Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Very Special Episode: Freelancing is for Suckers

Am I doing this right?

Goddamn, it's been forever since I've updated here at the Gamewerks. It's not like I have a good excuse, 'cause I don't really. I mean, I've been busy with being Nervous McNewdad, my family came on up to visit, I started finishing my basement, and I'm still writing about Space Marines. Also, I need to get this writing sample done for Pinnacle and I should probably, you know, get my games ready for Origins. What I have been doing is doing entirely too much moping about and not enough writing. Remember how I said I was gonna write a novel this year? Yeeaaaaah... It's June already and I don't have word one written. Awesome. So, I'm going to start the week with something a little different. Yet again, it's a very special episode of MCGW.
Now, when I started this project I swore that I wasn't going to make it into some mewling, navel-gazing, emo-LiveJournal tour de force wherein I talked about my feelings and cried about how hard my life is. While I'm not exactly going to do that here, I do want to just talk about some things that are on my mind.

You know what? Sometimes I just wonder what the hell I'm doing with my life. I'm 34 years old, and I feel like I've been pissing my life away since I was twenty. All these years I've been wandering around, trying to find something I'm good at. I spent a shitload of money to go to culinary school to find out that I don't want to chef for a living and can't stand working in restaurants. I spent seven years pounding my head against a wall as a commercial and editorial photographer, scrambling for smaller and smaller pieces of an ever decreasing pie in an industry that was already dying when I got into it. I didn't want to quit, though. I wanted to prove I could do it, I was afraid to be labelled a quitter. Something I learned pretty early on was, "If the going gets tough, quit and go do something else. Oh, and make sure you blame someone else for your failure." Good one, eh? So I kept throwing myself into photography, forcing myself to pick up my camera, and feeling dead inside. I didn't want to quit and do something else, even though it was painfully obvious to everyone else that I was spinning my wheels. Know what my major problem was? I was never a good photographer. Oh, I could take a good picture, but I didn't have the personality or the will to be a big-time shooter. I wasn't in love with the art, and it showed. I spent all that time trying to fit a round peg into a square hole in some kind of bloody-minded show of, I don't know, stubborn desperation. I may not have been very good, and I may have hated it, but I was not going to be a quitter.

All this time, I was doing something in my spare time that I was good at. I was writing. Mostly game related stuff, specifically stuff for Palladium. I had a bunch of ideas, I was good at it, was collaborating with other writers, and it felt good. I couldn't make the jump, though. It's like I've got this thing where I have to do shit the hard way, where I ignore what I'm good at so I can suffer through something I'm not good at/don't like so that, I don't know, prove something maybe. Anyway, after a few years of therapy and struggling to get my shit together, I finally jumped. I packed up my camera, told all my photo colleagues I was out of the business, and threw myself into words. 

I was off and running with Robotech. I mean, hell, writing primary continuity for a cartoon I watched religiously as a kid and influenced a lot of my creativity? Sign me up. So I wrote Robotech. And I wrote and I wrote and I wrote and I realized, you know what, I'm good at this. I was a staff writer and a lead developer for Robotech for almost three years. I'd finally found it, I was a writer. I could do it, I could write whole books. I could conjure awesome from thin air (and I don't care what the Robotech nerds say, powered suits in Southern Cross are awesome), and all I wanted to do was write. I collected a bunch of writing books, started to develop my voice, and decided that what I wanted, more than anything else, was to write for a living. Didn't matter if it was game stuff, although that's what I really wanted, but I wanted to make a career with words. The more I learned about the trad-games industry in particular and in the writing business in general, the more restless and stressed out I became in my job.

Now, the peculiarities of Kevin Siembieda's personality and business practices are well known around the business, and I'm not interested in airing dirty laundry, but it quickly became obvious that staying with Palladium was going to get me nowhere. How was I going to get into the industry at large and grow my career working for a company that was proud of the fact that it was "outside" of the industry and was blaming its loss of revenue and market share on everything except decisions made within the company? It smacked of, "everyone's fault but mine," and I knew that that way was madness. I chafed, and drank perhaps more than was called for, and decided that something needed done.

So I started looking around, putting a resume and some writing samples together, testing the waters by asking friends I'd made in the industry. It was ugly out there. Writers are a dime a dozen, especially in the trad-games industry where every gamer who's ever run a game thinks he's a genius writer just waiting to be discovered. Sales were down all over the industry, the economy was in the shitter, and everyone was scared. I figured I'd bide my time, make some contacts, and keep honing my craft. Then, bang, got a call on a Monday morning in September telling me I was out of a job. Now, I don't care what anyone says, a lay-off is a lay-off. "Temporary" or not, I was now unemployed. I'm not gonna lie, I was pissed. I'd lost a job, I'd lost Robotech, and honestly, I felt like I'd lost my entire raison d'etre. Even though I'd been quit in my heart for months, and I was already setting the foundation for a change, I was still crushed. Standing there in my hallway, staring at my phone in disbelief, I decided that I couldn't bank on some vague promise of being rehired "when sales pick up, maybe." I didn't have any faith that that day would come, so I jumped. Again. 

Now it's eight months later. I've got a baby, I'm doing work, good work for Fantasy Flight, and things are generally good save for a mountain of debt and a general unease about the future. You know what, though? It's not easy. Not the writing, although that's braining and braining is hard work Gentle Readers, what's hard is the rest of the life. Freelancing, no matter how you dress it up, is being essentially professionally unemployed. Days when I'm hot, when I'm pounding out five-thousand words a day, I feel bullet-proof. Then I lay awake in bed worrying. I worry that I'm not good enough. I worry that I'm not working hard enough. I worry that I'll let down my wife, my daughter, myself. I worry about how to pay down debt and put a little aside for emergencies. The work I do with FFG is not only challenging and fulfilling, but it's good for my emotional state, too. My therapist certainly helps as well, very much so. I don't know what I'd do without her. 

Thing is, it's not enough. I need more. More work, more exposure, more money, more confidence, more of everything. What I need less of is fear. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of rejection, fear of living my life. So I write, and I write and I write and I write and I send out resumes and I make follow-up calls and send shitloads of emails and swing between feeling awesome and wanting to throw myself off a bridge. I really don't want to come off like a crybaby, or an entitled little shit, but sometimes I wish I could catch a break. You know? Sometimes I wonder if any of this has been the right decision. I'm a good writer, but is it enough? Should I just forget trad-games and focus on other fiction or non-fiction work? Should I just say fuck it and get a job at Home Depot? Some days the answers to those questions are easier to answer than others, and this is one of those days where the answers are hazy at best.


Citizen Lazlo said...

Brother you are more of an inspiration to me than you know, wish we had been able to get together and shoot the shit when I was in Michigan.

Bret said...

Well said, Jason. I don't know you but, after reading this, I'd hire you to write for us if only you were interested in Pathfinder.

In any case, that feeling of finding where you belong is priceless. I was also drifting but once the d20 movement began and I found myself as an established freelancer I knew I had finally come home. Stick to your guns and the universe will provide.

A.L. said...

As someone who is hoping to some day, some how make a contribution to the industry this is a very interesting post. I don't think it comes across as whiney, more just telling people how it is from your own personal experience.

For what it is worth, I don't think there is one person who has chased a dream that hasn't felt like you do. So, heres to hoping you can stick to your guns and pull through. Not to get religious, but things have a way of working themselves out. Just stick with it, and I'm sure you'll be fine.

Oh, and about that novel. Why not just let it rest for a bit. You can always try and get yourself going with it in November during NaNoWriMo. It's a simple thing that works wonders at keeping you focused on the task at hand.

Jason Marker said...

Hey Bret, I'd write for Pathfinder in a heartbeat if you're hiring. I like what you all have done there, and it would give me a good excuse to dust off my d20 skills. Drop me a line if you have the chance at my gmail account.

The Last Rogue said...

I concur. 29-year-old 'writer' (in Michigan, myself) who is struggling with the craft and the life it entails. It is a bloody mashochistic pursuit . . . but I love it.

The best/worst part of writing is all the other hats I have to wear to make rent: adjunct faculty, editor, theatre manager, sports reporter, and what ever happens next.

Jason Marker said...

Where are you in MI Rogue? I myself have considered the Adjunct Faculty route here at OCC/MCC/WCC, but I'd have to actually get a degree first.

The Last Rogue said...

I live in Midland now. I just finished a year teaching thing at CMU. Currently putting my hat in the ring at, oh, ever community college in Michigan, along with technical writing gigs, and anything else I can find. Not opposed to moving, but I love Michigan.

Anonymous said...

I love reading all your writings, it makes me feel like I'm not so alone in my own thoughts at times.

This crazy mixed up dad trying to do his best yet ultimately feeling like you're not doing the right thing, like all your mojo is gone or you always manage to point yourself in the wrong direction. <- I get that

You're definitely the kind of guy I'd love to have a few beers with, just keep on what you're doing man because you're good at it.

Conanb said...

Let me just say that I'm a huge fan of Fantasy Flight Games. I also was very impressed with Rogue Trader. Keep up the good work is all I have to say. If you keep putting out products like this hopefully others will take notice and keep buying. I'll keep talking up the products as best I can.

Zorak said...

You know you've got it bad when trying to break into other parts of writing feel like you're giving up on the dream and getting serious. I mean, huge numbers of people think that writing fiction for a living is the dream, and they can't get by. Some of them get published and they still can't get by. Joel Rosenberg wrote some pretty good fantasy stuff, never got out of the midlist, and eventually (seems to have) transitioned out of writing into being a professional firearms safety instructor. When you can make better money teaching gun nuts not to kill themselves in Minnesota than you can as a published author, you know the industry has put the welcome mat in the trash bin.

If you want to choose steady income over the dream, you know I've got your back either way. I get the drive to support the family. But if you're going to focus on creative pursuits and accept the risks thereof, it's madness to do any sort of work that doesn't fill your heart with joy at the same time.

Anonymous said...

Brother, I know your pain well. The only difference is that I have the full-time job plus the baby and I never get the chance to write and the ideas claw at my inside like a baby Alien trying to burst out.

Be glad you found your thing. Few have. Most people shuffle zombielike through a life of flipping burgers or stacking crates at Depot wondering what the hell life is worth. You found it: you have passion, you have a vision of who you are, and you have a family. You are blessed, and I mean that truthfully, not in some Hallmark cliche bullshit motivational poster way.

Keep the faith, brother, 'cause there's a thousand of us that live in jealousy that you have your thing boxed and ready. You're a fucking inspiration, Jason!

You'll get by, and it'll suck at times, but you'll make it.

- Jack...

Freelancers and Wholesalers Auctions said...

Excellent post.Lot of people are wasting time without know about themselves.

Levi said...

I can understand your frustration Jason. And, as a close friend who has watched you go through most of these transitions, you have handled it well. You're a good family man, father, friend, writer, photographer, and friend. But I can understand the struggles and the frustration of those transitions.

Financially freelancing must be terrifying. I couldn't do it. That's why I am still in my IT job even though I don't love it. It pays the bills well and I get a great sense of security out of that. I often wonder though if it is worth the sacrifice though. I've given up on a couple dreams myself. When I was younger I wanted to be a pilot. Then I wanted to run a game store. And like you, a few years ago I started freelancing on the side. For a number of reasons that hasn't gone very far and I'm still in IT.

Don't get me wrong I have a good job and a great life. But I haven't found the balance of doing what I love and providing for my family. Although times are tough now, I think you're much closer to finding that balance than I ever will be.