This was my first time playing D&D in at least 25 years. As a child, I played for a very specific reason: I loved to tell stories, but because of my severe dyslexia I couldn’t do it very well on the page. Every time I sat down to write, my thoughts would overwhelm my pen, and when I was done scribbling my story out, huge sections would be missing.
I’ve written before about the importance of D&D to my writing and reading life, although I wasn’t dyslexic. Also, when I first started playing, I wasn’t necessarily interested in storytelling; I was interested in the wargaming aspects of the game. I also was interested in the nature of escape into a different world.
Later on, as I read more fantasy lit, I began to enjoy the storytelling aspects of the game. The plots of my games became more elaborate, the characters more than numbers on a sheet of paper.
Playing the game also led to my first attempts at publication, when I entered a game module writing contest in Dragon magazine.
Years ago — never mind how many — I thought of essays in terms of research papers, of literary scholarship, of arguments with a thesis and evidence, of citations in MLA form, of Works Cited pages. Of all the drudgery of scouring scholarly journals for scholarly papers that supported your position, and of shaping your own formal paper to be presented to a prof who would read it, evaluate its merits or lack thereof, and grade the essay on those merits. By the time I left graduate school, master’s degree in hand, I was sick of essays, sick of reading nonfiction about fiction, sick of writing nonfiction about fiction in essays that likely would never see publication in any form, except maybe in a scholarly journal, although even that was highly unlikely, given that you just had your master’s degree and competing journal submissions came from Phd. candidates or already practicing profs with long lists of publications or even people with master’s degrees who were way smarter than you. I was sick of scholarship and ready to write fiction.
At the Art Students League in New York one of her fellow students advised her that, since he would be a great painter and she would end up teaching painting in a girls’ school, any work of hers was less important than modeling for him.
So goes a brief passage of Joan Didion’s brief bio-critical essay “Georgia O’Keeffe” from The White Album (nothing to do with The Beatles, except the era), which I have been reading slowly, chewing and savoring each essay by a master of the craft. Georgia O’Keeffe fought her trolls, like the fellow student, male, dismissing her and her work ( “Style is character,” Didion writes) before O’Keeffe ever opened the narrow snake eyes of the art world to her paintings.
Trolls, however, lurk in both sexes, in all arts — painting, music, writing. All slobbering, ready to eat anyone who tries to cross the same bridge they’re living under. When I moved to Austin, briefly, in 1995, I lived with a troll under the bridge, Frances, who dismissed my writing, as if all I might ever produce would be samples to teach writing, if that. She, on the other hand, would be the great artist, the one who aggressively dismissed me and my writing as naive. She would achieve, publish novels, become wealthy, where I would not.
Dorothea Brande, in her classic Becoming a Writer (1934), warns of trolls, and advises writers to surround themselves with people “who, for some mysterious reason, leave you full of energy, feed you with ideas, or more obscurely still, have the effect of filling you with self confidence and eagerness to write.”
Trolls still lurk under my bridge — most recently a former boss, but sometimes Frances, and sometimes an old former editor at the paper. It can be hard for writers or artists to dismiss the undermining voices and go on to achieve what artists like O’Keeffe achieved. It’s part of our nature, I believe, to remain open to the underminers. Perhaps we feel the thing we love to do most is somehow unacceptable to the outside world, and therefore sinful, and we shoulder the sin, the temptation to keep writing or painting or composing, bearing it as a guilty pleasure, something we secretly desire to be absolved of.
And yet the believers exist out there: They share the sweet-tooth cravings, the indulgence in dolce peccante. They “fill you with self confidence and eagerness to write.” They are people like my wife, and my former colleague Clay Coppedge. Listen to such people. Cross the bridge, but keep from eating so much you get too fat to walk. Savor just enough of their influence to keep the words flowing.
Georgia O’Keeffe had her sister Claudia to inspire her when she lived in Texas. On their walks O’Keeffe would watch the evening star come out. She got ten watercolors out of the star. She savored enough and then produced art.
Sometimes writers need Hallmark cards, opening up to refreshing pools of words that keep you writing. My wife dips me daily in these pools. Friends and colleagues sometimes pass a tin cup with a sip. Occasionally an editor sprinkles a few words to keep you writing. Recently, Arthur Plotnik did. (A big, toothy-grinned smiley should go here to thank him again for the interview, but this is a serious literary blog, so no such things as smileys here, right. )
The first editor to encourage me, and say good things about my writing, specifically my fiction, was Tom Jenks. Though the brief note of encouragement Jenks left on a manuscript I submitted to him is probably lost to the various moves I’ve made in the past 10 years, the spirit of that note stays brainprinted in the white-hot center of my mind.
My spam box, however, sometimes short circuits that imprint when it captures e-mail updates of Jenks’s Narrative Magazine.
The latest update, though, was inboxed today, and I hope you’ll follow the link above and take a look at it. It’s sort of a reader’s Hallmark, opening up rivers of literary talent for readers. Rarely, if ever, does a discouraging word fall.
Specifically, I’m looking forward to reading Tom Grimes’s essay “The Leash” and gandering at the feature “Works in Progress” with sneak peeks at pieces from Robert Olen Butler, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Jane Smiley and Jim Harrison, among others.