Sorry it’s been so long, my creativity’s been stuck in traffic

Around the end of August 2016, I stopped writing.

At first I put it down to a break in routine. Habit and routine help me stay productive, usually, and I’d had a week at the Edinburgh Fringe, keeping odd hours and eating at strange times and forgiving myself for prioritising other activities over my daily writing time.

But weeks passed, then months, and I couldn’t seem to rebuild the habits that kept me writing every day. (Write for an hour before going to work. Get out of the office at lunchtimes to write whenever possible. Write for at least an hour on a free evening.) I’d formed those habits before, settled into the routine of them, kept them up – not 100% of the time, but enough to keep projects moving and stay satisfied. It stood to reason I should be able to form them again.

But I just couldn’t seem to do it. I had projects I wanted to make progress on, stories I wanted to tell, but the act of typing or scribbling seemed to have lost its appeal. I started asking myself questions like: have I just gone off writing? Is it just not something I want to do any more? Intellectually I felt like I did want to, but that’s meaningless if you don’t then do it. And if I didn’t want to write any more, what did that leave me with?

I felt like a vacuum. I consumed and consumed, TV and books and games, and created nothing. I felt like I had nothing to give.

When trying to reform those routines again the same way wouldn’t work, I abandoned the theory that I “just needed to get back in the habit” and went looking for explanations that defied reason. Things logic couldn’t correct. A suspicion started to sneak in – and just before Christmas 2016 that suspicion was confirmed, when my GP diagnosed moderate to severe depression.

By a lucky coincidence, around the same time writing was getting difficult, I started playing in my first ever Dungeons and Dragons game. (Silas Glenborn. Human noble, incognito. Arcane trickster rogue.)

I had to stop myself being That Player. (Still do.) The one who’s more into it than everyone else, to the point that it upsets the group. Who memorises the Players’ Handbook, and spends the time between sessions thinking of cool shit for his character to do next time, and tries to butt into/take over every social interaction scene.

Thanks, gang, for putting up with (and subtly calling out) any shitty behaviour I’ve come out with.

I loved the game. I could feel that I was struggling, though I didn’t know exactly why yet, and the game felt like a lifebelt. Some weeks it felt like the next session was all I had to look forward to. I filled the downtime by marathoning Critical Role and The Adventure Zone.

Took me a while to realise what is obvious in hindsight. The game was nourishing my starving storytelling organ, circumventing the chokehold of the depression by exposing me to a method of storytelling I hadn’t experienced before. I was getting super-keen because, without my usual outlet (filling white pages with words), that organ had been getting backed up – and now it was pumping everything it had into the game.

The game helped me realise I wasn’t broken. I hadn’t lost my creativity, or stopped wanting to tell stories, or lost my ability to.

There’s a character in David Brin’s Uplift series named Emerson D’Anite. Minor spoilers for Brin’s Brightness Reef incoming: Emerson loses the power of speech in a crash, but later discovers he can still communicate by singing. He’s in despair when he finds his usual outlet blocked, and overjoyed when he discovers the workaround.

It’s difficult. Emerson can’t always make himself understood. He can’t communicate the same way he used to. But he makes it work.

When the motorway’s blocked, you use the side roads. You hope the motorway clears eventually, of course. But you can’t just sit there on the asphalt waiting for that to happen. You’ve got places to be in the meantime.

I’m now running a D&D game as well as playing in one. The rules and sourcebooks are like helpful orderlies staying close at hand while I learn to walk on my own again. If I seem about to stumble, they’re already there with a ready-made pantheon of deities, or a boilerplate call to adventure, or a creature that just needs a bit of a tweak before it works the way I want. It’s storytelling with much of the heavy lifting done for me – if I need it done.

I’m probably doing more homebrew than is healthy for a first time Dungeon Master.

When I was sounding out possible players, there were some who were keen at first, but were maybe-possibly put off by the paperwork? That’s the flipside of D&D being so rules-heavy; it’s a robust support system for developing the adventure, building characters and coping with the unexpected in-game, but that means there’s a lot to keep track of.

The Adventure Zone‘s ‘Stolen Century’ story arc introduced me to Powered by the Apocalypse, a much more minimalist RPG rule system: far fewer stats, far fewer dice, far less to keep track of overall. I sounded out some of the friends who’d been keen on the idea of roleplaying games, but not so keen on D&D specifically, and ended up running a horror game for 12 players in a Kentish AirB&B with terrible plumbing.

It didn’t go perfectly. By reaching for imagery from classic Disney for inspiration, I accidentally made the villain a Jewish caricature, for which I was rightly called out in the moment. And with so many players, I think some of them may have felt like they faded into the background. It was a learning experience. Time management. Reading body language. Being aware of your probable biases when improvising under pressure.

But a story happened.

This has all been happening in private. Getting into a new groove of storytelling for exclusive audiences of a few fellow players. All along I’ve been looking for ways to stop being that vacuum, to get back into putting work out there for others to enjoy. To start contributing to culture again.

There were Blackshaw Theatre folks in that game in the leaky AirB&B. Most of the core Blackshaw team are my friends – did I downplay that when they were producing Audience with the Ghost Finder? I’m a regular on the company’s Arts Hour podcast. So I could be very offhand when I pitched Ellie, the Artistic Director, the idea that turned into Merely Roleplayers. It was an immediate and enthusiastic yes.

Merely Roleplayers is a podcast where theatrical people play roleplaying games. In the first story arc, ‘Ariadne’, the gang play a theatre company … who are also paranormal investigators. We’ll hop through different genres in future arcs. Suggest one in the comments and maybe we’ll give it a go.

Merely Roleplayers is also me laughing in the face of depression. It wants me to be nothing, a black hole curled in on myself in my chair, absorbing things other people have made and never adding anything new into the world. I’m not letting that be me. I’m sure I suck sometimes. But I won’t be that vacuum any more.


About M. J. Starling

Writer, and host of the Schenectady Six-Pack podcast. Gave William Hope Hodgson's ghost-finder, Carnacki, his stage debut.


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