A week ago, as I was finishing the writing on my largest game* to date, I posted a twitter thread about my insecurity and imposter experience, and how I had downplayed (sabotaged, even) my own work.
The writing is now basically finished.
Usually, after I finished a writing project, I felt a melancholia, a depression as I surveyed the finished thing. This time I didn’t.
As I was finishing the content, I was also reflecting on my insecurities which have been with me for so long. This post is a reflection on those reflections.
Welcome to the funhouse.
I Am Not A Finisher
When I was very young, five years old, way back in the 1980s, I loved to draw. I also fell in love with the character of Snoopy on the basis of one sweatsuit my parents bought for my thirteen or fourteen-year-old sister in Italy and two or three Snoopy and Woodchuck-themed notebooks. I didn’t know Woodchuck’s name at the time. I hadn’t seen any Snoopy cartoons—they weren’t available in Yugoslavia at the time. I did know the Zvitorepec graphic novels by Slovenian artist Miki Muster. Using the character of Snoopy, as seen in maybe 10 variations total, and the model of those comic books, I created two more beagle friends for Snoopy: Rok and Gergi. At the seaside that summer I wrote and illustrated a complete comic book of the adventures of Snoopy, Rok, and Gergi. I know it was complete, because I illustrated a whole small notebook. From page 1 to page 32. It had everything: hand-drawn panels, speech bubbles, thought bubbles, dialogue, scenes.
My Mum and my sister were very impressed, but crucially, I don’t remember my Father being very interested in it at all. I do remember him snorkeling and bringing me a seastar, and I insisted that he put it back in the sea so it wouldn’t die. He often repeated that story after to illustrate how soft-hearted I was.
I always wanted my Father to be proud of me, but he was never very interested in the things I enjoyed. He was only proud of me when I did the things he enjoyed. So, bit by bit, I stopped showing him the things I enjoyed. I still drew and wrote and designed, but I stopped finishing things—that way I never had to face anything I loved being overlooked by my Father or anybody else.
By my teens I had a very strong sense that I was very bad at finishing projects. I would get most of the way to the end of a work, then my motivation would drop and I would leave it incomplete.
But, like I said, I just couldn’t face to show my hard work just to see it ignored. The fear of that was like a gnawing thing hiding at my back, just beyond the corner of my eye, looming and growling bigger the closer I drew to the finish.
This is likely a just-so story I discovered for myself many years after, but it is a sensible just-so story, and it works to anchor a narrative of a life; so even though it may not be true to the facts as they are embedded in that far off summer of 1987 on the island of Pag in Dalmatia, it is true to the story of the life I have lived.
This goes for the following stories, too.
I Am Not A Writer
When I was young, I loved writing. In elementary and middle school I discovered the joy of writing, of inventing stories, of characters, and plots, and ripping yarns, and tension, and horror, and mysteries.
My Dad liked to remind me of the teacher who commented that if I kept it up, she was sure I “would earn a million bucks” with writing.
But I wrote in English and when we moved back to Slovenia, my writing ground to a halt. To say that my Slovenian wasn’t as good as my English is an understatement. Not only did I make grammatical mistakes, I moved from a system that rewarded creative writing to one that rewarded the rote repetition of opinions expressed by literary academics as regurgitated to high school students by a series of uninspired teachers.
At my international school, in 7th and 8th grade, I learned how to write essays and formulate arguments.
At my Slovenian school, from grades 9 to 12, I learned how to place commas and underline constituents for syntactic analysis.
Every time we had to write an essay, I would be docked half a grade for every misplaced comma. I failed tests, because, even though my arguments might be good, my form was not correct enough.
I learned to fear sharing my writing, because invariably the authority would show me that my ideas did not matter.
After all, I couldn’t put the damned commas in, the right place.
I also learned to despise the Slovenian language, but that’s not the topic here.
I Am Not An Artist
I have been drawing since the day I could hold a pen. I have my Mom to thank for that, for spending hours and hours lying on the floor with me, teaching me to draw. I still remember her teaching me to draw trucks.
I drew all my way through elementary and middle and high school. But somehow, in high school, I internalized a few things from my environment.
Artists are alcoholics. They don’t contribute to society. Also, they are poor. Also, they are the backbone of Slovenian identity. Also, a real artist went to the Academy of Arts and got a degree that proved they were an artist. Then they could be a proper alcoholic, too, I suppose.
Also, artists must suffer for their art. That was definitely a theme in high school.
I didn’t want to suffer. I didn’t suffer when I drew. So how could I be an artist? I wasn’t suffering: I loved drawing!
There was this fantastic Venn diagram of what an artist was supposed to be in the native Slovenian conception, and what I was and wanted to be, and there was almost no overlap.
Finally, towards the end of my last year of high school, I had a small exhibition in a local hall. As I was setting it up, in preparation for the opening, the cleaning lady came in and peered at my art with a jaundiced eye.
“This isn’t art! This is garbage! It doesn’t look realistic.”
By this point I was skeptical enough of art in the Slovenian context, that I agreed. I was not an artist. I never tried to have an exhibition in Slovenia again.
I Am Not A Designer
At university, I studied international relations (but I had wanted to study architecture). And drew comics and characters and scenes and wrote short things. And basically never published or shared or showed them anywhere.
I “sold” my art to the philosopher in exchange for second-hand books and small change and whiskey so he could illustrate his turgid prose essays on the genius of René Descartes and Bladerunner and the Matrix. That was about it.
I had a friend who studied graphic design. He was very long-winded and self-assured, educating all of us on kerning and typography and layout and all sorts of arcane subjects, which he assured us were very, very important and complex and ineffable.
After university I ended up working in advertising as a copywriter, then I started doing storyboards, then also some graphic designs. Throughout, when working as a designer, I felt like an utter fraud. After all, I hadn’t gone through years of theoretical lectures and summer schools and camps on typography.
Later, I ended up working at a Swiss event app company for some of the worst bosses I have ever had the chance to encounter. The terminally eternal startup meant I ended up doing design and design management work, but since I didn’t have a graphic design degree, my boss never let me forget it.
He pleasantly said that if I wanted him to take my input seriously, I needed to complete a graphic design degree. He ’generously’ offered that I enroll in a two-year community college while he ‘allowed’ me to work 50% of my hours at 50% pay.
By this point I had been doing professional graphic design work as part of my various jobs for 5 years. Yet, the shitty boss was pinpoint accurate in homing in on my insecurity.
How could I be a designer, no matter how much design I did or studied? After all, I had not gone to community college for design.
Dear reader, perhaps you notice something of a pattern to my insecurities?
I certainly did, as I mulled things over while finishing my ornate, baroque, heavily-illustrated, decoratively laid-out 320-page book.
Uranium Butterflies is my fourth “big finished book” that I have written, illustrated, and laid out. I can walk into my study and take down my copy of the UVG that won the 2020 gold Ennie award for best interior art in a roleplaying game.
Here’s the pattern I saw: my insecurities all stemmed from a need for an authority to provide me with a stamp of approval.
“Yea, Hereby In The Name Of Our Most High and Unique Authority, WE the Authority, Do Deign to Notice and Agree that You, WORM, Supplicant, that You are … Adequate.”
“Yes, Master Authority, I cringe before you and accept your gift of satisfaction.”
I joke, but the metaphorical bent back was real.
I sat there, looking at this enormous thing I had created.
There it was, my white whale, swimming placid, unspeared, eye as large as a galaxy, reading me.
Three years ago, the UVG kickstarter’s success gave my Dad the first proof that he could understand that his son’s writing and drawing were worth something.
Then he died before I could sit down with him and show him what I had made.
The last three years, I have come to appreciate the sentiment behind Confucian mourning rituals. Behind black arm bands. There is a technology there for speaking with the dead, for coming to see them as people like us, as equals.
The Authority falls, Father becomes Dad.
I’ve talked and written and grappled with the spirit and shape of my ancestor many times over the last three years, and in so doing I’ve also wrestled and spoken and illustrated a life for myself.
I could not do it otherwise. I had to build my edifice first, to prove I could do it, to show I could encompass all the vast possibilities of an infinity of imagination beyond the edge of time twice over and again, to …
My white whale looks at me and laughs at my big words.
Big, fancy, false words.
I had to write the big book so I could look at it and know.
There is no Authority and I don’t need it.
*Seacat: Uranium Butterflies—an ornate, baroque 320-pages worth of content for playing psychedelic heroes in the realms of the Ultraviolet Grasslands and other strange science fantasy worlds inspired by heavy metal, weird fiction, and strange designs. Get the latest draft here: http://patreon.com/wizardthieffighter
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