of others who ‘hope to write a book some day’. The thing is, I think he just might be one of those who actually does. I dream with him that he’ll one day write the great Japanese novel. In the meantime he shows a flair for flash fiction, writes prolifically in search of his voice, studies English Literature at Durham University, has an eye for well-turned prose and an ear for a lyrical song.

Justin has recently restarted blogging (prompted by this post, in fact), and although there’s not a lot there yet, he’s definitely one to watch. You can literally watch him on YouTube and hear him on SoundCloud – but seriously … check him out!

One Big Story Part II

As a partial explanation of my failure to maintain this blog for the last few months, here’s one of the things I’ve been up to:


Creativity and the Edge Effect or “Yo-Yo Ma and Monkeys”

Earlier this week (8th April), Yo-Yo Ma delivered the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy the Kennedy Centre in Washington.

He called it “Art for Life’s Sake: A Roadmap from One Citizen Musician”, and it is well worth reading the transcript or watching the talk. As he champions the cultivation of collaboration, flexibility, imagination, and innovation, his vision of the future workforce is neatly echoed by a new study from Wikia and Ipsos MediaCT called “GenZ: The Limitless Generation”, which suggests these are the very strengths that Generation Z will bring to the table.

However, when Yo-Yo Ma articulates how a biological phenomenon, “the edge effect”, applies to the arts, you can hear the rubber biting the tarmac. This is not new, but he puts it well:

“In ecology, where two ecosystems meet, such as the forest and the savannah, the point of intersection is the site of “edge effect.” In that transition zone, because of the influence the two ecological communities have on each other, you find the greatest diversity of life, as well as the greatest number of new life forms.”

In my final year as an undergraduate in Anthropology, an interest in the edge effect drove me to spend five weeks studying Cercopithecus aethiops (the vervet monkey) in the wild.

Vervet Monkey

Vervet Monkey (Via Wikipedia)

This primate is virtually ubiquitous in sub-Saharan Africa, having even adapted to urban settings in some cases. They also have one of the most complex documented “languages” or systems of calls and vocalisations of any species. I had an inkling that, in some way, the complexity of their language would be matched by a fluidity in social organisation and driven by their occupation of marginal environments (edges) and, ultimately, the physical distribution of their food.

Without boring you with the details, in grossly simplified terms, a gorilla sits around and grunts a lot because most of his food is the same and in the same place. He also has a rigid social structure that has to do with who gets to sit in the middle, eat the good stuff and who defends the territory. The vervet, on the other hand, exploits a huge variety of foods, distributed almost randomly in a marginal environment with lots of space in between. He has to have a language to talk to his tribe fifty meters away and tell them where the good stuff is (or the bad stuff, like predators or anthropologists). He also doesn’t benefit hugely from eating in the same tree as everyone else, so social structure is more “easy-come-easy-go”.

Why does this matter? I asked myself that a few hundred times as I tried to follow the critters for hours through dense bush on mosquito-bitten legs. But it seems likely that innovations, such as language and walking upright, happened under very similar circumstances in the mysterious pre-prehistory of our own species.

Back to the Kennedy centre …

Ma brings on a series of artistes to illustrate the edge effect. What does it look like, for instance, when Lil’ Buck performs his own street-forged dance moves to “The Swan” by Saint-Saens?

He then points out that the pianist on stage with him, Cristina Pato, is also Cristina Pato the bagpipe player from Galicia, a member of the Silk Road Ensemble, who just released her first jazz CD.

“One might say she is an artist who creates her own edge effect!”

That fascinates me!

I don’t think we are particularly comfortable with polymaths these days. Fame, success means being the biggest fish in one pond, not the second biggest in two, or the third biggest in three ponds.

I’m not a Leonardo da Vinci and nor are you (probably), but what can I do to be less of a gorilla: to occupy and exploit the fringes where linguistic innovation flourishes and social interaction is open and uncharted?

Firstly, as someone who primarily wordsmiths, I don’t hang out much with other writers. I love you guys (and gals), hugely, but sometimes I feel mildly threatened because we are grazing the same patch. Hooking me up with a muso, thesp, calligrapher, or chef is more likely to bring out the best in me (with the exception of a mime, perhaps).

Secondly, I hate it when people wibble on about “getting out of your comfort zone”. This is probably because I’m very happy in my comfort zone, thank you, but I’m also very tired of the cliché. Is there a better way to put it?

  • Induce a creative crisis (go analogue for a week).
  • Go on an artist date (indulge in thrill-seeking).
  • Study a parallel discipline (photographers, pick up a paint brush).
  • Throw away the dummy (burn those notebooks, there are plenty of fresh ideas where those ones came from).
  • Move the furniture around (sit next to someone different at the next meeting).
  • Get into your collaboration zone (thanks to one of my favourite collaborators, noahsapprentice, for this suggestion)

Whatever it takes …

How might you create your own edge effect?

I’m just kidding about the mime, by the way.

One Big Story … Part I

This month, I have the joy of working with 300 year five and six pupils from Durham City schools  to turn their ideas into One Big Story: an epic and imaginative tale that will be published in paperback in October.

Scary? No, this is just my storytelling face (Photo: Robyn Trainer 2012)

This one of the most exciting things I have done for a while; it ticks about a hundred boxes for the things I love doing: creative writing, stimulating other people’s imaginations and helping them to realise their creative ideas, being able to say the magical word “story” about 50 times a day and share my passion for the written word.

I’m working as part of a team alongside Christina Maiden (Off The Page Drama) and Robyn Trainer (Floral Footsteps), running whole day workshops in primary schools, getting children to invent and develop ideas for stories and working collaboratively to forge them into a coherent narrative.

Remarkably, it turns out to be quite possible to take the ideas of 30-40 children at a time and guide them into creating a story together as long as you think on your feet and prepare yourself for almost anything to happen. Not to give too much away, but we are half way through the project already and have five out of ten chapters mapped out. The children have taken us beyond our own imaginations into their own world where there are a lot of fights involving food and an awful lot of ghoulish characters in which the malevolent and comedic are theatrically blended.

It has been very encouraging to see that literacy is alive and kicking in every school we have visited so far; I’m the one getting educated.

In less than a month, we will be holding the book in our hands and you, too, will be able to read what happens when children create the sort of story that they would like to read … watch this space …

This screen …

Dear friends,

It kills me that we can’t hang out together in real life.  I’m tired of reading your blogs; I want to spend these long summer days being where you are and talking to your faces. Offline life is quite absorbing at the moment and I feel as if some subtle re-consecrating and rearranging is going on that is really hard to articulate in pithy 500-word posts. In a roundabout way, I’m trying to say that I miss my blogospheric community and apologise for my recent lack of participation; you know who you are and I think of you often. I reckon I’ll find my groove again in the near future and look forward to picking up some trailing threads …



You Could Stay In and Watch Eurovision or You Could Come Out Dancing

Ceilidh in aid of "Handcrafted" Durham Town Hall 26th May 2012 with the Scrumpy Badgers



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