1. Half A Million Failures
In the fall of 2016, I wrote over a half a million words.
I tracked it.
If we write 500,000+ words on something, and still cannot solve our problem or reach our goal, we might be unprepared for the task at hand.
It’s a common thing for me to have to drop something, forget about it (sometimes for years) and then come back again later once I have crucial pieces or indispensable skills that I didn’t know were missing.
In this post I needed a story for the 30 prompts challenge: Prompt: Tell me a story. Benji Screw-In was a character and concept of a self-employed robot having to remove its factory installed parts for more flexible ones, that I invested in and developed years ago.
It never took off.
It never took off, because I never built the thing.
It’s a visual story.
I didn’t have any solution to make that many visuals.
It was even designed on purpose for that limitation: robots are easier to create artwork for than humans. any boxy thing can be a limb and you’re all set.
But I didn’t have Asset Forge, and I hadn’t been trained to operate Blender.
Asset Forge and Blender were two programs that made that Benji post possible. I had neither ready to go when I first came up with the idea.
So the project sat.
However, Benji screw in was not the project that I spent 500,000+ words writing and trying to solve.
Alvin McAllister the Space Marshal, is supposed to be a story of someone who goes from world to world settling disputes. He is an interested but outside third party who is trained especially to help get logjams free and get people working together again.
In fall of 2016, I was hard at work trying to write this story.
What made me quit?
At the time I was convinced the difficulty was because Alvin McAllister was previously conceived of as a video game protagonist, and story-wise, things fall into place for a video game protagonist much easier than for a protagonist in a novel.
But I did not suspect:
It’s because I hadn’t heard the Office Ladies Podcast yet.
I want to be friends with everybody.
I don’t want everybody to like me; I want to be friends.
I want to invest in one another.
I want to know problems together. I want to rely on one another.
Life is lonely on my own.
My wish to be friends with everyone, often leads me to make promises to people who are not going to treat me the way I want to be treated.
I wrote, here, that while growing up I thought I was a villain, because everywhere I went people were not warm to me. Later in life I realized that the problem wasn’t me, it was that no one is trained to be kind. It takes years of honed deliberate skills to be good to people, and so anywhere you go, most people are not actually ready to be real friends yet.
They’ll be friendly.
But not friends.
Almost anyone can be friendly. It takes very little. We dole it out to anyone who jumps through our hoops.
Almost any two people can grow familiar to one another.
REAL friendship requires homework.
Most people will never do homework of any kind.
There’s mountains of homework if you want to be real friends.
If I meet you, and we talk, chances are good that I will respond to you in essays, not in cheap lines. I don’t like small talk.
I love real talk.
I love getting down to work.
I wrote, here, about how I had to make the Noah Wizard cartoon character have more get-to-work attitude about himself, so that I wouldn’t bum people out later when it turns out I wanna work on stuff together.
Like I wanna work on stuff: all the time.
I don’t just want to be friends with everybody, I want to get to work with every person who I know.
And that was the premise of Alvin McAllister Space Marshal. He’d get to go from place to place, working with people, getting some change, getting some forward motion. The problem-havers would get their problem unstuck, and Alvin would grow in experience.
It was also going to be a platform from which I could show the homework.
I wanted to demystify what it looks like to be prepared to be actually-friends with people.
It is a lot of work.
Most people would be mortified if they saw the work it takes for a kind person to be kind to them. People currently think it’s no effort at all for people to be kind to them, and that those who are rude, are low-quality humans.
Most humans are untrained in the mountains of work it would take for them to be good to you.
We need to see this work in action.
It is inconceivable otherwise.
We will keep squabbling, until we see what it takes for us to treat one another well.
I felt that if I could show the work, and make it entertaining enough -use cartoons, and space, and magic- and also make it clear how rewarding great friendships are –show that working together is lifegiving, when and only when we are ready- then that would be a project worth finishing.
But I couldn’t finish it.
Not yet. Not in 2016.
4. Try Trailers. Try.
There was zero chance of me listening to the Office Ladies Podcast on my own.
I don’t like the Office and I don’t like podcasts.
I like real friendship, so much so, that if I have to hear people talking for an hour, and they don’t have great friendship, it will grate on me for an hour.
Jumping ahead in the story, as much as I like the two women on this podcast, when they bring on a guest, it’s usually someone with whom they are friendly and not someone they are really friends with, and I’m half-seasick the entire episode -or until the guest leaves.
My sister convinced me to listen to this podcast.
She too had not seen, and did not like the Office. (We don’t enjoy cringe; our family went through legitimate trauma and we cannot stand to ingest dysfunction, no matter how funny the rest of the world thinks it is to do so.)
But she told me, every time she would bring up this podcast, that by listening to these women recount their stories from being on the Office, episode by episode, she actually sorta got to experience a healthy version of the office where she now knows the plots and progressions of the story, but did no have to sit through a show that makes our skin crawl.
“Maybe,” I thought. “I’ll think about giving it a try.”
It wasn’t until I had a week where everyone was gone, that I really needed a fresh boost -something to take my mind off of isolation- that I was willing to give the trailer for the podcast a try.
Hey folks: Try the trailers for things.
Sometimes 3 minutes of your time and agency will tell you everything you need to know. I listened to the trailer and was astounded by how much the two hosts’ friendship sounded genuine.
I gave it a go.
I have listened to dozens of episodes since, and pivoted some of my life’s work as a result.
This was a missing piece.
It’s a missing piece to the Alvin McAlister series, but in a broader context, it is a missing piece to any topic in my career where people interact with each other.
5. Creative Teamwork Is As Bad As Academic Teamwork
I was part of a pilot program in the year 2000, where my high school was trying to create the next generation of white collar managers, who could think in terms of teams.
I was 14 when I first started practicing team leadership.
After months and months of team projects, it started to become clear to me that the teachers and administrators running this program, did not actually have a plan for how to get us to work together.
If there was a plan it was: show up, and see what happens.
The plan was an immersion. Similar to the plans I lived my life by in this article, they were not teaching us strategy for dealing with one another or any kind.
They would give us a challenging project.
Put us in groups.
Wait for us to throw ourselves into the work. Hope we learn somehow.
After two years, I quit.
My high school also had a $2 million video program headed up by the guy who ran the Grande Ballroom during the rocker scene of Detroit. He was the reason rock bands came through Michigan. On a trip to California he saw the clubs out west and realized that Detroit needed a rock venue or bands would not stop in Michigan on their tours.
This was my mentor for two years of my high school life. It is part of why my life has such an unorthodox trajectory. A rock mogul got into my head.
However, years later I would come to understand that while he had a tremendous track record for recognizing and managing and profiting from talent (Many of his students had recognizable jobs in the film industry. One of my classmates for example was the showrunner for Dragon Age: Absolution) he had however, had not produced art of his own.
Nor, I suspect, had he done a lot of team work.
Similar to the academic team project pilot program I had come from, the plan in the video studio was also show up, see what happens, and through immersion come up with solutions… hopefully.
Hope is not a strategy.
There are things that people knew about teambuilding that could have been taught to us at any time in the process of either of these two groupwork settings, but alas, we were left to squabble.
This meant however, that early in my life I was exposed to how fickle people are when they are trying to work together.
Without explicitly meaning to, I dedicated my life to figuring out how to work well in teams.
6. We Have The Tricorders From Star Trek
I’m a big fan of science fiction working to help a real-world breakthrough.
In James Bond they have jet skis before the world knows what those are.
In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea they have a submarine based on real world examples, but the fictional sub can have expanded capabilities, and help the world to understand and imagine subnautical travel.
The piece of fiction currently driving my life forward, is a television show from the 90’s called the West Wing.
I have written, here, about my endeavors to turn West Wing into a video game; it has been a mountain of work and discarded designs. It too is a project I have had to put down for unspecified periods of time, until I bump into some new piece or skill I can use to move it forward. These days the game exists on paper, and the missing components are practical game developer skills that I am lumbering toward, and to learn those skills, luckily, I have training courses to follow.
But long before I wanted to turn West Wing into a video game:
I just believed in it.
I saw what it looked like for people to treat one another well finally, and I saw it immediately as the antidote to the poison of squabbling that I had ingested all those years ago.
This held the answer, I could tell.
But years went by, and nothing I did could make the West Wing more real in my life. There was no real-world example I could point to where I could work with people, and look forward to working together.
I had group projects between first watching the show, and now where I finally understand the solution to groupwork, but those group projects were often a balancing act of me taking my own needs out of the equation so that I could soothe the demands of others. It wasn’t very pretty.
To a large extent, the Alvin McAllister Space Marshal project is tied into my West Wing Video Game work.
Alvin was my attempt to make a workplace game where people broke through to solutions.
And it is for this reason that I first put the Alvin project down.
I suspected that even though it would be easier to write a novel of the character (novels don’t require art skills or programming knowledge), if I were going to do the job justice, he would have to be rendered in a video game.
And for years and years I did not challenge the premise of why the project wasn’t working.
But then in 2023, I heard the Office Ladies Podcast.
7. Get It From Life
The Office Ladies Podcast is the woman who plays Pam and the woman who plays Angela on the Office, and, as they will tell you in the trailer, in real life they are best friends.
Each episode they go through a synopsis of the show, and tell stories that can only be told by people who were there.
But also, they tell these stories: with love.
They are so enthusiastic towards one another, they listen with rapt attention, they respond, they interject, they synthesize what the other is saying.
These are the skills of people who love.
And the skills cannot be taught quickly.
This is why most people who make a podcast create a podcast that I cannot listen to; you cannot fake the skills of love, they are too advanced to be employed last-minute.
I was sure that I needed a West Wing game-mechanic to apply to Alvin’s world, but I now know that what I was missing was real world examples of teamwork.
Aaron Sorkin, the creator of the West Wing, is quick, and right, to point out that characters are not humans. They look like humans but they exist to serve the story. Queer Film Analyst Rantasmo explained this to me best: a character is a collection of choices that the author made.
West Wing couldn’t translate directly into my real life because the characters were all chosen to have the skills of someone who loves.
In real life, we don’t have that homogeneity. There’s a variety of skill levels in the people present in any endeavor.
Hearing these two women who were at the top of their game, able to interact with one another, so respectfully, and with such clarity, I realized I had been making a copy of a copy, but they were the real thing.
When you study drawing, you will hear a piece of advice that is given forcefully, “you cannot only study from your screen!” They practically yell this advice. You need to look at 3D objects in real life, and draw those.
Actors have a similar credo. You are not to recreate the character of another. You can study the actor’s choices, understand why they took the actions that they did, but you need to in-real-life study actual living humans, if you want to produce something wonderful.
The best story I have of this from-life principle, comes from a game design textbook.
It was a game design textbook, but the story is about: juggling.
The author of the game design textbook I got this story from, Jesse Schell, was an amateur juggler who wanted to go pro.
He visited an organized juggler convention.
It did not take him long at the convention to realize that he was woefully underskilled for the kinds of tricks that were being performed there.
But things turned around when he saw this old man, off on his own, away from the big ticket shows, performing beautiful tricks, which after a few minutes of watching, the game design textbook author slash semi-pro juggler realized:
Hey those are really easy tricks…
He realized that the old man was not doing high technical difficulty tricks, he was just doing really interesting and beautiful tricks, based on some of the most simple moves; moves he, the textbook author, could do.
After a few minutes, the old man spoke to him, and said, “Aren’t you going to try and copy them? People always try to copy these moves,” and he gestured with his head to another juggler trying to recreate the motions -trying and failing to recreate them.
The man went on to explain, “See, the tricks are simple, but they’re hard to copy, because no one saw my original inspiration for these tricks. Only I know those. This one was based on a flock of geese I saw taking off from a pond. And this one is based on a bread making factory machine I saw on a tour once.”
I’m telling this story from recall, so those specific tricks might be inaccurate, but they were things like that.
The game design textbook implored us to pay attention in our own lives, for inspiration that would come from things we’ve actually seen and experienced, and not just appreciated second-hand.
I had to quit the Alvin McAllister story, not merely because there was a missing game design component that may or may not be vital to the telling of the story, but now I can say for sure:
I did not have real world evidence of friendship and teamwork to build off of.
So my writing was derivative, and off.
8. It’s Only Quitting If You Die First.
We have to quit.
There are far too many things on this planet that grab for our attention, and no way for us to know with certainty ahead of time which things are going to serve us.
We have to try things, but we cannot finish every single thing we try. To finish every thing you try is to abdicate your responsibility as a navigator of this world.
We must quit sometimes.
Not because the dream wasn’t worth it, but because we are limited, and sometimes, to stay, even a moment longer, is to do long term harm because of our ineptitude.
I used to call this “putting it in cryo.”
We’ll unfreeze you after we have the antidote to that thing that is killing us.
I recommend that people start and quit more things than is common right now.
Quitting is a skill.
And one that is only going to get better by using it.
There are things I wish I hadn’t quit, because I have a clearer picture of how lucky it would have been if I’d kept going. If I take the time to remember though, often there was not a healthy path toward continuing. When I quit, usually, it was the healthy time to do so.
There are things I kept up with that were unhealthy. Things I wish I had learned to quit sooner. Things where we stuck around too long and burnt the place to the ground, instead of backing off until it was safe and smart to continue. But in those cases, usually I did not think it was a good idea to keep going, I just couldn’t find the willpower to make the momentum stop. Our lives build up fairly formidable momentum now. This is a high-momentum century. Remember that.
Quit, and if you live long enough, when you’re full-up on new skills and trinkets and ideas and moods like in this post about “the joy is in the side-questing,” then come back to some of the things you quit.
See if you’re ready.
9. Alvin And Friends
I’m probably not ready to write the Alvin series still.
There’s a solid chance that even having a recording of a real-world, high-skill, excellent friendship is not really enough to build a series where the character moves from place to place to place, always managing good interactions with those he meets.
I want to be friends with everybody, but the people I really connect with, and feel real friendship toward, tend to be people who had necessity to learn all the skills of love. That necessity tends to come with being a creative person who is their own boss.
My assumption has always been that when my work is good enough to take off, I’ll birds-of-a-feather with enough people who know how to work together, that I’ll feel like though I cannot be friends with everybody, I will be friends with enough of the people I meet, and it will be more than enough to fill a life with.
And it is in that day, that likely, I will have the true real-world experience of moving from project to project, and finding our way through together, then I can properly document it through my purple elf space magic man, and the world will probably be better for it.