Friday, 7 August 2015

Here Be Dragons

your life is your life
don't let it be clubbed into dank submission.
    - Charles Bukowski, The Laughing Heart

Hell is not punishment. It's training.
    - Shunryu Suzuki

Good writers, I always felt, were like heroes of classic mythology. Their role was to descend into the dark caverns of the mind and return bearing shimmering pearls of wisdom that would heal and rejuvenate mankind. While most of us were content in our villages, buying new rugs for our huts, arguing about the failures of the local chieftain, or bemoaning the lousy speed of the wi-fi, writers would journey out into the wilderness on lonely quests, passing gatekeepers of social convention, battling the supernatural monsters of our subconscious fears, and duelling with the shadow-selves of their own egos. If successful, the writers would return with knowledge of the mind's antipodes and recesses, with treasures wrested from the jaws of beasts, and, perhaps most importantly, with words of encouragement to aid us on our own expeditions -- for we all must journey into the unknown, and even a village is still the wilderness, only populated by other huddled travellers.

It's easy, already, to see how I might have set myself unrealistically high standards for my own attempts at writing. (It's also easy to see that I spent too much of my childhood reading The Lord of the Rings, but what can you do?)


My teenage years had been listless and unfocused -- I'd tried to pass myself off as a skater and stoner, with little success -- and at the age of 21 I was coming to the end of a degree in games computing that I'd stumbled through half asleep. Basically, I had no clue what I was doing. Then, all of a sudden, I discovered literature. Hemingway and Kerouac, mystical old Herman Hesse, madcap Hunter Thompson, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, the short stories of Raymond Carver -- the words were voices calling to me from some distant place, awakening and galvanising something inside me. The herald had arrived, and he was beckoning me to adventure.

I bought a new pencil and a leather-bound notebook and a bunch of How To Be A Writer guides. I filled out the notebook, brainstormed ideas, made hesitant and self-conscious attempts at exercises from the guides. And then I spent four years smoking weed and playing videogames.

I did write, but I felt it was all garbage. I never finished anything, and I never let anyone see what I was working on. If I was an adventurer, I was one tip-toeing out of my village under cover of darkness, making it as far as the nearest tree line, then shitting myself at the shadow of an owl and legging it back home.

I was now officially a graduate, and rising at four every morning to pick shopping for online customers in a hulking, half-deserted Tesco store. The world of my childhood was starting to feel less like a village, and more like a prison.

I kept telling myself I'd set out on a proper expedition soon, I just had to buy a better compass first, hone my blade a little more, practise tying a few more types of knot. But instead of doing those things I mostly just played games, smoked spliffs, and got drunk.


My 25th birthday found me unemployed, living in my mother's house, and more lost than ever. I was disgusted by everything I wrote, but I couldn't bear to quit. I felt that the words were in me somewhere, I just wasn't able to get them out. I had reached my lowest point, But then, instead of cracking, I managed to take what turned out to be two of the most important steps of my life: I went to the doctors' to ask about getting cognitive therapy, and I started a blog about videogames.

The therapy was great. I had suffered from degrees of depression and social anxiety since my early teens, but had always boxed them up, terrified of anyone discovering how weak and wretched I really was inside -- which of course fed back into the depression, making it all the worse.

My therapist helped me to see how I was creating and reinforcing my own negative assumptions about reality, and taught me some simple techniques for creating healthier conceptions of life. When I went to parties I was to concentrate on other people and whether they were okay and what I might do to help them have a good time, rather than on the image of myself as red faced and sweaty, my lip curling in a grimace of embarrassment, my eyes darting about the room in a way that was unnerving and creepy and just all kinds of gross.

And I started a blog. I'd wasted so much of my life playing videogames, it seemed fitting to put those hours to good use. A games blog was less ambitious, more manageable, with no weight of expectation behind it; and whatever the subject matter, writing was still writing.

My attempts at fiction had failed, I felt, largely because I'd been afraid of heading into darkness. The deep caverns of creativity might have been lined with gold, but they were also patrolled by terrible beasts, and I hadn't yet felt able to face them.

Writing about games was like setting off into a relatively safe, albeit backwater and kind of stinky, land -- a terrain of rolling valleys and gloopy marshes where I could practise my skills and strengthen my muscles, a landscape populated by the odd (and they were odd) fellow traveller I could wave at and compare equipment with. There were even a few shuffling zombies to fight, if I fancied it.

And what's more, this land of games blogging turned out to be a small corner of the wide realm I'd always wanted to explore, and digging down through its crust would take me to those same demon-infested caverns of which I'd been so afraid. Only this time I had a cover story.

The games pretext was my Trojan Horse, a delivery method for more personal writing. I'd, like, wheel an article down through cold stone passageways until the walls would open out and a glittering cave would stand before me, guarded by let's say two orcs. "Hey Gimkrack, hey Boltface," I'd call cheerily. "How're the wives? Yeah, I hear that! Huh? Oh, this? This is just a little Command & Conquer review, nothing to worry yourselves about. Yeah, boring, I know. Well, take it easy, say hi to Patti and the kids for me." ... Then when the monsters were asleep my troops would come spilling out and start telling stories about my parents' divorce. Or something like that.


For a while, and for maybe the first time in my adult life, I was content. People started reading my blog. Other bloggers linked to me, I got essays republished on larger sites. I found myself followed on Twitter by games journalists I'd admired for years. I did some work with a games designer who'd just become one of the industry's indie darlings. I felt like the heroes in my field were budging up to make room on the pedestal (well, the upturned wheelbarrow, this was still games journalism) for me. The gatekeepers, it seemed, were standing aside. The way ahead was open.

Unsurprisingly, I bottled it. The more popular my blog became, the more it began to matter to me how I was being perceived. I started watching my reader stats, which I'd always pretended I couldn't give a motherfuck about. I found it was vital to me that I was liked, seen as intelligent. I scoured my previous posts, desperately searching for any mistake that would give me away, prove to others what I myself feared: that I was a worthless imposter.

I had dug too greedily and too deep, and a balrog of self-loathing had escaped from some flaming pit that the therapy had sealed off but not cleansed. My burnished armour melted. My magical sword shattered. Suddenly I wasn't the knight I'd been masquerading as, but the scared little pipsqueak who'd been hiding inside all along.

I ran away with my tail between my legs. I abandoned the blog, buried myself in shifts at the chain pub in which I was working, gave everything up. My depression returned, heavier than ever. I drank more and more. The years went by...


I think, looking back, that I have always been terrified of the unknown. For most of this decade it's like I've been stood facing an enormous doorway, the entrance to a wider world, the threshold of myth. A gatekeeper has been stood by the doorway. "You may enter," he says. "But know that the land beyond will tear apart all who are not worthy."

Over the years I have tried many things. I have run back to my village, which was no longer warm and comforting, but cold and terrible and dead. I have coated myself in various armours -- the elegant yet flimsy robes of the young artist, the hardy, cumbersome plate of the games blogger -- in an attempt to protect myself while passing the doorway, but the demons on the other side have always burned away my protection, and I have been forced to retreat.

But now I'm wondering if maybe I've had it backwards all this time. If the armour wasn't protecting me, but holding me back. I always felt that I needed to shield myself because underneath I was still the lonely, acne-scarred kid who was bullied at school and had no friends and would be seen as a loser if anyone knew what he was really like. But maybe if I'm looking for acceptance from outside, it's never going to come. Maybe it's not wearing armour that makes us worthy, but being brave enough to take it off.

So this is me. Small, vulnerable, imperfect: just like everyone else. And I think that, finally, I may be all right with that.

I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and step forwards. The journey begins now.


  1. Well I for one can't wait to see what nuggets you dig out of that head of yours...nice to see you blogging again.

  2. on the edge of my seat for the next installment !