So here we are again. From the number standpoint, 38 has a few things going for it. The 38th parallel is the boundary between North and South Korea. There’s a gun and a band called .38 Special. 38 is the lowest jersey number not retired in any of the 4 major American sports, which makes one wonder why. The reverse is 83, meaning that everyone born in 1983, myself included, has this as a numerologically significant year.

To write this post, I had to look back at last year’s, and it has me thinking. Specifically, I’m thinking, “I really didn’t accomplish anything in the past 12 months, did I?”

That’s how I feel. If anything, I’ve regressed in a lot of areas. The therapy I tried hasn’t helped like I hoped it would. Politics got even worse, from the massive fraud in last year’s election to the continuing violations of basic human rights and a looming economic crisis, and this combination of factors has only increased my depression and anxiety. On the family front, my cousin was killed in a car wreck a few months back, and we only recently learned that he wasn’t driving—one of his so-called friends was, a 21-year-old addict on enough drugs to make Hunter Biden jealous. To top it off, if my relationship was on the rocks last year, it’s run aground now.

The one possible bright spot is my job. I’ve had that for six months, and it’s…strange to say the least. I wake up every weekday wondering if this is the day I get fired, then often spend the afternoon listening to my boss praise me for the work I’m doing. The pride I feel at building something is almost perfectly balanced by the fear that I’m not pulling my weight, or that I’ll be exposed as the impostor I know I must be. On the plus side, I am getting paid, but I’ve been so poor for so long that I honestly have no idea what, if anything, I should be spending that money on.

The job took away most of my free writing time. That’s no great loss, as my depression meant I was barely using it to begin with. Since the beginning of this year, I’ve written about 150,000 words. Go back to 2017, and that was a month’s worth of output. I’m still hoping to do Nanowrimo (it would be my 10th in a row), but this is going to be the hardest one by far.

I still hate what I’ve become. I still don’t hold out much hope for turning things around. My 38th year of life ends, and I wonder how many more I have. This last one has been a waste in every respect. I’d gladly take it back, but I can only believe that it would turn out exactly the same. Nothing I do seems to change anything for the better.

Some people wish for material things on their birthdays. Some instead treat their wishes as prayers. All I truly want, though, is…a reason to go on, I guess. And a reason to believe I should.

Bad at love

(Title is the Smith & Myers song, because every word of it is me. And because that album is better than the last 3 Shinedown albums combined.)

I’ve done a lot of writing over the past decade, and one of the hardest parts, I’ve found, is writing about relationships. Specifically, the beginning of one. Why? It’s simple, really: until about three years ago, I’d never experienced one for myself. “Write what you know,” the mantra goes, but characters getting together is such a natural part of a story—just as people getting together is a natural part of life—that even I couldn’t get away from it.

Partly due to this lack of experience, I’ve fallen into a bit of a pattern. The shy, smart, and often self-deprecating male character finds a woman who can look past, if not ignore entirely, the flaws he perceives. She loves him for who he is, not who he thinks himself to be, and his character growth follows a trajectory of being lifted out of his “down” mental state as he learns to accept her feelings. I did it with Alex and Aare in Otherworld, Asho and Deena in Hidden Hills, Lucas and Elyssa in the “Fallen” novella, and Anit and Lia in Shadows Before the Sun. Four times I’ve gone to that well, and it’s because that’s a trope that resonates very strongly with me.

There was supposed to be a fifth, however, a final iteration that would become the culmination, bringing the fantasy to the next level. A storybook moment for a character who had too long been without. That fifth pairing was to be Michael and Leslie.

I don’t think I’ve ever named her here before. I usually refer to her as “the woman I love” or some phrasing to that effect. And I’m breaking that habit this time not because I don’t love her anymore—I most certainly do—but simply out of authorial necessity. Writing something, even on a computer, makes it real. Publishing it, whether on a blog or in a book, fixes it in both the writer’s mind and the collective knowledge of society. I need that reality, that immutability, at this moment.

A few months ago, not long after I started my job, I was making plans again, plans for us. I hadn’t done that in nearly a year, for reasons that should be obvious. But things were looking up, and I believed they would keep going in that direction. I’d get my life back on track, the world would cooperate and regain some rationality, and we’d live happily ever after. I had planned to propose about a month from now, my head full of dreams about bringing my fiancĂ©e home to meet my family at Thanksgiving. Not long into next year would be the ultimate step, I had hoped.

That didn’t pan out. Instead, the world has slid deeper into tyranny while I’ve slid deeper into the most severe depression of my life. I’m not thinking about engagement rings or finding a place for us to live. I’m barely thinking about “us” at all. My days are filled with wondering just how much worse things are going to get, how many more places will bar me from entering for the crime of not wanting to be part of a genetic experiment, and how much more I can take before I finally reach the breaking point.

There are still things I want to accomplish in this life, and there remains within me a faint glimmer of hope that enough people will realize the truth before it’s too late.

I’d like to finish at least the Otherworld series, as well as Orphans of the Stars; the first is for my own peace of mind, while the second is the only story of mine that has actual fans. The rest of my bibliography I’m content with leaving behind, except that I really, really want to edit and release Heirs of Divinity. I’ve promised that one for years. But Nocturne doesn’t need a sequel. Hidden Hills was more of a thought experiment gone awry. The Occupation Trilogy? Why write it when I’m practically living it?

I also want to get my nonfiction book, The Prison of Ignorance, into publication. That’s only the first part of a larger scheme, though. It’s intended to be the introduction of technetism, my attempt at merging humanist philosophy with self-sufficiency, patriotism, and a love of knowledge. A kind of echo of the Enlightenment, in my opinion, and it really is something that no one else can do. Technetism, in my vision, has its own website, podcast, and social circle, among other things. It’s intended to be one pillar in the support structure I never had. If I can give that to the world—and, more importantly, if the world accepts such a gift—I’ll consider it a job well done.

Those are the only true goals I have left, and I calculate that I have about two years to complete them. That figure comes about from many factors. I’m not in the best physical shape, of course, and the next Chinese bioweapon might be something more dangerous than a bad flu with a 99.8% survival rate. Mentally, I’m very…unstable, to say the least. I’m a social outcast in a region where socializing largely comes in particular places I tend to shun.

Most of all, though, I’m not sure I can live with the shame of being a 40-year-old bachelor. Especially since being single at that point would be my own fault. I had it all, and I squandered every bit of it. I wasted my chances, my opportunities. At every turn, my own self-destructive behaviors stood in the way of happiness and a shot at a bright future in this darkening world.

Sometimes I wish I understood the minds of people who have faith, and now is one of those times. I come from a family of devout Christians, all of whom would tell me that no one is beyond forgiveness. But I don’t feel like I deserve to be forgiven for what I’ve done, for the shell of a man I’ve become and the effect that transformation has had on the people I love most.

“Falling down like he always does,” this post’s title song says. Indeed I am. And every time I fall, it’s a little harder to get back up.

All that was

(Title is a song by Ayreon that is more than just amazing: it actually fits my mood perfectly.)

It’s hard to think, harder still to act. Lately, the pressure has just been growing and growing, and it doesn’t seem like there’s any end in sight. I’ve come to the conclusion that the end of my journey is looming in the distance, coming ever closer with each passing day.

On some of those days, I’d almost welcome it. That’s how bad things are getting for me.

This isn’t only about depression. It’s not merely a reaction to the violations of human rights I, like billions around the world, have suffered in the past year and a half. No, this is a combination, a culmination, an amalgamation of everything that has happened in my nearly 38 years of life.

We are the product of our experiences. In my case, I’m the product of a world that never cared to care, and that world has worn me down. It has eroded my spirit almost to nothing, washed away my hopes and dreams in a torrent of tears, and drowned all but the strongest emotions. I’m not angry at the world anymore, because it’s nearly impossible for me to feel anger at this point. Instead, there’s just a numbness, an emptiness where such feelings used to be. So it goes for joy, desire, and self-worth, as well. I feel as if I’m nothing, but only because everything that makes me, well, me has been taken away.

I wanted to make the world a better place. To leave it in better shape than I found it, as the saying goes. Over the past few decades, I’ve had innumerable ideas on how best to do that, but the last few years have seen them coalesce around a few pillars.

One is my writing, whether fiction, opinion, or fact. I’ve written over 60 completed stories and worked on 2 nonfiction books, including one that has reached a finished draft. I’d like to do more, because there are still a lot of ideas I’ve never had time to get around to writing. I just don’t feel I’ll ever have time. (Honestly, that would be the case if I knew I would live forever. Such is the life of a dreamer.)

Second on the list is, for lack of a better term, making. I mean this in the “maker culture” sense of creating, DIY, and so on. I have a 3D printer, for example, and a CNC router has been on my wishlist for a year or more. Making things interests me, and I’ve constantly looked for ways to use that interest as a positive force. That has taken me to a lot of different places, researching things like post-apocalyptic prepping or sustainable architecture. Not because I believe in the necessity of such things, but because they overlap with an interest. So they clearly have some purpose, right?

Closely related to this is the software angle. Specifically, I’m a big proponent of decentralization on the internet. I support the so-called Indie Web, the fediverse, and various retro-style applications and protocols such as Gemini. These are things that will help the world, if only they can gain traction. Resistance to censorship is vital today, as anyone who has ever dared to express an unpopular opinion on Facebook, Twitter, or Youtube can attest. Technologies like cryptocurrency are also sorely needed; that’s another road I wish I’d had time to explore.

All of it, however, comes back to one simple thing: freedom. I believe in freedom, in the inalienable human rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness expressed in the founding documents of our nation and the Enlightenment from whence they came. No one should control my life but me. That’s my firm opinion, and it’s the closest thing to dogma you’ll ever hear out of me. The vast majority of my depression, I’ve found, comes from the knowledge that I have essentially zero control over my life. And we have a term for people who have no control over their lives: we call them slaves.

Every single one of my goals, then, boils down to emancipation. Liberation for myself, liberation for others. Freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of religion. The power to speak one’s mind without fear of censorship, whether government or corporate. The ability to defend oneself, including defending ourselves from our elected officials, if necessary. Autonomy of body, mind, and spirit. Freedom of association, to choose those people we would prefer to align ourselves with.

Having no power over my own life, I cannot begin to tackle the larger issue of giving others that same power. I’ve tried. I do what I can, but it just isn’t enough. One man can’t take on a million.

In such dire straits, some turn to faith, but that’s another thing I can’t do. Faith is anathema to me, whether it’s a traditional religion or the new cult of scientism. I have to know. Or, if I can’t know, then I have to know that something is knowable. To do otherwise, in my opinion, is trading one set of chains for another.

No, I really don’t have an easy out. I’m caught, imprisoned, stuck in a place I can’t escape. And it’s my nature to be an escapist. Thus, every waking moment is painful. I can’t be who I am, who I want to be, who I was meant to be. That’s the kind of denial that hurts on every level, and it has taken from me until I now have nothing left to give. It seems that all I have left to hope for is to go out in a blaze of glory, with a bang instead of a whimper.

The oath

The most important words a man can say are, “I will do better.” These are not the most important words any man can say. I am a man, and they are what I needed to say.

The ancient code of the Knights Radiant says “journey before destination.” Some may call it a simple platitude, but it is far more. A journey will have pain and failure. It is not only the steps forward that we must accept. It is the stumbles. The trials. The knowledge that we will fail. That we will hurt those around us.

But if we stop, if we accept the person we see when we fall, the journey ends. That failure becomes our destination.

To love the journey is to accept no such end. I have found, through painful experience, that the most important step a person can take is always the next one.

Earlier this evening, I read a post where someone was talking about Dalinar, a character in Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy series The Stormlight Archive. Specifically, they referenced his climactic scene in Oathbringer, the third book of the series. In that scene, Dalinar confronts Odium—for better or worse, the books’ equivalent of evil incarnate, but also passion. Emotion. Fury both angry and righteous.

Odium, much like the common conception of Satan, is a tempter. Though armies loyal to him are slaughtering the human forces, he offers Dalinar an out. Freedom for humanity (of a sort, as they would be in service to him) for a simple price: the pain one man keeps inside.

When I first read Oathbringer, I didn’t think much of that scene. Now, however, I think back on it and see it as a mirror reflection. All I have to do is give up my pain, and the world is saved? Honestly, I’ve been willing to offer exactly that in my darker moments.

But Odium is offering a drink from a poisoned chalice here. It’s not merely pain he’s demanding, but a part of the self. We are the sum total of all our experiences, good and bad alike. Change any one part, any one action or inaction or feeling or memory, and we wouldn’t be us anymore. We would become someone different.

Pain hurts. If it didn’t, painkillers, antidepressants, and alcohol wouldn’t be so commonly abused. What we have to do, then, is give meaning to the pain. Learn from it. Instead of burning us away, let its fire temper us and therefore make us stronger. Otherwise, we’re hurting in vain.

Dalinar was tempted. Who wouldn’t be? In the end, he understood that all of it, all the pain he had caused and had endured, had a purpose. And so he stared in the face of a literal god and said, “You cannot have my pain.”

I only wonder if I could do the same.

I have stumbled. I have been tried and found wanting. I have failed and hurt those around me. Family, friends, those I love in any way, they have seen me fall. Worse, they have seen me not want to get back up. They have seen me ready to lie down and let the journey end.

We aren’t dealing with genocidal deities, supernatural storms, and semi-sentient hordes in our world, but the battle is no less real. It’s no less painful. While I certainly hope the destination is a good one, I can’t say for certain, so the journey really is all I have. If it ends, so do I, and…I’m not sure I’m ready to see my journey’s end just yet.

To everyone I’ve hurt, everyone who has seen me hurt, I can’t put into words how sorry I am. I don’t know if I’m ready to speak “the hardest words a man can say” yet, but I believe I could get there.

Not alone, though. Not without a lot of help.

As it’s getting too late tonight, I’ll start reaching out on a more personal level tomorrow. Until then, know that I’m thinking of all of you, and it hurts to see what I’ve done, how I’ve failed to live up to the ideals I’ve adopted.

Life before death.

Strength before weakness.

Journey before destination.

Help me find the conviction to speak those words, to believe in them and take the next step, the most important step. And then I know I can swear that oath: I will do better.

My demons

(Title is a common enough phrase, but definitely check out the Starset song of the same name.)

As anyone who has read my ramblings of the past few years can tell, I don’t believe in the supernatural. I’m agnostic—in the literal sense of “not knowing”—on its existence, but nothing I have seen in my nearly 38 years of life has shown me any evidence that it in any way impacts the natural world. If it did, things would be a lot different, I imagine.

That said, I do, in a sense, believe in demons. They’re the personal sort, though, not the horned beast-men or diabolically sexy monster girls but…emotions. Thoughts. Aspects of one’s personality. These demons are the ones living inside our heads.True, some aren’t exactly evil, and people often use the word daemon to refer to those which are good or, at worst, neutral. I like that, since the base word has become inexorably linked with evil.

Whatever term you use, the ones we’re most familiar with are the bad sort, and they come in a number of different flavors. Too many people have a lust for power or pleasures of the flesh; both of these often lead to trouble, whether for themselves or those around them. Tempers flaring might be a sign of a different kind of inner demon, that of rage or fury. Greed, another popular one, fills our world today.

And then there are mine. They’re twins, in a sense, or perhaps merely sisters. Certainly related, and my mental image really is of a feminine form for both of them. No real reason, except that I know enough about classical mythology to associate emotions with female figures: think the Muses, for instance.

Melancholia is the older of this pair. I’ve known her for a long time, at least two decades, and I once believed I had come to understand her. She’s the voice in my ear telling me something is impossible, hopeless, unable to be done. She reminds me that the world is a cruel, callous place full of people who will never truly know me, or even care to. Her will has guided so many of my posts, while a number of my books were written in part as attempts at quieting her. She isn’t likable, but she’s a known quantity.

Younger Acedia, on the other hand, makes me want to use words I don’t normally speak to describe her. She has come into fullness over the past few years, and is now in her ascendancy. While Melancholia urges me to give up hope, Acedia revels in the knowledge that I already have. She is a mistress of decay, of apathy and stasis. She would call herself my lover, and she jealously pushes back any who dare to love me. Her strength waxes as the world falls further into chaos and tyranny, as I get older and see my chances at a life worth living slowly dry up. On my darkest days, she even stops my tears, though not out of any sense of empathy. No, she says not to bother, that there’s no sense in crying if nobody will see it. And, she’s always quick to add, no one wants to see it anyway.

Melancholia is strong, but I can fend her off on good days. When the sun is shining, when good things are happening for a change, I can push Melancholia aside, put my hand over her mouth so I don’t have to hear her poisonous words. All this time has allowed me to recognize those moments when I have the upper hand on her.

Acedia, however, clouds my judgment. And she is much stronger than her sister, at least these days. Alone, I might be able to stand my ground against her. Facing both of my demons at the same time, as I’ve had to do for 18 months without a break, that’s much more difficult. Impossible, I might even say, and I can’t blame that entirely on Melancholia. This is a constant struggle, one I’m not sure I can win. On those occasions, ever rarer as time passes, where I am able to push both of them away for a few brief moments, it seems that only leaves them more enraged, and their revenge leaves me shaken, beaten down, ready to surrender.

Two on one isn’t a fair fight, but then there is no such thing, I suppose. Especially when you’re fighting the demons that reside within.

Hill to die on

Although I’ve only recognized it for what it was in the past few years, I’ve lived with depression for over a quarter of a century. In that time, there were days where I didn’t know what was going to happen, where I wondered what was coming next.

I spent three years almost homeless, crammed with my mom and little brother into the back bedroom of a single-wide trailer. Two boys, 15 and 11 years old at the start, and their mother, who was younger than I am now, all sharing less than 100 square feet of living space. That was my Y2K. Those were my teenage years. That was what I was doing on 9/11. But I was never really scared for my own safety or well-being.

A decade ago, my grandfather was on his deathbed, my brother was working himself into the next grave over at an Amazon warehouse, and my mom seemed determined to stay awake until she beat them both there. It was a miserable experience, made so much worse as I watched not only a beloved relative waste away, but those closest to him ignore every suggestion that might have helped or, at the very least, eased his passing. But I didn’t fear for myself, because I wasn’t 90 and suffering both the aftermath of a stroke and the deadly ministrations of a nursing home.

Now, though, I’ve never felt more afraid.

It’s rational to fear death; indeed, I’m of the firm belief that it is the only rational fear. The end of life is so final that we must approach it with some measure of trepidation. To feel otherwise is, in my opinion, the same as saying that your life doesn’t matter. While I’m sure many religious types would agree with that assessment, I’m not one of them. I can’t see the sense in throwing away what we have now in the hope that what comes after will be so much better. No, this is the life we’ve got, and the primary reason why I haven’t ended mine is because it’s the only one I’m sure of having.

That said, I have been thinking more and more about that ultimate end. Our world is sliding so far, so fast, that I can’t help it. I truly don’t see an out, a path forward that leaves me in a better place. There is a very real chance that I could be arrested for the crime of wanting to, as the famous poem puts it, breath free. Or I may be forced under threat of life, liberty, or family to undergo an experimental medical procedure that has already killed hundreds of thousands, injured millions more, and has an unknown long-term effect on my health and virility.

Even discounting the fringe theories—those do not include arrest for not wearing a mask, as that is a fact of life in some countries already—I still must contend with the other repercussions of this false pandemic. I’m effectively barred from non-emergency medical care. Entire fields of endeavor and even states are closed off to me. The communities where I might, under normal circumstances, find common cause have closed themselves to freethinkers like myself. Because I choose freedom, I am increasingly isolated, marginalized.

For someone who already suffers from depression and a severe lack of self-esteem, this is catastrophic. It’s one thing for me to turn away from the world, quite another for the world to turn away from me. And it’s happening in many places, to many people. More each day, in fact. I’m one of a million or more, and we simply can’t get the help we need.

I wonder what I could possibly contribute to a world that has rejected me on every level. I fear that my time will soon come to an end because of that rejection. And what will I leave behind? More books than there are people who’ve read them. A mass of code few developers would want to touch. Most of all, the pain I’ve caused for those I love most through actions that I probably deserve to spend eternity regretting.

I’ve spent more than half my life living in the house from which I write this. With each day that passes, I become more certain that it is where that life will end. More and more, I’m starting to believe that, literally and metaphorically, I will die on this hill.

Defense mechanism

The pithy, meme-like definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting a different result. By that standard, I am completely, certifiably insane.

I do the same things, fall into the same patterns, again and again. My days all seem to blur into one, the only breaks in the monotony coming when disaster strikes, such as the death of my cousin in July. Everything in my life feels to me like a downward spiral, as if I’m swirling around a cosmic toilet bowl, and some part of me sees that analogy as all too accurate.

All that should be fairly obvious to anyone who has read some of my earlier posts on PPC. Nothing new, really, except that I think I’ve finally reached the point of acceptance. If the path to becoming a better man, to reaching the kind of life goals I want from myself, requires battling my own inner demons, an apathetic family, and a hostile world at every turn, then I have to stop and ask, “Is it even worth the cost?”

History lesson

World War I is now over a century in the past, but we still remember it today. Four years of bloodshed, devastation, and misery inflicted on the entirety of humanity for the trivialities of a fading noble class. Millions of lives lost, countless others left permanently damaged in body, mind, or spirit. The entire world left upside down.

Some people see their lives as metaphorical warfare, and I often wonder which wars they’re talking about. The movie kind, almost certainly, the stylized tales of individual heroism. They see themselves as protagonists, as the lone wolf fighting off waves of Nazis, Communists, Taliban, or whoever their preferred enemy might be. In their lives, the bullets fly, but they never find their mark. Wounds are patched up off-screen, and the mental trauma is swept under the rug.

Not so for me. I feel more like an infantryman of WWI: nameless, faceless, with little hope for survival. I’m stuck in a trench, never truly gaining ground except to give it right back. Monotony and drudgery are enemies as great as the ones sniping at me, and harder to defend against.

Even the best soldier gets worn down eventually. Even the strongest man cracks under the constant pressure. I was never the best, never the strongest, so I sometimes wonder how I’ve held on this long. And sometimes I wonder if I have, or if I’ve already been broken beyond repair.

I consider myself at war in more than the metaphorical sense, however. As I see it, this whole country—no, this whole world is at war. It’s mostly a cold war at this point, this battle of good versus evil, liberty versus tyranny. We see occasional flickering flames, such as the present rioting in Australia and ongoing protests in France, but most of the war is being waged in the hearts and minds of our fellow man. We’re just waiting for our Fort Sumter, our Lexington and Concord, our Pearl Harbor or Franz Ferdinand or Dien Bien Phu. The moment in which our enemy, in this case the enemy of all that is good and just in this world, finally makes that fatal mistake and turns a cold war into a shooting conflict.

Last stand

But being a soldier is hard work, remember. We in America have been in a constant state of war for twenty years running, but the last few have seen that war turned against the common people, and the past eighteen months have seen the good guys take loss after loss on the psychological battlefield.

Early research into what has, at various points in history, been called combat fatigue, shell shock, and post-traumatic stress disorder gave a good upper bound for the time a battle-ready soldier could expect to be deployed in active combat before suffering a mental breakdown. That time works out to around 280 days; curiously, about the same amount of time as a pregnancy.

We’ve been under siege for twice that, and the numbers show that we’re all starting to break at a frantic pace. Depression is skyrocketing. The same goes for anxiety. General feelings of malaise, despair, hopelessness, and similar negative emotions are so common that it’s getting almost impossible to find someone who isn’t seeing the worst in each passing day.

I have all of the above and more. I used to look at each day wondering what I could do, what I could make, and how I could make a difference. Now, though, I greet each morning with a sigh and a vain hope that it won’t get any worse. I can’t blame all of that on external factors, of course. Some of it comes from my own problems, problems that were exacerbated, not created, by current events.

Placing blame really misses the point. What’s more important is that I’m broken, I know I’m broken, and I accept that putting myself back together is beyond me. I’m a casualty of this war, make no mistake.

If I have to go down, let me go down swinging. That’s all I feel I can ask now. I doubt I’ll ever have children—another hope dashed in the past year and a half—so there aren’t a lot of reasons to keep fighting. What fight I have left, then, is in the defense of the ideals I hold most dear: liberty and justice for all, equal opportunity, the rights each of us has from birth. For the sake of those I love, I’ll fight in the name of those ideals as long as I can. Even if I can’t live in a world free from the evils of tyranny, maybe I can help make it so they can. It’s a small chance, but it’s all I’ve got, so I’ll keep on fighting for it until the bitter end.

I just can’t help but think that end is coming sooner than I ever expected.

Take it to the limit

(It should be obvious, but the title comes from one of the best Eagles songs.)

Yesterday, my partner mentioned a “disturbing” scene in a book she had read. It was indeed disturbing, from the description she gave, and it got me thinking about what I consider to be the limits of my writing. By this, I don’t mean the things I can’t write, but those I won’t write.

Every author has limits. Some see those limits as challenges, barriers. Others treat them more like a fence around the yard, defining the boundaries of personal space. I do lean more in that direction, I’ll admit. Over the past decade, my writing has visited some interesting genres, character interactions, and scene elements, but a few things just make me stop, shake myself, and ask, “Are you sure you want to write that?”

Sex is at the top of the list, as I think it is for many authors. Of course, some of us have to deal with publisher or platform requirements. (Amazon only allows certain kinds of erotica, for example, while Kobo seems to prohibit anything a church lady would find offensive.) Even without those restrictions, however, I would find myself hard-pressed—pardon the pun—to write explicit sex scenes for public consumption.

I’ve written implicit sex on many occasions, and many of my stories have more than their fair share of innuendo. Neither of those bother me. It’s only when I get into the details that I find myself wondering if I should bother. Very, very few written stories benefit from the addition of sexual content. Most of the time, it’s there for wish fulfillment or pure titillation, both of which are better served by other forms of media. The thing is, people do have sex. Therefore, my characters, being people, should do the same. But it’s also one of the most private acts humans can commit, so how much does it really belong in, say, a fantasy or sci-fi novel?

I suppose another reason I’m leery of sexual content in my stories is that so many of my characters are children and teenagers. That’s one of modern society’s biggest taboos, as we know, and most platforms take a heavy-handed approach to policing it. (Established authors can get away with a lot more. Ask George R. R. Martin or Terry Goodkind, to name two examples among many.) But such strictures also cause a chilling effect for those of us who don’t want to deal in explicit sexuality. How far am I allowed to go in exploring, say, the relationship between 13-year-old Justin and 14-year-old Derry? More importantly, what do I do if I reach the platform’s limits before my own?

In other types of media, specifically TV and movies, sex is a surefire way of getting an adult rating, but gratuitous violence and gore are very often allowed in material geared towards teens. In my opinion, that’s one of the greatest failings of Hollywood, because it gives favor to acts of destruction over those of creation.

Don’t get me wrong. Some things are inherently violent and gory. War, particularly. I’ve written numerous scenes of battle, mostly squad-level skirmishes or even duels. I’ve written about monsters and murders. Only in The Linear Cycle and the Endless Forms novels do I really delve into some of the more gruesome aspects, though. In both cases, I feel I’m justified: one is a zombie apocalypse, the other a paranormal detective series.

I don’t go out of my way to shock my readers. You won’t see Tom Clancy levels of detail about guns and the effects they have on the targets of their aggression. I’ll never write the novelization of Saw. I do have blood and guts, explosions and corpses, but I always treat these with a little bit of distance.

That’s just who I am. I don’t like death. Or war, for that matter. I’d much rather write about the aftereffects of a battle, or the tactics, or the causes that led to it, not excruciating details about how many body parts are being lost by the soldiers on the front lines.

This extends to more general sorts of violence, as well. Although some might describe me as sadistic—all authors possess some measure of sadism, to be honest—I don’t like seeing people hurt for no reason. I don’t even like seeing it happen to my characters, and they’re not real people!

The hardest scenes for me to write are those involving character injury and death. The climactic chapters of Nocturne, for instance, took a lot out of me. (One scene in particular still almost brings me to tears.) Likewise for the RPG-style battles of The Soulstone Sorcerer and even the death of a fairly minor character in Written in Black and White. I’m just a big softy, I guess.

I have a few other writing limits, too. Many of these are personal, like my aversion to profanity, which stems from a choice I made many years ago, long before I ever dreamed of becoming an author. I don’t write transgender characters, as I feel the very subject is so politicized that it would be a waste of my time. You’ll never see my name on a horror novel; I don’t like the genre, and I don’t feel I could do it justice. And I’ll likely never kill off a main character. A main character’s love interest, yes. A main character’s best friend, sure. Not the protagonists themselves, however. (I have flirted with the idea on two occasions, but it never felt right. Congratulations, Gabriel and Chei, you both survive this time.)

Pushing the boundaries is part of our growth as authors and people. It’s natural and healthy to want to try new things we didn’t think were possible. But the comfort zone is real. Once we’re past it, once we truly feel uncomfortable because of what we’re writing, it’s time to step back and think it over. Do we really need to put that in? Does it serve a purpose? Does it add to the story? Or are we just doing it because of, well, peer pressure?

Because that’s what it is, when you think about it. The uncomfortable excursions beyond our limits usually come about from an attempt at…showing off, to put it bluntly. Sex sells. Violence isn’t exactly sitting on the shelves, either. All those little things we think a “real” story needs—because the pros have them—aren’t always necessary. Sometimes it’s better to do more with less. Sometimes taking a step back from the action can work better than getting down and dirty.

It’s all about what you want, what suits you and your story, and that’s something you have to find for yourself. Explore, because there’s no other way to find your boundaries. And if you want to go beyond them, but you don’t think you can bring yourself to do it, look for encouragement. Find a private audience, someone who is willing to help you experiment and grow. Often, what we think is near actually lies farther away than we imagined. Your boundaries might not be as close as you believe.