On Despair

The deaths of Thomas Disch and, more recently, David Foster Wallace have been preying on my mind of late. Both these fine authors took their own lives and while the circumstances might have been different, the reason was the same:


Writing is not easy work. I’ve talked about the physical toll it has taken on my body, the arthritis, shoulder and back pain, daily stomach cramps.  But I’ve shied away from alluding to those days when my spirit isn’t in it, when I feel the words and desire to express myself slipping away…until my head is filled with static…and then nothing at all.

The words won’t come. My pen is on the page but there’s no impetus, nothing to get it moving and the page remains blank. Those are terrible, awful days to endure.  I try to tell myself I’m going through a fallow period, that I must use this opportunity to recharge but the problem is I’m a writing machine, composing prose is an addiction, so when inspiration dries up, it’s like I go through withdrawal symptoms.  I can’t eat, can’t read or focus on a movie.  I’m restless, endlessly pacing, trying to relieve this frantic energy that builds and builds with no way to release it.

I snap at Sherron and my boys, pull away from them, duck into my office so I don’t say anything I’ll have to apologize for later.  Little things send me into a towering rage.

And…I despair. Terrify myself by imagining a scenario where I never write again, a permanent writer’s block. That would kill me.  It might take awhile but it would.  No question.

I could never be a suicide, I just don’t have it within me. I’ve always joked I’m more likely to become homicidal than suicidal and that’s not far off the mark. Those rages really are unsettling to experience. I can feel the ghost of my drunken Irish father stirring within me.  All my life I’ve feared my anger, what it makes me capable of. If I ever got in a serious fist fight, I’m not convinced I could make myself stop.  I have dreams where I’m beating and beating and beating on someone until my arms are slippery with blood.

Nasty, eh?  Well, I’ve got nasty genes.  Lots of addiction, violence, lack of impulse control.

The radio play I just finished for CBC Radio, “The First Room”, delves into some of this. Those early memories of lying in bed, listening to my parents drink and get into wild, violent altercations. Writing about it brought all sorts of suppressed memories to the surface and it wasn’t pleasant.  But it also gave me important insights into the obsession I have to control every aspect of my life.  It traces back to those feelings of utter helplessness and terror I experienced as I laid there, convinced my father was going to murder my mother…and then do the same to his kids.  And my bed was nearest to the stairs

As I got older, I wanted to put myself in a place where I could never be threatened or intimidated or controlled ever again.  That applied to every aspect of my life but most especially my writing. I have warned editors that I will beat the mortal piss out of them if they touched a word of my manuscript. I have told agents in no uncertain terms that I do not need their help in directing my career, choosing projects for me, lining me up to write some awful fucking six or eight or ten book series or media tie-in.

I won’t be anybody’s whore, not for any price. No rationalizations, no excuses (“I wanted to write a STAR WARS novel because I thought I could do something really different with Boba Fett’s character”–fuck you!). I don’t work for money and if that’s your focus, if you’re using your pathetic, puny talent in an effort to be the next Stephanie Meyer or Kevin J. Anderson, I spit in your face.

As a result of this stance, needless to say, I’ve become a literary pariah, earning the reputation for being difficult, uncooperative, arrogant, even dangerous.

And…I have succeeded in isolating myself, probably scuppered any chance at success or publication. Far inferior authors are seeing their books in print, stocked in the best book stores, plucked out and carried off by the readers I revere and covet so much.

So in the midst of not writing I’m forced to wonder if it’s even worth writing.  That’s tough.

But just when it seems I’ve reached the end of my rope, something always happens. A voice whispering a character name, a title, a line of dialogue…and I’m off again. There’s a lovely Pete Townshend song on his album All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. The tune is “Somebody Saved me” and I often think about certain lines when I’m going through one of my funks. Pick up the disk sometime, it’s as good as anything Pete ever did with the Who.

What happens when the voice no longer comes?  Not for days…weeks…months…years…

What if nobody saves me?

What if there’s nobody there?


The sound of no one clapping.

No sound at all.

The silence of the grave.

Please, God, may that never, ever happen to me…


  1. 1979semifinalist

    It’s impossible not to think these things, when someone truly great like David Foster Wallace is taken from us.

    I think I’m not disciplined yet enough in my writing life yet to have truly felt the horror of the muse suddenly evaporating, but I fear it all the time.

    I am desperately sad for Wallace, and his family, and for all of us that have lost his brilliance forever, but I can’t blame him anymore than I can blame Hemingway or any of the others. Artists have a surprisingly heavy cross to bear in a myriad of ways…and I’m never as surprised as I wish I could be when one of them (us?) decides to stop carrying it.

    I will seek balance my whole life, but I’ve recently accepted that I will probably never find it and that it’s imperative to find a way to be happy (or satisfied?) anyway.

  2. Pingback: Writer Cliff Burns: The Fear Of All Fears « Mike Cane 2008
  3. (S)wine

    Nobody can save us. DFW, as well as all the others are sorely missed. And all the ones that took their own lives and were just “ordinary people” from whom none of us had ever heard. It’s all one big tragedy.

  4. (S)wine

    Derek, I won’t really do that because I don’t know Cliff intimately enough to pass judgment. I know some of the dark holes that I’ve fallen into, in my (too long) life, and I know how difficult it’s been for me to get out of them by myself. I usually try not to read these kinds of posts with too critical of an eye. If there’s one thing I’ve learned: Hell is tailor-made and subjective. I usually don’t talk about my issues, but that’s me. Perhaps it helps others to get it out “on paper.” I don’t know.

  5. Nobody

    Here’s what you need to do to get published, Cliff:


    “McSweegan may have found the sweetest deal an average guy could find. In a coup ripped directly from one of George Costanza’s daydreams, McSweegan claimed that he did nothing for seven years while employed as a scientist at the National Institutes of Health.

    In 2003 McSweegan told the Washington Post that he hadn’t really been given any job responsibilities since 1996.

    Prior to that, he had been a researcher and program officer on Lyme disease, but he was removed from that position in 1995 for arguing with a sufferers’ support group.

    Although he had a title as director of the U.S.-Indo Vaccine Action Program and a list of nominal duties associated with that role, McSweegan claimed that he only carried out the tiniest of tasks like ordering coffee. In exchange, he received a salary in the neighborhood of $100,000.

    When the NIH vehemently disputed McSweegan’s story that he simply went to work and did nothing all day, he maintained that he never received any assignments. McSweegan would show up, sit in his office, and read to kill time.

    He took up fiction writing to fill his workdays and published a pair of novels he allegedly wrote while at the office. He told CBS in an interview that he also joined a health club near work “just to sort of break up the day.”

    The most amazing part of McSweegan’s story isn’t that he managed to stay employed through this seven-year period, but that he received positive performance reviews from his superiors. He wryly explained to CBS, “I guess I’m good at doing nothing.”

  6. Travis Outlaw

    Cliff Burns,

    What’s wrong with me posting my link? You don’t know who James Dean is? It is off topic. Maybe I should have commented it on your movie post. James Dean being DEAD relates to your post anyways. You should appreciate that I am one of the few people that actually go on your blog and comment on it.

    Have a nice day 🙂

  7. thewritingrunner

    “I won’t be anybody’s whore, not for any price.”

    This should be printed above every writer’s desk! Excellent post.

  8. patbertram

    I don’t fall as deeply as you do, perhaps because my life has been one long loss of words. When I was young, I wanted to write a wise novel of love that encompassed the ages (not a romance) but discovered I had no talent or wisdom. Nor did I know how to write. So I read. But it was a sadness that was always with me. Several years ago I decided to write regardless and, though still wisdomless, I manage to find enough words to create and recreate a novel. Wishing you many words.

  9. Mike on the road

    if in randomness by a windswept lake
    you find yourself talking to a tree
    do not find this unusual nor abnormal
    nature is the key to creativity, originality and creative courage

    sitting writing in my journal
    i am aware of a warm breeze
    and a stirring in my soul
    in that moment so profound yet so precious
    i know that the wind carries a message just for me

    Thank you Cliff for grace and kindness the essence of the foot print you left on my writing journey.
    I wrote the above for you personally just now as my gift to you.


  10. Tina Lund

    I just want to thank you for your honesty regarding what goes on in your heart/mind. You are not alone.

  11. Mercedes

    Listen to you. Beautiful, powerful turns of phrase, simply saying the things that you want to say. I can’t believe that you will ever be a man without words.

  12. Mukundh Vasudevan

    thanks for the comment! 🙂 i’ve been wanting to ask: could you suggest a book wherein the story moves not by the conversations between those who are troubled, but by the conversations one has with oneself – wherein the story moves by how well the reader can read into the mind of the character and in the prediction of what he is going to do next??

  13. lena

    I’m glad you’re able to say this, and to post it. To show the world. That takes strength. It is hard to look at our demons and even harder to share them with the world.

    I don’t know that I’m capable of quite that honesty with strangers.

  14. writingwithelegance

    Thank you for writing this. I’m still at my full time job kind of wading into the freelance thing, and it’s already causing lack of sleep and all of the associated health effects. I guess it’s good to know the risks before I take the dive.

    Thanks also for your comment on my blog. I’ll certainly keep reading you.


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