One of my most memorable experiences, while working at Longfellow Books in downtown Portland, Maine, echoes in my mind 14 years later, as I contemplate how I invest my creative energy and what future I may still have as a writer. It’s difficult, after you reach the age of 40, to look at all the years that have passed, all the time you’ve spent doing so many things other than writing, and you realize you’re not only not closer, but perhaps further from the dream you once had of becoming a published author.
Living and working in downtown Portland, Maine in 2005 was perhaps one of the best years of my life. I’d just finished my Masters degree in Ohio, had packed up everything I owned in my little Chevy S-10, and moved my temperamental cat Copernicus and I to the New England, to make a new home and live out my dream of becoming a writer. Two years in a graduate program had killed my desire of pursuing a university career, and I’d started writing my first full-length novel, Mirror Breaker. I knew no one in Maine. But with a sense of adventure and some determination, everything seemed to fall into place within a month after arriving. I spent one week in a motel and two weeks canvasing for a non-profit before I found a studio apartment downtown and secured what was and still is (if I could afford it) my dream job: working as one of four employees in a small independent bookshop.
One of my responsibilities included selling books at weekly author readings, hosted at the Portland Public Library across the street from Monument Square. It was a great opportunity to listen to authors talk about their work, and I often met the authors before or after the readings, even if only briefly. One such author (I can’t remember her name, sadly) asked about me, and I ended up telling her about my graduate thesis, wanting to write, and—I don’t know if it was how I spoke about my graduate work, or if it was her own elitist disposition as an author, about people who think they’re writers or want to be writers, but—she said to me flat out something to the effect of, “You’re not a writer. You should be teaching.”
I wasn’t sure how to take it at the time. I was mostly devastated that this published author thought I wasn’t capable or worthy of her profession, but it wasn’t as simple as that. She heard me speak as an academic, as a thinker, and it was clear that I was well-practiced (at the time) in theory, and deeply invested in the how and why of things, perhaps more so than in the simple doing or creating of fiction.
Unfortunately, my Portland, Maine dream was short-lived. When the reality of having to pay student loans hit a year later, fear overwhelmed me, and I retreated West, to the safety of family, friends, and a lower cost of living. I did eventually finish the novel I’d been writing, but many years later (and it still needs editing and rewrites I’ll likely never finish). I continued to work in book retail, and the prospect of returning to the academic world became more distant as I became more accustomed to the “real world” of retail.
I will avoid critiquing myself for my lack of productivity throughout the years. I’ve long questioned whether I’m a writer because my dedication to the relentless and often thankless task has waxed and waned over the years, depending on my circumstances and other pursuits in life, love, and wanting to love where I live. Ultimately though, I think the hard truth is that I don’t have the dedication and attention span for it; every few months, every few years, I find myself chasing a new butterfly.
I always come back to writing. I have an undeniable love for the written word. But it’s only one of many loves to which I return, and fiction—in its purest form—is perhaps not the form to which I’m best suited. I’m ultimately not content to lock myself away like Emily Dickinson, dedicated solely to the fiction (or poetry) in my head. For me, fiction is but a part of a living, breathing, flexible fabric I prefer to weave through a life lived.
What’s most noteworthy about my graduate thesis and memory of being told by a published author that I’m not a writer—it’s not the theory or my propensity for philosophy and critical thinking, but the realization that my graduate thesis was about tabletop role-playing games and why people play them.
I’ve held a fascination for role-playing games ever since I was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons and Marvel Super Heroes in middle school. When I discovered Vampire: The Masquerade (1st Edition)—I think it was the summer of ’92—I fell in love. Vampire wasn’t just war games, dungeon crawls, and comic books re-imagined; it was a new canvas for creating rich stories about morally complex characters, trying to understand themselves in a modern, dark, and troubled world. I continued to play Vampire and other White Wolf games with college friends, then was introduced to Mind’s Eye Theatre live action role-playing. After playing a multiple night LARP, hosted by college friend Robert Bane one summer, I was hooked. Wherever I’ve had the friends and opportunity to role-play, I’ve invested myself creatively to the hobby.
The problem has been that I’ve always viewed it as “just a hobby,” a form of entertainment, as a lesser use of my time and creativity. Of course, playing published material was never enough for me (it was never only entertainment). In high school, I created new heroes and villains to interact with the Marvel universe. In college, I began re-skinning White Wolf’s Storyteller system for new worlds and genres, and experimented with my own custom rules. I wasn’t alone. One of my friends, Michael Addison, has been a prolific game designer ever since, now officially as Nerdy Pup Games. But it’s not until the past couple years that I’ve embraced the idea that my creative investment in role-playing—in writing scenarios, running campaigns, and creating my own settings and systems—could be just as valid and worthwhile as writing a novel.
In fact, setting aside the cultural value or prestige of a published work, in many ways, I find running a role-playing game for friends—in which they help determine the story’s course—far more rewarding that writing fiction alone. Perhaps I’m a more social creature than I’m willing to admit. I’d also argue that I find collaboration more personally rewarding, when a story comes to life in a shared imaginative space.
All this to say that 2019 marks a change of course and attitude. I’ve already been developing and writing on my own role-playing game system, Tempeste, as a legitimate writing project. But I’ve found myself happy to set that project aside to work on campaign development, to enjoy the more immediate rewards of role-playing with friends. That doesn’t mean I have less time for writing. In fact, I have more reasons to write, here on my blog site.
So let’s talk about role-playing games, shall we?