Mary Russell

I go through cycles of being intensely productive and intensely lazy, periods where everything clicks and it's go, go, go, all excitement and energy and new games and new ideas, followed by periods where it feels like I'm stuck in mud, slow and struggling and feeling faintly like I'm sinking and will never come out of it. 

Of course, I do manage to come out of it. It doesn't feel like I can when I'm in the middle of it. It feels interminably long, impossibly long, like one of Zeno's paradoxes, like every step is incremental but never actually gets me any closer to the other side of it. While I'm working through it, I try to keep myself somewhat distracted with other bits ancillary to the design and development of games. Graphic design, bagging wood bits, even writing these blog-things. None of it really makes me feel less agitated, but it gives that agitation somewhere to go.

And sometimes I don't even feel like doing any of that - I don't have even the comparatively small spark of inspiration necessary for laying out counters, I don't particularly want to be bothered with bagging wood bits, and try as I might, I can't seem to get any of the words to work together: they just crash into each other like clumsy… somethings. You see that? Somethings. Yeesh. I can't even come up with a decent metaphor.

I try to do these things. I want to do them. I need to do them: not just because games need counters, bags need bits, and blogs need blog-things, but also because I need the distraction, a place for all of it to go, otherwise it just festers. Spending an hour or two in the kitchen every day to make lunch and dinner gives me somewhere to put it when all else fails, but the last couple of weeks I find it harder and harder to do even that. 

And it will pass; I know it will pass; like a stone, it always does, inconvenient and painful and leaving certain parts of you just a little tender. Until it does however nothing gives me any particular satisfaction or stokes my interest. Everything is just a little bit boring and a little sour, and I find myself wondering why I play games, why I design games, at all. Oh, there are answers to that, and plenty of them, and I could rattle them off, but it's a little like knowing all the lyrics when you've forgotten the melody. When I'm on the other side of this, it'll be a different tune entirely, and all the wonderful reasons why I do what I do will be wonderful once more, but until then, I don't much care. 

It's part of the process. Maybe even an important part, though it never feels that way when I'm stuck in the thick of it. In a month, or a week, or maybe even tomorrow, a wave will lift me out of this and I will ride it, giddy and ecstatic, falling in love with old games and discovering new ones, dazzled by my own cleverness, until it crests and falls and there I am again. It's strange; when I'm in a creative period, I know what's on the other side of it, and I usually don't worry about it. It's there, it's waiting for me, and I accept that, while still living gloriously in the now

But when I'm in this now, it's a different story. Like Billy Pilgrim, I become unstuck in time. Instead of living only in this hideous moment, I see my whole life stretching behind me and ahead, seeing this same cycle over and again, over and again, self-perpetuating, inevitable, inescapable, and it just makes me tired, so tired: is that all there is?

I don't have an answer here, folks, because if I did, I wouldn't still be slogging through it. And if I figured that one out - something no one else in human history ever has - it would also make me the smartest being on the whole planet, and I have it on good authority that I'm only the fourth-smartest living thing in our house (behind Mary and the two cats, of course, but edging out a small cactus). 

The fact is, I needed a new blog-thing. I tried to write about something else, but the words were clumsy somethings that just wouldn't dance together. I tried writing about a game I was working on, about the weirdo contrarian abstract concepts that I obsess over, about practical advice for the everyday designer, about Hollandspiele as a business, and nothing doing. This is the only thing I seem to be able to think about, and so, this is all I have to offer right now. 

So why write anything at all? Why not have a skip day? I mean, this isn't really a "personal" blog. It's a business; it is in some ways an advertisement, a way to talk about our games, to talk about the ideas behind those games, and to present to you some version of myself that makes you want to buy those games. And that version of me is generally pretty upbeat most of the time, because (a), I'm generally pretty upbeat most of the time, and also (b), "I'm depressed and agitated" is a pretty weird way to sell someone something! I've got a friend who's trying it that way and, man, it does not seem to be working for him. 

I do write about the creative process sometimes, and, you know, sometimes this is what that process is, this is what it feels like, and I don't know if you can write meaningfully about the ecstasy without the agony. Heck, I don't know if one should always gloss over the latter, because the most pernicious thing about being stuck in it is how singular it feels, like you're the only one who has this problem, the only one who has something broken or missing inside and for the lack of just that one tiny thing is stuck on this cockamamie never-ending up-and-down rollercoaster. Seeing your experience reflected in another's reminds you that your experience is a normal, natural, perhaps even somewhat universal, thing. 

For me, that isn't much help deep in the moment - frankly, I'm not sure if anything is - but when at last I'm on the other side of it, it does make the whole exhausting up-and-down rigmarole sit a little easier.


  • Thank you for sharing this. I relate to a whole lot of what you wrote. I appreciate you sharing it because of exactly what you mentioned here:

    “Seeing your experience reflected in another’s reminds you that your experience is a normal, natural, perhaps even somewhat universal, thing.”

    It seems like I go for a couple weeks cranking out maps and drawings daily, then a couple weeks where each day I spend the same amount of time trying to work, but I barely create anything at all. Overall I think my output is good (I’ve drawn over 600 pages of art and maps in about 4 years!) but those down weeks can feel rough.

    I really hope you can find your way out of it soon! I have a lot of respect for you and Mary, and I very much look forward to playing more of your creations. :)

    Daniel Walthall

  • Tom, I know its almost become a cliché but I have found getting in some good exercise (riding a bicycle for me) actually gets my creative juices flowing when I finish the ride. Maybe my recommending exercise more applies to the depression I sometimes feel but my depression inhibits my creativity so exercise helps me with both. Of course, it does not hurt that I am forced to ride my bicycle since it is part of my employment.

    Stephen Oliver

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