“Do you think he could have ever reached the potential he believed himself capable of?”
A long time ago, something bad happened to me, and now I don't like crowds, especially when I'm asking an award-winning film producer and director about the movie—the one she co-produced—that we've just screened in class. But I ask anyways, because I have to know the answer; this feels stronger than curiosity, more like a matter of life and death. I need to know the answer. And I need it to be a hopeful one. I need her to tell me yes.
I have just seen American Movie.
When I was younger, somewhere between seventeen and nineteen, I had these amazing story ideas that I was going to share with the world. I had somehow wound up as a comic reviewer, which made things all the more cooler. So I chatted with people, tried to figure out how to write scripts, and I knew, I knew, that I could do this. I had something amazing and beautiful in my head that people would love, that people would read once and never forget. I had a masterpiece.
And, y'know, I've never written that masterpiece. I was a seventeen year-old kid with delusions of grandeur. The idea was cool—still is—but the execution was lacking, and I had no idea, no real focus. And the bad thing, my illness, had begun to manifest, and I didn't even know it. I wouldn't fully understand what was happening for a very long time.
But this... became a pattern.
I'm not a dumb person; I'm allegedly 'gifted.' But, hey, so was Mark Borchardt, the subject of American Movie. Like Mark, I have lots of great ideas about things I want to do. Like Mark, I have a habit of thinking that what I'm saying is profound or brilliant, even when it probably isn't. And, like Mark, I have a really, really hard time following through with things.
If you haven't watched American Movie, go watch it. It's a brilliant documentary about some extraordinary people. When I watched it, I laughed at the movie's subjects, particularly Mark, for a while, but the more I watched, the more I began to realize that I had a lot more in common with Mark than I wanted to admit. Here's this guy, totally down on his luck, in part because of his own mistakes, and in part because of the decisions others have made, and all he wants, desperately, is to make this movie, Northwestern. But he can't. He has an idea of what he's doing, but his ideas, all this beautiful stuff in his head, but, for various reasons, not the least of which is a confusing mix of pretension and ambition, he seems incapable of making his dream a reality.
My illness assured I'd never fly professionally, so I'd have to seek out other career options. Having discovered video games during my worst times, using them as a therapy, an escape from a body that was shutting itself down, I thought I'd try my hand at that, and fortunately, the local community college had a program. But it wasn't that great; most of the students were either kids who were too poor to go elsewhere, adults who were returning, or kids who'd had to drop out of better, more expensive schools because of bad grades. As someone who'd dropped out of a good school because of illness and spent years recovering, I fit right in. And I tried—for the longest time, I tried—to partner up with my fellow students and make something, but semester after semester we failed, in part because our original plans were too big, in part because most of us had no idea what we were doing. I helped the program a lot—writing up documentation for the use of tools and stuff, but when it came down to it, the only project I managed to lead was a thirty-second animated short about a snowman. The shot and sequence I animated was... broken.
Eventually, Borchardt had to pull back from Northwestern.He'd shot footage for it once, in 1990, but the movie didn't turn out that well. He brought the scope down a bit; instead of a feature film, he'd revisit a short he'd begun work on Coven, which should have taken a few months to complete. In the end, Coven took roughly two years to complete—American Movie took four.
I tried to scale things down. “What if we did a project where we don't need facial animation? What if we did a project where animation was barely necessary at all—we just fly space ships, rather than animate people?” Nothing stuck. People loved my ideas; they'd come up to me at work, after class, telling me all these ideas for the games were were talking about making.
Nobody likes an idea man.
One of the reasons I've never tried too hard to make a comic is because I learned something, back when I was trying to figure out how to partner up with an artist: never trust someone claiming to be a writer. Artists, you see, can demand to be paid up front. Writers can't. The general sentiment seemed to be that writers weren't worth as much as artists, because everyone can write. It's a huge misconception, but it's rooted in reality: most people think they can tell a good story. With art, it's easy to tell when someone is good or bad. Same goes for music. Look at a picture, listen to a song, and you can tell whether the idea is worthwhile within a matter of seconds. The advice artists gave to other artists was “never work for free; writers will try to take advantage of you and make you do all the work.” Writers got no respect, because too many people with no skills claimed they were writers.
Things are a lot murkier when it comes to storytelling. It's easy to think you're the best writer in the known universe when the truth is that you're awful. Plus, the basic act of writing is super easy; I can crank out a five-page screenplay in a matter of minutes. It takes more time to draw a picture.
The same is true for video games: forums are full of people who spout all sorts of ideas, many of which aren't any good. I've seen—heck, I've probably done this myself—ridiculous ideas demanded of developers, or people haphazardly attempting to build mod or indie teams that never go anywhere. Cool ideas that never make it, because the only people who work on them are idea men.
It's why there isn't much respect for someone who labels themselves as a designer or a writer, but has never shipped a game. When I've talked about making a game, I've had plenty of people offer their services as a writer or designer. Modelers, mappers, animators, programmers, and all the rest* seem to have no respect whatsoever for me, and I get that.
It kinda scares me.
Here I am, guy who's failed to become a commercial pilot because of situations beyond his control, guy who's failed to learn enough to make his own game, again because of situations beyond his control, and guy who's now going into film. This is my third attempt at college. I've never written that comic—I've never found an artist because artists, as I've said before, don't seem to want to work for free. Everyone who told me I should get into comics also told me I should find an artist for free, but as far as I can tell, no artist worth collaborating with is willing to work with someone unproven. I've never made that game—things happened, people in my life died or got married, I moved to another school, I haven't met up with the right people to collaborate with...
...and I might not be good enough.
I have all these ideas, but I don't know if I can execute them. Sure, I can tell you things about games you may never have thought about before. And yeah, I'm followed by and have been friended by professionals in the industry, people I profoundly respect. Maybe what I have to say is worth saying. But still... I'm not making any games.
And yes, absolutely, I can excuse it away: I still struggle with my illness on a daily basis; if I could afford to get the physical therapy I need, maybe things would be better. If I didn't have to stress out all the time about an income, maybe I'd have more time to do things. If I didn't have a job with scheduling that wastes a lot of time in my day without paying me, things would better. If... if... if...
The stark truth may be that I'm just an idea man. Maybe the reason I can't get a job writing about games is because, for some reason, I'm not good enough. Sure, I look at plenty of gaming journalists with complete bafflement, and feel that I could do better... but then again, Mark Borchardt seemed to think the nonsense he was spouting was profound. And what if I'm him? What if I'm the kid I was all those years ago? What if the fact that I'm taking every opportunity I can, every free moment, to pump out ten and twenty thousand words a week... what if all that is meaningless? What if I've got nothing but delusions of grandeur, and no skills to back that up?
What if I have no worth?
I turned twenty-five on Monday. For many people, that's still pretty young. For me, my health issues mean my life might be half over, if not more. Everything I have tried, I have failed, though I've explained that away as health issues, as a lack of money or time. And these things are all true... but what if I'm the problem too?
What if I can never reach the potential I believe myself to be?
Even now, as I sit here, something deep inside of me is screaming back at the doubt that's plagued my mind for the past several years. It's telling me I'm still capable. That I need a chance, or that I need to do something. That little something is why I've been writing thousands of words every week, trying to put as much thought and care into them as I can, despite only being able to write in small spurts at a time.
When I first watched American Movie, I thought Mark was an idea man, incapable of realizing his vision. I thought he and I were the same person, and I thought that person was someone to be mocked, someone whose life hadn't been worth living. Who could die tomorrow and not be missed.
And that's my greatest fear. Not mattering. There's this really old story about a king named Gilgamesh, who witnessed the death of his best friend. Fearing death, he did everything he could to prevent it, but every time, he failed. He realized he was going to die, but he took solace in the fact that he would be remembered. In this he found immortality.
I am not afraid to die, but I'm absolutely fucking terrified of never having mattered.
So, there I was, sitting there, imploring this woman to tell me that everything would be okay, that Mark seemed like a failure because
I needed her to say yes.
She said “No.”
I wanted to break down, sobbing, right then and there, but then she continued. “I think he transcended that. I mean, how many people get to show up in a movie with Jet Li, or on Family Guy? He's living the life he wanted to live. He's had so many opportunities to do even more, and he's turned them down, because he's doing what he wants to do.”
What amazed me was the respect she had for him. When I saw the documentary, I saw an idea guy, someone who could never realize the things he wanted to realize. When she explained making the movie, I realized how wrong I'd been: yes, he was weird. Yes, he had failed miserably. Yes, he was pretentious. But in the end, he got what he wanted. He is where he wants to be.
She said the reason she felt he'd never finished Northwestern was because his life is making Northwestern. He can't finish it because finishing it would be like finishing his life; he's not incapable, not incompetent. He's an idea guy who managed to get Coven into theatres, who managed to be the subject of a fantastic documentary.
Ideas are cheap. I can crank out a dozen ideas nobody's ever had during a shower. That's not special. Being able to forge something out of it is. And maybe that doesn't come in the way that I expect. Maybe doing what I'm doing, even though it seems as though there's no end in sight, is really the only thing to do. It's not as if I have many options, after all.
So... I'm going to keep doing this.
I'm going to keep writing words by the thousands in the nooks and crannies of my schedule. They're single-drafted, imperfect creatures, the lot of them, but that's the way things are going to be until I can afford to do otherwise.
Eventually, I'm going to find a better job, or win the lottery, or somehow end up with a good schedule. Maybe I can scrape some money together to pay someone to collaborate with me on a comic. Maybe the success I've found in my creative writing and screenwriting courses can take me somewhere I never suspected. And maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to find the time to make the games I want to make, to write about games exactly the way I want to write about them.
And maybe it all works out so that nobody forgets me.
Whatever the case, I'm going to make sure I'm never content to simply be an idea man. If you find yourself tempted to come up with a bunch of ideas and never do anything about it other than tell people what to do, let me tell you right now: you'll never get anywhere. If you want to change the world, you're going to have to put some work into it. You may end up getting something you never even dreamed you wanted, but it might end up being exactly what you want.
So here's to the idea men: your potential's found in what you create, not what you dream about.
Yeah, yeah, I know. This ain't the Skyrim/New Vegas piece you requested and I promised. I've been dealing with this anxiety for a while now, and I needed this catharsis—needed to vent the steam in my head. I hope that's cool. You know where you can find me. I'm on Tumblr and Twitter.
*Except musicians. Musicians have always been super friendly and eager to work on stuff. I do not know why this is, but it is pretty cool.