A Year of Two Halves

It’s been brought to my attention that, despite the scorching Australian summer conditions, I’ve developed a slightly blogfaded complexion. Which is to say – oh look, it appears I haven’t posted anything substantial here since August.

Forest fire

https://pixabay.com/photos/forest-fire-wildfire-blaze-smoke-2268729/

First of all, I’m not dead. Nor am I particularly unwell, notwithstanding the smoke inhalation issues most of us are contending with on this continent.

But I’ve been on a longer than anticipated break from Being a Writer. I want to talk about that, if only because writing about a problem tends to be the best way for me to process what I think about it. (It doesn’t always help point to solutions, but understanding is the essential first step, right?)

At the start of the year – and honestly through most of last year – I was in a near-constant state of crisis. I was tense, impatient, on the verge of panic, incapable of making sound decisions or even workable plans, and utterly miserable. Every small incident was a disaster. Every inconvenience was an insurmountable obstable

I never felt in any danger of self-harm, but I won’t pretend it’s impossible that I was on that path.

It wasn’t until April or so that I finally saw a doctor about it. The diagnosis of severe stress and anxiety wasn’t such a huge surprise, but being told I had moderate-to-severe depression caught me off guard. My assumptions about what depression actually looks and feels like were so hopelessly off-base that it didn’t really occur to me that was the problem. I just thought I was run-down, under the weather and tired all the time.

Yeah. In retrospect, it was a diagnosis about twenty years overdue. At least I got there in the end.

I won’t go into the details, first of all because they aren’t that interesting, but mainly because one of the key ways that my depression has expressed itself is that I cannot remember what I was thinking when it was at its worst. I know that my moods bounced between seething exasperation at everything in the world, and a numb certainty that everything was continuing to drift out of my control. I recall finding it next to impossible make quick decisions, or to decide things at all sometimes. I cared very much about making the wrong call, but I never gave myself much credit for doing the right thing

This might be self-mythologising after the fact – I really have no way of knowing – but I think what eventually pushed me to go talk to someone was the sudden insight that I was capable of feeling wildly emotional sadness and anger when circumstances warranted , but nothing resembling joy or contentment. Most of the time I was just “too tired to feel stuff”.

After I started on a course of anti-depressant medication, but before it took effect, I pushed through the last few weeks of my Friday Flash Fiction project, determined to get to the nice round figure of 100 stories.

And when I crossed the line and gave myself permission to rest, I crashed instead. I meant to give myself a few weeks off writing. I’m coming up on six months.

I have written a little. A page here and there on various projects. I have not, as I dramatically feared when I was at my worst, sacrificed my creative soul on the altar of pharmaceutical numbness. I haven’t stopped thinking about the stories I want to tell. But nor have I been filled with a nervous energy driving me to sit my arse in a chair and commit to the words. I haven’t felt that curious and mildly unpleasant cocktail of intellectual curiosity and self-recrimination that made me want to finish a story. I haven’t needed it.

This isn’t a note about quitting. This is a note about healing, about convalescence. How long is it going to take? I don’t know any other answer than “as long as it will take”.

Hopefully not too long though. I have several very antagonistic dragons waiting in the wings, and those guys will get really tetchy if I keep them waiting too long.

Update

I wrote this blog entry weeks ago, before the holiday break. Ever since I’ve been in two minds as to whether to publish it. I’m just not sure how much honesty is too much when it comes to talking about mental health issues (and just to reiterate, my issues aren’t that bad as these things go, but I still have to deal with them).

What changed my mind was this: as I type this, the city I live in officially has the worst air quality of anywhere on the planet. As it did yesterday, and likely will tomorrow. An area of Australia bigger than most countries has burned or is still on fire. Lives have been lost, homes destroyed and half a billion wild animals are believed dead. And the fires – and the climate change fuelling them – are only one of many, many problems facing the world.

Things aren’t fine, and there’s no sense in pretending they are. Whether it’s personal or global, one way or another, we’re all in a fight now. There are no longer sidelines to sit on, if there ever were. The only really choice is what battles you’ll fight: choose something from the smorgasbord and take up arms.

I don’t usually hold with New Year’s resolutions, but I think this is mine. I’ve been tired all year, too flat with emotional exhaustion to do anything but rest and heal.

It’s time to wake up. It’s time to stop feeling helpless. It’s time to turn that simmering frustration and anger into something useful.

It’s time to write again.

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A breath on the embers

Not that I want to jinx anything, but I think I’m writing again.

https://pixabay.com/photos/fire-fireplace-embers-flame-burn-4342977/

After a long drought – by which I mean, playing lots of video games and converting a small fraction of the unread contents of my Kindle to not-unread – I’ve managed to eke out a few words over the past couple of days. Nothing too impressive, but dipping my toes back in the water has not so far resulted in anything freezing solid and snapping off.

For a while there I wasn’t sure. My story engine has kept ticking over quietly in the background, coming up with characters and situations and so forth, but the desire to sit at a keyboard and flesh those ideas out has quieter than a grizzly in winter.

What I’ve been working on is a new story, with an imminent deadline. I tend to find it’s good for me to have a target to work toward but this time around I’m not troubled if I don’t make the due date. I’m not planning to burn out again for the sake of one gig, however cool.

Meanwhile my other unfinished stories from earlier in the year (and last year and the year before that, now that I think about it) are standing just offstage with their hands on their hips and an exasperated expression. They are cross with me and rightly so. So be it. I refuse to accept their scorn at the moment. They can wait until I’m done with this other thing.

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Kickstarters and a new Not-a-Hugo Award

In the absence of writing news from me – I’m still on a break, though I am tinkering with some small projects – I just wanted to draw some last minute attention to a few bits of attention-worthy news.

Winter’s Tale Kickstarter

Twelfth Planet Press are in the final hours of a kickstarter for their first illustrated children’s book – Winter’s Tale, written by Nike Sulway and illustrated by Shauna O’Meara. This is a middle-grade suburban fantasy about a magical journey of self-discovery for Winter, a non-binary child.

I love the idea of showing kids different expressions of selfhood through the lens of fantasy stories, which was the genre I always paid the most attention to when I was growing up. I believe it helps kids to know that there are gender expressions beyond the binary out in the world, and this is a beautiful way to show that.

And it doesn’t hurt that the book is gorgeously illustrated by my good mate Shauna O’Meara, whose playing card image accompanied my story in A Hand of Knaves last year. I had the privilege of looking over Shauna’s shoulder while she was working on the pencils for some of these pictures – she never mentioned exactly what they were for until after the book’s announcement – and I know how fabulous they are.

The Kickstarter is about to finish and could use a few more patrons. If this sounds like something you’d be interested for in the new reader in your life, you’ve got just a short time to help them get across the line.

 

Unnatural Order Kickstarter

CSFG’s upcoming anthology Unnatural Order has already funded on Kickstarter, but the team are hard at work trying to secure stretch goals of extra payments for the contributors.There’s one week left to run and I would encourage you to support the project to give Australian writers a boost.

As you know, I’m a huge fan of the CSFG anthologies. Apart from the fact that I’ve been published in two previous volumes, I love that they are a wild showcase of new and emerging Australian speculative fiction writers. In any given volume, you’ll get science fiction, weird fantasy, alternate history, horror and even (very occasionally) poetry.

In the hands of editors Alis Franklin and Lyss Wickramasinghe, this collection of tales about monsters, aliens and other decidedly inhuman entities is a guaranteed good time. If you have any doubts about what to expect, this great interview with the editors should give you a clear picture of their tastes.

Just a reminder too, that contributions to the anthology are now open to all Australian residents and Australians living overseas (as well as CSFG members anywhere). The deadline for stories is 31 October.

 

Out with the Campbells, in with the Astounding Award

For any of you not steeped in the politics of the international speculative fiction scene, Best New Writer Award-winning author Jeannette Ng gave a blistering acceptance speech at the 2019 Hugo Awards ceremony a couple of weeks ago, in which she correctly denounced the man for whom the award is named, John W. Campbell, as a fascist.

The speech is short, blunt, and long overdue: I encourage you to read it here.

In light of the speech, and the conversation that has followed in its wake, the award’s sponsors at Analog Magazine have today announced that in future, the prize will be renamed to the Astounding Award.

I’m very pleased this has happened. As was the case with the bust of the notoriously racist H P Lovecraft being replaced a few years ago as the prize for the World Fantasy Award, no person should have to have recognition of their contribution to their chosen field marred by association with someone who would done their best to keep them from that field, as Campbell most certainly did to women and writers of colour back during his editorial heyday of the 1950’s.

If you’re wondering exactly what it was that Campbell did, this essay by Alis Franklin covers the main points. (None of these are in particular dispute, by the way. Campbell really was a good old-fashioned white supremacist, eugenics-loving fascist, and the field is far better for taking overt steps away from the direction in which he steered it).

(For full disclosure, I have in the past declared myself a bit of a fan of Campbell, based on my fondness for his short story ‘Who Goes There?’ I didn’t know a thing about the man himself  at the time, and am perfectly content to shun his memory henceforth. Besides which, I’m more a fan of John Carpenter’s film interpretation of the story, The Thing (1982), which is one of my favourite movies of all time. So Campbell himself can get bent).

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A shifting perspective

I may have been going about this the wrong way.

https://pixabay.com/photos/maze-graphic-render-labyrinth-2264/

Having attributed my recent writing slump to illness, I believed that all I had to do to get back to full steam was to build up a daily habit, making small incremental gains every day. It’s one of the more reasonable and credible pieces of productivity advice around, and one that’s served me well in the past.

But I’m not convinced it’s the right approach for me at the moment.

To take a step back and get all real with you, it’s not only a ridiculously protracted cold I’ve been getting over. The thing that really laid me up is a classic triple-whammy of depression, anxiety and stress. I’ve always been prone to the latter two, but over the past year or so (or maybe much, much longer) the symptoms escalated to the point where I was basically paralysed by self-doubt, indecision and generally being tense as a barbed-wire fence.

It came to a crisis point – not one involving harm, I should note, rather than near complete incapacity – and I sought medical help. Long story short – therapy and medication was obtained.

This happened around the same time I decided that I would wrap up the Friday Flash Fiction project when I hit the hundred-story mark. It would be reasonable to suppose my dismal emotional state influenced the decision to quit, and maybe it did. But maybe not. Looking back on it with a couple of months’ hindsight and less-blinkered vision, I think I’d probably have called time on the project anyway.

Since then, I’ve wanted to focus on a new story. There’s also a backup old story I’ve kept hanging in the wings waiting for attention.

I haven’t advanced either of them so much as one word.

I want to write – but I also don’t want to write. Which is nothing new – sitting down for a writing session is always work for me, even when I’m in the zone and the words are flowing. What seems to be happening right now – something that hasn’t happened to me for a while – is that I’m feeling no urgency to have new words out in the world.

Am I done? Is my creativity broken? Have I medicated myself out of being a writer?

I don’t completely discount the possibility, but I don’t think it’s that serious. I think instead that my brain has seized this moment as a great opportunity for a holiday.

It wants to do some more reading. It wants to play video games. It’s coming to grips with a change of day job. It’s wrestling with family responsibilities, catching up on household chores and dealing with the occasional crisis. Most of all, it’s coming down from a constant state of near-panic that might stretch back as much as a few years. It’s been dealing with a whole lot.

It’s a tired, tired brain. It needs to recuperate, and it’s decided that creative fiction is what it can afford to sacrifice for the moment.

I’ve said it like that, like the decision was taken out of my hands, because honestly that’s how it feels. I want to write, but I don’t think I’m going to. Not for a while. What I know is, when I’m ready to get back to it, the work will be there, waiting.

I hope you will be too.

 

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CSFG Anthology – Unnatural Order

The Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild (CSFG) has just announced its 2019 anthology theme: Unnatural Order.

A weird cutie courtesy of editor Alis Franklin.

This is an anthology of monsters – proper ones, with horns and tentacles and dread designs. The alien, the inhuman and the just plain sinister (or are they?), whether bent on the destruction of human life, fleeing the Scourge of Man, or just wanting to be left alone with their treasure hoard.

Long time readers will know I hold the CSFG anthology series in high esteem. My first ever published story was in Next, which I’ve since followed up with last year’s A Hand of Knaves. These anthologies are a great showcase of new and emerging Australian speculative fiction talent. I’d urge anyone with an interest in writing in the field to take a shot at this open call.

I have every faith that the powerhouse editorial team of Alis Franklin, Lyss Wickramasinghe (editors) and Rivqa Rafael (publicity officer) will deliver an excellent entry in the series. I’ll certainly be doing my best to come up with something that will fit the bill.

The call for contributions is out now for stories up to 5000 words, with a deadline of the end of October. There will be a crowdfunding campaign kicking off in August to fund preorders (as well as pump up the rates for contributors and score cool extras).

For all the author guidelines and the submission portal, check out the Unnatural Order homepage.

 

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