Forward/Story, and taking yourself seriously

I do not take myself seriously.

It’s a shield as much as it’s a curse; at some point in my life, I must have learned that being earnest, being honest about my work and my passions, opened me up to others in a way that gave them advantage over me. If I speak too honestly, you’ll learn my true name.

(Really, though? I think it comes from being simultaneously terrified and enthralled by women up until the age of about 18. Each time I’d been honest about my affections with a woman I’d been politely refused, and had to weather the fallout of same, so I just stopped being honest and pined over people from afar in semi-secret, building entirely false relationships around them in my head. It wasn’t healthy. I’m endlessly thankful that my partner Mary knocked that out of me.)

(And, perhaps: the time when I was 15 and made a conscious decision to care less about schoolwork, because I didn’t have many friends, and then wouldn’t you know it the friends started rolling in as I intentionally coasted through life, never applying myself, never really engaging in class, and I learned that the way to happiness was to pretend you didn’t care.)

(Anyway.)

My patreon, now largely-defunct, used to advertise “quick and dirty games.” I wrote “stupid games for stupid drunk people.” I never describe myself as having a real job, because – shit – I sit at home and write rules about monsters all day. That’s not like I’m going down the coalmine, or stacking shelves, or pulling pints. I do what I’d do anyway, except I get a little money for it.

I just closed a Kickstarter on a game I’ve written with my friend Chris, and we got £34,000 at closing, and that still doesn’t warrant a success in my mind. You know – getting well over thirty grand out of the internet with a game that had no setting, no established IP attached, and no big-name games designers attached to it. That’s not that great. It’s just what I do, now.

And I don’t know how damaging that is to me, overall, how much of a block that’s putting on my work, but I managed to shake it clear for – maybe – five minutes in Costa Rica last week.

COSTA RICA

I was chosen as part of a group of twenty storytellers at the edge of their fields, people who are trying to push the medium forward in interesting directions, to take part in a yearly event called Forward/Story. (That itself was strange; again, I write stupid games for stupid drunk people. I’m not at the bleeding edge of games design, right?) We made our way to Costa Rica, which I was lucky enough to have some money left over from some old jobs to afford, and we spent a weekend in the jungle.

We have been told not to tell people what goes on at the event – no spoilers, as it were. The cult of mystery around Forward/Story is undeniably part of its appeal; I asked people who went in previous years and they were interestingly vague about what happened.

I’ll not tell you what happened here, out of courtesy to the organisers. But being surrounded by people who were not only brilliant but earnest in their brilliance was a tremendously challenging thing for me to do, because it brought me out of my shell.

My industry is an overgrown hobby, and suddenly I’m surrounded by producers and engagement directors and investigative journos and experimental theatre folk and artists and these are all people who take themselves seriously. (Producers, especially, seem to take themselves seriously as a vital part of their job.) Suddenly all these people are discussing their failings and their triumphs around me, asking me for advice, discussing their work, and –

– they never go for the joke. They never round off their contribution with a spike of irony that keeps them distant from their statement. When I talk it’s like a knifefight in my head – a continual duck and weave, a desperate struggle to land my points but not let my guard down, not show too much of myself. And these people aren’t fighting, these people are relaxing into what they do, these people are wearing it like a badge.

EXHAUSTING AND STRANGE

It was exhausting and strange and unnerving to take myself seriously, but I did, in the maddening jungle heat of Costa Rica. It’s fading now, half-remembered, just echoes of something bigger, as I return to my life of staring into blank google docs, drinking small lakes of black coffee and feeding my cat, but there’s a kernel of something. As though not only can I be taken seriously, but that I could take myself seriously – that I can find worth and value in my work not just as a form of therapy but as art.

What does it take to feel confident enough in your work that you start to give it value? What do we need to do to silence the voice, hammered into us, that says to take pride in creative work is weak, undesirable, unwanted?

(We were sitting around a table in Costa Rica and talking about what we need from our industries, and someone said: “It’s love, isn’t it? That’s why we all make art, isn’t it, because we love our audience?” And I said: “No, not really – I make art because there is a sucking void in my chest and this is the only thing I can fill it with that doesn’t kill me.” So that was interesting.)

I often hear people’s descriptions of me and don’t recognise myself in them. “That’s what I like about you, Grant: you don’t give a fuck.” (Oh my lord, no, I give so many fucks. I am low on fucks because I have been spreading them thin over getting dressed this morning and emailing someone. I am running on a severe fuck deficit.)

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be the person that others see in us? Aren’t we in fact that person, more than we are how we see ourselves?