The Architecture of Emotion: A Conversation with Matthew Burnside

Matthew Burnside’s work has appeared in Best American Experimental Writing, DIAGRAM, Ninth Letter, Kill Author, PANK, and Pear Noir!, among others. He is the author of Postludes, several chapbooks, and numerous digital works. He currently teaches at Wesleyan University and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Matthew Burnside’s piece, “Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost,” appeared in our  Solstice Temple Issue. Below, he talks with editor A.A. Balaskovits about Minecraft, story forms, and game-ifying life.

What I really admire about your piece with us, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost, is how you weave this intense grief through a cartoonish stage: Mario’s shrooms, Bowser, rupees, etc. Why did you choose this classic Nintendo imagery to explore this?

Imaginary spaces have always held immense power for me. That includes the poetic spaces you find within video games or on the internet. There’s such a thing as nostalgia for a place you’ve never seen before, or a place that doesn’t or can’t actually exist, and I have that sensation often when playing games. I find they’re a direct link to the architecture of emotion. Minecraft is a good example of this. It may sound ridiculous but you can have some pretty heavy feelings while playing that—the spaces are so metaphorically rich. Whether you’re experiencing the melancholia of loneliness while wandering this endless block continent or the existential dread of the unknown while mining in pitch black caverns seconds before hearing a creeper spark and explode or even experiencing something akin to spiritual oneness with the universe while marveling at a beautiful false sunset, there’s a way in which video games serve as a kind of blank canvas for the consciousness to seep into or spill upon. In other words, there’s a poetry to pixels that testifies to Umberto Eco’s assertion of the hyperreal: that is, that sometimes you can only find the real within the fake. So, naturally the imagery derived from Nintendo classics like Super Mario and Zelda is useful because it comes pre-charged with all kinds of collective emotional and nostalgic resonance, not unlike the power-ups and boons within the games themselves, whether it’s a leaf that grants you flight or a boomerang primed for stunning your enemies.

The title of the piece really strikes that—there’s both nostalgia for those old games that were cruel enough not to have save files, as well as hinting at this personal loss, or personal relationship that, if not saved, will absolutely diminish. Do you explore these themes a lot in your writing?

I’d say so. Games in general are a big theme in my work. Specifically, the ways in which we minimize or reframe trauma by game-ifying it in some way. It’s a fascinating quirk of human psychology, one that reeks of our fragility but also our resiliency. It’s a defense mechanism born from our human nature as creatures bent on survival and adaptability but also as inborn storytellers I think. I’d say half of everything I write concerns a character’s survival through some kind of game, often one they’ve made up. As a kid I used to deal with all my problems by treating life as a game, and I still do sometimes as an adult I admit. I’d say many of us do. It’s powerful but dangerous; imagination is a savior but it’s also damning. To say, suddenly: this cannot hurt me because it is all just a game…it’s like a superpower or lifehack or something. One way to drag yourself through a horrible day is to take something bad and call it a miniboss. That makes it manageable. You know it won’t be nearly as bad as the final boss but it’ll still be a challenge. But you know once you conquer it you will have made some progress and at least half of that bad day will be over. You will have been the triumphant hero. Treating life as one long adventure isn’t new—Joseph Campbell would tell you it’s something we all do. Even the idea of reaching self-actualization is a lot like leveling up. But while this helps us tackle the baddies of our life, it never actually makes us immune to the real emotional damage. We’re not made of pixels, after all, but actual hearts that can glitch out or get chipped away, and when we die we can’t just respawn from the halfway mark. I think if life actually were a game, it would be more akin to the one depicted in Mike Meginnis’s short story “Navigators,” The Legend of Silence, in which there are no power-ups but only power-downs, and each one serves to weaken the hero until no strength is left because there’s nothing left to fight, no pain or misery at all. But as it is, life is full of pain and misery and games are necessary to cope; to make sense of the chaos. As the father in Navigators would say, “If we map the whole world…we can stop getting lost.”

That sounds both inspiring and terrifying if everyone is Player 1. What about all the NPCs?

I think we all consider ourselves players but mostly see others as NPCs rather than players in their own lives, with their own problems and dreams and vulnerabilities. This is a problem of myopia and a lack of empathy but it’s also very human and understandable. Seeing beyond the scope of our own lives is hard sometimes. It takes real effort. It’s easier to be selfish and cynical than it is to be caring and hopeful because when you’re the latter, the “leveling-up” hardly ever manifests externally. Nobody gets a cool treasure or special ability from doing the right thing. You get the pleasure of knowing you did the right thing, and then sometimes (if we’re hanging with the video game metaphors here) you get pushed in some lava or spikes or crushed by a teeth-gnashing Thwomp and wonder why you ever bothered. That’s why I dig books. They let us play as other players and train us to see the screen from their point of view.

Speaking of books, you’ve got a new one outPostludes, from Kernpunkt Press—which wears a few wonderful hats: almanac, bestiary, experimental and traditional. How did you contain so much in one work?

I like choosing a form and then letting the story come from that. Stories are like water—choose any container and they’ll fill it in. So I try to choose interesting containers. I think a lot of people probably do it the other way around: have the story first and then come up with the form that best suits it, but form first feels more natural to me. There are some traditional pieces in Postludes and if I’m honest they were just there to fill in the gaps. Ideally, the entire collection would have been composed of all these little forms, as if the book were struggling to bring some semblance of order to chaos in the same way all the characters are struggling to keep their hearts from loosening and pinging around in their bodies like pinballs. I also really like the timelessness and openness of all those little forms: they can never quite cover the whole story. Like life, no one story will ever fully be resolved even if we’d like to think it can succumb to finality. There’s a tension inside that uncertainty but there’s also hope.

What are you working on now / what is intriguing you now that you need to write about?

Right now I’m trying to find homes for a few stray manuscripts, a YA book and an experimental novella. It’s an education—I’m learning how much I don’t know about the YA market.

As far as works-in-progress, I always have a few started that I just sort of juggle back and forth until one of them eventually wills itself to completion. One is a pretty straightforward collection of science fiction stories. One is a novella about a school shooting told from the POV of each victim. One is much lighter, pure pulp fun, that has more in common with some of Stephen King’s early work. One is a chapbook of surreal and absurdist poetry. The last thing I’m working on is a Twine game that I’ve been working on since forever. I doubt I’ll finish it anytime soon, as it keeps growing and growing. That’s a problem with me: my scope and/or ambition often defies my actual writing ability…it’s a tricky thing because the more time that passes, the better you’ve gotten at writing (hopefully) so you’re always revising those earlier bits and getting more and more behind. Accepting that any given project will never be truly perfect is a difficult lesson to learn I guess.

Anyway, in addition to all that stuff I have a book of poems coming out from Robocup Press either this year or next, so I’m grateful for that.

I’m grateful for everydamnlittlething, actually. You know those days where you think ‘I shouldn’t even be here’ and you’re just sort of blissed out at your dumb luck at ending up at the adult table somehow when you should probably only be at the kiddy table? Yeah, that’s how I feel when it comes to writing.

Every night I thank my lucky stars and say a prayer to Steve Buscemi.