Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The middle

My favorite place to walk in Boston is across the Mass Ave bridge at night. You have a great view of Boston, Cambridge, and the Charles River, all at once. Despite the traffic, it feels quiet and peaceful out there, especially on a night when the moon is out. There's a funny thing about walking across that bridge. It's only about 4/10 of a mile long,* less than a ten minute walk, and yet every time I make the journey I experience the same strange sensation.

After a few minutes, the opposite riverbank seems no closer, but if I turn and look back the way I came, that side of the bridge appears equally distant. There's no way of telling if I'm closer to the beginning or the end. One step in either direction has no discernible effect on my position. I'm somewhere out in the middle.

The middle must be familiar to anybody who's ever taken on a creative project. When you start, you're fueled by enthusiasm. You haven't yet run into any tough decisions. Your first failure is still some ways off -- for all you know, it may never come! (It will.) You're high on possibility. This time, it's all going to work, and it's going to be even better than you could have imagined.

It might take days, weeks, or months, but eventually you find yourself in the middle. This is a place of self-doubt, where enthusiasm has given way to a feeling of obligation, more often of a responsibility that you are shirking. You feel no closer to the opposite shore. You can't even remember what it was like when you started. Every step you take feels like it's leading you nowhere. You're stuck.

This is where most people give up.

It's also where I find myself lately on my board game project, Honor Among Thieves. I continue to work on it, but each session is shorter, less joyful, and seemingly less productive. I've reached a point where I don't know what to do next. The initial burst of energy, with which I wrote out the bulk of the rules and most of the systems, has worn out. Whereas before, I was creating an entire world on blank pages, now it's about filling in the cracks. Not only is that inherently less fun, it's also harder and less rewarding. I still believe in the concept, I just don't have any idea where to go from here.

The insidious thing about the middle is that it hits you on a gut level. You know there is an endpoint, and if you're lucky enough, you've been through it a few times before. Even so, it's impossible to look at the far shore and see it getting any closer, no matter how fast you walk. You feel adrift.

The only way out is to keep walking, although with a creative project the path isn't so clear. Less like walking across a bridge at night, and more like muddling through a desert in a sandstorm. You have to grit your teeth and hope you'll make it out alive.

*Or 364.4 Smoots, give or take an ear.


pHonta said...

Keep at it, you'll slowly get closer to the end, and once you start seeng that, you'll get some of the fire back!

And also, do it because the game sounds fun and I'd like to see it done!


Nels Anderson said...

Yup. Yup, yup, yup. This is so familiar, it's practically tactile.

FWIW, I have an ... interest in betrayal-based games (others might qualify it as an obsession). If you ever want another set of eyeballs, just drop me a line. There were plenty of points in Ninja where I was seriously flagging and just getting other people to look at it really helped.

I know some other folks work better soldiering on alone though. But please, drop a line anytime if you think it might help.