Why I’m (not) a writer

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?

Writing in the Dark

It’s a challenge—for those of us with both a creative and an analytic mind—to learn what to keep simple, so that complexities can speak for themselves.

So here I am, after a long silence: I’m still gaming. I’m still writing. I’m updating my website, as I consider how to best make use of it.

Also, I’ve recently become infatuated with a new-ish roleplaying game called Symbaroum. Like Mutant Year Zero, it’s the product of a Swedish game studio (Järnringen), distributed by Modiphius Entertainment, but dark fantasy rather than post-apocalyptic. The aesthetic is grim, the mechanics brutal. Last night, I introduced my Sunday game group to “The Promised Land”, the adventure in the Core Rulebook, and so far, I think everyone’s loving it—with our own personal touches, of course.

What I really want to share with everyone, however, is that I submitted a short Symbaroum adventure for the Ballads of Blackhawk writing contest co-sponsored by fan sites, ordomagica.com and theironpact.com. You can read my submission, “Lovesick Caravan,” as well as more than 20 others on Ordo Magica. I’m moderately happy with what I wrote, though it suffered from procrastination and trying to squeeze too much into a 1500 word limit (I did it, but had to make sacrifices). Of course, I’d love for you to vote for my submission, but there are a few other gems, no doubt written by those who have more experience than I do with world and mechanics. Some of my favorites include “A Heart in Darkness,” “Blight Spoor in Blackmoor,” “Born of Graves,” “Oroke’s Eye,” and “The Feast of the Willow.” You can vote for a first, second, and third choice, and you have until May 31st, so check them out!

(Oh, and if you’re part of my Sunday night game group, please don’t read my submission unless you feel morally obligated to do so before voting; there’s a strong likelihood that I’ll use it in our campaign.)

Tempeste: Introductions

While I haven’t kept up with blogging—it’s been, what, four months since my last post about RPG development?—I have been writing, and within the past two weeks, almost every day. Progress still feels slow, but as my friend Addison keeps telling me, “One inch punch.”

I’ve bounced around a lot with game development. It felt like a priority to determine basic mechanics, what dice to use, how to handle difficulty variance, basic attributes, etc.; I don’t have much written out longhand (very little in fact), but the notes and basic structure are in place. From there, I moved onto character creation, creating professions (the equivalent of traditional “classes”), skill lists, and I began considering special abilities for each profession. This led to thinking about experience and character enhancement—and then I jumped backwards to determine what steps happen before a player chooses their character’s profession. I realized how important I want it to be to conceptualize one’s character and personality prior to choosing a profession. Rather than just choosing ‘race’ and ‘class’, I want players to consider in what city their character was born, what were their circumstances before becoming a mercenary—why have they become a mercenary? Of course, players are going to choose what they want to choose first. But nonetheless, I want a character’s background to play an important role.

I think part of what led to my change in focus was visiting my friend Jeff Hawley in L.A. several weeks ago. I was in town for a business trip but arrived a few days earlier to hang out with him because we hadn’t seen one another since, when? I think since I first moved to Portland eight years ago! He was the only person I knew in Portland at the time, but unfortunately, he lost his job in Portland and shortly after my arrival, returned to Los Angeles for work. But with common interests in games and game development, I was eager to bounce ideas off him—and he asked me to play through a few rounds of combat using Legend of the Five Rings, 4th edition. He was planning to run a short campaign for a few friends but had never used the system before, so he wanted to get a feel for it. Of course, I had to create a character (we both did) to see what sorts of effects our choices during character creation would have on our respective combat abilities. Much to my surprise, I built a quick and adept swordsman and gained the upper hand in combat!

But what interested me most about the game design was not the intricate combat system (I tend to prefer simple combat systems anyway), but rather, the importance of choosing one’s family and education, and how these shaped one’s character just as much as choosing to be a courtier or a samurai, for example. All the details about the clans also helped immerse me in the world, if only briefly.

I think one of my biggest challenges with Tempeste will be immersing players in a new world and convincing them it’s worth the time and effort. Of course, the other side of the coin is that—although players love to discover new worlds, they’re unlikely to stay there if the mechanics are clunky, too basic, or too complex. The trick is to wed content and structure together. Well, I guess I decided to put down mechanics for now and to focus on world building a bit.

I again found myself bouncing around, thinking about how to structure the book, how familiar a player should be with x or y by this or that point in reading the book, and I decided, what I need to do is start writing the introduction. I need to lay the groundwork for the Tempeste world, to give a common point of reference.

So that’s what I’ve been up to, writing the first few pages that introduce both the natural and civilized world of Tempeste, and that essentially explain what’s different about Tempeste. It’s a lot of work, trying to perfect an introduction, to be succinct yet descriptive, to give detail without bogging down the reader with too much too soon. If it takes too long, I may need to skip ahead. Haha! I’m anxious to start detailing cities, because I think making the cities come alive again—for me—will help reshape the world and breathe new life into it.

I know, I’m not giving you a lot of details. But hopefully, you’re a little curious.

Alright, back to work with me. I’ll try to write again soon!

 

Fantasy requires discipline

I’ve never been good with discipline. (Well, never say never, right? I did manage to get through grad school and wrote a book, after all.) But I’m easily distracted, self-distracted, wanting to chase some fancy or another, or to break a rule because it’s a rule, even if it’s a rule I’ve made. Especially rules I’ve made. Because I don’t want to feel confined, to be told what to do, what I must do, how something should be done. I want to intuit, discover, unfold.

Discipline. Perhaps discipline should be one of my four primary attributes.

Style. Perhaps “art” or “flair”—something that suggests a bit of “flourish”—but thus far, I believe style best fits the genre while remaining broad enough in meaning.

Maybe you’re thinking… “Discipline and style—are these appropriate attributes for superheroes during an apocalypse…?”

Nope. Probably not.

Continue reading “Fantasy requires discipline”

The next “big” project

wp-1485241867040.jpgI’m going to do it. I’m going to start blogging. Why? Because I need to write MORE. Period. I also need to hold myself accountable, to not only whisper to myself “I need to write,” but to create a work space for all the public to see, and to challenge myself to fill that work space with verifiable progress.

Not only do I need to practice writing, I’m also recognizing (as in “cognizing again”) the value of reflection—one of those essential tools that come naturally to us when we’re young and discovering the world, but that we neglect once we think we know enough to authoritatively speak about the world. Rather than stubbornly stick to what I think I should be writing, I must allow—if not, challenge—myself to explore and consider yet unknown possibilities.

Perhaps I am, in part, inspired by my (now divorced) parents who, facing age 60, have been taking stock of their lives and fretting over their mortality. While I help my mother edit her memoir, I’ve recently been engaging my father in “big” conversations about our relationship, and why we haven’t been as close to one another as I am, for instance, with my mom. It really is a big, somewhat complex topic (and not the topic of this post); my point here is that opening a dialogue with my father, an activity that required energy, attention, some discomfort, and patient, thoughtful determination, has proven fruitful. Earlier this evening, I talked with my dad on the phone about his reflections over the past week (following our email exchange and after he also met and talked with my brother in person)—and opening that line of communication, to reflect on our relationship, has set us on a journey to improve that relationship.

Similarly, I need to improve my relationship with writing. Certainly, I am in my own way grappling with my own mortality as I stare at my soon-to-be 40-year-old self in the mirror, and I wonder, “What do I have to show for the past 20 years?”

So, it’s time to recognize a few truths, some of which I’ve come accept over the past year or so, and some of which I’m affirming here and now:

  1. Just as much as I once aspired to be a writer or visual artist, I’m also a gamer. So let’s include game creation in my public creative persona, eh? (I know, what took me so long, right?)
  2. Just as a writer must read, so must a game designer game—and in my case specifically, if I want to write an RPG, I need to spend more time playing RPGs and a greater variety of RPGs. Reflection also requires experience, and let me (publicly) confess, I don’t engage enough with literature, the fine arts, or with the gaming world.
  3. (And this is the “big” one) I’ve become so accustomed to organizing information, that my default impulse when initiating a project is to create an organizational structure before sinking my teeth into the content. You could even argue that this blog post is a structure or framework I feel I must create before delving into what I really want to do, which is write content for an RPG. I use Excel daily at my work, collecting and organizing data, crafting reports, and this practice (for better or worse) has become my dominant modality.

In my mid-20s, I learned that creating an outline before writing a novel killed my interest in the story (because I already knew what was going to happen), and my greatest success came from simply writing and discovering the story as I wrote.

I need to re-train my brain to generate content first, and to let the structure evolve from that content.

So, in large part (I know, I should have learned this truth long ago), I’m blogging to establish the practice of writing, the practice of reflection, the practice of exploration. Rather than limit myself, as I’ve commonly done in the past, to the “big” project, I’m deliberately setting a course to engage in related activities, whether that means writing about the creative process here, or participating as a player in a new RPG with a bunch of strangers. After all, I’m no Emily Dickinson.