Cause of Death: Writing

That’s a picture of my latest acquisition, a leather attache case.  Been looking for something similar for ages but the models I like are usually wayyyy out of my price range and the ones I can afford are uglier than Dan Brown’s prose or, for various reasons, just not me.

Found this beauty at a thrift shop (secondhand goods) in Saskatoon.  Spotted it and let out a crow of pleasure which was slightly mitigated when I discovered that the case sported a hideous logo from some hog producers convention.  Well, shit, I’m supposed to be creative, aren’t I, I figured I could come up with some method of fixing the problem.  Bought the briefcase for five bucks, brought it home and immediately set to work. Taped off the edges and used black spray paint to get rid of the logo. Still left with a shiny area that had to be covered up with…something.  But what?  How about a patch or sticker of some kind?  Which led to me going ’round and ’round, trying to think of a symbol or design that distinguished the case as mine.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on anarchy lately, its history and proponents, and have increasingly come to see that for an independent-minded, stubborn, recalcitrant asshole like me, anarchism is the perfect philosophical system.  No bosses, no hierarchy, no cant. Found a place in England that sold a sticker that was just about the perfect size to do the job and while I was scrolling through their catalogue, came across the “Kill Your Television” decal.


I hardly ever watch television, except for the news and hockey on Saturday night. We have a grand total of two channels in our house, and one of them doesn’t come in very well.  No cable, no satellite, no need. That old Springsteen song comes to mind:  57 channels and nothin’ on. During those rare occasions when we stay in a hotel, I always have a quick troll through the available stations and rarely find anything worth watching, except if I’m lucky to catch an episode of “South Park” or, thanks to a tip from my sons, one of the weird send-ups featured on “Robot Chicken“.

Whenever I go into one of my tirades about television and other time-wasters, I usually get some sort of feeble response like, “well, I only watch television to relax”.  A sentiment that is lost on me.

Relaxation?  What’s that?

I checked my daybook last week and out of the last 365 days, I’ve taken a grant total of nine days off from writing.  Nine days.  And that includes weekends, holidays, everything.

And so, I suppose, I have no one but myself to blame for my recent big crash, a eight-day bout with pleurisy (lung inflammation) that knocked me on my ass.  My body was simply worn out, my immune system utterly fucked. Couldn’t work, found myself stuck on the couch with a pile of James Crumley books and a stack of movies. I might have tried to work…except I read up on the condition (curse the internet!) and discovered that in severe cases, doctors have to stick a long needle in your lung to siphon off the fluid. Oops.  And then I read about some of the famous people, including Thomas Hardy, who have croaked from pleurisy.

Where’s that couch?  Rest, rest, must have rest!

I know writing will eventually kill me but not yet. My sons are still only teenagers and I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me before I turn up my toes and start taking harp lessons. When the time comes, I intend to go out like David Gemmell, who was discovered by his wife, sprawled across his keyboard, dead of a heart attack. That’s an author’s death.

Real writers don’t need an idiotic event like National Novel Writing Month to get them kick-started. Every year when November rolls around I cringe because I know a horde of amateur fuckwits will be filling forums with progress reports on their masterpieces, playing at being authors. Romance writers and fantasy wannabes, hobbyists who do great disservice to those of us who pay the price day after day, year after year, as we go about honing our craft. Do these fucking morons have any idea the kind of sacrifice and pain the writing life demands from its practitioners? Do they really believe their pathetic, semi-literate efforts are deserving of any kind of respect or approbation?

And listen to them scream in outrage if one presumes to set them straight: how dare a professional writer tell them that their efforts aren’t taken seriously and mock them for their silliness. Lemme tell you something, kiddies:  someone who unclogs a toilet isn’t a plumber, someone who screws in a light bulb isn’t an electrician…and someone who scribbles a few thousand words into a notebook with a flowery pattern on the front ain’t an author. Sorry to prick your balloon.

I’ve been writing for nearly 25 years and each day the process of sitting at my desk and commencing work requires discipline and courage, consuming enormous amounts of physical, mental and spiritual energy.  The other day, I received a note from one of my favorite authors, Nicholas Christopher (Veronica, A Trip to the Stars, The Bestiary). He wrote:

I am working my through the first 100 pages of a new novel…and finding, as always, that writing of any kind, but especially the writing of novels, is a humbling profession.  You start all over again and realize it doesn’t get any easier, no matter how many books you’ve written — nor should it get easier, if you’re doing what you’re supposed to and trying to reach new places with your work.

This from a man who has more talent in his big toe than I’ll ever possess, even if I lived to be three hundred.

NaNoWriMo is a gimmick, a fallacy and a fraud.  Those who play that game are beneath the contempt of the authors they’re trying so hard to imitate. For thirty days they get to  pretend to have the drive, talent and passion of their betters.

Then reality intrudes. Writing, it turns out, is hard work, doncha know? Shucks, you even have to know how to spell .

For many participants of NaNoWriMo, even that is too much of a reach…


  1. Bertram

    I think it’s interesting that the excuse wanna-be writers used to give was that they didn’t know how to spell. With the onset of spellcheck, all of a sudden spelling was not a prerequisite and the number of people who presumed to write a novel skyrocketed. Oddly enough, most of those novels have obvious spelling and grammar errors. And of course, the writers have no idea how to tell a story let alone put words together in a cohesive manner, yet if anyone offers a suggestion, they shrug it off with a “That’s the way I write.”

    I don’t understand the purpose of NaNoWriMo — there are enough unreadable manuscripts clogging cyberspace now! And there are one hundred novels written for every one that gets published, so there’s no shortage.

    I, too, have found that with every book the writing gets harder. Probably because I only like writing stories that are beyond me.

    If all the people who said they didn’t watch television didn’t watch television, there would be no television! Maybe all those televisions watch each other?

    I hope you and your satchel will be happy together.

  2. Elizabeth

    I don’t know if everyone who does NaNoWriMo claims to be a writer. Still, people go about unclogging their toilets and replacing their lightbulbs, the better to see you with. As a (published by FSG) novelist and a teacher, I think a project like NaNoWriMo might instill respect for day-in, day-out writers and might produce better readers, too.

    Why the rage, Dude?

  3. Jamie Grove - How Not To Write

    Like Elizabeth said, why the rage?

    As a writer of 20 years myself, I’d have to say that your statement about real writers fails to ring true. I’ll agree that a successful writer (meaning one who writes) needs to write each day but getting all worked up about a fun, social exercise like NaNoWriMo is elitist hooptedoodle. Besides, real writers don’t just write, they encourage others to participate in the literary process.

    Did no one ever take you by the hand and help you to become the writer you are today? Have you ever done a kind favor in return?

    Hey, I get it if you’re not the social type. It isn’t for everyone. But really, if NaNoWriMo is so unimportant why spin your wheels on it? Why even deign to acknowledge it?

  4. janflora

    I just wrote a blog about using NaNo myself, then came to check out your blog [which was on my list] and feel like I have been slapped. You would probably use the back of your hand. No, I am not a professional writer. But yes, I do understand the difficulties writers face and the reality of the situation. I do not expect to be published because of NaNo, but I do hope to gain some experience and personal motivation. I admire writers who have the focus and ability to write constantly and professionally. More so, I respect anyone who allows others to pursue their personal goals without resorting to better-than-thou preaching.

  5. No One of Consequence

    Hi there Cliff. I just ran into another one of your negative comments. This time it was on the blog of a 14 year old aspiring writer. Wow! Nice guy! I am just curious about something. What makes you a writer and someone that you have never met or read not a writer? Is it because you have been published? Is it because you have been scribbling for 25 years in your own flowery covered notebooks? You are setting no one straight here by trashing NaNoWriMo and engaging in obscene name calling. Real writers would be ashamed of you. The only thing you are doing is confirming to the rest of us that you are what you are, a ranter, not a writer. Those that can, do and those that can’t, rant. Continue on Cliff.

  6. Mark

    That case is too awesome not to love.

    What you said in my blog–you were completely right. Thing is, these days I have too much going on and then that one moment of creative push breaks me free for a month of procrastination, and I can take part in a community where we are all doing the same thing. At the moment, it really is just a hobbie–why not make it last, eh?

    See you soon! 😛

  7. Pingback: Why People Like Cliff Burns Are Beneath My Contempt « Creative Procrastination
  8. Runte

    Re the new briefcase, just a couple of words of advice: checked luggage!

    Re NaNoWriMo: You are wrong in almost every particular. First, amateur writers do not deserve your contempt; they are attempting to participate within the community of writers and are therefore, likely readers. They are, therefore, your audience, and should be encouraged in their pursuit of advance literacy. Believe me, there is nothing like trying to write your own novel to make one appreciate what professional writers go through. I know that I am a more sympathetic critic having taken a stab at writing my own novel. But that is secondary to the fact that the majority of the population these days is aliterate — they can read but chose not to bother. The NaNoWriMo folks’ children’s programs engage thousands of kids in the process of writing, open doors to active literacy that the digital generation has otherwise almost complete lost. And even for adults, the engagement in books cannot be considered a bad thing!

    And I disagree that nothing good can come from NaNoWriMo. Yes, yes, spending a month writing is not the same as spending 25 years learning your craft, but the artificial deadline of NaNoWriMo does provide the wanna bees with a put up or shut up place to start. I run into a lot of fans who talk about their “books” but when you ask to see the manuscript, it’s all in their heads. Ok, stop talking about it until you’ve put pen to paper, and November would be good! More importantly, the NaNoWriMo provides those of us with a day job and wives and so on an excuse to put down our other responsibilities and do it NOW. It legitimizes our impulse to write. We don’t all have the supportive, understanding spouse you do.

    And yes, the rough draft that comes out of one month frantic writing is not likely to be publishable…but it is a place to start and a first draft is easier to deal with than a blank page.

    So I disagree. I think NaNoWriMo serves an important purpose in promoting literacy and books. And without such community building programs, writers like you might find that there are no book readers left….

  9. Sakiina

    Your comments about NaNoWriMo made me hit the “unsubscribe” button in my RSS reader.

    I’ve enjoyed your blog in the past, but there was so much arrogance in your statement that it completely soured me on reading anything of yours, ever again.

    Can you really judge all NaNoWriMo participants? Do you know how many of them were writers before NaNoWriMo? I typically write everyday– but NaNoWriMo is a good time to just get out a story and then edit the manuscript throughout the rest of the year, alongside other writing projects.

    But that’s just me. Others have their own reasons.

    Can you tell me what the “real” definition of a “true writer” is? You seem to know it– but God help me if I do.

    People have myriad literary backgrounds, and reasons why they participate in NaNoWriMo. So how can you know how many of them are “real writers” or not?

  10. curtisbollington

    Being a writer is about writing. It’s that simple. If you write, then you’re a writer. You seem to be obsessed — not by writing, instead by the very idea of being a writer. But not just someone who writes: you want to be a ‘proper’ writer. Paradoxically, you even managed to write extensively in your blog about having writer’s block. ‘Wannabe writers’, ‘real writers’, ‘true writers’, etc., are all terms used by those trying to build an elevated platform, the lofty heights from which to look down on those scurrying, aspirational insects who couldn’t possibly understand what being a ‘proper’ writer is all about.
    This may come as a great disappointment to you, but writing will not kill you. You could slip and accidentally fall onto your enormous pen, but even that would be the tool that did for you, rather than the craft — which you would undoubtedly call an art.
    As with any art or craft, writing does not belong exclusively to those who think they have the right to its ownership due to a perceived superior intellect or talent. Writers write so that readers can read. Not everyone wants to read the bared-soul, multilayered, blood and sweat-stained, tortured words of someone who considers themselves to be an unrecognised genius. Although I guess there must be some who do. Most people just want to be entertained. Shakespeare and Dickens both knew this simple fact. What made them great, and so enduring, was not the desire to be great writers. They just wrote loads of stuff that entertained people. The fundamental nature of people doesn’t change much, which is why they, and many writers, artists and musicians left a legacy of work most of us still enjoy today.
    The type of writer you seem to aspire to be is a late 19th — early 20th Century fabrication: a fictional character born out of someone’s idea of fin de siecle Paris or a pre-revolutionary Kiev suburb. A character by Zola or Dostoevsky.
    I’ve made my living as a writer for 25 years. From your perspective I’ve ‘prostituted’ my craft: I’ve written websites, advertisements, features in business magazines, leaflets, brochures, letters, speeches, exhibition panels, press releases — and probably a-thousand-and-one other things I’ve forgotten about. And if I am a word-prostitute, then writing is my sex, and practising (and practicing) it has made me bloody good at it. (I’m still learning and always will be.) What’s more, I’ve never been allowed the luxury of ‘writer’s block’. If ever there were times when I didn’t feel like writing, I simply wrote until I did. A deadline is a great motivator. Of course I’ve written a novel, and I’m into my second, but I squeeze it any spare space I can find between writing for a living, taking care of my 10-month-old son, walking the dog, shopping, cooking, doing the housework, and occasionally sleeping. I haven’t yet found the time to try and get my own book published. But it will wait. If it’s any good now, it will be just as good next month, or next year, or in ten years’ time.
    So, for what it’s worth, here’s some advice: stop trying to elevate your artistic position by bring everyone else down. At the end of the day you’ll always be looking at the same horizon. Instead of wasting energy by undermining everyone else, concentrate on your own work. Write as much as possible. Unless you hate writing, in which case stop doing it. Stop being so self-judgmental — eventually it will stop you writing. Besides, it’s up to your readers to judge you. Write what the hell you want and write what you enjoy. If you enjoy it, then someone out there will also enjoy it. You may even be surprised to find that lots of people enjoy it — then you might even become famous. Hell! Maybe in a hundred years time people will still be enjoying it, then you might even gain the immortality you desperately seek. Because trust me, if writing could kill you it wouldn’t make you immortal, it would make you simply a dead (ex-)writer. You should stop dreaming of dying for your art and instead learn to live by it. Slip out of your ego, throw it carelessly into the cheapest plastic shopping bag you can find and ask one of your long-suffering family to hide it away, well out of your reach. Or give it the dog to bury in the garden next to some old bones. Then sit down at your word processor, or dip your quill in your ink-pot or whatever you do, and do what writers do.
    And finally — if you do come across others who are at the beginnings of it all; or if you cross paths with someone who has managed to get their sci-fi goth fantasy historical romantic comedy published and read by at least one person, then please encourage them to carry on. If you can help them, then do. The more people who communicate through words, pictures and music, and the more diversity and choice there is — the better place this world will be. Remember that freedom is choice, and choice is freedom. I wish you a long, happy and productive life.
    PS: Failing all this, do what other guys do when they have a mid-life crisis — buy a Harley and get yourself a nineteen-year-old girlfriend who’ll massage every inch of your ego until you come to terms with the fact that you’re terrified of dying, and — like the rest of us — only human.

  11. Pingback: Writer Cliff Burns Stabs NaNoWriMo « Mike Cane 2008
  12. åka

    Jumping in late here, but I have to say that I really like your briefcase!

    About NaNoWriMo: I’m a big fan of people doing things at all. I can see why it looks silly to a professional writer, but I think writing is a useful skill for anyone who wants to take an active part of society — and any kind of writing is good exercise. Not everyone will be a great novelist, and we already know that. It doesn’t change the fact that an exercise like NaNoWriMo can be very rewarding and useful for all of those who only write for their own sake. My advice to you would be: let others have their fun, and don’t take them too seriously. There must be ways to avoid reading NaNoWriMo discussions — I hardly ever see them.

  13. fevah

    “Cliff what a great attache case you have.”
    “All the better to reek havoc and chaos with my dear.”
    “Cliff what a crap t.v. you have.”
    “All the better to write my proses with my dear”
    “Cliff what a big toe you have”
    “All the better to keep my talent in and boot you up the ass with my dear”

    love your blog Cliff

  14. kswolff

    “NaNoWriMo” is just a cheap gimmick for posturing asshats? Sounds about right. Not sure why people have a problem with this. Also, water is wet. I’m going to go be a particle physicist and microwave a Hot Pocket.

  15. Mark Coker

    Anything that encourages more people to understand the joys and agony of writing is a good thing. I know the process of writing my own book helped me appreciate other authors’ works even more.

  16. Cliff Burns

    Mark, I’ve heard this contention before but too many of these wannabes think that plugging away for a few weeks gives them an inkling of what it’s like to be a REAL writer—a grotesque (and sickening) misconception. I’ve spent a quarter century beating my brains out on a daily basis and tapping out ten or twenty thousand words over the course of the month doesn’t come CLOSE to giving anyone an understanding of the amount of punishment I’ve inflicted on my body, mind and spirit over the course of two+ decades. I’ve paid my dues and, to quote Harlan Ellison, these fuckers don’t deserve to carry my pencil case.

    Keep putting one word ahead of the other, man, and good fortune to you…

  17. bowerbird

    cliff said:
    > I’ve spent a quarter century
    > beating my brains out on a daily basis
    > and tapping out ten or twenty thousand
    > words over the course of the month
    > doesn’t come CLOSE to giving anyone
    > an understanding of the amount of
    > punishment I’ve inflicted on my
    > body, mind and spirit
    > over the course of two+ decades.
    > I’ve paid my dues and,
    > to quote Harlan Ellison,
    > these fuckers don’t deserve to
    > carry my pencil case.

    ok, whose gonna take up a collection
    to pay cliff back for all the punishment
    he has inflicted on himself for decades?


  18. Cliff Burns

    You won’t find many takers, I’m afraid. My fingers insist no amount can compensate them for what I’ve put them through over the course of 2+ decades and God knows how many million words scribbled or tapped in that interval. That’s something else all those “10 Easy Tips to Writing” articles neglect to mention. Part of the price you pay in service of the printed word. Year after year after year

  19. Pingback: NaNoWriCrapMo « Mike Cane's xBlog
  20. Andrew MIllen (@Ronniesoak)

    I have done Nanowrimo for two years now, and It taught me two things. 1) I can write good scenes, good short stories, but anything longer sucks because my plotting ability sucks big time. 2) It is a good exercise in writing discipline, to be able to sit down, at a keyboard and write to a strict deadline is a skill gained from the event that has stood me well as a Mature student returnee.
    My first, staymaker, I kept with, and finished, but it is crude and clumsy. My second, well, I have gone back to basics with due to the whole plotting thing.
    When you started, were your first attempts immediate best sellers, or did they suffer from being crude and clumsy? I would suspect the latter. You practised and honed your craft, as do plumbers, electricians and anyone else. That is what I am doing.

  21. Cliff Burns

    You’re right, in a number of respects. I spent ten years practicing and honing my craft, accumulating a good number of professional publication credits before daring to identify myself as a writer. Never showed my early stuff to anyone and sure as hell never tried to publish it or foist it on the general public. These days, anyone with an internet connection and a hundred bucks can publish their very own book and proclaim themselves to all and sundry: “I…am…an…author.”

    Revolting. And so we have a proliferation of utter crap, the language reduced to epiglottal grunts and grade school level fan fiction.

    NaNoWriMo is play school for beginners. Here’s the thing: writers write every single day and they don’t need “special events” and “peer support” to drive them to create. I refuse to be associated with wannabes and “play authors”. I’ve been paying my dues, day in and day out, for over 25 years and have the service stripes to prove it. NaNoWriMo is a gimmick and a con and a lie. Spending 30 days putting words on paper doesn’t make you a writer any more than using a pocket calculator makes you a fucking physicist. You want to be a writer, write. Commit to the process, baby. Nose to the grindstone. Ray Bradbury proposed a short story a week. John D. MacDonald wrote a million words before his first book sold. Go for it, I’m serious. Click off this blog, grab a pen & pad and dig in. Don’t wait for November, don’t wait another minute. Put pen to paper and push. C’mon, what are you waiting for?

    Because when you’re a real writer, there’s no excuse not to be working. It’s a life of pure hell, absolute bliss and everything in between. And only those who are willing to pay the price will ever come close to understanding what I’m trying to say…

  22. mikecane

    As another NaNoWriMo begins tomorrow, we should remember that this crap gets into sites that people go to thinking they will get the products of writers. Instead they are wading into a sludge-pile of ineptness that buries the efforts of real writers.

    All you NaNoWriMo supporters, I’m starting NaAmSurgMo — National Amateur Surgery Month. All of you are required to check in for that treatment!

  23. Cliff Burns

    Mike: agreed.

    November is playtime for wannabes, 30 days when semi-literate, emotionally fragile morons get to pretend to be authors. I think I’ll be keeping my head down this year, let these idjits hammer out a few thousand words, realize how hard it is to, y’know, think, and then crawl back under their rocks for another year.

    Gawd, I despise wannabes…

  24. J.S. Wayne

    While I agree with some of the points you raised, I can’t help but take issue with your highly elitist tone. Yes, a large percentage of what comes out of NaNo is absolute crap. But most of that absolute crap will never see the light of day, so it’s unlikely to do any real harm to your standings on or anywhere else.
    I myself am a multi-published author who uses NaNo as a way to hone my skills and a reason to turn off the inner editor and simply do the damn writing absent any other considerations than getting words on paper and meeting my own personal goal. Does that make what I write of any less value, or is it simply the idea that ruffles your sophisticated, lettered feathers?
    Either way, it hardly matters. Everyone who’s doing NaNo is going to continue to do it despite the sophistry of the so-called literary elite. And I can tell you that if you’re going to make a point of urinating on people’s dreams and ignoring the immense dormant potential such a concept helps to nurture, you’re going to lose yourself a lot of readers.
    Say hello, and goodbye, to one.

  25. Cliff Burns

    I think a careful reading of my comments re: NaNoWriMo will reveal that I discriminate between those who play at writing and those who seriously work at their craft, day in and day out, regardless of the season, their mental and physical state, etc. There is a world of difference between a wannabe and an aspiring writer. One is dogshit on the bottom of my shoe, the other is a modest, unassuming colleague, deserving of my respect.

    Just wanted to make that clear. How you categorize yourself is another matter…

  26. Pingback: NaNoWriMo: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly | The Renegade Word

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