Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Main Event and the Side Trip

My primary goal is to tell stories.

Given the reality of modern life, I have always framed my goal as "writing stories and selling them for money." Which I have not been able to do for much too long a time. It can be hard to sit down and write the story, knowing how hard it will be to send it out and out and out, to try to sell it to agents or editors or anybody, before it will ever see a reader, and the reader is the point, because you're not telling a story in any meaningful way if nobody hears it.

I often reflect (when I see, for example a fine actor stuck with an awful script) that I am fortunate that my vocation is one I can do without anyone's permission. I can write whether I sell anything or not; I can keep up the attempt to sell for the remainder of my life and as long as I don't stop publication will remain a possibility; if I died tomorrow, all the stories I have sitting unsold on my hard drive could still be sold next week, or the year after, or ten years down the line, or be uncovered by archeologists teasing data out of outmoded systems and published for the edification and delight of generations yet unborn. That sort of thing has happened, and does happen, and will happen - though not necessarily to me. While an actor who was born to play Jane Eyre must be in the right place at the right time to be cast when she is somewhere within spitting distance of the right age to do it, or she will never play Jane Eyre and may well be remembered, if at all, as "the girl in that Tampax commercial" or as the eternal best friend or as the queen of her local dinner theater. Compared to performers, I have all kinds of control over my artistic output.

This reflection is less comforting on some days than on others.

But I do have a secondary artistic goal, which I have only gradually come to recognize as a motivator as great as the prime storytelling urge. I have a thesis to prove: That as human beings, we are all creative, if we allow ourselves to be. This is a goal which, by its nature, I cannot accomplish by myself. All that tossing off an idea a week proves is that I can do it. It's up to other people to see me do it, and see how I do it, and realize that they can do it, and finally take their own ideas and do something with them.

Whatever it is that they are equipped and prepared to do.

I wish, in short, to empower people, and inspire them to find their own creativity - as all the authors I've read in my life empowered me to do. And I do sometimes find out I did this with one of the books. I remember one school visit seeing a board game, made as a class project, based on Switching Well. Kids draw pictures illustrating their favorite books; sometimes I get to see one of mine. Sometimes I'll hear incidentally of kids who tried something one of my characters did; or of a teacher who incorporated searching for locations from Switching Well into a trip to downtown San Antonio. This sort of thing doesn't pay the bills, but is more of a visceral thrill than getting a check. It feeds a different part of the self. One, frankly, that is normally kept hungry.

The urge to empower creativity in others was a major motivator behind making Widespot (that, and playing with a different storytelling medium at a time when I couldn't reliably handle text): I wanted to see what people would do with the characters and situations I handed them. I was mostly thinking about how they'd play out the storylines in their different games, looking forward to seeing how they'd resolve the immediate dilemmas I handed them, and then the secondary consequence of it further down the line - the genetic bottleneck resulting from the Hart family's breeding simultaneously into every other family in that tiny, tiny town.

But they do a lot more than that. My chief playtester designs clothes for the characters, as well as expanding their backstories. One player, who writes quite well, started documenting her game in illustrated story format on her Live Journal, developing the characters as richly and individually as anyone could ask. Furthermore, when she decided she needed family pictures, she went to considerable trouble to create them - pictures of a dead character, of a teen character as a toddler, an old character in his prime, adults in their teens. Another, whose creative urge is to build worlds, remade the entire neighborhood as a Stone Age settlement! These are all things I could never do, which would never have occurred to me, which now exist because of me. Hardly earthshaking - but real.

Real enough to tide me over, to get me through the days when the idea of sending yet another query to yet another agent makes me want to scream and tear my heart out; through the days when solving the plot problem seems, not impossible, but not worth the effort because at the moment I can't believe I can ever get another book through the publishing process.

Which is the moral of the story. Primary goals, by their nature, are big and elusive and time consuming. You have to work on them constantly. But you have a right to nourishment; and secondary goals may be more achievable, short term. They're worth making a side trip or two for, as long as you don't lose sight of your primary goal.

And you should check your goals occasionally. Because sometimes you haven't stated your primary goal correctly. But that's another topic for another day.

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