“My brain is bouncing all over with plans to work on this and that. Projects get started and then stopped. Ideas are stuck in creative purgatory.”
Yours truly on September 1, 2021 talking about my own creative process and being in a rut. I ended that post with the following thesis.
“My ideas are big. I need to break them down. I need to build up into the big ones. So, I’m going to try and break them down. I’ll create smaller pieces of them, publish them, and move on to the next one…Instead of ideas that take months of work and skills I haven’t fully developed, I need to tackle shorter turnarounds and develop those skills.”
I was so wise six months ago.
The creative process and the answers to said process can sometimes feel shrouded in mystery. As people that want to make and do, we find those that have gone before us and take inspiration from them. At that point though, we are seeing the current end product. We likely have not seen the struggle it took to get there. Every poorly written story, each botched podcast, the hours of grainy webcam-filmed reviews that established the creator’s foundation. I often forget this crucial fact.
Entering 2022, I decided that I was going to tackle a project I’ve had in mind for a couple years. I have wanted to write down and share my stories from my years as a freelance wiki guide writer for IGN. The main reasons would be to save what memory of those years I have and to offer (hopefully) valuable insight to that process in the video game industry. I started production in December 2021.
My plan coming into the new year was to make the limited series threefold: a written article, a podcast, and a video. The inception for this was Jason Snell’s 20 Macs for 2020. I thought (and still do think) this would be a great idea that makes these stories accessible. Producing the show would also help me develop the skills necessary to create bigger and better series down the road. I was totally ignoring the “break down big ideas and crank them out” mantra that I proclaimed just half a year earlier.
Last week, I read Craig Mod’s annual year in review essay Memberships Work. I always take away insight and inspiration from Craig’s work, ever since I discovered him on The Talk Show with John Gruber. 1 Just six paragraphs in, Craig mentioned a quote from Ira Glass about taste and talent. Forgive me, but I am going to quote half of it here. The other half is real good too.
“Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?
A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be — they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have.”
I think my palate is decent: I’m certainly picky enough. This distinction between taste and talent was a realization to me. I have let my taste on writing, podcasts, and videos be the excuse to not send out the completed dish of words, thoughts, and ideas. 2
This has happened to me with real food over the past five or six years where I’ve intentionally been learning to cook. When my parents moved away, I realized that my mother’s high bar for cooking meals had elevated my taste. With her gone, my talent in the kitchen was far below said bar. My taste and talent were misaligned. I knew I had to learn to cook.
I remember one of my first lessons in the kitchen. I was trying to make a homemade mac and cheese. The recipe called for a roux, this combination of flour and milk to make the gooey cheese half of the dish. I forget the exact measurements, but something was off. The roux was dry and not coming together. I was going to chuck the dish, but my roommate came in and said it could be saved. All he did was add more milk and whisk constantly over the heat.
I never thought to step outside of the bounds of the recipe. When it became a bit too runny, he added more flour until a smooth roux came together. The dish was saved and I learned that improvisation were necessary in the kitchen.
Since then, I’ve spent my evenings cooking for my family. We did Blue Apron meal kits for two years. Then we quit that to handle meal prep and shopping ourselves. Now I have my own sourdough starter chilling in the refrigerator for whenever I feel like making a loaf. My talent still is not aligned with the taste my mother established, but it has gotten much closer over time. When the food is messed up or the ingredients are wrong, I adapt. I can count on one hand the times I’ve thrown out an entire meal. So why is it that in my own writing or production I am throwing out so many “meals” before they reach the table (i.e. audience)?
When producing the first wiki story, I went to record the video version. The vision was to take the written post and read it like a script. I had my fancy camera, the lighting, and the microphone all set up. I was trying to read it off my phone and use jump cuts to chop up the footage, like MKBHD does. That failed due to a technical issue. 3 Then I tried a different set-up to read the script off my iMac. My excuse there was no teleprompter. Why on Earth do I need a teleprompter? How is that pane of glass stopping me from creating? Ridiculous.
Then I figured that the videos could be ad-libbed and loosely follow the written post. I thought this idea was the “breaking down of a larger idea” I had written about last year. I shot the video, sat down to edit, and closed Final Cut mere minutes afterward. I knew my talent wasn’t matching my taste. I threw out the dish before it was even done being cooked.
I was letting my taste stunt my talent as a means to defend myself. I’ll never get better at what I enjoy that way though. I had to deconstruct this three-course idea for this limited wiki series. I had to get it out the door and on the table.
Another nugget from Craig’s Memberships Work post was a point on creating for the masses compared to creating for members.
“The membership program is like a private club where I’m more willing to be “open” about processes in ways that would feel too exposed on my normal mailing lists or public YouTube livestreams. With SP members, the audience for many of the members-only newsletters (like the writing diary I’m currently running) is in the hundreds or, for livestreams, dozens. All paying, supportive, “fans.” (But really, more like co-workers.) My normal newsletters go out to tens of thousands of strangers. You can understand why one space might feel like a safer & less stressful place to be emotionally & creatively exposed.”
I don’t run my own membership. Unfortunately, any community I have garnered is unknown to me. Max Frequency has been mostly a one-way street. When thinking about stripping down the three prong wiki project to a singular medium, that open road suddenly didn’t seem so appealing to walk down. My mission for these stories is to be honest about my journey writing guides, chasing a career in video game coverage, and the lessons I learned. It’s not a scandalous tell-all, but it is designed to be a far more personal project. It is wholly unique to me.
I am going to intentionally take a side road. It’s not a shortcut, but I expect it to be the scenic option. This journey will be a newsletter.
Newsletters have been an idea I’ve wanted to tackle since the inception of Max Frequency. Heck, the site almost started of as a newsletter instead! The idea returned to the forefront when I scrubbed to a random time in Craig’s recent membership Q&A. 4
“If you can’t do a free newsletter for three months and commit to that – you can’t do a membership. You can’t do anything paid. You don’t have those muscles built up yet. That’s what’s critical.”
This newsletter is not going to be paid: That would be flying directly in the face of Craig’s statement. I need the muscles though. I worked on twenty-three unique wiki guides. Throw in this post and an outro gives me a solid twenty-five week deadline. That’s more than three months – it’s actually closer to six – but the subject matter gives me a narrow path to walk along and document.
Not everyone will want to join me on that path though. That’s why the idea of opting in to reading these stories appeals to me. We can chose to explore together and see what I can dig up.
When the journey is over, that’ll be it. I’ll archive the posts and unsubscribe everyone (and delete any and all email addresses, if Buttondown will let me). Business-sense would say to keep all the email addresses and use it for future business-like ventures. That just feels creepy to me. If at the end of this limited run, you walk away and enjoy my writing, you’ll follow my work at Max Frequency or on Twitter. If not, then you don’t ever have to worry about me bugging you in the future. I want an open and honest relationship from the start.
This also means all the tracking and analytics options will be shut off. I don’t like spy pixels in email I receive, so why would I put them in newsletters I send out? Again, business-wise, probably not “smart,” but it makes me feel a whole lot better. I think it will make you feel good too.
We’ve already established a timeline. The twenty-five weeks starts now and will end on July, 28 2022. Each letter will go up at 5:00 AM EST that way you could start your day with it or save it for a convenient time.
The list of games and the order of the newsletters will be the order that I worked on the guides. You can find that list here. Originally, I was going to bounce around at my heart’s content, but decide going in the natural order made things simpler.
In line with keeping things simple, there will be no* multimedia in the letters themselves. Okay, there will be one image—the logo. I’m proud of it, okay? I will, of course, link to images and videos when relevant, but I do not want to sidetrack myself into making images and videos instead of writing. I want my time on this project to predominantly be spent writing the darn thing.
It’s time for the other half of that Ira Glass quote.
“And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase — you gotta know it’s totally normal.
And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work — do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay?”
I’ve given myself the deadline. I know I am going to finish this story. It is time to close the gap and bring my talent a bit closer to my taste.
Thank you for joining my on this little journey. I hope you enjoy.
This line of thinking is also brought up in Stephen King’s On Writing, which I’ve been reading. For a writer, there’s nothing like having little imaginary versions of Stephen King and Ira Glass sitting on your shoulders telling you the same thing: “Do, do, do.” ↩
Pro tip: Always check your batteries ↩
I told you I get a lot of inspiration from this guy. ↩