Last week I repeated my favorite design column of the year. Now is my favorite overall column of the year. My runner-up column was "The Power of Passion." It was Poison Week and since I had already spent so many weeks talking about poison, I decided to use the column to talk about the importance of passion.
My winning column once again wasn't really one column but two. I am printing the second column today because it is the one that makes the message I wanted to send. (The first column is linked in the first paragraph.).
The fun of this pair of columns cannot be recreated, but I'll fill in those who happened to miss it. One day, readers came to the site only to be informed that due to personal issues, I was unable to write a column so I reprinted one from many years earlier. That column, called "Playing with Memory," was all about the faults of memory and how they apply to design.
The column you are about to read was what I printed two weeks later. (There was a theme week in between.)
I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season.
This article originally ran on August 23, 2010.
The article, entitled "Playing with Memories", talked about the fickleness of memory and how often things we remember didn't exactly happen the way we remembered.
Here's a letter I received about the column:
Dear Mark Rosewater,
Regarding your article "Playing With Memories":
I had just started playing Magic a couple months after you wrote this.
When I read this article, I had never used merfolk before, I liked wizard tribal too. But I remember being mad about anything you did to Blue.
So its funny how I look back on this with negative memories. Guess now it makes using merfolk even more enjoyable.
Here's to another 9 years.
I was quite touched that Colin remembered this column from so many years earlier. Particularly because I had never published it before two Monday's ago. Yes, the "reprinted" column was, in fact, a brand new column. (Go streak!) The genesis of how this column came to be is an interesting story and I feel it does a good job of demonstrating the importance of execution in regard to an idea. Along the way I'll fill you in on how the article went over and share with you some fun comments I received.
Here's an Idea
There is a common myth about creation that ideas come wholly formed. The myth being that the idea hits the artist in one burst complete with every element already included in the idea. While some ideas come more formed than others, almost none of them come completed. The artist has a germ of an idea and then there is a lot of work to take the concept and execute on it.
I believe this myth came about because when artists talk about their ideas they tend to talk about the initial idea coming to them. Divine inspiration is a trope of creativity and art. Usually it happens when the artist is not consciously thinking about it, the shower being the most stereotypical location.
What people hear less about is all the work that goes into grounding the idea, of making it work. Sure the initial inspiration is what motivated the artist to start solving the problem but it was not the solution unto itself. Today's column is talking about all the work that happens in between the generation of the idea and the finished product.
So where did the idea of a reprinted column that wasn't actually a reprinted column come from? Due to my Inception-themed clues (I'll get to this later) on the day of the article, a lot of people thought I was inspired by Inception. I was not. Inception, was though, the thing that prompted me to dust off the idea and actually write it.
The initial idea came to me about a year ago when I was writing "Four Hundred and Counting", the fourth recap of my columns (every hundred weeks, I look back at them, rate them and talk about them—this is a resource to allow newer readers to approach my rather voluminous and somewhat daunting archive). It dawned on me as I was writing recaps that I had the power to just make one of the weeks up. "I could give it one star," (my lowest rating) I thought, who'd even bother to read it? I could create something that never actually existed. Thinking back, I realized that Mark Gottlieb had already done it in a magicthegathering.combos article that parodied my "Hundred and Counting" columns. All hundred of the columns he talked about were completely fictitious.
I entertained the idea for a while. Eventually I asked Monty Ashley if it was possible to create an article that never existed and stick it in the archive where it was supposed to go. No problem, he said, piece of cake. The problem though was that I didn't know what to do with the column idea. Why would I create an article that never actually existed?
Here's the first lesson of the day:
Lesson #1: Ideas Without Execution Are Just Ideas.
This is a very important point so let me stress what I'm talking about. In the creative process, ideas get all the press but its actually execution that does the brunt of the work. For example, many people can come up with a brilliant idea for a book, but only a small percentage of them are actually able to write the book. The idea to all those people that can't write the book is essentially worthless. An idea that cannot be executed is, to be frank, not worth anything.
This isn't to say that ideas have no value. An amazing idea in the hands of someone able to execute on it is a powerful and valuable thing. My first point is just stressing not to overvalue the idea unto itself. It's great that you came up with an idea. Just remember that it's only the first step to making the idea a reality.
When I first came up with the idea of reprinting an article that had never existed, I had an interesting idea, but I knew it didn't mean anything until I knew what the article was going to be about. The form and the function had to mesh together which will bring us to a lesson in a few paragraphs. But first, let's get to a different lesson:
Lesson #2: There Is No Time Limit on a Great Idea
One of the common mistakes of newer designers is to succumb to the pressure of making use of every idea they come up with. For example, a young Magic designer makes a card that he loves so he puts it into his set. Time goes on and eventually it becomes clear that this card while wonderful isn't serving the greater need of the set. The designer though refuses to remove the card because he feels that it's too good to remove. How can his set not be improved to have cards of this quality?
The mistake being made is that a good idea must be used as soon as possible. There is no expiration date on a good idea or for that matter a good Magic card. I have told story upon story about a card that has taken years to see print. It's not a knock on the card but rather a sign that ideas are best when they wait for the right time. For Magic cards, that's holding off until the proper set that highlights what the card is doing. In column writing, that's taking the time to discover what the subject matter of the column needs to be.
Two good examples of this come from a few of my more popular columns: "A Day In The Life" and "80,000 Words". (Check them out if you've never read them.) The first was a "Choose Your Own Adventure " I wrote back in 2003. The second is a column made up of only pictures I did in 2006. In each case, like "Playing with Memories" I started with the structure of the column before I came up with the subject matter. (As a quick aside, I personally tend to get the form before the function for offbeat columns.) The "Choose Your Own Adventure" structure ended up being a great place to demonstrate what an average day of R&D is like. The all photo structure leant itself to a visual tour of Wizards. (Interesting how both of them were about showing you what it's like behind the scenes.) In each case, I had the patience to put the idea aside and wait until the proper subject matter came up.
The problem I had with the fake reprint column idea was that the subject had to make its existence make sense. Why would I want to create something that never existed and pretend as if it did? It took a few months but one day it hit me. I had always wanted to write a column about memory. What better subject to fill a fake article with than about the fickleness of memory. Why make something that doesn't exist? To show how easy it is to do so, to demonstrate how people can create memories of something that never happened. Once I hit upon the idea it was clear that the two parts fit together perfectly.
Is there anything else I can do to help maximize my idea? Why yes there is. This brings us to the third lesson:
Lesson #3: Ideas Need to Be as Simple as They Can Be to Accomplish the Task at Hand
One of the biggest reasons ideas cannot be executed upon is that they are too broad in their scope. If you want to maximize your idea's ability to connect with the other pieces it needs, you have to scale down your idea to its simplest form. When trying to plant the inception in Inception, as an example, they spend a lot of time talking about how the idea has to be boiled down to it simplest implementation. Ideas in creative work are no different.
In "Design 101", an article I wrote back in 2003 explaining the basics of Magic card design, the very first mistake I brought up concerning novice designers is the impulse to put too much on the card. One of the biggest lesson designers learn is the importance of doing less, of making the idea work with the least amount of design possible. It's true for cards and it's true for ideas—simplicity is key. One of my design dictums is "The best designs do the least amount of work".
With my fake reprint article, I spent a lot of time figuring out what about my idea mattered most. After a lot of thought, I realized that what mattered to me was the concept of making people remember something that didn't exist. Once I understood that what I wanted was a certain reaction from my audience (or more accurately a portion of my audience—as Lincoln said, "you can't fool everyone all of the time"), it became clear that I had to "fool" my audience for a reason. I couldn't just do it to do it. I had to make it have a purpose. Which brings us to our next lesson:
Lesson #4: Ideas Have to Be Grounded in Purpose
I often talk about the importance of having a holistic view when designing. The best designs have all the pieces working together in conjunction. Each choice is made because it fits into the larger framework of the design. Often times when reviewing a design, I ask the lead designer the following question: why is element X in the design?
If he or she explains to me how it fits into the larger design, I'm usually happy. If he or she explains why that element in a vacuum is exciting, I am not. In order for an idea to have emotional weight, it has to mean something to the audience. It has to exist for a reason. When the reason is just because the designer thought it was cool, the idea feels hollow to the audience. It breaks the audience's connection because they can feel, even if only subconsciously, that it doesn't belong.
An example from a different area would be a lesson I often talk about from my screenwriting days. I might have the most awesome idea for a chase scene, but if the chase scene doesn't make sense in my story, it will just stick out like a sore thumb. An idea that exists solely to exist feels stale and empty and ultimately doesn't generate the impact you want it to have.
What this meant to my fake reprint column was that it had to matter to the article that what I was asking you to remember didn't actually exist. This is why memory became the obvious theme. Why would it matter that I'm making you remember something that didn't exist? Because I'm talking about the faultiness of memory about how humans can create false memories without even realizing it.
This leads into the next lesson:
Lesson #5: Sweat the Details
A lot of people think of creative execution as one large singular action. The artist spends time contemplating what he wants to do and then in a fit of inspiration he or she performs the action that completes the art. The truth is anything but. True creative execution is a series of tiny actions strung together. Metaphorically, you might want to think of it as a chain. Yes, they string together to form something substantial but when you look closely you realize that it is the result of tons of little tiny connections.
The details are so important because the execution is the details. For example, with "Playing with Memories" the execution was all about solving a ton of tiny little problems. The first one was figuring out when the column came from. In order for us to plant a fake article in the archive, I had to find a week that didn't already have a column. (To be fair, I could have overwritten an old unmemorable article but I wanted to add not replace.)
At first, I assumed that I was going to replace a column on a holiday where we had just repeated the previous week's column. The problem with this idea though was that during the first few years I tended to write during holidays (the system behind the scenes was very different back in the day, plus there was a lot less content being created). While looking through "One Hundred and Counting" to review my first year, I stumbled upon a dark week. You see, the first year of the web site, Aaron Forsythe (remember he was the initial editor-in-chief) decided to have just one best-of week and had the second week black with no content.
I had forgotten about the black week but once I stumbled upon it, I knew I had my answer. I then came up with the "first week of 2003" story to explain how the article went up but might not have been seen by everyone. Then to cover my tracks, I rewrote the entry in "One Hundred and Counting" for the week in question so that if anyone went to look back (and you'll see that they did) they would find a paragraph to confirm the existence of the column.
A few have asked me why I felt it was important to create an old version of the column or rewrite the blurb in "One Hundred and Counting". My answer is that I wanted the thing to prove the non-existence of the column to be memory. I didn't want people easily disproving it with hard facts. I wanted people to have to question their own memory. It's interesting, by the way, how many responses I got from people who assumed the article existed even though they just couldn't remember it.
The next big hurdle for me was to write an article that made sense existing in the time slot it was supposed to have come from. That meant that I had to make all my examples relevant from that point in time (between Onslaught and Legions). Also, it meant that I had to be careful to use the correct terminology of the time. Here's a sentence I caught and changed: (see if you can catch the mistake)
To offset this concern, Bill Rose, the then Head Designer, wrote a letter to the public explaining the reasoning behind the change.
I use the term Head Designer but back in the day the term was Lead Designer. We changed the term because we wanted to differentiate between the person in charge of all designs and the person in charge of a particular set. But there is a second mistake that I didn't catch until the day after I turned it in. I call Bill the "then Lead Designer". At the time I would have written this column, Bill was still the Lead Designer. The "then" only made sense if I had written the article after I took over for him, which wasn't until years later.
My challenges as a writer were just the beginning. The web team had to figure out how to mimic the article so that it technically looked like an article from 2002. The art had to match the style from back then. The way the pictures were marked, the way the links were done, the way the column was listed in its address—all of it had to be tweaked to match 2002.
I won't go into all of these but there was one problem that I thought was a neat puzzle to solve. The article the week before (a repeat of "When Cards Go Bad" from the one Best Of Week) had a URL that ended with mr52. The article the week after (the first Legions preview called "Trigger Happy") ended with mr53. If we put something like mr52a we knew we'd be giving away a huge clue that this article was faked. How did we solve this? By changing the "old" version of "Playing with Memories" to mr53. Using that as our base we moved each of the next few articles up one in the sequence, and finally made mr55a, which showed up beyond the point where people would be checking.
This all brings us to our last lesson of the day:
Lesson #6: At Some Point You Have to Let Go and See What People Think of Your Idea
I talk about this problem in my column "Life Lessons, Part II" (where I talk about how life lessons I've had have shaped my card design). Designers/artists want to constantly fiddle with what they are working on. There is always something you can do to improve your idea. The problem is that if you never stop working on it you can never put it out for people to see, and an unseen idea is just as worthless as one never executed. The reason to create is to have that creation see life. To do this, you have to, at some point, stop creating and let it be.
I was particularly excited for "Playing with Memories" because a big part of it was seeing what the audience did with it. I went to the thread shortly after the article went live and found these two comments. The first was by alsadius:
There are advantages to doing archive binges—I'm quite certain that I read this article in past, though it has of course been a very long time. Interesting to re-read, and of course the irony of posting a half-forgotten article on memory isn't lost on me.
Also, hope that whatever personal issues kept you from writing a new column get sorted out properly and quickly—best of luck with whatever it is.
Two quick asides. One, I was very touched how many people wrote in showing concern for me. It's said that it is in times of crisis that you find out who your true friends are and even though this crisis wasn't real, all of you didn't know that, so it was wonderful to see the show of support. I really did appreciate it. Second, I got a kick out of how so many people talked about the "irony" that they couldn't quite remember an article about memory.
The second comment, by zamm, was this:
I don't remember this column at all, and I've been reading MaRo's articles since Onslaught previews began. Maybe I missed it like he suggested ... or maybe he's playing games to make a point about memory and this actually is a new article.
Fake Edit: Went back through the archives and found it right where he said it should be. Then checked his 'One Hundred and Counting' article to be sure the archives weren't messed with. I guess he's not playing games. But if he was, what an awesome game it would have been!
... Actually, that probably proves his point right there.
So close. So very, very close. The next morning I posted the following tweet on Twitter:
maro254 Question of the Day—To settle a dispute in the Pit, had you read yesterday's column before this week?
8:35 AM Aug 10th via web
Here are some responses I got: (with their actual Twitter names—hey, the pitfalls of posting to a public forum)
To be fair, I had plenty of "no's" and "I honestly cannot remember" responses, but it was fascinating how many "yes" responses I received.
One of the tweets above is from Lee Sharpe, a Wizards of the Coast employee—someone who works closely with Magic (on the programming side). Lee was at Gen Con, so he wasn't in on what was going on. When he returned and came to the Pit, I playfully asked him questions about the column he "remembered." After a few laughs (as everyone in the Pit knew what was going on), I revealed to Lee that the article never existed. Lee responded, "No, I remember reading it." to which I responded, "Well Lee, I remember not writing it."
The thread finally cracked the mystery two days later with this post by DVDe:
I just realized that this is a new article and they just did a very good job by putting it in the archives and listing it in the One Hundred and Counting article.
In the beginning I thought it was odd that I missed this article. I didn't read articles back then, but I some point I started to read old article by MaRo. I didn't read all of them, but I'm pretty sure I read all the articles rated with 4 and 5 stars by Maro in the Hundred and Counting articles. That means MaRo explanation for why most people missed the article doesn't work for me. I still got convinced I missed this article, but I thought it was strange that it happened.
Today, I suddenly remembered something. I remembered that MaRo mentioned in one of the early Hundred and Counting articles that there was one week in the end of the year without any articles, not even repeats. I was pretty sure it was in the first year of articles (2002) before they settled with 2 reruns a year, but I knew I could be wrong. So, I checked all the Hundred and Counting articles and there's no mention of a week with no articles. That got me convinced that today's article is supposed to be written in the week that in reality had no articles.
To be sure that I wasn't mistaken I checked the archive for other article in the same week, according to MaRo they must exist. It turns out that there was no Serious Fun on December 31, 2002, there was no House of Cards in January 2, 2003 and there was no Latest Developments on January 3, 2003 (I have no idea what was the Wednesday column). I think that's proof enough.
What I love about this is two things. First, in the end it was memory that cracked it. DVDe remembered the black week and couldn't find reference to it. Second, I thought his plan to prove the article wasn't real was clever. I knew we couldn't cover everything so in the end I assumed someone would come up with a way to show we had planted it. I just wasn't sure how.
"An Inception Is Possible"
For those of you wondering why I spent that entire Monday tweeting Inception quotes, now you know. Also, note that my teaser from the week before was "Join me next week when I plant an idea."—a direct reference from Inception about implanting a false memory. Anyway, I had a lot of fun with "Playing for Memories." I hope all you did as well. Drop me a line (in email, Twitter—@maro254—or the thread) and let me know what you thought. Were you fooled or did you figure it out?
Join me next week when I rinse and repeat (plus I have some exciting news you are not going to want to miss)
Until then, may you remember "Playing with Memories" fondly.
Continue reading Part 2.