the golden semicolon

In a radical departure for this newsletter, I’m going to get a little nerdy. Prepare yourself.

Years ago, before my son was born, I played video games. The new baby put an end to that as surely as he robbed me of my home office. (Today, the kid’s got the temerity to ask, “Come on, Dad, if you like video games so much, why don’t you ever play them?” The irony.)

At the time, I was an editor at St. Martin’s Press. Coming home from the Flatiron Building every evening, I found World of Warcraft a particularly compelling way to avoid editorial work. That’s because WoW’s not a fantasy game at all, really. It’s a chore-simulator. Pretty much everyone you meet in the game has a little golden exclamation point above their head. If you talk to them, they give you a job to do: rescue my pet werewolf, collect twenty griffin tails for my magic potion, that sort of thing. When you agree to do a job, the little exclamation point vanishes and your list of jobs grows by one.

Boy, pretending to work is much more satisfying than actually working. As soon as I sat down to play each night, I’d review my to-do list and then slowly work my way through it. Sure, I’d get little rewards like money and weapons. More important, however, I’d have the satisfaction of returning to the person who gave me the job and seeing a little golden question mark above their heads. That meant I’d accomplished the given task and could now be congratulated. (If only real-life bosses had golden question marks. It would make a career so much more enjoyable.)

Of course, in games like this, not all jobs are created equal. Some are essential to completing main quests that tie into your character’s greater purpose in life. Most, however, are just opportunities to rack up money and experience. As a player, I never really distinguished between the two. I decided what to work on based on efficiency. If the cave of goblins was closer than the nest of giant scorpions, I’d cheerfully slaughter the fifteen required goblins just for the satisfaction of getting something done. To hell with my greater purpose. I had no interest in chipping away at something that might take multiple sessions to accomplish. I wanted gold question marks, as many as possible in a single evening’s play. In fact, it felt so good to tackle lots of little things that I’d lose sight of my character’s overarching goals altogether and make very little real progress.

Not long after my son was born, the demands of work and parenthood together became too much to manage alongside my fantasy work. So I stopped playing the game. But it occurs to me now that maybe I didn’t stop playing. Not really.

Writing can sometimes feel like watching the school clock at 2:45 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. You put your head down, grind away for a while, and then look up only to discover it’s 2:47. Without the satisfaction of visible progress, it’s the easiest thing in the world to find yourself opting for side-quests instead, chasing the satisfaction of gold question marks while the main quest lies neglected.

I’ll close with an excerpt from a document I found in the stack of old floppy disks I recently had digitized. In 1988, at the age of ten, I wrote the following:

I like drugs. I go outside every morning wearing my green sunglasses. I take a shot of coke and a sniff of cocaine. One day I started spinning around and around so I fell down and my head hit the hard cement pavement. I woke up to the sound of a police siren. I got up and tried to run but they caught me. I punched one of the two officers but the other one shot me. My green sunglasses fell off and dropped down the gutter. They fell beneath a crack and fossilized. Two billion years later scientists found my sunglasses and wore them. I became famous anonymously. No one ever knew who’s glasses they were. Too bad the frame which had my name on it didn’t survive.

I have no idea why I wrote this, but looking back at it now, I wonder whether this might have been my main quest, if only I’d heeded the call to adventure. Who wouldn’t want to read this novel?

Life isn’t about gold question marks. It’s about the main quest, the baffling but rewarding golden semicolon that connects the pieces of your life in surprising ways. Unfortunately, no one is going to pin that semicolon where you can see it. You’ll have to spot it on your own. Never lose sight of it once you do.

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