Maddy Myers is a human who does many things. Somtimes she writes about social politics in video games, comics and movies. Other times she plays music in a band or by herself. And, occasionally, she records Youtube shows and films. She does all of these things quite well and following her will definitely put lots of good idea into your brain.
You do a ton of things - writing, music, film projects, podcasts. How do you know or sense which ideas are worth sticking to and which aren’t? Basically, how do you know or decide when you should keep doing this podcast and stop doing this video project, or when you should put these songs out of a solo EP and keep working on these other songs?
I wish I could tell you that I had some magic secret to knowing when a project is “done” or “ready.” I guess the short answer is, “when I get sick of working on it, it's done!” But in practice, it's a little more complicated than that.
Right now, my full-time day job is working for an entertainment media website called The Mary Sue, and I write several articles per day. Even for a long story that might require interviews and follow-ups, the turn-around for articles has to be quick (like, a day or two). I have a lot of help from my colleagues in ensuring that an article is up to snuff before it goes up, and of course, if I make any error or leave out anything important, I apologize and post a correction or an update. But really, my day revolves around finding, writing, and publishing articles. So, I get a lot of daily practice at completing stuff, since I'm essentially completing tiny projects every few hours or so.
I don't know whether or not writing a news story or a piece of media criticism counts as “art,” but it's definitely still writing, and there are certainly days when I have “writer's block” and just can't seem to come up with anything interesting to say … even about a topic that normally would interest me. On those days it's helpful to have such strict deadlines and to know that my coworkers are relying on me to keep writing, even if I'm not coming up with fun turns-of-phrase or hilarious takes. Sometimes, you just have to churn out something accurate and move on. Since I write so much every day, I've gotten accustomed to there being good days and bad days. I still have to write articles on the bad days. They just might not be as peppy and fresh and interesting as on the days when I'm really feeling it.
With long-term projects, like recording a song (or an entire album), it can be harder to know when it's “done,” but even in that case, there are usually external deadlines or factors in play that will keep me on track. I'm recording an album with my band right now, and we only have a certain amount of money to pay for the recording studio rental – so that situation has been pretty similar to my workday, in that we have very specific deadlines that have to be hit every time we're in the studio, and we can't spend too long re-working a piece of instrumentation. We have to finish the entire album within a specific number of hours because it's all we can afford. Having guidelines and restrictions and deadlines can be a real boon when it comes to creative projects.
I have also recorded and released some music independently, and I've done videos and other miscellaneous projects that didn't have a specific deadline. This is trickier, because that means I am my own boss, and also I am the one who has to decide when it's time to be “done”. I would say I do a variety of things to ensure a project gets done, all of which will sound familiar to you or any other artist who might read this.
One trick is, I send my work to my friends, and I ask them if they think it's ready to show to the world, or not. If I'm too nervous to even show it to my friends yet, then it's definitely not done. If my friends look at it and they think it has a lot of problems, then I try to implement their criticism. Usually, even after my friends like the project and believe it to be “done,” I still won't agree with them. Sometimes, I'll set an arbitrary deadline for myself at this point in the process, such as “I'll finish this project in time for this networking event so that I can tell people about it while I'm there.” Other times, I'll just keep working on the project until I get so tired of it that I can't even look at it anymore... and THEN, I put it out.
I think you are also asking an even darker version of this question here, which is, “when is it time to quit a band,” or “when is it time to quit a job,” or “when is it time to quit a podcast,” and so on. Knowing when a project is “done” is something that could be both positive and negative, because sometimes being “done” means “I've discovered that I can't complete this, so I'm walking away.” That is a different kind of “done,” and that happens too, in big and small ways, for every creative person.
I think the answer to how you figure it out is similar, though. If I notice that my friends have stopped reading my articles about such-and-such, or stopped watching my videos, or if they just never ask me about a podcast anymore, then... perhaps that's a sign that it's not resonating with people. Earning the respect of peers – not of strangers, but people you know or at least people whose work you admire – is very important. Maybe the most important thing, other than how YOU feel about your work. I care a lot about my quality of life. I ask myself: are my projects making me feel energized? Am I excited to work on them? Am I proud to share them? Ideally, I answer “yes” to all of those with some consistency.
I'm also an incredibly stubborn person, which is how I manage to get anything done at all, I guess. That means that sometimes I stick with a project for way too long after I should have left it behind. But even in those types of situations, I think I learn a lot about what kinds of projects I want to do, who I want to work with, and so on.
You said that you look to your friends for a lot of feedback and guidance, which made me think about peer validation. I imagine when you’re doing music or self-made films and skits and things like that, there’s a long period of time where your audience isn’t very large or there’s maybe not a lot of external feedback coming in. How do you find motivation (or maybe validation?) to keep working on your art and your work during those times earlier on when it may seem like you’re not really playing to much of a crowd?
It's a total cliché to say “the art has to be fun,” but it's held true for me. I know that there are other creative types who can plug away at projects they don't enjoy for years if they know that their fans enjoy it, or if they know that there's a lot of money in it for them, or both. For me, that's not enough. If I don't personally feel inspired by the work I'm doing, no matter what other people might think about it, then I can't keep it up for very long. On the flip-side, my general attitude about that means it's not as hard for me to continue plugging away at a project that very few people care about, so long as it's still inspiring and fun for me.
I work in several very niche fields, so this is a normal state of things for me. Writing “nerdy” music, and doing “nerdy” entertainment journalism, means that I am used to having a relatively small audience. For me, a wildly successful project means that it still only has a few hundred devoted fans. I think I seem “famous” to other people who also work in the exact same field that I do, but in the grand scheme, my work is very niche, and my audience is very small.
Since I'm already working with low expectations in terms of audience size, that means I feel safer taking risks and making more unusual videos, podcasts, music, article topics, whatever. If I make something and only a hundred people like it, that's ok. If 12 people like it, that's ok too. If three thousand people like it, great—maybe then I make some money so I can fund the projects that only 12 people liked!
Honestly, it's amazing to me that anyone ever buys my music or watches videos I make or pays me to write articles about anything. I feel very lucky to have found the small audience that I have. Most of the time, I try not to think about what “fans” will say about my work. Unfortunately, I do have to rely upon their interest to make money, but if I focus on it too much, I get sad and anxious and feel like I don't know what I'm doing or why anyone likes my work at all. I can imagine that those feelings would get much worse if I were trying to create art with a “mass appeal.” Luckily, I don't do that, and I've never really tried to do that. I do work that I think someone like me would enjoy, and I guess there are at least a few other people with my taste out there in the world, and they must be the people who enjoy what I make!
It's notoriously difficult to strike a balance between making work that you find fascinating while still turning a profit. I lean more heavily towards the former than the latter, which is probably why I don't make very much money. But that's okay with me, because I'm very happy about the work that I do.
I stopped playing video games or following that culture about a decade ago, but in the last couple of years, it’s emerged as one of the most active areas of social and gender discussion in pop culture. I remember it being a very narrow culture, and very heteronormative considering that it was, at the time, also mostly a subculture and one grounded in expression. Since then it's gone pretty mainstream but now increasingly socially active, as well. Why do you think video game culture has continued to expand so rapidly and why do you think it’s grown into these relevant areas of awareness recently?
I'm lucky that I now work for a website where I don't only cover video games; I get to cover technology and comics and movies and TV and all sorts of other types of entertainment media. I only “have to” cover video games when it's something that I'm genuinely interested in writing about. I used to cover video games exclusively before I worked for The Mary Sue, which meant that I thought about them all the time, for many many years. It's still the main topic that people associate with me, and I don't blame them because I wrote about so many different kinds of games for so long.
I guess the obvious answer to your question about why video games have such a groundswell of passionate fans nowadays would be “the internet,” because I just don't think games or the culture surrounding them could possibly exist in the same way that they do now if they hadn't come of age at the same time as the internet. Imagine a world in which the internet doesn't exist, but arcades still do. Video games would be very different in that reality, and the way that we talk about them and think about them would be different too.
When people talk about “gamer culture” now, they're referring to something that got invented in the 90s by marketers to sell video games to boys – specifically, to sell hyper-masculine power fantasies. Tracey Lien has a great in-depth feature about how marketers created that “gamer guy” identity in the 90s, and how before that time, “gamer” was a relatively gender-neutral identity. The idea of computer programmers only being men is also relatively recent. So even though it seems like a normal state of affairs to us that games and technology are “for boys,” there's no reason why they should have to be, other than marketing campaigns that happened in the 90s and ended up affecting the way that we all think about those types of products.
As for why video games have seen a rise in discussion of social issues and analysis in the past 5-10 years, there are a lot of different contributing factors there. For one thing, the collapse of print media after the 90s (due to the rise of the internet) meant that all of the gamer magazines that we all grew up with have now collapsed, which isn't necessarily “good.”
One big side effect of that was the flattening-out of the importance that those institutions had regarding which games got written about, which games got to be seen as part of the cultural canon, and so on. The internet allowed indie blogs to rise to prominence--only in terms of visibility, but not in terms of financial stability, which means that a lot of indie games bloggers are young people, often students, writing for free or for very cheap. Younger people are always going to tend towards being more progressive than the folks who came before them, and the relative youth of games writers (and the high turnover, due to the fact that there's no money) is going to affect what gets written about.
There were always weird indie art games before, but the internet allowed the conversation about them to seem “as important” as the conversations happening in mainstream gaming publications, because again, the internet has flattened out the conversation. There's also very little barrier to entry for writing about games, so long as you don't mind being completely broke, which again isn't a good thing – but it does mean that we get a lot of amateur writers talking about unusual games in unusual ways on their own blogs. However, mainstream games websites have been sort of flummoxed about how to approach these changes.
In the 90s, niche magazines about games, written by gaming “experts,” could thrive. In the internet landscape, there's no money in niche publishing; the internet wants a firehose, not a trickle of specialized content. Websites have to cover lots of different types of content in order to stand out at all, and even the websites that are theoretically doing well are still making significantly less money than their counterpart print magazines were back in the 90s. It's a pretty big problem, and it's resulted in a lot of amateur writers having to reinvent the wheel over and over when it comes to games criticism.
The internet has also flattened out accessibility for making games. There were always indie games before, but now there are more than ever. People can share tools and programs and game-making software with one another and build their own resources and create YouTube tutorials and so on. This isn't just true in games; it's also easier now to record music than ever before, easier to found a publication online, and so on. The downside is that it's now much harder to make a livable wage from doing any of that.
It's also harder to find the stuff that's actually good. The collapse of those gaming institutions of yore has meant that we can redefine what games are important, what games we “should” cover, and even who does the coverage and who does the game-making. But institutions aren't always bad, because sometimes you need to have health insurance, right? There are a whole lot of indie writers and indie creators out there who are working for a pittance and soliciting donations from fans, many of whom are also struggling artists themselves. These youngsters are getting told every day that they're making “important work,” but there's no money in it.
I guess you could say that was always true and artists never made any money in any generation, but this generation in particular has faced some pressing financial concerns that our parents' generation didn't have to wrestle. I think that's also ended up affecting the art that we make and the ideals that have arisen in a lot of indie games spaces, and also in other artistic spaces online. It's also why I feel so lucky to have a job at all, particularly a job where I get to talk about this stuff all day long.
A lot of your work is (this is probably not how you’d prefer to label it) social criticism about this particular video game and internet culture. That’s true across most of your work, from what I’ve seen - the music, the writing, the film projects - you seem to address it in a lot of ways and with a lot of humor. What do you look to? There’s not a long history of social criticism in that culture, so where do you draw reference or inspiration from? Is it just personal experience?
I think “social criticism” is a fair way to put it, actually. The Mary Sue is a website that cares about elevating the voices and the work created by marginalized people, particularly marginalized geeky people; those are the types of stories that I write. But also my first job right out of college was working for the Boston Phoenix, which was a newspaper that always had a progressive bent and a comedic, acerbic voice that I absolutely loved (both to read and to write), and I think that paper was my biggest influence on the type of writing that I wanted to do.
The Phoenix always covered music and movies and TV and books with a humorous and political-minded slant. They started covering video games shortly before I started working there as an intern in 2007, so I had good timing. Part of why I got hired on was because I was one of the only interns who knew anything about video games or internet culture in general. I worked in the “web department,” which was a couple of interns and three staffers whose job it was to put the entire newspaper online.
Mostly, we interns sat quietly and did what we were told, and the three staffers told jokes to one another while they worked and made the rest of us laugh. They were all writers themselves, all a couple of years older than me, all very “cool” (or so it seemed to my young self), and all effortless at coming up with headlines, subheadings, puns, and one-liners to toss into their work. I remember feeling like it would be my dream to have a job like that, where I could just spend all day coming up with jokes and crafting them into biting commentaries on art and culture and the world around me.
Of course, I did get that wish. I ended up working for the web department at the Phoenix for seven years in total – a year and a half as an intern, and then as a staffer once I graduated college. By the time the newspaper went out of business in 2013, I was the manager of the web department, which would have been unimaginable to young-me. By that time, I had also written a heck of a lot of articles about video games and the internet, and I had many hilarious and intelligent staffers around me all the time, helping me hone my voice into whatever it is now.
To get very specific with my influences, here are some names: Carly Carioli (who was the Editor-In-Chief at the Phoenix), Shaula Clark (Managing Editor at the Phoenix) and S.I. Rosenbaum (Staff Editor at the Phoenix). They've all three since worked at many other amazing publications and had different titles at those places. They're also still all my pals, and their successes feel like my successes—every former Phoenix staffer feels like a family member to me.
I'm also friends with many other fantastic writers who blend humor and memoir and social commentary into their work, such as Gita Jackson (currently at Paste Magazine and freelancing at tons of places) and Samantha Allen (currently at The Daily Beast) and, of course, my entire round-up of coworkers at The Mary Sue, all of whom make me laugh every day and also make me feel proud to work alongside them.
Since you mentioned that you cover all sorts of things now, not just games, I’d be curious what the differences are? In my head, what you described as that fictional “gamer guy” persona runs together with comics and certain types of media and technology overall, but as you’ve started to cover more things like technology and film do you see distinctions in the ways in which those various little corners of the world have challenges relating to social issues and identity? Is the “gamer guy” from the 90s the same guy as the “comics guy” and the “tech guy” and the “Tarantino loving guy” or are there a differences that you’ve seen? This may be a dumb question.
Shortly after I started working at The Mary Sue, I started to explore the world of comic books more – I had read comics, of course, but I had barely written about them from a journalism standpoint, so I was still a “newbie” to that side of things. However, after talking to a lot of comic book creators and journalists, I realized that there were so many similarities between the culture of comic books and the culture of gaming, to a point where I wasn't sure if I wanted to cover comics after all. I was worried it would feel like writing the same stories all over again.
There are some differences, of course, the biggest one being that games have a history of having been seen as pieces of software in addition to a pieces of media, whereas comics don't have to worry about that particular form of anxiety. However, the other stories that I heard about comics reminded me a whole lot of games, such as:
- Defensiveness about whether comics/games are “for kids” or “for adults”
- Creators working long hours for low pay and being expected to “work for exposure” in order to get jobs at higher-level companies
- Indies feeling underrepresented in comparison to huge, well-established companies, but also not wanting to “sell out”
- Marginalized people struggling to get recognition for their work, both in the indie scene and at bigger companies
- Nepotism and bias in hiring decisions
- Abusive people working in higher-up positions, and no one wanting to call them out because their work is well-regarded, or because they have too many connections, or both
- Small-time creators feeling like they could never criticize bigger companies' decisions for fear of getting blacklisted
- Writers getting into comics/games journalism in an effort to meet creators in the industry so that they can then get writing jobs in comics/games (thereby provoking the stereotype that every comics/games journalist is “just” a fan who will never criticize any company because they're trying to get hired there)
I heard a lot of similar complaints when I talked to folks who work within the world of sci-fi/fantasy book publishing, as well. Movies and TV and music have very similar entrenched problems, too--but they're much more well-established art forms by now, so there are long-running structures in place for how journalism and arts criticism “should” work in those fields. Even so, the problems in my list do come up, over and over again. That doesn't mean “everything is the same” – there are still many differences – but I think artists in various fields have more in common than they think, at least when it comes to the types of structural problems they face.
A lot of journalists I know think that games are the worst topic to cover. I am tempted to agree based on my career experiences so far, but I haven't covered other topics long enough to be certain. The reason why games seem uniquely tricky, to me, is that you've got cultural gatekeeping from the technology side, plus simultaneous gatekeeping from the arts criticism side. Those dual barriers to entry have made games journalism into an even more unapproachable island than other forms of arts criticism.
I think games felt like “the arts” didn't want them, and also like “technology” didn't want them, and so they've ended up in a liminal space that is very defensive about criticism from perceived “outsiders.” And, of course, women are perceived as “outsiders” in all of arts criticism (there are barely any women music critics, or women film critics, either--and there are barely any journalists of color across all fields). Games also have the added layer of being pieces of software, too, and technology is a male-dominated, white-dominated field. Between that, and the hyper-masculine way that games have been marketed since the 90s, it's no wonder that games have become so insular and territorial.
I haven't really fallen into a new rhythm yet when it comes to what I cover, but it does seem to me like covering games for a long time has prepared me (for better or for worse) to address the same types of problems happening in other industries. But I've grown very used to living on Video Game Island, and it's hard to escape what's familiar, so that's why I still cover games sometimes even though I'd like to try to branch out and bridge the gap between all of these different artistic fields.
Do you have any rituals or routines associated with your work? Maybe different for your different types of work?
I work 10 am to 6 pm every weekday for The Mary Sue, and I have band practice on Tuesday and Thursday nights from 7 pm to 10 pm – or more often than that, now that we're recording an album too. I hate waking up early, so usually, I roll out of bed and get myself into my computer chair by 10 am through some sort of coffee-induced miracle. After I'm done churning out articles for the day, if I don't have band practice, I go for a run after dark, so it's not too hot out. When I get back from running or at least walking around outside, I stay up way too late practicing the piano or working on various other writing projects (like answering these interview questions, which I'm doing in the middle of the night, after having gone for a run outside).
Going for walks or runs outside is important since I spend so much time inside by myself on a computer. I work from home and I live alone, so the main ritual that I have to make myself do is leave the house – to run around, to see other human beings, etc.
I wish I were the type of person who could wake up very early and write beautiful prose while the sun rises, but I'm not that person and I never have been. I'm a night owl, and now I just embrace it and I don't shame myself for not being a functional human before 10 am. I'm very lucky that I have a job that doesn't force me to be creative before that time of day!
Do you know someone who might have liked this conversation?
Perhaps you could send them some tea!