How Collage Killed My Creativity Mk. 2

September 14, 2007

I got a lot more hits than I expected out of my last post on this, including a rare comment from somebody I don’t already know from offline (holy shit, Batman!). With that in mind, I figure that now is as good a time as any to expand upon my original post, which was in hindsight really just a loud noise of despair and self-pity. I’ll try and pare back the whiny bullshit- but no promises.

Lit 101 is different every quarter it is offered, because each quarter it is taught by a different professor. I took it during Fall of 2006, almost exactly one year ago. It was at that time subtitled “Marxist Theory and Interpretation,” which I expected would mean that we would do some light political theory reading, and then delve into a Communist reading of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or something. If that had been the case, it might have actually been pretty fun. I mean yeah, I’d end up parroting Communist bullshit to get a grade, but I’d also get to try and apply one idea to another, or at the very least read a good book and get a good grade for doing so. Alas, it was not to be. The course was horribly misnamed; there was no interpretation at all. We simply read Communist economic theory and listened to lectures about the readings during class, and then once every week we would all have to drag our asses to the smaller TA-led group readings for a closer look at the material. So really the class should have just been called “Communism.”

Even when I read the syllabus and realized thee would be no literature in my Literature class, it still didn’t seem like all way lost. Then I arrived at the bookstore and got a good look at my texts. One was volume the size of a phone book entitled Selected Writings of Karl Marx. One classmate was heard to say upon reading the title, “Jesus, did the bastard ever shut up?” The other books were generally much smaller, but there were four or five of them if I recall correctly, and we also had a big fat reader.* No matter, I’d just have to buckle down. I was a new student, just transfered up out of the Community College system; maybe this was normal for a university class (I later found out no, it wasn’t normal by any stretch of the imagination).

When it really hit me that this class was going to be severely unpleasant was right about the time I attended my first TA discussion group and discovered my TA was a fucking idiot. I had been taught by my Philosophy professor at Pasadena City Collage that one of the best ways to determine the strength of an idea is to beat the unholy hell out of it with every rhetorical mace in your arsenal. If it can’t stand up to pointed questions, it is probably bullshit.

Well holy fuck, with the way my TA reacted, you’d have thought I was raping a baby. Apparantly we’re not supposed to engage with ideas at the lower-div undergrad level. So I was off to a more or less catastrophic start for this quarter. You don’t want your TA to dislike you. He’s the one who reads your essays and writes your grades. Yeah, the professor can override it if he wants, but he probably won’t. When I got my first essay back I decided to take the course pass/fail within about 30 seconds of reading what he’d written in response. Basically he either agreed with me in an incredibly combative manner, which made me suspect he didn’t realize that he wasn’t arguing with me, or he pointed out completely superfluous side points that had nothing to do with the validity of my claims. He also gave me frowny points for my “informal style,” which was to become a running gag for the rest of the quarter, and would ultimately end up as one of the prime factors in plugging up my wellspring of writing juice for an entire year (and counting). If I wanted a decent grade, I would have to stiffen up and make sure my prose was as awkward, turgid, and bland as possible. Apparently a lot of people who hang around universities think that just because an idea doesn’t need to be presented in a stylish and interesting manner, none of them should be. To this day, I still do not understand what is so wrong about starting a paper off with

So sometime way back when, the Germans couldn’t get their shit together and form an actual country like all the cool kids were doing…

There is nothing factually wrong with that statement! And in just a few words later in the very same paragraph I believe that I also included the dates that I was talking about, and got down to more concrete specifics. This was just an ice-breaker, a way to get both the writer and the reader invested in the material. I mean, considering all the horrible crap your average grad student has to wade through on the way to his or her dissertation, my TA should have been on his knees offering to buy me a hooker for being considerate enough for trying to find some way to give a damn about that bullshit little assignment the prof had us doing. But no, he was a total dick about the whole thing and tried to drown my paper in red ink.

The problem, you see, is that I liked writing a lot. And I needed it to be something that I could enjoy. For other students, like the ones who were taking the class for a general education requirement, it might not have mattered so much. I don’t know for certain, but I imagine that if writing is generally something you only do to get it out of the way, it doesn’t matter if you’re told to read thick, boring crap that you hate and then to write a boring fill-in-the-blanks report about it in a style that you find to be uninteresting on a cosmic scale. Yeah, it probably sucks, but hey, you’re film major; you communicate with a camera, so it doesn’t matter if writing’s a chore. But it matters for me. If what I love, what I came to this school to do, becomes something I hate, it fucks with everything in my life. I don’t know how to get myself to draw a distinction between boring writing that I just need to get done, and interesting writing that I’m doing to express myself or refine my craft or even just to have fun. When I’m forced to use my writing ability in a way that I can’t stand, the whole damn thing breaks down. I just barely managed to get through the creative writing course I was taking that quarter by pulling out a dusty old draft of a story I’d mostly written the previous summer and polishing it off for submission.

And all of that was only half the problem.

The other one has the potential to be more worrisome. I’m not sure when it happened, but sometime in the last year or so I became much more conscious of my deficiencies as a writer. I don’t know how or when this shift happened, because I used to be happy to turn out just pure dreck. For maybe 5 years or so I participated in what was essentially a Trekkie fanfiction circle-jerk called Bravo Fleet, in which I contributed the character of Lt. Ross Taben, the Sue-iest Marty Stu you ever saw! Depending on what movie I’d just seen, sometimes Ross was almost suicidally unafraid of danger, and at others he was always the voice of reason and caution. He was always a Section 31 operative, and I guarded that territory jealously against other players. Oh, and he had technological superpowers. And his girlfriend (though to be fair, she wasn’t my creation, but was played by another character) was a devastatingly beautiful woman who had so many aliens in her family tree that she could pull just about whatever special ability she wanted straight out of her ass when the situation called for it. Her player was a lot better about not abusing this than I was, though.

Eventually I toned down Ross and at about the same time started a new character who was a complete wuss. Basically I made a good run at playing a pacifist Klingon, and he was a lot of fun. More fun, in fact, than Ross was. He was also more well rounded, consistent, and interesting. But don’t just take my word for it, other players came up to me unbidden and expressed how much better the new guy was. Okay, actually you will have to take my word for it because I don’t want to go find the link. One day, I left Bravo Fleet all together. I’d begun to notice just how horrible at writing everyone else was, and how boring their characters were, and how stilted and sluggish the games were. It once took us, no shit, an entire year just to move the damn ship out of SpaceDock. It sounds incredibly arrogant to say that I had gotten too good for them, so I won’t. I’ll just say I’d gotten a whole shitload better than all of them (well, almost all of them, but there weren’t enough good writers to fill an entire game). And I was interested in getting better still, and that meant I had to start writing all sides of a story, not just filling out the action for one character and waiting for the GM to reply.

I started writing independently of the games. Aside from an aborted Star Wars fan fic in high school I’d never really tried this before. Shockingly, it was more difficult than I had anticipated by about an order of magnitude. I’d had years and years of practicing my prose, of developing characterization, refining dialog and so forth, but I’d never really had to supply my own conflict before. Well, I did need to do that in the Star Wars fic, but I’d never really resolved what the characters were trying to do in a larger sense once the immediate danger I’d placed them in was resolved.

This glaring weakness didn’t really bother me at all. I figured I’d just mess around with some stories until I got the hang of it, and off-and-on for the next year or two that’s exactly what I did. And I enjoyed it. The process itself was not precisely fun, but very engrossing. If I went to long without opening up Word and typing for a while, I got this weird, nervous urge to do so. I’d had this urge for a long time, really since I started writing on a regular basis with Bravo Fleet, but now it seemed stronger and more insistent. It felt like it mattered a bit more, and when I was done and looking at what I and created, there was more payoff.

Around this time I decided to attend UC Santa Cruz, specifically for its writing program, which was billed as being competitive and selective in who it accepted. It’s totally not, but we’ll get to that later. My decision to go to Santa Cruz was motivated by what was at the time my eventual goal: computer role playing games. I wanted- and to a large extent, still do- to be the lead writer for a major RPG developer. Initially I thought a good way to do that would be to go through one of the new game specialist majors being offered by a lot of art schools these days, but eventually I came to my senses and realized that would just get me a job in the art department of a developer, if I was even good enough to hack it. I looked at BioWare’s “we’re hiring page” and saw with some elation that for writers they only wanted people who could- and this is what really knocked me on my ass with shock- write! A prerequisite for them considering applications at this time was to be a previously published writer with either a novel, a movie, or two television episodes to an applicant’s name. Now, with the death of Troika Games, BioWare is perhaps the leading RPG developer in the world. Bethesda Studios is nipping at their heels, but frankly some of their design decisions are just retarded, and they don’t have nearly as many games to their credit as the boys from Edmonton (I’m not being sexist here, it’s just that this is the video game industry we’re talking about- trust me, they’re male). So when they say that all they really want is somebody who has proven they can spin a tale, I was thrilled. I could get training and experience as a writer at Santa Cruz, and if the video game thing didn’t work out, I could apply those skills elsewhere.

So the summer before I moved up to Santa Cruz, I spent a lot of time writing, and this is when I produced that rough draft that would later save my ass when I couldn’t think of anything better to write. And when I first got to Santa Cruz, I still got the urge. I could still plop down in front of the computer and produce. I still felt that I had a lot to learn, but I was confident that I had improved quite a bit over the years. No matter how tough it was, I figured I could find some way to squeak through. What I wasn’t prepared for was to find that I was easily within to top tier of the writing program. It would be in bad taste to go into specific instances, but most of what my classmates produced was really bad. My stuff wasn’t exactly Steinbeck’s wet dream either, but at least I had some idea about which way the plot was supposed to be pointed (the answer, incidentally, is “forward”). Now don’t get me wrong, almost everybody in the writing program here at school are nice people, or at least a lot nicer than me, and about 10-20% are really quite good. I was just stunned to learn that I was one of them.

And so, by the time the quarter had ended, I think that I had got it into my head that I was “good” and that I had to produce “quality”. I don’t know if it’s arrogance, or inflated expectations, or what; it’s just really difficult to get the words out. And not only that, but the senior project for the writing program is to write an entire book. So now I have to write a good book. I don’t know if any of you have ever tried to write a good book, but I hadn’t until just recently. And it’s kicking my ass. I really want to write this fantasy story I’ve had kicking around in my head, but I get this feeling that it isn’t Literary Enough for the department to accept it as my senior project. So I started developing a plot that was set in the real world, or at least a close approximation thereof. For a while I was even interested in the second story I came up with, but when it came time to stop daydreaming- which is a very important step in the artistic process which I spend quite a bit of time on- and pound some keys, it just wouldn’t come.

Oh please? I’d ask it.

Nuh, uh. Fuck off, it would say. Then somehow it would tell my computer to go find some porn.

This continued for the rest of time**. Eventually- last week- I gave up entirely on that project. Maybe someday I’ll be able to do it, but the thing is, I really don’t want to. It’s just a chore, something I set in front of myself to do before I could move on to what I really wanted. I don’t even know if my idea for a fantasy novel would be turned down as a senior project or not. It is highly likely almost to the point of inevitability, but I haven’t actually asked yet.

Of course, even that realization hasn’t helped much. The urge hasn’t come back. Last school year, even before I gave up on the real-world story, I tried to get a rough draft of the fantasy story down and I couldn’t get it anything to flow. It is no different now. I’ve been working on a first draft for more than a week and I’ve got less than 1,500 words. Unless I force myself to sit down with the intention of working on it, no new words are ever added. I abandoned the project that was far more likely to be accepted for class credit specifically because I “wanted” to do this story instead, and now I can’t get myself to produce.

So I look for help online. The thing I keep hearing again and again is “don’t worry if it’s shit; it’s going to be shit the first time.” I used to be able to do that. I was happy when I could do that. Hell, I could have probably made money when I was still able to do that. But now, even when I do my best to just let it all hang out, and find that special part of me that created Ross, I still can’t get the words to flow. And I think it is because I’m one of the “good” writers and I have to produce “quality.” I’m clearly past any problems I may have had with nonfiction and commentary and the like, but that is in large part only because I’m the most opinionated person I know, and in any case what I really want to do is fiction. I’m starting to suspect that some of the problem the idea that I have to write, that there is an external requirement forcing me to write, and that I am still too close to the Lit 101 debacle to tolerate that. And this mixes with my arrogance and my insecurities about preforming well to pour concrete all over my brain. I’ve been reading nonstop all summer, hoping to spark something, to find some inspiration, and it just hasn’t worked.

So maybe instead of trying not to care if what I’m writing sucks, I should actually try to suck.

Or maybe I should try writing while I’m drunk.

Or maybe completely scrap all the plotting I’ve done in my head and try to write something completely blind and just see if the words take me somewhere.

Or maybe I’m broken, and I can’t fix myself. I’ve heard that this kind of block happens to everybody, but does that mean that everybody’s muse survives?

*For those of you who don’t know, at UC Santa Cruz (and perhaps other universities as well- this is the only one I’ve attended) a “reader” is typically a largish collection of cheaply bound photocopies taken from a wide variety of texts. They are intended to allow the students to get access a wide variety of articles without having to buy a wide variety of books. Considering how many other texts I had to buy, I wonder if my Professor ever really understood what they were meant for.

** defined here as “until the present day”



  1. […] Two « There May be Some Room for Optomism Here How Collage Killed My Creativity Mk. 2 » How College Killed my Creativity September 13th, 2007 Someday I want to be a […]

  2. What you’re describing is what I fear is going to happen to me as well when I go to school. I absolutely love writing, and when I go to school, I really am going to have to find that happy medium between wanting to do it and having to do it. I don’t ever want writing to become a chore to me, but changing from ‘hobby writing’ to writing for a deadline is going to be a struggle, since I used writing as an escape from my everyday life, and now…it’ll be my everyday life.
    Oh, and there are some people of the female persuasion that work at Bioware, I know one of them personally, and hopefully some day, I can join their ranks. 😉

  3. I’ve been reading around for solutions to this problem, and one that keeps popping up is that if writing used to be your hobby before you started it full time, find a new hobby.

    As for women at BioWare, I guess it’s not as surprising as I initially thought. RPGs are traditionally one of the more popular types of game among the female demographic. (You see, this is how I try and salvage my precious Know It All street cred)

    If you do get hired, put in a good word for me.

    Also, thanks for the comment. They’re always appreciated.

  4. As long as you put in a good word for me if you’re hired there first!

    That’s a good idea, finding a new hobby. Basically, I was an animator first, so I think what will happen is that I’ll switch writing to my profession and animating to my hobby. Hopefully that’ll help.

    As for street cred, I hear ya, most girls I know that play enjoy RPG’s the most. Fighting games are my vice, myself. Have a good one, I’m gonna have to stalk your blog now, see how you’re doing once in awhile! (Us Bioware hopefuls have to stick together!)

  5. I’m always happy to have regular readers.

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