Neil Clarke

The Award-Winning Editor of Clarkesworld Magazine, Forever Magazine, The Best Science Fiction of the Year, and More

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Not in China (again)


I was supposed to leave for the 5th International Science Fiction Conference in Chengdu early last week, but I canceled the trip at the last minute due to concerns about my father-in-law’s health.

Sadly, he passed away early last Wednesday morning. (It’s something I’m just not able to write about at the moment.)

Throughout the week and into the weekend, I kept hearing from friends and acquaintances who wanted to wish us well and send their condolences. Thank you.

I was also treated to notes and pictures from friends I would have seen while in China. It was nice to be a fly on the wall in my down hours. From what I could see the convention was a big success and enjoyed by many. Congratulations to the organizers and I wish everyone luck in their bid to bring Worldcon to Chengdu. I have fond memories of my trip there two years ago and hope to return someday. This time, however, I needed to be home. I was there in 2D spirit though.

Clarkesworld Citizens

Patreon has decided NOT to implement the awful fee structure they proposed! (If you don’t know about this, don’t worry. It’s not happening anyway.) In the last few days, we lost about six months worth of gains at Patreon. It’s been brutal, but totally understandable. I was vehemently opposed to the changes and made sure to let them know about it.

I’ve worked with Patreon for four years and have come to trust people in the company. This last week was a total aberration and I’m planning on sticking with them. I’m less trusting now, but willing to give them a chance to earn it back. Some of our supporters might not feel the same way and I totally understand that. Several have asked that we provide an alternative, so for the last few days, I’ve been working on a new monthly subscription and pledge site:

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that people who are already supporting us leave Patreon, Amazon, etc. There’s value in having a third party handle the support and all that. However, it pays to have options. It probably would have saved me a lot of headaches this week if I had this in place then. Regaining that lost income will be a challenge, one that is compounded by a $500/month increase in my health insurance premiums that starts next month. Augh.

Back to work!

The Great Wall

While I was in China last week, I managed to take a trip out to see the Jinshanling Section of the Great Wall. All I can say is wow. So glad I went. Here are some pictures, but they will never do it justice. Click on them for full view.

And there are bad days too…

Just following up on my previous post as a few people have noted how I’ve tried to make something positive of those events. It’s true, I have, but that doesn’t mean that I’m free from the trauma of those events. Those things stick with you and can come back out of the woodwork to knock you on your ass sometimes. Even years later.

I’ve been going through one of those periods for the last week. Someone very close to me  just went through their own cardiac adventure–different, but that doesn’t always matter–and it pushed all sorts of buttons. I worry. For me. For them. For family. For friends. There’s a little voice constantly in the background keeping me from getting things done. It’s not my first time on this rollercoaster, so I know it takes some patience and time.

That doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

The day it nearly ended

Five years ago today,  I was struck by a “widowmaker” heart attack while attending  Readercon with my family. My symptoms were more in line with food poisoning or an allergic reaction, which seemed to be the likely culprit for the first three hours. After that, however, my wife called an ambulance. When the paramedics arrived, they took one look at me and made the call. In minutes, we were off in the ambulance to Lahey Clinic, just one block down the road. I can only remember bits and pieces of the trip, the ER, and operating room.

It’s hard to gauge time when you are constantly falling asleep (exhaustion) in a room with no windows. Sometime later, the doctor visited me and explained what had happened. Two total blockages–reopened with stents–in the left anterior descending (LAD) artery, a very critical location. I was very lucky to have survived, but the full extent of the damage would be revealed over the next few months. When blood flow to a section of the heart is cut off, every minute counts. Muscle dies. [Later it was determined that I had suffered significant scarring–what happens when the muscle dies. My ejection fraction (EF)–a measurement of the percentage of blood leaving your heart each time it contracts–was 26. Normal is 55. This made me a candidate for a defibrillator, which was implanted nearly six months after the heart attack.]

As the doctor left, he turned out the lights so I could get some more sleep. At that moment, the gravity of what had happened hit me. I nearly lost everyone I cared about. Tears came easily before I once again fell asleep. [Sleep never lasts long in a place like this. Frequent blood tests, the tangle of tubes and wires, the blood pressure cuff going off every thirty minutes, the strange noises and smells from nearby rooms…]

When I woke, the nurses encouraged me to sit up. After a heart attack, you have a fluid build-up in your lungs and I could feel it. I had to breathe into a device to measure my lung capacity. I can’t remember the number, but it was low. I asked what “normal” was and discovered just how bad I was. When Lisa and the boys would visit, I’d use this device to demonstrate the daily progress I was making.

The doctors and nurses saved my life and I will be forever indebted to them, but the best medicine came from my family. Their visits were the highlights of my days there. The boys were only nine and twelve at the time, so I was worried about the effect this would have on them. Their visits gave me the opportunity to feel like I was actively doing something about that, but honestly, I think they had more of an impact on me. We were hundreds of miles from home, but I had everything that mattered with me.

Word of my adventures quickly spread at Readercon. In addition to updates from Lisa, Sean and Kate, who were also attending Readercon, let me know what the response there had been. The stories of what people had done for me were very uplifting. That response from the science fiction community carried on past Readercon, through my recovery, and still continues to a lesser degree today. I’m never going to forget that.

You have a lot of time to think in the hospital and a brush with death changes your priorities and redefines what is most important to you. The process started there and continued as I recovered back at home–and at my second stay in the hospital a week later. Friends who had been through similar life-changing events started reaching out to me to talk and it helped a lot. [There’s an understanding that comes with going through this that is hard to explain to people who haven’t.]

Weeks later, when my then employer decided to fire me–a story that ends well for me but can’t be spoken about–I gave a lot of thought to my decades-long career in education. It was a career I loved and did very well in, but the field, particularly the administrators, was making it impossible to make a positive contribution to education. I took a job with friends that took me from the top of the department to the bottom. No more supervising. No more overtime. The goals were simple: keep stress low, pay the bills, and put more time towards my new career in editing. I’ve only recently quit that job. Not quite earning a living from this, but I’m moving in the right direction and doing something I love.

During those first months post-heart attack and while all that job stuff was happening, I was in cardiac rehab three times a week. That’s basically nurse-supervised exercise and nutrition counseling that teaches you how far you can push yourself now and what you need to do to stay healthy moving forward. I also considered it group therapy. Put a bunch of cardiac survivors in a room and they will inevitably compare notes and share details. Those informal chats with bike or treadmill neighbors helped me gain a lot of perspective. I wasn’t crazy. We were all thinking the same thing. It also taught me that I was one of the lucky ones, unlike many of the others, my heart attack wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t diet or genetics or anything I could have known about in advance. It’s hard to feel guilty about your situation when what happens it compared to being struck by lightning. [I developed spontaneous blockages. It’s very rare and they don’t know why they happen. It’s not the sort of thing known to happen more than once to someone.] I just had bad luck, followed by extremely good luck.

My mantra for the last five years has been “life’s too short.” It’s allowed me to let go of a lot of baggage and I’m happier for it. Things still bug me, but not nearly as often. I can laugh at some of those now. Overall, I’d say my quality of life is better for it.

What’s meant the most to me though is the five years with my family. Lisa and the boys, what can I say… I’m the luckiest husband in the world and incredibly proud of my boys, now young men in high school. I’ve had the opportunity to see my sister get married to a great guy and become a mom (twice). I’ve had more time with my parents and brother, including a trip to Ireland with Dad to visit extended family I haven’t seen in years. And then there’s all sorts of little adventures with my adopted brother and sister, Sean and Kate.

Yeah, so I celebrate what was a horrible event, but it put me on the path I’m on today and I have every reason to be happy about that.

Cascade Writers Workshop

I spent last Thursday through Monday morning in Tacoma Washington at the Cascade Writers Workshop. This was my first time participating in a critique group (the sessions were run Milford-style), so I had been building a slow panic in the days and weeks leading up to it.

I printed and read through all the stories prior to leaving and decided to use my 5 1/2 hour flight to Seattle for writing out my notes. What I did not count on was turbulence and a four-year-old that screamed in the row behind me for four of those hours. (In the last thirty minutes, her sister joined her for a brain-scrambling serenade.) I finished that pass on the plane, but the notes were a mess of scribbles.

I was picked up at the airport (Kelli: I will continue to insist that it wasn’t hot there) and off we went to the La Quinta Inn in Tacoma where we were joined a some Cascade staff for dinner. I spent some time chatting with people but soon retreated back to my room to make some more legible notes on the stories in preparation for the next morning.

Unlike conventions, workshops start early. I’m very glad that I was still on East Coast time because 8:30/9:00 is not what I consider my peak operating conditions. Being a night owl helps on the other side of this time difference. Staying up late was not a problem, but the hotel bar closed insanely early (another way it’s not like a con).

There were seven authors in my group and there was a good variety in the stories. There was a mix of fantasy and science fiction, a novella, and two chapters of a novel. Despite the size of the group, this was the part that intimidated me most. Fortunately, group leader goes last. One-by-one they took turns explaining what worked and didn’t (slowly checking things off my list) before it would finally get around to me. I think I was somewhat reassured by the overlapping opinions and didn’t freeze up or pass out as I imagined in my nightmare scenario. I said my bit, the author would then get their turn and we’d discuss things for a bit. We were a bit slower than the other groups, but I liked the dynamic and we got everything done (with a ten minute extension on the last day). Nightmare scenario #2 failed to happen as well… no tears. That doesn’t mean that people loved everything they read. There were flaws to be addressed, but everyone did so quite professionally. Probably helped that I was the only person in our group that had never participated in a workshop. They knew what to expect and came prepared for the experience.

The days consisted of panels, critique sessions, meals, and time in the bar. Many discussions and never a dull moment. There were plenty of laughs as well (I could tell you the pickle-sniffing story, but I probably couldn’t do it justice, so it will remain an inside joke–I hear a sigh of relief). It was a very enjoyable experience.

Saturday night a couple of us drove–an adventure in itself–to Seattle for some quick sight-seeing, dinner, and the Locus Awards party. (The awards were earlier in the day–I lost–but there a lot of friends in town that I wanted to say hi too.)

The evening moved quickly and I didn’t have time to talk to everyone I saw there, but I was really glad to have the chance. It was particularly nice to meet people I’ve worked with but never seen in person. I really need to find a way to get out to the West Coast more often.

After the party, our little group journeyed back to the hotel and gravitated towards the hotel bar where we joined up with workshop participants and the influx of people who had recently left the Roger Waters concert down the street.

I stayed up much too late, but it was near the end and I didn’t want to miss a thing. I ended up with a normal amount of sleep for me, but I forgot how much anxiety or stress takes away from me. (I was working around my impostor syndrome and trying to feel like I was qualified to be there.)

Sunday morning arrived much too quickly. All that remained was our final individual meetings and some panels. It all went very quickly, goodbye were said to new friends and a few panelists I knew previously and I retreated to the lobby. I figured I’d join the other group leaders–we were all leaving the next day–for dinner, but the plug was pulled and I started to crash. I walked up the hill to a Subway to get a sandwich for dinner, came back and made arrangements to join the others in the bar later. Back in my room, I lay down for a minute and woke up three hours later. Never did get a chance to say goodbye to the others. My flight was early–I left the hotel at 3:15AM–so I checked the bar–it was closed–and went back to my room for a little more sleep.

Had a nice chat with Patrick Swenson as he drove me back to the airport, and that was the end of my Cascade adventure. I’m glad to have had to experience and maybe next time I won’t find the prospect of workshop critiques so damn terrifying. (nah, but at least I know I can survive it now)

And to my group, thank you! I hope my contributions were helpful to you. I look forward to seeing your work in the wild!

If you ever have the opportunity to attend Cascade Writers or participate in some manner, take it. You won’t regret it.

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