Category: confession

The drawbacks of the “examined life”

Journal 1I’ve kept a journal since 1996. Not regularly, not religiously—Samuel Pepys, I am not.

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 Journal 2your 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?

wall (abstract)

My first professional submission

True story:

When I was around twelve years old, there was a program on CBC Television called “Pencil Box”. The show wasn’t very good (even for kids’ fare) but it did feature one interesting wrinkle: young viewers could send in a skit or playlet and, if it passed muster, a cast of  “professional” actors would stage and perform it.

I watched an episode or two and, as has happened with many writers since time immemorial, decided I could write just as well as some of the material being selected. At the time, I was obsessed with World War II, immersed in William Shirer’s The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich, religiously watching episodes of “The World at War” (narrated by Laurence Olivier) every Sunday afternoon. I decided my piece was going to be an historical mystery and it didn’t take me long to come up with a concept. I scribbled out a draft in a couple of hours, sealed it in an envelope and sent that handwritten version to the show’s producers.

I wish I’d kept a copy.

And I would’ve loved to have seen the look on some poor, underpaid story editor’s face as he scanned the 3-4 page skit.

Good God…”

The plot involved a series of suspicious deaths that seemed connected in some way to a particular field somewhere in central Europe. The inexplicable and unsettling incidents baffle authorities, so they summon a master detective and this Holmes/Dupin type paces about, scrutinizing the ground until he is struck by a notion, does his research and sure enough—

He calls everyone together and announces his brilliant solution. Years before, after the defeat of the Nazis, the area had been used as a dump for some of the waste of war, including (wait for it), numerous canisters of Zyklon-B gas. The canisters were leaking, seaping up through the topsoil, and, voilá, it was those noxious vapors that were sickening and killing the local populace.

Everyone applauds the detective’s extraordinary powers of deductive reasoning, he takes his bows and…Fade Out.

Well.

My dramatized detective story wasn’t accepted.

My first submission and my first rejection.

But the note (typed on official “Pencil Box” stationery) was kind, encouraging to send more ideas and stories and perhaps, some day, one of them would make it on to the show. They also enclosed a free pin, which I’ve kept to this day.

Proof!

pencil box

New story added to Scribd

Just posted a new tale, bit of a brain-teaser, over at Scribd.

The story is called “The 1001st Night” and clocks in at around 1450 words. Very odd, but I like it. The way it weaves back and forth, exhibiting multiple points of view and perspectives and yet somehow coalescing into…well, see for yourself.

I’ll be adding it to my “Stories” page here (eventually) but Scribd has racked up some impressive numbers for me since I signed up and I thought I’d give them first dibs.

If you’re a real completist, you should probably subscribe to my Twitter link too because I’ve been known to post little snippets and Twitter-verse there and nowhere else. Just to keep everyone on their toes.

Glad to be offering new work for your perusal.

Hope you enjoy “The 1001st Night”.

I have, apparently, “that kind of face”

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”.

Breaking protocol

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.

Sigh.

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)

A Lonely Profession

I have a very small circle of friends.  I mean real friends, you shallow Facebook generation, people I’ve known for years and with whom I have a shared history.

It’s small…and getting smaller.

Part of it is natural attrition:  people grow away from each other or their lives becomes too busy or what have you.  Or they die.

I’ve lost good friends, men and women I’ve been closely associated with more than two decades, for all of the reasons just stated.

Others I’ve shed.  Deliberately, ruthlessly.  With knowledge aforethought.  What can I say?  You cross me and I can be a real bastard.

I’m the first to acknowledge that it ain’t no easy chore being my friend.  The long silences no doubt grate.  And you know I hate, hate, HATE talking on the phone.  The telephone is an infernal device, the only thing left that can really threaten my concentration.  If a phone rings anywhere in my house between 9:00 a.m. and 4:30 (when someone else will be home to answer it), I immediately explode into a string of expletives that would melt the ears off a plastic dashboard Jesus.  Interrupt my work and you run the risk of being murdered.  It’s that simple.  God help the poor fucking telephone solicitor who breaks my train of thought.  Perhaps that’s why so many calls are automated these days.  People like me were traumatizing employees.  Whose lousy pay offered poor compensation for the frequent tirades and threats they endured, their headsets smoking as they fumbled for “disconnect”…

I don’t do small talk, couldn’t give a fuck about the latest movie you’ve seen or book you’ve read or the gorgeous autumn walk you just enjoyed.  Dig?  I.  Don’t.  Care. If you got any thoughts or observations, stick ’em in a 100-word e-mail and zip it my way.  I’ll get back to you within 48 hours.  That’s a pledge.  E-mails allow me to keep in touch on my time and terms.  It is the perfect platform for a busy curmudgeon.  It is the only form of communication I welcome.

And, of course, when I do get together with my friends they have to put up with my admittedly caustic wit and, let’s be honest, rants on my new favorite pet peeve or a long lecture on Gnosticism and the novels of Philip K. Dick.  Amazing how, at once, a person can be both boring and a boor.  I manage it quite easily.

I have a natural compulsion to entertain, to be the center of attention.  I’m capable of saying almost anything, the most provocative and cringe-worthy statements, refusing to recognize the fine line between satire and offensiveness.  I despise political correctness; watching our tongues and minding our manners like good little Stalin-era proles.  Fuck that.

Nights out with me are rare but they’re usually memorable.  Just not for the right reasons…

For the most part I enjoy being alone.  Very comfortable with silence and solitude.  I don’t require company or diversion.  I’m doing something creative literally every single day of the year and I simply don’t have much time for other things.  When I’m not working, I’m with my family.  If I’m not doing either, I’m sleeping.  That’s pretty much the schedule around here.  The reality you have to adapt to if you’re going to remain in the picture longterm as a pal and confidante.

There’s one other thing and this is important:  you wanna be my friend, you gotta read my work.  Every single word of it.  Read it, listen to it, hold an informed opinion on it.  Having any conversation with me and not alluding, however briefly, to my raison d’etre, my entire purpose for existing on this planet, is like slapping me in a face with a sock full of canned ham.  You don’t recognize the central role writing plays in my life and respect the enormous amount of time and effort I expend on putting words on paper, you ain’t no friend.  You might be an acquaintance, a chum, but you sure as fuck ain’t part of the inner circle.  You’re somewhere out in the Oort Cloud, a distant signal, a far point of light.

I fully recognize that these are hard terms, entirely one-sided and solipsistic.  But the closer I get to fifty I’ve become less and less tolerant of superficial relationships and part-time pals.  And, unfortunately, I live in a pretty remote locale so there’s little chance of mingling with fellow writers and artists, who would have a better grasp of my obsessions and the demons that relentlessly drive me.  My wife and I have talked about moving to a larger center, where there are more opportunities to take in good movies, enjoy a cultural evening out.  With our boys getting older, a year or two from heading out on their own, it might be time to seriously ponder a change of address.  We’ll see.

Whatever happens and wherever I live, creativity and the compulsion to express myself will remain my primary focus.  Unless my brain is fully preoccupied with a project or artful experiment, I become bored, restless.  Dangerous.  If it’s frustrated or annoyed, a mind like mine can quickly turn on others…or itself.  It rages fearfully.  Vindictive and brutal, refusing to forgive the slightest fault.

Believe me, it’s a good thing I’m such a workaholic.  It’s better for everyone involved.  Those long silences mean I’m deeply and happily immersed in a book or story or short film.

Be sure to ask me about it the next time we run into each other.

I’m always happy to talk shop with a friend.


(Visuals by Cliff Burns)

“The Midnight Detective” (Spoken Word)

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.

And so…yesterday.

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

* This post is dedicated to Caroline Ames–Happy Birthday, kid.