A Life of the Mind

I spend about 70-80% of my waking hours somewhere other than here on terra firma.

I’m relieved to discover that this habit isn’t necessarily a manifestation of mental illness, nor is it unique in the world of the arts.  I’ve read enough biographies and articles on authors to know that a good number of them have well-developed fantasy lives and often immerse themselves in their self-created environments, sometimes to the detriment of real world relationships and obligations.  I think of writers like Ray Bradbury, P.G Wodehouse and and H.P. Lovecraft.  For prolonged periods of time they take up residence in fictional universes, describing their journeys with such detail and depth that they seem almost like parallel existences, places we could visit if we took one wrong turn on a dark street or wandered off the path, into the endless forest.

I’ve devoted nearly four years of my life to conceiving, researching, writing and editing my novel So Dark the Night.  Working on it every day, day in and day out, month after month after month.  Frequently I’m in my office from 8:00 in the morning ’til 9:00 at night, coming out only to use the bathroom or gobble down a few quick bites of food.  So fully inhabiting the city and environs where my two main characters ply their trade that at times it’s hard for me to fully re-emerge and engage with family and friends.  Some days it’s absolutely spooky.  I open up the door of my office and expect to see…what?  The city of Ilium, home of my detective duo, a dilapidated former industrial center, hugging the shores of Lake Erie, long past its prime, presently in the midst of an accelerated decline.  The dockland the repository for rusting hulks, bristling with abandoned gantries and infrastructure.  The factories that once employed thousands now empty husks, ringed by concertina wire, patrolled by private security goons.  The ground laced with heavy metals and toxins, poisoned for ten thousand years.

I see it so clearly in my mind’s eye.

Dunno about the other fellows but I confess to a preference for my imagined worlds, personal playgrounds where my my mind can roam, unfettered by the demands of mundane reality.   When I shut the door to my office, everything on the other side ceases to exist.  The phone is unplugged, the doorbell is ignored, nothing is allowed to break the spell.  Music is the first step–sometimes an hour of howling metal or spacey, ambient stuff or track after track of Dylan.  Depends on how I’m feeling.

–and then all at once I find myself sitting at my desk, pen in hand.  I don’t remember how I got there or when I started writing.  That’s the truth.  So when I say “spell”, I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass.  I can’t tell you how many thousands of words I’ve put to paper that have no clear origin; I looked down and there they were.  And the process is as mysterious now as it was a quarter century ago.  That’s the fucked up part.  I’m no closer to understanding what it takes to create a successful work of prose or verse, even a single, melodic sentence, than I was when I first dared imagine myself a writer.

That’s why I take such offense at workshops and creative writing classes.  You can teach someone basic grammar but you can’t help them create music with a few strokes of a pen.  Sorry.  Nor can you impart to your students the ability to absorb the pain and prolonged physical, mental and spiritual exertion the writing life demands from its (usually) unhappy acolytes.  Basic compositional skills are empirical; a good ear for dialogue isn’t.

Writing is hard work, as hard as digging ditches or mining coal.  That is, if you’re doing it right.  Putting words down on paper, that’s nothing.  Arranging them so that the exact right one is in the exact right place…that is a feat of engineering on par with any building, bridge or monument from the present day to ancient epochs.

When I’m working, my focus is absolute, like a laser beam.  Nothing else matters except that page in front of me.  I am there and nowhere else.  I see my characters’ faces, breathe the same air.  A camera swooping and dipping, discreetly recording the scene that’s unfolding.  At such moments, it is temporal reality that seems entirely unconvincing and implausible.

Perhaps that’s why writers sometimes behave like such buffoons in the real world.  We’ve forgotten social conventions and have no idea what constitutes appropriate behavior and language back on Earth Prime.  I think of someone like Wodehouse, who cheerfully admitted to preferring the worlds he created to the real thing.  Maybe that’s why he was gulled into those wartime radio broadcasts from occupied Paris for which he was so vilified.  To his mind, they were harmless trifles…but to his countrymen across the channel, teetering on the brink of apocalypse, each syllable was treason.

Fantasy can beguile too.

Lovecraft was reclusive, a man who evinced little interest in worldly affairs, steeping himself in history and lore.  More comfortable conversing in lengthy correspondences than face to face.  His “mythos” an attempt to impose order on a civilization he felt far removed from.  His attitudes, frankly, reactionary, which explained his fascination with the past and his fear of the things that might lurk just beyond his safe threshold, the darkness that yawned…

His writing is fevered, a cascade of obscure or archaic words, all in a vain (and overblown) attempt to describe the indescribable, put features and traits to things beyond human ken.  The Lovecraftian universe is, even this non-fan must confess, a thrillingly imagined one, seemingly consistent and lavishly illustrated.  For a considerable portion of his short life he resided in strange climes and, within the limits of his talent, did his best to describe the bleak and blasted vistas he saw there.

And then we have Bradbury…Raymond, the child-man.  For Ray, the view from his window is pristine and richly coloured:  small town Illinois, circa 1924.  Memories of the cataclysm of war fading, a renewed sense of optimism surging through America, the first forebodings that an isolationist republic might have bigger, more ambitious aspirations on the world scene.  An era of silent movies and loud jalopies; traveling circuses and lonely leviathans.  White picket fences, dandelion wine and well-attended churches.  In a second story bedroom, a child lies beneath clean, flannel blankets, blinking in the early Saturday morning light, listening to birdsong.  In thirty years, this same child, grown tall and ramrod straight, will mount a silver rocket and blast off for the red sands of Mars…

Ray is all about nostalgia, a sense of what could/should have been.  His ability to re-imagine a past that never was rivals that of Walt Disney–and I think it fair to say both are obsessed with bygone eras and far-flung futures and care not a whit for the present day.   You gotta believe Ray has a rich fantasy life and I’d kill to be able to walk into one of his dreams.

Ray Bradbury’s stories are reflections of the man…just as Lovecraft’s tales reveal a twisted, inner psyche and Wodehouse’s lengthy canon a yearning for a well-ordered paradigm where the worst thing that can happen to a person is an accidental betrothal.

And as for me…hmmm.  I think there’s a similar desire to impose some kind of cohesion or logic to a world I regard with more than a little cynicism and disapprobation.  In the early part of my career, I wrote almost exclusively about characters who were somehow disenfranchised, powerless, marginalized.   I approached those tales from the point of view of victims and that says something about my childhood and formative years.  The fears that besieged and threatened to overwhelm me.

But in the past five years or so I’ve noticed that my characters have gotten tougher, taking control over their lives, no longer cowering in the face of their oppressors.  And I think that change was accompanied by a great deal of healing as well as a better balance in my brain chemistry.  At 46, except for the inevitable bad days (no one can avoid them), I’m feeling pretty good.   Well enough that I can talk candidly about my secret places in a radio play like “The First Room“.   No longer having to avert my eyes, try to think of anything but.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m still as neurotic and nutty as ever, it’s just that I’ve come to terms with my inner loon.

I think my continuing survival is actually a very positive life lesson.  If someone with my childhood, my psychological problems, my genetic history, can manage to make it this far, there’s hope for anyone.  My writing saved and redeemed me and if you’re out there, dangling by a thread, there’s something for you too, something to pull you up from the precipice.  Trust me.

And not only have I survived, I’ve thrived.  Over the years I’ve taken on the roles of husband and father and that has equipped me with better coping skills and patience to deal with the frictions that are inevitable in any close personal relationship, no matter how loving and supportive.  Those childhood fears and insecurities crop up in funny places and so does the anger, the rage of a kid who is powerless; a witness, an accomplice, a victim, a pawn of larger, darker forces.

I mentioned the bad days, those intervals where reason and balance seem to flee from me.  It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to (thank God) and the bouts of fury and despair are no where near as intense.  I find myself raging against the small chores and obligations that are part and parcel of daily life, chafe at an off-the-cuff comment, smolder because some small, petty desire has been denied me.  Until the feelings pass, I retreat to my office, read, meditate, listen to extremely loud music, waiting for the worst of it to be over.

These fits usually coincide with some “down time” in my writing, any period when I don’t have a big project in front of me.  I simply have to be doing something every single day…or my mind begins to turn on me.  Most people around me view me as a terrible workaholic, too driven and consumed by my calling; they don’t understand that it’s the writing that keeps my demons at bay.  All those long hours I spend in that other place, the worlds I construct from memories, epiphanies and passing impressions.  They sustain me, are a crucial article of my faith.  Without that outlet…I shudder to think.

I’m not saying mine is necessarily a healthy lifestyle.  I’ve read the reports that warn of the health risks of a sedentary existence; I definitely should get outside more, stretch and exercise.  Often, when I’m really locked into a project, I forget to eat, barely aware of the passage of time.  That can’t be good.

But I also know that because of the way I live my life–on my terms, with few accommodations to outside influences–I’ve managed to spend the last decade or so (for the most part) in a state approaching happiness.  Is it a trade-off?  I think so.

Without the ability to shut off the world and use my office as a portal to possibility, amazement, redemption and hope I would never have lasted this long.  I truly believe my fantasy life is key to my continuing survival.  When the stories run out, I’m finished.

I think the other fellows know what I’m talking about.  I ponder the life of Ray Bradbury–I know he’s had some health setbacks and that has affected his legendary productivity.  But at 90+ years, he’s still telling tall tales, even if someone else has to take dictation and type them up for him.  Each day he commutes to that place where his visions dwell.  His fortress of solitude.  Sitting in a comfortable chair, barely able to see but hardly sightless.  His gaze far, far away.  In Green River or navigating the Valles Marineris; lost in a funhouse or at the helm of a gleaming rocketship, bound for the stars.

After all, nothing is impossible if we allow ourselves to think with the mind of a child.  Experience has not yet affected one so young and no one can convince them that dreams can’t ever come true.

14 comments

  1. Cliff Burns

    Thanks for the kind words, Michael. And please keep me posted as to all your future endeavors; yours is the kind of mind we need more of in cyberspace; you truly are a far-seer.

  2. Belle Starr

    Love the journey Clifford.

    as a long time reader I have to say I have enjoyed the journey so far.
    IMHO Sex and Other Acts of the Imagination has stood the test of time, I continue to enjoy your mastery of creating a world in such a short few words, grabbing the reader by the throat and leave em …. well…any way you want basically…
    Your longer and more recent works, Righteous Blood and So Dark the Night are perhaps more the subtle knife than the rapier? Your more recent work long and short is more complex to my way of thinking. All very enjoyable.

    … the Muse has taken her toll from your hide…if it was easy they would all damn do it! Nice to know she gives back as well…
    Love the journey

  3. Cliff Burns

    You’ve been there all along, m’dear. Thanks for reading me and holding my odd oeuvre in such high esteem. It means a helluva lot to this ol’ scribbler…

  4. driftlessareareview

    Hey Cliff,

    Great post. Inspiring, especially to another akin to having Bad Days. Your description of Ilium sounds strikingly similar to our Great Republic in the Objectivist Backwash of the Sage Greenspan and his Libertarian Minions. At least Mordor had a decent health care system.

    Never compromise and never let the bastards grind you down. So long as the asocial buffoons and their nostalgia don’t contaminate the history books — I have no problem with nostalgia in fiction — I’ll be a happy camper. Or at least less monumentally disappointed and choking on my bile.

  5. inkspeare

    Your words are so true, OMG. Every aspiring writing should read this. It paints a perfect picture. I still believe there is a Muse – because sometimes, the words write themselves, like you said – eerie.

  6. Cliff Burns

    Yes, I think every writer who really applies themselves understands that sometimes, when the stars are in proper alignment and the Muse amenable, something truly magical can transpire. For me, it happens instantaneously: one moment I’m pacing about the office…and then two hours later I look up from my desk, 1,000 words scribbled out in my own handwriting right there in front of me, and I have only the dimmest recollection of sitting down and commencing work. Woooo…the hairs on my arms are standing up just thinking about it.

    Thanks for the note.

  7. The Necromancer

    There is a certain genius in being able to create a world of fantasy so vivid that one prefers it to the real. But as the saying goes, it’s a fine line between genius and madness…

  8. EeLeenLee

    Great inspiring post!
    Some writers don’t have a fully realised fantasy life, I’ve met aspiring fantasy. sci-fi writers who can’t envisioned the worlds they’ve created for themselves. “Don’t give up that day job yet…”

  9. driftlessareareview

    Most fantasy writers have never created new worlds for themselves. They let JRR Tolkien do all the heavy lifting, then change the names, and pretend that smacks of originality.

    And I’m sick of hearing the lack of originality defended by the genre’s fanboy apologists. Yes, there’s a certain degree of sameness within the genre (the Quest, the Chosen One, etc.), but come on, people! Shake it up a bit. Mix and match.

    “Avatar” smacks of unorginality and audience manipulation; “the Dark Crystal” is a fantasy classic. You’re smart, you’re intelligent. You do the math.

    And since I’m on a mini-rant here, I’d like to see Young Adult authors actually not talk down to their audience. As a kid, I loved Roald Dahl movies (Willy Wonka, Witches) and Terry Gilliam. Stop making everything so goddamn NICE and INOFFENSIVE and FAMILY-FRIENDLY. Maybe kids are taking weapons to school to cut down their classmates because the books being written for them are buttery condescending literary abortions.

    “Don’t touch it. It’s Evil!”

    Where are a gang of little people with a Time Map from God when you need them?

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