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Rise of the Welcome-to-My-Meltdown: on video games and working alone


Instead of reading and publishing Kevin’s latest piece, which is still in the queue (sorry, Kevin!), I am directing you toward my newest thing, a review of Anna Anthropy’s debut book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters. I might also continue to ignore Kevin. One of my 2012 resolutions is “sly self-promotion,” and I know Kevin will pardon me.

Most people will not read my book review, but I hope they go ahead and read Anna Anthropy’s book. The review itself is about a lot of things, but it’s also about video games and game development and writer’s block and emotional paralysis. I’m a little surprised that Stu used my quaint joke title (“Rise of the Existential Crisis”), but I’m mostly unruffled.

I’m new to freelancing, by the way. Many people were surprised when I gave up the celebrity gossip blogging gig, which was a sure bet, a daily, paid exercise that I enjoyed doing. And anyway, freelancing is hard—really hard. Most people can’t do it. I am not sure I can. I haven’t been any sort of success (hasn’t anyone noticed I’ve only published two things since February?).

At some point I might have to give it up. It makes me very happy, kind of, to sit here and write nothing and hate myself, so I’m not sure I will give up so soon, but I keep thinking about it.

But what no one tells you is that it isn’t a living. In fact it’s the total opposite: it’s figuring out how to afford full-time freelancing.

Writing for yourself is luxurious, and like all luxuries, it can be expensive. Even at this early stage in my tiny career I already waste a lot of time. Mostly I waste time trying to devise sneaky plans to help myself afford this glamorous, bohemian lifestyle.

Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to have been married. I’ve been single for a while now, but this is my first real experiment with being mostly-alone and beholden only to myself. Whenever I sit and rest I suddenly remember I am wasting money. I can’t believe how expensive it is to just sit and breathe.

Emotionally, I didn’t realize the all-or-nothing proposition freelancing would turn everything I write into. I knew that I would need to learn to write faster, sure, but not this much faster. I always thought I was fast. I’m slow. S-L-O-W.

And the stakes for writing were so much lower when I was able to go into a day job, or when I was taking care of my parents! If I published a heap of bullshit, it wasn’t the Worst Thing. Now it is the Worst Thing. (Then again, I am very stingy with what I’ll put my name on. For one thing, I think blogs, sometimes news, are sapping “creative nonfiction,” AKA the Lost Art of the Magazine Article. Internet writing is the norm nowadays, and what we once called “articles” we now call “longreads.”)

Talk about a crisis, though: every day in March, and then April, that I couldn’t seem to finish Anna’s book, was another day of lost wages, never mind my ever-forward march toward an eviction notice and eventual death. (“April writer’s block brings May electricity shut off,” I repeated to myself on the couch, really beginning to lose it.)

This turns an ordinary case of writer’s block into a thunderous chorus, one of your own making, singing a paean to your dreams’ own inefficacy. That’s a terrific feeling! to use every generous window of opportunity others have given you only to prove that, besides not being very good at life, you’re also some sort of couch-bound idiot.

I don’t mean to talk so much about money, but it is an interesting feeling, the feeling of slowly starving to death. It isn’t just money, or misspent time, or whatever, but the starvation part is so much gravy. Or at least I wish it were gravy. Sorry, I’m hungry at this very moment.

(05/07 edit: If you are clever enough, you can eat for just dollars a day, so I hope you ignore journalist Earnest Cavalli when he advises Twitter to “hug me” and mail me instant ramen. For one thing, I already eat enough instant ramen and, if anything, just mail me toilet paper. God, I’m kidding! The point is, these might become things you start planning around, which doesn’t help Writer’s Block any.)

The rest of last month’s crisis is laser-honed on Anna’s book, which itself is a pep talk about getting your ass into gear and not waiting around. The text is meant as empowering, not discouraging, but boy, did it turn me into a mess.

I sent an email early this morning about how, in my role as the “unreliable critic,” I hope other people only feel encouraged. This is a strange thing to say, probably, because I often sound so cynical or depressed. I’m really only sadistic. No, I did not put that part in the email.

What I did put in the email was this, and even though it is really only meant for the one person I wrote it to, I think it does clarify my own slack interest in the nitty-gritty of game development, which doubles as my profound interest in games’ authors themselves: “It is extremely queer,” I wrote my acquaintance, “to dedicate your life and its mission to games. I think—and I agree with Anna here, and this is a real fulcrum of her book—that even just the goal is a profound goal, because it lends so much weight and credence to the form, that so many people would become so dedicated. See?”

“I don’t mean to be so gushy,” I continued in another paragraph, “but we’re a pack of odd ones, aren’t we?”

It’s strange that I used “we” right there, as if I were lumping myself in with some marvelous group. I wasn’t, not intentionally.

Actually, I was thinking of the bizarre people who bizarrely choose freelance. These people sit straight up in bed one night and realize that not being able to write exactly what they’d like to write is WORSE THAN DEATH. WORSE THAN DEATH. That is the only reason you would ever choose freelance-writing over a nice life. Freelance is mostly work and drinking but occasionally includes starvation and folding yourself into a ball on the sofa, where you cry out for intervention. I like to cry out to both God and Steven, but sometimes I phone Cass or my mom instead.

My mother doesn’t think it’s strange that I like writing stuff, but she thinks it’s strange that I mostly like to write about video games. She even thinks it’s strange that I’ve shelved all plans to make a video game. My mother’s attitudes make sense, I guess. But when you play a game, and I play the same game, and then we compare our notes and we’ve had these separate experiences (or maybe the same one), that’s amazing! That’s why people write, too!

Since finishing the book and its review, I’ve gotten only a little better at freelancing. I stay fastened to my laptop a little better—my apologies to Twitter—and I’m getting better at saying “no,” or generally knowing when to excuse myself from friends. In the past you couldn’t get rid of me! Now I’m slightly more aware of a clock ticking. I might even check the time and announce I have to leave! (In some cases I am overdoing this. One text message went “What happened?” and I realized I hadn’t noticed thirty days going by.)

Whitney has taken it best. She says I am a better friend now—more “accessible,” she says!—which is great, that she feels this way, because I am actually ignoring people more than ever.

There’s a book I need to reread called A Writer’s Space. I meant to reread it before publishing the book review, but I guess I had better reread it now. I read it when I was at home alone with my adoptive dad, who had Alzheimer’s at that time, which made writing difficult.

The book is about battling yourself and others—usually friends and relatives who can see at a glance that you are painfully “not busy”—for workspace. The book does not explain how to deal with a family member with Alzheimer’s, but it did teach me how to win a fight against myself, at least.

Of course the doctor who wrote the book talks about deep breathing and feeling very zen. Is that helpful to everybody? Probably not.

In that case, I might also recommend a passage from Ariel Gore’s How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead. She is not so patient. In fact, she is extremely irritated about being interrupted:

I don’t know, maybe if I had an office job people would call me all day and ask me to run out and do things for them, too. But somehow I doubt it. No one ever asks me to take time off for them when I have to teach. Folks respect the fact that I might get in trouble from a boss or disappoint my students. But when I’m my own boss and don’t have a designated space outside the home to call “my office,” it’s a constant battle to get taken seriously. For me, it’s usually a losing battle.

My mother: worst offender. I turn off the phone so I won’t hear from her. In my book review I hyperlink to the full-length version of my interview with Jake Elliott; I inadvertently linked to the page where my mother is shouting—shouting! shouting!—for a slice of pie.

Ariel Gore’s advice is, literally, to outright lie to people, to tell them you’ve left town. I haven’t done this, since I’m usually out of town anyway, but I’m going to start.

Part of defending your workspace, though, is protecting it from yourself. You have to get so much better at not doing what you want to do, which is go out with Robyn, or vacuum. When I have writer’s block, my apartment sparkles. Currently my sink is loaded with dishes, which means I’m in a good headspace.

More than anything, if you have some sort of perverted, demented friend who thinks she can make it as a freelance writer, oh my God, please try to be patient with her. No, she cannot afford to go to the movies, and she isn’t insulting you when she gets off the phone.

I also encourage anyone who is thinking of freelancing or making video games—you know who you are!—to choose the steepest, shittiest path, because you will be so, so pleased with yourself, even though two nights ago you watched Rachael Ray while you ate a Lean Pocket.


05/07: This is a murky post, I realize, but I do feel great—only occasionally does the full spectre of my sense of incompetence really loom—and I only want to stress that, if you take it upon yourself to rearrange aspects of your life to allow for freelancing, you can do it.

I want to always be encouraging, if in my usual backhanded way, and I hope you—whoever you are—know that there’s nothing to be scared of. Yes, even if you are freaked out constantly, as I am. OK! Thanks!

9 responses to “Rise of the Welcome-to-My-Meltdown: on video games and working alone” »

  1. Jake says:

    Reading the review and this post about the writing of the review (which, itself, is largely about the writing of itself) back-to-back was exhausting in the best way. No wonder there’s so much time between your published articles.

    Too much to think about.

  2. Kevin Bunch says:

    I freelanced for three years while working a part time job, and honestly I have no idea how I would have afforded anything without said part-time job. Freelancing is great for me on the side; it’s some extra funds and usually isn’t a far cry from what I’m doing anyway, except, more often than not, the topic is something I can choose. But I am absolutely blown away by any freelancer that can make a living without publishing a wildly successful book. Those people are hardcore.

    On the flip side, as the, uh, delay in my output may indicate, writing for the day job means I have very little desire to spend my time at home writing something up unless I’m REALLY into it.

  3. Kati H says:

    Hi Jenn, Beautiful post and thanks for sharing. I think it’s very helpful when people analyze and share their work process – it lets others know that it’s okay to not be a superhero and that actually, what they’re experiencing is totally “normal”. At least for me, writing is always an emotional and psychological game. I hope it gets easier for you as you start to make more contacts and get into a flow. For what it’s worth THIS piece is very well thought out and put together :p

    I won’t pretend to be able to relate to a lot of your specific situation. I have mega writer’s block and a mega inferiority complex to go with it, but my background’s pretty different. I’ve only recently given myself permission to even write, period, as a profession or for fun. So I’ve been reading a lot of books and listening to a lot of podcasts on writing for entertainment in general, and here are some things I hear over and over that might apply to you:

    1. When you first start, or when you put down your first draft, it will always be a piece of crap. Everyone’s first start is always completely crap – Just accept it, don’t feel bad and beat yourself up about it, and start the rewriting. Congratulations because you are normal.

    2. Writers who are in a cherry position feel like frauds and that any minute they’ll be caught and thrown out.

    3. Staying in your apartment 24/7 absolutely kills you. If you don’t get out into the world, all inspiration dries up. No matter what you’re writing about, it deals with human life, and if you’re not actually living, the writing stinks.

    4. (This one seems bad) For writers on assignments, like TV writers or writers with contracts, every job feels like the last job they’ll ever get. The panic at not knowing what’s going to happen never goes away. BUT THEN THEY GET THE NEXT JOB. And then after THAT job, they’re panicked as hell again – on and on and on.

    Looking at this, the tips I keep hearing seem really negative actually. I am sorry xD But if you take it the way I do (they’ve been really helpful to me), they’re actually ridiculously comforting. Because for years I thought all the dramatic emotional tie-ups, inferiority, self-doubt, procrastinating and time wasting, and everything else happened to JUST me. Now I know that nope, that’s how it works for everybody (or almost everybody I guess). That is how we roll :p

    So I think recognizing all that negative stuff in your habits is a huge step, and figuring out your own personal ways of overcoming them is too. But it’s really important to forgive yourself for being human and allow yourself time to live.

    Oh, other over-and-over tips. Helps tons to have a writing partner. Maybe in your case just an accountability partner? Find someone who will be properly P’ed if you don’t finish something :p Also, being a ridiculo pleasant and awesome person to work with does wonders. Tons of people can write, but not tons of people are amazing to be around. Let yourself network and sell your personality.

    Don’t mean any of this to come off as preachy or condescending at ALL ๐Ÿ™ For God’s sake you’re a seasoned pro writer and I have done diddly squat. Just wanted to say 1. I admire you, in this case for speaking out about the suckiness, and 2. You’re far from being alone.

    Fingers crossed for you!

    • Alexandra says:

      Thanks for this, Kati and Jenn.

      Freelancing is tough, though I’m typically afraid to say so in front of my peers. It’s helpful to hear that my self-perceived failings/neuroses aren’t totally unusual, since I’m really good at thinking the problem is just me.

      • Jenn Frank says:

        If by “peers” you mean “fellow writers,” don’t worry about them. We already know we’re all impoverished! Except for your “bestselling novelist friend” who, alas, cannot be impressed. Why waste any energy on snowing someone! (But yes, definitely take comfort in knowing we’re all going “auuuugh!” and “gaaaahhh!” here.)

        Now, the people you really want to impress/intimidate are your old high school friends. Easy! Let them all know you are a famous writer. Tell them so! When they ask what the money’s like, happily tell them there is none. They will invariably marvel at both your joie de vivre and your gall. I am almost not kidding.

  4. Nick Mendez says:

    My sincere thanks not only to Jenn, but the above commenters, who have both reassured me that this crippling self doubt and procrastination is in fact part of some sick process.

    I’m a 24-year-old journalism school graduate who mostly did long-form, human interest pieces in J school. Right up until graduation I thought I was in decent shape. I’d diversified my body of work by adding photography, I’d engineered podcasts, I’d reported from overseas. My entire college career was an exercise in broadening my experience to open up career opportunities.

    And then the runway just ends. All of the sudden writing for a living becomes this seemingly insurmountable goal, instead of the natural conclusion of years of study and practice. I’m sure millions of grads face this exact same problem, especially those in creative fields, but that’s doesn’t mean I took it any gentler. Now I work in marketing, while blogging and [trying] to write a novel during my off hours.

    It reminds me of something I heard Ira Glass say, that when you first start out doing creative work, it’s a rare few who are any good. In the beginning, you can identify quality work but you simply don’t have the tools, or the experience, to replicate it.

    I don’t know if that’s true, but its oddly reassuring. Now when I find a writer, publication or blog that I like, I tear it apart in my head, trying to find any hint of the secret stuff they used to piece it together, whatever made it glitter enough to rise above the noise.

    And in this day and age, when just about anybody can self publish, there is just so much noise. It’s this endless sea of comedians, writers, photographers, novela authors, script runners, etc. etc. Sometimes it seems that there are just so many talented voices, that whatever I have to add has probably already been said elsewhere, more eloquently.

    But instant success rarely inspires quality work. I tell myself that the struggle will make me a better, more discerning writer. Every day that I throw something at the wall and watch it slide down is another lesson learned. One day, when I’ve earned an audience, whatever I have to say will carry that much more weight, because of everything I’ve had to slog through to get there.

    I realize I’m very young, and thanks for pieces like this, one of many. Above all I’m a writer, because it’s all I’ve ever wanted, or been able, to do. If that means having to choose between affording groceries or booze, I’ll grab some bottom-shelf brown and hope there’s a good story waiting at the bottom.

    • Jenn Frank says:

      Mr. Mendez,

      Isn’t 24 a tricky age! All your elders keep saying you have “plenty of time,” but you’ve just arrived at that juncture where you begin to suspect they’re wrong, that you aren’t so young after all. It’s very nerve-wracking.

      When you sincerely thank the “above commenters,” you mean Kati, of course. When I read Kati’s contribution I immediately commenced work on a reply to her. The only thing I ever settled on, though, was a first sentence (“Kati, you are a treasure”).

      But she is correct when she offers that writing advice as reassurance. It is reassuring! All of this is reassuring, even though it is all fraught with fear and doubt. I know I’m a fraud! If I can’t write, how will I eat! I feel that way about your comment, too: that it is hopeful and optimistic despite all the worry.

      When I started writing my drafts of a comment to Kati, one thing I wanted to talk about was how uncynical freelancing really is. Even though it’s frightening, you maybe decide to implicitly acknowledge, just in that work’s very undertaking, how precious life is. Incidentally, Ariel Gore—aforementioned in the blargh—recommends experiencing deep, terrible loss, but experiencing it only twice, I guess so you can get a grip on how tenuous it all is without actually snapping.

      Snapping is also fine, though. When you discover everyone will die, probably sooner rather than later, and that you are already numbered among those casualties, you begin to work harder—not because you are grim, but to celebrate what you have. Maybe this is a strange direction to go, but I have my reasons. Then again, having this attitude might do strange things to your sense of priorities; if you do ever decide to abandon marketing completely, you pragmatic old man, I’ll understand. (I also understand banking on a “sure bet,” which is its own type of noble.)

      You remind me that you’re very young, but I don’t think so. You have the cool, thoughtful tone of somebody much older and wiser (the latter, of course, seldom comes with age anyway). It sounds like you have it pretty well figured out—I say this even as life often has another way of figuring itself. And that’s the heart of everything: we all brace, decide, and see. Video games lend a nice mimesis for that. It’s all very noble work.


      Separate from all that, I do want to tackle your last sentence, Nick. I know you’re employing the pose of a tortured creative in a sweetly smirking way, but there really is a great deal more to be said about booze. As a responsible adult I can only strongly advise against looking for any inspiration in the bottom of a bottle. A good friend, whom I was fortunate to know, died too young, and alone, of eating too little and drinking too much. That was in February 2010, and a day doesn’t go by I don’t dwell on it for awhile. There is zero romance in that story.

      My point is, buy the top-shelf stuff. You’ll feel real classy and you’ll make yourself drink a whole lot less. Remember to eat. Pay your bills mostly. Once in a great while, treat yourself to things you know you can’t afford. Treat your friends, too, if you can. Plan your budget around big dinners; feel guiltless. And alternatively, drink coffee! Lots of coffee! The palpitations will make you type faster.

  5. zipdrive says:

    I wanted to leave a comment on the original post saying “we should find a way to earn a living as freelance READERS”...but was then blown away by an awesome comment conversation.

    I took the coward’s way out of dealing with my inadequacies as a writer, by making a living as an engineer and writing/podcasting on the side.

    Jenn, reading your book review proved to me you definitely have the chops to write for a living. Do you have the luck for it? Only time will tell ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Benj Edwards says:

    I know this is a slightly old thread (in Internet Time, at least), but I just ran across it.

    I have been freelancing full-time since 2007, and if I had to give one piece of unsolicited advice to other freelancers, it would involve a single word: limits.

    As you alluded to in your piece, Jenn, time is money, so there is always the desire to work, work, work all day, all night, all weekend. But that will run you ragged and you will get burned out. One needs to achieve balance between work and non-work.

    After years of experimenting, I’ve found that a regular old 9-5, Monday-Friday schedule works best for me. If I don’t work after 5 PM or on Weekends, I stay sane, my family stays sane, and I still get things done. But if you ever let work creep into those sacred off hours, all hell breaks loose. Doing the dishes every day helps too. Never neglect the essential chores or your basic health.

    And when you’re working, you have to be off-limits to other folks. It is hard to get it into other people’s heads that you’re actually working. If you work from home, that problem may never truly be solvable unless you lock yourself in a box somewhere.

    I could probably write all day about freelancing, but that’s the most important piece of the puzzle. Getting work can be tough, but once you have it, sustaining the will and desire and ability to work is the hardest part of freelancing. And that can only be achieved by putting hard and fast limits on your work time.

    All the best,

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