Nat Quayle Nelson is an eclectic creator working on a Writing and Rhetoric degree from the University of Utah. She dabbles in everything from zines to game design to more traditional fiction, like her award- winning piece, “I Think.”
“I Think” is the story of Eliza, a depressed woman on house arrest, isolated from the world entirely… except for the experimental computer trying to fix her brain. It is especially striking in it roots in speculative fiction, commentary on depression, and realistic depiction of the moral ambiguity we all contain.
How would you describe your creative philosophy?
This is the kind of question that I could spend an extraordinary amount of time trying to answer, and still feel unsatisfied with anything I could come up with. The first thing I thought of was “Follow your passions, like how I was addicted to video games but it all paid off when my first published essay was a personal narrative about adolescence and Minecraft.” But I have so many problems with stating that as any form of Grand Unified Philosophy for creativity–because yes, I followed the passions that didn’t seem productive to anyone else, but plenty of other people play video games and the vast majority of them don’t end up finding career fulfillment by indulging that hobby. It also took tremendous discipline and self-awareness to incorporate my passions into a career path, and I wouldn’t want to tell anyone “Keep following your passions until something comes of it.” Some people don’t have passions, and would spend their whole lives spinning their wheels looking for a perfect creative outlet, which I don’t think is healthy. So really there’s a lot of relativity to my creative philosophy, even if I’m only talking about how I make my creative decisions. I’m trying to do the best thing in any given moment, and a single guiding philosophy isn’t the best way to do that in a world that seems to change so fast.
“I Think” mentions a lot of specific books and authors that influence Eliza’s worldview. What books/authors have influenced you?
I think I managed to slip a reference into “I Think” for pretty much every conscious inspiration. The main inspiration was Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” which references Descartes and the famous “I think, therefore I am,” which is where I got my title. Ellison’s story is about five humans confined and tortured by a sadistic supercomputer deep underground. When I was extremely depressed, my thoughts would get so harsh and critical that I came to view my brain as AM, the supercomputer, and my heart/soul as the tortured humans. It would help me to recognize and manage toxic thought processes, if I could think in that metaphor, and remind myself that while the hypercritical AM brain seems to have logic on its side, it’s actually quite insane and harmful. I would breathe and wait for my AM brain to quiet down before I would take my thoughts too seriously.
I should preface that I only discovered Harlan Ellison’s writing because “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” was adapted into a video game in 1995. I tried the game out before I ever read the story. Just another example of how my oddball interests (like digging up and playing old horror games) have always come before more traditional literary inspirations. I always seem to come at intellectual things sideways, which has served me well because being weird has made my work stand out much better.
Your contributor biography mentions “eclectic multimedia projects” and game design. Could you tell me more about that? Do you have any other published pieces you’d like me to reference in the profile/upcoming projects you’re excited about?
Before I had any published writing, I had designed and programmed a video game adaptation of “The Whisperer in Darkness,” a cosmic horror story by H.P. Lovecraft. That’s mostly what I mean by “eclectic multimedia projects”–it’s a very literary experience, the kind of game with so much text in it that a lot of gamers won’t consider it a proper video game, but just enough gamey elements that fans of literature will also find it inaccessible. It’s available on Steam, the world’s biggest online game store, and surprisingly, it actually sold some copies and found positive reception with players. Game development is so time consuming that I haven’t released any other major game projects since then, a little more than three years ago.
What was your creative process with “I Think”?
“I Think” started out as an idea for a video game to follow up The Whisperer in Darkness. I wanted to let the player control a depressed person stuck inside all day with only a computer to talk to. (There’s a game a lot like this called “Howling Dogs” by Porpentine.) The computer would tell the player what to do in order to feel better, and the player would be able to decide whether to follow along or not. The computer, personifying my own rational side, would get more and more angry with the player for making wrong decisions even when they knew better. I wanted to convey mental self-flagellation through a metaphor, which I hope is a theme that carried over to the short story version.
Anyway, I had the idea percolating in my head for several years, first as a video game, then as a radio play I would record with friends and release online, and then finally, as a short story I wrote because the idea lined up nicely with a prompt in one of my classes. I had been writing down notes and ideas for such a long time that I really needed to be forced, via deadline, to make some hard choices about which direction I was really going to take it. Especially because prose is linear, and video games are not, I really had to zero in on what I was saying. And still, I ended up with around five central themes that all bounce off and contradict each other in the final piece. Which I’m very happy with.
One thing I particularly appreciated about “I Think” was its honest depiction of depression, from Eliza’s guilt and resignation to the well-intentioned but clueless people in her life trying to fix her. If this question isn’t too personal, how have your experiences informed this theme in your story?
Almost everything in the story happened to me in some form or another. I wouldn’t say I made any of it up myself, I just turned a few things into metaphors.
Another poignant aspect of your story is the reason for Eliza’s “arrest,” especially given the recent national discussions around sexual harassment and coercion in the Me Too movement. Do you think Eliza will ever be able to make things right with Rachel, or is just facing the world and moving on all she can do? Do you think there’s redemption for people who coerce others sexually?
I’ve felt coerced sexually before, and I’ve also made other people feel coerced. It’s something that I think our society (meaning the United States) thinks about with tragically flawed concepts. We see coercion as an all-or-nothing act that makes a person fundamentally evil. This hurts victims because everyone is afraid to say anything when they feel uncomfortable, especially femmes and AFAB folks (assigned female at birth). Calling someone out for pressuring you is seen by victims as such a heavy accusation that it will permanently ruin a friendship/relationship, and so we bottle up our boundaries through lack of communication until finally everything boils over into interpersonal catastrophe. That’s my experience, anyway.
So the tragedy between Eliza and Rachel is that Eliza believes she is evil as a result of making a mistake. She is looking for redemption, which is this concept that you can do something so benevolent that it erases your wrongdoing and you become a Certified Good Human Being again. I don’t think Eliza should go looking for Redemption, because it’s this selfish idea that turns people like Rachel into props all over again. Eliza needs to take things one step at a time, and give Rachel the space that they asked for. I’m so tremendously sorry for the mistakes I’ve made, and the guilt has never gone away, but I try to respect the trauma of people I’ve hurt. Am I the best person to help heal that trauma and make things right? Absolutely not. I apologize when I can, but I don’t ask anyone to forgive me (which is hard work) and I don’t forgive myself. I try to face the world and not do the wrong thing again.
What role would you say gender plays in “I Think,” particularly Eliza’s attempts to distance herself from the part of her brain that was socialized to be masculine?
Eliza and Cortex are both voices from my own head, and represent the dichotomy between masculine and feminine, logical and emotional. But they’re the same person at the end of the day, because I wanted to portray was how that classical dichotomy is outright nonsense. I tried to write Eliza to be plenty logical, and Cortex to be plenty emotional. Hopefully people won’t see this story as doing the opposite of that.
Another question I considered, was whether or not to make Eliza an explicitly Trans character. I decided to leave that detail ambiguous, because trans women aren’t the only women who get saddled with conditioning of toxic masculinity. In my story, the clueless characters who don’t understand depression and emotions are all gendered as male, but in real life, I’ve had friends who were cis women say the same kinds of things that don’t reflect a great deal of emotional intelligence.
Finally, is there anything else you’d like to say to your readers?
I’ve been reading more about the neuroscience of emotions, especially How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett. I’m already learning things that both confirm and invalidate different parts of the beliefs I put into “I Think,” and I love it. Science and art are incomplete without each other.
Also, my work is based on my own experience as a white transfemme, but people need to understand that my voice is not objective or universal. Also seek out stories and art by queer and trans people of color, and never stop listening to those who are different from you.