Walking the Plank

You may never shake the fear, but you might change how you feel about it.

Cory Doctorow
5 min readJan 22, 2023

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A pair of legs and feet traversing a plank, high over a city street. The street below has a hypnotic spiral. The feet are blurred. The plank has a subtle “Matrix Waterfall” effect worked into its grain. The end of the plank fades into nothingness.
Heinz Bunse/CC BY-SA 2.0 (modified)

Richie’s Plank Experience is a terrifying VR game first released in 2016. In the game, the user rides up a simulated elevator to a rooftop that is 525 (simulated) feet above street level. Then, the user steps out on a (simulated) plank and walks out on it, over a vertiginous (simulated) drop.

There’s a whole YouTube genre of people playing Richie’s Plank Experience. In some of these videos, they walk out over an actual plank:

In others, they simply walk on level ground:

Either way, the effect is the same: the player straps a VR brick to their face, then teeters, totters, shuffles, gasps and inches their way across an imaginary plank in a simulated world.

I’ve never played Richie’s Plank Experience (I have terrible astigmatism and I can’t converge 3D images without getting a blinding headache). But I can relate. I grew up in Toronto, where the CN Tower (billed as “the world’s tallest freestanding structure” — a desperate string of modifiers if ever there was one!) whose 113th storey Terrace Level boasted a glass floor that you could step out onto:

Pascal Reusch/CC BY-SA 3.0

I must have visited the CN Tower at least once a year as a kid, on school trips or when relatives came to town. Despite all the signage to reassure visitors that the glass could bear “the weight of 35 moose,” despite the decades in which the CN Tower stood without incident, despite my faith in engineering principles and Toronto’s excellent building inspectors, my body insisted that I was in grave danger.

My heart rate skyrocketed. My breathing quickened. My palms grew slick with sweat. I knew I was safe, but I couldn’t stop feeling like I was in mortal peril.

This dual consciousness — knowing I was safe despite feeling like I was literally about to die — turned out to be something that never went away.

I have a terrible sense of direction, which comes as a package with my terrible vision (see above, re: astigmatism) and a general lack of geometric sense. I’m terrible at Rubik’s Cubes, puzzles, and assembling Ikea furniture (Dammit, Jim, I’m a wordcel, not a shape-rotator).

Put me in a hotel for seven consecutive nights and I’ll still turn the wrong way getting out of the elevator, every single time. For me, the advent of satnav and mobile turn-by-turn directions was a lifesaver.

I bought my first GPS at a Fry’s in Santa Clara in 1998, and carried it with me on every business-trip, mounting it to rental-car dashboards in cities around the world. Part of ever work trip involved paying for a DVD with the street-maps for a new city and loading it up onto the GPS’s memory card.

Combining a totally nonfunctional bump of direction with a (nearly) infallible navigation aid produces a curious sense of (literal) dislocation. So often, my GPS will tell me to turn left, even as every fiber of my being insists that I should definitely turn right.

Each step is an agony of wrong-feeling. I know the GPS is (probably) right, but I feel a bedrock, all-consuming certainty that it is wrong. That feeling never goes away, but I still obey the GPS.

Indeed, I obey it blindly. I once nearly drove into a steep, impassable jungle ravine in Queensland, Australia because I just kept cramming down that “this can’t be right” feeling as the GPS led me deeper and deeper into a literal death-trap.

Note to would-be assassins: the easiest way to do kill me is to hack my GPS so that I drive off a cliff.

It’s been two decades since I managed to “cure” my writers’ block: the key turned out to be the realization that while there were days when (in retrospect) I wrote well and days when I wrote poorly, and days when I felt like I was writing well and days when I felt like I was writing poorly, they weren’t the same days. I could write great material even when I felt like I was writing shit. I could write shit when I felt like I was doing the best writing of my life.

The reason I felt bad about my writing had nothing to do with my writing —it had to do with my blood sugar, my stress levels, the quality of my sleep, my brain-chemistry.

I knew this, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling. Some days, I would sit down, put my fingers on the keys, and feel — really feel — like every word I could imagine writing was unworthy. Trash. Better to keep it inside than let it escape my fingertips.

And despite knowing this, I was able to write. Sometimes, it’s a tentative shuffle, like the trembling steps I took out onto the moose-bearing observation glass of the CN Tower. Sometimes I can force myself to take giant strides.

But the feeling never, ever went away. I’ve written dozens of books since, and many (perhaps most) days that I worked on those books, I felt “writer’s block.” I just did it anyway.

It never got easier. If anything, it got worse — one day, I was jolted by the corollary realization that on the days when I felt good about my writing, I might be doing terrible work I’d have to throw away and re-do.

But despite the unshakeable feeling that I am in mortal peril, I can still force myself to take shuffling steps forward, putting one foot after the other.

Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is Chokepoint Capitalism (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering (Tor, 2023); and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).

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