Before we begin, let me get this out of the way.
My last year, this:
Yes, 2013 turned out to be the culmination of a lot of cosmic nastiness, a streak that began in early 2012. That was when I lost my job as a full-time narrative designer for video games, a position that I absolutely loved, working with people who might as well have been kin. Fortunately, after losing my job I found a new one before real panic sunk in. All was well. Crisis averted. Ha. Ha.
I lost that job eight months later.
This second time felt different. My fears of unemployment, a lack of medical insurance, and having questionable gaps in my resume were replaced by an aching, desperate numbness. I watched as my friends scattered to the winds to look for new opportunities in the industry—i.e. California—and after some deep soul (and job) searching, our small family packed its few belongings (mostly board games, empty CD cases, and orphan socks) and moved from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., where my wife took a great position at an old, venerable D.C. organization, and I remained at home to wrestle our underlings. All my years of half-ass parenting were about to pay off for the worst.
Shakily, my wife and I settled into our new lives. We had direction, momentum. The worst lay behind us. Or so we thought. We were, of course, a pair of naïve knuckleheads.
A few months into our relocation, my father passed away unexpectedly. He was a very young man, active; he loved to hike and fish, and he had just begun to enjoy his hard-earned retirement from a lifetime career in medicine. He was also one of my best friends. Now, when I see an ancient, wrinkly man walking the streets, or I meet the elderly parents of my older acquaintances, I secretly hate them. I don’t care if they stormed the Beaches at Normandy, or have a great laugh. They’re not my dad, and they suck for hanging around long after he was taken too soon.
So why am I talking about this? For starters, I didn't know what to do with any of it. I’d spent twelve years working a day job, writing my books in the mornings, evenings, and on weekends—whenever I could find a wedge of time to claim with my little flag of creativity. Suddenly, overnight, I’d lost my growing video game career, my network of beloved colleagues, my comfortable role in our little family, and last and worst of all, I’d lost my father, who'd always made me feel stable and competent, even in the wake of the exact kind of turbulence I’d been experiencing since that day I lost my first job in 2012.
I waited for one more shoe to drop. It didn't. I tried to rally. I couldn't.
Finally, after months of bewilderment and depression, I began to work again, to write. (My wife, who knows me so well, insisted on it.) More than anything, I wanted to explore my feelings and find catharsis. Unfortunately, I don’t like writing about myself, which makes me horribly suited to the new world we live in. For me, writing is the escape, the method by which I could turn around and run screaming in the opposite direction—from my life and the star of it: me. Maybe it’s cowardice. Maybe it’s laziness. I’m still not sure; but telling other people’s stories is how I cope, and it’s been that way since the beginning. It is my totally rad, tricked-out jet-pack. It is my Nautilus.
When I finally did crack open the laptop and start writing, it was to work on a revision of one of my newest novels, Firewheel, a story that takes place on a fictional barrier island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a place I call Kewasowok, which is loosely based on the small island of Ocracoke:
I've been working on Firewheel since about 2010, maybe 2011, I don’t remember the exact date; but one of the reasons I began the book in the first place was as an exercise in creating a strong sense of place, a setting that stood on equal ground with the story’s characters. I wanted to build a world of solitude and isolation, of safety. I’d been visiting Ocracoke for more than a decade with my in-laws, and in that time I’d fallen in love with the island's unique environment, its people, and the slow pace of life, so it came as no surprise when I decided to fashion my own version of the area via the dark magic of fiction:
In the same way that life can knock your legs out from under you, it can also rise up to meet your feet as you’re falling. It’s funny that way, silver linings, unexpected blessings, and all of that. The more I worked on the revision of Firewheel the more the novel became a refuge for me, the author, an effect I never expected. The changing draft was my own private island surrounded by the crashing waves and darkening skies of life. I felt transported in the same way that I hoped potential readers might, and whenever I wasn't editing or rewriting, I was eager to return to that small village by the sea with its gently sloping coastlines and two-wheeled bicycle traffic. In a way, I wrote my way through the storm, which, come to think of it, is something I've been doing all of my life.
It’s been one year since our relocation to D.C., and two years since my first job loss, and only now am I starting to feel stable; but I do feel better, and much of that is due to my freedom to open a door and step outside myself onto a strip of sandy beaches, even if they are imaginary.
Most of the time, I feel so very grateful to write as a job, as “work,” but it will always be more than a profession, after all, I’d been doing it long before anyone wrote me a check. Nowadays, I am grateful for other reasons. Sometimes I need to be reminded. We all do.