Travel Writing: When Experiences Become Stories

One of my friends, who’s pursuing a Broadcast Communication degree, told me that, as someone who wants to specialize in production, she can’t just sit in front of a laptop all day and piece together footage drawn from different sources to make a wonderful video. Images don’t just magically come together to form a coherent whole, and they’d have less of a tendency to do so if they’re not videos or images you’ve captured yourself.

I’m inclined to agree, although what my friend said is not limited to production or broadcasting. Of course, one can’t just sit all day waiting for things to come together all of a sudden. Writing, for example. This one’s getting really tired, but of course, writers are supposed to “write what [they] know,” and I doubt anyone would know anything if they’re just cooped up in their room basking in the glow of the monitor.

Before my semester ended, one of the things we tackled in one of my classes is travel writing, particularly from the Renaissance. I’m not entirely sure what travel writing means now (and I personally wouldn’t call travel guides for tourists “travel writing”), but people like Marco Polo, John Mandeville, and Antonio Pigafetta, were all travel writers drawing from experiences. Or “experiences,” in the case of Marco Polo and Mandeville. To summarize some of what the three did: Marco Polo, Mandeville, and Pigafetta all wrote about what they saw on their travels (although they were inclined to either exaggerate greatly or fill in blank spaces with strange and entertaining phenomena) and had their texts published. Their travel accounts are both personal and objective (to a certain extent), and of course during the time their texts were published, considered fresh, new, and interesting.

I doubt the entire globe’s been scoured by travelers today. Maybe what’s left undiscovered is either too deadly for the traveler or too vulnerable in the face of the traveler. Nevertheless, I’m still here to drive home the point: movement is important, experiencing is important, and going around knowing things firsthand will help in writing. A new experience can ignite creativity, and may fuel your writing. There are no guarantees, of course, and I’m not saying that every new experience must be written down. Especially if you’re a writer anyway, you don’t really have to have strictly new experiences. Tackle familiar things from a strange angle, from a different perspective, from a different frame. And if you really want to travel, anyway, it does not have to be anywhere exotic or expensive. Just going around a new neighborhood, or visiting a new locale that’s ten minutes away from your place, can be enough to help you in your “travel writing.” Certainly, there’s no assurance that what you’re going to write is as fresh or unique as what the Renaissance writers had written before, but gaining new perspectives just by going around will help a lot. Write what you know, basically. And if you don’t know it, supply the missing pieces, or actually try to find out what it is.

A Few Other Things:

I’ve mentioned three names here, and if you’re interested, here are links to their Wikipedia pages:

Mandeville / Pigafetta / Marco Polo

Here, too, is a link to one of Pigafetta’s texts, Pigafetta’s Account of Magellan’s Voyage.

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The Creative Process, and Why You Should Go On (Even If You Feel Bad)

There’s a numbered list that outlines the creative process going online, and it goes like this (edited slightly to remove profanity):

  1. This is awesome.
  2. This is tricky.
  3. This is bad.
  4. I’m bad.
  5. This might be okay.
  6. This is awesome.

The list is short, sweet, and very accurate. In broad strokes, it describes how the creative process brings the artist from one high end to the next, but giving the artist a seemingly insurmountable slump of dullness and disappointment halfway through. It’s like a fence or a mountain, getting higher and higher and harder to overcome, and eventually the artist – regardless of the discipline – opts to give up and start over.

A professor in my English department shared this list to my class the other day, as an introduction to how difficult it is to write. She is a writer, by the way, and lives her life every day dealing with the vicious cycle that is the creative process.

I’m bringing this up right now because based on experience, and from friends’ experiences, the individual tends to run smoothly through the process until they hit the slump. They reach the fourth stage and never come out alive, likely leaving the work unfinished and the artist inside unsatisfied. Of course this happens a lot, but creating is an uphill battle, a process that’s never easy. One does not cruise through writing with hair down and the sun shining brightly. A lot of challenges face the artist, but the artist’s biggest challenge is the self. Self-doubt and discouraged feelings come in at the fourth stage of the creative process, and this brings the artist down enough to put a stop to everything.

But, as with all difficult things, if you think you’re stuck in the fourth stage, don’t let it defeat you. It’s your own voice that’s telling you to give up, because at that stage of the process it seems as if your work cannot be saved. Don’t believe the nagging feeling inside, and push through the darkness. It will help if you’re constantly reminding yourself that you’re determined to finish the work, and that you wouldn’t want anything to go to waste. After all, far into the creative process, you’ve invested a lot of time and effort, and it’d be a waste not to see it through.

Granted, there are projects that aren’t satisfying when you go through them. However, it’s a thing I’d recommend. If you’re stuck in the slump, read through or look at what you’ve done so far. If you see progress, then that’s fine, that’s wonderful, go on ahead and defeat that thing telling you that you can’t do it. If you think it doesn’t possess any value whatsoever, take it to someone else so they can evaluate it. If they tell you it’s good, then pick it up again. Continue writing that story. Continue working.

Once you overcome that fence, you might start feeling okay about what you’ve done, and it’ll go back to the final stage. The thing is, though, the creative process is basically like this. If you let it defeat you halfway through, there will never be any output that you can be proud of. Everything will be half-finished, half-realized, and dumped in the “what-if” folder. So do your best to overcome the fourth stage – the lowest point – of the process, and everything will turn out fine.

Read next: when should you give up your creative dream?

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Solo Flights: Why It’s Healthy to Be Alone (Sometimes)

People say a lot of things about being with other people. “No man is an island.” “Humans are social animals.” “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’.” The world constantly stresses the importance of companionship and being with others. There’s stigma attached to being the lone wolf. One must be part of something in order to be legitimately connected to the world.

Of course, this is not an attempt to deny the importance of being connected with others, as there is a psychological need to feel connected. People are, to a certain extent, social animals, and one’s memories aren’t always made alone. But sometimes – maybe even a lot of times – being alone is better than being with others. It’s a necessity. It’s healthy. Especially if it involves the creative process.

There are several reasons why being alone helps when one is brainstorming, or trying to figure something out. I’ll form a parallel – most people can’t study effectively when it’s really hot, or when there’s a lot of noise in the background. External forces can be intrusive, sometimes dangerously so, and these can break concentration and studied thought. You’re on the cusp of processing something, understanding something – and then an annoyingly catchy commercial theme blasts in the background.

People can be disturbing forces, sometimes more so than any inanimate object. You’re in the middle of thinking of a plot twist, and you’re getting there – so, so close – and then suddenly someone asks you something so trivial. It’s frustrating, especially in the attempt of trying to recover a good thought.

Alone, with your own thoughts, the thought process can get wild and free. There are no restrictions, no influences that impose themselves on the thought process. One is open to think about ideas more than if there are people who constantly interrupt and disturb. It’s already hard enough to try to think about ideas and to make them coherent. It’s worse if people are there trying to steal your attention.

Apart from that, it is easier to organize thoughts when you are alone. Like I said, your attention is all on what you are thinking about, what you are working on, or what you are planning to work on. There’s no need to be influenced by unwanted influences, and it’s certainly less frustrating to be able to piece together a puzzle when it’s done alone.

The thoughts are, anyway, louder and more powerful when one is alone.

It’s useful to try to find a single place to meditate in, somewhere relatively isolated and quiet. A private space, preferably. Or, even just a private bubble in a public space. Being alone means shutting yourself off from the world – not completely, of course, but enough for you to feel a satisfying degree of solitude – and it can be achieved through several ways: jogging, sitting in your own little corner in a coffee shop, going to a garden or a park and observing everyone else, or just sitting in a quiet corridor in the school building.

Being alone, too, takes off the pressure in everything. While people say that things shine under pressure, it’s not fun to be pushed over and over again, especially where the creative process is concerned. Solitude is important, and let no one else tell you otherwise.

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Creative Confusion

It may not seem like it, but I’m majoring in Anglo-American literature, and have had my fair share of texts that drive people crazy – both the kind read for class, and the kind read for “fun.”

Among the things we’ve taken for class are T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land” and James Joyce’s Ulysses – both utterly frustrating in the profusion of references and the extensive notes that come with both texts. And of course, I spent part of my downtime reading some more, and have subjected myself to pieces like Thomas Pynchon’s incredibly huge, dense, and frustratingly epic piece, Against the Day. 

For all texts, especially for the classroom-standard literary ones, there is a nagging feeling that you’re supposed to understand them, especially given my position. But the struggle to grasp these texts, not in bits and pieces, but in chunks or as a whole, is real and terrifying. It’s as if the authors deliberately packed in so much to talk and think about, and so much to interpret, that it’s impossible to read something like Ulysses comfortably and happily.

Which brings me to my point. A profusion of information and references would be fun if the reader can get it from the start. It’s not fun if it’s too much to digest – though in Against the Day, the sheer weight of what’s happening in the book, and the many threads that run through the narrative, seem to be deliberate choices by the author. A profusion of information and references would be fun for the author because it is a way to demonstrate the vast range of the author’s knowledge. Anyone would jump on the chance of looking smart if they were given in.

But a little reminder: you’re not Joyce. Certainly, you’re not Eliot. And while confusion may be a useful thing when it comes to writing – certainly, it adds a layer of mystique and extra mental legwork – it is not entirely advisable, because of a few good reasons:

  1. It’s hard to pull off. Extremely. The problem will be the toning down of your creative process, having to lift voices from everywhere, parroting things here and there in order to fit the narrative. Or, perhaps, with the immense number of things going on in the piece, you yourself as a writer will have to keep everything that’s happening fresh and interesting all throughout. It’s like juggling a thousand things at a time.
  2. It’s hard to read. Perhaps it’s just frustration coming off from having to read the text within a short time frame, but I found that even just reading Ulysses in chunks is difficult, what with the desperate struggle to grasp the meaning of every line, to sift through the many voices that assail you.

As personal as this post may sound like, I hope I’m giving off valuable information. The act of writing is wonderful, unless you, yourself, are not having fun with it. Having to struggle with a lot of narrative threads at a time can be taxing for both the reader and the writer, and making sense of what you’re writing will force you down certain roads that will adversely affect your writing and your creative flow. Take one or two neat narrative threads at a time, and don’t be too convoluted. It’s likely that your intent and your story will shine through easily with something smaller to juggle with.


Unless it is a deliberate choice of yours. My professor linked the entire class to an article on Ulysses, titled Ulysses in Perpetuityby Dustin Illingworth. In part, it quotes Joyce, who claims to have deliberately inserted a lot of enigmatic statements within the text to keep people occupied forever. It’s frustrating but clever.

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If It Ain’t Broke: On Revising Old Creative Pieces

Writing is hard work, and finishing something and feeling satisfied about it is one of the most rewarding things a writer can ever experience. Questions of publishing and getting exposed are things that come after in the logical sequence of events, of course. Sometimes, though, there’s the tendency to get back to the work, and re-work it. On your own. No pushing from someone who’s edited it, no modifying because of the feedback received from friends and family. Just the incredible urge to edit it yourself, and with good reason: you’re not completely satisfied with what you’ve done.

If you have the tendency to do that, that’s okay. Chances are, you’re not alone.

The urge to modify your own piece will probably come when, for example, you dig up a few old poems or stories and find that they’re cringe-worthy things written by yourself from five years ago. In short, it’s embarrassing. Age and experience have tempered your vision, and that epic love poem you’ve written years ago – brilliant, then, absolutely brilliant – makes you sick. Or, you find ridiculously obvious plot-holes in short stories you’ve done.

It’s certainly tempting to go back and revise many things, especially when your life has gone to a different direction. However, I’m here to tell you that it’s wise not to discard the original. Revise it, sure, it’s okay. But to throw away the original is something I don’t advise. And I have a few good reasons for that:

  1. It acts as a time capsule of sorts. Old pieces written show you what you were thinking back then, what you were feeling, glimpses of what you were going through. Small things may be remembered just by going back to your old poems. Old struggles that probably seem trivial now were monumental then, and if you wrote them down, chances are you would still be able to remember how hard it was, preparing for that Math exam, or how nerve-wracking it was trying to pick out a major in college.
  2. It has its own value. Don’t invalidate the value of what you’ve written before just because you think it’s not good now. It’s important that you be able to judge your past work independent of what your work is now, or what that past work can be if it’s refined.
  3. It plots progress. Keeping old pieces, hiding them, and coming back to them later can help you plot your growth as a writer. It shows progress, or change, in how you write, what you write about, the lucidity of your language, and everything else that comes with the territory. There’s no reason not to look at old pieces just because they may be, at least your eyes now, “primitive” in essence and sentiment. Perhaps, more than just your growth in writing, it also can help you show growth in yourself as a person. So keep those things.

I’ll end this post by leaving you with a quote (and briefly putting it into context, of course):

“To pore over literary shortcomings of twenty years ago, to attempt to patch a faulty work into the perfection it missed at its first execution… all this is surely vain and futile… In order to correct [defects in the text], I should have to rewrite the book – and in the process of rewriting… I should probably get rid not only of some of the faults of the story, but also of such merits as it originally possessed.”

– Aldous Huxley, from his foreword to a later edition of Brave New World

Aldous Huxley says it best, I suppose. Though I do not deny that it’s a rather lengthy quote.

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One Man’s Trash: Creativity and Criticism

One thing I’m personally not a fan of – and I think this is true for many – is the idea of showing someone my work. The kind of work doesn’t matter. It may be a poem, a piece of short fiction, or even an academic paper, but the thought of having someone comment on your stuff with the goal of picking out anything that’s off with it makes me nervous. Not that I’m a hundred percent confident of my writing skills, anyway. But criticism allows one to hear the things they don’t want to hear. Sometimes it’s constructive – which is excellent, and healthy – and sometimes the critique is comes from nowhere and is not at all value adding (“It’s not good.” “How is it not good?” “It just isn’t.”).

Which is why, I suppose, a lot of people are wary of showing others what they’ve done. Talking about writing, in particular, is a little taxing. But it’s important that your creative piece gets feedback, and it’s important that when you’re asked for feedback, you should give constructive criticism as well. Correcting minor grammatical errors and saying “this doesn’t look good” without offering any suggestions or showing why something doesn’t fit or why something feels off in the piece will not help.

Criticism is healthy, if you get the right kind: constructive. I usually show my pieces to my friends first, and many give stock phrases like “it’s good” or “I like it,” which is nice for feedback but not for improvement in the long run. The first thing you should keep in mind when you’re ready to get your work read by someone else is that your piece will not be liked by everyone, and this is true because people have different tastes. Writing something, say, fantastic, and giving it for feedback to someone who doesn’t like fantasy is, obviously, the wrong move. Know your piece and then know its audience. Know, too, the kinds of feedback different people give. If you keep giving your pieces to people who almost always say “it’s good” and nothing else, it’s not going to help. Give your piece to book-inclined friends, and have them read it like how they’d read any piece of literature – carefully, intelligently, with an eye for detail, and with the capacity to stitch together everything in order to look at the bigger picture.

Like I said, criticism is healthy, but it won’t help if you’re resistant to criticism. You should first acknowledge the fact that you’re not a perfect writer, that you can’t pin down the perfect draft the first time. Then will you be able to accept the criticism thrown at your piece. You should be able to learn to sift through the good comments – and by good, I mean value-adding. Anything that can help improve your piece – clear out vague points here, flesh out some interesting points there – are healthy. You should learn to incorporate them in the piece.

Finally, I already said that it won’t always go peachy the first try. Writing is a wonderfully reckless, exciting, frustrating thing. But in the act of writing, in the act of weaving your narrative, don’t yet worry about what people might think of it. Worry about finishing the story the way you want it to. It doesn’t help that you’re writing to please your critics – and in the beginning, they may just be your friends, or your family – although it does help that when you write, they should at least get what you’re saying. Write first, get criticized later. Then write more. Criticism is part of the creative process, and it’s very, very important, but don’t let it cripple you to the point that you’re discouraged to write.

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A Creative Year In Review

It’s still a while before December, but the presence of the coming of the next year – and the ending of the current one – is something that can’t be denied. And sure, a lot of people are looking forward to 2015, but some like to look back and evaluate themselves. What did I do? What did I not do? Three-hundred and sixty five days sounds like a lot of time, and it’ll probably be overwhelming if you try to look back and see how many of those days were spent doing nothing. And doing nothing is okay, except it’s a little questionable if nothing is done over a rather long stretch of time.

Looking back is important, though. Self-evaluation counts if you want to do something different. And most of the time, the New Year means ushering in a “new you,” although that doesn’t always have to be the case. People change over time, but forcing change isn’t going to cut anyone a good deal.

Let’s see. Before the year ends, there are a few things you could do, in order to help yourself formulate what you can do for the next year. Especially if creative growth is your thing.

  • Look at your work over the past year, and see how it evolves over the few months, and how this corresponds to the things happening in your life. If you’ve been consistent in creating something – whether literary, visual, aural, or in whatever medium, really – there’s bound to be slight changes over the course of your work. Whether this is improvement on your part or not, only you can decide. If you’ve still been writing the same way or about the same thing as you did several months ago, you might want to think about that. Your muse gives you an inexhaustible fount of things to write, but writing about the same general subject might be stale.
  • Look at what new things you’ve gotten interested in. A year’s bound to expand your interests, right? See how you’ve incorporated these things in your creations, or look at how your new interests have inspired you in many ways. A good year means a good haul when it comes to what you’ve written, drawn, or done in general, and if your new interests are things that help you creatively, then that’s positive.
  • Look at the things you’ve worked on before Compare them, especially, to what you’ve done this year, and see how you’ve grown – or not grown, because that’s possible (and not something to worry too much about) – and if there’s anything you might want to improve and if there’s anything you might want to make less of.

I’ve been talking in rather vague terms, but I can’t really talk anything specific, especially since the type of advice I’m trying to give can be applied to pretty much anyone and anything. The thing is, though, it’s important to take time to have a quiet period of contemplation, to think about your art and to think about what you do. Looking back might even help you spark your creative drive and work on something new and do something remarkable. And maybe before the year ends, you can create something wonderful, as a last hurrah for the year.

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Taylor Swift and Creativity (Or, the Art of Shaking It Off)

In connection with my previous post about Neil Gaiman and making good art, here’s a new one. Now, whether it’s good or bad is something I can’t say. Certainly, though, it’s something to look at, and I suppose be inspired by.

Taylor Swift needs no introduction. Ever since she became famous, she’s everywhere – whether on the music charts, on The Ellen Show, or on entertainment columns, her latest relationship break-up a feast for the public. She has a dedicated fanbase, of course, but she also has a lot of critics, and always, someone manages to find something about her to criticize.

1989: Taylor Swift’s latest record is a drastic departure from her previous country-pop outing, Red, and an even more drastic departure from her first albums, Fearless and Speak Now being two of them. After countless, country-fuelled songs about break-ups, and millions of record sales, 1989 takes Taylor Swift’s music to a new direction – and not just musically.

Taylor Swift just released her latest single, “Blank Space,” the second cut from 1989. It’s certainly not a lyrical gem, but it is amusing in its own right, with lines like “got a long list of ex-lovers / they’ll tell you I’m insane / but you know I love the players / and you love the game.” The song itself is catchy, poppy, and highly infectious – devoured over and over again by the millions of Swifties around the world – but the music video is something else.

Already mentioned is the fact that Taylor Swift has been criticized for a number of things – running through relationships like bullets being one of them. In “Blank Space,” she acknowledges this comment by injecting it into the song, and acts out the part of a crazed, overly clingy, insane girlfriend in the song’s music video.

Let’s not forget, too, the album’s first single, “Shake It Off.” Taylor pointedly ignores and makes fun of the remarks thrown at her (“I go on too many dates / but I can’t make them stay / at least that’s what people say”) and instead uses the criticism – baseless as they seem to be – as fuel for her art. In this case, of course, music.

Why am I talking about Taylor Swift, and how she makes fun of critics through her music?

The point I’m trying to drive home is this: Taylor Swift is an example of a person making good art, out of the negative things being thrown at her. She builds up on the negative comments and uses them to make something that she – and her fans – are happy with.

Creativity can spring from anywhere, at any time. Creativity, and creating something, can certainly be inspired by anything that is otherwise insipid, baseless, or just plain hateful. Experiencing anything that’s far from good can become a good base for a story later on. Being criticized is a normal, every day thing, but it is up to one if the criticism – especially that which is not constructive in any way – will be taken seriously or will be, instead, used for the better.

Finally, this is Taylor Swift, and so the art she makes out of negative comments about her is bound to get positive response anyway. However, as single-tracked as her music may sometimes seem, there is a valuable nugget of wisdom that she imparts: “shake it off.”

So do what Taylor Swift does. Use criticism as a springboard, as a launching pad to jump off into the wonderful, reckless abandon of creation.

Also, a final note: for anyone out there who is planning to write satire, to start with, you can take cues from Taylor Swift.

Some Interesting Things:

Take a break, and listen to Taylor Swift’s new single, Blank Space.

(P.S. I’m not promoting Taylor Swift – just her ways of dealing with criticism and working on something satirical.)

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On Pieces of Advice

There are, no doubt, hundreds – if not thousands, maybe millions – of inspirational quotes scattered all over the Internet. This kind of advice is, of course, on just about any topic imaginable – love, friendship, school, work, what have you. Advice-giving is a sketchy thing, though. I’d assume the advice being given has worked for the advice giver, but there is never any guarantee that the same good thing will come out of anyone else following the advice given to them. Advice is useful, but it is never guaranteed. That’s why disclaimers exist.

The interesting thing is, I believe there is one piece of advice that will always, always work, even if other pieces of advice, and even if other suggestions, have failed and have dragged you down and made you miserable. And that piece of advice comes from one of the most brilliant writers of the century, the veritable rock star of literature – Neil Gaiman.

A brief introduction: Neil Gaiman is the creator of Sandman. He has written the following: Coraline, Stardust, American Gods, Neverwhere, The Graveyard Book, Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett of Discworld fame), and the short story collections Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things. He also, I believe, does not need an introduction past that, given that his track record is already very much impressive.

Neil Gaiman gave a speech to the graduating class of The University of the Arts back in 2012, and while the speech itself is well worth the read for the invaluable advice Neil Gaiman gives to artists of all persuasions, the entire message can be distilled into three profoundly moving words: make good art.

I am not here to elaborate on Neil Gaiman’s speech, or to parrot his words and make them appear as if I am the one giving you such valuable advice. Instead, I’m here to connect what I said earlier – that there is one piece of advice that will always work – to Neil Gaiman’s advice.

The thing is, “make good art” is useful precisely because it can act out its persuasiveness by pushing you to do something about anything bad that’s happened. That something is art, of course – art being anything written, drawn, or generally made by the self. Fall down the stairs? Write a poem. Failed a class? Paint something. Got turned down? Write a song.

I believe that “make good art” is not, in itself, a solution to any of the problems one is facing, but is instead a coping mechanism, something to channel all negative energy present in the system and turn it into something beautiful instead. If you’re the scientific type, think of it as something similar to the Law of Conservation of Energy.

It’s not solely for coping, even. Anything good happening in life demands some sort of documentation, and while pictures and diary entries are legitimate pieces of documentation (diary entries, especially, and most especially when they are revisited years later), great events can serve as fuel for good art. Especially if you’re happy. I’m not entirely sure about the science behind it, but – in vague terms – hormones or bodily chemicals, I believe, release adrenaline or endorphins, when something great happens. That’s a lot of energy that can be channelled right there, and what better way to transfer that than to make good art?

“Make good art” is my personal motto in life, simply because it’s the best non-religious piece of advice I know. And simply because, in my experience, it always works. I’ve made art – whether good or not remains to be seen – every time I felt down, wrote poems every time I felt anxious or incredibly happy about something, wrote stories every time something inspired me.

Now, my piece of advice to you – and it goes without saying that you should not rely on it too much – is to follow Neil Gaiman’s piece of advice. But “make good art” is such an excellent, all-encompassing piece of advice that negates the suspicious, uncertain nature of my piece of advice. Follow Neil Gaiman’s piece of advice.

Isn’t that quite paradoxical, though?


Some Possibly Useful Links:

As a university student and aspiring professor, I should not be linking you to Wikipedia pages, but one half of this list of links is a Wikipedia page. I apologize. (In my defense, it is about a scientific concept, and science is not my area – not that I’m saying I know absolutely nothing about science…)

The Law of Conservation of Energy / Neil Gaiman’s Keynote Address to the University of the Arts Class of 2012

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