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Craft, Art, Discipline and Honor

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Most of you know me as a writer. I do screenplays mainly, and game design became a creative goal of mine in the late nineties.

I love this art form, and it has been a real journey down the side road of science for me to get my mind around how to turn what I envision on paper into a codebase, models and graphic animation.

Members like RedBeard, Gwihlidal, Oluseyi, and countless others have been invaluable time and time again steering me back on course between what was visionable and what could actually be technically implemented. I owe a great debt to them all.

Today, it's payback.

But what I am going to talk about here is within my own expertise, not necessarily related to game design per se, but just as critical as technical problems solving skills.

I'm talking about going the distance. I'm talking about not giving up when there's nobody but you around to do the job. I'm talking about getting through. I'm talking about what it takes from inside of you, something nobody else can give you, to make it -- to get to the other side of 'being produced.' It doesn't matter whether it is the film business or the game publishing business; the intrinsic internal character quality is what I am going to be talking to you, teaching you about.

To do that, the best and only advice I can offer is my own experience. The following is true. The names have been changed, except mine, to protect the innocent.

It was the great storm. The hundred-year storm in Santa Barbara, back in 1992, or 3, you do the fact check, I lived it, and it isn't exactly the most pleasant memory for me, so precision is not important to me in this instance.

I had my first little writing studio down in old Monolive, it was called, between Santa Barbara and rich Montecito where the movie stars lived. I had just help found The Actor's Workshop of Santa Barbara with two others, and became the business manager. I was writing my first mystery (the one that would later become the basis for my adventure game for which my nom de plume stands) which the infamous Barron Ron Herron was to produce as a radio drama that got almost no airplay but lots of enthusiastic support from talented actors and it was an interesting credit for the credits list.

This little studio was the perfect bohemian living situation, large, cheap, quiet, lots of electricity for lights and cameras, thick concrete walls for rehearsal, and, best of all, allowed me to not have to work much for money and spend lots and lots of time simply practicing talent skills that serve me well today. This is, if you have not surmised, a foreshadow, as we say in screenwriting, of the lesson for you all here today. Practice. A butt load of it, far beyond what the ordinary human considers sufficient. Practice or fade into obscurity or mediocrity later.

When the warnings of the storm came, we were all hardy and ignorant paradisans, as most Santa Barbarans are. We went on about our little paradisan ways, having coffee, going to the beach, doing the State Street Crawl. But the clouds kept gathering, and the thunder and lighting began.

Soon, official sort of things started working into the conversations around town at espresso stands and microbreweries. Words like "sandbag", "floods", "low-lying areas", "emergency provisions" -- things we Californians take for granted today were not such back then.

Then the rains began.

It rained hard from the start, and didn't let up. I knew, because of the location of my studio, down by the lower elevations, that getting some sandbags and visqueen around my stuff, as well as getting things up off the floor, was smart business, and went about it right away.

I was using the small delivery truck from a friend of mine's pizza parlor to deliver sand, sandbags and construction plastic to the building where my studio was when the old man who owned the foundation design and construction firm two doors down from me showed up. He looked at my truck, and it's contents, and said, "That's the right idea. Get started, I'll be right back to help."

About twenty minutes later, as I had most of the sand into bags, was arranging them at the door in an arrangement harmonious with the layering of visqueen so as to prevent any water from getting into the front door of the building, when the old man showed up in a large construction truck, with two and a half tons of sand, some hundreds of bags and two extra shovels.

The man, in his sixties but hardy and hale from years of hard construction work, even though he was an engineer to boot, jumped down out of the cab like a redneck ready for a good ole' time, looked at my work so far, which had depleted most of what was in the truck, and had built about a foot and a half high dam, and he simply said, "You're going to need a lot more than that. Take that truck of yours back and come back and we'll do this together." I finished off the truckload, took the vehicle back to the pizza parlor where I'd borrowed it from, and walked back in water about shin high in about twenty minutes.

We got to work. We both bagged and stacked, and the water rose about three inches every five minutes. We had about a four-foot high damn done in about an hour and a half. We worked like dogs, and the water rose as the rain kept coming.

Three hours later, we had between us two and a half tons of sand bagged, and placed around the four entrances of the building.

To say we were exhausted, every muscle sore and ragged was an understatement. Think working against time in a rising flood protecting our very livelyhoods, and you get the picture of the earnestness, gravity and hustle we put into the job.

When we were done, the water was waist high, and he told me, "well, nothing more we can do now. Better get out before you have to swim out. We'll come back after it's over and see what remains." We shook hands, I thanked him and he wished me luck and I walked out from Monolive in waist high water, looking back at my studio where the majority of my life's work lay on top of two stacked desks, with only my mother's letters and my two current manuscripts in my backpack. It was in mother nature's hands now.

I got to Milpas street and called a cab. Waiting in the shivering wetness inside the convenience store for my ride to the Hotel on State Street, I ate power bars and drank green tea to bring my body back from exhaustion.

After an hour and forty five minutes and three calls to the cab company to no avail, I saw a friend of mine pull in for gas in a large pickup, and asked him if he could take me to the hotel. He was glad to help, but the roads were so washed out, we had to journey all the way north to Hope Ranch to be able to make it onto upper state street to travel downtown to the hotel.

It took an hour or more, and I was really ready for a hot shower, and some good sleep well deserved.

I checked into the hotel I'd reserved, to find that there was no power and no hot water, and there had been none for awhile and for the foreseeable future. "No matter, the sheets are clean and there are extra blankets, just give me my keys," I muttered only thinking of washing off the bacteria and dirt, and getting some shut eye.

I took the key, was at my door and into my room, into the shower and out on the bed falling asleep like a stone when it happened.

This is where discipline comes into your life. For if you are really dedicated to your art & craft, and your dedication decides to reward you with some inspiration somewhere, sometime, be prepared for it to come in the least expected places at the least expected times, just so your art is sure you are on board one hundred percent, and are willing to serve to earn the sweet, sweet rewards that your talents are prepared to give you should you do your duty to it. As you shall see..

For as I fell asleep, confident I had done everything I could for my life's belongings, not really sure when I would be able to get back to a normal life again, not really sure how bad the flood was going to get, and if life would ever be the same again in sleepy little Santa Barbara - it was then that my talents decided was the appropriate time for me to become inspired, and a whole, new, complete screenplay concept, with structure, detail, features and motif downloaded itself right into my consciousness from my subconscious. Right when that lovely last little sigh that says, "Oh man, am I going to really, really dig this sleep tonight" had come from my mouth.

Well, those of you who know that if you let a good idea pass, and you get into the habit of not writing it down, well, sooner or later, you are going to program yourself that way, and, that IGDA award winning concept, or that academy award winning screenplay, or pulitzer prize winning novel, take your pick, will relegate itself to the "I wish I'd written that down" pile of regrets we have later on in life when we are in a dead end job in a mediocre company with a boring, boring life, and pissed off at ourselves in some mid life crisis or something. You see it happening all the time, so don't consider yourself immune.

You may not think you will end up that way, however, we *know* if we are to develop bad creativity habits, undisciplined creativity habits, lazy unproductive and inconsistently applied creativity habits, surely that will happen to you as it has happened to most of the planet.

I swore I would never lead that life, having only had to taste that kind of disappointment once to know I never wanted that to happen again, and well, my talent was checking in with me right then and there, at the worst possible time in all practical senses, to see if I was going to honor my commitment to my art and craft.

Man, did I bitch and moan. I was pissed off at myself. I said to myself, "Self! How the heck can you do this to me now!? How can you, after all the work I have done, simply up and pop into my head this great idea that I know has to be paid attention to now! How can you be so cruel? Is this some sort of sick test? What kind of asshole am I to me?"

My self instantly replied, "You know if you keep wasting time bitching and moaning like some newbie who can't cut the mustard when the tough get going, this great idea is going to simply disappear, and you know how this process works, this idea is going to disappear in five, four, three, two..."

I was right. I knew how the creative process worked. It doesn't screw around or put up with any crap of any kind. In fact, bullshit is the ricin of creativity. I knew it. Now you do. Now you know why there are so many unpublished writers and unproduced games. You have to summon something within yourself to see it through no matter what. I repeat, no matter what.

I quickly stopped growling, and dragged myself from falling slumber, reached for my legal pad and pen, and began to write with calloused and torn hands.

I wrote for two hours. It was a pain in the rear, but, two hours later, I had a first draft of a short screenplay that was a thing of beauty. I tossed the pad on the floor, and fell back on my pillow congratulating myself on a process well served, and promising myself to start the rewrite judiciously and professionally right after I woke up.

Hah. Not so fast. Just as I was falling back to sleep in a cloud of self congratulation, my talent decided to dump the entire second draft, with necessary changes and enhancements right into my brain about oh, five seconds later.

Great. Well, no sense in grumbling about it now. I dragged myself back to consciousness, turned on the lights, reached for another legal pad, grabbed the first draft off the floor, and went back to work.

About two and a half hours later, the second draft was done, and it was really looking much better, as the interative process inevitably can do. It was now four in the morning, and the lightning and thunder that I had been oblivious too for most of the night was in my ears again.

I fell back on my pillow and said to myself, "Really son, you just can't do another, so I hope it doesn't come to you, because you are really to tired, and you are going to have to let one go if it does."

It didn't, and I fell deeply asleep instantly.

It felt like I had slept for hours, but only three had passed, and I woke strangely well rested. The rain had stopped, and I decided I would get up and go down five floors to see what was left of little Santa Barbara.

I grabbed the manuscripts, packed them into my backpack, and put on some clean clothes I had packed along, and went downstairs in search of a hot cup of coffee.

There was nothing for a few blocks in any direction, so I headed for the beach in the paradisan manner, and lo and behold, the Santa Barabara Roasting Company was open, had power, and the smell of fresh coffee, as you may imagine, never smelled so good. I grabbed a cup and sat down at my favorite writing table, and as I began to sip it, the strange evening of creativity slowly came back into my mind and I began to relive the wild night.

All of a sudden, draft number three appeared in my head. This time, fortified by the good coffee and the promise of no more rain, I went judiciously to work again, and, about a cup and a half later, draft three stood shining in the morning gray like the new sun, and I was all about my self with my new story, proud like a new father, happy with the confidence of a veteran who had survived another battle seemingly against all odds.

I sat there, finishing up my second cup of coffee, realizing nobody would probably believe me if I told them what kind of night it had been, and, most everyone around had had a wild night of their own coping with the storm and floods, and well, probably weren't in the mood just then for a tale of artistic triumph, which, you will find in your careers, is not always an easy thing to tell or easy to hear upon the ears of the creatively undermanifest.

At best you will get jealousy, which is something you should prepare for from all those people you will meet on the road of life who gave up on their dreams for the sake of something stable and secure. At worst, and most often, you will get contempt or hate. That is part of the price you pay for following your dreams. Somebody else put it better than I when they said, "The degree of innovation of an idea is reciprocal to the resistance it meets." Or something like that. You get my drift.

So there I was, with one of the most amazing creative stories I would ever have to share, and, nobody to tell it to. Can you say writer's hell? It felt like that, almost, except it wasn't, and it wasn't for one reason. I'd accomplished it.

Then, of all people in the world to appear before me, Ross MacKenzie, the Brooks Institute of Photography student I had written my first screenplay for stood before me with his girlfriend (whom I'd always thought was just as creative as Ross, but had better people skills).

"Ross, my god, how nice to see you," I said, adding, "I thought you were down in LA now?"

"We were," he replied, "but we heard about the floods, and came up to see how people were doing." "My god, how great to see you Ross, especially now, because you won't believe the night I had," I said. "Let me get a cup of coffee, and you can tell me all about it," he replied.

They went to get a cup of coffee, and I, in the true grand storytelling style, gave them a big buildup, with all the details, just like I have here with you, and then got around to the story writing process, and they laughed and laughed and laughed. It was great to share it.

Being a budding film director, Ross had the presence of mind to then ask, "So, what kind of story did you write on this stormy, stormy night?"

I told him the entire story, right off the paper, and they both listened intently for over half an hour. I knew from experience that as long as they are not talking, and just listening, you've got something written worth paying attention to.

I got done, and they just stared at me in amazement, which people seem to do with me a lot. Ross's girlfriend then asked me, "Is the script exactly just like you told us now?" "Yep," I replied. "Can I see it?", she asked. "Sure," I said, as I handed her the sheaf of hand written paper.

She looked through it carefully, then put it back together, sat quietly for a moment, then looked at Ross and said, "Ross, if you don't make this, I will."

She was the kind of woman filmmaker who did not say such things for the sake of bravado or ego, which is something that departs the consciousness of all serious artists eventually. Naturally, as a screenwriter, my heart lept, but I kept my poker face on. Ross, a seasoned but still minor league director then, kept his poker face on, took the manuscript from her, leafed through it, and then said, "We'll talk about it."

He handed it back to me, and I wisely said nothing.

The whole moral of the story here is that, I finally started making money for my writing not long after that. Ross's girlfriend never made the film, but it was more of Ross putting the brakes on her more than her desire to do what she said she was going to do. I got there because I stuck to my craft and art with honor and discipline when everything in my life was all up in the air at the time.

With a little luck, you may never have to create works or art in trying circumstances as I have, but, if you do, take it from me, sticking to the process like a pro, and having confidence in your talents and skillsets when nothing else in life seems to be making sense or looking like it has a predictable or positive outcome and getting the job done when there seems to nothing else but that to do will result in things like being where I am today with my writing.

I can tell you all with confidence that with as little ego and hubris as one can possibly muster when making career predictions of the creative type that in the next five years, I plan to be one of the best writers in America. And god willing, a decent game writer/designer.

I know this in my heart and in my guts because I have stuck to my guns in every single trying circumstance life has thrown at me with respect to things trying to get in the way of my creative career.

I have turned down many lucrative job offers to stay the course of my own vision of writing, and someday, you too will have to risk it all on your talent, and when you do, should that day come for you, and lucky may you be that is does, though I guarantee it will not feel that way at the time, remember what I have shared here with you today.

And that is, when walking the road less traveled, reaching for your star, your way, you can guarantee that most of the time you will be absolutely alone on the path, and you will often not be sure of anything about where you are going except for the fact that you must keep to your craft with discipline and all the talent you can muster.

Brother, that will get you there and get you through when the vast majority of others will have given up and gone home. I don't advise that path, because not knowing you could have done it if you'd have stuck it out it is a terrible memory I would rather not live with.

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After reading that, I'm actually lost for words. Your story with the advice and inspiration that can be gleaned from it are sure to echo back to me in my moments of question.

Thank you for sharing that.

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My God... wow! That was an incredibly exhilerating read. You've inspired me to start carrying around a pad of some sort with me now, because I get the ideas that come and you think are incredible but let them slip... That was a fascinating story and really has made me lost for words. I wonder what the story you wrote was like....

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How very appropriate that I would read this great piece of advice just today.
Only last night the same kind of experience happened to me, but unlike you, I turned my own ideas down because I needed the sleep. And it wasn't just one idea, oh no, but three in a row. "Don't want this one? Well, here is another one, why don't you try it for size?" my mind seemed to be telling me. And like the disillusioned artist I am, I let them go and tried to sleep... thinking about all the work I would have to do today [rolleyes]

well, thank you for this generous and, more importantly to me, inspirational piece of writing (and it's very nicely written, too!)
I have been carrying my notepad and trusty pencil for some time now, but most of my best ideas seem to haunt me at night.
Next time I'll know what to do [grin]

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