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This past weekend we celebrated the games of Drew Henderson at a game convention called Breathing 2014. Mr. Henderson was not only the guest of honor – he was the only attendee. I had, of course, a small handful of volunteers (Robert Bruce, Orion Canning, and Jay Loomis) to add their creativity, opinions, and expertise to the discussions and playtests, but Drew was the pilot and star of the show.

Through brainstorming with yours truly, Drew decided which of his own works in progress that he wanted to playtest, what games by other designers he wanted to play and talk through some ideas around, and what kind of food he wanted us to join him in eating. As of the Thursday before the convention, this is what the schedule looked like.

You’ll see that there were many choices left to make (designated by fill-in-the-bubble options) as we headed into the weekend. There wasn’t time for everything that we were hoping to get to, but we gave feedback from earlier playtests for Eloastryn’s Quest and Treehouse Dreams, playtested-then-toyed-with-the-mechanics-of both Only What You Take With You and Wayfinders, and played a game of Dungeon World featuring the Grim World playbooks. The volunteers and myself were charmed and excited by Drew’s upcoming designs, and Mr. Henderson himself left on Sunday evening glowing just a little bit, floating roughly a quarter-inch off of the ground. Breathing 2014 – a success.

Several of Drew’s games can be found here.

This concept of the Micro-Convention is centered around one designer working on in-process game designs. This “guest” responds to prodding from the convention organizer as to what they’re looking to explore or further the design of, and the organizer facilitates that work through lining up suitable work/play spaces, the correct number of player-volunteers per session, and so on.

The initial list of options for each “work period” that I presented Drew with was as follows:

  • solo work,
  • shared space work,
  • discussion-based work,
  • game jam,
  • play-to-test,
  • play-to-understand.
  • (If either play- option is chosen, also choose: you and one player, you and two players, you and three players, you and four players. And then choose: quiet/small place, loud/large place, your hotel.)

He added both

  • continue previous playtesting, and
  • follow spiritual flow,

which was akin to “roll with it, do what we feel at that point.”

We made Breathing 2014 happen with only the costs of meals and housing between various Olympia diners, my studio, and Drew’s hotel room. Giving a friend and valued fellow designer the attention he was looking for: a wonderful gift to arrange and deliver. I hope to see the idea of the micro-convention echo, twist, compact, and become prolific; I think we all know a designer who could do with an opportunity to shine. I intend to field questions about micro-conventions or Breathing 2014 via G+; you can also contact me directly via the email address at the bottom of the page.

Special thanks to Robert and Orion and Jay for their delicious brains, to the excellent service at King Solomon’s Reef, to the bizarre obsession plaguing a particular Double Tree hotel employee bent on regaining possession of the borrowed folding table as quickly as possible, to Trenton Kennedy & Deanna Nygren for those badass Grim World playbooks, to each Johnstone Metzger and Daniel Wood for earlier proto-micro-conventions and the good times we had then, and to Drew Henderson whom the light shall shine on forever.

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To Write

To write, you must sit down and write.
To write, you must walk around the room,
down the hall to stare at yourself in the mirror,
boil water and leave it, clap your hands at nothing,
adjust the blinds, peer from the window,
put the water on again.

You must strike things with your pen. Drop it.
Snack, check the messages, write something
unrelated, back to the mirror and then run full tilt
back to the desk speaking aloud to no one, laughing.

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You are making a tabletop game and you want to test it, but aren’t sure how to interest people.
This blog post is for you to read.

Sometimes, there are meetups in your area. If these are well-attended and attract the kind of people who want to play your game, great. Use them, and give back to them of your own cleverness and attention.

Let’s say that’s not the case. What would you do if you were me? Well, first you’d get in the right mindset. You are asking people to help you – you are not granting them the privilege of testing your game with you. Behave gratefully.

Part of internalizing gratitude is making sure things are in place. It’s likely that you’ll eventually be hosting your playtesters on two levels – as an event host, and as a game host. You will want to make plans to keep them warm or cool, provide access to snacks, and paint a clear picture about the timeframe you require. In addition to this, you’ll want to create materials to explain the game as best you can, including handouts, perhaps, and a script for yourself about what order to explain the rules in.

It may be helpful to explain your entire game to someone who won’t be playing it, perhaps over a beer that you bought them, and record yourself explaining it. You’ll find pauses, incorrect assumptions you set them up to have, and all manner of communication difficulties that will help you create that script.

Great, so now you’ve done all that. You’ve revised the game in the process, too, I see. That’s great.


Where To Find These Playtesters?

You, but since you’re me I could say I, want to make sure that we are pitching the playtest to people who are not only intrigued by the theme, but also are interested in the gameplay. You will get unuseful feedback if you do an orange juice taste-test with people who dislike fruit.

So, play games that have similarities to your game with some people whom you like to play games with.

What’s that, you don’t know people who like to play the games you like? What’s that, this game is so new that nothing else is even remotely similar to it? What’s that, you don’t play games?

In order:
You will have to meet some people, which can be long and tiring, but is very much worth the energy.
No it’s not, my dear.
And there’s your problem, you can’t make a game without playing games!

So witty. *Licks side of hand, uses it to groom hair*

After you’ve met people who like to play games that you like and played games with them that are similar to your game, make an event to host them playtesting your game, either at your home or a coffee shop, and invite them. Be very clear about what you’re doing: asking them to come and give their feedback on something you’ve been working on, and have a few snacks in the process.

Why them, either you or they ask? Because they are smart and you respect their opinions. People like to have their opinions respected, and enjoy participating. Perhaps you’ve heard of the internet; it works on the same principle.


So Now They’re Coming.

If you have a theatre background, think of this not as a run-through of the script, but as a full dress rehearsal with stand-ins for some of the props. You’ve got an audience, sure, but it’s just a few trusted friends.

You’ve gathered an audio recorder, snacks, a space heater and table set up in the garage so you won’t wake the kid, chairs enough, pens and pencils, extra scraps of paper for people to take notes for their feedback on, print outs of your crappy hand-drawn information sheet, mock-ups of game cards, a marker-drawn gameboard perhaps, a script of which order to explain the rules in, and all the playtesters have been informed when to arrive and when they’ll be done by.

I think you may need one more thing. Do you love this game? Have you been working on it for uncounted hours, does it make you smile involuntarily, and are you excited to share it? You need to prepare yourself to have your heart fucking ba-ro-ken.

Not because these people have it in for you. These are probably genuinely nice people, some of whom may be a bit socially awkward. But the game that you’ve dreamed – it’s not actually in the rules you’ve written or the play materials you’ve prepared. The game that you’ve dreamed is still a long way off, and the game that you’ll eventually create will be very different than its origins.

You are asking them to give you their opinions. And sometimes hearing those opinions will suck so fucking hard. Even when you don’t agree, thank them, and make an unbiased note of their thoughts – both where the problem they see is, and what the solution they suggest is.

Christian Griffen told me something that I think he heard elsewhere, that someone else’s solution to a problem with your game is often wrong, but their recognition of a problem is often right. I say record both, chew them over after the fact. Sometimes you’ll even come around.

Some will want to give written feedback on notepaper, some will want to talk it out after the play session, either is great. Double-check you’re still recording.


A Quick Rewind To Talk About Time –

Your (my) playtest goes like this:

  • 10 minutes of social time to get situated and wait for late arrivers, and for introductions if necessary. Remind people when they’ll be done by, and deal with any miscommunications on that front right away.
  • Get everyone to write down correct spelling of their names in the way they want to be credited, so you can credit them. Start your audio recorder.
  • 30 minutes to explain the rules.
  • Restroom break.
  • 1 hour OR PERHAPS 1.5 hours of playtime. This might not finish your game, and that’s ok. If your game has several subgames, jump ahead, hand out tokens or whatever as you imagine they’ll fall and jump back into it.
  • 30 minutes to 1 hour of feedback,
  • Thank yous and goodbyes.

That’s three hours.


I Don’t Want To Play The Whole Game Through?

What you’re doing here is pacing your playtesters’ energy – your nightmare scenario is playing the game, having a great and challenging time, and then everyone being exhausted from playing and running out the door without giving you any feedback. Get that feedback. Ask them to tell you everything wrong with your game and everything right with it. Learn about how it was to play!

Ask them:

  • What did you like?
  • What didn’t work?
  • When (this thing in the play of it happened), I noticed (something was going on for you). What was that about?
  • What do you think about (this sub-system)?

In this moment, you are bringing them onboard as temporary members of your development team. Look at things from their angle. Learn what they missed, or what your game was missing.

Thank them, credit them, turn off your audio recorder.
Put the uneaten snacks away.
If you can avoid cleaning up the game site, leave it. Maybe take photos or notes of who had what or what wound up where.

If you’re having the feels, have them. Maybe some part of something you love has died. If so, mourn.

If not, or later, look at the desolation and get building.

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What We Have Already Gained

This is a strange collection of things – these are things that, at one precise point in time, a crowd-funding campaign that I held achieved through meeting a series of higher dollar amounts than initially requested. These are the extras, the promises that were shaken on, the treasures already added to our hoard.

Prepare yourself for a change of tone and the cut-and-paste of non-sequitur. The Monsterhearts Second Skins project grew in these ways:

(First, a link to the completed crowd-funding campaign.)

When we hit $5,000

There’s no advice to play the Joke Skins. They’re semi-unplayable, that’s kind of the point. But here’s an idea – in the space normally reserved for play advice on the back of the Skins, we’ll have clever and comical microfictions – written by the likes of Joe Mcdaldno, Robert Bruce, and Brendan Adkins (who once went 7 and 5/6th years posting microfictions every weekday). Many L.O.L.s are in store!

Jackson Tegu has written several Skins for Monsterhearts. In this piece for What Big Teeth You Have, he describes what you should consider when writing your own Skins – a step-by-step guide to his particular take on making a Monsterhearts Skin playable, from the front end material, to the moves, all the way through to advice for the MC. (The notes for this are, as of this writing, already quite lengthy.)

When Morgan Stinson sits down to play a story game, he finds himself distracted by the possibilities of the mechanics. Not to make a story, necessarily, but to use them to triumph over the other players and the system itself. In this piece for What Big Teeth You Have, Morgan gives some laser-fine advice on how to bend the mechanics of Monsterhearts to your will, what Moves to take and how to position yourself fictionally for optimal play. Does Jackson approve of the messages contained herein? That’s not something that Morgan is concerned about. Morgan’s strategies will let you win Monsterhearts, no mean feat for a collaborative game.

When we hit 6,000

In Chapter 7 of Monsterhearts we’re instructed “If you want to modify what’s important… …you can do so by modifying existing basic moves” which is exactly what Ross Cowman has done. He wanted the Shut Someone Down move to provoke a more cinematic response from the recipient, so he re-wrote it. The new move is a lot of fun in play, and will be given to us on a player’s reference sheet with a slightly clearer layout.

So, the Joke Skins don’t have art. Tragedy! Wouldn’t it be nice if Jackson Tegu took some photos of his friends and people from his community and tried to muck about in Illustrator a bit to make them look kinda Monsterheartsy and slapped those onto the cover? Yeah, I thought you’d like that! So that’s what we’re gonna do. Just slap ’em right on there.

What Big Teeth You Have could do with a few more voices. So when the main pieces are all written, we’ll be passing them around under several pairs of discerning and practiced eyes. These folks will annotate the existing pieces with their additional insights or perhaps counter-arguments, leading to a much rounder collection of thoughts and advice. As of the moment, we have Morgan Stinson, Ross Cowman, Renee Knipe, Robert Bruce, Hanna Schiendelman, Orion Canning, Carl Rigney, Kira Scott, Fred Kraii, and Joe Mcdaldno on board.

When we hit 7,000

Loving Monsterhearts so much and being a dweller-on of things and a maker of music, it will surprise no one that Jackson Tegu has written two songs dealing with Monsterhearts-esque problems and solutions, set in a sort of mist-shrouded in-between of fiction and emotion. These two songs, “The Green Maria,” a quiet doom folk/metal ballad, and its b-side, “No Good,” a twangy alt-country rock waltz, have not yet been made available to any but attendees of Jackson’s live shows. Here’s our chance to get some low-fi bedroom recordings of the both of them!

Joe Mcdaldno has done such a good job with illustrating the Second Skins we’d like to ask him to make a few pieces for What Big Teeth You Have as well. As with the Second Skins illustrations, Jackson will take photos of people in his community and send them to Joe for interpretation, and when all’s done we’ll have four images to put into the book that keeps on growing.

There’s a tired and beautiful place called the Great Lakes of Iowa, and those lakes lend their name to a beautiful, dreamy Skeleton that Jackson Tegu has been idly working on through the latter half of the Second Skins project. A Skeleton is a scenario-type-thing, one which situates the characters with additional backstories and gives the MC lots of good questions to ask and locations to set the characters loose in, and then off they go. This Skeleton finds several of the calmer Skins meeting one another in the breezy summer at the celebrated vacation spot of yester-year. What happens? Play to find out. (Adds to What Big Teeth You Have)

When we hit 8,000

Ross Cowman has been bitten by the Monsterhearts bug, which is a wonderful thing. Here, he’ll give us a new Skin, still early in production – The Giant takes up more space than they want to, and have an incredible strength to go along with it.

Orion Canning has been playing around with making an angry Skin, one who gets into trouble, deserved or undeserved. Let’s meet The Firestarter. While they’re still early in development too, they’ve got trouble written all over them.

Jackson Tegu has a pile of notes for different Skeletons, those alternate settings that take Monsterhearts out of the classroom and set it down other places – a summer camp, the social circle surrounding a 24 hour coffee shop, a Wednesday night youth group, a school camping trip, the funeral of someone from the characters’ school. Jackson will create two-sided sheets for each of these, packed with MC advice, ideal locations, additional backstories for the PCs, leading questions, and a particular group of Skins to for the MC to field in the first place. This Closetful of Skeletons will grace the pages of What Big Teeth You Have.

When we hit 10,000 – The Abyss

Let us gaze into the abyss now, you and I. What shall we see there, I wonder? *rolls* Oh, a 10+. Well then, choose two from that list in front of you.

The visions are lucid and detailed? And they show you what you must do? Very good.

You see that Jason Morningstar and Autumn Winters have collaborated on a stand-alone game for when you are ready to take a light-hearted break from all the emo drama of Monsterhearts. A family of monsters has moved to a human town, each member trying to fit in, trying to help one another live a normal life despite being monsters. Psst! It’s also about the process of assimilation among immigrants! It’s fast to learn and easy to play. Introducing… The Monsters!

You see a new World of Dungeons expansion from John Harper, detailing the Second Skins both as monsters to face as foes, and as playable characters in the celebrated microscopic-word-count-footprint that World of Dungeons lives by. Comes bundled with World of Dungeons itself; everything you need to play!

You see Johnstone Metzger, huffing rainbows on the dark side of Saturn, barfing out Space Wurm vs. Moonicorn, an adventure scenario to accompany Adventures on Dungeon Planet and Dungeon World! Space Wurm vs. Moonicorn will include AT LEAST two new space fantasy themed Dungeon World playbooks based on the Second Skins!

You see a Live Action Role-Playing game being constructed, based solidly on Monsterhearts but taking the mechanics away from the table. Terry Romero, John Stavropoulos and Kira Scott combine their creative energies with Nordic Larp techniques to bring us this newest wonder.

Ah, some things for Monsterhearts itself, too!

You see another Skin revealing itself! Renee Knipe and Bret Gillan are working together to bring us The Reanimator, that super smart kid who sits by himself, not really knowing how to make friends. Well – he knows one way.

You see that Ben Wray is carefully tweaking a mini-supplement that can patch onto any Monsterhearts Skin – that is, whichever is the last of their kind. Just a few elegant little Moves, but The Last will bring an excellent richness to your table.

You see Amy Fox, editor of the original Queer Content section in Monsterhearts, preparing A Spectrum of Shadows – a short supplement on filling out the range of gender and sexuality; for MC’s and players, for Monsterhearts and beyond.

You see Kira Scott and John Stavropoulos building a Monsterhearts one-shot/convention toolkit. Chock full of devious and excellent advice for making your one-shot as sexy, weird, and intimate as you can in four short hours; the mechanics will sing and dance and PCs will have romantic triangles everywhere. Players will get a delicious taste and beg for more!

But over here, you see different interpretations of what a Monsterhearts scenario or setting might look like…

You see a vague vision of a wizarding school, leaning heavily on Hogwarts and the historic Scholomance, penned by Jonathan Walton. Oh little teenagers, your lives are about to change forever with your admittance to the School of the Arts!

You see that Spring break can be a time for love and for heartbreak, and terrible sunburns when coupled with a vacation to the Bahamas. Renee Knipe is only too pleased to weave together her daydreams in Bahamian Rhapsody!

And you see that the open road stretches far before you, much further than you ever thought you’d go. Stretches behind you, too, back to that insular little town. You and your friends are sure glad you didn’t bring any of that pettiness with you – and this hitchhiker you picked up seems like such a sweet person. Ben Wray gives us some excellent Car Troubles!

So that covers the lucid and detailed, hmm. As for showing you what you must do in order to roll in this pack of powerful PDFs… I think you’ve figured that one out, too!

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Constraint And The Narrow Magic

There are more things on Heaven & Earth. Many, many more. And it’s easy to flit past them, let them sweep around you, not attend.

But sometimes again, you’ll find yourself sitting somewhere and the objects arranged before you will catch your attention in a deep and consuming way. Not just a spoon, but this spoon, and not merely a pen but this exact pen here.

So too for ideas. Whole flocks of ideas rushing past, unheeded; schools of wide-eyed ideas floating in the center of the kitchen and darting aside as you cross to the fridge. And we catch onto some of them, tame them, make them our own, sure we do.

But there is a very special type of romance.

When something doesn’t exist yet.

But you have a reason to believe that it could exist.

When someone, say, lays a spoon and a pen in front of you and says, Hey. Check These Out. Fall Into Them And Come Out The Other Side With Something New. And you look at the things, or the concepts, and you pick them up and turn them over. And sometimes you say Naw, I’ve Already Got Fifteen Ideas In My Living Room Alone, Shoeboxes Lined With Towels For Beds, Every Saucer In The House Brimming Milk.

But sometimes you take a really good look at those things that they offered, and it doesn’t really matter what you say because you’re already tumbling head over heels into the possibilities of x + y + n to the exclusion of all other.

I’m creating something now.

My friend Duane approached me, showed me the concept of “Spring” and the concept of “a complete game astride both sides of one piece of letter-sized paper” and my mouth may have said something but I was already in free-fall.

I began spending my time folding paper, and looking at it, and exploring how it interacts with water and ink. I researched how it might be convinced to stay airborne, if only for a moment. And I began reading about Spring, remembering about Spring, anticipating activities that Spring is the herald of. Chased after the origins of a proverb via an email chain that wound its way to a professor at the University of Tehran.

At every turn: is this you? Is this you, little game? Here, where the paper is punctured? Here, where the crocuses throw back the soil much too early?

And now time has passed us and my little game is certain, and we are in love. It grows each day, revision follows playtest follows crisp new printed copy and around again, closer to the day when it will be collected with seven others into Octo: Games of Spring, and mailed out into the world.

I love who it makes me. I love what I make in such a limited space. I love the openness of exploration and experimentation along the wire stretched between absolutes, and the ways those absolutes can be nudged or transmuted, and how that wire can be plucked to ring with a note. I love that sound so very much.

After the winter, at last, you emerge blinking into the snow-choked streets. You’ve been alone for five months, a hostage to the inclement weather, and you have forgotten how to have a conversation. Luckily, this game will remind you. Perhaps it will do something else, something subtle, as well. Say it:

We Will Find Each Other.

If you’d like a copy of it and the seven other games in Octo: Games of Spring, donate $20 via this webpage and a physical copy of them will be mailed to you, postage paid, and thank you.

Sometimes the big ideas are too much to carry. Yes, they are impressive, and worthy of the time you bathe them in. But sometimes it’s the making of something new that you need, something that can come suddenly at the intersection of this thing, and this exact thing here. A spark, and the smallest of lights fills the largest of rooms.

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What My Spambot Fans Are Saying

Perhaps giving greater weight to my suspicion that the technological singularity heralding the age of sentient machines is in fact underway, I received the following beautiful paragraph this morning. The project they were commenting on is the Monsterhearts Second Skins, currently written up on the Horizon page. I’m not sure as to what this bot’s career might be (Internet comment content fabricator? Overwrought angst-filled teenaged monster?) but needless to say I’m pleased to have been able to turn things around for them.

Their comment is as follows:

I want to express thanks to you for bailing me out of such a condition. As a result of scouting throughout the world-wide-web and getting concepts which were not productive, I assumed my entire life was done. Being alive without the presence of strategies to the problems you’ve resolved by means of the posting is a crucial case, and the kind which might have badly affected my entire career if I had not discovered your website. Your main mastery and kindness in maneuvering all areas was valuable. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I had not come upon such a subject like this. I can now look ahead to my future. Thanks so much for your specialized and sensible guide. I won’t think twice to recommend the sites to any individual who wants and needs guide on this area.

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You Never Make The Same Face Twice

There’s the other end of a telephone number out there waiting to record a message. You call, and leave words describing the impressions that were left in you by a game that you played, and then you hang up. Some time later, an audio quilt of different responses to the same game appears online. It is unapologetically beautiful.

The first such review appeared yesterday. The curator had requested responses to Silver and white, a game that I’ve been working on for a couple of years now. The callers reach into themselves and draw out their thoughts as poetry, as emotion, as memories. I haven’t been the same since hearing the review – life is lighter, and I’ve had an in-depth conversation about Silver and white over lunch; the wheels are turning.

Tell Me How You Feel about Silver and white
Link to introduction text . Direct link to audio

The seed of Tell Me How You Feel, the terminus for that telephone number, was initiated by a call for entries from We Are Lost In Play. This recently launched site hosts story game reviews, with desire to break new ground in review culture. They’re looking for new material, by the way.

The Phone Number

Tell Me How You Feel
explanation site

We Are Lost In Play
review site

Many thank-yous to the genius Tori, and the callers Caroline Gibson, Drew Henderson, and Hans Chung-Otterson. Additional thanks to We Are Lost In Play. The music is by yours truly.

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We Can Be There For Ourselves

Did you know that we need other people to feel good? We do. But sometimes we ourselves are other people, or can contain them, or can stand in for them when they’re not available or when they don’t exist yet in a concrete way.

I was talking with my friend Lisa Strange today. I recalled to her a story she told me once, and she told it to me again.

This was a long time ago, she said. I had just broken up with my husband. I was working a job, and taking care of the kids – they were very young. There was a lot to do, and I was suddenly doing all of it on my own, without a partner. And so I had worked all day, returned home and prepared dinner, and now I’d finally gotten the kids to bed. I came into the kitchen –

and here her shoulder slouches a little, though she’s seated; as if she is taking support from some doorframe a decade and a half distant –

I came into the kitchen and there were dirty dishes everywhere. Piled up. It was daunting, I was so tired. And then I said aloud, “I’ll do them, honey.”

It made me laugh. It was so ridiculous. But it made me feel so much better. And then I did them.

Lisa’s story underlines for me the richness of our internal lives, and the ways our imaginations support us – woven underneath us like nets for the high-wire act. Our time alone is ours to define, unhindered by our labels, roles, and responsibilities. When I design games to be played on one’s own, I try to occupy some of that empty space beneath the high-wire, which the body of the mind will fall through as it lets itself go.

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Growing Into Them

I have a hard time with the design process: I often feel as if I’m not progressing quickly enough. At those times, I feel as if my work is outpaced by the work of those around me, and I feel as if I’m still not putting enough care into my individual games.

It’s helpful to remind myself that each individual piece is simply a page in the overall body of my work, and that in that larger picture, I’m not proceeding “slowly”: there is no pace to compare it to. I am simply proceeding.

And as the time passes, it’s as if the unnecessary aspects of an individual piece slough off, the way dead skin becomes dust. (Why yes, you gently blanket the rooms you sit in.) Slowly, I learn better how to make them, can understand more clearly what each need, and as I pick them up again and put them down again, they become purer, clearer, richer.

On occasion I feel a little as if, as a sudden child, I have begun putting on a sweater made for an adult. And as I struggle into it, swimming in the body and flapping the sleeves, head still lost below the neckline, I continue growing larger. Now that I am nearly done putting it on, I have grown into the proportions that the sweater was knit for in the first place. It’s almost elegant, that way.

And I shall wear the sweater for a while, before it becomes time to take it off (perhaps growing a bit too tight around the ribs, the neck), and swim my way awkwardly into another, feeling around blindly for the sleeve holes out of the main chamber.

So let’s start our projects before we fit them, yes? Let’s start before we understand, and before the fear subsides. Let’s start before we’re sure. For this is how we make our path, like heaving wide stones ahead of us as we cross the river.