Bold title. Accurate? Well, let’s see.
I’m nearly 40. I don’t know if I believe that ‘life begins at 40’, I certainly don’t feel as close to a beginning of anything, or as young and energetic as I did a decade or more ago.
Between nearly being 40, and the upending of life by moving house, I find myself looking over the journey that led me to this point. And specifically, my career.
I am not what 10 year old me wanted me to be: a game designer. Nor am I what 18 year old me wanted me to be: a novelist. I am… mostly a product of where I ended up. I’m not unhappy about where I ended up but the original plans have never entirely left me.
And this got me thinking. Was 10 year old me wrong? 18 year old me?
Game design is fickle. It is hard, it is multi-disciplinary. 10 year old me could write code in a few different languages and make functioning – if distinctly uninteresting – games. They were functional, they taught me the mechanics of doing graphics and sound in the environments in which they were made, of handling input, of producing a gameplay loop.
But by the time I started to head towards needing to take career plans seriously, I’d begun to fall into the trap that I’m still – all these years later – figuring out what to do with.
You see, in school I never had to particularly try too hard. Revision was mostly pointless for me; if I didn’t pick it up in class, writing a paper about it was unlikely to drill it into my head later, rote memorisation never flew for me unless my brain absorbed it, there was no apparent guidance for this, it either went in or it didn’t and there was no teaching it otherwise.
I sailed through school without ever having to really try; I never had to revise, I got decent (but not outstanding) grades. I could have gone to university, though I had zero idea of what to study.
The point we’re slowly getting towards is that I never learned how to fail. I never failed at anything in any particular direction so I never had to go back and learn how to deal with that possibility.
Which meant that the first choice of career would inadvertantly close its door to me, and it’s taken me this long to understand why.
Games don’t arrive fully formed. They evolve. You try things, and some of them don’t work. And this has, I think, sat with me for a very long time – probably the last three decades.
Being a writer was a slightly different journey. My late teens were a complicated period – aren’t they always! – and how I coped was writing. I wrote poems, various abortive attempts at novels (though I did complete one novel), various short stories, “comedy pieces”. You know the sort of thing, what a teenager might find funny but is probably more cringe-worthy when looked at with any sort of retrospective. I’m not sure I was ever ‘edgy’ in my comedy but definitely not nearly as funny in retrospect as I thought I was.
That novel, I did go for publication. I got a bunch of rejection letters. I burned them all, and took the hint that this was my cue to stop writing – so I mostly did. I went from a truly prolific period in 2001-2002 to near-nothing creatively by 2005. I failed – but never took Beckett’s advice on failing better.
And ever since that point, between these two things, I’ve compounded it. Yes, I have a career with some notable elements in it, and one of them is the surprisingly low rate of ‘failures’ because the reality is that I’d move heaven and earth to avoid having to deal with failure.
These days I find myself either in the ‘too scared to even try’ camp that I convinced myself of with respect to game design, or concluded that like writing I’d already failed so there was no point.
It gets worse, though. I fell into a career involving what started as a hobby – I’m now 20 years in to that hobby-turned-second-career. The number of occasions I fail at it because of not knowing something or because of a skill-based limitation… it’s pretty rare.
The problem with that is, it’s hard to transition somewhere else without holding myself to an impossible, unattainable standard. Specifically: that unless I am an expert in it immediately (like I am in my core skillset because I’ve spent 20 years honing it), I’m a failure at it.
Recently though (I say recently, but we’re really talking 2020 onwards) I’ve been trying to make proactive change to do something about this.
The first step was November, the National Novel Writing Month. The aim is to kickstart the writing thing, and to knock out 50,000 words in the month of November. This happened in November 2020, with a novel that while it needs work, is infinitely more functional as a piece of fiction than previous attempts, and it’s complete. It’s not going to win awards or kickstart a career… but I still managed to finish a 50,000 word novel basically from scratch in a month. I had to push to get it done – because no chance of failing that! – but I’d broken down a different barrier in so doing.
November 2021 another novel emerged. This one I hated how it turned out. The whole thing, start to finish, is an injustice to the character, the plot, the everything that this story should have been and ended up not being. But instead of writing it, and myself, off… I still finished it.
Then across 2023 I’ve been actively entering writing competitions. The first time I entered in 2021, I was bitter that on my first go-round I’d landed a decent score and futzed the second entry, and so I wrote the idea off as clearly being in the wrong place.
But I enetered this year’s writing challenges with NYC Midnight. The 100-word microfiction. The 1000 word flash fiction. The 500 word short fiction. I didn’t score a scoring place in any of these.
Actually, I realised, that didn’t matter. I wasn’t doing them for the cash prizes. I was doing them to prove to my dumb ass that I could do them. And I was getting feedback from the judges that was encouraging and positive – and where negative, it was fair, balanced and actionable.
It’s slowly not mattering that I’m not scoring points. It’s mattering that I’m trying anyway.
On that note I picked up Godot and have started to make a game. I’ll talk more about that in a future post. Because there’s a lot to unpack there about dealing with the whole ‘I’m not going to be an expert’ and trying to be kinder to myself about it.
You never know, a year from now I might have games published on Itch for people to play. They might even be good ones, forged out of making mistakes, because everything around me seems to be telling me it’s OK to make mistakes!