That First Taste of Creative Payoff

Originally posted to MySpace on:

April 22, 2007:

Last night I got to experience something that in times before I could only imagine: a chance to see something I wrote brought to life.

It was a beautiful thing, actually, to suffer countless hours, countless days, weeks, months and years under the same breath, hoping for a moment where it could all make sense, to have it all finally come together in one kiss of inspiration, an artist’s dream, as minimal as it may seem, sparking a sacred fire as the first taste of payoff came to light. It was beautiful, indeed.

But not that the taste missed the buds before, of course—the first true payoff hit me when my dad read my first story, called “City Walker,” out loud. The story was terrible, as one might expect from an amateurish thirteen-year-old. But to hear the characters and the lines spoken audibly—something that started from my head—was a cause for goose bumps.

Those goose bumps continued during my high school creative writing class whenever the teacher picked my short story out of the pile to read aloud. Most writers could identify with those early moments of public display, when the author was anonymous, but the story rung out like a chorus of “Jingle Bells,” getting laughs and hoots as if it were ushering in the biggest holiday of the year—or the hurt feelings that followed whenever the audience didn’t give a crap. The formidable years of writing often launched frenzies of turbulent emotion, and most writers in those early stages turned their emotion into new stories, to which he or she had another chance at wowing the class.

Such beginning regions were common fare to the growth of a writer—or any artist, for that matter—but the payoff still fell under the artist’s control, and thus the joy of sharing it became less prestigious over time.

In college, the next great “first” became reality, upping that dying level of prestige a notch: I published a poem called “Dungeon Johnny” in the college literary magazine. Again, the thrill returned, seeing the words I wrote laid out on a glossy sheet, accompanied by the drawing of a mysterious figure framed in shadow—a picture I didn’t choose, but could see how it fit with the poem, sort of. Just getting the pairing with another artist’s creation added to the bliss of seeing a project come to life. And, like the first out-loud reading of my story six years earlier, it was beautiful.

And yet, the thrill was limited: I was on the editing staff of the college literary magazine. Poems and short stories went in by vote, and I contributed one of the votes. Control was out of my hands, but not entirely. I knew it was coming. It was a first, but the wrong kind of first.

Nearly a decade later, another first hit me, another product of my own control: I printed my first collection of short stories in paperback. Up until this point, this had been the singularly best moment in my writing career, as now I could see what my name looked like on the front cover of a book. And to see my short stories in printed form—all of them from that first volume, with professional headers and everything—just felt like the coolest thing ever. For any writer, that’s like walking along the beaches of Utopia for the first time. And yet, no publisher had a say in the matter, nor did any editor. To see my name in print was cool, but the fact that I put it there myself felt like cheating. The bliss had power, but didn’t last very long.

And that was the way it had stayed for several years.

Artists often get the most satisfaction from just seeing their thoughts come to life. I have to admit that the joy I get most in the writing process is not so much in the showing it off, or doing something fancy with the design, but just getting it finished. It takes such a load off my shoulders when the project is done—and even more so when the editing process is finished, too. But there’s something special about sharing one’s thoughts with a group and having that group validate it with a laugh, or an “ooh,” or something that elicits the desired effect. My books might’ve done that, but I wasn’t there to hear it.

Last night I finally got to witness the moment I had only dreamed about in the past: I got to see a line of dialogue I wrote spoken in a movie. It wasn’t my movie, nor was it my characters, nor was it even my scene. But the writer/producer/director asked me to critique his script on three different occasions, and on the last one (the second before shooting), I gave him a handful of lines to make some scenes better, not really expecting him to use any of them.

Well, as I sat in the theatre, watching this local indie-film playing out—a story that I first read in the ‘90s, and was thrilled enough for this friend of mine to see his own vision come to life—two things happened: First, I saw a copy of my first book on the screen (which I new was coming, but still found it cool to see) and was happy just to have some contribution to the scene; and second, and more importantly, I saw my advice played out in action, which added to my satisfaction when I saw that it had worked. Perhaps the greatest satisfaction for me—and I know it sounds a bit like pride, but I felt such a weight lifted when I saw it that I’d consider it more relief than ego—was to see a line of dialogue that I wrote for the director (as a suggestion for the ending of a scene) played out by the on-screen actress (which, for the first time, was used outside of my control), and having at the end of the last word the entire theatre bursting from laughter. Though it was my friend’s movie, and though it was his scene, his character, and his production talents that brought the two to life, I still had to smile when the line I contributed received such a big response. For a moment I could feel what it was like to sit in Ben Stiller’s shoes (if one could sit in shoes) after viewing Zoolander with an audience. It was enough to get me thinking that maybe I can still do this.

Yes, there are still plenty of firsts to go in this volatile hobby of mine, but each journey, as distant as they can be, reminds me that they’re still in reach. I should’ve known that reality from the days of my living room when my dad read out loud a scene involving charred steak, putting in all the bravado that a thirty-seven-year-old man in his underwear could produce. But seeing my name in the special credits section of a movie (in the movie theatre), along with hearing the lines I’d contributed (which according to my critique, there were more than one—I just forgot about a couple of them: I thought the director’s use of a character responding to the line “k-i-s-s-i-n-g” with “k-i-s-s-off” was brilliant, until I went home to discover that it, too, was one of mine; then I just felt sick with pride) just made the future seem a heck of a lot shorter.

In the end, I realized every little moment is worth it because any of it can come back when you least expect it and make you smile. It took a lesbian character embarrassing her “friend” at the end of her poem to make me (and the audience) smile. What a strange way to get a “first.”

Maybe I should send out that novel of mine now.

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Chronicles of a Second Wind

Originally posted to MySpace on:

April 10, 2007:

How does a man driven by creativity get his brain to stop nagging him? A pressing question to a philosopher, maybe, but not to me. “Finish what you started” seems like a worthier battle cry for such an occasion—stop leaving the past unresolved—don’t go to sleep on an empty stomach (okay, the last one might be overkill). The message, it seems at its most rudimentary state, is to complete a project that the creator thinks is worth his attention in the first place. If it’s not valuable, it won’t nag him. Simple philosophy…in theory.

I caught the game creation bug back in the ‘80s, found a creation engine, and thus the means to see my computer game ideas come to life in the first half of 2000, and went to work on a project (of organized chaos) called The Adventures of Powerstick Man. It starred the hero of a mock comic I had made in the early ‘90s about a tennis player turned spandex wearing crime-fighter who threw deodorant as his superpower. His story began with his birth as a superhero and ended after a short spelunking quest that earned him the coveted “Cove Ruby,” an item that didn’t really help him any because the game was over. There was so much more planned for the game, with several new towns, a deeper story line involving the kidnapping of mayors, and a slew of pop culture parodies that would make the writers of Scary Movie groan. It was my gaming opus, and my ticket into an underground world of RPG making geeks, where popularity depended on the quantity of message board posts and the clever use of “elite speak,” where “e’s” became “3’s” and “t’s” became…something. And, like so many who fell victim to the black hole of message boards, I had lost my steam after the first release. It was a fate I thought I could avoid. I was wrong.

I never learned “elite speak,” by the way, or cared to. My geekiness was intended to live in theory, not in reality. Anyway…

I tried to assimilate my identity into this indie-gaming world through various forms of writing, mainly through reviews of other people’s games. I spent nearly a year of my life critiquing these amateur projects, trying to wow readers with big ways to say little things. And I gained attention. Through my reviews, I became a valuable resource to the independent gaming community. I wrote articles on character development, fought for the appropriate use of dialogue, both in action and in presentation, and even submitted the occasional fanfic in the form of documentary radio scripts. It was a golden age for me in this secret world; I was like Roger Ebert, but younger and skinnier. And I couldn’t get back to my project.

The fire of participation died by 2002, and with it, several false starts on other games. The Adventures of Powerstick Man lingered in limbo, waiting for the day that its story would be completed. But that day never came. I tried to revive it a year later with a new presentation, calling it “Version 2,” but again the fire died as soon as it had flickered. My passion for game-making hit a dead end, as did my creativity in all forms. I searched for other methods to keep myself plugged in with the fans (the few that called themselves fans), but my taste for the subculture faltered. Nothing ever got done with this group. Nothing ever got done on my hard drive. With personal crises taking over, I had nothing left to give to my creations. I burned out.

Several projects ate space on my hard drive by 2003, most of them with nothing more than a title screen and a couple of graphics. I still dabbled with my perpetually labored project called Tightfloss Maiden, which to this day remains close to release, as it was in 2001, but not close enough to actually unveil it. In the end, unfortunately, my desire to work on anything creative subsided in favor of personal misery. The golden age became a rusted age, and I couldn’t take it.

By the end of 2003, however, something remarkable happened: I went back to school. I was refreshed. And with the refreshed journey, I went back to my writing. I started revamping my old collections of short stories, releasing two self-published books by early 2005. In the last quarter of 2005, I wrote the first draft of my novel. Throughout all of 2006, I wrote and released my third collection of short stories to the public. And now, as I write this, I’m back to the editing stage of my novel, with a second novel in the drafting stage. Add these to the screenplay floating around various agencies for the Scriptapalooza contest, and it seems I pulled out of a major dive. But alas, something still lingers.

During a brief creative spell in 2005, I decided to return to the original version of Powerstick Man and add some features for an Extended Edition. My intention was to re-release the game as it used to be, but with more options for the player. It was a means to draw its fans back to the character and back to the charm that made it a cult classic (and also to spur interest in the graphically enhanced Version 2 that I had hoped to also release someday). But again, after a slight addition to the character roster, I went on to something else—my novel. And there it sat untouched for another year.

And throughout that year, the unfinished project nagged at me. Six years had passed without a fair attempt to finish it, or even to progress it, and it haunted me. I couldn’t stand it. But I kept putting it off, favoring the work on my prose over it. It was the annoying guest that refused to leave. It spilled over into my other unfinished gaming projects. One project became nine, all of them waiting for their turn to see the light of day. It was madness.

Finally, I reached the point that I couldn’t take it anymore. After spending a weekend dabbling with another creation engine that specializes in point-and-click adventures, I thought, “I could do this again.”

I’m writing this journal, in March of 2007, because the second wind is blowing, and I’m curious to see what becomes of it. Certainly, it could be a short breeze, destined to die in two weeks’ time. Or it could be a strong gale, lasting until the project sees an end. Either could happen, and I’m curious to see which becomes reality. My novel still demands my attention, as does my economic freedom—both of which are threatened by the idea of revisiting these old projects. But that marks the creator’s heart. A creator without passion isn’t a creator but a do-boy. He has to give his attention to these things anyway.

Having said this, I’ve put The Adventures of Powerstick Man on a new train, and I’ll record its journey in some form as it unfolds.