Tag Archives: On Writing

On the Occasion of My 1st D&D Game

On a writing retreat in the Misty Mountains, I mean the Cloudlands, I mean the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I had an opportunity to play my first game of D&D.

Oh, the EXCITEMENT this incited in my Facebook Flist! I haven’t gotten so many approving like-emoticons since getting married!

Many people asked me, “What took you so long?”

My answers varied from, “My native reluctance,” to “An instinctive wide-eyed wariness of anything new,” to “Because I pretty much SCARPER every time someone MENTIONS RPGs!”

I’m not necessarily proud of any of those answers; I feel a bit cagey about them, but also honest.

Other people asked me, “What did you like best about D&D?”

My answer? “The limitations.”

Several friends invited me to expand on this, so I’ve been thinking about it.

I find it really interesting that people think I’d be a “natural” at D&D because I’m an actor with improv training, and a writer with storytelling training. The reality was that those aspects of D&D were the least interesting to me as a player, partially because D&D, mechanically, seemed to be more about decision-making through dice and combat protocol through dice.

There I was, with a heap of dice in front of me I didn’t understand, and a character sheet (pre-made, as this was a one-off game) that had so much information on it it was hard to absorb it all, and suddenly the game had started. It was a simple storyline, and our characters were fairly stock. Still, I could tell there was a lot of room to explore within those cut-outs–sort of like Commedia dell’arte, eh?

But even though I had the dice, and a heap of information at hand, I did not know how to use them, or what it all meant. It was a learn-as-I-go sort of situation.

A game, to me, is most enjoyable when I understand the limits–or maybe I should say “the structure.” In my brain, there is a kind of pleasurable click, as when I learn a new formal poetry structure. Until I understood about stresses and syllables and rhymes and lines, a sonnet was just sort of a neat little maybe kind of boring and occasionally incomprehensible slag pile of words. A sonnet became much more interesting, however, as I grew older and started studying the ARCHITECTURE of it, word by word, line by line.

(Sort of like, come to think of it, when a building becomes much more than just an antiquated heap of bricks belonging to a political celebrity when you think, “Gosh, to build Monticello, Jefferson first had dozens of enslaved people level a frikkin mountaintop and then make the bricks of his house OUT OF THAT DIRT.” That house becomes more interesting, certainly–and more awful, more endowed, more worthy of study, of a lasting emotional connection–which is as much rage as it is awe. . . Can you tell I was just in Virginia?)

Right, back to games.

So, as a first time player, thrown into a game that was pretty short by D&D standards (2-4 hours?) but long by my standards (games longer than 40 minutes with no visible count-down mechanic–as in Mysterium or Fiasco, where you are watching the game end even as you play it–make me, still kind of n00b to games, a trifle anxious), the most interesting things about D&D for me were not, in fact, the improv or the storytelling.

With the first, I was not familiar enough with the game, or comfortable enough in my character, to improv with ease. Individual turns were short, my understanding of the decision-making process still fairly muddled. With the second, plot-wise, the storytelling was mostly in the hands of the Dungeon Master–and those of the players who really knew how to use their dice. I contributed some, but not enough to be wholly invested in the outcome of the story.

What I did enjoy:

  1. Watching other people–the expert players–sink their teeth into the game. The way they consulted their dice verged on the oracular, and they seemed to take such a distinctive, unholy glee is rattling the bones and casting them down. Very sensual!
  2. Learning on my feet: that each individual die has its own distinct function and meaning; that the Dungeon Master has all kinds of secret stats on NPCs that effected game-play in unpredictable ways; that I could use what I found on my character sheet to influence my decisions–that the function of the sheet was to both impose limits on improvisation and to act as prompts for improvisation.

In this way, I actually had fewer decisions to make than I thought, but could make more powerful, specific decisions using the character sheet. But I had to figure all of that out as I went. Because I was learning the game, it was different than really playing it. My enjoyment came more from learning than from playing.

People have asked me if I will play D&D again, and have offered many RPG alternatives to D&D as well.

They are very excited for me–which I find endearing, but I also feel guilty because I can’t quite match that excitement yet. It’s all still too new for me, and new things make me more wary than excited. I will try to be different, and better, and change my attitude, but that’s more of a life-goal, so . . . WE’RE WORKING ON IT.

I think I would be willing to do another D&D campaign–albeit a short one. I’d like to go in a bit more prepared. Now I know, for example, that D&D is a combat-heavy game, and the mechanics are dice and stats. I don’t know that, on the whole, I’m really very interested in episodic combat quest games. I know that I don’t have any desire to meet for a long-running game, but I would at this point be willing to devote an entire afternoon/evening to a single long game, just to say I’ve done it.

And yes, I’d be willing to play other RPGs, but it’s not because I fell instantly in love with the idea of them.

Again–none of my actual enjoyment came from the highly trained (and maybe a bit stuck up) acting and writing parts of me, but from the audience and student parts of me, which are more generous and interested in trying new things as a rule.

Perhaps the other stuff will come in time.

But, actually, what I think I’m finding–and this may not prove ultimately true, as I try to remain flexible and be open to surprises–is that, in the realm of games, my preference is for short, humorous, medium-strategy party games.

I like a 40 minute game that’s fast and elegantly designed. I like card games with interesting art and intricate lay-out. The cards, you see, are the poetic limitation, but within that limitation, a game can be infinite. I like a game that’s easy the first time, but gets more complicated the longer you play it. I like tile games, and decoding games, and I really, really like collaborative games.

Theatrical impov, voice acting, storytelling? Not so much.

See, those are my JOBS. AND I LOVE MY JOBS. But I pretty much give everything I have to them.When I go to games, I’m not really interested in WORKING. I want to play. And that might mean, in the end, that I just like a different kind of game than an RPG.


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Wholly Irreverent Holy Beauty: A Review of Carlos Hernandez’s THE ASSIMILATED CUBAN’S GUIDE TO QUANTUM SANTERIA

10255907_10208110816958859_5714001170563328498_oI wish I’d written this review last March.

Carlos Hernandez and I were barely friends then. We’d met briefly at Readercon in 2014, became the most casual of Facebook acquaintances, collaborated on a story in January 2015 on a whim, saw it was good, declared ourselves unwilling to stop writing to each other, struck up a correspondence, and became true friends (and then some) pretty quickly after that.

In those early months of our new friendship, I read Hernandez my collection Bone Swans: Stories, which was about to come out in July 2015.

Carlos Hernandez reads on Hour of the Wolf—at WBAI 99.5 FM New York.

Carlos Hernandez reads on Hour of the Wolf—at WBAI 99.5 FM New York.

He, in turn, read me his collection The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria, slated to debut in early 2016.

After experiencing his book for the first time, back in March, I could have said, with very little bias–or no more than I have for any other writer in our small, genre-loving, literary community–and with all honesty:

“I don’t know the man very well, but his writing! Oh, boy. Let me tell you ALL about his writing.”

But now I know the man very well, and love him still more, and there is no hope of any lack of prejudice to rein in my hand from lavish praise or sculpt this review down to the pithiest of paragraphs. But I can start with the first thing I said back then in summary, which I kept all these months to use as the subject line for my eventual review:

“This book is wholly irreverent holy beauty.”

Now let me tell you why. But first, you should watch this. It’s four minutes, and it’ll give you a taste of what’s to come.

ACGTQS is a collection of twelve science fiction and fantasy stories. Most, but not all, take place on our world, right here and now–or maybe just a half a breath into the future. The technologies are plausible, the science keenly researched, and through his large cast of mainly Latin@ characters, Hernandez explores what it is to be human and broken. His characters are “people who have assimilated but are actively trying to reclaim their lives.”

And his characters. His characters. He doesn’t make ’em easy. “No es facil.”

12620866_10156499509145204_2081413353_oNah, Hernandez does ’em “the Cuban way: mix a few shit-jokes and pranks in with the heartbreak”–and as we follow them through their stories, we end up, like them, diced up, bleeding out, trembling on the summit of revelation, or at the chasm-bottom of despair, caught in that breathless gulf between sob and guffaw, and for all this–or perhaps because of it–somehow more whole.

Murderers and murdered (though with a technology called the “eneural” dead sure doesn’t mean what it used to mean), reporters, physicists, border police, martyrs, musicians, TV producers, teachers, faithless husbands, feral children (and aren’t all children feral, after all?), each character is fully realized, faceted as a fly’s eye, difficult, exquisitely complex, and so gorgeously, shatteringly human.

I have my favorites. “More than Pigs and Rosaries Can Give,” for one–a story about the consequences of sucking ghosts from a bullet hole-riddled wall left over from the Cuban Revolution. For another, the three Gabi Réal stories: “The International Studbook of the Giant Panda”; “The Magical Properties of Unicorn Ivory”; and “Fantaisie Impromptu No. 4 in C#min, Op. 66.”

12562676_10156499509080204_723777974_oWhen I first met Gabi Réal on the page (back in December 2014, just kind of out in the wild in a magazine called Crossed Genres), I instantly knew her for a friend.

Not all fictional characters are folks you’d want to go out for coffee with (well, Gabi would probably drink coffee; I’d drink tea), nor should they be. But Gabi is one of those rare fictions–a woman I want to be when I grow up. She stands alongside the mastercrafted science fiction heroines of Kage Baker and Lois McMaster Bujold. She’s quick-tongued, brutally honest, flirty, feisty, and she’s lived in the world and encountered its weirdnesses: piano’s possessed by their late players, unicorns from another dimension, and what it happens to be like inside an Ailuropoda melanoleuca.

What’s more, she’s reported on it. Gabi always has a story to tell, and something to take from it.

Plus, I want to go out dancing with her. She’s worth knowing. And it’s also worth knowing that there are more Gabi Réal tales to come, outside of the three you’ll be finding herein.

I’ve heard Hernandez describe some of his stories fairly flippantly: “The Aphotic Ghost,” for example, summarized tongue in cheek as, “My Were-Jelly story.” Or, cackling to himself, “The International Studbook of the Giant Panda,” simplified into, “Oh, that’s the one all about Giant Robot Panda Sex.”

Neither of which is…untrue.

But while such goofball elevator pitches might get readers to the page, what they’ll stay for is the zinging wit. The pacing and urgency and breastbone-puncturing adrenalin punch right to the heart of stakes that matter. So much, too, deals unflinchingly with the ferocious melancholy of loss, with gasping moments of drenchingly sensual beauty that surround you like the musk of a fully functioning animatronic animal suit and demand your total surrender.

12620703_10156499509075204_1089676914_oThis book flayed me, man. Pierced me right through, too–like a pigeon slaughtered by a child priest and offered up to some god in exchange for a desperate favor. (See what I did there? No? You will. Once you read the book.)

I do not regret becoming that sacrifice.


rosarium-musecc-the-peolpe-profiles-carlos hernandezThe author’s website

The Awesomeness that is Rosarium Press




When: Sunday, February 7, 2016
What Time: 6 PM – 8 PM
Where: Nuyorican Poets Café
236 E 3rd Street, New York, NY 10009





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On Death and A Certain Kind of Bravery

aqua-notes-homeI have several friends who have their best story ideas in the shower. I’m not of these. Usually in the showers, I sing. Or recite poetry. Shorter poems are perfect for timing how long to leave conditioner in my hair.


The shower gods hear all and forgive. They know that if I don’t remember to recite every now and again, I forget ALL MY BEST RHYMES. Tragic.

Walks, on the other hand?

GREAT for story-generating, or for fixing story problems. (Walks are just great in general.)

…Except I don’t usually take my phone or a notebook and pen with me on walks, so sometimes things are lost unless I repeat them over and over to myself for safekeeping.

But that’s not really what I wanted to talk about. What I MEANT to write is that I had this thought in the shower just now. Or, right after actually, as I combed out my recalcitrant hair. (Tangles, thy name is Legion.)

It was all about when people die and what is said about them after. How bizarre it sometimes gets, in a Facebook culture, wherein a bunch of people who may or may not have a glancing acquaintance with you feel they must weigh in on your death, have an opinion, spare a few seconds to acknowledge it–at least give it equal importance to a Sesame Street Meme. Sort of the way near-strangers suddenly remember you on your birthday? An obligatory ritual chiming in. I’m not saying it’s BAD. Just… bizarre.

I mean, the Victorians were bizarre too. And then there was that whole thing with the Russ, and cutting up dogs and horses and throwing them in the tent with the deceased, so maybe death rites were always dire…

I wondered, idly, as I combed my wet hair, what might be said about me. How it would be the people who knew me least who would feel the most compelled to say something. How these would all be surface observations, or obvious inferences about my personality derived from my own compulsive daily Facebook updates–which are, as anyone who knows me can tell you, only a very specific slice of my personality. Not insincere, but benign and accessible. How, if you created my obituary solely out of what might be inferred from my updates, this would read as benign and sincere and accessible, and perhaps vapid. You know? Who can say?

Who would step up, I wonder, and tell people that they loved me, that they were mad I was dead, but that in life, goddamn it, I was sometimes a monster?

That I had a monster’s sense of humor. That I was too detached and too dreamy and too privileged to fight for radical change. That I was particular and finicky about things like styrofoam and slimy spinach. That I clenched my hands when I made my way through crowds, and grew petulant at the thought of going to parties (even if I LOVED the people throwing them), and that sometimes I drank milk that was a little off, and laughed about it and called myself “PUNK ROCK” which is funny because it is SO NOT TRUE.

How my clothes were mostly safety pins and yards of glittery fabric for most of my teens. How in my thirties they were mostly gifts or procured cheaply from thrift stores. How writing sometimes felt like carving cement with my teeth, and how sad and angry and small NOT WRITING FAST ENOUGH constantly made me feel, and how I comforted myself with delusions of grandeur and spoke in invented accents until my friends looked at my with a hard mix of irritation and alarm and how I was vain and confused and not as smart as I wanted to be, how greedy I always was for more, how I tried to prepare for my death by thinking about it all the time, like that Gaston Leroux line, “Talking of Death, I must sing his requiem…”

I bet Patty Templeton would step up. Or Stephanie Shaw. They would step up, tell the truth about me, and say: “For all she was a monster, she was my monster, and it sucks that she’s dead.”

Laphams-Quarterly-Death-IssueAnd some of my other wholly dear and deep friends would feel my death just as keenly, but be beyond all words about it.

But mostly, it’d be hundreds of one-liner consolations straight out of a Hallmark bereavement card.

And that’s as it should be. This weird, wonderful world.


But off the topic of honest obituaries (sort of), there is a GREAT issue of Lapham’s Quarterly I’ve been reading on DEATH, and it is FALL 2013, Volume VI, Number 4, and totally worth your time.

And that’s about as far as I got. My hair was combed and braided and I had managed to put on some clothes. Then it was time to write.

I think I want to write my brother a song about hydroponic poison gardens. And update the Indiegogo stuff. I recorded an EP this weekend, did I tell you? No? Well. Next entry then.

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Mother Bear and Wolf Girl: On Wildness

So I was driving my mother to work yesterday, and started discussing something about other people’s descriptions of my writing that seems to crop up fairly often. It’s become obvious enough that I actually NOTICED it.

Me: A lot of people call it “wild.” But… I mean, it’s all deliberately crafted, right? Why is something that undergoes sixteen drafts still considered wild? I went to school for this. I write plenty of crap. I make a lot of mistakes. I try to fix it. How does that make the writing wild?

Sita: Face it. You’re wild. That’s cool.

Me: Well, I may be wild, but how does that make my writing wild? Anyway, I’m not sure I’m wild. I drive at exactly the speed limit. I follow the rules.

Sita: You have your own fashion. You don’t follow convention. You often don’t comb your hair. In some people’s view, that’s wild.

Me: All right, all right… So maybe my hygiene is questionable and I wear weird thrift store clothes and rhinestones. HOW DOES THAT TRANSLATE TO MY WRITING??? People who don’t even KNOW me call my writing wild. What am I doing that’s so WILD?



That was that.

The thought may still trouble me some, that I’m doing something I don’t know about and am not even trying to do that’s immediately recognizable to strangers–but at least the memory of my mother laughing at me and yelling at me is there to mitigate my troubles.

Sita does remind me of my ferocity sometimes. I have moods she calls my “Wolf Girl” moods, all bite and slash and rip. Maybe that comes through in the writing too. Maybe I am, like she says, passing some boundaries  in writing I didn’t know existed, like beluga whales who don’t know which ocean they’re in because it’s all one ocean, or coyotes that don’t recognize property lines or that the farmer’s chickens aren’t theirs by right. I sure as heck can’t see it. And I actually think it’s dangerous to be so unconscious of my own medium. I think it’s important that I know what it is that I’m doing. Especially by the sixteenth draft!

But maybe that’s what other people are for. To tell you that you’re wild, and so is the work of your hands. You don’t necessarily have to believe them. After all, we all get to have our opinions. And then argue about them.

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