Wonder versus Proportion

One of my most vivid memories from first listening to Jeff Wayne’s musical version of “The War Of The Worlds” in 1978 lies in the words of the Journalist when he is reunited with the Artilleryman, towards the end of the story:

Journalist:[as narrator] In the cellar was a tunnel scarcely ten yards long, that had taken him a week to dig. I could have dug that much in a day, and I suddenly had my first inkling of the gulf between his dreams and his powers.

Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War Of The Worlds, Transcript for “Brave New World”

It’s a section that I found missing in the original novel but which has always struck me as pertinent and powerful because it speaks to the human tendency to dream big. It speaks to the way in which we, as human beings, are so very good at ignoring reality in favour of the stories we tell ourselves.

Wells’ original text is much more pessimistic:

With that realisation my dormant sense of wonder, my sense of the proportion of things, awoke again. I glanced from that to Mars, red and clear, glowing high in the west, and then gazed long and earnestly at the darkness of Hampstead and Highgate.

I remained a very long time upon the roof, wondering at the grotesque changes of the day. I recalled my mental states from the midnight prayer to the foolish card-playing. I had a violent revulsion of feeling. I remember I flung away the cigar with a certain wasteful symbolism. My folly came to me with glaring exaggeration. I seemed a traitor to my wife and to my kind; I was filled with remorse. I resolved to leave this strange undisciplined dreamer of great things to his drink and gluttony, and to go on into London.

“The War of The Worlds”, H.G. Wells, Part Two Chapter VII

I love the connection in the first sentence between the “sense of wonder” and the “sense of the proportion of things”. It’s as if Wells is pointing to the tension between our desire to dream and imagine and the necessity of seeing things as they truly are. The sentiments from both versions of the story spoke to me as a teenager.

Today, I am often overwhelmed by the desire to imagine and the crashing realisation of the gulf between my own dreams and powers. In gaming, this shows up as the never-ending murmur of ideas in my mind: the worlds I wish to visit, the games I want to run, the characters I would choose to play. While I can bring some of these ideas to the table it’s more common that I don’t. I am but one man with a shovel trying to build too great an Empire beneath the sewers.

This can often turn my mind towards despair and depression. To a sense of defeat and a temptation to give up. This tension between my sense of wonder and my sense of the proportion of things is sometimes too much for me to bear. For the longest time, I have not known how to deal with it. How does one face down this “revulsion of feeling” at the apparent waste of precious things?

For my part, I am learning to apply the simple model from Natalie Nixon’s “The Creativity Leap” in a way that allows me to connect my sense of wonder to a sense of proportion – or, in her terms, to a sense of rigour. The idea of playing with the balance between wonder on the one hand and rigour on the other has radically shifted my ability to think in different creative modes.

Most recently, I have been allowing myself to play where the freedom (instead of rigour) and the wonder (instead of the literal) intersect. Nixon calls this the space for provocation – for thinking more expansively and where we can seek to blow up the status quo. What she encourages, however, is to transition towards the space where invention can flower: for this, we need wonder and rigour in careful balance. An eye on the awesome possibilities but the discipline to see those possibilities become a reality.

A tip from Seth Godin sealed the deal in my mind: pick five ideas from your huge stable and go work each one until it is properly scoped out, explored until you have a feel for its potential reality. Once you have all five ideas sketched out, pitch them to your friends and let them pick the one you will work on. From there, you must go and make that choice become real. In gaming circles, this might be pitching five gaming ideas and letting the group decide.

The point is that our ideas are only valuable if we act on them. Equally, however, our ideas do not get to enter the world without first passing through the complex filter of other people’s attention and permission. If we cannot make an gaming idea real and if no one else wants to play, then the idea will fail to bear fruit.

The Artilleryman could barely dig a tunnel ten yards long. He was unable to recruit the Journalist, despite his vigorous enthusiasm and the sharing of cigars and alcohol. In the end, the dream was too big and the challenge too great for him to be able to carry his allies with him. Why? Because the idea was not dealing with the realities of what humanity needed in the face of the Martian invasion.

Thus, taking Nixon’s formula forward I am asking three key creative questions:

  1. Inquiry: Why do we play this way?
  2. Improvisation: How can we play better?
  3. Intuition: What feels right or good as we play?

The answers have been surprising. They have led to new and more productive ideas which some people have begun to join me in experimenting around.

So while I sit here tonight facing another wave of ideas and seemingly impossible desires around what I want to play next, instead of spiralling back down into the Journalist’s dark despair, I am considering the balance between the sense of wonder and the sense of the proportion of things.

Perhaps I won’t get to play all the games I imagine… but I rather sense that I might just be able to pick some of them and bring them to the table if I focus on the intersection between wonder and the true proportion of things.

Game on!

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