2016 was not a good year.
I could mention the abundance of celebrity deaths or the uncivil election or the discouraging decisions in Europe as the reasons for the awfulness of the year. Or on a smaller scale there were financial issues, work related shakeups and arguments I don’t care to mention. And yes, these things too contributed to making the past year a bit of a slog. But these things, while unpleasant, are manageable. Shit happens, as they say, and you learn to deal.
No, for me the reason 2016 was a horrible time was a personal crisis of confidence. You see, for the first time in my life I didn’t like who I was; what I had become. I stopped believing that what I did mattered or that I contributed in any way to…well anything.
I suppose this had been sneaking up on me for a while but I didn’t notice – or pretended not to notice. That’s the thing about denial; you never know whether you’re a willing or unwilling participant. Either way whatever it is you are trying not to see will creep up on you and sink in, like a creeping malaise that sticks to you and colors what you see till what you see is only the thing you were in denial of in the first place.
All my life I’ve been a creative person. And that has been all I ever really needed. No matter where I was or what I was doing, no matter what my situation I always knew I could tell a story, I could paint a picture. I always knew I could find the beauty in sadness.
This always came easy. Effortless. And then it went away. Suddenly it was a struggle.
You see, I have been writing seriously for quite a while now and, while I have gained a small following, I am by no means a success. Still I plugged away. I toiled with pen and paper, filling notebooks with sketches and outlines and occasionally a clever turn of phrase. I would dwell in libraries and coffee shops and a tiny basement room with a desk and a lamp. I spent my days telling stories to myself and having conversations with imaginary people.
And for a long time this was fine. Until it wasn’t anymore.
I had plans. The thing about writing fiction is you tend to apply it to your own life. And in that story you find yourself the hero – dashing and clever – and the plot expands and grows and spirals till you reach soring heights of success and adoration and people will pat you on the back and tell you what a good job you have done. And you bask in the glow that radiates from the knowledge that you have entertained. That you have made someone laugh or cry, that you made someone happy, or angry or influenced someone to create something themselves. Now that is a good story.
But real life is not fiction. The thing about real life is that it is much more complicated than good story. And the hero tends to be more flawed than you had intended him to be.
All this is to say I felt that everything I had been doing was pointless. There was no audience, no success coming. What I spent a majority of my free time doing was, for all intent and purpose, worthless.
I suppose this is just a form of self-indulgence or wallowing in self-pity. I understand that. But understanding doesn’t make you stop feeling it. And the more I thought about it the more unhappy I became. Perhaps it was time to give up this pretense of being a writer. Maybe it was time to just realize that I’m wasting time. And everything began to seem just a bit dull. And all those things I mentioned at the start – the politics, the deaths, the money, all of it – they seemed so much more devastating, disappointing.
So one night, tired and deflated and useless, I confessed my dilemma to my wife. Explaining in great detail this existential weariness that I felt and how I wondered why it was I continued.
She listened patiently. She paid attention; she nodded at the appropriate times. And when I was done speaking she looked me straight in the eye and said, “Is it fun?”
I was confused. “What?” I asked.
“When you write,” she spoke slowly like you would to a child, “is it fun?”
I thought about it for a moment. “Yes,” I said.
“Then what’s the problem?” She smiled then. It was a kind smile, a compassionate smile. “You write because it’s fun. Nothing else should matter.”
I opened and closed my mouth several times attempting to form a response. It can’t be that easy. I thanked her for listening and walked away. I went to my basement room and sat in front of a glowing computer screen. Something was different, a weight removed. When finally my fingers touched the keyboard I smiled.
I started having fun again.