Jet Black New Year
On getting covid, reading Chainsaw Man, rejecting productivity, and tending my garden.
It's 2023. We meet again. Or perhaps we're meeting for the first time. It depends on when you got here, I guess. I wanted to start this year off with something a little different, in my effort to continue evolving with this newsletter. It has taken different shapes and been housed on different platforms since its inception four or five years ago. First as a weekly tinyletter, then a more formal monthly newsletter on MailChimp. A year or so thereafter, it entered a state of flux where my then-active Patreon's blog posts were filling the newsletter's role.
Eventually, I closed my Patreon and moved everyone to the free Substack, using it for Author Promotions™ for the first year of its renewed existence. But that felt fake and boring, since the idea of Being An Author™ gives me indigestion. After all, being an author is for other people with career ambitions or rich fathers. I have neither.
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The way this works is: I write. You read. I write because I don't ever shut up about anything. You read because you find me charming. Or attractive. Or compelling. Or you might just be bored. Who knows. And in 2023, I plan to keep writing about whatever I want to, because I never shut up. From personal work and creative nonfiction to thoughts on music, film, and comics. I don't talk about books I don't write because I don't want to. I'm sure all of your books are great, I just don't want to talk about them. There are thousands of other newsletters to read if you want to know about books I don't write.
If that offends you, great. Perfect. Unsubscribe now. Now that the nerds are gone, it's time to catch up about what's happened since we last talked.
This isn't all going to be as sour and dour as the musical accompaniment implies, of course. But, as this is a Magen Cubed newsletter, we have to start with the rough stuff first.
It's a Newspaper Tragedy
So, in December, a week or so before Christmas, I got covid.
Well, my girlfriend tested positive. Then after taking care of her for two days, I tested positive. Then her mother tested positive two days after that. That little blue stripe we've all been dodging since March 2020, appearing again and again and again.
It's safe to say that December got away from me in almost all respects. I had a fight with my youngest brother over problems that had been simmering for a while. The kind of stuff looking for a chance to boil over into full-blown conflict until the opportunity presented itself. I told him to go fuck himself and have yet to tell him to unfuck himself at time of writing. My family may or may not have Opinions on all of this. I did not meet my self-imposed but nonetheless very glaring writing goals for the month. I completely forgot to send out holiday cards. There's an excellent chance that I forgot to wish everyone I intended to a happy holiday of their choosing this year.
(If I did, know that I mean to. Honest.)
And I got covid.
That's…weird. You know? Getting covid. Maybe a year or two ago I made peace with the reality that I would some day, somehow, get covid. Back during the torturous height of online covid moralizing and fear-mongering, I accepted that it was just going to happen. I got through the part where everyone got together and decided that it was your fault if you got covid. That the only justifiable way to get it was by bravely getting sick at your abusive, low-wage service industry job so that the Very Concerned People on Twitter could still get their 2 for $20 at Chili's. Sure, me and my girlfriend wear masks everywhere. We have all the shots and boosters we're medically allowed to have. We avoided family gatherings for years. We try to do everything that we can outdoors.
But it was going to happen. My girlfriend has an autoimmune disease. Her mother is a 65-year-old cancer survivor. They both work public-facing jobs and are exposed constantly. All we could do was try to mitigate our chances of catching it, and try to ensure it would hit us as mildly as possible given the situation we're in. Cushioning the fall as the plane went down.
I would be lying if I said that the thought of having covid had not terrified me all these years. Almost everyone I know has had it at least once. A handful of people I know back home in Texas died either from confirmed cases of covid or sudden illness during the height of the pandemic. It all just runs together in one mournful streak. The fear of Long Covid lingered in the back of my mind in the rising panic over blood clots and stories of young healthy stroke patients. Every time I had a sniffle, I took an at-home test. Every time I felt a little more fatigued than usual, I wondered if I had covid at some point and didn't even realize it.
Had I been sick all along?
Had I already given it to someone else?
Had I possibly hurt or killed someone?
Could I ever know for sure?
Then my girlfriend got it, and I got it. And it was --
Well, my girlfriend got better in about 48 hours. For me, it was like the flu, the way I always get the flu. I spent 24 hours being cooked alive by an intense fever, rattled by full-body chills and sweating through two changes of clothes. Then I woke up the next day feeling fine. I showered, put on Prince, and did the dishes. From bed, I tidied up some light revisions and caught up on a bit of reading.
Then I finished the Public Safety arc of Chainsaw Man by Tatsuki Fujimoto.
I think it was then, as I raced through the swiftly dwindling paperbacks in my stack, that I felt…it. Finally, I felt like I had covid. Sitting there on the sofa with my dog, Cecil, reading as Aki was possessed by the Gun Devil and went home to kill Denji. Aki, who was always fated to have the absolute worst death from the first page he appeared on. Every move he made brought him, knowingly, just one step closer to the inevitability of his own abrupt and meaningless oblivion.
Then Aki died, and I nearly threw the book across the room. I just wanted to scream. To cry. I wanted there to be some loophole, some stupid gimmick that would fix it. Because it was bullshit. You can't kill a character whose death was foretold from the jump, right? That seems so obvious. The sheer horror and violation of his death was basically a joke to the Future Devil. It had to be fixed. There's no way he goes out like that.
It wasn't fucking fair.
That was what getting covid felt like. This absolute event horizon in my life, from which there was no recourse but to tip over the edge into the cold shock of inevitably. Life has felt that way for a while, if I'm being completely honest. In more ways than one.
Every new horror is the mirror at the edge of the black hole. A new eventuality to be smeared across its surface in the ongoing spaghettification of my hold on material reality. The horizon, and then the sheer drop into oblivion on the other side.
The pandemic. Climate change. Mass shootings. State violence. System shock. Every hurricane season since I've moved to South Florida has been a death sentence. We huddle around our phones watching the hurricane tracker and hoping that no one will die even as the Caribbean (specifically my girlfriend's family home of Puerto Rico) is battered again and again. Every election is the last one. Foods and goods taken for granted vanished from the shelves until we got used to their absence. The hospitals fill up with the sick. The morgues are overrun with the dead. There are floods and fires and blizzards and droughts and wars everywhere, all at once.
Each one is The Big One. The grand finale. The game-ender. The shambling death of the empire. Where everything goes totally off the rails and we're on our own. And it does, and we are. But then I wake up the next day. The day after. Rent is still due. There are ads on TV for vacation cruises. I can feel trees die and coral reefs bleach inside my fingernails whenever I sit still. An ad for Universal Studios runs next.
Just be gleeful spaghetti on the edge of the event horizon, stretched and pulled forever into nothing but a murmur.
Then I got covid, and I sat there crying over a cartoon character in a book about a guy with a chainsaw for a face. Because it wasn't fucking fair. I knew I would get covid, even as I hoped that I wouldn't. But I didn't feel guilty or afraid or stupid that I got it. It was just the latest sheer vertical drop into oblivion, like all the others before it.
See, the unspoken part of this whole ordeal is the fact that I've been pursuing a connective tissue disease diagnosis for the latter half of 2022. I'm pretty sure I have lupus. Yeah, like on House. For a while, I thought it might be fibromyalgia because there's two diagnosed cases of it in my mother's family. After the first round of testing with a fairly disinterested and apathetic doctor (which did not make the process any simpler), it's looking to most likely be lupus.
What does that look like? I'm exhausted every day. My fingers and toes turn white or go numb when I'm stressed, which is often. The sun makes my skin hurt and my bones ache. Every joint hurts all the time. My hair has started thinning in cycles. I get a shock of pain when I breathe sometimes.
So, whatever covid does or doesn't do, whether I get Long Covid or not, lupus is always going to be in the backseat. Waiting. Like the dying trees and the bleached coral. My life is going to have limitations that it didn't before, the kind I can't simply blame on covid even if I tried. And no matter how much importance I endow covid with as a life-annihilating, world-ending disease, it didn't kill me.
Millions and millions of people did not survive, but I did. I did everything that I could to ensure that. I dodged the deadliest strains in the early days and got the vaccine and boosters with the relative ease afforded by virtue of living in the Global North. Of being housed, working a job that now allows me to stay at home, and having access to medical care. It pulled me over the edge and yet I remain. Because the world -- a world that exists for me because of that privilege -- remains.
For every final gasp, each unsurvivable terror, the world, for now, is not undone.
It is a lie, built on centuries of ongoing horror and exploitation, but the lie remains as long as rent is due. That knowledge, that bone-deep despair at the gaping maw of reality, has cooked my brain far more than the fever ever did.
I'm told every decade for the rest of my life will be worse than the last. I don't doubt that. Like covid, I don't really know what to do about it at the moment, except shuffle money along when and where I can to those who don't have it because I have some means and they don't. I did read a book about a guy with a chainsaw face and cried about it, though. That was really all I could think to do. I'll get back to you when I have a better answer, I guess.
But, on New Year's Eve, since I'm not dead, I put on a mask and got my hair cut. I wanted to cut off the old growth and try to make it easier to maintain. Less noticeable when it's thin. My stylist was very kind about it. Then me, my girlfriend, and her mom went to a restaurant we haven't been to since the pandemic started. I had vegetable sushi with eel sauce.
It felt like everything was normal again.
I hear cognitive dissonance pairs well with wasabi.
Tonight We're All Time Bombs
Everyone I've talked to seems to be taking things pretty slow here in the early hours of 2023.
There was something in the air this year. A quiet. A kind of resignation. If not resignation, then a clear-eyed reappraisal and acceptance, however reluctantly, of one's circumstances. 2022 was a weird bad year, in a series of weird bad years, that was also pretty decent for a lot of people around me. I think I'm one of the people for whom 2022 was, at least, pretty decent.
This year, it all feels like we're doing okay, but we're not going to push ourselves to make other people feel better. To feel more comfortable. The performance of success and positivity in the age of apocalypse. Hustling our way out of horror. Girlbossing the collapse. I, for one, am not manifesting shit, let alone abundance. But I am tending my garden.
I started off 2022 with a plan. I was going to finish and launch the next book in the Southern Gothic series. When it became clear that wasn't going to happen, I decided to just have it drafted by the end of the year. Once it became clear that I wasn't happy with the directions I was trying to take in either of the drafts I had started, I stepped away entirely. It just wasn't fulfilling me anymore. That, and I was still nursing some self-inflicted wounds regarding my relationship to my writing. The only thing that felt right was throwing everything I was working on in the bin. Short stories, novellas, novels, things finished and unfinished.
I wrote some about the experience already, if anyone is curious about that bit of minutiae:
So, I wrote three novellas in a new series instead. Now I'm revising those novellas and plotting out the other parts to write this year. I started with a book and ended up with something else entirely. Oh, well.
Dorian and Cash still have some dumb, weird, sexy, kind of sad, mostly funny stories that I haven't told yet. It feels like there's something there, in the little moments sewn into their odd love story. Fuel for something that's worth writing about. I think I just need some time away from it to figure out exactly where I want to take it. They're still God's most perfect idiots and my favorite little goblins, after all.
I've also been writing in that world since 2017. A lot has happened to me since then. Cross-country moves. Career changes. A few gut punches. Even if it hurts to say it, there's a good chance I said what I needed to say in a short story, an adapted book, and the dozen or so short stories that take place after. I don't know yet. It isn't setting the piano on fire and leaving the stage, but a short story in an award-nominated prose and comics anthology from a mainstream publisher, a book that's moved over 1300 copies through word of mouth, and hundreds of sequel stories sold is a pretty good run.
Of course, I say all that, then tomorrow I might crack whatever's bothering me about it and finish the draft in a month. I've been known to do that, too. Who knows.
What I do know is that my current project, A Coffin For Sparrows, is fulfilling me.
It's a love story. It's a divorce story. It's a spy story. It's an assassin story. It's an alternate history speculative fantasy set in 1994 Paris. It's a family drama. It's a globe-trotting manhunt. It's sexy. It's funny. It's going to kick you in the gut and make you mad at me.
People keep messaging me:
"Oh, so it's like Spy X Family but actually good."
And you know what?
Yes. Hell yes, it is. That's the blurb. Put it on the book jacket. We're taking shots at a popular shonen manga and anime series in 2023. I will meet you all on the battlefield. Taste my steel and know that Lautaro Shina and Alyena Tatarinova are hotter than Loid and Yor Forger.
But besides publicly shaming everyone involved in the production of an animated TV show with the unbridled sexual dynamism of my assassin/spy couple (obviously), I have no plans. I have no goals. No resolutions. No inspirational posts about positivity and manifesting and overcoming and the power of storytelling.
I am not spending another year beating myself into the dirt to finish books that aren't going anywhere. I am not killing myself to write things I'm alienated from because standard procedure dictates it's the only way to achieve anything. I am not courting BookTok influencers to get them to hawk a book that I didn't write for their audiences anyway. Leave your productivity and your girlbossing and hustle at the gate with last year.
2023 is my garden, and I will tend it as I see fit.
I will finish my revisions for the first three novellas in the A Coffin For Sparrows series. I will write at least one or two more this year. I know this, because I wake up every morning at 5:00am and I write until I clock into my work-from-home job at 9:00am. During my lunch hour, I usually write on the patio and sit in the sunshine. If it's a slow day and I can squeeze some time in to write between tasks, I do. I usually write between 1500 and 3000 words a day, four or five days a week.
If I'm too tired, too blocked, too stressed, too preoccupied, I take a nap. I calm down. I rest. Then the next day, I go back to writing. On the weekends, I rest. The routine is built into my life because writing is my most avid passion, beloved pastime, and active pursuit. It is nourishing to me. The work will get done, and I will still rest.
That's why I have no plans, no goals. The work will get done, because I want to do the work. I'm excited to do the work. I will be grateful for it.
At some point this year, a portion of A Coffin For Sparrows will be ready for public release. I have no date planned yet. When it's ready, I am tentatively aiming to release chapters weekly as a free or very nearly free serial.
But we'll talk more about that when we get there.
Three Cheers to the Mirror
Something I'm trying out this year is gratitude.
I know I just said that I wasn't doing mandatory positivity in 2023, but performative niceness is different from gratitude. This newsletter has grown pretty significantly over the last year from about 400-ish subscribers to nearly 1000. The voice in my head tells me that it should be 2000. 3000. 5000. I'm trying to drown that voice in the bathtub and be grateful that nearly 1000 strangers on the internet have even a passing interest in what I have to say.
The dull reality of it is that nobody owes me their time. Nobody owes me their attention. We're all just floating through life, ingesting the Content™ that most aligns with our personal views, tastes, and self-perceptions. I'm not exactly a beloved fixture in any given writing scene, nor a seasoned publishing insider with spicy takes to share. My name doesn't buy much more than a lotto scratch-off because I write books that fall between the cracks of genre and marketing conventions. I don't know if anything I have to say is even interesting or just another shallow, lukewarm summary of a better artist's work for the SEO farm.
I also have a nasty habit of just rejecting everything I've done once I'm done with it. I'm a graduate of the Hideaki Anno School of Public Self-flagellation, after all. I don't feel pride in anything I do, and especially not old work. This is why I harp so much on making work I can be proud of, chasing the hope that one day I can find a way to be. It's an underlying reasons why I don't keep physical copies of my books around.
Seeing my own work stirs a profound sense of grief in me that I can't quite put into words. That's a conversation better saved for a therapist's office. As soon as I reach an arbitrary measure of emotional and temporal distance from it, it simply doesn't exist to me. It's dead. It lived, failed to measure up to the impossible standards I set for it, and is now buried. No one read it. It never sold. I start over from zero with every new project, because I am starting with nothing to show for myself.
Now you probably get a sense of why I've ended up dropping all my books off at thrift stores over the years. It's better to be on a shelf far away from me than to haunt mine. These things can't grasp at me when they're at a Half-Priced Books in Arlington, Texas, or a GoodWill in West Palm Beach, Florida.
I've talked already about self-inflicted wounds. This is one of them. That voice, now drowned in four inches of bath water. It's nothing as cute or catchy as Imposter Syndrome. My impulse to reject and destroy was installed by a confluence of events and actors that I'm now, at 36, beginning to unpack and understand. There's no manifesting or girlbossing or believing my way out of this. No amount of aspiring to the confidence of mediocre white men is going to save me.
Which is why I'm trying to do better, and to let myself live in a world where my work exists. Part of that process has been putting together new covers for all my old releases, sans my well and truly dead first book. (More on that -- and why I've stalled on re-releasing it -- at a later date.) I want to be grateful for what I have, what I have created. I am tired of feeling myself slowly bleed out in a trickle between my fingers as I hold my insides in place. I want to take people at face value when they say they enjoy my work and they admire what I do. I want to believe that this is true.
I don't know if I'm quite ready to share the new covers yet. By the time you read this, it's already been a long year. I've been busy with editing projects, writing blurbs for other writers, and revising the first part of my serial. Maybe next month I'll share them, when I've had a minute to sit with it all.
So, watch this space.
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