Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Man

Here where others offer up their works I pretend to nothing more than showing my mind.”

-Antonin Artaud

What’s important, finally, is that you create, and that those creations define for you what matters most, that which cannot be extinguished even in the face of silence, solitude and rejection.”

-Betsy Lerner
The Forest For the Trees

I’ll be turning forty-four later this month and, naturally, with the passing of another year I can’t help taking stock, appraising the state of my life and work. That can be a tricky proposition, especially when you have, ahem, depressive tendencies.

pinkjpeg.jpgThe first thing that comes to mind whenever my birthday rolls around is the line from that old Pink Floyd song that goes “another day older, another day closer to death”. Some people actually celebrate their birthdays but not me—I have to dwell on mortality, my mind taking a sharp, left turn toward morbidity. Typical.

But the point of this post is not the inevitability of death (thank God), it’s about change, rites of passage, the sense of moving into another phase of my life and, especially, my writing life.

I’ve written a number of journal entries (don’t worry, I won’t reproduce them here, I have more respect for you than that) in which I state that I feel my literary apprenticeship is over and I now have a strong sense I can take all that I’ve learned and can finally start establishing my own unique voice.

Does twenty-two years seem like a rather extended apprenticeship? Not to me. Over the course of that time I have immersed myself in the best writers I could find, reading them, studying them with the rapt attention of a monk scrutinizing ancient holy texts.

Applying all I’ve learned and assimilated from the Masters has taught me technical craftsmanship but it has also reminded me of the importance of discipline, self-sacrifice and perseverance. They’ve given me crucial insights into the level of commitment and devotion required to create something of lasting worth. I’ve always admired authors who are original and innovative and now, more and more, I want to see those virtues reflected in my work.

And I don’t mean literary experiments, self-referential, modernist (or post-modernist) tripe composed for my eyes only and readers be damned. I’ve gone down that road before and while it produced some interesting prose, I found, after awhile, that it didn’t speak to my heart and spirit and resulted in closed, claustrophobic bits and pieces that seemed to obscure rather than illuminate. In the end, I abandoned that approach as a creative cul de sac, a road that went nowhere.

What I’m talking about are new approaches to characterization and, also, incorporating more cinematic elements to structure and story, employing multiple viewpoints, juxtapositions, flashbacks, superimpositions, fadeouts, cutaways…all in an effort to deny that old canard that “there’s nothing new under the sun”.

Nothing new…what a bunch of horseshit.

colsonjpeg.jpgThe first time I read Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist I knew I had found a writer with fresh ideas, thematically and stylistically. Every Cormac McCarthy novel I read is an epiphany. Project X by Jim Shepard body-slammed me with its remarkable authenticity.

The best authors have their own distinct perspective they bring into play…and after twenty-some years I can finally say that I’m ready to tell my stories my way. The history of the world from the standpoint of an agoraphobic neurotic obsessive-compulsive perfectionist with delusions of grandeur.

Or, looking at it another way, I can grace my stories with the hard-won insights of a man who has now lived more than half his life, who’s gotten married, has two sons, lost friends, gained friends, fought, fucked up, suffered, laughed, seen and done things I couldn’t have imagined even a decade ago. Thanks to a host of life experiences my work is informed by a richness and maturity that wasn’t there previously, deeper shades and tones I couldn’t have managed as a younger author.

I’m not as afraid as I used to be, not as prone to ungovernable fits of rage and frustration. That doesn’t deny my work passion, it means I can better channel, direct and control those passions that used to send me shooting off in all directions, dissipating my creative energies.

I’ve written extensively of futility on this blog, the despair that sometimes overwhelms me because of my brain chemistry and bad genetics. Some people have then turned around and used these confessions in other forums to attack my credibility on subjects relating to literature. I’m a “failed writer”, don’t I even admit it myself?

Yes, according to my high standards, my literary output seems pretty insubstantial. But look at who I’m holding myself up against, geniuses like Louis Ferdinand Celine and Joyce and Beckett and Bobby Stone. Who wouldn’t come off as second-rate compared to those lads?

But when I look at the wannabes out there, the ones who insist on calling themselves writers because they published a romantic fantasy novel in e-book form, I come off pretty well, don’t you think? These twats actually have the nerve to announce to the world they’ve written 80 or 100 (or more) novels in the course of their illustrious careers…and yet when you “Google” their names, none of their work seems to be kicking about. Funny. And they’re the first ones to get biscuit-ersed (Irvine Welsh’s hilarious phrase) when I talk about “aesthetics” and “critical reading”.

I write to entertain,” they sniff daintily, demurely paging through a fat forest-killer with a dragon or unicorn on the cover. And when I call them on their silly pretensions, their transparent lies, I’m dubbed “elitist” or a “pompous ass”.


Go back to your fucking knitting, you hobbyists. How do you manage to see your keyboards with your heads so far up your own arseholes?

Worse yet are the horror hacks I’ve come across with their brain-sucking zombies and superannuated vampires and misogynistic rape fantasies. They go ballistic when I remind them of the subtle, cerebral horror of Roman Polanski. Their tastes run more toward the latest Rob Zombie abomination, great gouts of blood spraying everywhere to the accompaniment of a throbbing, crunching soundtrack. Subtlety to them is a body count under a hundred.

Horror fiction has been in the doldrums for a long time and I blame the splatterpunks, who unzipped their flies and pissed all over the genre in the late ’80’s and early 90’s. It’s never been a field that features good writing but, Christ, the stuff that’s been proliferating in the past ten to fifteen years is scraping the muck and slime off the bottom of the barrel. It’s time to take the genre back from these fuckheads—where is our generation’s Ira Levin or Clive Barker or Richard Matheson? Who will save us from these purveyors of shit?

Well, it won’t be me. I want nothing to do with horror until it cleans up its act. And that means smarter editors and more talented writers—and the chances of those things coming to pass are roughly the same as the Rapture sweeping up all the worthy Christians next Thursday (and good riddance to them).

In any event, I’ll still be here, in this 10 X 12 office, composing my strange, little stories, dreaming of a readership in the tens of millions. And I’m content with that.

An unjaundiced look at my career tells me things might be looking up. My novella “Kept” may or may not be made into a movie that may or may not be pretty good. I’m working on a new project, feeling more engaged than I’ve felt in a long while. My marriage is solid, my family the greatest support system a guy could ever want or have.

hand2.JPGSuccess and riches may never come…but I made a conscious choice a long time ago that regardless of what happened I would never compromise, never sell out, that I would aggressively defend my offerings from the predations of those who are not worthy to pass judgment on any title more sophisticated than a Dick & Jane reader. That stance has probably cost me a shot at fame and fortune…but, conversely, my work can’t be accused of being derivative or formulaic and I’ve composed some truly original fiction that I believe will stand the test of time.

Tell a good story and the readers will come…eventually,” I wrote on another blogger’s site and I believe that.

You found me here, didn’t you? And now you might just scroll down and read more screeds by this crazy fucking Canuck…or click on Stories and tackle the excerpt from my smashing great novel So Dark the Night (it’s worth it, believe me).

Thanks for taking the time to pop by—and I’m grateful, as well, to my regular readers, the repeat visitors to Beautiful Desolation, folks I’ve come to know through their comments and personal communications.

Let’s give it another forty-four years, shall we? See what happens. I’ll keep putting one word ahead of the next, telling my stories in my own inimitable style.

Yes, the apprenticeship is officially over. From here on, whenever you read one of my tales, the only voice you’ll hear is mine.

Listen to my song



  1. George Minari

    It must be fun to go through life believing that everyone who calls you a pompous ass is a retarded “wanna-be.” Guess what, dipshit? Is James Joyce going to have to descend from heaven and stamp the word “wanna-be” on your forehead before you figure it out?

    If everyone on Earth claimed they were a writer, at what point would that change your writing skill in any way? All your blathering about “wanna-be” authors sounds less like righteous vitriol and more like jealous flybuzzing to me. Oh, and you’re a pretentious fucknut. Waaaaah.

  2. Carrie

    Cliff I think you are on to something huge. My question to you though is how do you define success? As far as I am concerned I am successful with in my career. And I define this in the terms of the following: I am trying to do my part for the greater good of humanity and have impacted many people in a positive light. People have said that I have saved their lives. I think that they were being generous but it still felt like I was “successful” it felt good, even accomplished. But finally when I was working full time I made a shit load of money. That is a biggie in my definition of success. Superficial, maybe… but I am honest. So now because of my circumstance I can no longer practice my work for money but my son needs my expertise so I have been or rather he has been able to achieve some successes through the facilitation of my work. So would you consider yourself successful if you hit the $$$ jackpot on one of your novels? I am sure it is no surprise to you that I am not even close to being a literary connoisseur and if I told you the list of books in my repitoire you’d probably gag. However, I do represent the average american mind and we are the ones that buy most of the books. I am an Oprah book club fan, I love Dean Koontz, Stephen King, and don’t gag… James Patterson. I LOVE Harry Potter!!!! Now whether or not you think these folks are wanna be writers doesn’t matter they are cha ching wealthy not rich wealthy. I am not advising you (like you need my advising) to conform to the Big Mac society way of writing. But rather then to know your audience when you are writing. Understand that most people that have the time and energy to read now a days do not have a college education and if they do are they really that sophisticated that they would pick up on your quick wit and sarcasm. When I use to work in a hospital I was surrounded by surgeons and believe you me they were as cliche as you can imagine. Cocky arrogant assholes. However the most “successful” and brilliant surgeon of them all had a saying that he always use to pass a long to the residents when they were hit with a scenario that they had to present to a pretty big audience. He always said remember KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid!
    Cheers :)

  3. Darshan

    Ahh these watershed times in our lives, eh? (Forgive me if this becomes stream-of-consciousness. . .)

    They often come near some round numbers for us, either that or just before or after some significant page turn for us. First book published, last film completed. These times leave us with those questions nagging in our heads. . . The whys? The hows? Often the same questions in a new wolf’s clothing.

    So here I am, 35 as of yesterday, and still “unaccomplished”. Unaccomplished that is, in my own perspective, and of course in the perspective of the great cultural canon of what it means to be a success.

    Does that gnaw at me? Not so much so. I know what I am capable of. The things that really tend to gnaw at me are the things of my own creating which keep me at bay from my own success.

    The gatekeepers? We both know the gatekeepers usually have no pants on. We’ll either pass through because of luck, timing and opportunity in some alchemical combination. So why worry about them? They are who they are, and they do what they do.

    There are those rare gatetenders. Those who care for the gate, and offer the gateway as a rite of passage for those who have competed against themselves for long enough, survived and most importantly, grown. These are the ones who maintain gates that open cleanly, and are not soiled with the blood and flesh of artists. They ARE out there, and I have met a handful of them.

    I think Carrie has some really salient and sage perspective. George on the other hand is guarding what’s his. So what?

    And really when it comes to the critics and detractors. . . Who cares? Even the audiences. . . I guess it depends on what one’s concept is of an audience. If we carry with us the idea that an audience is a pre-exisisting entity waiting with baited breath for “the next great thing” to come along, well then we’ll die trying to figure out how to please them. And this is one of Hollywood’s colossal mistakes. They have another word for this audience. It’s called demographic. And those are the audiences you win, not audiences you create.

    On the other hand, there are those glorious audiences who tend to coalesce of their own volition, and do so in the presence of great stories, great ideas. Great passion. Those are the audiences that you have to create. They tend to be guided by their hearts more than their heads, but they are whipsmart. And they are the true audiences to be sought. You’ll never win them, you’ll earn them.

    But even those audiences, I just don’t think you can spend your time worrying about. They will take care of themselves. Yes, if you build it, they will come. If you build it higher, they will follow you and support your ascent. They will mourn your loss. . .

    I have said many times in my life and career as a filmmaker, if I had a choice between the audiences of the two Stevens. . . Steven Spielberg or Stephen Soderbergh’s, I would rather have Soderbergh’s. His credits, his accomplishments, his fans, whatever. He has those dreamed-of audiences, even if they are smaller or less vocal than Spielberg’s.
    Soderbergh’s audiences are the type that give back, not the kind with their hands outstretched asking for more.

    I have some suggested homework for you. If you haven’t seen the movie Ratatouille yet, do so. This movie speaks to so much of what has been said here, and so much more of what hasn’t been said. If it doesn’t leave you teary-eyed and wanting to create more. . . If it doesn’t leave you feeling just a little bit more secure in yourself as a creator, I will be shocked and I will personally eat my words.

    Rest easy creator, your time will come. And to those who would spout angry words, let them have them, and don’t take them for yourself. Ultimately, we are responsible for both the audiences and the critics we attract, just as we are responsible for our own work. So create what it is you wish to in life, and be happy doing it.

    Your friend in creation,


    “Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that all was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible.”

    T.E. Lawrence

  4. Condor

    Re: George Minari
    It’s a shame to read a low-class comment by George Minari on what is otherwise a quite classy Blog (vitriol not withstanding). Why do i get the feeling the only Joyce he’s read was perhaps “The Dead” when forced to read that to pass his grade 12 English and be allowed to play high school football in order to satisfy his homoerotic tendencies (not that there’s anything wrong with that…)
    It must be fun (eg: tiresome) to go through life assuming that crass insults can pass for intelligent wit, though it’s highly unlikely any wit was intended.
    Fortunately for George (unfortunately for the rest of us readers), Cliff Burns does not censor and he stands by his word as otherwise we would not be forced to read something that clearly belongs next to the shit smeared graffiti covered bathroom stall at the local bath house.
    George you may want to stick to reading your Harry Potter books (or watching mainstream TV as most likely) if you are easily offended…. otherwise don’t waste the rest of us’ time.

  5. J.S. Peyton

    Thanks Condor for responding to the idiot above. It never fails to amaze me how some people use the anonymity of the internet as an excuse to discard even the pretense of civility.

    In any case, it’s always a pleasure to visit your blog Cliff. And on a total bibliophile note, I must say I’m happy to hear that you enjoyed THE INTUITIONIST. I just bought this novel a couple of weeks ago, and this is the first time I’ve heard it mentioned anywhere else on the blogosphere.

    P.S. If you don’t want to celebrate your birthday, you could celebrate the end of your apprenticeship. That’s worthy of a cake or two. I look forward to reading your stories – I look forward to hearing your song.

  6. Le Dude

    as for quoting pink floyd: you’re sure your not approaching seventy-four? message to george m.: writers are narcistic sociopaths, the no. 1 pretentious fucknut was james joyce, and now get a life, but pronto, per favore.

  7. demonik

    Ummm. Off the top of my head and without wishing to intrude on the above frank exchanges of opinion ….

    Can’t really comment on films but as to modern horror fiction who are these peddlers of excrement who have upset you so?

    Must admit, I gave up on it for much of the ‘nineties when it went – to my mind – all poker faced and deathly pretentious :) Being essentially a pulp man, it was the worst excesses of some of the ‘Dark Fantasy’ brigade that lost me and I’m only now trying to catch up on some of what I missed. Never understood what constitutes “good” writing or “bad” writing anyhow – I just know what does it for me. Often giant crabs, slime beasts and amusingly OTT Satanic covens will feature heavily. Other days the more thoughtful offerings of a Ramsey Campbell or Bernard Taylor are required. And I love Richard Matheson. And Charles Beaumont. Clive Barker? I can cope with, even warm to many of his ‘Books Of Blood’ shorts but overall his lengthier works are not for me, and besides, wasn’t he a big influence on the splatterpunks in the first place? Not that I’ve any problem with them either: I adore the Skipp & Spector edited ‘Book Of The Dead’, huge bloody chunks of David Schow’s ‘Silver Scream’ and will cheerfully devour with just about anything Joe Lansdale sees fit to hurl my way. Some days, I’ll hop from one (“horror”) genre to another like a crazy person and rejoice in the sheer diversity of it all. The only stuff I’m liable to ignore outright is any ‘king great door-stopper of a novel with the dreaded “book 1 in the blah blah chronicles” plastered across the front.

    Maybe I don’t want to be saved?

  8. Robert Runte

    Happy birthday, man. (Read Rilke on Birthdays…pretty sure you could relate.) I just have a couple of quick points.

    First, I have always felt that you were a little harsh on the wannabes (and I’ve read a lot more slush pile than you have, and seen a lot sadder examples than you have likely encountered, believe me.) But however unrealistic their desire to be ( or belief that they are) writers, I still have to give them some credit for WANTING to be part of the conversation. There are so few readers, let alone writers, left in the digital generation, so few of my students who can or want to think/write beyond the bullets of their powerpoint or webpage presentations that finding someone who has completed a manuscript, no matter what its deficits, is necessarily a hopeful thing. A lot of wannabes may be talentless hacks, but by god they can read and they are trying to write, and that puts them a long way out ahead of the masses, and makes them, to my mind, potential allies….

    Second, I’d be cautious about the ‘end of apprenticeship’ thing. In the broadest sense, I get what you’re saying, and power to you. But unless you intend to stop reading, cold turkey, there is no way you can read and appreciate another author without SOMETHING penetrating and being picked up. I mean, if you can honestly say you intend to stop learning, you’re in effect saying that you’ve stopped being a writer. Because what writers do is filter everything that’s out there and then synthesize it into something new.

    No input, no output.

    So I get when you say you’ve finally found your voice etc. but not the suggestion that you’re FULL.That you’re done with input. Don’t go there! Become too self-conscious of one’s uniqueness and one strangles it. It’s the same advice as we give people going on a date: just relax, be yourself, and don’t think about it too much, and what comes out will be uniquely you and your vision without all the self-conscious artist angst crap that slows too many writers down and ultimately undermines their art.

  9. noveldame

    I definitely admire this blog. I respect that you have an opinion on something! Thats hard to find nowadays. And I agree, I do come across “amazing, best-seller” e-books that are… well, absolute garbage. And I talk to the authors and I try to figure out why they want to put it out there at all, knowing its sub-par, and the most amusing response I’ve gotten is “at least Ive dun sumthin. What do you have to show fur all yur eforts?”

    A large vocabulary and the ability to properly articulate a phrase, my friend.

  10. Bertram

    I too find that I’ve been living an apprenticeship that spans the decades, but unlike you I have yet to break into print. After reading 20,000 books, I should have figured out what people want, but all I’ve been able to figure out is what I want–intellegent stories simply told, and they don’t seem to be written much anymore. I hope your post-apprenticeship prose does well.

  11. Jen

    Wow….you invoked a lot of responses to me, but they were flying so fast it was hard to grasp them, if you know what I mean. So…I’ll try my best not to sound like an idiot.
    First off, I thought Clive was of your generation.
    You made some damn good points about literature.

    You also inspired me. No one talks about their times of NOT writing….NOT being immersed in literature and such. So it made me question my determination and passion. So anyway, now I know it’s possible to do what I’ve been doing, and still have the words in me, if you know what I mean. Now I don’t feel guilty (which can hinder writing)

    Also, I’m wondering something about Canucks and Yanks, and the differences I find. If I ask them why they’re so “arrogant” they’ll get offensive. Maybe… it’s just that Americans are cowardly, and we’ll buy into anything we see on tv. Even the news is all about following Paris Hilton and all the other good-for-nothings. No one sees the need for substantialness in our world. Other civilizations have left their mark; the only ones we’ll be leaving will be the decimation of the planet.

    Cheers to being a journeyman, isn’t that the next stage?

    So, happy birthday and all that jazz.

  12. birgit

    44? Young punk. You’re probably still doing illicit drugs and listening to TOOL records. Wait till you’re my age. Folk music and organic veggies have taken over.

    Loved the portrait of a middle aged man. Not too many blogs can make me laugh out loud, learn something new (about my friend as well as the literary world) and also inspire me to want to work harder at my own craft.

    Wonderful to witness your confidence and surefootedness as you move into the professional realm.

    Keep putting one word down after another!


  13. geekbetty

    wow….I don’t have five paragraph comments to put here. Only – thank you for the book recommendations, I am going to pick up a Jonathon Carroll book for my next read.
    and happy 44th.

  14. cantueso

    I can read and write in English only very slowly, and your text. Even the comments that you received are too long for me to take in completely. So I could not find whether you addressed the problem of offering books for sale when in places like Lulu.com you can get them for free and when excellent writing on every subject and of every kind is also available for free on the internet.

  15. salsarionn

    This is precisely what summed up the whole point of my recent blog post. I haven’t conversed with as many ‘wannabes’ as you have, and I hope my blog attracts some to comment.

    I disagree with Robert Runte’s comment that ANY talentless wannabes are better than none at all. I don’t agree that effort alone is commendable.

    Perhaps this sort of empty encouragement appeases the egos of the delusional, but I personally hate being congratulated on merely writing a novel. “Wow,” people say. “You wrote a whole book. That’s really admirable.” I invariably respond with “Not really. For all you know, it might be rubbish.” to which they say “Well at least you’ve WRITTEN one.”


  16. Will Rhodes

    Who is your agent? Will you be my agent? This wanna-be moved from one continent to another to get that elusive agent – did I say I hate literary agents?

    Necessary evil is a catchphrase used for agents who know that they have to sell the horrorpunk bile to make a cheque each month – now where are the real agents?

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