Look up at the masthead and below my name you see “Writer • Game Designer.” Notice which one comes first, despite the fact that professionally most people associate me with dozens of roleplaying game titles. And while game writing most certainly is writing, along with the nonfiction articles and blogs I’ve done, when I call myself a “Writer” in the back of my head it means I tell stories. Or at least I used to. At least I want to.
1983 was the year that ruined me in the best way. I wrote the third grade version of a novella and won first place in the local Young Authors Fair. Me, A Common Cat? was a first-person account of a cat stuck with a dysfunctional family and was inspired both by my real-life cat—including my mother’s brilliant decision to blow-dry him after a bath that resulted in minor injuries—and the cartoon logic of famous animated felines such as Garfield and Heathcliff. It was also the same year I rolled up a magic-user named Winston and began playing a little game called Dungeons & Dragons. So 1983 pretty much set me on my course in life (no wonder I fell in crazy love with Stranger Things).
I wrote, constantly. I kept notebooks full of hand-scrawled stories, and in the late 80s transitioned to an IBM Selectric typewriter for second drafts (and some primary writing when I was home to do it). I can’t even remember them all now, but I can say with full honesty that I’ve written many dozen short stories, three full-length unpublished novels, and several plays. I got very comfortable with the process of submitting for competition (the Young Authors Fair each and every year, later magazine-based contests that included a Legend of Zelda-inspired piece submitted to Nintendo Power). In sixth grade my class performed a very cliché Joseph Campbellian play I wrote as our winter project in history, as I gave my 11 year old version of what it might be like to go from a boy to a knight and get revenge on the bad guy who killed my father. In another 80s-inspired twist, I made the ending a Choose Your Own Adventure, letting the audience decide whether or not The Bloodstone Knight would have a happy ending.
I finished my first novel the summer after 10th grade. The Gift of the Ollam was teen angst and modern fantasy, with a young man discovering he was a reincarnation of the mythological Welsh hero and magician Lleu Llaw Gyffes. The leading lady was my mid-teens version of a perfect woman—pretty, dull, and boring. (I had a lot to learn.) My Dad and I did some world-building for my second novel, creating a sort-of Bronze Age fantasy world out of the Antediluvian period, taking inspiration and ideas from early Hebrew scripture and a hodge-podge of myths and legends. I can’t even remember the title of that book, and both the main character and the plot were so cliché it’s almost painful to think back on. But you know what? I had fun writing it. I remember furiously scratching the words into a spiral-bound notebook while waiting for the bell in school.
My progression from writing-for-fun to finding an audience wasn’t going at all badly. Right after high school I wrote a story tied into a D&D world and submitted it to Dragon Magazine. It didn’t make it into those hallowed pages, but fiction editor Barbara G. Young gave me serious encouragement and professional advice that really made me look at my own writing with different eyes. I won a prize for flash fiction in my college literary journal. The years rolled on and short stories were published in magazines and then a paperback anthology. All of this was going on as I went from running RPGs to freelance writing to making games my primary living.
After a move across the country and a series of small successes, I got the chance of my dreams: a novel contract from a publisher I always wanted to write for. And of course that’s when things went to shit.
I went through a very bad period in my life. Things were falling apart and I was in denial. I couldn’t do the day job and keep up the word counts I needed to complete the novel. I was horribly depressed, I started drinking too much. The book was coming along, and my editor had good things to say about everything I was doing, but I was behind. I couldn’t make the deadline, even with an extension. Almost 80,000 words into a 90,000 word first draft, my novel was cancelled by the publisher.
The personal and professional stuff in my life got worse. My father died. I left Wisconsin and returned to Georgia. My marriage ended. And for the first time since 1983, I stopped writing.
Or more accurately, I stopped writing stories. I still wrote game material, I wrote articles and nonfiction pieces—some of them published and on store shelves. I started a new company. I wrote a few pieces of flash fiction that were done in an hour, also published. But I wasn’t writing the way that I once did. I didn’t mean for it to happen, but I stopped writing.
I began writing stories and sharing them with readers when I was eight years old. It’s this fundamental part of who I am, but for the better part of a decade the Writer part of my soul has been fed only crumbs. I’m not doing a thing I love, something I’m good at, and that is literally the first thing I instinctively say when someone asks “So what do you do?”
“I’m a writer.” I say out loud. You’re a liar, Chambers, the inner voice says.
I’ve spent plenty of time self-analyzing, trying to figure out why I can’t just sit down and work—and by work I mean have fun telling stories the way I once did. I’ve got all kinds of answers, from imposter syndrome to fear of success to game projects that were already late needing my attention to guilt over my various screwups to bad time management to feeling like I’m wronging my family by taking more time away from them to do something “optional” …
For years I made justifying the “Writer” part of my business card a New Year’s resolution. But this year something clicked. I had two ideas dancing in my head so strongly that I felt almost like my old self again. I didn’t just want to be a writer, I wanted to write. One project is sexy and funny and vaguely autobiographical, the other is dark and twisted and mixes mystery with the supernatural. And I began to write both, bouncing back and forth without a problem. Thousands of words happened, and rusty as I may be, I don’t think they suck.
And of course that’s when things went to shit.
My daughter Elizabeth got sick. And when I say sick I mean that she almost died. At the end of February she was diagnosed with acute leukemia, and I’ve spent more than six months making her health and what happiness I can bring her my priority. No regrets. (If you want to know more about what’s going on with Liz and her health, I created an entire website and blog about it you can check out.) But I stopped writing. Again.
Truthfully there are many days where I have more time than ever that could be ideal for writing. This very blog, dear reader, was composed in the Outpatient Cancer Infusion Center at Northside Hospital in Atlanta. I have a laptop and I type really fast. But the block is back.
Sixteen year old Jamie would have a pen and a notebook and he’d be asking what the hell the hold-up is. I’ve got two awesome projects already started, and dozens more fighting for their place in line. But 41 year old Jamie who’s messed up with fear and grief and doubt and self-loathing is having a really hard time. I have no predictable schedule. I have a sick daughter to care for, teenagers, a six-year old, a nine-month old baby who all need attention, as well as the woman who shares my bed. There is so much that needs done in my house and the day-job and for the kids. It’s really easy to give myself an excuse to put that part of myself back on the shelf, but dammit I stopped writing and it’s killing me.
I read Chuck Wendig’s excellent blog that’s chock full of potty-mouthed advice and motivation for guys and gals just like me who can’t seem to get their shit together, and I immediately started writing this mess of words in front of you. What you’re reading is self-therapy and it’s a cry for help.
“Wait ’til things get easier, write later” sounds like solid advice, and it’s certainly the path of least resistance. But it took years for my inner writer to get that burst of strength after being starved for so long. This time he may never make it back out again.
Here is the Prologue of the dark-and-spooky story I started, as read by my amazing and talented friend Arielle Delisle. It begins with a naked woman in a candlelit bathroom with a large tub filled with gasoline …
Does anyone want to know the rest of this story? Is anyone interested in reading the other one—the nerdy R-rated sex comedy? Anyone out there willing and able to help—by giving me advice, encouragement, offering me accountability, or just by yelling at me to stop screwing around and get to writing?
What I need to do is so simple. Mechanically, it’s exactly what I’ve done in writing this blog. I sit down and I tap on the keys. But for a stew of screwed up reasons I’m having a really difficult time.
I stopped writing.
Help me un-stop. Please.