After 11 nonfiction books and several thousand articles, is The Haunted Guitar (begun for fun, a birthday card that swelled to 37 illustrated pages) my true soul liberated, surfacing at last, hilariously drawing dolphins? In its sculpted-earwax randomness, is The Haunted Guitar a New Thing which, as such, I should gaily display? Or is it gloomy proof of my past-50 plummet from prize-winning intellectual to past-it pity case, waving crayons while yelling, "I dwew dis!" as ex-fans tiptoe silently away?
I don't know which it is, but hey, with me, shame always wins. Why do I simultaneously want to flaunt my brand-new work of art and kick it to oblivion? Is it because being a comic book, despite its adult themes, defines The Haunted Guitar as inferior to any "real" book? Could I have made anything more pointless or obscure?
But, see: as of last year, I'd lost all faith in writing and in my ability to write. I'd started writing less, as little as I could afford. This was not merely shrugging, hands-in-pockets, singsonging Oh well. This was the terrifying immolation of my whole identity. I suffer from what's now called health anxiety, but used to be called hypochondria (and still is in stand-up routines). As such, I took no longer wanting to write as a sign of something medically very bad.
Then suddenly last fall I felt inspired (sheerly because it didn't matter) to create a comic book. Its format and topic fairly ensure that nearly nobody will ever see it.
Comic books are for kids. Sure, tell that to Roz Chast and Art Spiegelman. But they were famous artists all along! They didn't veer from all-text writing into Cartoonland at 50-plus. They cannot be accused of drawing only as a last resort, scratching out pictographs because they could no longer write.
Which is what I fear will be said of me. Because I say it of myself. Because I fear it's true. My significant other says I shouldn't say this. He says no one would believe that anyone could be so insecure. He says you will mistake my fears for social engineering, aka fishing for compliments.
He too resists believing that I really don't know whether I can write well anymore—whether even at gunpoint, if my life depended on it, I could spin out seven consecutive paragraphs on, say, stone lanterns, milliners or the framed fingerbones of saints. Before last year, writing that way felt like peonies blooming in fast-motion, but now even thinking about writing feels pointless and painful, like performing in an empty hall.
Is this just the depression talking? Depression, which drains all interest from all subjects and renders rubies and rainbows gray?
Yeah, sure. But it is also history. Writing as an art, a rite, a career, a signal of civilization changed: Knowledge no longer flows from mind to mind in lengthy swervy spans but rather in self-referential, photo-illustrated snips. Cats on the couch! Information has become captions.
Thus writing this essay is embarrassing: because it is an essay and I am ashamed of doing something so passé, the same archaic thing I have done since high school, in the same way, like a creepy automaton. It also shames me to imagine you imagining me demanding your time.
That's the depression talking, lulling its captives into slackjawed apathy, in which all noises coalesce into a single quiet chorus: What's the, what's the, what's the pooooint? But it's not only this.
I'd come to believe I had nothing to say, that I am past the age of relevance, that even could I conjure passion for some subject, nobody would care. That was depression talking. Plus misanthropy. Plus history. People are busy. People are preoccupied. I know.
Losing the will to write was an involuntary act of grief, brain chemistry and protest. It felt like fleeing a flaming wreck in shock.
I could lay blame all day. Mom died. I now dwell, and might always, in a city I should love but hate. My friend committed suicide. Insomnia drove me nearly insane. I live in terror of diseases that kill you not quickly but in bits. I live in terror of sameness and change and whatever I might do next. Given all this, should I not swoon with gratitude for that whim which kindled a comic book?
It was not totally out of the blue. In grade school, friends gathered to watch me draw, saying it soothed them. I drew for underground 'zines. Then (thanks again, depression!) for 20 years I forgot to draw. Last fall, as if through woodsmoke, I remembered. Is it then so strange, so sad, so tiptoe-away icky that I wrote a comic book?
Published under my middle name, is The Haunted Guitar a cough-cough look-the-other-way potential party joke like Leonard Nimoy's poems, George W. Bush's paintings or Kevin Bacon's band? Or might The Haunted Guitar comprise a state of grace?
Given the way knowledge now flows—quickly, with pictures—aren't I becoming current? Aren't I ditching solid blocks of text not for lack of talent but because solid blocks of text (such as this one) now go mostly unread? Aren't I adapting, as would any animal, to an altered ecology? Can't artists change?
Yes, but. Why the air of apology? And why this sodden-diaper sag of desperation? Why this perpetual pleading for permission to exist? I am; therefore I am ashamed.
My significant other says this speculation will be miscast as faux modesty and sly, passive-aggressive self-promotion. Just be proud of stuff, he sighs. Which brings to mind a harper I once knew. When asked, "What's new?" she always said, "My brilliant cassette! Buy it!" which appalled me. Her death was among the most grotesque I've ever heard described. Which makes me faintly, tuggingly, despite its almost-certain destination, want to write another comic book.