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100_0750I can hardly fathom it, but this is blog post #299.

Wow.

When I consider the amount of writing that represents, the amount of words, I’m more than a little taken aback.

I find it fascinating how much the blog has morphed in the past six years. It started out as a platform for an angry-not-so-young man venting about the stupidity of traditional publishing and now it’s pretty much anything goes.  A couple of years ago I started adding music and short films and recorded spoken word pieces—that was exciting. New technologies put film-making, the creation of music and visual art, into the hands of more of us and while that’s led to an explosion of amateurism and incompetence, it has also allowed a few bright lights to shine as they try out new disciplines (and make some rather brilliant beginner’s mistakes).

But the absolute best part of having this blog is that it puts me in person-to-person contact with my readers. I was somewhat slow getting on the whole blogging bandwagon but now I can’t tell you how thrilled I am at how many people have written and reached out to me through this site. I soon came to realize I have readers from virtually every part of the world—I recall one chap who wrote to me from a university classroom in Melbourne, Australia. Bored with his instructor, wanting to talk about writing. Still makes me smile.

I’m also pleased that Beautiful Desolation has put me in touch with fellow indie artists, writers and musicians who have little truck with the corporate scene and want to express themselves without interference or compromise. I think after close to 30 years in this biz, I’m seen as some kind of “grand old man” of indie writing/publishing. Occasionally, I’ll get calls or e-mails from someone in the press, a reporter seeking my views on independent publishing, e-books, the state of writing in general, and I have to smile. As a prognosticator, my record isn’t exactly stellar. I think I’m on record as saying a few years back that e-readers were mere gadgets and people would eventually tire of them and return to physical books.

Ahem…

Let’s face it, life ain’t easy for us indie types. Most publications refuse to take us seriously or review our work so it’s very hard to get any “buzz” going when we release new material. On top of that, there’s the absolutely unprecedented amount of writing being released these days (see my last blog post), and that flood of material, that deluge of (mostly) offal, renders it well-nigh impossible to draw readers to excellent, literate, world-class writing. Who wants to pick through a reeking dung pile in the faint hope you might find a glistening pearl?

But I’ve stuck it out for nearly three decades, refusing to be cowed by idiotic editors and scumbag agents. Yeah, the money is lousy and the rewards few and far between but, y’know what? My strange little imprint has released some really fine titles over the years and there isn’t one of them I’m not honored to call mine. No hackwork, no sharecropping, no selling out. Every one of my books, right from the first, is original, innovative, literary, intelligent. How does that compare with the shite polluting the last box store you browsed?

* * * *

A couple of weeks since my previous post and you know what that means:

25,000 words on paper in the last ten days. A new project in a new “genre” I’ve never tried before. Good Lord. Sometimes even longtime readers must just throw up their hands and wonder what possesses me. I wish I knew. All I can do is follow my Muse, wherever she leads me. And often that’s taken me into some mighty strange territories. I mean, a western, for heaven’s sake?

I’m quite encouraged by this new project (still unnamed) but it’s going to involve a lot of research at some point. As soon as this rough draft is completed, I’ll be Googling like a sumbitch, trying to find out all about—well, never mind. Think I’ll wait a bit, hold off until this piece is further along before I open up about it. Even my wife is in the dark as to what I’m up to.

Not much time for leisure and entertainment in the past while, but my sons and I did manage to zip in to Saskatoon to see Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest flick, “Only God Forgives”. My review appears over on my film blog.

One last thing:  three hundred blog posts deserves some kind of special recognition. So I’ve prepared a treat for #300, a little freebie for everyone who’s dropped in out of curiosity and came back because they liked what they saw.

My thanks to you, one and all.

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100_0705“Here comes Santa Claus…”

Which always seemed like the perfect title for a porn film. But I digress…

Christmas approacheth and there is much to give thanks for.

First and foremost, my oldest son Liam returns from Brazil on Thursday; nearly four months away from home and hearth and, man, did we miss him. Having him back with us is the best Christmas present we could ask for. The tree is up and awaiting ornamentation, the Christmas CDs and (mainly) cassette tapes have been retrieved from the basement and dusted off. I know I have the reputation as being something of a curmudgeon but I love Christmas and there’s something about the holiday season that brings out the best in me. Even standing in a long lineup at the post office isn’t going to set me off (according to Canada Post, this is the busiest week of the year).

Other blessings of note doled out in 2012:

Three, count ‘em, three new releases.  Three books in one year? From me? That’s nothing less than miraculous. I’m delighted with all of them: The Last Hunt turned out far better than I’d hoped, a great story and a worthy addition to the western genre. I know I raised a lot of eyebrows when I announced I was working on a good ol’ fashioned horse opera, but I approached my task with seriousness and the respect of a true devotee. With the help of my father-in-law Ken Harman (a real, live cowboy) and folks like Lee Whittlesey, a superb historian and raconteur, I think I carried it off. Judging from the responses I’ve received, I’d say readers think so too.

100_0704The other two books are “Best of…” compilations of poetry and short prose. Stromata: Prose Works and New & Selected Poems. Both drawing from over two decades’ worth of material; slim, elegant volumes of surreal verse and prose poems. Beautiful, austere covers, powerful, intense material. I’m looking at them as I type these words and am still struck by what lovely tomes they are.

That’s the wonderful thing about being an indie author and publisher: I can supervise every aspect of my books’ creation, from their conception to their production and distribution. I even choose the margins and fonts, find the cover art. Etc. And I work with some great people, like my wife, Sherron, and my designer, Chris Kent, to ensure my books are as eye-grabbing, artful and evocative as they can possibly be. Check out my Bookstore page, see for yourself.

Shot, edited and scored three short films in 2012—have to admit, I’m most chuffed with “First Contact“, a surreal combo of music and images. Can you tell I’m a huge sci fi fan?

Also put together more of my ambient music, took lots of photographs, traveled more than I have in the past…

And the end of the year finds me plugging away on my next volume, a collection of short stories I hope to release in June or July, 2013. Already over 100 pages in and delighted by the diversity of voices, the unsettling and entrancing tales they tell.

Other then the expected sniffles and aches, we all stayed healthy in 2012—something else to give thanks for.

But I’m most grateful for my life, the freedom it affords me to follow my bliss, write in an atmosphere of peace and security, devote myself full-time to the task of creation. That’s what it’s all about. Birthing something that wouldn’t have existed, drawn breath, if it hadn’t been for your painful, protracted labor.

“Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.” (Robert Bresson)

For me, no other existence will suffice. Without the ability to create, immerse myself completely in my invented worlds, I would wither away, cease to exist in material form. A thing more sensed than perceived, shadow-dweller, incorporeal yet still cursed with sentience, formless but denied the release of death.

I’m honored and privileged to lead the life I do. That’s something I must never forget or take for granted. I’m blessed and renewed by the knowledge that I’m serving some higher purpose, contributing (in some tiny way) to the Grand Design. Sometimes, when I’m at my absolute wits end, that’s my sole motivation for continuing to put words down on paper. That and the unqualified support and faith of my family. Whatever successes I’ve had are the result of the love and encouragement I’ve received, the sacrifices those closest to me have made to allow me such a fortunate existence.

For that and much, much more, thank you, to my family and friends, my readers…and my Creator.

Couldn’t do it without you.

Wouldn’t even try.

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It’s Thanksgiving for our American cousins—it strikes me that late November is a weird time to be giving thanks, especially if you happen to live above the Mason-Dixon Line and your kids have already built a congregation of snowmen in your front yard.

And, frankly, I don’t need the excuse of a national holiday to carve up a turkey and then subsist for the next week on turkey leftovers, turkey sandwiches and, finally, turkey soup (sorry, I just drooled all over my keyboard).  Turkey, mashed potatoes and corn on the cob, with pumpkin pie for dessert.  If I somehow manage to gain admission through the Pearly Gates I fully expect that to be the first meal St. Peter and his horde of super-efficient seraphim waiters place in front of me.

* * * * *

Yes, indeed, busy times here at Burns Central:  Sherron seems to have been on the road since her first day back at work in September. Driving hither and yon throughout her massive, far-flung school division, giving workshops and presentations. She’s seen more of this area of the province than this homebody ever will.

Both my sons are deeply involved in their individual obsessions, namely, submission wrestling and film-making.  Sam and his creative partner Sean hope to have a short movie ready to enter in the “Youth” component of the Yorkton Film Festival and are collaborating on a script. I accompanied Liam to his twice-a-week wrestling session last night and my 48 year old body recoiled and quaked when I saw how those young lads (and one lass) were bending and twisting each other, their bodies impossibly elastic. I was one of those seriously inept, uncoordinated kids who couldn’t even stand on his head so watching my athletic oldest son going through the paces with grace and strength fills me with immeasurable pleasure…and pride.

Meanwhile, I continue to labor away on my western novel, The Last Hunt.  Two consecutive weeks of 12 hour days, grinding and polishing, adding in some of the research material I gathered during my Montana sojourn this summer.  Still insisting that I will release the novel in late March (2012), come hell or high water.  But it ain’t been easy and my body is feeling the effects of the strain.

You’d think after 25+ years I would have learned how to pace myself, manage my time and energy more effectively.  Er, no.  Instead, I completely immerse myself in a project for prolonged intervals, work myself into a state of exhaustion and then, literally when my body-mind-spirit can take no more, I pronounce the story/novel finished…and collapse.  At that point, I usually come down with a nasty virus which lays me out for a week (complete with cold sores, intestinal problems…ah, fun).

How does that gibe with your methods?

And then I read a comment by self-publishing’s latest superstar, Amanda Hocking. Yes, she of a million Kindle sales.  She states, without an ounce of  self-consciousness, that she writes her juvenile vampire novels in about 2-4 weeks.  That’s right, all you fuckheads who were stupid enough to download her awful tripe, a month (usually less) to write a novel. And some of you “writers” out there actually hold her up as an example of a successful author, someone you’d like to emulate.  Message to you wannabe assholes:  I spit in your face.  You disgust me.  May your fingers rot off your hands and your putrid brains liquify in your paper-thin skulls. Leprosy and ALS are too good for you.  I loathe you and what you and your ilk are doing to literature.  You are nothing more than ambulatory turds.

But I won’t cede the field to you, do you hear me? I refuse to allow your excremental scribbling to carry the day. To my last, dying breath I will be composing literate, intelligent, innovative fiction, even if only six people on the planet read it.  I will follow the lead of the Masters, write in defiance of all the trends and market niches, write despite the Amanda Hockings of the world and the offal they disgorge.  Hocking will be nonexistent in a very short time, her moment in the sun is almost up—let her have her money, it will keep her warm as she wallows on literature’s scrap heap, where all the non-talented hacks end up.

I’ll trust posterity and put my faith in the notion that as long as humankind exists, there will be discerning readers and that, eventually, my work will find the audience it deserves (even if I’m long gone).

I’d rather work for nothing than be stinkin’ rich and unable to look at myself in the mirror.

Which begs the question:  what price do you put on your soul?

“B.C.” comic strip by Johnny Hart

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What are your goals as a writer, as a creative person?

This question has been much on my mind for the past while.  I’ve been accused of being an “elitist” and what have you because I insist that if you write for the purpose of making money, seeking fame and fortune, you are little more than a whore.  I have also been pretty clear that I have no interest in pursuing some big, fat publishing contract, nor do I give a tinker’s damn whether you’ve won a Hugo, an Edgar or the fucking Nobel Prize for that matter.  Baubles and trinkets.  Bullion and bullshit.

Kids, I’ve been offered the chance to write franchise novels (“Star Wars” or “Star Trek”) and told the agent involved to shove it.  As far as I’m concerned, you do something like that, “sharecrop” someone else’s universe, you are off the artistic roll call.  (Thanks, Bill, couldn’t have said it better myself.)

I don’t go to conventions, suck up to editors, try to flog my work to them like a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman.

I don’t shill myself by teaching writing workshops—such ventures help spread the abhorrent lie that good writers can be stamped out like fucking cookies.  I’ve written about that in more detail here (the more delicate among you may have to avert your eyes at certain points in the essay).

Okay, so that’s what I don’t want…but what is my greatest aspiration as a writer?

To be the best.  To push myself to the limit and produce work that breaks new ground, written in language so finely wrought it’s like reading through a score by one of the great classical musicians.  Note perfect.  I want to be held up there with the finest authors in the world and not be found wanting.

I have no interest in being average.  A “decent” writer.  Ugh.  Better to be forgotten than instantly forgettable, which pretty much sums up most of the books being released these days.

Because I have chosen to go the indie route, I have automatically rendered my writing suspect in many people’s eyes.  If I’m acting as my own publisher and printer that must mean my stuff is no good, rejected by mainstream places because it fails to meet their exalted standards.  Which automatically begs the question:  have you been in a book store recently, seen the kind of shit the traditional publishers are spewing out like a drunk’s partially digested lunch?

I expend an incredible amount of time and effort revising and polishing my work—my novel So Dark the Night took over three years to write (not including the research that preceded it).  And I’m a full time writer.  Imagine that.  Day in and day out for 3+ years.  (Shudder)  But I knew I had a wonderful book, was confident that once it was finished and released, people would love it.  And I was right.

But, again, because I’m not a self-promoter, I think I’ve hurt sales of both my novels.  I even resisted sending out review copies, partially because I knew that no matter how good the books were, how professionally executed and bound, there would still be the stigma of the indie/self-published label.  This despite a professional writing career spanning over 25 years, many publication credits, anthology appearances, critical raves.  I haven’t sent copies to some of the famous authors I’m acquainted with, seeking their praise and approbation.  There’s just something within me that balks at the notion.  I want my books discovered, not read because of some kind of viral ad campaign.

So Dark the Night and Of the Night are superb literary efforts.  They are sprinkled with genre elements (mystery, horror/dark fantasy) but they are intended for an intelligent, discerning mainstream audience.  They have enormous cross-over appeal thanks to winning characters, snappy dialogue and homages to film noir, pulp fiction, and cult cinema and TV.  Fans of Paul Auster, Jonathan Carroll, Nicholas Christopher, David Mitchell, Philip K. Dick and Jorge Luis Borges will find a lot to like in both novels.

What they won’t find is the kind of incompetent, derivative, semi-literate drivel that is prevalent both in the self-published world and, as I’ve just related, on the traditional publishing scene as well.  You wanna read the next Stephanie Meyer or Dan Brown or J.A. Konrath?  I’m sorry, you’ve come to the wrong place.  I’m a real writer, boys and girls, I seek to create ART.  I want to destroy your preconceptions and offer you prose that is exciting, intoxicating and pitch perfect, right down to the placement of commas.

I want to be the best writer in the world.

There.  I’ve said it.

It’s a pipe dream, of course, there’s no such thing.  But for me, the bar is raised to the highest possible peg and I won’t lower my expectations for any market niche, slot on the bestseller list or dollar figure you can name.  My literary heroes are men and women who slaved away tirelessly, selflessly, stubbornly, refusing to conform to the whims of agents, editors or readers.  Iconoclasts and artisans, defending their work, their legacies, with the ferocity of pit bulls.  Facing penury, enduring lives of desperation, anonymity, pain and hopelessness, yet never forsaking their vision or abandoning their ideals.

With role models like that, it’s impossible to even entertain the possibility of selling out.

My idols would never forgive me.

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My wife and sons have temporarily departed for more northerly climes, visiting family members who live right next to a lake near Thompson, Manitoba.  Idyllic spot, natural and picturesque.

Why didn’t I tag along (you ask, impudently)?

Because my mind isn’t ready for a vacation right now.  Matter of fact, for some reason summer is the time of year when my Muse really puts the pedal to the metal.  A good number of my novels and best short stories were drafted during the months of June-August.  Maybe a hormonal thing, who knows?  So, while everyone else is outside, barbequing or going to the lake, renting a cottage, enjoying yourselves, you’ll find me in my sweltering 10′ X 12′ home office, my door open, the fan on high to make the environment livable as I toil away on some literary project.

This year is no exception.  My western novel, The Last Hunt, devours much of my time.  I’m supposed to be taking a break from it at the moment but I can’t help poking my nose in, doing more research, scribbling notes, conceiving questions for some of the historians who have generously offered to lend a hand with the scenes set in Yellowstone Park. They’ll provide me with historical background, period detail and invaluable advice and input (and God bless ‘em). I’ll be visiting that region of Montana later this summer, doing some on the spot scouting and location hunting.  It will be my first trip of any significance in a long time (I blush to say how long).  This borderline agoraphobic workaholic is trembling at the notion of being away from my desk for any length of time but I am utterly convinced of the necessity of this trip.  It will better establish the mood and setting of The Last Hunt and add some of the authenticity I think the present draft is lacking.

But I must confess I have another reason for remaining home.  It isn’t often I get the house to myself for days at a stretch and on those rare occasions that I do…well, I like to take full advantage of it.  I play loud music, from the time I get up to the wee hours of the morning.  I keep the windows shut, the drapes drawn and for one or two days I let myself go.  Stalk about in my bathrobe, unshaven, neglecting the laundry, neglecting to eat properly, neglecting to answer the phone or interact with the outside world.

It’s glorious and terrifying and, ultimately, beneficial.

I sit in my office, staring at my slippers while The Vandelles, A Place to Bury Strangers, The Replacements, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, etc. thunder from overhead speakers, loud enough to force me further back in my chair.  Lately, I like my music hard and dirty, a la the Vandelles’ “Lovely Weather” (crank it up!).

Meanwhile, I’m doing a good deal of scribbling—journaling and spontaneous or “automatic” writing like the Surrealists used to champion.  These writings represent Rorschach Tests and they give a pretty good idea of what’s on my mind, the preoccupations and fears dogging me.  Plenty of speculations on the spiritual front—I keep that up, I’m liable to end up with a gazillion page Exegesis, similar to Philip K. Dick.  And will likely be considered just as loony, should anyone happen to stumble across these errant, inexpert ramblings on God, the nature of reality and my own pitiful existence.

These writing exercises often trigger intervals of hellish introspection, long hours spent reviewing past sins and ruminating over the sorry state of my literary career, even after a quarter century of putting words on paper.  The mental boo birds come out and I subject myself to a great deal of vitriol before the nattering voices either subside, wear themselves out or are chastened by a very Bugs Bunny-like snarl originating from the depths of my id:

Aaaaaaaa, shaddap!”

I have trouble sleeping when my family’s away, find the nights hard to endure. I kill time by staying up and watching a double or triple header of movies.  Guy flicks and guilty pleasures; science fiction and thrillers given precedence.  This time around I’ve set aside flicks like “Michael Clayton”, “All the President’s Men”, “The Searchers”, “Shadow of the Vampire”,  “The Bad Lieutenant”.  Nothing too crazy, re: anything by Ken Russell or (shudder) “Eraserhead”.

And for reading material, Terence McKenna’s The Archaic Revival and Graham Hancock’s Supernatural.  Far-fetched stuff?  Pseudo-science?  To me, what these lads propose is nowhere near as crazy as some of the notions held by billions of people of all faiths around the world.  I am intrigued by what triggered that “monolith moment”, when our kind first opened their eyes to the possibility and mystery of the world and took a crucial evolutionary step, moving further away from their humble origins and toward a spectacular destiny.  This transformation coincided with the earliest cave art and the enactment of burial rituals, a species awakening to the existence of other realms and principalities.

Mebbe Bill Hicks is right and a certain humble fungus, naturally occurring, is responsible.  I guess we’d need a time machine to find out for sure.  Intriguing thought, though…

I suppose when all is said and done, my time alone is therapeutic, cathartic.  I miss out on a chance to hang out with good folks, do some boating and fishing in some of the most gorgeous scenery this country has to offer.  But the soul-searching, self-Inquisition and psychic ass-kicking blows off steam, relieves the accumulated pressures that accompany the creative life.  In my solitude, I can confront my demons and it’s a no-holds-barred, no quarter given bloodbath.  It’s not pleasant but it is necessary.  All part of the ongoing struggle to define myself as an artist, to better delineate the precepts and ideals I live by, requiring me to identify aspects within me that are working against those higher purposes and undermining my essential faith in the worthiness of my endeavors.  Demons, indeed, with hideous countenances, avid, savage expressions and appetites.  They are the worst parts of me and during the next few days I shall brawl, joust and treat with them, in the end probably settling for another draw, a few more months of relative peace on the emotional/spiritual front.

You say that’s not much of a bargain but, then, clearly your demons aren’t nearly as unreasonable, their intentions not as deliberately malign.

For that, count yourself lucky.

You are very fortunate indeed.

Photos by Sherron Burns

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After writing my previous mini-essay, I discovered some wise words from the dean of comparative religion, Huston Smith.  This excerpt is from his autobiography, Tales of Wonder, and relates his experiences following the deaths of a beloved daughter and grand-daughter.  I revere Mr. Smith and this is why:

“After Karen’s death I had returned to work; after Serena’s, I sat in a dark room, to which eventually I admitted a few friends, not for them to utter words of comfort—what comfort was there?—but for the mute warmth of another presence.  Yet when a reporter asked me, ‘Have your tragedies shaken your faith in God?’ I thought it a ridiculous question.  What about the Holocaust and all the other catastrophes we know as history?  They did not make my own loss less but kept me from imagining that I had suffered a unique vengeance that impugned the idea of God instead of making God more necessary.

Christ said, ‘Blessed are those that mourn’.  Had I been living in Jerusalem, I would have joined the mourners grieving and praying at the Wailing Wall.  Suffering led the Buddha to enlightenment, and it may cause us, against our will, to grow in compassion, awareness, and possibly eventually peace.  In Buddhism monks daily recite the Five remembrances, which are:  I will lose my youth, my health, my dear ones and everything I hold dear, and finally lose life itself, by the very nature of my being human.  These are bitter reminders that the only thing that continues is the consequences of our action.  The fact that all the things we hold dear and love are transient does not mean that we should love them less but—as I do Karen and Serena—love them even more.  Suffering, the Buddha said, if it does not diminish love, will transport you to the farther shore.”

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I want to tell you it will be all right.

There’s been a lot of bad news of late.  Friends and close acquaintances in dire straits.  A memorial service for a kid only a few years older than our boys.  Death seems to be hovering in the air around us, playing eeny-meeny-miney-mo with people we care about.  A cruel, arbitrary figure, a Shade with a mean streak.

We’ve reached middle age now and we have to expect losses.  Like the old Doors song goes:  no one here gets out alive.  But it’s not right when it’s kids who are afflicted and young mothers and devoted partners…blameless ones who shouldn’t be singled out for torment or earmarked for an early demise.  They deserve better.  That they should suffer is unfair and a universe that permits that to happen can’t possibly be caring or sentient or the slightest bit aware of our existence.  A cold, dead universe.  Endless and eternal and empty.

I know nothing of the physics of death.  I can’t tell you the weight of a human soul or confirm that such a thing even exists.  I’ve tried reading up on the science—the conversion of matter to energy and the possibility of alternate universes, hyper-realities—but, in the end, my intelligence and imagination just aren’t up to the task.

All I know is that I love you and these recent, grim reminders of mortality make me appreciate what we have and give thanks for every drawn breath.  These bedside vigils and funerals are rehearsals for a time that is bound to come and we lose one of ours.  That may sound selfish but it’s not.  Our grief is just as sincere and our sympathy for what those poor families must be enduring genuine and heartfelt.  We imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes and our souls quake.  When faced with such a horrifying spectacle, we avert our eyes.

To experience the death of a loved one is, to my mind, the ultimate test of faith.  Can your belief system withstand a loss so profound?  Can your theology and/or worldview accommodate an agony that rends your very being?  Can your God bear the heat of your anguish and rage?

We’ve been together a long time, you and I.  Not only in this lifetime but before that.  We’ve known each other and always recognize one another each time we meet.  As long as you are with me, I can survive anything.  I truly believe this.  Grief and despair may make me a shadow of my former self but as long as I am comforted by the knowledge of your existence, I will persist, I will struggle; against the odds, against the darkness, believing to my dying breath that being your lover and confidante ennobles me and gives me purpose, the will to go on.

You are all the proof I need.  There are terrible things afoot, a darkness creeping in from the edges.   Let’s treasure our time together, love, rather than allow fear to take from us all that is worth keeping and preserving.  We must refuse to allow mortal dread to defeat us and it is our shared strength that will save us.  In the face of death, affirm that we are alive and full of passion and joy and foolish dreams.  Confronted by the worst, we pledge to show a brave face, while clutching at each other for the companionship and comfort we know we will find there.

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Today is the fourth anniversary of the very first post on this blog.

Some of you have been around since the beginning (God bless you), while others have been late arrivals (we left you a few beers in the fridge, but be sure to leave the last one for your host).  In those four years, this site has been visited by tens of thousands of folks, over a thousand of whom have seen fit to leave comments, the vast majority of which have been smart, sharp and thought-provoking.

Thank you, one and all.

About a year ago, I added a feature to Beautiful Desolation, namely a “ClustrMap”, which shows where on the planet my visitors call home—every single time I look at that darn thing, found on the lower right side of my menu, I have to smile.  Man, isn’t technology something?  It allows people from every part of the world to reach out to one another, make contact with another human being, regardless of political, cultural and geographic divisions.  People drop in from as far away as the United Arab Emirates, even the supposedly walled off Islamic Republic of Iran.  I can’t tell you how much that moves and thrills me.  God knows what they think of this place once they find it but the important thing is they can find it and, perhaps, discover a community of folks with whom they have more in common then they ever imagined.

Freaks of the world, unite!

I am honored to be one of those freaks, a mutant, a rebel and non-conformist, an indie, an artist, a—a—an errant penguin.

I’d better explain that last part.

Awhile back, I watched Werner Herzog’s documentary “Encounters at the End of the World”.  It’s filmed in Antarctica, a hostile and brutal region of the world which, understandably, offers up a range of features and fauna found no where else on the planet.  It also tends to draw people who are quite unusual and Herzog introduces us to a number of them, including some who would definitely fall into the category of “freaks”.

But what I found most fascinating about the film is when Herzog explains the phenomenon of the “rogue penguin”.  Every so often, a penguin leaves the regular nesting area and heads off into the interior of the continent.  There’s no water, no food and eventually the penguin will just run out of gas, lie down and expire.  There aren’t any theories, nothing that explains the bizarre behavior of these creatures and here’s the strange part:

Initially, when humans came upon one of these rogue penguins waddling along inland, miles from where it should be, they would scoop the critter up and take them back to the other penguins, congratulating themselves for a job well done.

Only one problem:  the penguin would immediately turn around and start right back, retracing its tiny footsteps and damn the torpedoes.  People in Antarctica are now instructed to leave the determined creatures alone, let them go, even knowing it’s to their certain death.  Defying nature, defying logic, stubbornly persisting in behavior that is, apparently, purposeless and self-destructive.

I relate to those crazy little fuckers.  I empathize with whatever quirk in their mindset that draws them away from the herd mentality and compels them to strike out on their own, regardless of the consequences.

Frankly, I think it’s a perfect, though admittedly weird, metaphor for my writing career.  While it might be more safe and comfortable to behave like everyone else, compose work indistinguishable from a host of other authors, there’s some kind of kink in my personality or brain chemistry that simply won’t countenance it.  I won’t be controlled or managed or “handled”.  I refuse to create material that tries to conform to the marketplace or caters to fashion.  I do not submit to the judgments of editors and agents and couldn’t care less if my books become bestsellers or earn so much as a dime.  I won’t prostitute my talent by writing “franchise” novels, based on someone else’s conception.  You do that, fellow scribbler, and, to quote the great Bill Hicks, you’re off the artistic roll call.  Forever.  End of story.  You’re another fuckin’ corporate shill.  Everything you say is suspect, everything that comes out of your mouth is like a turd falling into my drink.

So sayeth Saint Bill.

I am an errant penguin, tottering off to my doom.  I am that freak who for, whatever the reason, can’t help veering off the beaten track, saying unpopular things, creating work that no one has seen before.  Don’t bother trying to reform or cure me, there’s no hope of that happening.  Just let me continue on an odd, meandering path that will, eventually, peter out, my body surrendering to the elements, dropping in my tracks, eyes still on a far horizon I know I’ll never reach.

(Photo credit:  Guillaume Dargaud)

* * * * * *

Lots more ahead in the months to come.  Soon I’ll be making an announcement re: my next book projects and I think you’ll be surprised—hope it’s a pleasant surprise but, regardless, let’s just say this errant penguin won’t be dissuaded from his course.  You can follow me or not; that’s up to you.

Thanks for coming by and keep those comments and suggestions coming.  It’s a pleasure conversing with folks of your intelligence and perceptiveness.  All I’ve ever wanted is an insightful, literate readership.  And, boy, you folks definitely fit the bill.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I’ll close off this special anniversary post  with a few of the poems I read at last night’s “Open Mike” at our local library.

 

Mass Extinction

 

It feels like the end of something

a dead zone spreading outward

from some remote Pacific atoll

 

I remember when the weather was normal

and the bees weren’t dying

and you could see the stars

 

Since when did the natural become un-natural

man-killing winds

biblical floods

the grass eating holes in our shoes?

 

And who will feed all the hungry mouths,

mother,

if you take sick and wither away?

 

Bouquet

 

Remember, thou art mortal

as doomed as a spring flower.

 

Shine brightly in your scant time

a dazzle of colors until you are plucked.

 

100:1

 

in miniature rooms

furniture built to scale

stiff, painted figures

coiffed hair, handmade clothes

 

placed with faces averted

subdued for the sake of the kids

a scandal in smallville

plastic lawyers on their way

 

Metaphor

 

The 20th century is a skull

gleaming in a dry creekbed.

Emaciated goats graze nearby

while, high overhead,

the sun sets fire to the sky.

No sound but the wind,

the awful inescapable wind.

 

“Darkness, take my hand”

 

Here come the shadows

here they come

watch them come

come shadows

come shadows

here they come

here they come

 

© Copyright, 2011  Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)

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This is what’s taped over my office door.

This is what I believe, in twenty words or less.

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I admit it:  I despise wannabe writers.

Now, let me be clear—when I say that, I’m talking about a certain segment of people, who meet a very specific criteria.  I’m not referring to “young writers”, “aspiring writers” or “beginning writers”; those are entirely different categories (to my mind).  Aspiring authors are humble and don’t take on airs.  They possess few, if any, professional credentials; they might have a couple of poems or short stories published or filled dozens of notebooks with their secret writings over the years, but they certainly make no claim to any kind of status.

The wannabe is far less circumspect.  These folks make all sorts of exalted statements and assign themselves great prominence in the literary community.  They’re very quick to proffer advice, usually in the form of smug, self-assured pronouncements that speak of enormous (alas, unrecognized) talent and a vast breadth of wisdom and worldly experience (ersatz).  That they have virtually no standing among accomplished, professional, full-time writers is entirely beside the point.  Why, they’ve written dozens of books (no one has read) and have been putting words on paper all their lives (no one has noticed).  They offer their services as experienced editors and are quick to thrust their work on you, in order to prove they should be taken seriously.  God help anyone who questions their undisputed brilliance.

The on-line universe has been a bonanza for wannabes.  If they have written anything—some of them, like the proverbial hundred monkeys at keyboards, are amazingly industrious, despite their utter lack of talent—they can post every word of it on their blog and to hell with the editors who never responded to their submissions or the people in that stupid writing group who said their suite of poems about losing their virginity was “childish and cliched”, “needs a lot of work” or just “ARE YOU KIDDING?!!!”.

Sometimes I’ll skim through some of the literary sites in the blogosphere and far more often than not I’m appalled by the really sub-literate tripe that people post on a public forum.  Puerile verse and poorly rendered soft porn/romance and slightly fictionalized episodes from real life.  Juvenilia.  Artlessly composed and stupefyingly dull.  Painful and embarrassing stuff, the sort of thing you might find in the locked diary of an emotionally disturbed adolescent.  Some are clearly cries for help:  look at me…aren’t I special…I feel things more deeply than most people…love me…I’m lonely…no one understands meI need affirmation

There might be a few sympathetic comments left by either kind-hearted readers…or fellow wannabes offering cautious praise before inviting them over to their site (presumably to see what real writing is all about).

I have heard it said that the explosion of on-line writing has led to an explosion of bad writing and I have to admit that this is demonstrably true.  The vast majority of what people post on the web is dreadful, godawful stuff, unfit for human consumption.  The lousy rep e-books have is well-deserved (most of the time).

One of my roles as an indie writer who publishes exclusively on the net is to work hard to demonstrate that cyberspace is not solely the domain of amateur hacks and weekend scribblers. There are some truly gifted writers out there, producing original and ground-breaking work.  Some, like myself, have chosen to put their writing on-line because of the desperate state traditional publishing is in these days.  These are experienced authors with real world credentials and undeniable literary chops.  By maintaining the highest standards, tirelessly subjecting our work to the most intense scrutiny, editing ruthlessly, eschewing conventions and formula, we wish to reward intelligent, discerning readers who are tired of the status quo and are exploring other venues, seeking alternative visions and fresh perspectives.

But it can be disheartening for readers, sifting through the thousands upon thousands of blogs and literary sites, trying to find something of value.  And that’s why a credible on-line critical community is required.  With the newspapers cutting or drastically paring down their book sections, I’m hoping more good critics will start web sites and help single out particular writers who shine amidst the dross…and dismiss those who don’t make the grade.

And it would be most helpful if amateur writers used the new technologies to better develop their skills before they foist their cringe-worthy efforts on the rest of us.  I’m talking about searching out like-minded souls, joining on-line writing groups and vetting their work with a diverse assortment of fellow writers (from around the world), getting feedback.  Sharing their work privately, rather than punishing the general public, exposing not their beautiful, unblemished souls (as they hope) but their ineptitude.   If you truly wish to be seen as someone with designs on being a serious writer, worthy of respect, give some thought to what you’re making public—believe me, you’re doing no one any favors if it’s garbage.  You’re hurting yourself…and you’re making it more difficult for your talented, hard-working colleagues to reach potential readers.

Naturally, these words of caution will not sit well with wannabes.  They’ll sniff that I’m being “elitist” and that the internet belongs to everyone.  Unfortunately, the democratization of the web means that an entrenched cult of amateurism has developed and these people guard their domains like pitbulls.  They brandish their imaginary credentials and howl in outrage should anyone refuse to defer to their alleged expertise.  Why, their writing has been read by thousands of people (who knows how many?) and they’ve published everything from young adult novels to a ten part vampire series, not to mention their “erotic” fiction and two volumes of poetry about a beloved Pekinese that recently went to doggie heaven (all of it available in e-book format, listed on a site with a thousand other books no one in their right senses would attempt to read).

I plead with new and aspiring and upcoming writers to avoid such a ridiculous mindset:  recognize your limitations, don’t publish precipitously, before your work is ready for public perusal and consumption.  Have respect for the legacy of fine writers and great literature that preceded you; after all, you initially dreamed of becoming a writer because of the joy and succor and inspiration the printed word gives you.  Your favorite authors wrote hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of words before they had mastered their craft to the extent that they were, at last, worthy of publication.

Why, in God’s name, should it be any different for you?

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