I suppose it’s understandable that young and developing writers mine personal experience for inspiration, borrow from real life for key characters, settings and episodes in their narratives.
But sooner or later, if you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you have to abandon this rather narcissistic approach and begin to invent, extrapolate, imagine, conflate, collage, transpose. Eschewing a slavish imitation to the “facts”, finding the courage and tenacity to follow a story no matter what strange paths and nooks it might choose.
For a good many authors, the idea of leaving their safe, tidy, self-appointed microverse and venturing Outside is too terrifying to ponder. Their protagonists thinly disguised versions of themselves, storylines and essential details paralleling their own life arc. To these literalists, their writing is a chance at redemption, to make sure their viewpoint is somehow vindicated and wins out in the end. Writing is not an act of imagination, it is a form of exoneration. But is such a mindset healthy—for them or for literature? I would offer a firm “No”, on both counts.
I confess that on occasion I’ve written “autobiographical” stories, tales that include some detail or nugget from life, a small touch that adds to the overall atmosphere, a dab of authenticity. Other offerings contain what I would call “emotional truths”, characters reliving some trauma drawn from my convoluted psychological history. Primal terror, feelings of self-loathing and disgust; manic spasms of joy, rapid disillusionment.
I think of older short stories like “Invisible Boy” or “Carl” (from Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination). Raw and edgy. Spare and relentless and credible…and all the more powerful and frightening for that reason.
More recently, my novella “Second Sight” (from Exceptions and Deceptions) features a married couple that bear a strong resemblance to Sherron and I. If you want a semi-accurate portrait of what daily life around Casa Burns is like, check out “Second Sight”. Not a word of it is true, of course, but the couple at the heart of the tale have a depth and subtlety that take the offering to another level.
The unnamed narrator of my last novel, Disloyal Son, is a Canadian writer and some of his genealogy is borrowed from my family history, but Mr. X, candidly, is a lot nicer than me, much more passive and considerate. Yin to my Yang.
It could even be fairly said that I share some traits with my all-time favourite character, Evgeny Nightstalk (So Dark the Night). I certainly manifest Nightstalk’s ferocious loyalty and hair-trigger temper. His twisted moral code is like an externalization of my id.
But while there are definitely similarities, I would argue that none of these characters is really me—they’re all composites, Frankenstein monsters, a jumble of body parts. I made them up. In my humble opinion, working exclusively from real life is boring, not to mention lazy.
The art is in creating individuals and scenarios from dust and mud, shaping them with your own hands, breathing life into them with each word, each sentence.
On those rare occasions when I recognize that I’ve come up with something undeniably original and unique, there’s a thrill of joy and accomplishment that quickens my very soul. It’s the ultimate high. Nothing else I’ve experienced in my creative/artistic life compares to that peak moment.
So put away your diaries and journals, smash every mirror in the vicinity.
Time to write stories that defy expectations and conventions, yarns that even the author cannot control or confine.
Surprise us, amaze us, take us somewhere we haven’t been before.
Make us laugh and cry.
Anger us, if you have the nerve.
Show us a face other than your own.
But, to me, right from the start there’s been a miasma of smugness surrounding the magazine, Kalle Lasn & contributors revelling in coming across as hipster despair mongers. Using all the tools in the ad-man’s arsenal (splashy graphics, catchy slogans, minimal substance) to cleverly subvert the corporates at their own game. Mocking and vilifying the consumer mindset while making sure each issue contains at least of couple of subscription cards, not to mention plugs for “approved” gear and cool doodads. Join Team Nihilist, wear “Black Spot” sneakers and feel superior to the rest of the dumb proles in their Nike/Converse/sweatshop apparel.
At times they give the impression of a bunch of black-clad, no logo-ed arseholes who’ll be standing around when the shit finally hits the fan, going: “Nyeah-nyeah-nyeah-nyeah-nyeah. Told you so, motherfuckers!”
I don’t know who’s worse, someone like that or one of those “magical thinkers” so common these days, complete doughheads who believe that technology got us into this mess and, dagnabbit, human ingenuity will get us out again, save us in the nick of time. Just like in the movies.
Where I do agree with Adbusters is that there is a war for reality going on and we have to resist the reassurances and blandishments of capitalism (“Don’t worry, be happy”, “You’re richer that you think”, “You deserve to spoil yourself”, etc.) and see the underlying truths the string-pullers are working so hard to efface. Wipe away the smog of unreality spewed out by the spin doctors and heavily indoctrinated economists and view a world in the midst of another great extinction event. This one largely of our own making.
Ocean currents that have served as the planet’s heating and cooling system for millennia are shifting, prevailing airstreams changing, the climate around the world reacting the environmental impact of the modern industrial era. We’re seeing massive human migrations, desperate people seeking to escape privation, hunger, loss of arable land. Historically, resource scarcity is the one condition guaranteed to provoke conflict; a hungry populace will seek radical solutions the way a drowning man will grasp the point of a sword.
But what can be done? As Charles Eisenstein points out, it’s natural to lose hope, feel completely overwhelmed by the scope of the disaster confronting us. The head knows we’re probably fucked, Earth headed for a massive meltdown…but the heart insists we have to at least try, for the sake of those as yet unborn. And so we feel at odds with ourselves, a fundamental split in our being. What to do?
And, of course, it all comes down to a personal transformation. That is the one aspect of the world we can control. We have the ability to just stop buying, stop craving stuff, more crap. We can divert a small amount of our salaries each month to good causes. We can volunteer, become better citizens, contributing to our community, getting to know our neighbours. We can seek out and support political candidates who recognize the seriousness of our plight and pledge themselves to finding solutions, even if that means forsaking the status quo. We can preach the gospel of thriftiness and frugality to family and friends and we should never miss the opportunity to shame conspicuous consumption, ridicule the pretensions and props of the wealthy and stupid among us.
There’s no such thing as fair play in this war for reality, no Geneva Convention guidelines to follow. There’s too much at stake. The corporates and their shills have their greasy mitts on the levers of power and those of us who still hold out some hope at preserving a semblance of human life on this planet must employ the mindset and tactics of guerrilla warriors since antiquity—speed, stealth, cunning—to achieve our objectives. Nibbling at the edges, gnawing away at the underlying supports and institutional foundations. Sowing seeds of dissent, doubt. Subverting authority, sabotaging power structures. Never failing to offer alternatives, fresh perspectives, while stubbornly withstanding the temptations and treasures dangled before us by our insidious foes.
There comes a time when each of us has to make a choice, balance our current, comfortable lifestyles against a near future where our grandchildren suffer because of their ancestors’ indifference, profligacy, selfishness. Once you make that choice there’s no going back, no compromise possible.
Welcome to the Resistance, comrade.
Now do you have the courage and mental strength to face your final test?
Which will it be: the blue or the red pill…
Photos by Liam Burns
I get quite a number of notes from individuals requesting my advice on matters relating to publishing, indie or otherwise.
Recently, two or three people queried me about how to better “monetize” their writing.
Folks, anyone who has spent even a brief period on this site or has read a mere handful of my Tweets would know that I hold such attitudes in absolute contempt.
Trying to break into writing to make money, seeking fame, fortune and bestseller-dumb? Sorry, you’ve come to the wrong place.
If you’re a purveyor of fan fiction, you should have your hands burned off with an acetylene torch. You are the shit real writers scrape off the bottom of their shoes.
If you concoct shapeshifter/paranormal romance you are a literary pornographer. You exhibit Grade Six-level writing and, it’s clear, retain an absolute horror of penetrative intercourse. As Bill Hicks would say: case fucking closed.
If you “lease” your talent to some franchise, averring that your penny dreadful writing subsidizes your “good” stuff, you’re only fooling yourself…and the gods of Literature can be very, very cruel. Regardless of how you rationalize it, you are whoring your Muse, peddling her ass for a fistful of loot. Your self-righteousness, the ferocity of your denials, only reveals the depth of your insecurity, your secret shame. You disgust me.
A twenty-something twat knows fuck all about life and has no right to claim an authoritative view on anything. You are also far too young and insignificant for a memoir. No one gives a shit about the suffering and pain (largely self-inflicted) you’ve endured during your brief existence. Your life is not unique or particularly interesting. You are part of a growing demographic: an egotistic, narcissistic non-entity with delusions of self-importance. There’s a lot of that going around nowadays and no vaccine in sight. Pity…
Demanding correct spelling and competent syntax is not “old school” thinking.
Unless you approach your craft with devotion and seriousness, work tirelessly and daily at improving yourself, you are a dabbler. A wannabe. Your efforts the equivalent of macaroni art: the gold paint may be slightly more gaudy, the noodles more generous, but it amounts to the same, unsightly mess stuck to the front of your fridge.
This blog is dedicated to a higher purpose, a celebration of the power and majesty of the printed word.
There are plenty of sites for people who compose in crayon, scribble on walls or any available surface and congratulate themselves for their artistry.
If that last sentence describes where you’re at, I think you’ve overstayed your welcome.
There’s the door.
Don’t let it hit you on the ass on the way out.
No, it only seems that long since my last post.
And you know I haven’t been idle. Nossir, not this author.
Besides, judging by the surge in subscribers of late, apparently I don’t need to post regularly. All these new people signing up to my blog and I’ve hardly said a word since Christmas…d’you folks realize the mixed messages you’re sending?
I’ve been in heavy duty editing mode since mid-December, really bearing down on this new novel of mine. Definitely making encouraging progress but refusing to let up until my perfectionism and obsessive-compulsiveness cry “uncle!”.
Just about ready to talk in more detail about this latest project, which has been assigned an official release date, May 1, 2015. Gimme a couple more weeks and I’ll be answering some of the queries regarding the book friends and readers have been zipping my way almost from the moment I announced its existence.
I will tell you it’s yet another departure for me, a “genre” I haven’t tackled before. I like to keep my readers on their toes, doncha know.
During my thirty year career I’ve written science fiction, fantasy, horror, mainstream/literary, western/cowboy, poetry, radio drama, music lyrics…what’s left? You’ll find out in a few weeks.
A fun time over the Christmas holidays–our little family reunited and this hundred year old house literally rocking on its foundations. Made out like a bandit, in terms of Christmas gifts. My tastes are extremely weird and varied, I’m very hard to please but, somehow, folks around me manage. I doff my hat to them. My favorite book I received was Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary–fantastic tome, I “Tweeted” a number of quotes, gems of wisdom and experience. Imagine hoisting a few tall, cold ones with a posse that included Serge, Walter Benjamin, Karl Kraus and, say, Albert Camus. That would make for some memorable bon mots, methinks. And maybe a fistfight or three (Kraus was a notorious prick).
I managed to read 107 books in 2014 (the second year in a row I cracked a hundred). My favorite books in terms of fiction were David Gilbert’s & Sons, as well as a couple of short story collections, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives (Brad Watson) and Emerald Light in the Air by the great Donald Antrim. My colleague Corey Redekop asked a number of authors to compile their reading lists for 2014 and here’s my contribution.
Movies I’ve enjoyed over the last couple of weeks: “Locke” (starring Tom Hardy) and “Her” with Joaquin Phoenix. The former was especially good–Hardy carries the film single-handedly, a virtuoso performance.
Music? Mark Lanegan, The Stooges, Wall of Voodoo, The Swans, Jacqueline Du Pre, Gene Autry…the usual mixed bag.
But I’ve taxed your patience long enough.
Before I go, I want to thank the folks who’ve purchased copies of my latest collection, Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination. The brisk sales have surprised me and I’ll likely have to put in a supplementary order to my printer before too long.
Keep those messages and questions coming (email@example.com) and watch this space for more exciting news in the days to come.
I can already detect a collective gnashing of teeth as Gaiman’s legion of fans leap to his defense, their counter-attack, predictably, hysterical, vitriolic and ad hominem. Shoot the messenger and deal with the actual, y’know, message later.
I know what I’ve just said might seem a tad critical and extreme at first glance but, as my hero Bill Hicks would say, hear me out.
Clearly, Neil Gaiman is effective at what he does. He sells a ton of books, has earned a bevy of prizes and a significant number of people await each new Gaiman release with genuine pleasure and anticipation.
All to the good.
And speaking for myself, I’ve found Gaiman’s stuff, for the most part, diverting, and he writes in a straightforward, unpretentious style. But upon opening any Neil Gaiman offering I’m immediately struck by the realization that this is not a tale set on Earth Prime—there is an unworldly feel to the material. Indeed, nearly everything I’ve read by the man distinguishes him as someone who, in one way or another, is a purveyor of modern day fairy tales and moral fables. But no one truly believes fairy tales or thinks they have any basis in reality. Do they?
And therein lies the problem.
That lack of credibility produces, I would argue, an emotional distance, a safety margin from which readers can observe the action without being unduly concerned with the fate of the characters. When your audience is granted that kind of dispensation, they stop closely identifying with the people at the heart of the story, stop caring. A potentially gripping yarn becomes merely entertaining. Good, escapist fun.
Doesn’t that pretty much sum up the Gaiman oeuvre?
While he tells a decent story, there’s not the kind of intimacy and closely observed detail that ramps up our emotional investment to another level. Think of the work of masters of the macabre Richard Matheson or Charles Beaumont. They frequently dealt with fantastic subject matter but in their best efforts (see: “Matheson’s “Mute” or Hell House) there is an unnerving sense that this creepy account could be real…and our concern for what the characters are enduring becomes all the more genuine and heartfelt.
Give him credit, Neil Gaiman is conversant with contemporary cultural touchstones, borrowing shamelessly from mythology (Old Gods and Sandman) or re-imagining familiar standards (Coraline). But, to me, none of his work succeeds at suspending disbelief. And while I see a lot of archetypes—vampires, werewolves, ghosts, the usual suspects—I don’t, frankly, detect much innovation or originality. Tropes and stock monsters, employed in a standard story arc, with (almost invariably) happy, satisfying resolutions. Gaiman’s approach to writing is quick, punchy, visual; perfect for graphic novels. Illustrative but not particularly deep or insightful. His characters speedily sketched, unceremoniously thrust into peril, even mortal danger.
There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife…
(First line of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book)
Ah, yes, The Graveyard Book. In that 2008 novel Gaiman presents us with the story of a young human child raised in a cemetery by a variety of well-meaning ghosts and supernatural creatures. Clever, but by Page 50 my interest in the central character, Bod, was purely academic: how would he be successfully re-integrated into human society? The rest of the book zipped past in a blur.
Likewise, I was almost immediately turned off by The Ocean at the End of the Lane. A more recent effort (2013), it’s told (mostly) from the point of view of a child whose observations are so mature and thoughtful as to defy credulity. I disliked the book from its initial pages and it never really caught on with me. Finished it out of a sense of obligation, not joy.
It strikes me that Neil Gaiman is a perfect author for our sped up, ADHD-afflicted society. He writes moderately well, with visual acumen, setting the table quickly, not bothering with niceties like realism or verisimilitude. His fans will say I’m being unfair—after all, with fairy tales the effect is more important than the nuts and bolts of narrative (and perhaps they’re right).
But there’s a fine line in dark fantasy and horror literature, a point where the author must create the impression that what we’re reading is actually taking place, expend every effort to ensure we’re fully immersed in the story, crying and bleeding along with the protagonist, experiencing their dread as the knob starts turning, the door inching open. If we have no faith in their ordeal, no stake in what’s happening to them, the writer has failed us, failed to devise a scenario that is, at once, dramatic and nerve-rending and, despite our best efforts to think otherwise, believable and authentic.
Personal, intimate horror. What really goes on in the dark.
That’s what scares us and leaves a permanent mark on our psyche.
Fairy tales are fine for children, but surely adults require narratives of more depth—aesthetically sound and literate and, at the same time, unrelenting and provocative, seeking to exact an emotional toll, while defying and frustrating expectations.
It’s time Neil Gaiman started writing for grownups.
People old enough to know that in life there are no happy endings…and no such thing as a great artist who stoops to please.
“Anecdote of the Jar” appears about halfway through the book. Like all the best poetry, it manages to be, simultaneously, deceptively simple and yet enormous in its implications.
I can’t cite the poem in its entirety without paying a stipend to Stevens’ estate (and more power to ’em), but I can tell you that it succeeds, in three brief stanzas, at revealing humankind as the ultimate invasive species, spreading our cargo cult of garbage and useless detritus to the farthest reaches of our planet. Pepsi cans and cluster bombs dropping like manna from the heavens, a “north Atlantic gyre” of Walmart bags and accumulated human waste and debris, literally an island of filth to navigate around, map and study.
Understand, I know nothing of the genesis or conception of “Anecdote of the Jar”, this is purely my take on it, a highly subjective interpretation. The poem was likely written in the 1920’s or 30’s, long before the full scope of our crimes against the environment was apparent. Was Stevens’ prescient, somehow aware of what was coming? I’m not qualified to answer. I do know that quite often poets are like a canary in a coal mine, detecting dangerous elements and tendencies within our society the rest of us either don’t or (more likely) won’t acknowledge.
Just by its mere presence on a hillside in Tennessee, a jar, the simplest and most basic of objects, defeats that ancient landscape, forever marring it. Nature, in an instant, overtaken and violated, no longer pristine, untouched by human hands.
I think “fair use” permits me to quote two crucial lines:
The wilderness rose up to it/And sprawled around, no longer wild…
That’s what happens when you drop a fast food cup in the woods or toss your garbage from a moving vehicle. A single thoughtless act that spoils the scenery for the rest of us.
Remember the backpacker’s credo: Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.
And, even so, I beg you, make sure you walk on tiptoes…
Well, since my last post, I’ve been a busy lad, working hard on the novel-in-progress, kicking PayPal’s ass and—
What’s that? I haven’t mentioned my on-going dispute with those lovely folks at PayPal/eBay, have I? Here’s the poop:
Three years ago I filed a formal complaint with the Privacy Commission of Canada. PayPal brusquely informed me that my on-line transactions had reached a certain (arbitrary) limit and I could no longer use their services until I allowed them to link to my bank account. Ahem. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am touchy about my security and privacy almost to the point of paranoia. There was no way I was going to give those corporate scum-suckers that kind of potential access to my personal banking information.
So I ratted PayPal out to the Privacy Commissioner. Insisted that I was being denied services and my rights as a private citizen were being violated.
After several years of investigations and submissions from both parties, the Privacy Commissioner has concluded that my complaint was “well-founded” and I have had my PayPal account fully restored. Not only that, Paypal has agreed to change its practices and fully implement the Privacy Commission’s recommendations regarding on-line transactions by November 30, 2014. These “corrective measures” will provide PayPal clients with more information and an “alternative solution”, other than the illegal and unwarranted collection of personal banking information.
My thanks to the folks at the Privacy Commission for pursuing such a lengthy and complex case and for holding PayPal’s feet to the fire until they were forced to acknowledge the legitimacy of my concerns.
Vindication! This is what happens when you refuse to be one of the dull-witted, simple-minded “sheeple”. As consumers and citizens of a free country we have rights and must make every effort to ensure our private data isn’t being collected/mined or our financial security rendered vulnerable by greedhead corporations and/or overly nosy, inquisitive government agencies.
So stay vigilant.
What else? The novel…ah, yes, the novel. What can I tell you—very little really. It progresses, slowly but surely. Still anticipating an early 2015 release date…other than that, I have nothing to add. Cautiously optimistic but unwilling to go any further. How’s that for unhelpful?
When I’ve not been writing or editing, I’ve been watching a number of good movies, some of which I’ve reviewed over on my film blog. You did know I had a film site, right? Oh, for Heaven’s sake…well, you’ll find it here. I post infrequently (surprise, surprise) and refuse to have anything to do with silly popcorn movies, rom-coms or abominations by the likes of Michael Bay, JJ Abrams, Zack Snyder or (saving the loudest retch for last) James Cameron. I try to champion obscure or forgotten movies, doing my bit to enlighten contemporary cinema-goers, many of whom haven’t seen anything older than “Jaws”. Hands down, the best film I’ve seen so far in 2014 is a Czech film Sherron gave me for Christmas called “Marketa Lazarova”. Nothing else has come close. Set in the Medieval era, complications involving two warring clans…strong intimations of Bergman’s “Virgin Spring” and Kurasawa’s “Throne of Blood”. I intend to watch it again before I sit down and write my review. So much to take in—there is greatness in that film.
March 8th, Sherron and I attended a performance by the Saskatoon Symphony. Not a regular occurrence, I’m shame-faced to admit, but this time around the bill was too good to resist, featuring two of my favorite 20th Century composers, Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams. After the intermission, three different choirs filed out and added their voices to Vaughan Williams’ “Sea Symphony” (the text derived from poems by Walt Whitman). Two solo vocalists, Monica Huisman and Peter McGillivray, were also highlighted and the evening concluded, as conductor Victor Sawa promised in his pre-concert chat, not with a huge flourish, but a gentle exhortation to sail on, ever onward, risking everything, abandoning safe anchorages and familiar stars:
“O my brave soul!
O farther farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail! …”
Lots of reading and music in the past few weeks—some titles that stand out, Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke (recommended by Penn Gillete on one of his “Penn Point” podcasts), Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Reza Aslan), as well as lots of poetry by the likes of Ted Kooser, Tom Hennen, Donald Hall and W.S. Merwin. In terms of tunes, I’ve been enjoying everything from a compilation of Simply Saucer songs I picked up in a thrift shop, to the Foo Fighters, Airbag, Radio Moscow, Bob Mould, Hayes Carll, Spiritualized…how am I doing?
And I want to take a moment to give a shout out to some individuals deserving of special mention, this month’s Roll Call of Honor:
First of all, a huge “Thank You” to Jason Brock for surprising the hell out of me with a couple of first edition Richard Matheson books. Gifts that arrived from out of the blue (an act of generosity I’ll remember a long time).
A big hug to my sister, Colleen, who recently retired from her longtime position with Viterra and, I hope, will now sit back and smell the roses for awhile—God knows, you deserve it, gal!
And, finally, a sad but fond farewell to a man who often represented the conscience of his nation, Tony Benn. One of my colleagues on LibraryThing posted the following quote, which sums the man up perfectly:
“Ask the powerful five questions:
What power have you got?
Where did you get it from?
In whose interests do you exercise it?
To whom are you accountable?
How can we get rid of you?”
Tony Benn (1925-2014)