Building character through self-flagellation

I am my worst critic.

This site sees the occasional troll drop by, looking to unload some abuse before they go on their merry way.  Believe me, nothing they say comes close to the punishments I inflict on myself for various real, perceived or imagined sins and crimes.  Offenses against literature, my family, fellow human beings, God…oh, yes, I am a serious transgressor.  Probably should be burned at the stake:  move over, Mr. Bruno, make room for a real bad guy.

This past weekend was one of those occasions when I took myself to task, first raking my personality over the coals (lots of material there), then mounting a sustained attack on my writing ability.

The latter hurt much, much more.

I can live with being pompous, unforgiving, ruthless, cowardly, unkind, cruel…but telling me I suck as an author cuts me to the quick.

Weird. I turned professional in 1985 with a couple of big short story sales, plus I received a Canada Council grant that year to write a collection of tales on the theme of nuclear war.  I was riding high, well on my way to a long, successful writing career. Fast forward 27 years and I’m still berating myself for not being good enough, not writing with sufficient power and conviction to earn a decent reading audience. Christ, look at those pitiful Amazon sales—right now my books are scoring lower with readers than the guy who composed the life story of his pet turtle in Alexandrine couplets.

Another part of my brain plaintively opines that it’s not about the money, it’s about writing the books that need to be written, good books, literary offerings not constrained by market trends or readers’ expectations.  And then the prissy little voice sharpens, reminding me I’m not scoring very well on that count either, that my books aren’t smart or original or stylistically daring. I’m not an innovator, I’m a pale imitation of my literary heroes.

Books not selling, readers indifferent, preferring to spend their hard-earned shekels on dry-humping teen vampires and spank me-fuck me fan fiction. Not a brilliant stylist, so I can’t even hope for the consolations of posterity.

Why bother? Why keep going on? Why keep subjecting my mind, body and spirit the the daily grind of putting words on paper?

I spent most of Saturday in this mode and devoted all of Sunday to recovering from my self-imposed funk. Yesterday evening my wife and I went for a walk in the hills near our town, just to help me breathe and reintegrate myself. I talked to Sherron about my frustrations, aired some of my fears and complaints. She gave me a fair hearing, then glanced over, smiling. “You know what the final result will be,” she teased. “What, you’re going to quit writing and get a job at a 7-11? Just to prove you’re a bread-winner?”

And I had to grin. Of course, it’s a foolish notion. She cut through my bullshit and subterfuge with a few well-chosen words.

I’ve known Sherron longer than I’ve been a pro writer. I would go so far to say I’m a pro writer because of Sherron. Before I met her my work was inner directed, self-indulgent…really quite appalling. But she opened me up to a wider world of life, experience, art, helping transform me into a better person and a better author. She is my greatest source of support, refusing to acknowledge the possibility that I might not be a literary genius. I am and that’s that. Her faith bucking me up, insulating me against all the insecurity and self-loathing I bring to bear on myself. She knows me better than anyone else so who am I to argue?

Quit writing? What an absurd proposition. It would be easier to quit eating or drawing air into my lungs. It’s my curse, my fate, my destiny to spend most of my waking life isolated, alone, scribbling words in notebooks, arranging and rearranging them until something pleasing suggests itself.  And then going on to the next project…and the next…and the next…

I can protest, piss and moan about it, but in the end I will be compelled to enter my small office, plop myself down in this black, high-backed chair and commence work. Nothing else will suffice. There’s no replacement, no substitution, no possibility of a mid-life career change.

Hello, my name is Cliff Burns, I’m forty-eight years old and I’m a writer.

And I always will be.


  1. inkspeare

    Your wife is a wise woman and she obviously knows what is best for you – listen to her ;)
    Write because you love it, because it is what you must do, let the reader find your work – who has to read it, will read it – otherwise it wouldn’t have been written (I truly believe that). Forget about everything else – vampires, best sellers … to each its own (I truly believe this too), oh and even that without money we cannot eat and buy things (it has become as the air we breathe) forget about it too, and eventually it will come, only because it is not a focus anymore (I believe this too). Many times, readers want to read many authors, but money is very tight and of course, has to be prioritized (believe me, there are tons of authors I want to read, and tons of books I want to own). Who knows, you might have many readers with your works on their wish list, and eventually they will be able to read your works. My sincere best success wishes and respect.

  2. Cliff Burns

    Thanks for the kind response.

    God knows what I’d do without Sher–she and my sons are sometimes the only things that make life worth living.

    Write on…

  3. mikecane

    Oh, FFS, Cliff.

    “Among illiterates money is regarded as the measuring rod for all things: for friendship, goodness, education, power, love.” — Auto-da-Fé by Elias Canetti

  4. Cliff Burns

    Moriah: glad I’m not alone in the abyss.

    It’s not as simple as “art vs. commerce”, is it? It’s far more insidious than that. I want to create works that offer fresh perspectives, that don’t tell the same old tales or adhere to tried and true formulas. I want to write quality literature…and that raises the bar significantly higher than, say, if I was a romance writer or zombie splatter guy. The pressure my standards of excellence impose on me are bad enough, but then toss in the indisputable fact that my tales and short stories, even after more than two and a half decades, still haven’t found many readers, my status that of a minor “cult” writer…yeesh, those “long, dark nights of the soul” begin to look gloomier and gloomier.

    But what other choice do I have? I’m lost without a pen in my hand, an idea forming in my head. That sudden burst of inspiration, a blue-white bolt from the ether…God, how could I possibly live without that?

  5. Cliff Burns

    Great piece, Mike.

    And, you’re right, if you’re serious about being a writer, you have to think longterm.

    And so I’ll just keep on keepin’ on.

    Thanks, bro.

  6. MoriahJovan

    I want to write quality literature…and that raises the bar significantly higher than, say, if I was a romance writer or zombie splatter guy.

    Well, there went all my sympathy… ;)

    Look, I write romance. I know tons of romance authors who write cutting-edge, smart stuff whose work never sees the light of day because they chase The Call and nobody wants that.

    Even some of the lowest, most formula of formula romance is better than the bonkfest you referenced. But the people buying it don’t know that what they’re reading is a bad Harlequin Presents with a bit of rather vanilla-ish kink badly portrayed.

    So how do you think a romance writer who can’t write faster than a book every 2 years, who puts thought and effort into her work and DIDN’T STEAL ANYBODY’S WORK feels?

  7. Cliff Burns

    But…I think you’d agree writing genre fiction doesn’t require the level of scrutiny and critical thinking that composing something on the literary side does. I sympathize with you to some extent but I’ve worked both sides of that particular street, plus I’m a fan of thrillers and hard-boiled detective fiction, but that stuff just ain’t in the ballpark of work like Anthony Burgess’ EARTHLY POWERS, William Vollmann’s EUROPE CENTRAL, Colson Whitehead’s THE INTUITIONIST or any novel by Thomas Pynchon. No one (especially writers) likes to talk about a hierarchy of fiction but there’s a whole order of difference between J.K. Rowling or Stephen King and, say, James Joyce.

    In my humble opinion.

  8. Moriah Jovan

    I think you’d agree writing genre fiction doesn’t require the level of scrutiny and critical thinking that composing something on the literary side does

    That is a debate I don’t care to have, since I can come up with all sorts of examples of mediocre to bad genre fiction retreads posing as literary fiction and true literary greatness posing as genre.

    That said, I’ll give Stephenie Meyer a pass because, no matter how badly written, TWILIGHT was cracktastic and the point of fiction is to tell a story. Good storytelling trumps all technical ability.

    What I canNOT do is give EL James a pass because she ripped somebody else off, exploited the fanbase of the ripped-off artist’s work, then turned around and slammed those fans. Is she a true storyteller? I don’t know. Neither does she, nor does she seem to care.

  9. Cliff Burns

    I DON’T give Stephenie Meyer a pass because she’s sub-literate, with the writing skills of a Grade Nine diarist. Plus, she basically wrote “Buffy the Vampire Humper”. Originality? Er, no. And her syntax is a sin against the English language.

    Ian Sales has written a good post about the differences between good books and bad books, which spawned an interesting debate on his site. Ian states that there are objective criteria to fine writing that separate literature from the rest of the pack. And I couldn’t agree more.

  10. MoriahJovan

    I DON’T give Stephenie Meyer a pass because she’s sub-literate, with the writing skills of a Grade Nine diarist.

    You’re right. And yet…a publisher chose to publish her (and chose not to edit her, either, but whatevs). That was the gamble and it paid off. (The next question, then, is WHY did it pay off?)

    What was NOT the gamble was the stolen work of a proven marketer, and therein lies the difference of sin to me.

    I do know something about objective bases for good literature (went to school for it and everything). However, please note I did not call TWILIGHT good literature. It’s even in a genre I know less than nothing about.

    Cliff, I don’t really know what we’re arguing about. To me, this isn’t a genre issue. It’s a bad-writing issue, and blanket statements about genre versus high literature are distracting.

    The issue is: People like crap. They’ll pay for crap. Lefsetz bemoans this all the time in the music industry with bubble-gum pop Auto-Tuned crap. Good TV shows get canceled in favor of yet-another-idiot-asshole-dad-with-hot-wife crap. I’m not even entirely sure they CARE if what they’re consuming is good or not–and that’s where my insecurity starts.

  11. Cliff Burns

    Agreed–the other matters were a discussion for a different time, a different post.

    I think we probably share a lot of common ground in terms of our aspirations to be the best writers we can possibly be.

    Write on…

  12. mikecane

    >>>But…I think you’d agree writing genre fiction doesn’t require the level of scrutiny and critical thinking that composing something on the literary side does.

    Oh now you went and got MY back up too! That’s such a load of crap, Cliff. In fact, what was once “literature” is now seen as genre — Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Hugo. You know what genre they’re now in? “Classics.” And who writes like them today? GENRE writers. When Poe wrote one of the first mysteries, do you really think he was thinking, “This is a new genre”? Hell no. MARKETEERS put him there. And who threw Harlan Ellison and Philip K. Dick in the SF genre? Again, MARKETEERS. Dick and Ellison aren’t seen as “genre” in France! And France should damn well know, having produced its share of immortal writers.

    As for Romance, hell, I could argue that “genre” helped *create* the eBook marketplace. Those women have been — and still are — so far out on the cutting edge that publishers still haven’t caught up. If Amazon ever implodes, it’ll be the Romance adherents that will save eBooks, not any Big 6 publisher. And there are writers in that genres who ARE writers, not just typists panning for gold in a field. They prefer to deal with an emotional side in literature that’s FOR women, which no man really can ever address.

    Thus endeth the sermon.

  13. Cliff Burns

    Bang that pulpit, Mike.

    We’ll have this chat in another post. As for me, I keep my Dick strictly separated from my Balzac.

    Switching to jockey shorts helped…

  14. Annika Howells

    I’m half your age and only just published, so I’m still young and naive and stupidly optimistic that somehow this will all work out for me. But you’re right, it’s not about success as measured by others. Writing is in our nature, and you can’t change or ignore it.

  15. Cliff Burns

    In the “freeconomy” it will be hard for young writers to make a go of it. Landing a big contract is as likely as winning a lottery…and the sad truth is, the worst writers have a better chance of getting published than the best. If you’re getting into this line of work, it must be with the understanding that there are many poor, thankless, unrewarding years ahead, perhaps decades, and there’s no guarantee of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. If you’re not writing out of love, for the pure joy of concocting a tale that isn’t at least twice-told, it really isn’t worth the pain and hardship you will have to endure.

    Best of luck with your endeavors and I wish you a long and successful career.

  16. mikecane

    Yeah, we’ve been down this road (and The Road, heh) before. I came back to see your reply but also because Bradbury died today and Gaiman rightly said this about him:

    >>>He was a genre on his own, and on his own terms. A young man from Waukegan, Illinois, who went to Los Angeles, educated himself in libraries, and wrote until he got good, then transcended genre and became a genre of one; often emulated, absolutely inimitable.

    When Bradbury wrote for the pulps, he was probably disdained. Then he became a “genre of one.”

    I have no problems with crap for several reasons, among which are:

    1) It’s better people read than *not* read

    2) What other people write has no real effect on me or other writers (if the “bad” books didn’t exist, you really think the “good” ones would suddenly sell big? I don’t think so. People would play more games or watch more TV)

    3) Everyone — everyone — starts out reading crap. The kind of “crap” a young fella named Bradbury once did for the pulps.

    Just frikkin write what only *you* can write and ignore the :bad.”

  17. Cliff Burns

    Yep, there was only one Ray.

    “A genre of one”. That about sums him up. Pale imitators need not apply.

    Always glad to see you swing by, chum.

  18. Preet Rau

    Hmm it looks like your website ate my first comment (it was super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I submitted and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog.

    I as well am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to the whole thing. Do you have any tips for beginner blog writers? I’d certainly appreciate it.

  19. Cliff Burns

    Be honest, humble and amusing. Try to present a point of view that is unique, keep your posts under 500 words, use pictures, tell us (or show us) something that we haven’t seen before.

    Hope you enjoy blogging and have something important to add to the community.

    Best of luck to you.

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