Walt Williams: Five Things I Learned Writing My Memoir

Making a video game is like working for a blood-thirsty dictator – you spend a lot of time validating the player, who just wants to shoot people in the face. And if there’s one thing Walt Williams has learned from working in the blockbuster game industry, it’s that nothing good comes of validating people who aren’t him.

After his misguided attempts to become an air force chaplain, Williams made the bold choice to move from Louisiana to New York City to try his hand at becoming a writer. All it took were a few dead-end writing gigs and a depleted bank account for him to take an entry-level position at a top video-game publisher, opening his eyes to a brave new digital world.

In his revealing memoir, Williams pulls back the curtain on life inside the astonishingly profitable yet compulsively secretive game industry. Informative and comically irreverent, Walt exposes a world abundant in brainpower and outsized egos struggling to find the next great innovation.

ALL THE WORDS WERE MINE

This may seem like common sense, but somehow this came as a surprise to me. You see, I’ve spent the last twelve years exclusively writing video games. Writing a game is like writing a screenplay, except that every page or so, I write, “Bad guys appear; player fights them,” and then pick up writing ten to fifteen minutes later in the story. On top of that, the script is written while the game is still being developed. Characters, dialog, locations, set pieces, action beats – all can vanish or change at any moment. Writing games can be a dizzying, thankless endeavor. Sometimes it feels like speeding down a hill in a shopping cart while trying to disarm a bomb with a dull pencil. That’s why I love it.

Writing Significant Zero was different. There was no player, artist, or level designer waiting to step in and take control. I didn’t know what to do with that freedom. I’d spent so many years putting words in the player’s mouth, that I’d forgotten what it was like to have a voice of my own. It took the entire writing process for me to grow comfortable with my own words. Even now, I worry that certain parts might not be relatable to every possible reader. That’s the game writer in me. I shut him up by reminding myself that a book doesn’t have to be everything to everyone. A player wants to experience a game on their own terms, but a reader wants to step into the author’s mind and discover what joy and horror await them.

“HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY” ONLY APPLIES TO YOU

When I called my father to tell him I’d sold my book, the first thing he said was, “Son, I’m proud of you.” He then followed it up with, “I hope they’re paying you enough to make it worth pissing off all your friends.” That was something I had not considered.

When you write a memoir, you quickly realize that your stories are not yours alone. They also belong to your friends, family, and coworkers, none of whom asked to be in a book. So, I decided the only person who’d get thrown under the bus was me. This doesn’t mean I altered stories to make other people look better. I just went out of my way to use anecdotes that made me look worse. And do you know what happened when I did that? My book became more interesting and relatable. No one needs a book that makes my friends look bad. But a book about how I’m an idiot who somehow turned out okay is a book that might actually be worth reading. Of course, pulling that off is harder than it seems…

I HAD TO BECOME A CHARACTER

Writing about the past is hard, because we’re constantly changing who we are and how we feel. Whether we age like a fine wine, or devolve into some kind of primal, mutant jackass, we tend to view our past through the filter of our present. We judge ourselves, edit our memories to better fit our personal narrative, and even delude ourselves into believing things that never happened. It’s natural. Everyone does it. When writing Past Walt, it would have been so easy to smooth out his rough edges, make him seem cooler or more competent. Believe me, it was tempting. No one ever would have known, except for me and anyone who’d talked to me for longer than fifteen minutes.  But – and this is important – you’re not allowed to do that if you’re writing a memoir. When telling a true story, you can’t make shit up, even if it’s funnier. Non-fiction is tricky that way. To stop myself from falling into that trap, I had to mentally disconnect myself from Past Walt, and write him like he was a character, rather than a reflection of who I am today. His actions had to exist without my commentary or hindsight, leaving you to decide whether he’s charming, insufferable, or just kind of a dope.

FEAR WAS MY FRIEND

The further I got into the book, the more vulnerable I felt. I was scared of what people would think, not of the book, but of me as a person. My flight instinct would kick in, and I’d have to stop myself from erasing or reworking whole sections just to save myself from scrutiny. Eventually, I began to recognize my fear as a sign that I was on the right track. If I felt nothing that meant my writing was safe or inconsequential. However, if I was afraid… if I suddenly felt the need to fake my own death and run away to the wilds of Montana… then I knew I was writing something true. My fear became my compass. Every time I sat down to write I had to find it, feel it, and then dive in as deep as I could go.

YOU’VE DONE MORE THAN YOU KNOW

I once believed there were only four types of people who should write memoirs: rock stars, presidents, people who almost died, and those who were about to die. Everyone else lacked the experience necessary to write a memoir. Sadly, I am not America’s first rock star president who famously cheated death, buffed up, and then died again, all so I could kick the Grim Reaper’s ass. And that’s not for lack of trying. Still, what have I done that’s worth writing about? Everything, really. Same goes for you. Life can seem rote, but living through it is rarely boring. When writing about the past, describing an event is sometimes less important than how it felt. The feeling is what left an impression. That shared language of emotion is the one thing you and the reader will always have in common. When spoken properly, even the smallest actions can seem grand.

 

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Walt Williams lives in Louisiana with his wife and daughter, where he splits his time between writing and failing to keep his flowerbeds alive. He’s known mostly for writing video games, in particular SPEC OPS: THE LINE and the upcoming STAR WARS: BATTLEFRONT II.

Walt Williams: Twitter | Instagram | Website

Significant Zero: Indiebound | Amazon | B&N | iBooks | Audible

6 comments

  • You had me at blood-thirsty dictator. Walt Williams memoir is a prime example of the stories all of us have. Many of us have kicked the Grim Reaper’s ass. Some of us have saved baby’s from a cliff while others wake up early to feed a starving cat. We are all walking memoirs and many of us are walking best sellers. For the most part we are survivors with our stories running deep through our veins. Wouldn’t it be nice if the stories could spill out into a nice saucer cup for others to enjoy.

  • Never heard of Walt but I’m buying the memoir on the strength of that post. Who doesn’t want to be America’s first rock star president who famously cheated death, buffed up, and then died again?

  • Initially, I thought there might not be a lot I could relate to, considering I not only don’t make video games I don’t even play them. But “memoir” was enticing enough to read further. what I discovered is a wonderfully relatable post chock full of amazingly valuable tips for anyone’s memoir. I am saving this to refer to for my own writing. Thanks!

  • Walt, this was an interesting read. As I worked my way through my memoir, I came to the same conclusions as you. The experience produced a bucketful of unexpected emotions and frustrations, but I’m proud of the end result.

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