Focusing

I’ve been trying to figure out why I keep thinking of this past year as the year that I finally got serious about writing. I’ve been writing all my life. Sometimes quite seriously. But something clicked during the summer, and now I feel focused and committed.

I’ve been reading all my life; I’ve talked to a lot of people who can remember when the words “clicked” for them and they were able to, for the first time, understand what the words were saying. Me, I can’t ever remember not knowing how to read; my mother says I was born knowing how to read. When I was an adult literacy tutor, this became an issue for me, because it was hard for me to empathize with adults who couldn’t read (I got over it, though, and got to be a pretty good teacher).

When I was about six I took it into my head to start writing books. So I wrote a few short little stories, illustrated them myself with crayon, and stapled them. I remember writing something called “Tunnel to the Moon” and another one called “Tornado in the Sky”. When I visited my mother a few years ago, I found that she’d kept “Tunnel” in her cedar chest. I’m pretty sure she still has that.

In my pre-teen years I also wrote a series of mystery short stories about a private investigator named Fizziwinker (I have no idea where that name came from, and I’ve never figured out if it was his first name or his last name). I thought they were serious adult mysteries; turns out they were juvenile comedies. I had one fellow offer to publish them as a book for children, but I was determined to published them in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock. As a result, these stories continue to languish in my desk drawer. Someday, I’m sure, I’ll take them out and dress them up and try to publish them as juvenile stories. But at the time, I was really embarrassed.

In high school, I kept writing a lot. I still have most of the stories I wrote from this period: “Eradicator”, “Courage is an Accident” (another one my mother kept in her cedar chest), “Derelict”, “An Authority on Everything” (written when I was convinced I was destined to be the next James Joyce — that phase lasted about two weeks, until I finally tried to read Finnegan’s Wake), and others. I was really strongly encouraged by my high school English teachers, one of whom wrote this in my senior year yearbook: “You are without a doubt the best writer it has been my privilege to teach”. During that time I even made half-hearted attempts to publish; I collected quite a collection of rejection slips; and, as I’d heard many writers do, I even wallpapered my bedroom with them.

So what happened in college?

At the risk of sounding like I’m bragging, I blame my loss of focus on the fact that I was good at just about everything I set my mind to in high school. My AP biology teacher told me I was one of the finest biology students she’d had the honor to teach. My history teacher told me I was great at what I did. And so on. I was in love with biology and went to UC Davis determined to be a doctor.

In college, though, I found that chemistry killed me. If I’d been smart, I would have switched my major to English and been done with it, but I was determined that I was going to stick with the sciences in some way. Somehow, though, I wound up getting a degree in philosophy, while taking as many electives as I could. I couldn’t take seriously the idea of doing graduate work in philosophy, so I floundered for a long time. I ended up focusing my creative energies on role-playing games, and became known in my town as one of the best game masters around.

So I lost focus on my writing for a lot of years. Now I’ve refocused, and even made a list of writing goals which should see me through the next decade or so. And somehow I’ve managed to stay focused for several months now. I think that part of this comes from the realization that my creative energies have been focused on my gaming for so many years. And as my friends continue to grow up and mature and take on responsibilities like families and going back to school, they simply have less time to commit to the kind of massive storylines and fifteen year plot arcs that I like to create. But the huge storylines and plot arcs are still yammering in my brain, desperate to be told.

I came to rely on role-playing games as my primary creative outlet, I realize. They’re great for getting a small group of people to think and enjoy themselves and my storylines for a few hours at a time. The risk of rejection is low, too: after all, my players kept coming back for me, which felt like success to me. And it was good to have the instant gratification and feedback that I could get from running a great game. Right after finishing up a game session I could count on my players to tell me what they liked about it, and I could take their suggestions. But best for my approach to things, I found I didn’t have to work too hard on making the stories work; I’m good enough at improvisational storytelling so that I can run an epic twelve-hour game session with little more preparation than a few lines scribbled on a piece of paper, and perhaps a few minutes to review the previous session.

In other words, running a role-playing game is simply not hard work for me, and that’s what attracts me to it.

Writing is harder work. To complete my massive storyline and my fifteen-year plot arc, I have to actively sit down for a couple of hours every day and write. I have to plot, plan, conceive, envision, write, and rewrite. The risk of rejection is greater: I could spend years working on the books of The Terassic Cycle, only to find at the end that no one is willing to publish them — or, if they’re published, that no one is willing to buy them and read them. The vacuum in which a writer exists is much deeper than the vaccum which envelopes a game master.

And I have discovered that one of my strengths as a gamemaster has proven to be probably my greatest weakness as a writer. As a gamemaster, I’m able to sit back and let the players drive the story, while my NPC’s are generally fairly passive (except for the villains, of course). The heroes really are my players, and I think that this makes me a very good gamemaster. Unfortunately, my tendency toward passive storytelling means that the characters in my stories are fairly passive, and events end up just happening to them. The characters are not played by other people, they’re played by some part of myself which I’m not used to listening to. Even the story I think of as my most recent success, “Burying Uncle Albert”, suffers from this flaw. Fotunately, I at least know that it’s a weakness of mine, and that I need to tune in to that part of myself where my characters are walking and talking, and pay attention to it.

Ultimately, though, I think that the rewards from writing are greater than the rewards from gamemastering. If my books are published, then the stories I tell will be appreciated by more than the five or six people who play in my games. And, perhaps, if my writing is good enough and appreciated widely enough, then someday, someone somewhere might just develop a role-playing game based on the worlds in my head.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.