While I’m otherwise occupied, feel free to enjoy two of my recent ambient tunes.
The second, longer piece is an extended version of the soundtrack music for my new short film “Exoplanet”.
Writers who put great stock in their editing know exactly what I’m talking about. You can obsessively work on a piece to near irrationality, trying to get the sound, the tone exactly right. Note perfect.
The art, after all, is not in the initial act of creation, it’s how you shape and hone the material afterward. Can’t tell you how many books or short stories I’ve read where I had to give credit for the originality of a concept or approach, only to see that uniqueness surrounded, besieged and eventually defeated by drab, unremarkable prose; featureless, uncolored sentences, bereft of rhythm, dumb as stone.
Right from the beginning, I wanted to tell my stories as simply as I could, in as few words as possible. I loathe long reams of description or exposition, what some of my colleagues call “info dumping”. Conversely, I love snappy dialogue and believe that a brief conversation between two people reveals far more about them than five pages of backstory.
I take the editing process to ridiculous extremes. Exceptions & Deceptions includes (at least at this point) around twenty stories culled from the past fifteen years. Most have been previously published but that doesn’t mean I can’t go in and “touch them up”. I’m a different writer than I was back then, a better writer. I’ve raised the bar a number of times since I began the oldest story more than a decade and a half ago.
I’m also a tougher, more demanding editor.
So I’ve really been putting these nineteen tales through their paces, demanding that every word, every syllable be accounted for.
It’s a tiring process. Make that exhausting (more descriptive and accurate). Three months of poring over three hundred manuscript pages, running through them again and again, watching and listening for anything the slightest bit off-key . Going at it day and night, seven days a week. Falling into bed utterly spent, knowing the collection will be the first thing to pop into my head when I open my eyes in seven or eight hours.
But, honestly, I don’t think it’s as bad as it used to be. I pace myself a bit better these days. Take frequent short breaks, stretch, go for walks. Shut down my brain earlier, try to unwind with a movie or good book in the evening. I go for a massage occasionally and sometimes Sherron will set up our big, clunky table, give my shoulders and lower back a solid working over. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the woman has healing hands.
Over the past few years, I’ve been making a concerted effort to break this cycle of artistic self-abuse. Thanks to tools like Garageband and iMovie, I’ve been able to expand my horizons to other disciplines and, with Sherron’s encouragement, I’ve been applying myself to more visual art: painting, collage, photography. I’ve periodically posted samples of my film and music experiments, the ones that don’t blow up and end up wrecking my secret lab. I no longer rely on the printed word solely to express myself…and I think that’s a healthy development. Might even literally be a life-saver.
However, I sense that no matter what steps I take, writing will always take a toll on me. I want to be an author of stature, respected by my peers, acknowledged and sought after by intelligent, discerning readers. Placing those kinds of expectations on yourself as you commence each new poem, play, novel, short story is bound to create enormous creative tensions, which might translate into fine work, but are also accompanied by certain rather distressing emotional and physical side effects. Trust me.
That said, I have to stop equating the creative process with torture. There has to be a happy medium. I have to approach my work more playfully and allow myself the very human possibility of failure. I don’t want my fiction to become so perfect, polished and tight it’s almost robotic.
Recognize my writing for the blessing it is, rather than a curse that exacts nothing but pain and toil.
Yes, a blessing. A gift. A calling.
So, if that’s the case, what’s with all the angst?
When words no longer suffice, I click on Garageband and commence work on some atmospheric, ambient melange, usually employing at least a dozen tracks before I’m satisfied the result is sufficiently whacked out and spacey. I’ve posted the best stuff on my Audio page and you’re welcome to listen to it, download…have at it.
A couple of years ago I got it into my head to write a murder ballad. I was raised on Johnny Cash and Hank Snow—one of the first tunes I can remember hearing is Johnny’s spooky version of “The Long Black Veil”.
I think I had that song in the back of my head as I sat down and wrote out the words to “Poor Mary”. The song wrote itself very quickly—I recall there were only two or three drafts. But once I finished, it was head-scratching time. What in the name of God was I going to do with the bloody thing now? I can’t read or write music, can’t play an instrument.
Ah, but I’m fortunate enough to have a pal who can pick and strum and carry a tune. So I handed the lyric sheet over to Laird Brittin and asked him if it was possible to create an actual song out of the few lines of poetry I’d composed. He liked the lyrics and came back with an arrangement that is nothing less than stunning. If you like “Poor Mary”, the vast majority of the credit goes to Laird, who truly found the perfect “sound” for the piece.
To give the tune a listen (it’s only three minutes and some long), click on the following link:
This happens to be my 200th blog post and I can think of no better way of commemorating that milestone than releasing “Poor Mary”.
Special thanks to Laird for recording, arranging and mixing this version.
My appreciation, as well, to the many, many folks who still make a regular habit of stopping by this blog and checking out my take on “the writing life”. It ain’t a particularly rewarding or empowering existence/vocation, but I’ve never regretted my decision to go the “indie” route.
It takes its toll but if this approach allows me to fully express myself as an artist, as someone with a unique perspective on the multiverse, I’ll accept the consequences, come what may.
And, hey, if I get to occasionally turn my hand to songwriting, come up with something as fun and enjoyable (and good) as “Poor Mary”, then all I can say is fucking bring it on.
“Poor Mary” © Copyright, 2010 by Laird Brittin & Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
No commercial use of this song is permitted.
Usually in vain.
I’ve described my writing “career” as something of a train wreck and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. I lurch from project to project, with absolutely no conception of how to “market” or promote myself, zero interest in shilling for my work, peddling it around like an itinerant vacuum cleaner salesman. My writing doesn’t comfortably fit any niche, veering from genre to genre, encompassing everything from radio plays, to short films, ambient music and spoken word pieces. My last two novels were supernatural thrillers, my latest is an old fashioned western. Huh?
But that’s the glorious thing about the new technologies that have sprouted up in the past few years. They allow creative types to try their hand at a variety of disciplines, expressing themselves through different media. I don’t discriminate between my various projects, no matter what form they take. They all reflect my interests, fears, fixations and dreams. They all originate in the labyrinthine depths of my mind.
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Thanks to one and all who have stuck it out thus far. Popped in to this site for a quick look…and then lingered, read more and more of the entries, downloaded big swathes of my writing or tuned in to some of the weird music I’ve made available for free listening and downloading.
Through this blog I’ve become familiar with good folks and sharp thinkers. Thoughtful, intelligent people who love the printed word as much as I do.
And I believe that somewhere among the tens of thousands of curious types who’ve visited this blog in the past 4 1/2 years there is at least one ideal reader, someone who has followed my career, read the lion’s share of my oeuvre and eagerly looks forward to each new release. That’s the gal/guy who brings me back to my desk, morning after morning, my raison d’être, my secret admirer, number one fan and staunchest defender. Every day I sit down and create purely for the purpose of entertaining, surprising and intriguing my I.R., presenting them with a narrative or tune or spoken word piece that startles them and causes them to re-appraise my work (yet again), examining it in a wholly different light.
I am prepared to go to any extent to unsettle and shake up my Ideal Reader. I don’t want them getting complacent, taking me for granted. For that reason, my work must never fall back on tried and true formulas or reinforce commonly held beliefs and preconceptions.
I have to to believe my I.R. would be very disappointed in me if I resorted to such tactics.
My Ideal Reader is as courageous and aesthetically demanding as I am.
And they’d know if I wasn’t giving them my best work…
* * * * * *
It’s become something of a custom for me to either release new work or make some kind of announcement around my birthday.
First, please note to “self-portrait” that accompanies this post. A couple of Christmases ago, Sherron and my sons gifted me with a big fat scrapbook that I was supposed to play with; included among my tasks was executing a self-portrait on canvas. Last month I finally got around to it and, well, see for yourself. I have absolutely no acumen for visual art, couldn’t even figure out how to mix pigments—that’s why my picture is in black and white.
Okay, so I’m no threat to Vinnie van Gogh.
How about another strange, spacey, ambient tune, created a couple of days ago. “Lapse (II)” clocks in at over seven minutes and I think it’s a worthy addition to my odd musical catalog.
And, finally, a couple of updates:
Edits on my western, The Last Hunt, commence soon. Looking forward to knocking that little beauty into shape. Anticipating a March, 2012 release date. I’ll keep you posted.
My science fiction novelette, “Eyes in the Sky“, should be up on Amazon/Kindle in the coming days. It’s dedicated to “the Golden Age” and I think fans of the genre will understand what I mean.
No plans for my birthday, just another work day. Forty-eight years old and maybe a tad wiser. Still a long way to go and enlightenment continues to tease and then elude me. Every time I think I’m getting close to some kind of meaningful insight into the human experience, something truly ghastly and horrific happens and I am forcefully reminded of the Alain Finkielkraut quote:
“Barbarism is not the inheritance of our pre-history. It is the companion that dogs our every step.”
This project began as a musical piece which turned out so well, I decided it might make a strange and unsettling soundtrack for an original movie. Sherron and I shot footage over two days and then loaded the images from our two cameras on to iMovie (a process rendered extremely difficult because of the age of my DV camera). I commenced editing, spending many long hours shaping the footage to the music, even concocting a kind of/sort of narrative.
You can view the film here and then, I hope, either drop a comment on my blog or over at YouTube:
I won’t try to summarize or explain “Beautiful Desolation” except to say that even on a planet that now boasts over six billion souls, there are still places where one can gain a profound impression of isolation, neglect, Nature reclaiming her own.
Enjoy the movie and I hope it inspires some thought and reflection. Perhaps it will cause you to contemplate the place where you live and view it in an entirely different light.
Here are a few snaps of your humble author, hard at work shooting footage “on location” as it were. An overgrown lot in small town Saskatchewan, old farm buildings that we spotted alongside the highway. Whenever we identified something that might fit our overall concept of “abandonment and desolation”, we’d pull over and do our thing.
I handled a DV camera we bought off the internet a number of years ago. Very creaky, the technology practically obsolete. I can still find tapes for it at places like London Drugs in Saskatoon but I wonder how long that will be the case.
Sherron, meanwhile, was using her iPod, employing a number of settings and filters to grab some neat effects. We’ll load all the footage onto my computer and I’ll get to work trying to compose something out of what we’ve compiled.
The reason for this flurry of cinematic activity is that I’ve created a delightful seven and a half minute piece with Garageband and it’s so evocative and interesting to me that I thought it deserved some visual accompaniment.
If anything comes of this grand experiment, I will, of course, add it to the blog for your perusal and analysis.
Many thanks to Sherron for her collaboration and input. It’s a thrill to work with someone as creative and visually attuned as she is. I’m quite confident her footage will be the best we shoot—the combination of my ancient camera and ineptitude pretty much works against my ever becoming a proficient DP (director of photography).
I’d better get back to work.
Happy Labour Day to my fellow Canucks…and I dearly hope the Saskatchewan Roughriders get their asses kicked later today.
God, I hate that team and its moronic, watery-brained fans…
Couldn’t get into serious writing yesterday–still catching up on research on my western novel, The Last Hunt, and I’m not yet at the point where I can begin to tackle necessary revisions.
My science fiction story needs one final polish/run through before I send it off. I’ll likely get that done today.
Decided to create a little something with Garageband. The first effort wasn’t very good but the second tune had promise (as soundtrack music for the creepiest film ever made maybe) and then came the third number…
Well. I didn’t really set out to create a spoken word bit, but that’s how it came out. I was poking around my notebook and came across a series of phrases that, if you put them together, would almost make a kind of narrative…
I plugged in the microphone and gave it a shot. The very first vocal track was perfect and then I started building and shaping music around it.
The end result is “The Midnight Detective”, a 2 1/2 minute effort that plays around with noirish conceits and comes together for a rather tasty finale.
This piece should work on whatever audio player your computer employs (if it’s fairly new) and, of course, you’re free to download it and share it with pals and like-minded folks who might get a charge out of my whacked out, postmodern detective.
You’ll find more of my musical noodling and spoken word efforts on my Audio page.
Click here to listen to Midnight Detective