This entry in the Letters from a Dev series is adapted from a direct message I sent to a freelancer who I had offered to help get some 3pp material published for, and who then had some other opportunities pop up that (quite rightly) they pursued first. But we kept in touch, and I was happy to give guidance and advice when they wanted it.
Recently, they had some material in something published professionally… and the product was not great. I won’t go into details, other than to say the final text is pretty clearly worse than the original turnover the freelancer sent in. Now, that happens sometimes. It’s much, much rarer than things being significantly improved, in my experience. It’s even rarer than a freelancer thinking something has been ruined, when in fact the publisher has made improvements the freelancer simply isn’t fond of. But a publisher ruining a good draft does occasionally happen. And, when it does, it can be a shock, and a real emotional gut-punch.
Especially if the product was something you were excited about, seeing it’s final form be less clear, more typo-ridden, and riddled with worse rule implementation can be spectacularly disheartening. Given how tough ttRPG creation work is, how poorly it generally pays, and how little respect the work earns from the general public, often the joy in seeing the final product–with all its polish and improvement–is the biggest reward for the labor you put into it. When that is not just worse than you expected, but worse than you handed over, it can feel like you wasted your time and have been treated with disrespect.
In this case, the freelancer asked if I was willing to offer any suggestions on how to handle both the professional issue, and the emotional toll it takes. My adapted response is below.
“First, know that this is rare. Also, that’s always hard when it does happen. As a socially awkward depressive, I have had some projects changes and/or cancellations send me into deep negative states. It’s rough.
So, what to do about it.
Assuming the whole book isn’t a shitshow, it’s totally worth celebrating it as a project you contributed to. Credits are important, and even if they take away your joy, they shouldn’t also get to take away your stepping stone. You worked hard for this, and if you decide to move forward with freelance work, it’s worth having a professional credit from a recognizable company name on your resume. As long as the issue isn’t a moral or legal failing, even if you aren’t a fan of the final form, the very fact you did the work and it got published can help you get more opportunities in the future. The best way to clean a bad project taste out of your mouth is with a better project.
Even if you claim the project credit, since you earned it, feel free not to talk about what specifically you wrote for it. Usually, people don’t ask. If the DO ask, just say “Since the developer made changes, I don’t want to claim anything specific without the developer weighing in first.” If someone notes the project has a lot of errors, it’s fair to say you are not the developer or the editor, but don’t go farther than that. As a freelancer looking for more gigs, there’s no upside to making a stink about the quality of other people’s work if it’s not an ethical or legal issue.
It can be worthwhile to reach out to your developer and (politely) ask about specific changes that seem to be errors or violate the guidelines you were given. Don’t say it’s wrong and they messed it up – just say something like “I note that I wrote the Thingamabob gives a +2 bonus, in keeping with the design document I had, and the final version gives a +5. Is there a design consideration I should be aware of, so I can create material closer to what you need?” This kind of request-for-feedback is fairly common, and even if it the change to what your wrote just a big fuckup on their part, bringing it to their notice at least means they can start more quickly to work on errata, if any.
Those are practical concerns. Emotionally? That’s harder.
Bitch to friends you trust to keep it quiet. Play a game as different from what you worked on as you can. Pet a cat. Do an internet search for “TSR DaWizard,” and when you read the stories remember a BIG company got that one wrong on a huge scale. Drink some hot cocoa (or whatever fills that role for you). Let some time pass.
Know that this is a moment in your career, not an omen about the entirety of it.
Also… the pandemic has been hard on every creative I know. This both makes projects more likely to get botched, AND makes the impact of having your work be mangled so much more impactful. We have no idea the circumstances under which the developers/editors got their work done on this project. It may be an outlier that just suffered from massive internal problems with the company. It sucks for you, but it isn’t personal. And it isn’t going to happen every time.
Give yourself permission to be angry right now, and to need some time to shake it off. Usually, after a few weeks, it won’t be quite so raw a wound.
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I’ve made no secret of the fact I have multiple mental health challenges, including civilian PTSD and depression. This has been true for my entire nearly-25-year career, and I’ve faced a lot of difficulties as a result. As a ttRPG writer and developer, I deal with deadlines a great deal. As someone who can suffer executive disfunction, the core tasks needed to hit deadlines are sometimes impossible for me. There are days I am literally unable to multitask, plan, organize, and, yeah, prioritize.
If I were smarter, I’d have gotten out of the deadline business. But I am stubborn and strongly, weirdly, dedicated to creating (and trying to promote and improve) tabletop roleplaying games.
Which means over a quarter-century, I have developed some coping mechanisms. None work all the time. Many make only a marginal difference. But deadlines, budgets, projects, and deadlines are often won or lost in the margins. If something lets you average 2,050 words per day rather than 2,000, over 52 five-day workweeks, that’s an extra 13,000-word project done every year.
One of the things I have to deal with is the conflict between prioritizing, and the things at the top of the priority list being impossible. I can’t fix that conflict, even though it happens over and over, but I can work to mitigate its impact. In no particular order (see #2), here are some coping mechanisms
1. Don’t Wait To the Last Moment
Your deadline is 4 weeks away and you think you need 2 weeks to do it? See if you can be done in the first 2 weeks. If yes, then you can get a jump on the next thing, and no mental health issues in that last two weeks can make you late. If not, you at least have a feel for what the project is really going to take, and two more weeks to try to get it done. If you wait until the time needed is the time left, a mental health issue sidelining (or even just slowing) you means you will be late.
It’s also helpful if some issue means you are radically wrong when you estimate how much time you need.
2. Don’t Get Sucked Into Doing Work You Don’t Need To
Making a list of coping mechanisms on your blog? You may be tempted to prioritize them to present them in the best possible order. But if that is taking more thought cycles that just tying them out in any order does, maybe you are making work for yourself when you don’t need to.
I have found myself making outlines longer than the final product is supposed to be, spending days researching something that is going to be relevant for just one line of text, and writing the same thing four different ways to see which one is better. If you have the time for that and are ahead on everything else and have no the projects you’d like to start, that’s fine. But in the real world, there are better ways to spend to your time.
3. Attack Any Task You Can From Any Angle You Can Whenever You Can
Sometimes my brain works best by carefully planning ahead, making lists, figuring out what I need to do when and for how long… and sometimes the only thing it can focus on is writing about halfling battle cheese. That’s fine if halfling battle cheese projects are my priority, but even when they aren’t, that may be the only thing I can work on. If I have multiple projects, and I simply cannot make my brain do any of the work three of them need, then I need to prioritize among those things I CAN do.
This is crucial, at least for me. Spending time psychically flagellating myself for not working on the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd most important thing is NOT more useful than actually getting work done on the 4th, 5th, or 6th most important thing. Depending on how disastrously close to failure those 1st three projects are, I may ramp up the internal pressure to try to force myself to get them done — but if I can’t, then I can’t. Acknowledging what is impossible, and then still prioritizing among what isn’t impossible, is the best route forward for me.
Of course, this means I also must regularly re-assess what’s impossible for me. Just because I began work on a lower-priority task doesn’t mean I need to finish it before moving on to something else. Indeed, sometimes there mere act of accomplishing something gives me the strength and focus I need to tackle something harder and more important. My contribution to more than one award-winning game came not in one smooth run, but in jerks and jolts as I tackled some crucial part of it, then had to go away to work on less-important things until I could do the next difficult bit of writing.
4. Be Honest With Yourself
You can’t fix every shortcoming you acknowledge to yourself, but you can’t even try to fix any lie to yourself about. It hurts to say “I am going to miss this deadline, because my cPTSD won’t let me work on it, again, for the fifth day in a row.” But that’s still better than trying to believe you can write 15,000 words of quality work in 24 hours, with enough caffeine and snack food to keep you going the whole time.
And if you USED to be able to do that, in your 20s, 30s, and 4s, and now that you are in your 50s you can’t anymore? You need to be honest about that too.
5. Be Honest With People You Are Working With
This is super-hard some days, but it is the ethical, practical, empathetic option. You can’t build a sustainable, long-lasting career on just not communicating when things go bad (it’s often called “going turtle” in the ttRPG industry, and it’s a well-known bad sign), or constantly claiming the dog ate your hard drive.
Things DO happen sometimes. If you got driven out of your home by a hurricane a day before a turnover was due, by all means tell the people you are working with what happened while you can. But honesty is always the best policy.
6. Track The Impact Different Kinds Of Projects have On Your Mental Health
For many creators, not all creative work is created equal. I, for example, can more easily write about my process and mental health and industry insights than I can write descriptions of fictional worlds and their societies. I can much, MUCH, more easily write crunchy player option game rules within an existing ruleset than I can write an encounter for a GM to run as part of a published adventure. And writing some things is more likely to leave me depressed, fatigued, or dysfunctional.
You often won’t know about these differences until you have done several different kinds of writing. But as you go through the career of a creator with mental health issues, keep track. Was the War Clans of the Half-Pint Bakery a nightmare because you were having a bad month and other factors in life impacted you? Or does any project focusing on warfare set off mental blocks you don’t get on other assignments?
7. Forgive Yourself
All the best intentions, your strongest efforts, and the smartest coping mechanisms may fail you from time to time. If you beat yourself up over that, it’s just more fuel for the next round of executive disfunction. There are plenty of other people ready to castigate you for every delay, dip in quality, shuffled schedule, and dropped ball. They don’t need your help to point out your flaws. Keep an eye on #4 and #5… but then forgive yourself.
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You can think of this as an unusually long #RealGameIndustry entry.
If you are depending on the game industry for your full income, and you do not have a full-time job with benefits, necessity means at least part of what you are doing to performative.
Performing to build a community. Performing to gain name recognition. Performing to seem more fun and interesting, on the assumption that makes your products seem more fun and interesting.
Given how many of us came into gaming to escape what we saw as societal and clique-based requirements for shallow performative interactions, this is often a bitter irony. Indeed, while most of us are too smart to complain publicly, this can result in annoyance or anger as what we see as the “pretty popular people” being successful in their performance to a degree we cannot match (often directly measurable in how much money those people can raise compared to how much experience they have or how much content they have created.)
Especially as a mentally ill, socially-awkward, depressive introvert, it often strains my coping mechanisms and ability to put on a false face to their absolute limits. Social media is both a blessing and a curse in this regard. The ability to use text to put forth an idealized, entertaining self helps create a buffer between my depression and my need to be a performative creator. However, those very tools also demand constant attention to remain an effective part of my mandatory performance.
And at that, I have a much easier time as a cis white hetero male, because there are faults and failings I can have which are seen as quirky, or the stereotype of the grumpy writer. Creators in more marginalized groups often don’t get that slack. They both have much more cause to be scarred by social interaction, and must maintain a more perfect performance to reap the same benefits I do.
Even my ability to make discussions of my illnesses, failings, and annoyances part of my public persona is made easier by my role as an elder whitebeard. I have seen women, and minorities, and LGBT creators all with as much or more experience as I have been shouted down as clearly unstable for daring to say the same things I am allowed to state largely without consequence.
Nor do I foresee anything of this changing in a major way. The need to be performative to be successful as an independent appears to be baked into the industry (and full time jobs that pay something like the median income for their area are so rare as to be unicorns). That means the only part of this likely to change is the unfairness that performative need puts on marginalized creatives.
That fight is worth fighting. But it’s going to take hard work and time to make significant progress.
Meanwhile, the demands for performance keep changing and increasing, as technology drops the barriers between creator and consumer.
I work hard to remain relevant. And I see no time when I’ll be able to stop working at that without falling into an at-best-niche position. Which means my coping mechanisms for my trauma, depression, and other issues must include being able to maintain the performance–at least for regular, short bursts– even when I am fighting to not just curl up under the covers and give up on it all.
This is like climbing a wall, endlessly. If you ever fully give up you don’t just fail to make progress. You may be able to rest in a cradle for a time, or depend on your ropes. But those things can only hold you for a brief time. Eventually you’ll fall, and then you don’t just drop a little. You lose a huge percentage of your progress, and can damage yourself and your career, even kill it, as you smash things on the way down.
Keeping yourself in a place where people will see you and your work so they even might buy it is a grind, on top of the grind of creating enough work to survive even if people see enough of it.
You don’t have to have answers for all of this as you start. But to rise above a certain level, you must begin to work it out eventually.
When people sometimes suggest I take on too much, I want to yell at them that if I only do 75% as much work, I won’t get 75% of the result. I’ll get 50%, or less. If you try to microwave popcorn and you put it in for 60 seconds, you don’t get half the popcorn you’d get if you microwaved it for 2 minutes. Your work is all at least partially wasted if you can’t back it up with enough PR, backstock, and previews to maintain brainshare in an audience with tons of other, better-funded, better-advertised options.
I don’t have solutions for many of the problems these issues bring up. But it’s better for newer creators to be aware of the potential minefield and prepare for it, than have it come as a surprise for them. If you just want to create on your own terms and enjoy whatever success happens to come your way, and not try to pay the rent, cover medical insurance, and put food on the table purely through ttRPG efforts, you can largely ignore this. And if you find a way around it, I heartily congratulate you. And there are different levels of this performative need, with some folks managing much more success than I with much less performance put in.
But be aware of the potential drain on your time and energy.
Speaking of Performing
Part of the performative need is to drive people to platforms you can monetize, like my patreon. There is an extended version of this article on my Patreon, available only to patrons. You can join for as little as the cost of a cup of coffee a month, and it’s one of my primary forms of support to put out my essays, letters, background, context, and of course game content in an effort to make the ttRPG industry a better place.
Content Warning: The essay includes discussion of death, suicide, self-harm, and the passing of a recently departed person in my life. I am writing it as much for me as anyone else, and if those topics aren’t something you need in your head right now, please feel free to read no further. Please, take care of yourself.
When my father died, I was less sad, and more sympathetic. He had been in so much emotional pain, for so long. And when I had told him he was drinking himself to death six months earlier, he just said “I know.”
I wasn’t glad, or relieved, or anything I could describe in a way that made me happier. But I knew he had decided that a slow, anaesthetized death was the only solution he could find to the dissatisfaction and anger he felt about his own life. His death was just the coda of a decision he had made years before, and while I hated that decision, I had come to grips with it.
My father was a man of great determination. Once I realized he planned to drink himself to death, I knew he would succeed, and sooner rather than later. What grief I felt for his loss peaked then, when he was still breathing, but actively working to not be part of my life anymore. Even then, the emotion was less sadness, and something much closer to empathetic pain. I knew he was hurting, and that the hurt was so great he’d do anything to escape it. That hurt me, but not in the same way grief does.
My father was unreliable for most of my life–at least from my earliest teens forward, and possibly beyond that. So for the 26 years I knew him, I learned I could not rely on him. He was often full of wonderful stories, good advice, and kind words… but he also often was not. I know he loved me and wanted to help me, but as a practical matter, he could not be depended on. I was still a young adult when he died, working to figure out who I was. My father was a big part of that, but a lot of the work of my becoming who I am now happened after he was gone.
I went to work the Monday after the weekend my father died. I was manager of a parking garage at the time. When the people running the associated building discovered I had lost my father, they were shocked I had shown up. They were ready to move heaven and earth to let me go home… but I didn’t. I kept the bereavement days in case I needed them to arrange funerals, or clear out his apartment. And over and over, society kept trying to tell me I should be devastated by my father’s death, and I just wasn’t. Sympathy, not sadness.
At the end of last month, my friend Marc Curlee died of covid. I had known Marc since I was 13, and he was several years older. As you might expect, I was a snot-nosed kid, and our early relationship was not without friction, but we loved many of the same things, and like most of my friends over my life, bonded over gaming. And through 37 years of moves, stretches of years in different states, marriage on my part, career changes, and shifting special environments, Marc and I stayed friends.
Early on, it was Marc, not my father, who taught me to shave. Later, when my father was long since gone, Marc was still a strong presence in my life. As I worked on figuring out who I was, my father checked out of his part in that, and Marc didn’t. If Marc told me he’d do something, it got done. If I was sad, or lost, or drowning in a sea of green-black depression, Marc reached out. Marc was an important part of my support group, and one of the people I desperately missed when I left OK for 6 years. And no matter how long Mac and I were apart, when we managed to hang out again, it was like we’d never had a gap.
While Marc was hospitalized, I called him every day. Early on, we’d chat, and he’d talk about his plans for years to come. He was focused on the future. Then, as he was moved to the ICU, he stopped picking up the phone. I left messages, but he wasn’t in any condition to return them. I desperately wanted to visit, but even beyond the risk to me I live in a house with 2 highly vulnerable people. I could not talk to Marc. Could not see him. Could not be at his side. He had been there for me for decades, and I couldn’t be there for him.
Marc’s passing as hit me like no loss I have suffered before. It’s not just grief, though I have been fighting avalanches of sadness, but an empty place. I had no idea how many times a day Marc entered my mind. When I see a thing I thought he’d like, I’d make a mental note to tell him. When some story or game rule or art reminded me of some even he and I shared in your decades-long friendship, I’d smile. Not just occasionally, but multiple times each day, even when he wasn’t nearby, Marc was part of the core fabric of how I interpret and interact with the world.
And his passing has opened an empty place within me. A place which used to be filled with the things Marc and I would share in the future, and now we never will.
Grief is very much my reaction, but it is more than that. Anger, confusion, and horror sit alongside sadness in near-equal measure, the mix constantly churning on what will come on top. This is the grief people kept telling me I should be feeling when my father died, and I never did. And to be clear, Marc is absolutely not a stand-in father figure in my life. But he was a close, lifelong, formative friend, without whom I would not only be who I am today, I would be a worse parody of the best aspects of my self.
Processing this takes time, and the energy and attention that process demands will not be denied or delayed. I am fragile, veering off into the avalanche of grief any time a tiny pebble of loss is disturbed, when I realize I can’t share something with Marc, can’t talk to him, can’t play games with him ever again. I know that I will survive this — among other things, it would dishonor Marc’s memory not to take care of the people he cared about, and that includes me — but it’s going to take time, effort, and pain to get to a place where maybe I am okay.
Right now, I’m constantly struggling with the Empty Place.
(In memory of Marc Curlee, one of my oldest and closest friends.)
(Supported by my Pateon)
I am not currently suicidal. Not even close. I open with that, so people won’t worry about me.
I have been suicidal, even within the past year. I was able to get help, and my support network assisted me. Mental health issues need to be destigmatized, which is why I am often so public about mine.
If you need help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a United States-based network that provides 24/7 service via a toll-free hotline with the number 1-800-273-8255.
It is available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.
This is quite the ramble. I wrote it more for myself than anyone else. It doesn’t touch on game content, or freelancing (really), and everyone who follows me for those kinds of things should feel free to skip it.
If someone wants to build a true emotional connection to me, I make it difficult. Doubly so online.
That’s okay. I have lots of friends. None of this is a complaint. Really, it’s just an examination of my mind and experiences, brought on in part by how much more of my socialization has been online for the past 9+ months. And that, in turn, has be thinking about the nature of online “friendship.”
Yes, a surprising number of my “Facebook friends” are actually my real friends. Some I have known for more than 35 years. Others I met online, but correspond with weekly or more.
But we all know that’s not the majority.
The majority of the Facebook users I have friend-demarcated are “People who have mutually decided a weak online connection might prove entertaining or beneficial.” Or “Mutubenes” for short.
Some of THOSE people have a business plan that includes being friendly, so they look and sound more like a friend to those who are their Mutubenes.
Sadly, some people who are Mutubenes can’t tell the difference between that causal connection and true friendship. Normally in such a causal online relationship, the more popular and/or beautiful person is aware of the true nature of the online connection, while one or more less-popular cybercommoners gets too sucked into the illusion of friendship to differentiate it from reality.
This isn’t a binary friend/notfriend status, of course. There are casual friends, work friends, friendly acquaintances, Mutubenies you like slightly more than others, Mutubenies you’d happily share a drink with which might allow you to become casual friends, pure business partners, people you dislike but tolerate… a long line of degrees and types of relationships that can grow, wilt, morph, and change over time, with the right context and circumstance.
Many Beaupops are attractive women. That’s not shocking–they have careers to build along with everyone else, and are taking a thing that often causes them to be dismissed to mistreated, and trying to turn it into an advantage. Whatever each Beaupop is comfortable with is perfectly appropriate, be that just knowing that looking professional and stylish can’t hurt get attention all the way to actually being a sex worker–these approaches are in no way comparable to each other, but they often share the same online space. Sadly, too often when male cybercommoners realize they aren’t truefriends with attractive Beaupop women the cybercommoner becomes aggressive and abusive.
I think about these things fairly often, for a number of reasons. First, I work in this online social space. I want to be aware and realistic of what’s actually going on in such connections.
But, second, I have social anxiety, in part tied to my civilian PTSD. It manifests in many ways, one of which is that when I don’t understand what is expected of me in a social interaction, I can panic. Sometimes full-on panic attacks that can be hard to distinguish from heart attacks. Other times, just a rising of bile in my throat and sense of impending doom. I’ve struggled with that in therapy, for years.
At least some of that seems to tie back to one of the worst beatings I ever took in my life. It’s a story I have told before, but not often. I was at camp as a young teen. The daughter of one of the camp masters invited me to take a walk in the woods. She was older than me, though not adult. I was confused as to why—we hadn’t talked at all, I didn’t really know her, and I had never had a girl ask me to walk with them before. Indeed, positive attention of any kind from girls was foreign to me. But she seemed friendly and genuine, so I agreed.
But I was confused, and unsure of the social expectations of such a walk.
She walked me out to a clearing, where a large number of boys had dug a pit. They beat me up, threw me into the pit, and sat and stood on me. They laughed. I remember smelling the dirt, tasting it, and being totally unable to get up. She laughed with them. I remember crying, and yelling, and that only making the laughter louder.
I don’t remember how that ended. I do remember being 100% sure that there was no point telling anyone. That doing so would just make things worse. So I didn’t. I didn’t tell anyone, for years.
But that sense of dread is still tied to not knowing what is expected of me in a social setting, either in physical meetings or virtual ones.
I’ve worked on that a lot over the years. I have had to. But it also means that if I am not sure what a relationship is? If I can’t be certain if someone is my friend, or just a popular or talented or beautiful person who finds an online connection to me to be more likely to be useful than annoying?
I assume it’s an entirely transactional connection. Unless I am flat told by someone that they consider me their friend, or wants a closer connection, I assume they do not. I have to. To survive. Even people I have known for years are generally kept in that circle of polite acquaintance until there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I assume praise is based on the interests of the praiser, interaction based on the value of the interaction, expressions of liking or wanting to spend time with me are weighed by the value the person expressing such interest believes they can get from it.
Which doesn’t mean that is how you should do it. Nor does it mean I think these people are disingenuous. Being friendly is not a promise of anything but polite interaction. People who want to spend time with me to benefit themselves are acting in a perfectly rational and reasonable manner. Even when genuinely like and want to be with or help someone, I assume that feeling is not reciprocated to an emotional degree, and that’s fine. Being nice to someone is not a currency that buys me any obligation from them, nor should it be.
The upside of this is that I can continue to interact with people online without panicking. If there’s a downside, it’s mostly in potentially missed connections when people would like to form real friendship or emotional bonds to me, and I don’t give them the signals they would take as a go-ahead to try increasing that bond.
Basically, if someone is not already my friend I treat their online interactions the same way I treat those of a waitress as a favored restaurant at which I am a regular. They may know my name, be friendly, say they are happy to see me. And that can all be true, within the context of my coming to their place of work and having a professional interaction with them. Especially in the US, the fact that my being happy impacts their job security and payment (especially in the case of tips) means that friendliness is contextualized differently than if they acted the same way after asking me to go out to lunch somewhere else. I certainly HAVE made friends with the staff at places I was a regular, but it involved a lot of evidence that the relationship was not purely professional, including things like being invited to the restaurant when it was closed, and having staff choose to spend time with me and play games and go drinking when they were off-the-clock.
I would much rather err on the side of polite professionalism, than even overstep socially appropriate bounds and make someone else uncomfortable. Even at the cost of coming off as distant now and then.
I enjoy having Mutubenies. I just think of them as different from what I think of as “friends.”
Whether you write as your whole career, just do some freelancing, or write only for your own satisfaction but are driven to do that, it’s going to come up. At some point, you are going to find yourself needing to write while experiencing grief.
I wish this essay told you how to do that. It doesn’t. It can’t. I don’t know how. Every time I find myself having to do it, it becomes a new problem, because every moment of grieving is different. The problems grief causes change. Sometimes I lack motivation. Sometimes I find myself getting angry. Sometimes I can’t see the screen through the nonstop tears.
Whenever I talk about writing while grieving, a slew of well-meaning people come out and tell me to just give it time. I know they think I am just being too hard on myself, but I come from more than 20 years of writing professionally. This is my job. I’m a full-time freelancer again. I don’t get sick days, or bereavement. If I don’t write, I don’t get paid.
And yes, most people in the industry will cut you slack when you are dealing with something hard, but there are limits. Printers wont change their print dates for you. Conventions won’t shift when they are happening so you can have a big release bump a month alter than planned. People who make money by selling the work you are writing can’t hold off on payroll until you can get yourself together. Some projects have lots of slack built in, others have used it all. It’s worth talking to the people you owe work to, but trust me friends and fans, sometimes I have to write.
Other commentators want me to build everything around their favorite grief roadmap, such as the 7 stages of grief. If someone is totally unaware of some of thinking on how grief works, mentioning the existence of various roadmaps can be useful. But, again, I’ve been here. I know the maps are out there, and I also know the map is not the map is not the territory. Some grief follows different paths. It may jumble the order, or hop back and forth, or find brand new trails of misery, especially through my already-compromised brain.
So, advice from the outside tens not to do me much good. Support can help, like a blanket against the cold–it doesn’t make the cold any less, but it helps you to weather the storm. Of course some support helps more than others, and beyond noting that support that does not give pointless advice or make demands on me in return for the support has a much better track record than those that do, I can’t really tell you which will help more for any given grief.
Because every grief is different, and I can’t analyze it until i am at least mostly past it.
But the grief itself is not really the problem when writing. It’s the symptoms it causes, and those I can try to work through. Sometimes I’ll be successful. Sometimes I won’t. But I’ll get more writing work done by trying than by giving up on it.
So, what have I found works best?
*Accept that it’s not going to be as fast as if you weren’t grieving. Yes, maybe you need it to be for career purposes, but reality often doesn’t play nice with career goals. Take steps accordingly. Reach out to people you owe work to see which projects can spare some slipped deadlines. Cut back on expenses. Consider scaling back optional projects. Whatever you can do to reduce the impact of your reduced capacity.
*Prioritize. Don’t spend a lot of mental time and energy on it if that’s hard for you, but take a moment to decide what is most important. There’s very little as annoying as realizing you’ve been grinding through something you could have skipped, and not touched the crucial thing that needs all your time and attention.
*Write down every step you take. I, at least, suffer serious memory issues when grieving. Having a single place where I keep track of any deadlines, extended deadlines, changed project scopes, and so on, lets me go back and see where I am on things.
*Consider timing things. Need a break? Decide how long you need, set a timer. Having trouble focusing on work? Decide to hammer on a project for 20 minutes, then walk away. Need to do some online research? Set a timer so it’ll pull you back if you go down a rabbit-hole. Much as I have trouble remembering and tracking things when i am grieving, I often lose track of time. A nudge that I’ve been checking Facebook for 10 minutes when I meant to look up a single thing keeps me from wasting what time I have.
*Forgive yourself. If you can. If not, see if you can get therapy to help you forgive yourself. Some things are going to go wrong. I can’t say anyone else will forgive you, and you may make life hard for others or end up damaging your career. But you know why, and there’s no point in adding guilt or anger with yourself to the heavy emptions you are already carrying.
*Make self-care checklists. I often wallow in my grief, and if I am not sleeping, eating, taking my prescriptions, or socializing at all, my writing is going to suffer. Yes, sometimes I need to put off socializing to make more time for writing, or pull an all-nighter because the drop-dead deadline is 8am, but for the long haul, you can’t be an effective writing machine without fuel, downtime, and maintenance.
I wish I had more advice. But the one thing I can add is that writing through grief is possible, but will always take more effort and produce less results. Try to be kind to yourself and others when you have no choice but to give it a try.
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Hey, creative person.
I get it. You have deadlines, and responsibilities, and bills, and people counting on you. People tell you to be kind to yourself, to take a break, to ease up… and you can’t.
I understand. I promise.
Only you can know what can be back-burnered, and what can’t. I won’t pretend to be able to give you advice on that front.
I also want to assure you, the trouble you are having now focusing on things? The lack of spoons, or inspiration, or concentration?
That’s the new normal. I can’t say we are ALL dealing with it. Maybe there are some folks who aren’t having trouble right now. But I haven’t talked to any creative that isn’t.
There’s an additional cognitive load on all of us. Worry, planning, concern, frustration, fear… those things take a toll. that toll comes directly from your brain.
The brain you use to be creative.
So, while I can’t tell you to take a break, or take it easy (because I don’t know if you are in a place where you CAN do that), I do want to encourage you to remember things are not normal.
Whatever you would do if you had something dragging down — illness, technical problems, jury duty, whatever?
Global pandemic qualifies for the same measures.
And everyone gets that.
Let me clearly open with this:
I am not in danger. I am not a threat to myself or others. I have a strong support network, which includes a lot of really good shoulders to cry on, ears to listen to me, and kind voices to give aid when asked.
I often write about the things I am going through in a way other professionals mostly don’t. Sometimes, the fact I do so worries friend and colleagues alike. That’s never my aim, and I sincerely apologize to anyone I have made uncomfortable. Online explanations of my mental state are part of my therapy process. Writing things gives me power over them, and helps me organize and contextualize my feelings.
And, I want other folks who are struggling to know they are not alone.
I also want now, in the front, to note I have a Patreon. If you find this writing useful, or just want to toss me some support, it’s a great way to help out.
I am an aging, obese, depressive, introverted, socially-awkward independent creative with impostor syndrome, civilian PTSD, and a genuine fear of deadlines, disappointing people, and criticism.
If you are thinking to yourself “Wow, given all that it sounds like the ONE job you should avoid is freelance game writer,” you have a point.
In times of pandemic, you reassess your life choices.
But I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years now, and as much as I want to shrug and give up sometimes, it really is a defining part of my own self-image. Intellectually, I am well aware I have achieved success many people consider noteworthy. I am also aware that as a hetero cis white male I have had a lot of unearned advantages along the way.
I recently wrote online “One of the major advantages to doing business over social media is that I can literally be sobbing as I type smiley faces and multiple cheerful exclamation points.”
And I meant that it is, at face value, a useful advantage. I mean, when I was the manager of a parking garage in the 1990s, if I was sobbing not only could I not just go on with my day without people constantly asking me if I was okay, it would be considered unprofessional. It would interfere with my job function, the perception of me, and my own serenity. But when dealing with things in an entirely text-based format, as long as I am together enough to make the post look professional and upbeat, it is treated as professional and upbeat.
But of course, I only know that because sometimes I DO write marketing text and otherwise interact with fans and freelancers online while crying. Normally it’s a pretty rare thing, only happening when something is timing-critical. Like if there’s a one-day sale of a big product, or if a Kickstarter is ending. In those cases, even if I am depressed, or bereaved, it needs to get done right NOW, tears be damned.
The current situation, of course, is anything but normal.
Right now I am crying more than usual. I am also more often slumping into a mind-numb torpor where nothing gets done, more often ranting and yelling at the corner of the room, self-medicating a LOT more often, and walking away from everything in total disgust more often.
In times of pandemic, there are more tears.
That’s not to suggest I have it especially hard right now, compared to other people. While money is tightening, I am not totally unable to earn funds like some folks. My job hasn’t depended on my going anywhere but my home office since last July, and even before that it was work a company could (and in the case of my last full-time employer has) have people do from home. Even within my industry, the fact I have focused on digital products for my own projects is proving to insulate me slightly from the resounding crash of the physical product supply chain.
There are people under stay-at-home orders right now who, as a result of various factors often entirely beyond their control, have no home to stay at. I am in no way suffering more than average.
I’m not going it alone, either, thank goodness. I have an amazing support network. My wife of nearly 30 years is a constant source of comfort and aid. I have great friends, many of whom are going the extra mile to interact with me in video chats, discord forums, IMs, and so on. I have people paying me for my work, both in individual and direct ways and through companies and big projects, who are being understanding and patient with me, but also not letting me totally off the hook that I fall so far behind I can never catch up (thank god). I can get advice, or perspective, or sympathy in pretty much endless and instant supply. (Thank god.)
But I also acknowledge there are stresses in my life. I and my wife both fall into high-risk categories for the current pandemic. We’ve been self-isolating, and going out to places that are now closed (and spending money we currently don’t have) were among my best stress-relievers. And while I am not a fan of huge crowds anyway, I did love sitting with a small circle of close friends, and self-isolation for a month or so now has that off the table. I have some medical issues that cause severe fatigue, and it’s hard to differentiate those from depression or being overwhelmed by constant bad news and worry for friends and family.
Nearly every creative I have discussed it with agrees that it is HARD to get anything done right now. The fact that getting things done, and fast, is of even more importance as companies must pivot to deal with the new makes the failure to produce emotionally more challenging, but it doesn’t make it easier. And I completely support shutting down game stores and prioritizing crucial shipments from big vendors, but those things also put my entire industry at real, long-term, catastrophic risk.
In times of pandemic, my chosen career is not essential.
So yes, I am worried, and weary, and worn. And ultimately I am safe, and privileged, and supported. And I really wrote all of this both to assure those who worry about me that I am no closer to any tipping point or brink than normal; and to let other people who feel like they aren’t coping well know they are not alone.
None of us know what the next few weeks, months, and even years will look like. That lack of certainty, and the need to change how we do everything–from ordering groceries to teaching children to talking with friends to playing and creating games–is exhausting. Every day is both the first day of school, and a stroll by the edge of a very sparse minefield. Stress is a constant companion, and uncertainty is a mist that conceals every road.
I am sure I’ll get through this. I’m sure we’ll collectively get through this. Maybe not unscathed or unchanged, but still whole at the far side.
And maybe, if we work at it, we can improve society with the things we learned in a time of pandemic.
While I am personally a creative who suffers from mental health issues that include depression, and I know a lot of friends and colleagues who fall into that category, I don’t have scientifically valid statistics to prove that RPG creatives are often people struggling with depression. And that doesn’t really matter, because even if the numbers aren’t higher than for the baseline population, it still means that there are at least a few of us out there. I might just be talking to a tiny group today, but it’s something I am passionate about.
How do you write, draw, create, make things that are supposed to be fun for other people, when you are depressed? And I don’t mean down a bit because your favorite series ended or you can’t get that soda you like in your hometown anymore. I mean clinical depression, which can include loss of executive function, true hopelessness, sleep disruptions, and even thoughts of suicide.
I’ve talked before about how I get through my most serious depressions, but there’s one thing I haven’t touched on, or at least haven’t often enough.
Sometimes? You can’t. And that has to be okay.
Just as it is not a moral failing or sign of weak character to be unable to run when your leg is broken, it is not a moral failing or sign of weak character to be unable to create when your brain is broken.
If you are too far down the hole to reach any of your creative tools, please let that be, and instead seek help. That can be professional help, self-care, reaching out to a support network — whatever you can do. I’m not qualified to give professional advice on these things, but there are resources out there to find help if you don’t already have some in place. If you aren’t in a place where you can bring yourself to care about yourself, see if you can consider taking care of yourself as a way to help the people around you–sometimes I can only manage any degree of self-care out of guilt. That’s far from perfect, but sometimes I have to take what I can.
But then there’s the gray zone. Where you can try to work, but it’s terribly difficult and slow and you think everything you do is bad and pointless. Again, you have to be kind to yourself when you are here, but maybe there are ways to get a little more done if you find the hacks your brain responded to.
So, here are the hacks I use. They may not work for you, but if you try different things, and record the results, maybe you can find things to help you when work is possible, but damnably difficult.
For me some of it is habit. More than 21 years of it, at this point. If I’m not actively doing anything else, my brain naturally wonders if there is work I can do. When the thing that needs to be done FIRST is more than I can handle (sadly the project that is most important to finish often triggers the most anxiety which triggers the worst depression symptoms), I hop to something else if my brain is less opposed to it. No, that doesn’t help me get the most crucial thing done on time, but down the line it’s better to have worked on something, rather than nothing.
Some is desperation. This is how I pay the bills. Holding my own feet to the fire hurts, but it can also break through apathy sometimes. I don’t recommend this one unless you have already noticed a tendency of reviewing your situation to help you prioritize and take action. But if that is a tendency of yours, then it may be worth seeing if it can apply to creating.
A ton of it is therapy. I have learned to make my writing work for me in my battle with my brain. Often, that doesn’t actually produce anything that gets a deadline checked off. but sometimes, if produces a blog post when I need one, or at least helps me build my social media presence. And if nothing else, writing is a perishable skill. Writing privately helps me maintain the habit and edge I need to write for others.
My wife, Lj, is a HUGE help. In fact I have a lot of support group, including my public contacts. When I tell folks I am hurting, I get a lot of positive messages. People from lifelong close friends to social media connections I have never met in person also give me a lot of great private venting opportunities.
And sometimes? Sometimes I just have to melt down and give up for a bit. But Lj can hold me when I collapse and wail in great wracking sobs. When I am an inconsolable mess for an hour or two, convinced I have done so much damage to my reputation and career, that I’ll never work again. When it seems like I’ll never hit another deadline, that no one should ever trust me to get anything professional done. And that whole time, Lj tells me it’ll all be okay, and eventually I believe her.
Often, I pass out in exhaustion after that. Sleep, or at least oblivion, claims me for anything from a few minutes to a few hours.
And then, sometimes, I can write again.
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