In which listening to Kathy Sierra speak probably changed my life.
So, I’m a writer.
No, oh gosh no, it’s okay — I’m not going to tell you about the book I’m writing. You can read it when it’s done, that’s fine — talking about it now would be like showing a sonogram image to a complete stranger. I’m not going to put you in the metaphorical position of having to say “oh, that’s a lovely, grainy picture of… space, maybe? Is it space? Is that an asteroid — is that what the numbers along the edge mean? They’re coordinates in space?”
(My friends, on the other hand, they get texts at 2am asking about potential names. And I’m not even talking metaphorically, now. Just… bless those folks.)
Anyway, I’m just telling you I’m a writer, because I’m a fiction writer, and so you’d be forgiven for thinking that — of all the amazing talks at XOXO 2015 — Kathy Sierra’s wouldn’t be the one that spoke to me the most, on a professional level.
Because I didn’t see that coming, either.
But that comes at the end.
If the first day of talks at XOXO was amazing ladies being amazing, the second day was definitely “now let’s talk about your career, Ariana.” From the very first talk of the day all of the speakers had something to say that I found myself thinking “I need to incorporate that into my professional brain, effective immediately.”
Lisa Hanawalt — who I’m actually kinda sad about, because I don’t think we’ll ever be best friends, because I’m just not that into horses — talked about not only moving her hands when she was feeling negative emotions, but because she was feeling negative emotions. I totally don’t do that — I tend to shove the negative into a little box when I’m working, so that I can get stuff done without that weight. But that means that, whenever I’m trying to write vulnerably, I sometimes need to fake it (and faking it never works, so what I really mean is that I need to start over), because it’s hard to access the negative emotions that I could be using. I need to remind myself that although I don’t personally gain much from working through negative emotions, they can still be a useful thing to keep in my open toolbox.
Nicky Case talked about chaos and decision trees and details in a way that was so relevant to my interests I wish I’d taken notes. Thank goodness there’s a transcript, and I really need the YouTube video of that talk to go up yesterday so I could be rewatching it right now instead of writing this piece. Nicky was talking about game development and life, but a recurring theme was ignoring the future and exploring the present. Which, again, is a thing I need to remind myself about when writing, because I know how a story ends. I have to do the physical work of getting the words filled in from the beginning to the end, but I know where I’m going. And I’m delighted when something — a new thought, a plot wobble, and unexpected character arc — pops up in the middle of that work. I want to remember to deliberately make a space for those surprises to happen by not always thinking about the inevitable end, and instead exploring the present within the narrative.
Akilah Hughes was just so much fun to watch, I wouldn’t have even cared if there hadn’t been a professional takeaway to her talk. I was just having fun listening to her being awesome and knowing it. But she’s probably a really big part of why I’m writing this piece at all, because a big part of her talk was “when are you really what you want to be?” Like, I don’t make a big deal about being a writer. I’ve gotten better at saying “I write” when people ask me what I do, but I’ve only got one published book so far. Do I get to call myself a writer? I’m definitely not a published novelist yet, because my first book wasn’t a novel, so that’s fair, I can keep that bar because it’s relevant. But I need to focus on, you know what? I can call myself a writer, out loud, in public, to other people besides my best friends. It is a thing I have done and continue to do. And some people are absolutely going to tell me my accomplishments to date don’t count because they don’t hit every bar. But some people are going to say that forever. Akilah said it’s up to me to decide when I’ve made it and oh, yeah, that’s right: it is up to me. That’s why I started this piece by telling you what I do. If you’ve read this far, then it turns out that was okay for me to say.
Rami Ismail spent, like, 15 minutes teaching me some Arabic letters. And his point was that it is incredibly frustrating when someone doesn’t take the time to learn something that takes 15 minutes, and instead just half-ass it because who cares if it might be a bit insulting to 250ish million speakers of a language that you didn’t even take the time to go to Google Translate. That is a wonderful point. It’s not, however, what I took away from the talk. I was captivated by an audience of 750ish people enjoying learning something that many of them will probably never use again. Because I tend to keep explanations to a minimum, when I write. Everyone knows that no one wants to have to learn anything to enjoy a story, right? I mean, knowledge is great in textbooks, but somewhere along the line it’s been drilled into me that I need to keep that nonsense out of entertainment. But no one walked out of Rami’s talk while he was teaching the audience something new. I need to keep that in my head, for a while. I need to think about how maybe it’s okay to sometimes write “and now let me teach you something, for context.”
Veronica Belmont talked about the memory of the internet being really, really, long — and how you can make a mistake today, and if it gets on the internet, that will pop up for the rest of your life. Which is super scary, because I used to have a LiveJournal. I don’t think anyone saved copies, but what if they did? What if I become a NYT bestseller, and someone publishes some of my circa 1999 poetry? Now, Veronica was talking about much bigger mistakes — life ruining mistakes, or boobies taken out of context — and how we need to, as a population of planet internet, start reblogging with a bit more empathy. But my concerns about (seriously, like, rhyming poetry) aren’t as ridiculous as they sound. It does not take very much (even potential) embarrassment at all to turn into crippling self-doubt. And I’m usually pretty good at laughing at and learning from my past, but I want to become even more mindfully empathetic of others. I don’t want to be the only writer in the world. I want to help others join me. And that doesn’t just mean being happy for the successes of other creative people — what I want, for myself, for my career path, is to be able to notice when my fellow creatives are being pushed down by the weight of their past failures, too. And then I can say “oh, yeah, crappy past stuff. We’ve all got some of that. Doesn’t matter. Just keep doing who you are, now.”
Amit Gupta’s talk was so powerful that I don’t think I can do it justice with a write up. He was telling a deeply personal story of fear and heartache, and I could repeat it, but you should hear it from him. So let’s skip to the end, when he asked the audience to participate in a few minutes of thinking about their goals, what they would regret not having done if there were only a week left, and what they could be doing right now to start moving towards at least one of those goals. Right now. And that was an incredibly life-affirming moment for me, professionally, because I am doing what I want to do. I’m not done yet — that’ll take work, and time, and moving onto the next thing for the rest of my life. I can’t yet quit my day job — but I don’t hate my day job, either, and I’m not using it as an excuse for “not having time” to do anything else. There is no project that I want to do, but am still hesitating to start — because I’ve started, and it’s scary, but I’m continuing. And those things were not all true a year ago. Many of those things were the exact polar opposite of true two years ago. Amit made me stop and think about how much I have changed what I am willing to put off — out of fear, out of laziness, out of confusion — just in the past year, and I was suddenly really proud of myself. And I don’t ever want to lose that feeling — or be where I was two years ago when I wasn’t even sure this was a possible feeling — so I need to keep doing what I’m doing.
And now I get to tell you about hearing Kathy Sierra’s talk.
Now, Kathy apparently likes ponies, according to her website. And I already told you I don’t care about horses. I don’t hate them, it’s fine that they exist — but I don’t ever think about them. Kathy’s written technical program language books that I’m sure are fantastic, but I write fiction. I had to look up the “UX” on her about page, because that’s not an acronym I use in any part of my life and I was sure it had something to do with users, but the X was a mystery to me. I had no doubt her talk was going to be great, because she was the last speaker at a conference that had been full of amazing speakers that did nothing like what I do. But I assumed she wasn’t going to say much that was immediately relevant to my professional life.
I was so wrong.
The seventh sentence of Kathy’s talk was: “Imagine that you’re at XOXO and someone says, I’m writing a book.”
Yeah, I didn’t tune in at the end of her talk. She got me sitting on the edge of my seat and giving my full attention just 30 words in.
And then — and this is not done, y’all — then she started talking about writing a book with the intention of selling it. And making a living at writing books, even.
You can’t do that. You’re not allowed. If you start talking about selling books then you have sold out and no one will ever take you seriously as a creator again that’s…
…that was amazing.
I didn’t even care that she wasn’t talking about fiction books, because she was talking about writing, and she was talking about getting paid for it, and she and I were on the same page.
(I pun sometimes, btw, and it is nearly always deliberate. I will never stop, so don’t bother judging me.)
But, okay, she was talking about a technical book and not, in her words, the Great American Novel. So, although I was really happy to hear a professional writer talking about money and no one in the audience was booing, I was pretty sure she wasn’t going to have any how-to advice that was immediately relevant to me.
I was wrong, again.
She said: “[…] every day you sit down with your blank piece of paper, it’s so hard to resist thinking how can I make this more awesome. When we need to focus all of our energy on saying that doesn’t matter, it only matters what happens for [the user/reader].”
And: “You’re creating whatever it is you do, or build or make, you’re creating a context in which something is going to happen for someone, they will be transformed in some way.”
And she threw a big slide up on the projector screen behind her that I need to print out and tape up above my monitor.
“Assume people want to be better when they get the thing.
Find out WTF stops them.”
I have never consciously thought about doing that, when writing. I write fiction. Entertainment. I assume people want to be entertained, and if leaving out bowls of food for the cats in Neko Atsume can keep people occupied, maybe I can too. That seems like an achievable goal.
But what if I assumed people want to be better when they get my books? I don’t have to take that thought all the way to “they want to be better so they buy my books” — I don’t have to shoot for writing things that people buy as a result of wanting to be better. But I can do that first thing — I can assume that people want to be better and, unrelated but simultaneously, they are buying my books.
I can assume that there are people that want to be better (when, incidentally, my books are available for purchase).
I can do that.
I’ve never done that before, but I can.
I can also find out WTF stops people from being better. I already know a bunch of TF, because I myself have been stopped from being better. I have often stopped myself from being better.
So, also a thing I can do.
And then Kathy started talking about users instead of readers and the rest of her talk was wonderful. But I was firmly stuck in my head thinking: “no, but listen, what if you start thinking about the story you’re telling as something to be used?”
Because I told you I wasn’t going to tell you about the book I’m working on, but I am going to tell you this about the book I’m working on: I’m writing this book mostly because I want to tell this story. That’s a totally acceptable reason to write. Lots of people do it. It’s working fine for me so far.
But what if I were writing this book because I wanted people to read it?
I mean, that seems silly, of course I want people to read it, I already said I want to get paid, too, while we’re talking about things creatives aren’t supposed to admit.
But what if I were writing this book because I wanted people to read it, because I assume they want to be better, and reading this book could make them just a little bit better in some undefinable way?
Well that is just the most conceited thought I can think of. How dare I?
Really, how dare I?
But, do I dare?
I don’t know if I dare.
But I want to try.
I want to try writing — Fiction! Not even something noble like the historical account of something fantastic! Or even a self-help book! — with the intent of making the people who read it, better.
So I take it back, Amit —twenty minutes after you asked, I realized there is apparently a big, scary, possibly impossible thing I want to try doing, and I don’t know if I can, and I’m worried about what people will think about me if I do try… and I’m going to do it, anyway.