So. 2016. What a fucking year.
Last night I played a video game that horrified me.
Stephen King defines three elements of fear: terror, horror, and revulsion. In the interest of expediency, I will re-define them briefly. Terror is the build-up of fear, the suspense and dread that precedes the actual scare. Horror is the moment of revelation. Revulsion is the “gross-out,” a sort of gag reflex or antipathy.
To use practical examples, terror is when the heroine is exploring the abandoned mansion with a flashlight. Every shadow looms with menace, every floorboard creaks underfoot, the mansion is silent except for the heroine’s own breathing and anxious heartbeat, and we know that the killer is watching her but we don’t know from where. Horror is when she turns the corner and the killer is there, as tall and as broad as a bear, blood-dripping knife in one hand and the severed head of the heroine’s boyfriend in the other. Revulsion is when she turns to flee, opens the wrong door, and the corpse of one of the killer’s older victims falls on her, all writhing maggots and rotting flesh and liquefying organs and so forth.
We’re all on the same page? Good.
Last night I played a video game that horrified me. Maybe you’ve heard of it: The Beginner’s Guide.
Now, here’s the thing about this game. It is not a horror game. Not at all. There’s a lot of things going on beneath the surface of this game and one’s enjoyment of it hinges on experiencing the last fifth or so unspoiled, so I won’t go into detail. But here’s the gist of it: the narrator, Davey Wreden, is presenting the short little video games made by a friend of his, Coda, and talking about the history of the projects, sharing his thoughts on what it all means, relating some stories about their relationship, and so forth. Throughout the course of the game, Davey presents a picture of the rise and fall of a creator. Coda starts out with a lot of small and strange ideas that are played with some and then put away. Except for the good ideas, which get iterated on and developed. But after a few years, even as the games themselves get more polished and the mechanics and the themes more fully developed, the person behind them begins to dissolve. Davey shows us Coda struggling with creativity, with depression, with isolation, with internal and external pressures to succeed. The games become bleak, impenetrable, self-deprecating to the point of nihilism.
And I was horrified, because I understood Coda perfectly. I was horrified because I’d turned the corner of my haunted mansion and found myself staring into a mirror.
2016 has been my most unproductive year as a writer in recent memory. Certainly since I graduated from my MFA program back in 2011, possibly since I first started seriously considering myself a writer in late high school/early college. This felt… bad. It felt bad to be unproductive. Like I was letting down the folks who had randomly stumbled across my writing and enjoyed it and wouldn’t mind seeing more. Like I was letting down anyone who’d ever believed in me, whether they still do or not. Like I was letting down myself most of all. If I’m a writer, I have to write. If I don’t write and being a writer is a cornerstone of my self-identity, then what am I?
Nothing, I guess.
Once a posting schedule started slipping away from me, everything kind of did. The stories I began didn’t hold my interest and so went unfinished. The ideas I had for new stories excited me for only a moment before I dismissed them as dumb or unoriginal or boring. In 2014, I published every Goddamn day of the year. 366 posts published in 2014 (that last one being the year-in-review post.) This past year, I published barely a sixth as much. So what changed?
Well. In 2014 I was deeply, profoundly depressed, for starters.
I’m not going to go into the reasons why. If you know me personally, then you know why. If you don’t, you could probably guess if you went looking for recurring themes in my writing during that period. Suffice to say, I spent large portions of 2014 unhappy, and that unhappiness informed a lot of my writing. Whether in attempts to confront it or escape it, it drove me to put pen to paper.
2015 was a better year. I was less productive. 2016 was a better year still. I was even less productive.
There’s reams of literature out there, both philosophical and academic, on the links between creativity and depression, writing and substance abuse, yadda yadda yadda. I’m not going to rehash it. But I will admit to fearing in the back of my head that my creative impulses required me to be unhappy in order to achieve their full expression. Is writing something I can only do if there’s a knife in my gut and someone’s twisting it?
I don’t think I’ve articulated that fear before. To anyone. But hey, since I’m laying it all on the line here, let’s go a bit further.
While I’ve produced relatively little new content this year, one thing I have done is work on my novel lots. Remember The Beast? I started it in November of 2014 and finished it in July of 2015. Nine months for a novel. That’s not bad.
That was the first draft. As of December 30th, 2016, I’m currently about a third of the way through editing draft number five.
Which I suppose still isn’t bad, necessarily, but I’ve been working on the same damn story going on two and a half years now. To be fair, I think it’s leagues better now than it was when I first set it down (I don’t see how it couldn’t be. Most of that first draft was written while drunk and frantically trying to finish it for the NaNoWriMo deadline.) But at the same time, I’m frustrated that it simply isn’t done yet. I’ve printed out the novel four times now and edited it with pen and pencil before typing the changes into a new doc and beginning again. That’s over two reams dedicated to this thing and more man-hours than I care to estimate. It’s not exactly an albatross around my neck, but there’s some weight to this. And it’s not that I’m working on it to be done with it and move on to something else, I’m working on it because I want to see it completed and try to get it published, and I want to get it published because I want to see my name out there, see something real, see something that proves once and for all that the time and effort I’ve invested these past two, or four, or eleven, or twenty-nine years was worth it.
I mean, what if I die?
Yeah, I’m not ready to talk about this particular set of neuroses. I’ll be brief and you can draw your own conclusions.
At this stage in my life, I’ve got friends that are married, that have kids, that are engaged, that live with their significant others, et cetera. People walk in and out of each other’s lives, going from flesh and blood, to echoes, to ghosts, little wisps of memory that haunt the forgotten corners of your mind. I don’t think that I’m a nihilist, but I’ve called myself an existentialist for years, and a substantial part of my world view is informed by an unshakable belief in the impermanence of all things. I don’t think that I’ll ever be rich and powerful, and that’s fine. I grew up before reality TV really caught on and I’ve basically always been smug and self-important enough to think myself above the culture of celebrity and fame worship, so this was never something I had to make peace with. I don’t need my name on the side of a building, I don’t need statues in my likeness. But as I get older and I have no family of my own, no children or anything like that to show for it, I do wonder what my presence on this planet will have amounted to. Another ghost in the memories of my friends and family, I suppose. But a book with your name on it, I see it like a diamond, shining in the dark, hard and rough, that I can pick up and touch in my hand.
That last line was a quote from Death of a Salesman. Make of that what you will.
Okay. Right now, this is two and a half pages single-spaced. It’s as long as anything I’ve written in one sitting all year. So where have we landed?
On an individual level, 2016 was actually not a bad year for me. I spent a couple weeks in Japan; that was rad. I saw a buddy I hadn’t seen since college, I visited Minneapolis in the summer and met one of my favorite musicians, I made some bold (and stupid) career decisions. I even got one of my older poems published (and somehow forgot to mention this at all. Go check it out here: http://www.defenestrationmag.net/2016/08/to-a-distant-lover-by-thomas-cavazos/)
Actually that last bit is, I think, a perfect example of my relationship with my writing this year. Even the good things didn’t get recognized for how frustrated and disappointed I felt over my lack of productivity, and my attempts at being productive were hindered by self-doubt. I tried to write down my thoughts in reaction to the US presidential election this year, the way I had in response to the shootings in Paris last November, and nothing I set down was good enough for me. The election required not just insight but eloquence, and I believed myself unequal to the task.
Well, fuck it. If I’m unequal to the task, so what? Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin? Then let the Medes and the Persians come.
Even when I sat down to write this retrospective, even when I was playing The Beginner’s Guide with a ball of horror in the pit of my stomach, even at my most frustrated and writers’ block-y moments this past year, giving up was never an option. The impermanence of all things cuts both ways, you see. If the good things never endure, neither do the bad. This too shall pass, as it were. The sense of uncertainty, the self-doubt, the teleological angst are nothing new, even if they were particularly bad this year.
What comes next? Well, I’m going to finish this revision of The Beast and then pronounce it done. From there I will start sending out query letters to agents and small presses. I’m setting a deadline of deluging the inboxes of others by January 23rd. That’s a week to finish this round of editing, a week to proofread for typos, and a week to write the query letters.
Then I think it’s time to write some horror. The last few months of this year have left me pretty pissed off, and if my spite and anger could run a steam turbine, I could probably single-handedly replace fossil fuels. Surely that coupled with the receding tide of lethargy I’ve been feeling and a growing restless, borderline manic energy ought to produce some new content. Will it be good? No promises. But I won’t write it if I think it’s going to be bad.
The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. Once must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Happy New Year, boys and girls. See you in 2017.