VR and Story: Hopefully, it’s more than just playing Minecraft with ski goggles.

Royd Hatta – Writing Coach. Diving Deep.
Virtual reality, seems to have made comeback, being touted as the next new thing (again). Facebook, HTC, Samsung, and silicon valley is diving in. And I’m also eager to see what’s potential might be, and how it has evolved from playing a quickly tired version of playing SecondLife with a VR set at the local science museum.

In Seattle at the EMP, I had an opportunity to experience a virtual reality demo of the Oculus Rift featuring a scene from Game of Thrones. Essentially, I was led into a booth that resembles Dr. Who’s TARDIS (Who knew they had such things in Westeros?), and don a pair of Princess-Leia-earbuns-like headphones along with bulging ski goggles that made my head a bit more top heavy to the point where I nearly smacked my head against the booth like a drunken barfly. If you owned a head as round as Jack’s of Jack-in-the-Box fame, mixed with the weight of the Buddha’s, you might also find it difficult to keep your balance. When the VR set switched on, nearly blinding me, my body tensed then steadied itself, looking forward to this new dawn of Storytelling.

What’s wonderful about story, and potentially VR, is that we get to dive into another person’s world, temporarily testing our own mettle, experiencing the thrill of triumphing over the worst their world can inflict. Story is a tensioned-filled, rollercoaster that we relish riding as it pushes and pulls our emotions to the max. That is the tool of Story. It’s virtual reality in its most basic form.

And a great story has resonance that touches our emotion-nerves that we experience in our lifetime in an efficient, and often portable and repeatable, form. Story is itself one the greatest technologies invented by man.

When we walk out of movie theater adjusting to the reality and normality of life, our psyche still swims in the body of our protagonist, still walks amongst that atmospheric world. By tapping into our emotions, a story gets under our skin, and changes, perhaps only momentarily, the way we look at the world. As it should. In secret, or not, we want to be changed. And secretly, or not, we hope Stories will transform us. And, it can. This is the promise of a Story coupled by technology. We hope that story will dig deeper into our bones, and change our DNA.

Does VR do this?

Well, back in the Oculus Rift, I am in a wrought-iron elevator. The booth shakes as a heavy latch on screen clanks shut with nearly crash. I am supposedly locked inside, with no way out. A little claustrophobia, perhaps, creeps up my spine. The booth begins to rise, and I can feel air blowing against my hairy arms (Don’t worry I don’t have any on my back. Hair that is.). The effect does feel like I am being elevated, if I can stave off the knowledge that I am in a cheesy booth in the real world. “Looking” around me through the iron bars, I see an icy landscape of glaciers, snow-capped mountains, and frosted valleys. There is a feeling of vertigo, and said hairs began to stand on end. The elevator reached the top, and I see that I am on the huge ice wall. The gates open and “I” step out on a ledge. Suddenly, a ball of flame flies up from the valley and I instinctively moved my head. Before I knew it the screen teeters a bit, and I fall, supposedly indicated by the digital blur on screen.

Was this a transformative experience? Hmm. I guess. Do I need this? Hmm. As much as I need IMAX 3D. It’s fun, but it can be a little annoying.

In a recent interview with Tim Ferris, Morgan Spurlock of the amazing documentary Super Size Me suggests that VR could encourage more empathy. If this is true then it would touch on a key reason why we have, and need, Story at all. And if this is true, then let the flood gates open for this tech. At the same time, I think we need to be aware that ALL technology has the ability to increase empathy (Look at TV and the televised war of Vietnam), while at the same time be used to manipulate for the wrong reasons (Look at ISIS uses Youtube).

Technology is a tool, like fire, that has an enormous amount of promise and power, but can potentially be used against humanity. Story itself is the same. It is an innovation that can inspire, and manipulate in the same breath. Should we rid ourselves of Story and Technology? No. We just need to recognize its limits, and hopefully find ways to help us create community, thereby acknowledging our humanity, and sharing productive path towards future worth building that is respectful (to all).

Perhaps, this technology and Story can show us what we are doing to the environment in real time. I can imagine VR gamer playing a “game” harnessed to ocean swimming drone tasked to clean up our oceans. The creative non-fiction story of people dedicating their lives to clean oceans, as they gamers themselves rise in status of the most productive collectors of trash. Photos of unusual trash are rewarded to finders.

Well, who knows? I just hope that story and VR has a better future beyond using the Oculus Rift to play Minecraft all day.

A Short Story of Hierarchy and Power over a 99 Ranch 15-minute Parking Space.

So the other day, I dropped off my wife at her acupuncture appointment. Typically, I’ll take the car and fill up on gas, and return to a shaded area with a nice view of a park to read. But, Suze asked if I could find some saltines to settle her stomach. The simple call to adventure was set, and I found myself driving to the local 99 Ranch, where upon entering the parking lot, knew that it was a huge mistake. Cars lined up waiting for spots to open up creating a hellish traffic jam. Rows of people could not back out. The only way was to move forward.

Luckily, a car was moving out next to me so I slowly parked the car. It was a fifteen minute spot. Perfect. I was just going to get saltines, and if grocery line was packed, I could get it somewhere else. No biggie. Before I could unbuckle,  a man rapped his fists on my window. I was startled. He spoke in a language that I did not understand. I thought he was trying to sell me something, but he seemed a bit pushy. I mean what better audience than a captured one in all this traffic? He pointed to my car, and then to his van parked to the side. He kept speaking in his language, and I was even more confused. Then he spoke in English, and I understood. He wanted me to move from “his”parking space that I “took.” Oh. I had no idea I “stole” it from him. Okay. He kept forcefully telling me to start the car and move out. I didn’t want a confrontation, so I looked back at the traffic behind me, which moved to the point where even I would be stuck in for a while. Other cars were waiting for other spots up ahead which made the traffic jam worse.

I looked at his position and wondered how he planned to do a reverse three-point turn against traffic. The scenario, seemed to be too much trouble. he started to get more irate. “Sorry, I honestly just didn’t know I took your space.” I explained, shrugging my shoulders. “Usually people are waiting behind the space to move in.” I explained that in his position he would have had to make things a bit more difficult for everyone else just so that he could have this 15-minute parking space. His attitude and attachment to this space as I said it was starting to become exasperating. So I gave up and left for my saltines. “I’ll be back within 15 minutes,” I said. “I promise.” I walked to the store and he kept on saying, “No! No!” pushing me. I didn’t want to get into a fight. I’m terrible at stuff like that. I walked away to the store. I looked back and he began snapping picture of my car and touching it. That was enough.

I saw a security guard and walked over to him. I explained that this stranger was touching my car, and taking pictures of it. I asked if he could do something. The guard and a guard-in-training walked with me towards the stranger, and the guard asked him what was going on. The irate man told his side of the story. And I told mine. Then, a young man and his girlfriend came up behind me and said that this irate man was waiting for five years. His girlfriend corrected him and said five minutes. Okay. Perhaps this was true. I didn’t know. The guard said, “I think given what people are saying, the gentlemanly thing to do is to give up your parking space for this man.” I looked around. The irate man’s son kept saying “It is what it is. It is what it is.” It was as if this man was spouting an adage, that he didn’t quite understand. He just thought that it sounded philosophical in a Landmark way. And that’s when it occurred to me. I could back out, which would force everyone to wait since they had to wait for the people down the parking lot traffic to move, and then the irate man would have backup towards traffic, probably blocking everyone else. It just seemed ridiculous. It would take realistically five minutes on top of the 10 minutes we argued about it. Just so this man, attached to this fifteen minute parking lot, who said he was going to 99 Ranch to do his own shopping, could have what he wants. “Yes, it is what it is.” It means we have to give up to the situation, but it doesn’t mean we have to go out of own way to give it up, especially when someone is trying to force us into doing it. Sometimes, the most powerful thing to do is to just say “No.” And that is what I did. “No,” I said, to the five people who seemed attached that this parking space. I said it shaking, walking to the front door of the market, and seemingly entering a new realization in my life. I’m used to saying “yes” to my students, clients, family, and friends. But there is a wisdom in saying “No.” To say it is to declare a “yes” to yourself. The man will just have to wait.

And to wait, is to wait for God. The one that says “Non” to the ones that want something from him is a god.

In our Literature Analysis and Story course, we teach our students to notice something that occurs in dialogue and in essence all tension between characters. There is a hierarchy of power where one character or group tries to impose their will or status over another. Egos clash and plans arise to topple the other. Often allies form around the hero, and perhaps henchmen are recruited to do the villains will, but it all boils down to who is above the other. The tension is necessary in stories, if not for the plot, but to coax out the characters true values to see what they are willing to do in order to set things right, or gets them to fight. But in my case above, I truly did not want to be part of this power struggle, and HAD I known that this space was “his.” I wouldn’t have drove into the spot in the first place. But to back out and cause others a headache and myself, just for the sake of one man? Was it that important? Yes, perhaps I grew to be attached to it, when I was expected to do this strangers will. I had no obligation to him really. And, perhaps he was too attached to it as well, and that he need to fail to receive this lesson. I don’t know. I think we both learned something that day. And for that I am grateful. I stood up for myself, and he learned to let go.

Write Poorly with Drowsy Writing

Yes, poorly. If you’ve ever found it difficult to begin any kind of writing, try writing poorly. I can hear it already. “What? How can you as a writing instructor for young writers suggest that?” Well, it’s simple. If we reduce or remove huge expectations from our writing then we can “go out on a limb” and free ourselves from the chains of boring writing, or worse, nothing at all.

One trick that I’ve been adopted is to write when I feel a little sleepy. Strange, no? It has something to do with meditation, and everything to do with moving past that nagging, critical voice in our heads.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love mini power naps. It’s rejuvenating, and I can feel refreshed by falling asleep within 20 minutes. I still do this in the middle of the day.

But the next time you feel a little sleepy, try this easy technique. You might find that you are equally refreshed as a regular nap.

Each time you feel sleepy, write for approximately five minutes of poor writing.

Hey, you’re about to nap anyway, so why not see what kind of junk flows out? There’s no attachment to the writing process so just tap, tap, tap the keys or scribble within the lines.

Like a sculptor needs clay to make a masterpiece, a writer needs poor writing.

In some cases, lots of it.

Yes, our clay or poor writing is pure drivel. So is slip and chunks of clay. It’s unformed, malleable dirt-clods.

Why do we need to start with junk? So we can move past our insecurities of writing the great novel, or wondering if our sentence is any good. In some cases, I’m seduced that there must be an easier way or direct way to create wonderful content. Wrong.

The truth is “poor writing” IS the easier way.

At first it may not sound logical, but the fun starts to kick in when we try to make it work.

The tough part is getting our crotchety fingers to hit the keys, and keeping our monkey minds focused enough to dive into the little pond of our story.

Granted, transitions sometimes help. For me, meditating a bit when I wake from a deep sleep is necessary only too shake my zombie state. I also need the time for my body to  deliver the oil to my muscles and joints so that they can even hold a pencil. Yeah, I’m getting old.

But when our fingers do wake up, and our heads are in that mediative limbo of Sleep and Being Awake then let yourself dumpster dive into type junk.

And like meditation, no one is enlightened instantly. If ever. You’re not going to write a masterpiece. No one does. Rather let the thoughts bounce between our ears and on to the page like a three year old kid on high fructose corn syrup. Often that’s the anxiety swimming in our heads. Let it swim out on page. If that means making a list then let it be.

We just have to let it kick and scream, while our fingers mindlessly throw spaghetti at the wall until it turns into the Mona Lisa (or not) on paper or, in my case, the screen.

And when write ANYTHING down at first feels difficult, that’s when you know that our anxiety, our egos, our internal grammar cop, our threshold guardian, that says “Stop!”  is in the picture. Our first job as writers is to run! Run past them. In story structure, when a threshold guardian stands in our way, what does a hero do? Find a way past our guardian.

That is, move past who we are. All of it.

Write poorly, and run with your story.