Saturday, January 1, 2022

NINJA STUFF: Author, Year Eight (2021)

Here we are, Esteemed Reader, another year of our life in the rearview. For me, 2021 was one of the better ones, and not JUST by comparison to 2020, although that was part of it. I can honestly say I've been a happier person in 2021 than I was for the four years before it.

If you yearn to know my favorite media of 2021, it's the bottom section of this post. And don't worry, there is no political section. I'm going to (mostly) skip politics this year. Frequently, Mrs. Ninja and I have made the comment, "do you know what the President tweeted today," so the other could respond, "I have no idea" and we could both laugh with sweet relief. In fact, I've stopped watching the news and listening to political programs (mostly). I've replaced them with additional audiobooks and I've been much happier for it. 

I know our politicians are openly corrupt. What's ruminating on it going to accomplish?

I addressed the darkness of the insurrection and the ongoing pandemic in my post, It's Not an S: Zack Snyder's Justice League, the Nature of God, and the Persistence of Hope. I would consider that post to be the first part of this one if you're curious.

But you don't need to read it if you hated the Snyder Cut (we can still be friends). The TLDR is this: After witnessing Eugene Goodman diverting the insurrectionists and a couple mind-blowing personal events, I was reminded there is a God, however you choose to define Them. It didn't get me back to church. After seeing that "Jesus Saves" banner beside that gallows on January 6th, I'm less interested in formal church or dogma than I've ever been.

I doubt I'm any closer to understanding or even being able to define God, and that's okay. If there was a human capable of such understanding, no one would be more shocked than me to discover I was that human. No matter. There are so, so many things I don't understand, and it doesn't stop me feeling my way through the best I can in my blind ignorance. It is enough for me to know there is a God.

And so, in 2021, for the first time since I was much, much younger, I have lived with faith and Blessed Assurance. I also published the final-ish Banneker Bones adventure, which I honestly thought was the last book I'd ever write until I went ahead and started writing another less than two months later:)

The thing about religious talk is that it's all fun and games when we're pondering the mysteries of the universe. But sooner or later, folks start thinking up formal rules they're mostly pretty sure were divinely inspired: God told me that what you're doing is wicked, and you should actually be doing this (or I'll wipe out your whole village).

Dress this way, eat only these things, constantly attend events to be inundated with propaganda, sing to our liking about your belief you're going to hold in your heart, only be friends with people like us, bind yourself to our tribe, don't read those books with their dangerous notions of science, mutilate your genitalia thusly, etc.

I'm not going to preach at you, Esteemed Reader, pro or anti faith. It's perfectly fine with me if you prefer not to believe. Maybe you know something I don't (usually the case). Really smart person and one of my favorite writers, Hugh Howey, and I chatted a bit about religion recently and that conversation (you'll be able to hear it January 29th) has already got me reframing my own thoughts a bit. But these yearly posts are about my journey as an author and as a human. And this year, I've adopted a slogan I heard shouted from many a pulpit in my youth: live with an attitude of gratitude. 

It's amazing what surviving 2020 can do for a person. Mrs. Ninja and I have made some major changes for our health, both physical and mental. Little Ninja went back to actual school after three semesters of virtual school. I'm still wearing a mask and not leaving the house nearly as much as I did in the "before times." But I'm no longer bracing for the imminent apocalypse. I've begun to plan for events as far as six months out.

And everything is in much clearer perspective regarding what matters and what doesn't. 2021 has been the year of the great unclenching.

One week in pre-quarantine 2020 I was leading a virtual fiction workshop, which meant I had a pile of student stories I needed to critique, and I'd agreed to substitute teach for multiple days, and there was a political outrage on my mind, and my son wasn't sleeping (so I wasn't sleeping), and the notes from my critique group had been extra... insightful, and I'd managed to schedule three podcast recordings in one week. I'm so happy so many wonderful people want to come on the show, I schedule their recordings when it's convenient to them, though I no longer record more than two in a week.

The podcast is a lot of work. There's usually a book I need to read beforehand and I always research my guest ahead of time. I'm talking to some of the greatest writers who've ever walked the face of the earth, so I do my best to use that opportunity wisely and ask informed questions. 

At the end of this year, we reached 146 episodes. They couldn't all be recorded when it was most convenient, or when everything in my life was calm. I've recorded episodes when I've been feeling great and when I'm sick (this is showbusiness, so take a Dayquil and get your butt on that stage). I've only canceled on a guest once when Little Ninja ended up staying home from school and I had no one to watch him.

I'm convinced I've made a mess of every interview. I'm awkward and ask rambling questions that occasionally, accidentally border on rude. I also mentally take responsibility for guest behavior, which is irrational and unhelpful and still something I do. It's only once I listen to the episodes after recording them that I can relax and appreciate how really special the show is because despite me, the guests are amazing.

So, getting back to that week in 2020: I'm dead on my feet and overwhelmed and the last thing I wanted to do at eight at night was record another podcast. It was an author I really wanted to talk to, I just didn't want to talk to her right then. And she sensed it. She asked me what was wrong, I told her a brief summation of my week, and she said, with genuine concern, "I hope whatever's bothering you gets better."

And then we recorded and it's a tremendous episode because she's a tremendous author who said a lot of tremendous things. But I deeply regret that for a moment, I'd made it about me. The show's not about me. And more, I regret the attitude that led to that moment in the first place.

I'm under no delusion that listeners from around the world are tuning in just to hear me talk. I try not to think about how many people are finding the show every week so as not to tremble in fear every episode.  My only hope is that I don't dissuade Esteemed Audience from listening to my amazing guests. And I'm still in shock when I find I'm sitting across (virtually) from so many incredible people, including a childhood hero like Katherine Paterson (still can't believe that one's real).

So yeah, the show is a lot of work and it sometimes cost me hours when I could instead be playing Rachet and Clank. But don't you shed a single tear for me, Esteemed Reader. No one is more confused or delighted by the success of the show than I am. If the show went away tomorrow, I would still be thrilled to have had so many enlightening conversations. It's been an honor and a privilege, and I'll keep it doing it as long as I keep getting away with it:)

May I never again take for granted how fortunate I've been. It's not that I have to do the show. No one's making me and God knows there are plenty of other podcasts out there. It's that I get to the show. The least I can do to show my appreciation for the opportunity is to maintain an attitude of gratitude.

And the thing about talking to so many writers who are smarter than I am is that I'm getting a little smarter for it. I've felt intimidated in the past because as of this posting, I've not won a Newberry. What's the holdup!?!? Banneker Bones 3 was great:) And I'm a long way from being anywhere as successful as most of the guests I'm talking to. I shouldn't let that intimidate me, but I'm only human. Getting better about it, though.

And here's the thing: super successful writers don't appear to be walking around bathed in heavenly light, transcended from this world and high above the rest of us. I've talked with enough of them now to know this is more than merely conceptually true. 

I've been guilty in the past of thinking that if I just suffered long enough and outworked other writers, eventually I'd be successful and then I'd be happy. And success makes me happy, but I'm happy right now as I type this, despite my tragic state of being Newberry-less.

I'm not going to call out anyone specific, but if you listen to the show, you know some of the writers who've been open about their experiences. There appears to be no amount of money or awards that completely insulates a writer from being human. Humans have good days and bad days and insecurities and faults and health issues and family drama and all the rest of it. Success does not equal permanent happiness. That's a capitalist myth and a dangerous one I've bought into at different times in my life. "If I'm good enough, one day they'll let me have healthcare."

Okay, I'll call out one writer specifically: Katherine Paterson told me she feels that every book she finishes will be the end of her career. That blew my mind, but she said it (watch her in the video below). And I thought to myself, if Katherine Paterson hasn't completely gotten over her insecurity as a writer, there's probably not much hope for me. Also, projecting a false confidence that I'm completely over my insecurities might prevent me from one day being as good a writer as Katherine Patterson (a boy can dream). SOME feelings of insecurity can be motivating for improvement.

The realization that there is no grand author finish line, not realized from any one writer, but from the collective, has calmed me considerably.

2021 has been a time of appreciating what I have. Because during those years I was writing without a major contract or a huge publicity campaign, or, painful sigh, a Newberry, I was doing some other awesome things. I married the best woman on Earth, for instance. I made some wonderful friends and had a little boy I think might just be the greatest little boy who ever lived. And I now own two PlayStations and three Nintendos  (four if you count my childhood Gameboy) and all the action figures for Zack Snyder's Justice League, which I keep in my climate-controlled house with a full fridge.

There've been kings and queens who haven't lived as well as I live. Feeling bad about my life only makes sense if I compare it to an imaginary ideal. If I take a look around the world right now, and certainly the world of the past, I can see that I'm objectively living one of the greatest lives that's ever been possible in the history of humanity. I've never known true hunger or war or a great illness. I survived childhood. That alone is wining a cosmic lottery.

And so, in 2021, every time I've found myself thinking negative thoughts, I've forced myself to name five things I'm grateful for. And I've always been able to find them. And I've been able to relax and cheer up. I don't need to fret about my success or lack there of. I've already won. If I died tomorrow, that would strike me as a bit soon, but I'd still have to admit I had a great run. 

In 2022, we're getting two (TWO!) movies with Batman in them. If I want to beat myself up for not having a Newberry, that's my choice, but truthfully, if I could only have one, I'd prefer my PS5:) I have so much to be grateful for. And when I see the objective truth of that, it's hard not to walk around with a smile on my face or to appreciate the life I'm living.

In my defense, part of my job as a writer is to imagine, "wouldn't it be better right now if I were wearing a jetpack and had an EMP blast rifle to shoot giant robot bees out of the sky?" But I digress.

This year, I wrote a new book without jetpacks, but with lots of insects (can't get enough of them, apparently). I didn't work on it every day, just when I had time and wanted to have fun. And I wrote the story that brought me joy

It's going to be awhile before I tell you more about that bug story as there's no rush to publish this one. Don't get me wrong,  I love it (sooooo much) and can't wait for you to read it. I've got some special plans for this book that will slow down the process a bit, but there's no rush.

I've written it not because I had to, but because I had the opportunity and I appreciated the happiness writing it brought me. It should win a Newberry for sure, but even if nobody gives me an award, I had the joy of writing the story of my heart and knowing I've got some regular Esteemed Readers it might bring some joy to as well.

I've already won.

Esteemed Reader, I'm wishing you an attitude of gratitude in 2022 and beyond. Trust me. It makes all the difference.


That's all I have to say, but I usually include my favorite media of the year in these annual posts. If you're still reading and you're curious, I'll do that now.

I never list my favorite books. If you've been listening to the podcast, you know what I've been reading. I will shout out one book that hardly needs my endorsement: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. It's my favorite in Suzanne Collins' series since the original Hunger Games. It also came out in 2020, but I read it this year and it inspired me as great art always does. I know it's divided fans, but I admire Collins' ability to make Snow relatable and empathetic, while convincingly showing us how the world he was born into shaped him into the monster we remember and love. Now let's get a Hamish origin story, please.

Many of my favorites in 2021 came out in previous years. For example, my favorite video game of the year was Skyrim, which just celebrated it's 10th anniversary. What can I say? I tried to play it when it first came out and it crashed my computer. I tried again on Switch and its stupid ancient save system ate my game before I got very far. But this year I played Skyrim in VR and finished it (still doing side missions, though). Fighting dragons the size of a house was an experience I'm going to treasure forever. My second favorite game in VR was Borderlands 2, which I also missed when it first released.

Because of the many pandemic-related delays, the only games from this year I really loved were Guardians of the Galaxy (filled me with joy), Psychonauts 2, Far Cry 6 (I wish Guapo the murder crocodile sidekick was in every game), and the remastered Super Mario 3D World/Bowser's Fury. 

But I discovered and loved the older games Mafia III (that one had me doing research to verify its reality and was genuinely educational), Astro Bot Rescue Mission, Trover Saves the World (been laughing at it's depiction of Heaven all year), and Until Dawn: Rush of Blood. Oh, and I finally played God of War after IGN users voted it the best game of all time (not hardly). It's no Red Dead Redemption II, or even a lesser Mario, but it was very pretty and fun. I've since been whispering to myself: "Don't be sorry. Be better."

I watched even less television and fewer movies this year (who has time with so many great books and videogames), but I will probably never again love a movie as much as I loved Zack Snyder's Justice League (wrote a whole post about it). A close second was Ghostbusters: Afterlife, which was the ultimate wish fulfillment fantasy of my 80's childhood spent yearning to bust ghosts with the guys in my small town. I also really enjoyed The Suicide Squad (shockingly emotional in the middle of a Starro fight),  The Harder They Fall, West Side Story, Spider-Man: Far From Home (had me at hello), The Power of the Dog (gotta love a Jane Campion film where characters carry a piano through mud), Don't Look Up, Concrete Cowboy (G. Neri said it would be good, but it was great), and Worth.

It was a year of Michael Keaton. Not only was Worth excellent, Dopesick was about as perfect an indictment of capitalism and the disease of our society as I've ever seen. Don't kid yourself that the Sacklers are the only ones willing to slaughter their fellow Americans for cash. The wealthy are not to be trusted. The best minute and a half of film I saw all year was that trailer for The Flash. Just hearing Keaton's voice over a few notes of Elfman's original Batman score was enough to light up every nerdy cell in my body in a way only the second trailer for The Force Awakens has ever done.

As for television, I loved Mare of Easttown (of course), Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Midnight Mass, Solar Opposites, Rick and Morty (always), and The Problem with Jon Stewart. Two shows I really enjoyed along they way even though the wheels came off before the end were Them and Superman and Lois. My favorite show of the year didn't come out this year, but 2021 is when I discovered For All Mankind. I binged two seasons in a month and was then filled with regret because there isn't a third season yet.

Thassit for this year, except to reiterate: How can I look at that amazing list of media I consumed in 2021 and not be grateful to have been alive?

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