the oblique angle

Just a quick one this morning to help propel you through the final days of NaNoWriMo. Or at least shake off the funk of Black Friday buyer’s remorse.

If you’re a regular reader, you might wonder why I look for ideas everywhere but the world of writing itself: computer programming, stage magic, woodworking, high school band. Well, this happens to be the 171st Maven Game and, as far as I can recall, only a small number of these essays have been about writing per se. Clearly, I don’t find writing as a subject all that interesting. So why subject you to it? The most useful ideas about becoming a better writer come to me obliquely—they help me triangulate.

David Lu discovered the Web-based video game Line Rider back when it came out, in 2006. In the game, you draw tracks for a little animated sledder to ride on. A simple conceit with vast possibilities, Line Rider sparked its own little subculture at the time and Lu was an avid member:

We were young, creative, and imaginative, but we also had something to prove. We wanted to make impressive tracks, whether it be with highly detailed illustrations or by exerting fine control over the rider’s movement.

In 2008, Lu set out to “the best track of all time,” one where he could “demonstrate proficiency in every style of movement, create elaborate illustrations, and introduce new Line Rider ideas to the community.” Eleven years later, after many setbacks and reversals, he achieved his vision. Even better, he documented his creative process: The starts and stops. The breakthroughs and breakdowns.

Though Line Rider is an obsolete video game, Lu, an artist and musician, is clearly working with it as a legitimate artistic medium. (His essay went right into my article database tagged “creativity.” If you don’t make a practice of saving gems like this one, you should. The internet is not permanent.) Though your own medium is different, you can still learn from Lu’s journey. Read his essay through the lens of your own process. Draw a line between his hard-earned lessons and your own WIP. I don’t think you’ll find it difficult to make useful connections.

In contrast to what Lu has to say about Line Rider, you have this well-meaning guide to “writing well” from a guy who spends “thousands of hours deconstructing interesting topics” to create guides like these. “Over a million people read them annually.” Good for him! This is the kind of thing you might think I should be writing more often. Right? I must have spent a thousand hours “deconstructing” the writing process by this point, between ten years as a book editor and another six as a collaborator. I should send stuff like this out regularly. One week, I could tell you how to “generate insights on your topic.” Another, how to “rewrite for style and flow.”

But would it do you any good? To me, it feels like reading step-by-step instructions on how to hug someone as reverse-engineered by someone who received a really good hug. Hugs just don’t work that way and neither does writing. The richest insights approach us at an angle.

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