#SharkSchool Lesson 1: How To Find Your Voice As A Writer
Despite my bro-ey attitude on here, I've always been a massive nerd. Most of my youth I was a socially awkward, RPG-obsessed, anime-watching, science-fiction-reading dork with no friends.
When AOL came out and the internet went mainstream, I finally had the opportunity to "socialize" with strangers. Chat rooms were interesting but quickly got boring. A/s/l anyone?
Chaotic Evil boys have all the fun
Eventually, I found a text-based role-playing game called Dragon's Gate. There were no graphics, although that didn't matter because my computer was a piece of shit anyway. It was 100% text, often called a MUD (multi-user dungeon).
For those of you who have never geeked out to this degree, it's basically one of these games where you create a character to build skills, gather inventory and try to level up. You interact with other characters in the game, role-playing as a dark-elf wizard who worships the God of Plastic Spoons or some shit.
The combination of my loneliness and the dopamine released every time I leveled up meant I was addicted pretty much right away. My main character on there was Lii, a human monk who worshipped Taath, the God of Pain. There was a huge world on there with tons of factions, gods, and races. Any of you who've read my posts know that I have a tendency to min/max everything, and this was no exception.
I spent hours in front of a scrolling wall of text, mindlessly building my character by repeating the same skills over and over. I sunk hundreds of hours into that game just to build Lii into a virtually unkillable demigod. He was consistently one of the strongest characters in the game.
On top of that, as a worshipper of the Dark Lord, he had a mean streak and a penchant for hurting people just for his own amusement. I took sick pleasure in picking fights in the middle of town for absolutely no reason. I'm sure I made the game less fun for many people, but it was all in the name of "RP."
Staying home on Friday night never felt so good
Besides, conflict is what made the game interesting. Not only were there wars between factions, but there were wars within factions as well. I remember at one point, the Taathian Temple had a High Priest who wasn't particularly rabid enough. Some people supported him and some didn't, until eventually he was displaced in spectacular fashion.
There were over 10,000 rooms in the game, each with a different text description. No pictures, remember? I learned words that I have literally never heard in spoken conversation, so many that I wouldn't see until years later in some obscure, completely unrelated situation.
Every Saturday, we'd have Gladiator Games - an out-of-character evening where we'd form teams and battle it out in an arena. With 50 players casting spells, attacking each, and trying to give their teammates instructions via text (there was no voice chat back then), the words on the screen scrolled faster than any human was capable of reading. Over time, you learned to recognize the patterns of letters for a given spell without reading it, even if the description was two lines long.
People even formed romantic relationships. I did too. Not something I'm particularly proud to admit today, but it definitely happened. Her name was Jade, a mentally unbalanced Dark Elf thief. We got along great. I mean, she was probably about 20 years older than me in real life, but in game we fell in love.
Ugh.. sounds so pathetic now that I say it. But I was in my own world. We all were. We loved that game.
The game also had a forum where players would discuss the game itself. There was an IC (in character) forum as well as and OOC one (out of character). People would talk massive amounts of shit to each other in both IC and OOC, and sometimes it was hard to determine where the line between reality and fantasy actually was. People would say, "I" when referring to their character in an OOC board. Sometimes you just identified so strongly with your character, it felt like you weren't even playing a role anymore.
Anyone who's ever spent any time on a forum knows that discussions can get heated over there as well. Personalities emerge, little factions are created and there's drama for days.
Mom says it's my turn on the Xbox
This was around the year 2001 or so, long before adding images to posts was a thing. Memes hadn't been invented yet. People still had a reasonable attention span.
What I'm getting at here is that for years, the only way I had to express myself was via text. I spent hours on forums arguing my point of view. I used commands in-game in an attempt to show people what I wanted them to see. I was a text-based performer.
Sadly, players eventually started leaving the game. It just wasn't fun anymore. The high level characters were too dominant in terms of skills/loot. The amount of time required to get on their level was too intimidating to people whose characters were low level.
On top of that, there was never any sort of conflict resolution. Worst thing that could happen is that one character would kill another one. A fight would start, and if it was near the center of town people would start taking sides until it was a massive brawl.
People wouldn't talk things out, they'd just argue until one of them threw a punch. There was no permadeath, no mourning over killed characters. They would just respawn ten minutes later and that was that.
The complainers became more vocal until staff eventually stepped in and changed the combat system to make things more "fair." Previously, a level 1 character would get steamrolled by a level 50. In fact, a properly-geared level 50 could probably take on half a dozen level 45s and still hold his own.
With the new change, they introduced some features designed to make the playing field more level. In reality, what it did was drastically devalue the time sunk into developing your character. Now there wasn't even a reason to try and kill the other person, as the new combat system made it virtually impossible for high level characters to exert any sort of influence in the game by way of force. And whether or not that's "good," that was the law of the land in that game. Power = power.
Is there such a thing as a selfie made of text?
After the game disappeared, I started writing on LiveJournal.com. No idea if that site is still around, but I basically used it as a diary for a few months. Somehow I got the idea in my head that I wanted to write down everything that happened to me, because someday when I was older I would enjoy reading what my life used to be like.
My writing started off terrible but slowly got better. The way LiveJournal worked was that you could invite friends to read your stuff. So on the one hand it was a diary, but on the other hand you were also letting people read it. You wrote for yourself, but you also wrote for an audience. You were able to speak your mind, but you couldn't say everything like you would if it was private.
This alone forced me to improve my writing because I knew other people would be reading it. Sure, I could half-ass it, but as I continued to write, I got some positive feedback from people. It encouraged me to keep going, to further improve. I was hungry for the praise.
Eventually, MySpace became the social media platform of choice, so I switched. They had a blog feature which I eagerly took advantage of, posting my journal entries 5-6 times per week. These were not short entries, either. Long, detailed descriptions of my job, school, even my personal relationships. My storytelling skills improved, not because I read a blog post on how to tell a story, but because I worked on it every single day and developed a feel for what worked.
Easy money is the best money
Meanwhile, in the real world, I was a reckless 19 year old acting like I would live forever. I was smoking weed and popping pills on a daily basis. I was also dealing to support my habit (and make a little extra on the side) along with my entire group of friends. I managed to keep this up for a few years, writing the entire time.
Eventually, I made a contact who was heavily involved in the rave scene. I'd never been to a rave, but I loved doing ecstasy.
One day, I wanted to buy a couple pills so I hit him up. He invited me to a rave all the way in Downtown LA. I lived on the Westside - the nice part of LA - and tried to avoid downtown as much as possible - mainly because I don't like the smell of piss.
But I got my ass in my car and drove down there. Walked by a bunch of gangster-looking black dudes into what looked like an abandoned building - right past a bunch of random weirdos dressed like they were going to an anime convention.
I feel myself getting carried away by the story, so I'll spare you the details and just say that that night changed my life. I bought 100 pills and added them to everything else I was slanging. Spent the next few months going to raves, dealing, and killing way too many braincells.
I continued writing this entire time.
I had to learn how to tailor what I was writing to my audience. After all, I had family members on MySpace and it was possible that they were reading my entries and gossiping about me to each other. I was paranoid, yes, but my reputation was at stake. Nobody knew about my double-life. On the surface I was just a nice boy going to school, hitting the gym and hanging out with his friends.
I wasn't joking about stealing your computer
Eventually, I got into crystal meth and that's where everything started to fall apart. For those of you who have never done it, it makes you feel incredibly powerful for about 12 hours. You're super confident, your physical movements feel smooth and fluid, and you literally feel like you can do anything.
The problem is that once you start to come down, you don't feel so good. So what do you do? Another line, obvi. If you're a real crackhead then you smoke it. I did that too. Had my own little crackpipe and everything.
Three days go by and you still haven't slept or eaten. You have dark circles under your eyes. You've lost so much weight that the sides of your head get that sucked-in starving African look. Everyone who knows you knows you're on some shit, but they always say the same thing.
"You look great!"
Every time. That's how you know you're fucked up.
Then you start to hallucinate.
I'd be sitting watching TV, thinking that a friend of mine was on the couch next to me. We'd be in the middle of a conversation and the door would open. That same friend would walk through the door. The couch was empty - turns out he'd gone to the store and had been gone for an hour.
You start fucking up when you're on crystal. The sense of power it gives you may be legitimate at first, but sleep deprivation takes its toll and you start making mistakes. Eventually, one of them gets you in trouble.
Same thing happened with me. One day it all came crashing down. I got popped by the cops with an illicit pharmacy in my car and a big wad of cash. I had to call my parents to bail me out of jail. My double life was over.
Why James Bond can't work a real job
It was a terrible experience, but looking back it was ultimately for the best. Had I continued down that path, my life truly would have been fucked. A little tough love and some discipline did me good, though at the time I wouldn't have said that. All I wanted to do was have things go back to the way they used to be.
Oh, did I mention that I kept writing during this entire time? Yep. Kept posting that shit on MySpace for everyone to see. Didn't care at that point anymore. I mean, my life was already fucked, right? So might as well let everyone know.
I was also taking a creative writing class in college at the time. Every assignment would be something related to my current situation. Something about raves, drugs and eventually getting caught and how fucked my life had become. Even though I stopped going halfway through, I emailed my assignments to my professor and he gave me a decent grade.
In exchange for bailing me out, my parents told me that I had to move in with them and get my shit together. I agreed because I had no choice. Things were tense and we hated each other for a few months. I won't go into detail, but there were lots of screaming fights. They took a big hit from hiring a lawyer for me. Worth every penny, especially since I wasn't the one who paid.
I spent the next eight months living with them, effectively under house arrest. I was allowed to go to the gym and my state-sponsored rehabilitation classes every two weeks and that was it. I had nothing to do except watch cartoons.
And write, of couse. I put it all out there. Everything I was feeling, all the anger at the world for being so unfair. I knew it was my fault - I was just pissed that I got caught.
I secretly dreamed of the day when I'd be free again. I knew exactly what I'd do, too.
Eight months later I finished my "rehab" - watching anti-drug videos for two hours every two weeks - and my case was dismissed. I'd repaired the relationship with my parents and regained their trust. They gave me the green light to move out and finish my degree, so I moved back to LA.
Pride goeth before the fall - but it will raise you back up, too
The first thing I did was go to Electric Daisy Carnival, one of the most anticipated raves of the year. Back then, they still held it in California. I managed to get up to all my old tricks, this time without getting caught. Stupid, I know. But try telling that to the 21 year old me.
I could go on, because some even crazier shit happened after that, but this is already longer than I intended.
I wrote so often for an audience that eventually I figured out how to say what I wanted to say. My typing speed increased and I began to see the paragraph structure as a standalone object, not a bunch of words strung together. My goal became creating structures on top of structures that are appealing to the eye at first glance, just like in the Gladiator Games. I wrote from the heart because I was writing about my favorite subject - myself.
And I did it all for free. Nobody ever paid me a single cent for anything I wrote until a few months ago. I did it because I liked getting attention from people who liked what I wrote. That desire for genuine praise is what pushed me to improve my work, to write a 26,000 word journal entry in two days, even when I didn't feel like it. I knew that someday it would pay off.
More than that, I always held the belief that someday I'd want to read about how my life USED to be from an in-the-moment perspective, not after it had been warped by memory. Granted, I've had some experiences that are somewhat unique compared to most people - but that's only encouraged me to write more.
That said, I believe that my life has become more interesting BECAUSE of my writing, not the other way around. Many times I've pushed myself into an uncomfortable situation, only because I knew that when I sat down to write about it, it would make for an entertaining piece.
So, how do you find your voice as a writer? I don't know, maybe just fucking write a lot or something.
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