Stepping Out of the Shadow

Last week’s post about attending PNWA almost didn’t happen. Not because I didn’t have time to write the post or because I had forgotten my WordPress login credentials, but because I almost didn’t attend the conference. The professional responsibilities I alluded to in that post consumed my late July and early August. Normally, I would have wiped my calendar, sighed longingly, and hoped for a better next year. Not this time.

This time I prioritized my tomorrow over my yesterday — something that should probably scare me more than it does. But that’s the benefit of having a strong woman by your side: I don’t need to be afraid.

My Shadow Career

In order to say Yes to taking that small step and attending PNWA, I had to say No elsewhere. I flew home from a game developer’s studio in California the night before the conference, risking having not completed my tasks before leaving. Then, a day and an all-nighter after the conference ended, I flew to a different studio in Vancouver, BC several days after I should have arrived.

I was completely miserable and sick with stress. And I wasn’t living my dream.

Steven Pressfield (War of Art, Gates of Fire) writes the following in his book Turning Pro:

Sometimes, when we’re terrified of embracing our true calling, we’ll pursue a shadow calling instead. That shadow career is a metaphor for our real career. Its shape is similar, its contours feel tantalizingly the same. But a shadow career entails no real risk. If we fail at a shadow career, the consequences are meaningless to us.

Are you pursuing a shadow career?

Are you getting your Ph.D in Elizabethan studies because you’re afraid to write the tragedies and comedies that you know you have inside you? Are you living the drugs-and-booze half of the musician’s life, without actually writing the music? Are you working in a support capacity for an innovator because you’re afraid to risk becoming an innovator yourself?

If you’re dissatisfied with your current life, ask yourself what your current life is a metaphor for?

My shadow career was writing video game strategy guides. It wasn’t always. For thirteen years it was an absolute dream job, the only thing I ever wanted to do. And I was damn good at it. For thirteen years I spent my days writing thousands of words about pre-release blockbuster titles — everything from Mario to Halo and Diablo to Zelda. It scratched so many itches: my desire to write, my love of gaming, and my need for Photoshop-as-therapy. And to top it all off, I had an annual contract that paid very nicely.

I tried my hand at fiction during those years, but never gained traction. I couldn’t bring myself to work on a novel when I was perpetually on-call, often starting months-long projects on very short notice. Feast or famine; I either worked zero hours a week or ninety (or so it seemed), most often being busiest in the summer and fall. So much dust piled atop my mountain bike.

In the excellent reality game show Strip Search, Penny Arcade’s Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik memorably (to me, at least) told a contestant that their graphic design day job shouldn’t have kept them from pursuing their comic book dreams at night. I have tremendous respect for Jerry and Mike and for the empire they’ve created, but I have to call bullshit on that. After spending all day writing strategy guides, the very last thing I wanted to do in the evening was do more writing.

And so writing fiction was put on hold.

Situations Changed

We never expected to return to our old jobs after our two years of travel were over. And even once we knew my wife would be doing just that, that wasn’t exactly the plan for me. I was going to finally take a chance on writing the novel I always dreamed of. And so I got to work on my first draft and assembled a tentative four-year plan, complete with milestones, that would hopefully result in my having at least two novels published by 2020. And if not, then I’d at least know I tried.

But I wanted the money.

I called my old publisher (who had since merged with their number one competitor) and before I knew it, I was writing the multiplayer section of the guide for this year’s DOOM — a two-week fire-drill that allowed me to compartmentalize the strategy guide gig then dive back into fiction before my characters forgot who I was. And the game was phenomenal, which certainly helped (I still play it nightly after dinner).

Other projects were offered… and accepted. One, an update/collection to three books I had written over the prior nine years. Another, the next installment in one of my favorite franchises. Seemingly perfect, they were anything but. Things had changed. The job was never easy and it always demanded flexibility on the part of everyone involved, but that’s a lot easier to swallow when you’re under contract and happy with your compensation.

In the two years I was away the industry shifted away from fully supporting these books; the merger reduced competition; the headaches doubled; and author pay was cut in half.

As the spring turned to summer and the frustrations mounted — not the least of which was over the fact that I hadn’t written any new scenes for my book since April — my wife finally asked me sometime in July what my reason for taking on more strategy guides was. I told her it was the money, citing the tremendous housing costs of the Seattle area.

She didn’t believe me. Not entirely.

“Are you sure you’re not just doing this because you’re scared of working on your novel?”

A First Step Into the Light

Barring any short-term projects of the fire-drill variety, I don’t see myself taking on any more strategy guides. I had a good run and wish everyone involved the best. It’s just no longer the right thing for me.

In Pressfield’s words, it contained no real risk. It provided me the feeling like I was a writer — and I was, technically — but not the type the little boy in me still dreams of becoming.

So I prioritized attending the conference over being the good little worker bee. And, for the first and last time, I managed to do both. It was uncomfortable.

That decision has already paid off. Last week I mentioned one of the highlights for me at PNWA was attending the panel on writing groups. I didn’t only share my critique group envy on this blog, but also to the six members in the panel. We chatted, we drank, we had a great time. I let them know they were everything I imagined the ideal writing group to be. They had formed out of a ten-week writing class, they were all serious about craft and writing professionally, and had each enjoyed a successful pitch session. They let me know they weren’t expanding. I jokingly asked to be placed on a waiting list.

Two days later, they invited me to audition. Sociably, I was a good fit. They had to make sure I could write.

So I picked out a lengthy scene I hadn’t even laid eyes on since first writing it in February and spent a full day revising it.

A week later, they invited me to join their group.

It’s a small step, but it’s a step out of the shadows all the same.

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