A long time ago, when I was in graduate school, I joined a writers' group. It was an informal workshop in which we intended to help each other finish and improve works of fiction then in progress. It didn't last long. If I'm perfectly honest, it was a washout. I know writers who swear by such groups, thank theirs in the acknowledgements in their books, and advise new or struggling writers to find one of their own. I've no doubt that a good one, one with the right chemistry, is a fantastic support system and resource.
This one I joined, it was not that.
It wasn't that we didn't have good intentions; there was a lot of loyalty, critical admiration, and genuine fondness in the room, and — because there were human beings there — there was also a lot of insecurity. Every last one of us was eager to get and give help with our writing problems, but none of us really wanted to hear, or speak aloud, anything that might hurt. We quickly gravitated to talking only about one another's best bits, drinking wine, and praising ourselves for getting the writing done alongside work, school, and other demands. It was like going to the gym and doing a few reps on the machines we found to be easy; it made us feel good about ourselves for a little while, but it really wasn't making any of us stronger.
The group's gradual, sputtering end was a little awkward, but when a faculty member asked whether I was sad to be losing my "creative community," I was able to say no;I had realized by then that what I really needed from a writers' group, I was getting from role-playing. She shot me a look very much like alarm and asked, "You don't mean like Dungeons and Dragons, do you?"
I did, and I do.
I've been playing pen-and-paper, tabletop role-playing games since I was 17. The basics of these games, for those who are unfamiliar, are fairly simple. A setting is established along with rules for resolving conflicts and meeting challenges. Players build characters who in one way or another fit into the setting, and in almost every case one player — sometimes called the "game master" or "storyteller" — presents the others with a series of large and small goals as well as obstacles to overcome. The players collectively build the narrative as they go, determining what their characters feel, want, and need in response to their changing circumstances and how they will behave as a consequence. From the outside, it can look like a lot of statistics, tables, charts, rules, and dice rolling. From the inside, it feels like making up a story with your friends.
With my husband and two of our oldest friends — all writers as well — I have had at least one game in progress for nearly 20 years. That's in addition to all the shorter-term gaming groups he and I have been a part of for a few months or years along the way. We have played D&D, yes, and I love a high-fantasy setting, but there have been other published games as well — space operas, swashbuckling adventures, occult investigations, gothic dramas — not to mention the "home-brew" games we've cobbled together from a rules system we like and a setting we want to explore.
The thing about these games — the thing that makes them invaluable to me as a writer — is in part that they have rarely had much at all to do with the fiction I actually write. When I'm playing a shy jazz-age scholar caught up in a mission to banish a demon from a remote farmhouse, I am actively not thinking about a children's picture book, a mystery, a teen comedy, or a superhero comic I'm working on. I'm thinking, instead, about my character's history and how it's likely to motivate her. I'm thinking about the way people react when presented with evidence that their world view is naive or just plain wrong. I'm noticing that one of the other players has had a character say or do something that never would have occurred to me, revealing a blind spot I might have about gender, race, or body image. I'm laughing with the others when we catch ourselves stumbling toward an obvious cliché. I'm thinking on my feet when the dice tell us our clever plan has been thwarted.
And I'm having fun. But while I'm doing it, I'm stretching my writer muscles and learning from my friends while we do story rather than talk about it. The closest comparison I can think of is the way actors talk about working with an improv group: it's a form of group play that masks (and maybe takes certain stresses or barriers out of) serious work and skill building.
If I had ever once seriously considered the old directive to "write what you know," I'd never have tried writing fiction. I want to reach out, as a maker of stories, to places I will never go and people I will never meet. I want to connect. A lot of the people I game with are writers, yes, but many are not. What brings us all to the table, I think, is the way this collective, imaginative experience asks us to learn about ourselves and to practice learning about others. It's a fantastic way to connect and to think about what it means to connect.
Also, we get to save the world, depose evil overlords, vanquish monsters, and solve mysteries.
And it can be crazy, silly, surprising, wet-yourself-laughing fun.
÷ ÷ ÷
Jen Van Meter is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her best-known work is the Hopeless Savages comic series, which has been nominated for an Eisner Award and recommended by the Young Adult Library Services Association.
Books mentioned in this post
Jen Van Meter is the author of Hopeless Savages