personal growth

Good Wil Wheaton

I struggled with many questions. Was I ready to admit defeat? Was I ready to admit that I’d given it my best shot, but I really was a washed up has-been? Was I willing to say out loud that I was . . . That Guy?
—Wil Wheaton. Just a Geek (Kindle Locations 3050-3052)

That passage comes near the end of Wheaton’s Just a Geek, as he ponders accepting the infomercial job that would, he believed, kill the acting career he’d been chasing since childhood. He needs the money. His family needs the money. That struggle—between dreams and realities—is the constant, beautiful thread through Wheaton’s book. A mixture of reflections and selections from the original wilwheaton.net, Just a Geek is a Bildungsroman without the “roman,” a story about a grownup working hard at growing. Wheaton’s got a remarkable ability to take his raw early blog posts and turn them into the foundation for a compelling narrative of what Neil Gaiman calls “creat[ing] his own second act.”

I have a lot of future blog posts penciled in about my favorite writers, about what they’ve meant to me and why I admire their writing and storytelling. Wil Wheaton is not exactly one of my favorite writers, but I don’t think I’d be doing this blog without Just a Geek. I stumbled across it in a Humble Bundle shortly after I received my last batch of rejection letters for academic jobs. It was the first book in the bundle I read, and I devoured it in one of those clock-defying binges word-lovers know well.

The book works for many reasons, but I think the vital one is Wheaton’s ability to get through the heaviest moments with a light touch that isn’t simply crying coming back around to laughter. There’s funny throughout the book, don’t get me wrong. But when Wheaton (I’m still too much an academic to call him ‘Wil’) talks about the bad times, he doesn’t let himself become self-indulgent. He’s unflinchingly self-critical and leavens stories of his past self-indulgence with gentle self-mockery. He lets us know how bad things were without just telling us how bad things were. All of this is a fancy way of saying that I liked the book as a book, even if it fell my way because Wheaton has carved himself out a space as a geek culture hero.

I’m posting about it, though, because it’s as close as anything is ever likely to get to the intersection of my two previous posts. I didn’t have anything like Stand by Me or Star Trek: The Next Generation in my background to “live up to” or “grow beyond,” but I did have 30 years of people telling me I was awesome and could be whatever I wanted to be. I was really good at school. I paid attention to my work and, whether in front of a keyboard or a classroom full of undergrads, I believed I belonged. I had a long way to go, but I knew my craft and consistently worked to improve it. I was supposed to be serious business.

Of course, all of my friends were also serious business. The bigger problem was that institutions of higher learning were even more serious about conducting a certain kind of business. They didn’t want me for that one. As with Wheaton’s string of unsuccessful auditions, good work was an imperfect defense against rejection. After my lightning read through Just a Geek, one of the anecdotes that stuck with me was Wheaton’s story of meeting Sean Astin at an audition. They’d been friends but fallen out of touch, and they happily caught up with each other in the waiting room. And they were competing for the same job. Neither of them got it. Welcome to every academic conference in the fall hiring season. No matter how happy you are to see your friends, you’re all on the hustle to meet the right people, try and be memorable (good memorable!) to anybody who might be on a hiring committee or a reviewer for a journal. There’s no more money in being an underemployed academic than an underemployed actor.

Wheaton took the infomercial job. He put his family ahead of the ambitions that had led him to quit TNG in the first place. That dream had stalled out, and he had others that were going somewhere. Slowly, through his writing, he was finding other ways to be the person he wanted to be. And as this was happening, he was also finally coming to terms with what TNG meant to him. He allowed himself to be comfortable with it, to take joy in the friends he’d made and the work he’d done. He let himself geek out about the things he wanted to geek out about. That’s worked pretty well for him—in the nine years since Just a Geek came out, he’s been featured everywhere from The Big Bang Theory to The Guild to more webcomics than I can count. He’s become that guy, but not the one he dreaded when he pondered that infomercial.

I knew him as that guy when I read Just a Geek, but it didn’t matter as much as it should have. It was easy to put Wheaton’s subsequent success aside and see the reality of his struggles. That is why the book means something to me, something important. I don’t feel like my struggles are so different as I let go of something I’ve wanted for years to keep my family fed and housed, to do the things I feel I should be doing. I didn’t need Wil Wheaton’s permission to do this, and there isn’t anything in Just a Geek that says “go out and make art.” It isn’t a self-consciously “inspirational” book, which is what makes it inspiring.

Trouble shared is trouble diminished. Reading about Wil’s struggles (and here I’ll break tone and go to the first name), knowing what he’s accomplished since—it made the darkness a little less dark. So thank you, Wil Wheaton, for writing a book that’s meaningful for me, for coming to peace with Star Trek, for sending Aeofel into a pit of acid in the name of role-playing. Thank you.

You can keep up to date on Wil Wheaton’s geek career at http://wilwheaton.net. If you’re interested in his more formal writing, you can find his digital works—including Just a Geek—at http://wilwheatonbooks.com/. Go check it out. 

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People/ Gamers

“There are people who game, and gamers who people.”
          —a certain stupid college first year

As a college freshman, I was in an odd spot. I’d spent the last two years at a school on the other side of the Atlantic. Home was 1500 miles away from Macalester, but that was 3000 miles closer than I had been a few months earlier. I’d already been through the whole “leave home and reinvent yourself” thing. I had a beard. People mistook me for a senior and constantly asked me for directions I didn’t know how to give them. The way my courses shook out in my first semester made things even easier; most of the academic ground I had to cover was familiar.

Despite all this head start (or perhaps because of it), I fell into an odd spot socially. I engaged in the usual whirl of activities freshman try on at a selective liberal arts college: I was active in the International Organization, the Mac Weekly, band…I was still playing basketball and just becoming obsessed with ultimate frisbee. It didn’t feel like trying things on, though, because I’d already been through trying things on. I was pretty convinced that I just had a wide variety of interests and was such a damn hotshot that I could pursue all of them. That put me in the middle of a very messy social Venn diagram, one in which I had slight overlap with half a dozen different social circles.

The most awkward one for me, though, was with the college’s population of “gamers.” This was 1998. Console games didn’t really have anything to do with being a gamer yet. None of them connected to the still fairly-rough-cut internet. Being a gamer meant playing role-playing games, maybe computer games and the occasional board game. (Catan, anyone?) Mac’s gamers pretty much owned a particularly long set of tables in the dining hall. I’d eat there occasionally. I met my first serious girlfriend at that table.

Still, though, it didn’t really fit for me. The gamers were weird. It was enormously hypocritical of me to think that, given the ways that I’d cultivated my own weirdness. They were socially off-kilter and their humor went to odd places. I felt kind of like I should fit. I ran a Spelljammer game on band trips. I’d run the RPG group at my high school in Wales. I had brought a few of my gaming books to college with me to take up precious space in my dorm room. Tellingly, those books stayed in a dark corner. I pitched but never started a D&D game for the people on my floor—other dabblers in gaming.

That quote above—mine, obviously—became an excuse both to feel better about myself and to keep my distance from some great people. The gamers were bad at being people, I was saying, because they were too gamery. It was too central to their identity. Their awkwardness was going to stick to them because they just didn’t do enough other things. (Truth: I was too nervous and/or condescending to ask them about their other interests. A decade later, they’ve all proven to have many.) I, on the other hand, could game as much as I wanted because I was a person who occasionally gamed. I did so many other cool things that gaming oughtn’t hold me back.

We all know that even smart people are stupid, right? I’ve said a lot of idiotically pretentious things over the years, but that “gamers who people” thing might make my top ten. Certainly the “things said outside a graduate seminar” top ten.

So much has changed in the last fifteen years. Games have invaded everything. The geeks were right. Famous funny people have publicly—proudly—admitted being geeks. You walk into the toy section at Target, you see board games marked “as featured on Tabletop”—a show, on the internet, co-created by Wil Farking Wheaton. I am so late to the party on this.

There’s no doubt that my coming to peace with my gamer-ness has been assisted by all the social and technological change. It’s also been a consequence of my slow outgrowing of high school ideas of what’s cool. Those ideas are stupidly persistent. In grad school, though, I ran into other challenges. As a writer and reader, I’ve always maintained that the best of “genre fiction” can stand alongside the books I had to read as an English major. That insistence somehow didn’t extend to intellectual credibility. A gamer who treasures Adorno’s Minima Moralia? Seriously? How can you put THAC0 and Adorno in the same head? The upshot was that as much as I might ‘fess up to being a gamer (and even played a session with my fellow grad students), those gaming books still tended to stay on a shelf in the spare room.

Don't hate me for owning 4e!

We have many shelves, but this one is the most “me.” Except for LIFE.

About a year ago, they made it out onto the “real” shelving in rooms people actually use. In the new place, they’re in the same unit as my academic books and (“serious”) literature. They’re still on the bottom shelf, because they’re mostly pretty damn heavy and will threaten the quality Swedish particleboard if they’re put any higher. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove any more. That’s one of the flip sides of the last, heavy post: letting go is hard, but it lightens you up. Gamers are people, people are gamers. Whatever. I’m okay being both now. People are people, and even the most awkward of us deserve better than restrictive labels…even when cultural changes have made it comfortable for us to re/claim them.