Thursday, April 7, 2011

Words From An Older Man

In September of 1991, I filed into a classroom at university to start a creative writing course.  The course required that all applicants submit a portfolio of material, to prove their worth.  Other than being a student of the university, there were no other course requirements.  I would learn later that more than a hundred students tried to enter.  There were 19 of us that were accepted.

The 'prof' entered, a flamboyant woman whose teaching credentials were that she had won a prestigious national writing award for a post-colonial novel about pigs.  I would get to know her very, very well over the next year.  She had no understanding whatsoever of science.  Her comprehension of history was completed with her last year of high school, and not very well remembered at that.  Her sense of politics revolved entirely around litany associated with government support of the arts.  She was quite clear about what sort of fiction she did not read, namely science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, horror, romance, epics, mystery and anything written by anybody prior to 1950.  In the space of a year I did not hear her recommend anything that either did not win an award, or was not written by someone she personally knew.

That first class, we were told that we would be writing five short stories during the course of the year, one every five weeks, which would be critiqued by the remainder of the class.  There were rules.  None of the stories could contain a weapon of any kind.  No one could die in any of the stories.  No one would be allowed to fight.

And then we were informed by this marvellous, flamboyant paragon of knowledge that nothing -repeat nothing - was original.  So we should all stop pretending that there was any possibility that we would write anything that was original.  She, we were told, had seen it all.

It was a quintessential moment for me.  A point of contention that I knew was going to rise again and again in that class.  A point of contention that continues to rise, as I continue to find people who argue vigorously that it has all been done, it has all been tried, there are no new angles and we should only make the effort to embrace what we have already discovered.  The best we poor citizens of the world can do is repeat the efforts of those who have come before, and perhaps improve upon them.  We can dandy them up.  We can make them neater.  We can reorder them on the shelf of life.  But that's it.  You may have an idea that you think is new, but believe me my brothers and sisters, it ain't.

This tune has a name.  It is the marching song of mediocrity.  It is the song that starts with the refrain, "I had a dream, I tried to see it through," and ends with, "I failed, and you'll fail too."  It is sung by great hordes of tramping middle aged men and women in every field and every endeavor, but most loudly in those subjects of discovery, namely science and the arts.  It is the bitter anger that one fosters against the youthful certainty that things would be different, and it is leveled most harshly towards those who are still young and still certain.  The song carries hard verses about why everything will eventually turn to dross, and mournful choruses about how good things were in the beginning.  The only good things are old things, and every new thing is just an old thing in new clothing.

It is a song about making people feel better for having nothing to feel better about, and it works for that purpose because there are so many others singing along at the same time.  So many others, in fact, that the song can get into the heads of people who have no reason to sing it.  And because the song is pervasive and emotional, it can fool many people into accepting its sincerity as proof of things that make no sense whatsoever.

"We only want to play the kind of roleplaying we were playing when we first started out, when the game was fun."

Does it not imply the game isn't fun?  Does it not imply that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, who are only going through the motions, having no fun at all?  Otherwise, why sing the tune at all?  Why do we still play?  In the hopes that somehow we will be made young again?  Was the purpose of the game, ever, to stay young?

I laugh, I feel a bit of nostalgia for a few notes about things bought by a young man in junior high school, written down and kept for 29 years, so that it can be looked at and smiled over.  I was a young man too, 15 years old, still 12 years away from silly creative writing professors and their insistence that there was nothing new in the world, excited and thrilled because I had recently found something new in the world.  I felt angst for the cost of things, and I struggled to draw out maps and little dungeons to run my little friends through.  The kitchens of friend's parents, wedged on stools between the stove and the sideboard, rolling my little dice and killing nasty things.  Parents coming up the stairs to tell us - again - to keep it down.  Walking home late Friday nights, past midnight, to get home before curfew, chatting about the things the game could be or do for society, walking across schoolyards and down empty roads with chums we'd lose track of after high school, only to meet twenty years later and learn they stopped playing the game nineteen years before.

Nostalgia, yes.  I understand nostalgia.

But it's a dull, dead song.  And sad, because there is lots and lots that's new in the world.  Hard to find, yes, even when we're looking.  So much of what we see does look like the same old junk, repainted to look new ... and we habitually turn away from it.  I go to the very large gaming store in my city, I see the hundreds of gaming systems on the shelves, and I poke about among them.  I pull down the books, I gaze through it, I convince myself to buy it - thinking, I'll find something new, something that will solve some problem of mine.  But I'll be disappointed, and I'll be angry that I bought that thing, and I'll resolve not to do it again.  Year after year will go by, and games will come on the market, games whose names I don't recognize anymore, espoused by young people who love them ... but old and crotchety am I, it is hard to believe.  It is hard to trust.  It is easier to just sing the song.

I don't sing, though.  I'm not ready.  I don't believe in the other gaming systems either, I confess, but I haven't accepted yet that there's nothing new in the world.  My brain still functions, it still churns out things that are new to me, mixed from the materials I read and pounded out on my own anvil.  I've lost touch - I may be turning out things that have already been made - but I can't find the things I'm inventing, and throwing out the things I'm making seems to have some impact on the net.  The ripples that flow outwards suggest people are finding new things here, so I take heart from that.

I don't think the game was ever meant for us to hold onto our youth.  There are things I can create now, conceive of now, that I was far too simple-minded and inexperienced to have ever created in my youth.  I was a child when I stumbled across this game in 1979, and I was a young fool when I fell under the influence of that stupid woman in 1991.  I'd carve her up for breakfast now.  I am a sharper, more talented blacksmith today than I was years ago ... and I intend to go on pounding out new things for some years to come.  D&D isn't about how young I feel.  It isn't about the fun I had all those years ago.  It's about what I'm doing today, and how I'm going to make the performance I give - the game I'm running - this Saturday that matters.  I have people coming over and I owe it to them to make their session the manifestation of new, rich adventures that they will remember.  I am better at doing that today than I was twenty years ago.  I am better because I've practiced, because I have learned a lot of new things and because ... well ... because I see life differently than I did when I was a young man.

I did have fun when I first started playing.  I don't think that was because the game was of a particular nature.  I think it was because we were young, and what we were doing was enough for being young.  I'm older now.  And I still have fun.  Only now it is because what I am doing is enough for a middle-aged man.  What was good enough for me in 1979 wouldn't cut it now.  Which is fine.  I've had 31 years to prepare.


Ragnorakk said...

I'm getting a little self-conscious by posting so many comments that amount to little but "Bravo!" - but what can I really add to this? My appreciation :)

Porky said...

A wonderful post, and one I'm more totally in agreement with than most any other before it.

cyclopeatron said...

This tune has a name. It is the marching song of mediocrity.

Beautifully put.

"Beware the lollipop of mediocrity. Lick it once and you'll suck forever."

cyclopeatron said...

By the way, what are you doing writing a Dungeons and Dragons blog? You should be writing for the New Yorker or something. Seriously.

Alexis said...

The New Yorker has a D&D section?

scottsz said...

The New Yorker SHOULD have a damned D&D section...

+1 to Cyclo...

Roger the GS said...

> There are things I can create now, conceive of now, that I was far to simple-minded and inexperienced to have ever created in my youth.

Me too.

And, the New Yorker published a short story about D&D, so only one step away from the one-page dungeon in the back page.

skoormit said...

"This tune has a name" is a fabulous extended metaphor. I'm sure we would rave over it in creative writing workshop.

When I was in grad school the advice I heard most often from instructors, and most often repeated by other students, was "embrace mediocrity." Meaning: stop expecting to change the world. Get some work done, even something minute and trivial, and put it out there and let the world ignore it. If you travel the road of academia, don't pin your hopes on achieving something great. Publish a paper, don't look stupid, and keep going from there.

I can't say I took to the notion.

Thanks for roasting that old chestnut, and thanks for reminding me that I'm having fun playing this same old game because I'm still learning to play it in new ways.