The Impostor Syndrome Daze

It’s ten minutes to ten in the morning as I start to write this, and the house is quiet. The phone isn’t ringing, no one is texting me (Of course someone just did as I started writing this sentence). I’m sitting here realizing that since I just sent an email with a manuscript in it, I don’t really have anything to do today.

I’m not saying that to boast, I know a lot of people have been at work for several hours at this point, and what you do for a living is far more intense or strenuous than a guy who sits in a chair and who sips ice water while listening to Internet radio. I’m saying that because it brings me an intense feeling of insecurity and discouragement. And rather than just sit quietly with it, I’m going to write about it.

In this age of hypersensitive hypercritical opinions, it’s easy to feel like whatever you’re feeling or whatever you’re thinking is wrong, or that you’re wrong (as a human) because you’re not in agreement with whatever the seemingly popular opinion is. Liking a thing when so many people say X or Y or Z about it (or not liking it) prompts such confusion and frustration in me, and I so often feel like I’m so very not good enough because when it comes down to it, I don’t spend my time thinking about how much or how little I’m whatever-label-I’m-supposed-to-be and I don’t give a stack of rat excrement about how you see the thing I like as a problem. But, later, in those quiet moments, I always seem to feel bad about myself that so many people have so many things wrong in their world. This is problematic, that’s exclusionary, this is bad, don’t like this, can’t support that, this is wrong, outrage, outrage, outrage!

What it leaves me feeling is inadequate.

Yes, I made a thing. It’s being edited right now (so says the text message I got), and yes, I worked very hard on it to make sure that anyone could play. “Anyone” being a human on this earth, no matter how they identify or how they feel or what they believe in. I think that’s the label to focus on. Yes, I made a game about a particular genre of media and a particular time period where straight white guys treated women and minorities as subordinates. My game isn’t advocating that practice continue, but you can’t really talk about the film noir or hardboiled genres without mentioning how women or minorities get treated or portrayed. But I’m not making a massive political statement. I didn’t set out to make a commentary on it. I didn’t even want to throw a spotlight on it, because I wanted people to have a good time, not lose themselves to divisive critique. I have always thought one of the reasons you engage in fun things was to have fun, and not everything needs to forward agendas or mores. Sometimes it’s just a game. I guess that’s what makes me a bad person or bad ally or whatever it is the internet tells me I’m supposed to be instead of only being the guy who sips ice water and hopes that his chest pain goes away.

I know I’ve left the door open for people to say lots of things to me because I feel this way. I know people will. I don’t know how many times I’ll sigh and say, “I just wanted to write down my feelings and not get into some social justice-y debate about things.” I don’t know how many times I’ll think to myself, “Why am I not supposed to be able to feel my feelings?”

Is it my privilege that allows me to have these doubts? Is it the fact that I’m a straight white man with a degree and a home and a car that makes these crippling moments of “I’m not good enough” some kind of screwed up luxury, because there are people in the world who don’t even have access to clean water or food, let alone a home or the right to live as the want? If this is a luxury, please tell me where I can return this and get my money back.

I work hard. Whether we’re talking about the actual editing or writing or developing I do or whether we’re talking about the rigid medical and mental efforts of improving myself or maintaining my health or the goals I still have or whatever, this is hard damned work, and it is tiring. Yes, I take time to be really really awful at video games. Yes, I take time to watch Netflix or cook things. But those diversions, while they bring enjoyment, they don’t mean I’m not working. Everyone needs a release valve. It’s not hurting anyone when I suck at being Batman. It’s not making the world a worse place when I watch Murder She Wrote. Though there are segments of the internet that would have me believe that by supporting a game company with a game where a wealthy white protagonist has rage fantasies or enjoying a television show where a mostly homogenous and heteronormative cast interacts I’m at fault.

This all leads me to question then, what is okay? Am I supposed to be locked in great bouts of mental anguish and social anger? I did that for years you guys, it gave me a drug habit and numerous suicide attempts. Am I wrong for making a game? Are the lengthy disclaimer and repeated notes about inclusivity and openness not enough? How may I please you, O Internet, that you spare me your vengeful wrath of complaints?

See how all this goes to coleslaw in my brain? See how the social justice blends with inadequacy and anger and frustration and privilege? Is that the goal? Is that what’s supposed to happen? People are suppose to be so mindful of all these spinning plates that somehow they’re to navigate unmappable and forever-changing waters, that they produce projects and ideas so sanitized and uncontroversial yet somehow still challenge and provoke discussion? I’m not sure I’m good enough to do that. I’m just a guy, with biases and likes and dislikes and wants and dreams, and doubts and fears and loves and hates.

I’m going to spend the day likely unplugged from most media, losing myself to music or a game or something to cheer myself up. I’d tell you about my next game idea, but I am honestly worried as to its reception, and I think that’s the most problematic thing of all.

What Finishing Noir World Taught Me About Life, Writing, and Everything

I finished Noir World on July 4th, and today while I celebrate my independence from putting new words or pages into it, I’m looking back at what writing 37k and making a game has taught me. It’s taught me a lot.

1. As a guy who doesn’t like when things end, I can actually finish things. I’m not a fan of endings or finales. I’ve never had a relationship end well (as in without some form of fallout). I’ve never seen a lot of last seasons or series finales, because if I don’t watch the ending, the characters and show can still go on. Yes, sure, I can finish things for other people, but that’s because it’s not my thing. I never thought I’d finish Noir World, I thought I’d be forever tinkering with it, since finishing a thing must mean that I must be good enough to do a job from start to finish, and I seldom comfortably think of myself as being “good enough”.

Finishing didn’t mean the ideas stopped, it just means the words stop. I still have plenty of mechanics I could write in. I still have loads of alternate ways to accomplish the same things. But putting them in there doesn’t do anything. It bloats the manuscript. It could confuse the reader, making it unclear which method they’re supposed to use to do something. It takes this idea I’ve worked hard to build and turns into an exercise of “Look how smart I am, see all these words I’ve written? Therefore you must accept me as one your cool kids!” and that’s exactly the feeling I’ve been trying to get out from under.

I’m proud of myself for finishing.

2. A project goes through so many twists and turns before it gets where it needs to be. This game started as a paean to Sherlock Holmes, involving far too many dice and far too many mechanics. It evolved into a competitive gambling game. For a few hours it was almost a card game. It wasn’t until I found a set of mechanics (that weren’t mine) that I liked and understood, that I could see the pieces coming together.

Once I gained the momentum of writing section after section, once I made the decision to go forward, I never came back to Sherlock Holmes. I’m sure I will at some point, but this game isn’t it. I don’t feel particularly broken up over letting the starting concept go, because the end result and its creative process have really produced good work that I absolutely stand behind. I thought I’d be more angry with myself, that I had somehow “failed” as a creator because the finished manuscript doesn’t really anything to do with the idea I first had fifty-something drafts ago. I thought that if I didn’t stay “true” to the genesis, that I could never finish the thing.

It was that rigidity that was keeping me from finishing. I was trying to force the idea into the text, trying so hard to show I was good enough (see below), that I forgot what was really important more than a few times – that I wanted to make a game people enjoyed playing, in an atmosphere and genre I’m incredibly passionate about.

I learned to trust myself creatively, but more on that later.

3. I’m a public guy with a private life. If you follow me on Twitter, and you compare different posts in my history, you’ll see a very changed guy. And not just because I’m not on drugs or drunk anymore, but because my life has had some ups and downs. I used to talk a lot about my personal life, who I was dating, what we were doing. I put a lot of that out there for reasons ranging from bragging to celebrating to pride. But it took this manuscript to teach me what real investment of time and energy is. I didn’t talk about all the nights I came home from dates and wrote a section to help me work through my feelings or my frustrations. I didn’t talk about the number of times I wrote and re-wrote a paragraph because I was distracted by some fight I’d had, or some rough night where my sobriety was tested by toxic people or some social politicking circus.

If you look at my Twitter feed now, I tweet less about my personal life. My health isn’t so great, and there’s only so many times you can mention a heart condition before it gets dull. It’s not that my personal life is all applesauce and buckets of awful, it’s just that I made a very conscious decision to avoid the pain that comes with sharing the vast and sundry details of one’s personal life in an occasionally hostile media climate. Wrestling with that transparency and the decisions of what to tell versus what not to have been difficult for me, but in erring on the side of privacy, I’ve found that I’m happier now. I can work on stuff without worrying about some fragile relationship erupting into stress, and I am altogether far healthier mentally than I thought possible. I like to think that because I spent more time dating (and being intimate with) this manuscript, I really found myself, and dating myself has been a good experience.

4. When you trust yourself creatively, you’re good enough. There are a lot of times I struggle with the idea that I’m good enough: good enough to be loved, to be hired, to be paid, to be cared about, to be listened to, et cetera et cetera. I’m coming around on the idea, thanks to some amazing people in my life and thanks to some tough decisions about cutting out unhealthy relationships.

Working on a game, and working pretty regularly on it, I found a real power in making sure every word and idea on the page were mine. And that they’re written in a way I like. And that they’re easy to understand. In making sure I was happy with everything on the page, and not rushing to “just get it done” or “just get it out there”, I had to learn to trust myself. That I was making smart choices. That I was capable of making smart choices. That my work didn’t suck. Sometimes that meant I had to think about the people who played my game, 99.9% of whom all had a great time. Sometimes that meant I had to think about the comments other people left on the draft, ranging from “Fuck yeah!” to “This is a really cool part.” Sometimes I just had to do that to myself, taking a second to applaud a really sexy paragraph or concept.

The end result is a sense that I do trust myself creatively, and that when i make a thing, it’s a good thing. In that way, I’ve finally found that “good enough” permission slip and access code I’ve always thought I was missing due to some irrational or low self-esteem issue. I can say that Noir World is a really good piece of work, and I have a lot of good proof to back that up.

5. My writing voice is clearer now. I know I can write snark. I know I can write profanity. I know I can write all kinds of stories or characters or plots. I know I can edit. I know I can help other people take their ideas and turn them into stellar projects that win awards and praise. I have been doing all that for a while now, and never really thought about how I sounded.

I can sound how you need or want me to sound when I’m editing. Often that means I’m sounding like the author when I’m patching up grammar and sentences. Sometimes that means I’m sounding clinical or dry. Sometimes that means I’m lobbing jokes in margins and sidebars.

Bits and pieces of that form my actual voice. When I speak, for instance, you get a little bit of everything. I curse. I make jokes. I make good points. I sound friendly. I sound authoritative. I wanted to make sure that all ends up in whatever project has my name on the cover. I choose every word and every sentence deliberately, crafting exactly the ideas I wanted. I know that some people will take my book and dissect it into components they’ll steal or discard, but that doesn’t change the fact that when you read Noir World, you’re reading me. My love for the genre. My sense of what’s important. My enthusiasm. I wasn’t always clear about my voice. But thirty-seven thousand words has a way of polishing a voice.

* * *

It makes me happy to think about the fact that not only are those my words in that document, but that they work when you give them to people, they can have the experience I intended. I didn’t sort of make a thing that kind of works, sometimes, when stars align and it’s a particular day of the week. I made a thing that people in THREE countries have tested, and loved. That’s a huge deal for me – proving that this thing I made works when I’m not even on the same continent.

It’s good to do things. It’s good to find yourself as you do them. It’s good to be true to yourself.

Happy writing, creating, relaxing, and partying.