(When you’re giving someone a high-quality selection of rubber chickens for their birthday, you have to also give them a salmonella microbe–it’s just the law. Especially when you, alas, almost share a birthday with George W. Bush…Thanks, Amanda Le!)
“Me, I was at the height of my powers…” – Giant Sand
I’m 41 today, and I’ve been trying to think through what I wanted to say, given that the last year has been such a strange mixture of the tumultuous and the triumphant. (Here’s my post about turning 40.)
On the good side of the ledger, I finished Booklife and Finch–and not only finished them but perfected them to the point that the final books are exactly what I wanted them to be. I’m very proud of them. Ann and I have also had wonderful opportunities to travel and to teach–Ann at World of Warcraft and me at Clarion South (a truly great experience), and the whole involvement in Shared Worlds, among other things. Our editing projects and fiction have been up for awards, and we’re two of the guests of honor at World Fantasy in October, which quite frankly made my year in some ways. I’ve grown as a fiction writer, and I’ve pushed myself to not only get involved with graphic novels but other types of writing that will benefit me in several different ways. I had on my list of goals for this year to start reviewing for the New York Times Book Review, and that’s happened. I also worked hard in the gym and, among other useless stats only important to me, I can now benchpress 200 lbs. I’m happy to be in better physical shape now than when I was thirty.
In all of these ways and more, it’s been a good year of my life. In other ways, it’s been, as I say, tumultuous. In having deadlines for Booklife and Finch that were so close together, I blew some kind of fuse in my brain. I’ve never worked on two books under the same general deadline before, and even though they were totally different, it took a toll. Looking back, I can see exactly the juncture at which the crisis moment occurred: In having to deal with book production issues while still writing the actual content, wanting it to be perfect, and also doing insane projects like the 60 in 60, I quite simply burned out. What do I mean? Not that I burned out on the actual writing–I accomplished what I wanted to before my brain exploded. But that in dealing with so many extra details and extra types of content, I wore thin. And wearing thin isn’t good.
In February, I had thought that suddenly getting the call to teach at Clarion South was a blessing because it was so different from what I was doing–and the actual week there was a blessing, in that I had to focus solely on the students. I had a great time. But to get to that point, I had to push hard to finish up parts of Booklife (which I luckily then had time later to revise). So when I got back from Clarion it was under the false assumption that that had been my vacation, and I was ready to plunge back into the fray. That was a terrible assumption, and I paid for it–especially because it was complicated further by an ongoing situation re a book deal, which meant interacting with a passive-aggressive editor who systematically seemed to be trying to break my and my co-author’s will to live. When that book deal went south, it was almost a blessing. In addition, I had to shake off a really distracting temporary medical condition that threatened my ability to exercise and to write, and it wasn’t real fun when Riley and Erin left for Amsterdam, either.
Other unsettling elements came into play just due to the nature of Booklife and of Finch. For Finch, there was a kind of weird post-partum sadness because it is the last of my Ambergris novels, a world I’ve been immersed in since the 1990s. And Booklife had taken on a strangely personal quality that I hadn’t expected, in that I’d put a lot of anecdotes and processes into it; it’s not that the book is a memoir, but that a part of my writing life is documented in it.
The combination of all of these factors led to several months, from about the end of February to, well, June, where I felt adrift, at sea, and lacking purpose. I found it impossible to focus on anything for too long. I had to pace myself in ways I hadn’t before, and to be very careful not to multi-task as much. Otherwise, I literally felt like I was going insane, or would just freeze up. It took a long time before I understood I had to treat my condition like a kind of sickness, and I had to learn to forgive myself for not pushing as hard. And it hasn’t been until the last couple of weeks that I’ve actually felt like myself again, without it just being a temporary upswing. I think I’m at about 97% now, the proof of this in the fact that new work doesn’t freak me out and generally energizes me and that, for better or worse, the curmudgeon in me is coming out again. So I’m getting back toward 100%, but wary, wary, wary. (I’ve tried very hard to not let any of this spill out into the blog, because as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not fond of whinging in public–and I’m not going to make a habit of posting personal stuff, but I like the idea of having an entry every year that provides an honest record, especially since I don’t keep a diary.)
In a way, I’m grateful for this uncertainty and stress. It’s given me a better idea of my limits, and it’s allowed me to understand what gives me energy back and what sucks energy out of me. It’s also made me recognize again what’s important and what’s not. I won’t say it hasn’t been tough, but it makes me feel as if I’ve accomplished something as I lurch further into middle age. I’ve survived a truly insane few months and things are looking much, much better. For one thing, I know how not to get into this kind of mental space again.
But, frankly, I don’t think I would’ve made it without Ann by my side, even when I’m sure she wondered if I was going nuts–or without awesome friends who were there for me. That’s the other thing I’ve learned at a truly instinctual level, even though I hope I knew it before anyway: I have an amazing, amazing wife. I have great friends (you know who you are). I’m surrounded by brilliant imaginations and creativity and people with an advanced sense of play. And I had a lot of help from others in making Booklife and Finch as good as they can be. Hopefully, I can say thank you in ways that actually mean something.
I’d like to be able to write that if you read this on July 7th, I’m elsewhere, having taken the day off. But the truth is, given deadlines, I’m probably somewhere by the computer, working. This weekend, though, Ann’s taking me to St. George Island for my birthday, for some R&R, sans computer and sans phone.
P.S. Thanks also to everyone who reads this blog and who’s talked to me on Facebook–playing around on both forums has helped a lot.
P.P.S. A couple more things that came in the mail.
Thanks, Eddie, D–much appreciated. (And for the Mellow Mushroom thing.)
Thanks to Toni J, for the copy of this Finnish anthology of essays on fantasists, including Lord Dunsany, Chabon, and moi, among many others. Coincidence of timing, but I claim it nonetheless.