I started writing to entertain my family and then my classmates by reading aloud. Then I wrote to continue stories with the action figures I loved. Then I wrote because I wanted to be funny like Erma Bombeck and Jean Sheppard and Patrick McManus.
I wrote because other people told me I was a writer and so I could say they were right. I wrote because I wanted to be famous. I wrote because I wanted to build an audience that would one day encourage me to run for office as a literary philosopher president.
I wrote as a way of turning my inherited talent for eloquent bullshittery to something less destructive than how my father applied it. I wrote to get revenge on him, to show I’d grown up okay despite all his efforts. I wrote to fight evil with words like Voltaire. I wrote to debug our Cambellian cultural software, evoking the epic in all of us.
I wrote to woo women. A lot. (A lot of writing, not a lot of women.)
I wrote to earn a comfortable sinecure in academia. I wrote to escape from terrible stultifying office jobs. I wrote hoping to be a free observer on the sidelines of life, above economy and mobs.
I wrote to make the world more mysterious and strange, to make readers laugh and cringe and laugh again. I wrote so I could live forever, perhaps through an oft-visited statue of me somewhere in Englewood or Gainesville or Jacksonville not far from a vault of my well-protected papers.
But I outgrew all of that, leaving it behind as egotism and deciding that such motivations were impure. I had (and still have) the very Generation X idea that if you want something too much, you won’t get it.
Why do I write now?
Because it seems to be the talent that I have, remembering things with more drama and detail than most people. Because I like noticing connections and contradictions between things. Because I still want to make the world more weird and interesting.
I used to write to entertain and inspire people, but I’m less sure lately than many of them deserve it. Now I write as a signal to anyone who does, a clandestine gesture to other saboteurs in enemy country.
I write now because I like making things clearer and more interesting with words. I still like making people see and feel things. I like making ME see and feel things, surrounding something amorphous with words so I can get at least a hint of its size and shape.
I feel alive when I’m noticing and synthesizing, when the shiver of recognition comes that something sounds right.
I’m sick these days of characters, plots, scenes, arcs, point of view, and narrative distance. I’m sick of clanking scaffolds, of our perfected science of franchise content storytelling. I’m exhausted by the act of doing the right things to say I’m a writer, to have a career.
I really just want to “shoot the shit” as my mother and father used to say, and I’m starting to think that maybe I can.
This weekend was Willcon 20, the gaming and genre convention I run from my home that is absolutely not just a party like it looks. We have a schedule! We have a con suite! We have mismatched uncomfortable chairs scattered around tables!
Among the things we do at Willcon: role-playing games, board games, computer and console games, eating, cooking, drinking, crafts, paintball, watching movies, visiting national monuments and Shenandoah National Park (when we lived in DC), visiting Kennedy Space Center, visiting bookstores, and once we had fire dancers come.
I’ve run this event 27 times over twenty discrete years since 1997, so the reckoning of exactly what we should CALL this Willcon is hopelessly fucked up. We used to do it a couple of times a year, and there have been years when we couldn’t do it because of pandemics and parenthood (not mine, don’t worry), so…whatever.
I started Willcon because it has always been tricky to find people who enjoy weird things like role-playing games, computers, writing, science fiction, horror, and fantasy without being batshit crazy about it. To be fair, there are fans of scuba diving and football and political parties who are also batshit crazy about those, too.
(I think the world is being torn apart by fandomization in many ways, everyone desperate to prove their commitment to some specialized passion without any sense of proportion. That’s why Gen X isn’t fucking up the world: we don’t care enough to bother.)
Over all those years, somewhere near eighty different people have come to my home for games, food, interpersonal drama, and a captive reading of my writing. Of those, a good dozen or more no longer speak to me because I divorced their family member (which I completely understand). Another two dozen have gone on to other interests, which also makes perfect sense and I wish them well. Four are dead, which shows a disappointing lack of community spirit.
The remainder continue to drift in and out of Willcon’s orbit, and when we reunite around the table and some dice, it’s like we never left. This year, we had a guest return after seventeen years away, and it was great to see him.
I sometimes have actual dreams where everybody I’ve ever cared about comes all at once to a Willcon, and I’m sure there’s some clumsy metaphor there about creating a family. Okay, sure, I’ll accept that.
It’s easy to assume from the name “Willcon” that the abiding interest I’m hoping to cultivate is one in me, and yes, I do read from my fiction sometimes around our campfire.
But the real reason it’s still called Willcon (in addition to tradition and lack of a better name) is that it’s my honor to be the locus where this family (including my entire actual family who also come to Willcon) can come together and share things we love.
(In proper dignified proportion, of course.)
I don’t often say that, and I wanted to mention it publicly.
Earlier this week, I crossed a threshold: after keeping a daily log of my activities consistently since June of 2001 and filling in others from calendars and journals, I logged my 9,075th day. Of those, 9,011 are in my lifetime out of 17,924 days alive.
That’s 50.3%…a majority of my life.
I’m not sure what kind of achievement that really is, though I’m astonished I’ve managed to write 1.5 million words. Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is only 1.27 million words. Clarissa by Samuel Richardson weighs in at a mere 943,000 words. And the King James Bible is comparatively a haiku at 783,137 words.
(This guy has a journal that is 35 million words, but he works on it four hours a day and documents his bowel movements. Mine is a little more reader-friendly.)
I suspect you have questions.
Why would someone write a daily journal like this in addition to 50+ narrative notebooks and a log of 1,975 dreams?
To avoid writing anything important or saleable is my best guess.
No, really. Why did the idea come to you?
When I started the log, I was having a hard time adjusting after college to working a normal job, and I felt that I was losing my days to endless emails and meetings and project plans instead of living the life of adventure I assumed was my destiny.
I began the log hoping that, like Thoreau, I would “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
I decided that I wanted to pay closer attention to how I spent my days in the hopes that I would spend them better.
And have you spent them better?
Almost certainly not. I suspect I may have accidentally documented a Gen-Xer’s desperate search for significance with as little effort as possible in the fading years of our American civilization.
Some college’s American History department will be very pleased to take this journal off Aimee’s hands when I die, and the Psychology department next door will be even happier to correlate it with the dream journal to find out what was wrong with me.
Some poor grad student will read it and think, “Man, this is like Willy Loman documenting his own decline to nothingness.”
What are the technical specifications of the log?
It’s in XML, essentially a text file marked with tags for data about each day (the month, the day, the year, and what happened).
When I enter each day into the log, I open log.xml in a code editor (Visual Studio Code these days because other text editors can’t open a file that large), copy a previous entry so I don’t have to retype the tags, and then I update it for the day’s events.
When I want to display the file, I use an XSL stylesheet that can either display a chronological listing or all of the entries with the same month and day (so I can know what happened on this day in my personal history).
How accurate is the log?
For events before I began consistently entering data, I have compiled events and their dates from a variety of sources: journals, genealogical information, newspapers, emails, blog posts, correspondence, postcards, photographs, and legal records.
Also, my mother filled out her calendar with the events of the day, which was handy for research.
(And also the reminder, I guess, that I have a good deal in common with her.)
Have there been any benefits to keeping a daily log?
It’s been handy to do a search by today’s date to see patterns in my life (creative surges in summer and fall, depression in the late winter, that kind of thing).
It used to impress the hell out of my government jobs when they needed data for clearance checks.
It actually does give me a moment to consider how I’ve spent my day and imagine ways to spend the next one better.
It’s great for reminding people of weird things we’ve done together, such as when my friend Tom commented out of nowhere from the backseat of my car on July 21, 2000, that the most humiliating thing you could do to a defeated opponent is shit on their back.
It’s also handy for documenting things that cause bad outcomes (such as foods or medications that make me sick).
What patterns have you seen?
Word count analysis shows some interesting things.
The single most mentioned person is Aimee, with 9,261 mentions.
There are 10,938 mentions of read and 2,027 of “read and nap.”
There are 2,261 appearances of “LOTRO,” which is the game Lord of the Rings Online.
Luckily, there are 3,087 of “write” and 2,699 of “writing.”
I lead a surprisingly (and sometimes disappointingly) simple life of writing, napping, reading, playing games, tinkering with electronics or Legos, and running.
Is there a downside to keeping that log?
Probably the most disappointing aspect of the log is how boring it is to read. Yes, I do make some snide editorial comments here and there, but for the most part, it’s a reference of what happened. For narrative and insight, I write in a normal journal (though not daily).
It’s hard not to wonder if the very act of documenting each day has made them less likely to be interesting. If I was living a truly adventuresome life, I wouldn’t have time to document my own shit. That’d be up to historians.
What will be the fate of the log, do you think?
Well, I’ll keep writing it, I suppose, though I’m considering doing so in slightly less daily detail. There are 4,374 mentions of “retire to bed and read,” my nightly ritual, which I think can now be taken for granted.
I’ve always thought that if I’m not remembered for the quality of my work, I can at least be remembered for the weird novelty of it. It’s best to hear, “Holy shit, HOW did he do that?”, but I’m okay with, “Holy shit, WHY did he do that?”
I suppose the big question for me is whether there’s still time to make the rest of that journal more interesting than the first half. I hope so.
I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that summer is my favorite season, but it’s certainly the one when my body and mind expect to spend their days writing, walking in the woods, napping, and reading during afternoon thunderstorms.
Thanks to some poor financial decisions on my part (chief among them not being born into inherited wealth), I won’t get to spend my summer that way for at least another twenty years.
So in the meantime, I have a few go-to books for my summer reading that somehow remind me of a lazier time of year. Some of them take place during the summer, and others I simply read for the first time during one many years ago.
In case you also want to go on a mental summer vacation, here they are.
“The Body,” by Stephen King (from Different Seasons)
This is one of my favorite novellas of all time, and it takes place over a Labor Day weekend. I’m not sure if I first read it over a summer, but it definitely resembled most of the ones I lived: going on reckless adventures with friends as a way to court danger and learn who we were. I did that by breaking into abandoned schools and climbing onto roofs and skulking around in the middle of the night, but if there had been a body to go see, rest assured we’d have gone looking for it.
Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart
If there’s such a thing as a cozy apocalypse novel, this is one. When the human race is decimated by a plague, grad student Isherwood Williams ends up being one of the smartest of a small group of survivors who slowly rebuild a new and better society while the remains of the old one decay around them. Like the best science fiction, it’s a thought experiment in possibility.
You know you’ve got a good post apocalyptic book when you find yourself thinking, “Man, I’d love to loot a library just like that.”
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
Clarke will never be confused with a great prose stylist, but he manages to convey awe and strangeness with a pleasant scientific precision. I first read this novel of transcendent first contact — the kind where aliens come and tell us of our greater galactic destiny — in a summer lit course in Science Fiction at the University of Florida.
After years of being a fan of science fiction, I’d set it aside to be a good English major focused on the classics. When I read this book, though, I literally cried to think of how much better it was at exciting my imagination than anything I’d been assigned in my major.
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
During the summer of 1987 after my parents’ marriage had ended with far less violence than any of us expected, my mother and I took a vacation with a friend and her kids to Georgia and North Carolina. We did the usual touristy things like panning for (likely planted) gem stones at a “mine,” but what I remember most was the house where we stayed.
It was built on the side of a mountain beside a shallow creek. From the front, you could see miles of rolling green hills. From the large windows and porch on the back, you could gaze into the darkly inviting woods.
My friend Norman had suggested that I read The Hobbit, and that’s exactly what I did. To me, that forest in North Carolina is what Mirkwood looks like.
This Sweet Sickness/The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith
I find it hard to choose between these books for a summer read. The Talented Mr. Ripley has the virtue of taking place mainly during the summer, but the protagonist of This Sweet Sickness lives a strange dream-like existence that sort of feels like one.
I read these for the first time in 2005 when I started having an inkling that something wasn’t quite right with the life I was living. These are both books about men with deeply delusional and neurotic misunderstandings of reality, and they scared me at the time more than most horror.
Six weeks ago, a friend who hadn’t spoken to me in twenty-five years killed himself.
I’m not sure Chris would want me to call him a friend these days, but for a decade of our lives from middle school to graduate school, we were brothers of the brain like gunslingers are brothers of the gun, both a little trigger-happy to show off our talents to each other and everybody else.
Back when it was fashionable to do so, we were told that we were “gifted” and placed in a class in middle school for kids like us to…do gifted things. It had a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest vibe, sort of loose but institutional, with all I remember of its organized curriculum being that we watched Twelve Angry Men and The Caine Mutiny to debate their moral questions.
What I remember more vividly is that this one guy had nothing but scorn and mockery for me from the moment I joined the class, and I only found out later the cause: our teacher had told him that I’d scored higher on the qualifying IQ test than he had.
(No, I have no idea why an adult would tell a thirteen-year-old that someone else was smarter than he was. At the most charitable, I can imagine she might have been trying to “humble” him in some way because he, like me, didn’t always show much patience for people who weren’t interesting.)
From the start, Chris seemed eager to prove that his kind of smart (logical and reasonable and scientific) was more valuable than my kind of smart (creative and intuitive and humanistic). I wasn’t quite as invested in that battle as he was, but when he made fun of my weirdness (writing stories about ghosts, playing D&D), I was just as quick to make fun of his (dressing like Alex P. Keaton, having the politics of a fifty-year-old).
Unfortunately for him, I’d been trained by my father to befriend smart people who were mean to me, and I just steadfastly refused to be dismissed. Over time, we discovered some interests in common (computers, Star Trek, and science-y mayhem) and realized that we were probably the two people in town most likely to understand (and put up with) each other’s shit.
So we became friends, sometimes even best friends, and an odd thing started to happen: we each drifted a little closer to the other’s brand of smart. Chris read more literature and I read more science. I persuaded him to try role-playing games (Star Trek only, because it was the least fantastical), and he persuaded me to experiment with radio scanners and chemistry.
When I crack an arcane scientific joke even today, I’m channeling a little of Chris.
It worked, I think, because we had different ambitions. I was never going to be a doctor (as he later became), and he was never going to be a writer (as I later became). I sometimes helped him write stories for school, and he was always a great scientific advisor on guns, chemicals, poisons, and a lot of other things that should probably have put him on a watch list.
Together we got into the kind of dumb mischief that only occurs to people who know more about theory than practice. Our motto was, “Well, why wouldn’t that work?” only to discover exactly why, usually with injury and/or destruction of property. We distilled something in Chemistry class that made the teacher say, “You know, I have to work in this room another twenty years.”
He got me my first job (with his father’s inventory company). We double-dated to the prom. We stole street signs together with our girlfriends’ names on them (both of which Orlando luckily had). He once bought me a gallon can of vanilla pudding because I always complained when restaurants only had banana. He introduced me to the movie Heathers which he said had me written all over it, and I introduced him to The Planiverse. He was the best man at my wedding (which didn’t work out), and I was the best man at his (which did).
His childhood was as harrowing as mine, though in different ways. He had a streak of romantic chivalry toward women that, like mine back then, bordered on co-dependency. He could, like me, be impatient and mean when people weren’t using their brains in a way he respected.
(He did not agree, though, that Norman was a genius because to him, genius implied useful application. He was also not a fan of David Lynch or Monty Python for similar reasons.)
I have no idea what to call our relationship between the ages of thirteen and twenty-five, but we definitely put up with more from each other than I have since from others in my life. Maybe we really were brothers of a kind, stuck together by virtue of similar talents and interests and traumas, able (at least back then) to take it for granted that we’d circle back into each other’s lives.
This is a terrible and selfish remembrance, isn’t it, all about his intersection with me?
The truth is that I can’t really tell you what he was like more recently as a friend or a husband or a doctor or a father of five when he died. I’m guessing he was still a Christian and a conservative and a rationalist, and I doubt he did much stealing of street signs these days without my lawless influence.
What I can tell you is that even when we weren’t friends or didn’t agree, when he thought I was crazy or irrational, he was still a powerful force in my life reminding me to do something more interesting with my talents.
I have no idea (and now never will) if I had any positive influence on him.
A quarter century ago, I cracked a bad joke at a bad time with no harmful intent beyond poking fun at an uncomfortable situation. It created a lot of problems between him and his wife, and my impending divorce almost became theirs. I always assumed we’d somehow run into each other again and I’d say, “Holy shit, am I sorry about that. I was basically out of my mind, but I’m better now. Are you? Awesome.”
That can’t happen anymore.
I’m not sure why he ended his life at the time he did in the way he did, but I know he had a vivid memory and a tendency to chase theory off a cliff. His mental theater could play the good things that should have happened and the terrible ones that did in high definition over and over.
Which is another thing we had in common. Maybe storytelling, venting those memories, is what saves me. Or maybe it’s just medication and luck.
I wish I could have told him, “As someone who pauses brains during surgery for a living, you of all people know that you are more than your firing neurons and you don’t deserve the movies they show you. Tell them to fuck off. People will miss you when you go.”
Not long ago, a friend of mind pointed out that I seem to enjoy giving advice to smart and/or creative people who need an emotional nudge toward feeling better about doing the things they love. I did a little digging, and maybe he’s right:
I also enjoyed helping student writers when I taught, offering my idiosyncratic advice on how to actually write, sure, but also on how to be the kind of person who can at least endure and maybe even thrive in a creative life.
Or at least the wisdom I learned by wringing tepid success from a lifetime of possibility.
The title comes from the idea that many creative people seem to have about whether it’s “worth” writing, whether all the time is justified by fame or sales or appreciation. I used to wonder that, too, until I eventually confessed a simple truth to myself:
So Might As Well Write isn’t a blog about finding instant fame or going viral. It isn’t about eleven sure-fire story structures that jack directly into our primitive brains. It isn’t about
It’s about treating our creative selves well so that we can persist and grow little by little into people pursuing something like art.
That’s Larry Hall, my stepfather. He married my mom after my parents divorced, and when I met him I thought he was a dreamy, irresponsible goofball completely unlike my father.
Luckily, I was right. Not so luckily, it took me awhile to appreciate that fact.
There were seriously some years in the late Eighties and early Nineties when it was legitimately questionable that I’d grow up to be a decent human being. (It might still be. Ha!) The most glaring model of masculinity so far in my life led me to confuse assholery with strength, and I’m sure there were times when Larry checked his watch and calendar for when I’d move the hell out for college…or prison.
Yet through all of that, he introduced me to the Middle Earth Role Playing game and typed my first serious story for submission to Hitchcock’s and watched the premiere episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation with me. More importantly, he made my mother safe and comfortable for the first time in a quarter century, and though I didn’t know it, he did the same for me.
Now, I’m not going to kid you into thinking you’d want to HIRE Larry to work at your company or government agency or to guard your building as he did briefly later in life. He seemed to be often drawn to jobs that had cool accessories, like badges or one of those pointy bishop hats, but his priority was getting home to talk endlessly with my mother while smoking on the back porch, or to read and nap afterward.
He was kind of a hedonist that way, though an inexpensive one. Which worked out well because they were almost always broke in the way society measures wealth.
He and my mother and younger brother Andrew went through some terrible times financially because, alas, the world doesn’t know what to do with people who work to live instead of the other way around. Yet even through their deprivation (and believe me, it was fucked up), they had this weird fatalistic cheerfulness that said, “Life is totally shit just beyond the glow of our flashlights, but at least we have those.”
When he met my mother while they both worked at a social service agency, he told her he was gay. She reported this to me with whispered drama before he came to visit the first time, like we should hide our most fabulous glitter from him. And yes, he had a gentle voice most of the time and liked fragrances and was better at dancing than any of us.
He might have told her he was gay to avoid the risk of romantic entanglement before he was ready, or maybe he was bisexual. It doesn’t really matter.
He later married Mother, which made him at least a Dianne-a-sexual, and that worked out just fine for both of them.
The last thing any of us needed was a capital-M Man, at least as they usually assert themselves in the world. Larry balanced the masculine and feminine with a wide streak of empathy and perceptiveness that men are encouraged to extinguish.
The most masculine thing I ever saw Larry do was rush out with a gun to investigate an intruder, though unfortunately it was a tiny pearl-handled .22 that might have been better kept in a garter belt than a holster. But let me tell you, he carried that thing outside into the darkness like a New York City cop to protect us, so again…the balance.
I don’t know how he’d feel about me telling these stories about him. I hope he wouldn’t be embarrassed because I’m not making fun of him at all. These are the stories of a hero.
Before he died, Larry said he was proud of the man I’d become, perhaps with the unspoken clause of that sentence being “…despite all the signs.” That meant more to me than any praise I could have gotten from the guy on my birth certificate because Larry knew manhood, all of it, and his path wasn’t narrow.
The night before he married my mother, there was a small bachelor party with his best man, my brother-in-law, and teenaged me. Marty had to drive him home because he’d gotten a little tipsy, and he had to ask whether to turn off at an exit or not.
“Go forward,” Larry slurred. “Never straight.”
That’s manhood. That’s fatherhood. And I wish I could tell him I know that because of him.
Someone I know has come home for the summer after their first difficult year of college, struggling with anxiety and depression. They started as a junior because of dual enrollment credits, and they’re attending with a prestigious scholarship about an arcane and technical subject.
Nobody that brilliant would ask me directly for advice, so I’ll write it here to be taken or left.
When I started college thirty years ago this coming August, I had the weird kind of smarts that were hard to distinguish from being a deranged idiot. I think I had a lot of raw mental horsepower that I didn’t know how to control, like putting a rocket engine on a unicycle, and back then it was common for educators to step back and just hope people like me wouldn’t become serial killers.
My cunning vocational scheme was to earn a PhD in English, become a famous writer with an adoring audience of voting age readers, and then run for public office to become the first truly literary President who would save the world with a sense of wit and epic drama.
Even Manson’s Helter Skelter made more sense than that.
I felt like a lot of people had high expectations for me, but none higher than my own. I didn’t have the added pressure of your scholarships and a global pandemic thrumming through everything in life like the cosmic microwave background, so I can only imagine how much harder it is for you.
The odd thing about being a wunderkind is that people are either watching you intensely to perform or they’re not looking at you at all, and it’s hard to tell which is worse.
If they’re watching, you have the pressure of living up to their hopes and investment in you.
If they’re not watching, you have to decide what YOU find important enough to do, and it’s hard to imagine anything worth doing if it isn’t measured or judged.
When faced with the risk of disappointing other people or disappointing myself, I always went for the latter. I never took a single creative writing course in college because I couldn’t face the possibility that I’d fail at something that mattered so much to me.
(That may not be an issue for you, but I’m guessing that being thought of as smart in your subject isn’t helping.)
It took me years to learn that the key to getting anything done for people like us with anxiety and depression is to lower the stakes. Even though it feels like we’re failing for not taking our work seriously enough, the truth is that we’re taking it too seriously.
Pressure amplifies anxiety and depression, and though some of it isn’t avoidable, one kind is: the pressure you put on yourself, especially at the start of something new.
Here are some things to know:
It’s likely that some experimentation is still required for whatever medication you’re taking. It took about three years for them to get mine straight, and I’ve been taking the same meds for fifteen years now. And while I’m perhaps not a paragon of productivity, I’m getting shit done and not hating myself, so there’s that.
It’s also likely that no amount of rational thought will lead you out of the way you’re feeling, so don’t make yourself feel worse for your “failure” to do that.
One thing you’ll learn as you get older is to take some of your own thoughts less seriously. We’re smart, but not every thought is gold. Some of what we think comes from bad evolutionary software or failures of neurotransmitters, and one easy way to know the difference is to assume that almost all judgments of your own abilities are deeply skewed.
Meditation can help you separate your thoughts from your “self.” I’m told LSD can do that too, but I’ve never tried it. Meditation is probably safer.
The most powerful word I know for people intimidated by their own work is “tinker.” I don’t try things or plan them or even do the most important things…I tinker with them, playing around to see what works or feels better in each iterating experiment.
You’ve gotten where you are quickly, but you actually have a lot more time than you think you do. You don’t have to decide everything right now.
If you have discovered that you don’t love the thing you thought you did, that’s perfectly okay. If you’ve discovered that you do still love it but not in this time and place and circumstance, that’s okay, too. If you’ve discovered that you love it so much that you’re afraid to risk screwing it up, then just know that nothing stays screwed up forever.
If you woke up tomorrow and said, “Fuck this, I’m going to HVAC school,” every member of your family would have your back.
Take this summer and do absolutely nothing of consequence. I’d suggest walking, though. Maybe not in the middle of the night in the hood like I used to. Ask yourself some questions in a journal, too; one that always works for me is, “What the fuck am I doing here, really?”
That’s a lot to take in, and it’s possible your summer is over now that you’ve read it. The upshot is this:
There are people who will care about you no matter how you decide to apply your talent.
I’m lucky that I’ve seen both worlds, enjoying the hobbyist tinkering of BASIC and also the vast interconnectivity of the devices we have today. I feel a little like someone who witnessed the Wright Brothers taking flight and then the Moon landing six decades later, with each magical in its time and context.
It was a lot easier to be accidentally dumb back then, with only nearby resources to learn from. If you lived somewhere with a lousy library or culture of idiocy, you could have huge gaps in your knowledge that were hard to even know about, much less fix. I learned to shave from a high school friend who described it over the phone, but it took my stepfather to tell me to use warm water instead of cold. Now I could learn that on YouTube.
You felt weirder then, too, with only the sample size of your town or neighborhood to go by. There weren’t many alternative models for how to be, and most of them came down to stark divisions instead of gradations: male or female, white or not, American or not, rich or poor, able or “handicapped,” straight or queer, dreamer or worker, city or country, north or south, bookish or mechanical. When a deaf boy joined my second-grade class, I thought his hearing aid was a Walkman and he was a bad ass rebel who refused to take it off.
It’s harder to be that dumb today, but some people are making their best go of it.
Now with access to all the knowledge on the planet, you have to work hard not to know things – to choose only a few sources of information that reinforce your perspective and filter out others. But humans are humans and our brains take a lot of energy, so it’s natural that we fall into the shortcuts of prejudice if we don’t fight against it.
Those old computers taught me that ideas are malleable, refined through a process of active experimentation until they “work.” That hacking mentality has been the cornerstone of my writing practice as well as my perception of the world as a giant experiment ever in refinement.
What I learned from years of SYNTAX ERRORS is that life can be debugged and improved, though perhaps never perfected. There’s only “works” and “works better” for more people.
It’s useful to know that even if “answers” are far easier to search for these days, we still have to do the experimenting ourselves.
[I’ve been on a nostalgia trip lately thinking about the computers that influenced me growing up. They were a perfect metaphor for our latch-key generation: “Here’s a device with limited instructions. Good luck!” I know they changed the way I think, and this week, I’ll be blogging about the early computers that influenced me.]
Astute readers may have noticed that I haven’t yet mentioned any of the video game consoles that influenced me in my Gen X childhood, and there’s a very good reason for that.
If you were to engineer a torture device for people with untreated anxiety disorder, you’d invent “games” that hint at the possibility of winning by skill but endlessly rob it from you with no save states, no endings, terrible controls, and buggy programming.
I mean, this is what we were working with:
Did I have fun with my Atari 2600 as a kid? I did. But starting there, I probably lost years of mileage on my heart and lungs yelling at shitty console games with only a few shining stars to keep my hope alive that the next one would be better.
I can list the few video games that, through a combination of design and story, may actually have contributed something to my life. Note how many of them were on consoles.
Eamon (1980, Apple II), which was a fantasy text-adventure you could customize.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982, Atari 2600), which had a story and an ending.
Taipan (1982, Apple II), which was great for trading commodities and becoming a drug dealer before Grand Theft Auto made it cool.
Lords of Conquest (1982, Commodore 64), which was a Risk-like game that I enjoyed playing with Norman.
The Legend of Zelda (1986, NES), which had a save game and a storyline plus lots of secrets to discover.
Wasteland (1988, Apple II/Commodore 64), which had an engrossing storyline and witty writing.
Wing Commander (1990, PC), which had a great storyline and fun flight sim physics.
X-Wing (1993)/TIE Fighter (1994, PC), both of which were deeply story-driven with great flight-sim features.
Tomb Raider (1996, PlayStation), which barely makes it onto this list because the archaeological visuals only SLIGHTLY outweigh the frustrating gameplay.
Jedi Knight/Mysteries of the Sith (1997, PC), again with good stories.
Outlaws (1997, PC), again with a great story and wit.
Metal Gear Solid (1998, PlayStation), frustrating as fuck but a great story.
Half-Life (1998, PC)/Half-Life 2 (2004, PC), both featuring amazing game play and storytelling as well as multiplayer fun.
Neverwinter Nights (2002, PC), with a great storyline and game mechanics (though the graphics were odd).
Knights of the Old Republic (2003, PC), with one of the best storylines in a game ever.
Jedi Outcast (2002, PC)/Jedi Academy (2003, PC), also with great storytelling, level design, and lightsaber physics.
Lord of the Rings Online (2007, PC), which may be one of my favorites of all time because of the gorgeous accuracy and absorption of the world building, as well as the enjoyment of playing with friends.
Portal (2007, PC) /Portal 2 (2011, PC), which are both arch and witty games with mind-bending physics puzzles.
Red Dead Redemption (2010, XBOX 360), which had an engaging story and a lot of fun territory to explore.
Borderlands 2 (2012, PC), which tells an amazing story with some of the best characters I’ve seen in a game, including THE best villain.
Pillars of Eternity (2015, PC), a beautiful distillation of everything that SHOULD have been good about Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale.
Also, a few runners-up:
Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 5, which are both gorgeous games with interesting but very problematic stories. I feel pretty icky through much of Far Cry 3, and the ending of Far Cry 5 pisses me off.
River Raid and Frogger on the Atari 2600 are sentimental favorites because my mother loved them so much, sitting down after dinner on the floor with a cigarette and playing them for hours.
Various generations of shooters (Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, Rainbow Six) were fun to play with friends until the Adderall-twitchy ten-year-olds took over.
I freely confess that my exposure to video games has been spotty and my needs are unusual: I like tinkering and exploring and fighting if it’s relatively easy. I’m not looking for a tooth-and-nail struggle in my leisure hours because that’s what real life is for.
If you’re remembering the consoles of the 80s with an abiding fondness, here’s my challenge: pick up one of the new remakes of those consoles or an emulator, and time how long you enjoy playing it.
On the whole, I’m a little like a high-functioning alcoholic. I know that I’ve lost countless hours to video games that I didn’t really enjoy while I was avoiding other things. But the good ones…they were pretty good.