It’s an annual ritual, dating back more than two decades.
Right after Christmas I sit down and take stock of the past year, assaying it in terms of the quality and quantity of work I’ve composed, what I feel I accomplished and where I fell short. This assessment is rarely kind: I can be awfully hard on myself. On that point, I’m not alone:
“It is now sixteen years since my first book was published and about twenty-one years since I started publishing articles in magazines…There has literally been not one day in which I did not feel that I was idling, that I was behind with the current job, and that my total output was miserably small. Even at the periods when I was working ten hours a day on a book, or turning out four or five articles a week, I have never been able to get away from this neurotic feeling.”
George Orwell wrote those words in a notebook he kept during the last year of his life. His heroic work ethic unquestionably contributed to his early demise; this fact is not lost on me. You can literally write yourself to death.
Cheery thought, innit?
But I’m not going to let my neuroses get in the way of celebrating a productive and creative year. Not me. No, sirree. I mean, I should be pleased with what I accomplished and a fair summary of 2007 would probably go something like this:
It was, to my mind, a year of retrenchment and learning. Retrenchment in that I finished a couple of longstanding projects and, re: the latter, thanks to my blog I got a real education as to the scope and limits of technology and came to a clearer understanding of the possibilities inherent in cyberspace.
I get the sense that during this past year I was tooling up, doing my utmost to marshal and focus my skills, honing them to razor sharpness.
Preparing for things to come…
The high points:
- In the early part of 2007 I completed final edits on Voiceworks. It’s a thin volume (71 pages), made up of 50 or 60 of my favorite monologues and short, spoken word pieces. The material is drawn from the past twenty years and includes offerings like “Cranes” and “A.I.” and a number of monologues from The Break (my one-act play).
- I finally put the finishing touches on my Redbook poetry collection (so named because of the red notebook I scribble the first drafts into). Sherron helped me paste it onto the background I wanted and it looks great. This one took a mere decade to whittle and pare into shape.
- Revised two older stories, fleshing them out and coming up with luvly new versions of “Adult Children” and “Matriarchy”. I especially treasure the latter and was pleased when CBC Radio producer Kelley Jo Burke picked it up for broadcast on “Gallery” (air date: October 27, 2007).
- Sewed up the movie deal for “Kept”, acting as my own agent and going through about twenty drafts of the contract with the increasingly frustrated producers and screenwriter. Used the Writers Guild of America’s model contract to help me restrict the option period, secure compensation for sequels and remakes, protect literary rights, etc. A time-consuming, frustrating, annoying, nerve-wracking process but it got done and now we’ll see what happens.
- I revised a few of the short stories from my venerable (1990) short story collection Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination. It gave me the chance to tighten up the prose and fix the last line of “The Cattletruck”, which never seemed right to me. The new versions are leaner, tighter, superior to the originals. Worth the weeks of murderous edits.
- In March, I finally heeded Sherron’s prompting and allowed her set up this blog. Beautiful Desolation. One of the smartest decisions I ever made. Started out as an experiment, a lark. And then it grew and grew as I added rants, commentaries, reviews, loaded on stories that hadn’t seen the light of day for years, an excerpt from the best unpublished novel kicking around (So Dark the Night). Presently, we find ourselves victims of our own success. Far more hits than we expected, people expecting new content on a regular basis—sheesh. So we’ve expanded the site and intend to utilize new publish on demand and podcasting technologies to…well, there are big plans afoot and we’ll leave it there. Stay tuned.
- But the absolute best thing to happen (writing-wise) in 2007 was undoubtedly finally summoning up the nerve to commence work on a longer effort, my novella “Of the Night”. Took every ounce of courage and willpower I had to stick with it but I did (thank you, Creator). You’ll be hearing more about this one in the months to come. Sherron loved the draft I gave her just before Christmas and I see big things ahead for this 160-page, 40,000 word beauty.
* * * * * *
When I actually list what I’ve done in the past 365 days, at first blush it seems like a pretty significant amount of work. What do you expect, I write every day, often failing to pace myself, working overtime to the detriment of my fingers, shoulders and back (to say nothing of my mental state).
But when I stack myself up against some of the truly prolific writers out there, I’m a time-waster, a lazy, itinerant asshole. Look at the sheer amount of titles folks like L.E. Modesitt, Kevin Anderson, Timothy Zahn or Robert Jordan can thrash out. These guys have bibliographies that would choke a fucking stegosaurus. How do they do it? I’m not talking about the quality of the work, I mean how can they physically produce that amount of prose, year after year? How can they put out so many pages a day when I can manage only a fraction of that while maintaining a schedule that sucks my strength down to the last dregs? How? How? How?
“What we write with difficulty is written with more care, engraves itself more deeply…”
Well, all right, granted, there’s that. The guys I just mentioned aren’t exactly literary stylists, straining to compose brilliant sentences, so lyrical they practically serenade you from the page. They’re hacks and their readers have minimum expectations when it comes to their work.
But what about authors like Anthony Burgess, Joyce Carol Oates and William T. Vollmann? They produce(d) a flood of pages every year and, for the most part, have secured their literary reputations and earned the highest awards in the land. Hugo, Balzac, Stendhal, Dumas pere et fils—huge canons, literary immortals.
It baffles me. Are they that much smarter, more efficient, better focussed than I am? While I struggle and grope for words, does the prose flow from their hands, whole chapters emerging fully formed, committed to the page with hardly a correction? Didn’t I read somewhere that Kevin Anderson dictates most of his books into a tape recorder and has them transcribed later?
My mind reels at the thought. If I did the same thing, the best I would likely manage would be a few constipated groans and a string of scatological profanities. And that’s on a good day…
I know it’s ridiculous to draw parallels between my career and that of other authors—everyone is unique, each of us a prisoner of psychology, circumstance and other factors harder to label and categorize. But the whole physical aspect fascinates me—I completed a good draft of my novella in about 3 1/2 months. I worked on that novel from the first week of September until Christmas, taking only 2 days off for Thanksgiving. 160 pages. Some of these fantasy fucks can excrete the equivalent over a long weekend. Knock out a novelization in a month or six weeks to help pay the rent….
(Long, drawn out sigh.)
But you knew me better than that…
I know…I’ll close off my last posting of 2007 by listing the things I’m grateful for, the people who remind me life is worth living and some of the stuff that redeems my boring and uneventful existence:
God. Yup, I’m serious. I am inspired and sustained and strengthened by the knowledge that my life, my work is serving the aims of a conscious, enigmatic Creator, an entity encompassing every square nanometer of our universe and a similar proportion of the other 10 dimensions currently thought to exist. So there.
Family. Couldn’t do it without you. Sher, boys, thanks for everything.
Friends. The people who care for me despite my long silences and busy schedule, who stick around despite my inattentiveness, who persist in believing in me against all evidence to the contrary.
Writing. Obvious, huh? But writing isn’t only about putting words on paper; it’s also prayer. It’s when I feel closest to my Creator—often, when my talent and resolve falter, something takes control and gets me back on track again. How many times have a looked up from a paragraph in wonder, not remembering having composed it? Those are the moments I live and pine for…
Books. I’ve repeatedly insisted the printed word saved my life and I mean it. God bless you Arthur Conan Doyle and Philip K. Dick and L. Frank Baum and William S. Burroughs and Cormac McCarthy and Homer and Franklyn W. Dixon…
Music. Soothes this savage beast like nothing else. Electronica, soundtracks, alternative, metal…and Glen Campbell singing “Wichita Lineman”.
Movies. Not as many as the old days, just not enough time. But doing my best to see some of the classics I’ve missed, discovering for myself the genius and vision of artists like F.W. Murnau, Tati, Georges Henri Clouzot and Val Lewton…
Sports. Every Saturday night (from September to June) finds me in front of the TV set, watching the nationally broadcast hockey game (a rite going back about, oh, 40 years or so). Whenever I can, I try to squeeze a few quarters of a CFL football game in between marathon revision sessions. I’m a frustrated athlete, if I died and could be reborn as anyone, it would be Joe Montana, two minutes left in the game, the ’Niners on our own ten yard line…
Radio. Old tyme radio dramas, CBC documentaries and features, BBC World Service…the possibilities nearly endless since we started piping in high speed internet. Radio Moscow anyone? NPR…
Art. Blame Sherron for this one too—every so often words fail me and only a visual image will suffice. Collage, acrylic paint, short films…over the past few years I’ve dabbled in just about everything. Sher’s a great teacher in that she does the best she can despite her student’s ineptitude.
Canada. I really do live in the best country in the world. I bag about the stupid cultural bureaucrats and the mediocrity I see all around me…but, cripes, I’m free to speak my mind, there’s nobody strapping a bomb to his ass and hopping on a bus behind me, nobody telling me what to think or say…my home and native land. I despair for it sometimes but I wouldn’t trade citizenship with anyone, anywhere.
You. Didn’t think I’d leave that out, did you? If you’re a repeat visitor or if this is the first time you’ve popped by—don’t matter, I’m grateful to you for seeking me out. The amount of “hits” this year surprised me and convinced me that there’s a potential audience out there, smart folk with an appreciation for good writing, good company and who appreciate (or, at least, tolerate) a certain amount of hyperbole and/or satire. Hang around because there’s more good stuff coming in 2008. A change in format, lots of new material including—
Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself again. But I’m really excited about what the next year will bring. I have a strong hunch 2008 is gonna be a good one.
And I sincerely hope it’s the same for you.
Two weeks into intensive revisions on my novella and every distraction, everything that pulls me away from the fictional world I am in the process of creating, is infuriating. The mundanities of life require attention—paying the bills, attending parent-teacher meetings—but I am resentful of such “trivialities”. When I’m focused on a project, my solipsism becomes downright scary. I forget to eat, wear the same clothes, grow a beard, drift through the house like a blind cat (present, but unseeing). Hour after hour up in my office, leaving only to use the washroom or grab something (anything!) to eat. I suffer withdrawal symptoms when away from my imaginary creations for even short periods of time. I pine for my characters. I miss their voices. Often find it difficult to follow dinner table conversations, occasionally forced to feign an interest in what my wife and sons are saying. A hard admission to make.
I am utterly immersed in this novella. For eight to ten hours a day I walk around in it and breathe the same air as its inhabitants. When I’m not working, I get the feeling that my characters remain in limbo, awaiting my return. There are divided loyalties, a sense of being stuck between two realities, the disorientation that results from that, confusion, my office door opening to a hallway I don’t recognize at first…
During these times, I have no interest in interacting with the outside world. I care little for consensual reality, ordinary rules and conventions; sometimes I go days without leaving the house. That is my entire universe and, believe me, it’s a whole lot bigger than it looks from the outside. My office is maybe 10 X 12 but its physical specifications are irrelevant. It is a cramped space capsule and time machine all rolled into one.
Viewed dispassionately, I lead a pretty dull and ritualized existence. I do nothing outside of reading and writing and hanging out with my family. I have no social life and a limited circle of friends and acquaintances, most of whom I’ve known for a long time. I challenge any future biographer to scrape up enough worthwhile material to fill a short article, let alone a fucking book. Good luck concocting something of interest with daybook entries like this:
Slept poorly (siege dreams again)
Into office immediately–Coffee
Break for lunch
No decent mail
Good progress today
Boys home/ Sher home
Supper (shepherd’s pie)
Few more edits
Crash with book/ in bed 11:00 p.m.
And that goes on for pages and pages and pages…
That’s my life. And that’s why I need that ability to project myself into the worlds I fashion one word at a time. Because my daily routine is so unbelievably fucking tedious and boring, it would kill a sane man. Retreating into fantasy is coping behavior, plain and simple. If I didn’t have this crazy, vivid imagination of mine I would’ve gone off my nut ages ago. I’d have never made it out of childhood.
Thanks, G.F., and I appreciate that, but I also recall writers like Lawrence (T.E. and D.H.) and Isherwood and Graves and Grahame Greene and Anthony Burgess, world travelers and brilliant diarists, leading fascinating lives and growing vast reputations. Their long shadows still touch us today.
Is this it for me? Sitting in this room day after day, composing sentences, stringing them into stories or novels, producing vast reams of paperwork to little actual effect? A recent journal entry touches a sore point, my terror of being a man of no consequence. Making no mark, leaving nothing noteworthy or commendable behind me. As faceless and anonymous as a body tangled in a mass grave.
There’s a sense now that I’ve got to break out of this rut, seek new experiences, engage with the big, wide world and see what that inspires. Inevitably this brings up thoughts of travel. Are my fictional settings becoming too constricted and too familiar? Would some exotic backdrops lend a little something extra to my tales? Is this cloistered, claustrophobic existence I’m leading stunting my growth as an author and artist?
“The clouds change. The seasons pass over our woods and fields in their slow and regular procession, and time is gone before you are aware of it. In one sense, we are always traveling and traveling as if we did not know where we were going. In another sense, we have already arrived.” (Thomas Merton)
I need change. I crave it. A door opening. Opportunity knocking. A thrown bone. A crumb of praise. Signs of hope. A phone call out of the blue. Something completely unexpected and scary and exciting. To make my heart race. To break this terrible thrall…