I've been feeling dull and low on zing recently, and looking back over the past few months' of blog entries I note that a certain predictability has set in: I'm not playing with ideas enough, there's a certain lack of joy. I've also been having senior moments — poor short term memory, irritability, difficulty concentrating, that kind of thing.
I'm pretty sure I'm not succumbing to mad cow disease: I'm just suffering from chronic exhaustion, because I've had a bad year.
Confession time: in the past eight months, two members of my family — one of whom is my wife — have had cancer, for which they've undergone surgery. (The prognosis is for a complete cure in my wife's case, and a high probability of a complete cure in the other relative's case: we got about the best outcomes available.) Another of my relatives has just had major orthopaedic surgery, and one of our two elderly cats developed high blood pressure resulting in a variety of symptoms including blindness.
This has not been a stress-free period.
I missed a couple of conventions last autumn, due to the first cancer surgery. If you were wondering why I missed Minicon and DORTCon this spring, that was the second one. (This is a "the dog ate my homework" excuse that I don't want to have to use ever again, and I'd like to thank the respective convention committees for their patience and understanding.) If you're wondering why this is coming out now, it's because I hope and trust it's all over (apart from the cat).
The stress of trying to remain creative and productive with all this gnawing away at the back of my head has been damaging. My job relies to a very large extent on my ability to use my imagination constructively, to take a scenario and turn it around in my head, examining it from all angles. The last year would have been a lot more bearable if I'd been able to turn off that faculty for the duration — or at least keep my imagination away from the mirror. If I had a day job that caused this kind of stress, I would quit. But I'm not able to quit writing fiction: it's how I define who I am.
Work doesn't go away just because you're distracted by medical crises. However, your ability to cope with the work may decrease somewhat. While all this was going on, I wrote the first draft of the fourth Laundry novel, "The Apocalypse Codex", and processed the copy edits and page proofs of "Rule 34" and "Scratch Monkey". I managed to fit in one convention guest of honour slot (of the four originally scheduled), and a bunch of meetings with my editors and agent, and a couple of other SF conventions because they were a good place to go to escape the contents of my own head.
Then this week I pivoted onto two new projects in parallel — the collaboration with Cory Doctorow, and my 2013 SF novel, "Neptune's Brood" — and I just hit a brick wall. If there was time in my schedule to cancel everything and lie on a beach for three months, that's what I'd go and do right now. Alas, while the time-clock punching requirements of this job are a lot more flexible than in most other lines of work, I don't have that much room.
My usual form of relaxation (in the absence of a month on a beach) would be to read a novel. I've never been much of a TV viewer and most current cinematography is unwatchable — I have damaged retinas and can't see rapid pans and zooms or shaky camerawork as anything other than a blur. But while I'm writing a novel, I find it difficult to relax with a good book; one of the sad side-effects of getting to write novels full-time for a day job is that it takes a lot of the pleasure out of reading fiction. Over the years the amount of time I spend at the keyboard, staring at text on the internet has increased. I did notice that I'm spending a lot of time reading these days: news items, essays, journal articles — just not novels. Novels come after sitting at the keyboard for a day in the office, and it's just not fun.
That's wrong, and I need to change it. So I think I'm going to take as much of the rest of this month off work as I can. I don't really have time, and some chores are unavoidable — sending the annual end of year stuff to the accountant, turning around my end of the collaboration, anything that can't wait. But in principle, I'm going to hole up with an elderly cat and some books, switch off the internet, and try and regain my energy.