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The 2020 Experience: A Personal Reflection

If there was ever a year that showed the difference between “on paper” and “in reality,” 2020 was it.

How so? Well, here is my personal 2020 on paper:

* My novel The Last Emperox was a New York Times bestseller, got three starred reviews from the trades, was named one of the best books of 2020 in a number of places, and won the Dragon Award for Best Science Fiction Novel;

* My audiobook novella Murder By Other Means also topped the charts for Audible Plus and was in the audio book fiction bestseller list for several weeks;

* Love Death and Robots, which featured three episodes based on my short stories, won Emmy and Annie Awards, the latter for one of my episodes — I didn’t win the award, to be clear, but it’s still pretty cool;

* I wrote two television screenplays which are currently in production (and that’s all I can tell you so far);

* I was Guest of Honor at DragonCon;

* I co-wrote a Christmas song that actually got some radio airplay.

Plus this site had its best year in a couple of years in terms of readership, plus my family is largely doing well, plus I was not consumed by a bear or other large woodland creature, etc. 2020! Pretty great! On paper!

In reality, of course, things were a lot different.

On a purely business level, from mid-March through mid-December I found it very difficult to write worthy pay copy. In the first half of year I was busy promoting Emperox and myself, which was not a problem. I knew I would be doing that with my time and had budgeted for it, because I had assumed that in the second half of 2020 I could focus on the novel. Then the second half of 2020 happened, and… well. You were there, you know how it went. Plus in my case there was the pretty-sure-it-was-COVID that turned my brain into jelly starting in November.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I wrote tens of thousands of words on this novel. The likelihood of you seeing any of those particular words without a substantial overhaul is low. The book will get done, and it will be good. But, yeah. When it does get done, it won’t be because 2020 made it easy.

I’m frustrated, angry and annoyed about this. These last few years were hard on my focus, as the various acknowledgement sections of each novel since The Collapsing Empire have made clear. But going into 2020 I genuinely thought I had acclimated to the chaos. I thought I might be able to keep my head down and do some solid work this year, not just on this novel, but on some other projects I wanted to do.

And in January and February, I did! Finished Murder, wrote those screenplays, whomped up a novel synopsis so I would have something to work from instead of just winging it like I usually did, had some meetings in LA about current and future projects and prepped for my book tour. Then with all that accomplished and feeling pretty damn smug about it, if you want to know the truth, I went on the JoCo Cruise in early March, with the assumption that the momentum would keep rolling when I got back.

Then I got back and, oh boy: Pandemic and quarantine and economic collapse and George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and anti-maskers and the election and the Stupidest Attempted Coup in Modern World History and 300,000 people dead, and so on and so forth, and think about what that and so on and so forth means, since any one of the things that might be in there would be a major event in a more sane year. 2020 was the year I had to go onto Amazon to buy emergency fucking toilet paper. Plus people I know got sick, and at least a couple died. And then I got sick, and while I didn’t get anywhere close to dying, thank goodness, I wasn’t in a good place for a while there to do meaningful work of the sort I usually do.

I thought I had acclimated to the chaos, and 2020 was all, lol, y’all watch this.

Like I said: frustrated, angry and annoyed. But not, I should note, feeling like I should beat myself up about not being able to focus for much of this year. 2020 was a king tide of terrible. It swamped me and nearly every other person I know, whether they were someone working in a creative field or not. I suppose there are some people who were able to function close to their normal this year, but I think they would either have been apolitical hermits to begin with, or sociopaths who think the chaos of this year is civilization living its best life. In either case that’s not a “normal” I would care to emulate.

Between March and December of 2020, the sum result of my public creative output is: one song. And know you what? For 2020, that is a complete and unambiguous win. I will take it, thank you. You know what else? If you were able to do anything this year above the level of “just get through this,” that’s a complete and unambiguous win for you, too. Feel good about it. And if “just get through this” was all you did for 2020, guess what? Another win! 2020 didn’t make it easy for you to do that, and you did it anyway. Well done, you. Basically, getting to this point in 2020 feels like a monumental achievement. Take a damn bow. You deserve it.

I will note that while this was a terrible year, objectively and subjectively, for me it was not as terrible as it was for many. Aside from the professional highlights above, the day-to-day experience of my life was as good as it could have been. My family was at home with me so the quarantine was not hard to endure. We were and are financially secure and never had to fear losing our home, or worry about whether or not we could pay our bills. We were mostly healthy and when I and Athena got sick, neither of us were seriously physically incapacitated. I missed people but I was also able to stay in touch with them online and through other means. We were and are both fortunate, and lucky. It’s perhaps strange to say that 2020 reminded me that I and my family have the luxury of a margin between us and the gulf. But it did, and I will go ahead and say it.

In spite of 2020, I have hopes for 2021. We will have a new administration and we have a vaccine. Neither means a hard reset of the damage that 2020 did, but they do mean some problems are on their way to being solved, or at least being managed better than they are now. I won’t say 2021 is going to be easy. But I can hope that it will be different, and that this level of different makes it easier for me to get back into my own head. We’ll see.

As for 2020: On paper, a good year for me. In reality, I would have traded all of the “on paper” for a better year than we all got. Every day, and twice on Sunday, of which there are no more for this year. Come on, 2021. Can’t wait to meet you.

— JS

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