Forty-One and Not Dead Yet

Jeff VanderMeer • July 7th, 2009 @ 5:30 am • News


(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.

Much love,

Jeff

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.

39 Responses to “Forty-One and Not Dead Yet”

  1. Sir Tessa says:

    You know there’s only one thing to do when you get back on your feet again, right? Find something even scarier to throw yourself off.

    Now, let there be cake!

  2. Charles Tan says:

    Happy birthday sir!

  3. J. T. Glover says:

    Natal Felicitations! May there be many happy cephalopods and fungi in the coming year, and less simultaneous brain drain.

  4. Hellbound Heart says:

    ….so it’s your birthday today, ay? well, you share the day with a very special person…..my daughter gracie who turns 8 today (she’s the best thing that ever happened to me, without a doubt)……happy birthday, mate, and i hope you find as much happiness today and in the coming year as gracie undoubtedly has/will…..

    peace and love…..

  5. Ennis Drake says:

    It’s good to be not dead yet. Everyday above ground is a good one. After cake, let there be beer. Or wine. Or beer and wine (and good cheese that smells bad). Slum in the sun and reading for fun. Whatever not, and whatever have ya.

    Happy Birthday, Jeff.

  6. J M McDermott says:

    Your continued survival is a testament to Evil Monnkey’s ineffectiveness.

    Happy Birthday!

  7. Kit Reed says:

    the best part of this is now you know first-hand that whatever strikes, the inconvenience is temporary: you can come back from things. Prolly not the last thing you’ll have to come back from, but whatever the next one is, now you know you can do it.

  8. Jen says:

    Happy birthday! Here’s for a better next year :)

    I’m going to be very selfish now and say that:
    a) Woot, Finch! Can’t wait to read it!
    b) Ann, can we please have a post about WoW if it’s not forbidden by the contract and whatnot? I’m a player and a fan so I’m kinda (very) interested :)

  9. John D. says:

    Happy Birthday!

    How old is Evil Monkey?

  10. Steve Buchheit says:

    Happy happy, Jeff. You’re still young. The good thing about the year is once you’ve slogged through hell, a little more fire doesn’t bother you so much. It’s like tempering for the spirit.

  11. Jessica Reisman says:

    Happy Birthday, Jeff. Keep on being awesome, cause you are.

  12. Mihai (Dark Wolf) says:

    Happy Birthday!
    May all your wishes come true and may you get an even greater collection of rubber chickens ;)

  13. Terry Weyna says:

    Happy Birthday!

    Do take care of yourself. I pushed in the manner you describe (though at a law career, not a writing one), and was permanently sidelined by depression, anxiety and chronic pain after 25 years of it. I now practice law only part-time, and read and write the rest of the time — which ain’t at all bad, believe me (especially now that the adjustments to a huge cut in income have been made) — but I wish it had been by choice rather than necessity. Don’t let this happen to you! You have too many books to write.

  14. Alex Carnegie says:

    Happy birthday Jeff!

  15. Average Jane says:

    Happy birthday from someone exactly a year older than you are.

  16. Michael Phillips says:

    Happy birthday, man! Did the gray caps bake you a cake?

  17. James says:

    Hey, Happy Birthday, Jeff! Hope it’s a good day in a great year.

  18. Jay Lake says:

    Happy Birthday, sir!

  19. drax says:

    Happy Birthday Jeff!

    Man, what a day! After months of worry, complications and (really scary) medical procedures, my great-niece Chloe was born this morning! She shares a birthday with (yeah, I’ll say it) A Great Man armed with an Eager Mind that I’m glad we have on our side as we proceed through this journey known as the 21st Century. I don’t know how you do it, day after day, but please don’t stop.

  20. Eddie Duff says:

    Happy Birthday, Jeff!!!

  21. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Drax: Try a silly man with rubber chickens. Congrats re Chloe–I’m sure that’s a load off of your mind, too!

    Thanks for all the good wishes, folks. Headed off to the gym and some other stuff.

    Jeff

  22. teaver says:

    Happy Birthday! :)
    Looks like you had the classical Year Of Your Life. Recharge and come back soon. ;)

  23. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I believe Evil Monkey is six. Tessa–don’t be pushin’ me. Heh. TW–I’m doing what I love, so that’s rejuvenating to some extent. But point taken.

    JV

  24. brendan connell says:

    Happy Birthday!

  25. Corey Redekop says:

    The Shelf Monkey salutes the Evil Monkey, and will join him in the 40-something club in a few months.

  26. Meg Gardiner says:

    Happy birthday, Jeff!

  27. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Thanks, Meg, Brendan, Corey!

    Corey–someday the Shelf Monkey and Evil Monkey should have a conversation…

    Jeff

  28. Natania says:

    Bonne fête!

  29. Michael says:

    Happy belated Birthday Jeff!! :)

  30. Doreen says:

    Happy Birthday, Jeff, and thank you for the blog. You are very generous with your readers here.

  31. Anne S says:

    Happy Birthday – have a great day!

  32. Garth Nix says:

    Happy Birthday, Jeff! Like all the best authors, born in July :-)

    Apropos the burning out, when I was considerably younger I read the biographies of famous authors, editors, publishers, composers etc and wondered what the hell was with them all needing to take six months off at some point and lounge around a sanatorium, or take a long sea voyage or whatever, away from their work.

    Now I am 46, I understand . . . and I’m glad to hear you have made it through the recent side-effects of the driven creative life.

  33. Darja MC says:

    Happy Jeffmas to you! I hope it was squidtastic, and that the coming year is filled with all the best of this last one.

  34. Alex says:

    Happy birthday, Jeff, and hopefully see you next year in Poland!

  35. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Thanks, all.

    Garth–much appreciated. Yeah, it’s been a heck of a thing. Looking forward to WFC.

    Cheers,

    Jeff

  36. Tim Lebbon says:

    Belated happy birthday, Jeff. I’ll hit 40 on July 28th … and instead of buying a motorbike or getting another tattoo or an ear piercing – traditional ‘oh shit I’m 40!’ things to do – my birthday present to myself is a determination to get fitter, and healthier.

  37. Sarah says:

    Belated happy birthday – hope you had a great day!

  38. Corey Redekop says:

    A conversation between two monkeys? Only if I get a shield to protect myself from the inevitable thrown fecal matter.

  39. Tero says:

    Belated congratulations, you old geezer you!

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