Usually the entries consist of a few hundred words, an abbreviated emotional weather report. The problem is, I don’t often write about being happy, content with my lot in life. No, it seems like the only time I want to be a diarist is when I feel the need to vent, blow off steam, expound about my frustration and fury and self-loathing and disappointment. Anyone having nothing more than my journals to go on would think me a very petty, thin-skinned, peevish bastard with the prickly disposition of a rabid hedgehog. It is, if I may say, a very distorted portrait.
But on my 49th birthday I started keeping a daily journal, a comprehensive record of “My 50th Year”. It was supposed to conclude on my 50th birthday but there were some pages left over in the second notebook so I probably have about another six weeks’ worth before I wrap things up. I think these two volumes, which will eventually clock in at around 450 handwritten pages, give a far more well-rounded depiction of the life and times of yours truly.
However, at this point I must confess I’m second-guessing myself, wondering if I’ve done the right thing. Because I have to say, there are definite drawbacks to keeping a daily record of your…activities.
First, one has to determine what to put in and what to leave out. Usually I write in my journal quite late in the day so I tend not to be too long-winded. I don’t waste time composing my thoughts, just scribble down what I’m feeling at that moment, what events of the day stand out most. It’s all very internalized, world news and current affairs largely superfluous. I might have alluded to Nelson Mandela’s death last month but, to be honest, I’m not sure. Authorial license or a shameful omission?
Second, one has to assess just how candid and uninhibited one can be. Obviously a journal or diary is intended to be personal and private, but I’m also aware of how many authors and artists have had their most intimate thoughts exposed to the world (with or without their consent). If I don’t end up destroying these notebooks before my death, I have to count on them being read by some curious party. How much detail regarding my life do I want to impart to a complete stranger?
Finally, when keeping a regular journal you soon come face-to-face with just how bloody boring and without incident your life is. I mean, I’m no Graham Greene, jet-setting about, playing baccarat with Kim Philby one day and having lunch with Fidel the next. I’m not even in the league of John Cheever, who wrestled with his sexuality and emotional highs and lows with admirable clarity and candor. I’m more like, well, Walter Mitty—living in fantasy realms of my own invention, with little relation to reality. My self-made universe, fraught with wonky physics, shifting dreamscapes and enticing might-have-beens. When I’m deeply immersed in a writing project, I spend most of my waking hours there.
The transition back to the real world can be unsettling.
I’m a full-time author, stay-at-home husband and father. I don’t really do much of anything. I write (obsessively). I hang out with my family. I read. I watch the occasional good movie. Listen to music. Socialize (infrequently). That’s it. Try journaling about that for over a year. Sitting down each night, opening the notebook to a new, unmarked page and coming up with yet another pithy way of expressing “Wrote today, not much else”. It’s a daunting task, even for someone blessed with my fertile imagination.
I’ve taken to heart Flaubert’s advice to be “regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work”. Perhaps too much to heart.
This past year of being a daily diarist has opened my eyes. In my view, my life has become too constricted, too orderly and mundane. I can’t begrudge the hours I spend engrossed in a project but I must do something about the time when I’m “off duty”. Now that our sons are no longer at home and I’m no longer their steward and caregiver, I can direct my energies toward other interests.
Certainly the desire to travel has taken on new significance. Currently, we’re saving money for a trip, putting away whatever we can so that, one day, we can take off and see some place we’ve never been. Locales we’ve always dreamed of visiting.
Rome. Athens. Constantinople.
Thermopylae. Epidaurus. Troy.
Time to spread my wings, seek inspiration farther afield.
My first view of the Mediterranean or the Aegean, storied seas celebrated by the likes of Homer and Shelley and Byron. Possessing a blue, they say, like no other.
What dreams, what tales and verse and images, will our travels stimulate?
Will the ancient, historical lands we traverse seem strange, exotic…or will it be more like coming home?
Well, y’know…as I believe I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m a lousy self-promoter. I’m really bad at plugging this site and shilling my books. Daily blog entries, comments on other sites, utilizing social networks, joining on-line forums and groups, indulging in high profile flame wars, appearing at every convention, doing all the right things to draw attention to yourself…not for me. The problem, of course, is time.
I write every day. Every. Single. Day. Get up, usually around 7:30, and the first thing I do is cross the hall to my office and turn on the computer. Within ten minutes, I’m holding a really strong, well-sugared coffee and doing a quick scan of my emails, checking the overnight news. The past year or two, the good ol’ BBC has been my primary reality filter. Love their radio comedies and dramas too. Michael Hordern and Richard Briers as “Jeeves and Wooster”. Sublime.
From quite early in the morning until, often, after supper, I’m tapping away, composing or editing, and I do it about 360 days of the year (the rest, I’m either sick, dead or it’s Christmas). I’m only fully alive, fully realized when I’m hard at work on a project, all of my senses engaged. And so, as soon as I finish one book, I abandon it and move on to the next, my mind already seeking fresh material, a new intellectual or aesthetic puzzle to solve.
It’s almost machine-like, as if I’m programmed to sketch and shape words, to the detriment of almost everything else. Sometimes I’ve sacrificed valuable, irreplaceable time with my family in order to stay glued to my desk. That’s a shameful admission but also an unflinching depiction of my devotion to my work.
And I’ve been doing it, basically, since 1985, the year I turned “professional”. Over 25 years of toiling, day by day, to improve at my craft, sharpen my skills, be the best writer I can possibly be. Innovative and original and daring.
That’s why I’m so hard on wannabes and ridiculous enterprises like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Art is a serious, full-time business. It is a calling on the spiritual level, a voice in the absolute inner silence of your soul that insists, regardless of the circumstances, that you must pick up a pen or sit before a keyboard, marshal your tangled, chaotic thoughts and…create. And you do that not just for a month, not until you reach some artificially imposed plateau, but every single day until you are dead.
Tomorrow I’ll finish the second draft of my new novel. At this point it hovers around 200 pages and 50,000 words.
That’s what I’ve been working on, without pause, since August 3rd.
My so-called life.
Did manage to see a good movie at the Broadway Theater in Saskatoon. You’ll find my review of “Blancanieves” over at my film blog.
The last couple of nights, Sherron and Sam set up a backyard movie theater, projecting films on the side of our house. “The Artist” was smashing, earning an ovation at its conclusion, and last night it was “Amelie”. Dunno if there are going to be too many more showings. The temperature dips awful quickly after dark in these parts around this time of year.
It’s been a beautiful, warm autumn. The colors in our river valley would entrance Van Gogh (and our clear, starry nights can’t be beat). Feeling inspired, enlivened by a clarity of purpose, the certainty I am working on a project worthy of my efforts, a book that challenges and scares me a little. That frisson I experience when I sit down and open the file, stare at the screen, wondering if I can find it within me today to summon the courage and faith required to be the best writer I can be.
And then, gradually, sensing the spell begin to take hold…
The woman, let’s call her Margaret, pauses at the conclusion of her account, looking up at me with an expression of bewilderment. “I don’t know why I told you all that. You have that kind of face…” She trails off and our conversation concludes not long afterward.
Why did Margaret, a woman I barely know, just spend nearly ten minutes bending my ear about her husband’s fraught relationship with his brother? In the process disclosing many intimate details that should never be passed along to a virtual stranger.
And she’s not the only one.
People tell me things. All sorts of things. Funny and crazy and tragic and personal. People on buses, people who do work on my house, people I’m waiting in line with at the bank…casual acquaintances and complete strangers. Men and women turning to me, a confession already forming in their mind.
“You’re a good listener,” my wife tells me. “That’s part of it. You seem interested in what they’re saying. That’s your first mistake…”
Maybe Yoko Ono is right and there are “a lot of lonely people out there”. I guess that was part of the attraction of the Post Secret project a few years ago. People dying to get their crimes and misdeeds off their chest…anonymously, of course, their courage only extended so far. Similarly, it’s easier to confess some things to strangers or barely familiar faces than to family members and loved ones. A weird kink of psychology.
I spend most of my time alone, isolated. When I do interact with folks, I’m anxious to talk about anything but my work and dull routine…and that might be at least partially responsible for the true confessions and guilty secrets I’ve been subjected to over the years. Some of them not for the squeamish. And if I make the mistake of admitting I’m an author, there are individuals who immediately perk up: well, if you’re a writer, you’ll love hearing what’s been going on in my life lately…
Er, not really, no.
But once people start revealing their problems and complaints there’s just no holding them back. I’ve heard about failed marriages, infidelity, felonies and misdemeanors, nodded sympathetically as men and women tearfully surrendered indiscretions they should have been saving for their priest or shrink. I have no right to this knowledge and yet, afterward, feel protective of what I’ve learned, a certain responsibility to be discreet. The sanctity of the confessional. I think folks sense that as well; a quiet, lonely, reclusive man: who can I possibly tell?
It’s very difficult for me to be rude. I detest breaking into someone’s train of thought, interrupting them in mid-sentence because something they’re telling me is inappropriate, better kept to themselves. Politeness has its drawbacks and I’ve endured many an awkward, one-sided conversation simply because I lack the chutzpah to clear my throat, give an impatient frown or simply walk away.
And, anyway, how can you walk away from a young clerk, enormously pregnant, helping me find a stencil set and, meanwhile, telling me about the heart defect that threatens the life of her unborn baby. Thirty seconds after walking into the store. What can I say? How do I respond?
But she’s looking at me, describing the diagnosis and proposed treatment, affirming the importance of faith in her life, talking freely, without a trace of self-consciousness.
Something in my manner or expression assuring her, a sympathy that cannot be feigned.
While I, for my part, refuse to deny her the kindness of a stranger, shared concern for a child in distress.
My time is not so important, surely, that I can’t spare a minute or two to commiserate or console. These meetings, though frequently taxing, part of the burden I bear for having “that kind of face”.
Okay, sorry, yes, I know, it’s been awhile. These things happen. Don’t forget, I’m an independent writer and publisher, which basically means the work never stops. When I’m not writing, I’m filling orders or sending out review copies or doing promo, trying to spread the word about my work discreetly, a word in the right ear, hoping that approach will eventually lead to a tipping point and then all at once I’m no longer an obscure scribbler from the plains of western Canada, the bastard son of Philip K. Dick and Terry Gilliam, but instead, ahem, a writer of stature.
Sigh. Yes, indeed. Wouldn’t it be nice…
But I’m always heartened when I glance at the ClusterMap (to the lower right) and see where my visitors are coming from. They originate from every continent and often drop by more than once. A substantial proportion are downloading the stories and excerpts I make available on this site. Sales of my books may not be going through the roof and I may not be getting rich, but I know for a fact that tens of thousands of people around the world have been/are reading my prose and that’s a thrill. God knows, they need an alternative to the tripe they’re finding at their local, big box bookstore.
And I’m only too happy to oblige. Bring me your bored, your lonely, your frustrated, intelligent readers, appalled by what traditional publishing venues are regurgitating like pre-chewed maggots.
Let me risk repeating myself by saying how great it is receiving your comments and personal e-mails; I’m delighted when a smart, well-read person reaches out, sends a few words my way. It’s a lonely life and sitting at this keyboard, day in and day out, I sometimes lose focus on real world obligations and duties. Interacting with literate folk is a way of bursting the bubble and re-establishing me in Earth Prime. So keep those remarks and observations coming.
Oh, and here’s a (mostly) true story, with a picture to prove it:
She spotted it first, motioning for him to join her. Both of them bending over it, quizzical and amused. Examining the carcass from a number of angles. She even stopped someone, a complete stranger, pointed at the sidewalk, asking him: “Isn’t that something?”
He grunted, unimpressed, impatient to get back to his preoccupations. Hardly giving it a glance before continuing on his way.
She was outraged. “He didn’t even care! How often does he see something like this?” Gesturing at the sidewalk.
“It’s almost Biblical, isn’t it?” her husband observed. “A rain of fish.”
It came up it conversation a number of times in the following days. Spontaneous recollections of that moment when they stood over it, speculating on how it came to get there, that spot, like it had been left for them to find. She’d taken a picture with her phone, showed it to her friends but, again, the response was disappointing.
“They didn’t get it,” she complained, her expression wounded.
Every so often she’d cue up the picture, gaze at it, reliving the sense of strangeness she’d experienced when she realized what it was, the incongruity it represented. She found it odd that, try as she might, she could recall nothing of the day in question except coming across the fish. Surely something else had happened. Something memorable and out of the ordinary. She wracked her brain. Had they eaten a good meal or gone to see a show?
It bothered her that she couldn’t remember.
The many hours she had chosen to forget.
The other day my wife told me that I still don’t understand how to properly use tools like Twitter and Facebook to network with like-minded folks, in the process publicizing my writing to an ever-widening circle of “friends”.
“How many people are you following? How many blogs?”
And I ruefully had to admit that the number was pretty paltry.
“You see? How do you expect to promote yourself or make more people want to read your books?”
She’s right, of course. On every single count. And I know at first glance it seems like I’m breaking a cardinal rule and not showing proper consideration for men and women who, like me, are trying to communicate the joys and sorrows inherent in the human condition. The experience of being alive, from a variety of perspectives (language, culture and geography be damned).
My problem is time.
I’m a full-time writer. That’s what I do, seven days a week. Seven-thirty in the morning I pour my first cup of coffee, walk upstairs to my home office and check the e-mails that have accumulated overnight. Part of my routine. By then, both my sons are stirring, getting themselves dressed, ready for school. My wife usually leaves for her job around 8:00, my lads head out about 8:40 and I’m alone in the house until mid-afternoon.
Once I finish e-mails, glance at the news, post a couple of things on LibraryThing, I fire on some music and settle down to serious business. There’s always a project on the go, work “in the pipeline”. For the past decade it’s been longer efforts, novels and novellas, and they require enormous concentration, a complete immersion in the worlds they’re portraying.
I’m at it all day, breaking for a (very) quick lunch, maybe run some errands, toss in one or two loads of laundry, satisfy myself that the bathrooms aren’t too septic. Can’t have the people from the Center for Disease Control inspecting us again, imposing another quarantine…
Sometimes Sherron’s job takes her far afield and I have to figure out something for supper (my shepherd’s pie is particularly well-regarded). I catch up with what’s happening with my sons, find out how they’re doing at school, make sure we’re all on the same page. They’re both teenagers and their lives are a whole lot more complicated these days.
After supper, it’s back to the office, finish up for the day, wind things down, answer pressing e-mails, maybe listen to some comedy on BBC4 to help decompress. By then, it might be 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. Shut off the computer, go downstairs, spend some time with my family, watch a movie or TV show (we only have 1 1/2 channels so we usually have to rent boxed sets or borrow them from chums).
And then it’s bedtime.
With that kind of schedule, there isn’t much of a chance to devote even half an hour to keeping up with all the Tweets and updates and latest poop that my various
friends acquaintances might have posted during the course of the day. I’m a writer, but I’m also a full-time dad and husband and my workaholic nature combined with my family obligations just doesn’t leave much wiggle room.
So…cutting to the chase: I’m very sorry if I’m not following your blog or making an effort to reach out more through various forums and social networks. I hope you’ll understand the constraints I’m operating under and realize there are priorities…and only a finite number of hours in the day. If it’s any consolation, I recently cancelled my weekly “StumbleUpon” recommendations because I never had time to glance at them and usually just deleted the message.
Writers write. That’s what I do. That’s basically all I do. No weekends off, no holidays. The wages are lousy, the rewards few. I’m my own boss but can’t conceive of a harsher taskmaster. No relief, no respite.
It’s not much of a life, I’ll warrant you, but it’s the only one I’ve got.
I guess I’d better get used to it.
“Who am I? A stranger here and always…”
William S. Burroughs, Rub Out the Word (Collected Letters 1959-74)
Why didn’t I tag along (you ask, impudently)?
Because my mind isn’t ready for a vacation right now. Matter of fact, for some reason summer is the time of year when my Muse really puts the pedal to the metal. A good number of my novels and best short stories were drafted during the months of June-August. Maybe a hormonal thing, who knows? So, while everyone else is outside, barbequing or going to the lake, renting a cottage, enjoying yourselves, you’ll find me in my sweltering 10′ X 12′ home office, my door open, the fan on high to make the environment livable as I toil away on some literary project.
This year is no exception. My western novel, The Last Hunt, devours much of my time. I’m supposed to be taking a break from it at the moment but I can’t help poking my nose in, doing more research, scribbling notes, conceiving questions for some of the historians who have generously offered to lend a hand with the scenes set in Yellowstone Park. They’ll provide me with historical background, period detail and invaluable advice and input (and God bless ’em). I’ll be visiting that region of Montana later this summer, doing some on the spot scouting and location hunting. It will be my first trip of any significance in a long time (I blush to say how long). This borderline agoraphobic workaholic is trembling at the notion of being away from my desk for any length of time but I am utterly convinced of the necessity of this trip. It will better establish the mood and setting of The Last Hunt and add some of the authenticity I think the present draft is lacking.
But I must confess I have another reason for remaining home. It isn’t often I get the house to myself for days at a stretch and on those rare occasions that I do…well, I like to take full advantage of it. I play loud music, from the time I get up to the wee hours of the morning. I keep the windows shut, the drapes drawn and for one or two days I let myself go. Stalk about in my bathrobe, unshaven, neglecting the laundry, neglecting to eat properly, neglecting to answer the phone or interact with the outside world.
It’s glorious and terrifying and, ultimately, beneficial.
I sit in my office, staring at my slippers while The Vandelles, A Place to Bury Strangers, The Replacements, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, etc. thunder from overhead speakers, loud enough to force me further back in my chair. Lately, I like my music hard and dirty, a la the Vandelles’ “Lovely Weather” (crank it up!).
Meanwhile, I’m doing a good deal of scribbling—journaling and spontaneous or “automatic” writing like the Surrealists used to champion. These writings represent Rorschach Tests and they give a pretty good idea of what’s on my mind, the preoccupations and fears dogging me. Plenty of speculations on the spiritual front—I keep that up, I’m liable to end up with a gazillion page Exegesis, similar to Philip K. Dick. And will likely be considered just as loony, should anyone happen to stumble across these errant, inexpert ramblings on God, the nature of reality and my own pitiful existence.
These writing exercises often trigger intervals of hellish introspection, long hours spent reviewing past sins and ruminating over the sorry state of my literary career, even after a quarter century of putting words on paper. The mental boo birds come out and I subject myself to a great deal of vitriol before the nattering voices either subside, wear themselves out or are chastened by a very Bugs Bunny-like snarl originating from the depths of my id:
I have trouble sleeping when my family’s away, find the nights hard to endure. I kill time by staying up and watching a double or triple header of movies. Guy flicks and guilty pleasures; science fiction and thrillers given precedence. This time around I’ve set aside flicks like “Michael Clayton”, “All the President’s Men”, “The Searchers”, “Shadow of the Vampire”, “The Bad Lieutenant”. Nothing too crazy, re: anything by Ken Russell or (shudder) “Eraserhead”.
And for reading material, Terence McKenna’s The Archaic Revival and Graham Hancock’s Supernatural. Far-fetched stuff? Pseudo-science? To me, what these lads propose is nowhere near as crazy as some of the notions held by billions of people of all faiths around the world. I am intrigued by what triggered that “monolith moment”, when our kind first opened their eyes to the possibility and mystery of the world and took a crucial evolutionary step, moving further away from their humble origins and toward a spectacular destiny. This transformation coincided with the earliest cave art and the enactment of burial rituals, a species awakening to the existence of other realms and principalities.
Mebbe Bill Hicks is right and a certain humble fungus, naturally occurring, is responsible. I guess we’d need a time machine to find out for sure. Intriguing thought, though…
I suppose when all is said and done, my time alone is therapeutic, cathartic. I miss out on a chance to hang out with good folks, do some boating and fishing in some of the most gorgeous scenery this country has to offer. But the soul-searching, self-Inquisition and psychic ass-kicking blows off steam, relieves the accumulated pressures that accompany the creative life. In my solitude, I can confront my demons and it’s a no-holds-barred, no quarter given bloodbath. It’s not pleasant but it is necessary. All part of the ongoing struggle to define myself as an artist, to better delineate the precepts and ideals I live by, requiring me to identify aspects within me that are working against those higher purposes and undermining my essential faith in the worthiness of my endeavors. Demons, indeed, with hideous countenances, avid, savage expressions and appetites. They are the worst parts of me and during the next few days I shall brawl, joust and treat with them, in the end probably settling for another draw, a few more months of relative peace on the emotional/spiritual front.
You say that’s not much of a bargain but, then, clearly your demons aren’t nearly as unreasonable, their intentions not as deliberately malign.
For that, count yourself lucky.
You are very fortunate indeed.
Photos by Sherron Burns
My wife and sons are on the West Coast–getting their first dose of rain after a week of great weather–and I’ve stopped answering the phone, shaving, checking e-mails and visiting some of my favorite sites and forums. It’s summertime and that means WORK.
It must be a hormonal thing. While everyone else is seized by an impulse to drag their sorry asses off to the woods and get closer to nature (i.e. Lyme disease, poison oak and bears), I become almost feverish with a desire to be shut away in a 10 X 12 room, scribbling like a madman all day and long into the night. And then, when I finish, I collapse in front of our big Sony and watch old movies or foreign flicks until I zonk out.
And, indeed, that’s what I’ve been up to since I’ve bid farewell and adieu to Sher and the lads last Sunday. I got warmed up with lots of “automatic writing”, filling page after page of my notebook with cryptic, allusive remarks cribbed from my subconscious. Lots of journaling and personal writing too; I use these opportunities when I’m alone to blow off emotional steam, purge my system of some of the accumulated ugliness and toxic sludge. Restoring balance and focus, checking the state of my faith life.
In the past four or five days I’ve really gotten down to business, completing three short stories and tapping them in–over 10,000 words of new prose. But that’s just a warm-up. In the coming weeks I want to tackle a big revision of another novel, really sink my teeth into that one and shake the living shit out of it.
Unfortunately, all that work means I might not be posting here as frequently or at any length. But I promise you there will be new work added soon, more prose you won’t find anywhere else. Because the point of this site isn’t to provide me with a platform for my various rants and obsessions (though sometimes it might appear that way). It’s to give you access to my work, the stories and novels and prose poems and verse and radio plays and essays that I’ve composed over the past quarter century. It’s all here–well, a good portion of it, anyway. Available for absolutely nothing. Posted (see the various “Pages” above) in the PDF format, which (I’m told) makes it compatible with most of those new-fangled e-readers (even the Kindles, I and II). So download away!
And please pop back in again soon. I’ll make sure you have some decent summer reading, never fear. Something for your leisure hours.
Leisure…leisure…have to look that one up in the dictionary some time. Exotic sounding word.
Meanwhile, it’s back to work for yours truly.
Sigh. The sacrifices I make for my hordes of readers…