In my mid-thirties, I thought I might pursue a career in the roleplaying game industry. I’d played Dungeons & Dragons since I was a kid–since it was invented, practically–and TSR, the company responsible for that iconic game, had just been bought by Wizards of the Coast, which was located in a suburb of my native Seattle. What’s more, I’d published a couple adventures in TSR’s Dungeon Magazine, which was to game designers what The New Yorker was to literary writers.
Working at TSR, however, was an idea, not a dream. My dream was to be a writer, specifically a fiction writer, though at thirty-five that dream was largely unrealized, and I was waiting tables to support my family and me. My idea was that creating roleplaying adventures was a more interesting and, probably, lucrative day job than waiting tables.
A temporary position at TSR came open, and the editor of Dungeon suggested I fill it. It was only a two-week gig, but it was a chance to find out what working at a game company was really like. At first, frankly, it was boring, though that was because I was reading story submissions to TSR’s other publication, Dragon Magazine, and I didn’t like the stories they did publish, so how was I to know what constituted a good one? I also didn’t care for office work. So much sitting. Finally, there was the fantasy, swords and sorcery aesthetic in which that organization marinated every day.
For instance, one afternoon, Chris, the editor of Dungeon, invited me to lunch with he and Dave, the editor of Dragon. I had a nice time listening to them talk about the future of D&D, and I even offered a few of my own thoughts, which they politely ignored. Still, I was on the inside! After lunch, Dave checked his watch and mentioned to Chris that there was time to hop over to the comic book store and check out the new editions that had just come in. Chris asked me if I wanted to come along.
I was legitimately confused. Adults read comic books? I’d enjoyed them when I was eleven, but not since. This was in 1999, before superheroes dominated movie screens across the world. A story, in my mind, was very different than a game. It’s one thing to play a game your whole life, but the stories you read and tell, I believed, should grow as you do. I could no more imagine wanting to sit down and read a comic as I could the picture books I used to read to my sons before sleep. Yet these two very grown men shrugged when I declined to join them and happily wandered across the street to find out what Batman and Thor were up to.
A week later, I was having lunch again with the two editors, plus a couple of other guys who worked on the magazines. Chris asked everyone to name their favorite movie. Their answers: Star Wars, Jaws, Conan the Barbarian, and Brazil.
When they asked me, I was at a loss. I didn’t have a favorite movie, but I wanted to contribute, and I wanted my movie to say something about me, as well as about other kinds of stories people like, about the world beyond superheroes and monsters and spaceships, the world we all actually lived in. I told them Raising Arizona because I remembered loving it when it first came out. They stared at me blankly and moved on to a new subject.
As we got up from the table after lunch, I thought about Tim, the guy who said his favorite movie was Conan the Barbarian. There had been loud groans around the table. Turns out, even for this crowd, Conan too nerdy a choice. “I don’t care,” Tim had said, both laughing and defiant. “I love that movie!”
I too had wondered how Conan could be anyone’s favorite movie. Yet I also admired Tim’s immunity to his lunch mates’ opinions. He liked what he liked and the fact that they disapproved was not going to change this. And why should it? I hadn’t realized it until then, but the world of writing, and literary fiction in particular, was steeped in an almost religious belief in the idea of good stories and bad stories, in stories that mattered and stories that absolutely didn’t. I, of course, wanted to tell stories that mattered. Apparently, Conan mattered to Tim.
I didn’t end up working at TSR, though I did eventually write a few book-length adventures for a different publisher. A few years after writing that last adventure, I quit writing fiction and started writing personal essays and memoir, which ended up being a much happier fit for me. Fiction writing, I realized, had been more of an idea than a dream as well, an idea born years before when I didn’t know what I really wanted to do with myself other than have success writing. The essays were the natural expression of the dream of writing, as these stories found me, not the other way around.
One dull evening, I was scrolling through Netflix when Raising Arizona popped up. Just what I need, I thought. I started watching, and quickly remembered why I had liked it when I was a young man: the smart humor, the stylized camera-work, the crisp narrative pace.
And yet, halfway through, I turned it off. For all its craft and intelligence, the story just didn’t matter to me anymore. I thought of my younger self who’d walked out of the theater and told his friend, “Now that’s what a movie should be!”
I’d absolutely meant it at the time.