For years I’ve suffered from a sense of thwarted nostalgia or yearning melancholy. I’ve struggled putting into words exactly what I’ve been experiencing, this unshakeable conviction that I exist outside of time, not belonging to the present day, out of synch with the rest of the world.
The other day I came across a book titled Endangered Words (Simon Hertnon, Skyhorse Publishing) and while paging through it happened upon an entry for saudade.
Never heard of such an animal and when I checked the accompanying definition, the hair on the back of my neck rose with an audible crackle:
Of Portuguese origin, saudade refers to “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness”. (A.F.G. Bell)
Silver-skinned rocketships and routine journeys to and from Mars, the outer planets.
A “golden age” of friendly, singing cowboys, camaraderie around the campfire, the home ranch across the next ridge.
I think that’s essentially why I became a writer: from an early age I could see reality wasn’t panning out the way I liked, so it was up to me to create my own private universe.
Come visit me sometime.
Just open one of my books or short stories and say “Hello”…
Or, at least, that’s how it seems.
Where did the past month go? Well, I’ll tell you:
Mostly it was swallowed up by a 12,000-word novelette set in my “Ilium” universe. At one point I spent eighteen consecutive days slaving away on said project, from eight in the morning until eight at night. Fun, fun, fun.
Because for me to be at my most creative I have to be fully immersed in a work, utterly incognizant of the “real world” around me.
And so it’s been with this latest piece.
I’ve barely been reading, just some essays from a posthumous collection by the great Tony Judt. So burned out the most I can manage in terms of entertainment the last few nights are a couple of old Gene Autry westerns. I kid you not. The singin’ cowboy a balm on my brain.
But yesterday I finally printed up my “Sherron Draft” and this weekend my devoted and long-suffering wife will go through the novelette and render her verdict. And from there: revisions and more revisions until at last I’m satisfied I’ve got it as note perfect as I can.
The ceaseless grind. That’s the part they don’t tell you about in those helpful “how to” articles in Writer’s Digest or that expensive creative writing class you just enrolled in. Creation, getting words down on paper, that’s the easy part…it’s the process that comes afterward that tests your mettle. How much effort are you prepared to expend to make your story or poem the best it can possibly be? Meticulous, tireless editing. That’s the difference between genius and wannabes.
Somehow I also managed to complete an overview of a fictional Quebecois film-maker and enfant terrible, a 2000-word “mockumentary” that’s the best piece of satire I’ve written in ages. I have some plans for that one and will likely release it in the next week or so. I’ll update you as soon as there’s anything to report on that front.
…and like everybody else, I’ve been watching the political shenanigans south of the border with growing incredulity.
Here’s my two cents worth:
First of all, this talk of a “contest” on the Democratic side is a joke. Hillary has the money and power, Bernie is a nice guy with some cool ideas. Bernie represents a movement; Hillary is a fucking machine. She’s got this one wired tight. End of story.
Regarding the Republicans, I’m starting to see shades of Barry Goldwater in 1964.
Name not familiar to you youngsters? He’s the dude who famously said: “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice”.
Still doesn’t ring any bells?
Never mind. The point is that in 1964 Goldwater and his followers were like today’s Tea Party—pissed off about special interests and insiders controlling Washington, the whole thing in need of a radical overhaul, etc. Richard Nixon and the GOP hierarchy came to the conclusion that Lyndon Johnson, wearing the mantle of an assassinated president (JFK), was unbeatable in 1964 and decided to let Goldwater and his lunatic fringe seize the reins of the Republican party. Once they were annihilated, they would go slinking back to their rat holes and the true king-makers and lever-pullers could take back the party in time for 1968.
Which is exactly what happened.
Makes me wonder if today’s Republican poobahs aren’t intending the same thing in 2016. Let Trump and his dickhead followers lead the party to certain ruin against the Hillary juggernaut, and then regain control in time for congressional and senate elections and a run at the presidency (hopefully with a more proven, viable candidate) in 2020.
Right now the GOP establishment is spooked—their two star candidates, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, have failed to produce any excitement or momentum. Bush, in particular, never looked statesmanlike and comfortable in the spotlight and clearly wasn’t interested in making a serious bid. Hopefully, we’ve seen the last Bush in the Oval Office (my daily mantra). Rubio’s been rallying of late but does he have the balls to go toe-to-toe with the Donald? That remains to be seen. He needs better gag writers and he has to take the gloves off. Marco, if you can’t manage to engage with and whup a coiffed, spoiled blowhard, frankly you don’t deserve a shot at the big chair.
I’ve been a political junkie for as long as I can remember and that sphere (especially south of the border) just keeps getting weirder and weirder.
Money has distorted the process and attaining power and stature have become the primary motivations of those seeking to represent us.
Public service? Accountability? Transparency? Ethics?
Mere words, lacking currency or value in a world increasingly fixated on satisfying selfish desires, while consciously and arrogantly absolving itself of the consequences of its greed and stupidity.
Don’t make me laugh.
People, it has been said, get the form of government they most deserve.
In that sense, today’s theatrics and hijinks don’t say much about us as a society and civilizing influence, do they?
I’d count Gene among my first heroes, along with Bobby Orr, Neil Armstrong and William Shatner (“Captain Kirk”). The Yorkton TV station used to play old Gene Autry serials early Saturday morning and I can recall watching them on our cube-shaped black and white television. Listening to his Texas twang is like a trip down Memory Lane on an air conditioned tour bus with an open bar. Sherron, sadly, does not share my affection for the singin’ cowboy–if she hears “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” one more time, she’s going to string me up at high noon.
It’s finally starting feel like Christmas around here. Usually, I’m a lot more excited and pumped for the arrival of St. Nick, but with both of our lads grown up and moved away, there isn’t the same kind of ambience. Ah, well. They’ll both be joining us for the holidays, along with Liam’s wife, Erica, who has learned to tolerate our goofy, stubbornly immature family and their strange antics. This 105-year old house will be rocking with music and laughter.
Frequent visitors to this blog will know that, despite my cruel, cynical outer veneer, I am a sucker for Christmas. This time of year finds me very reflective, emotional and sentimental. It doesn’t last long, thankfully, by New Year’s Day I’m back to my cranky, hard-bitten mindset…but for awhile, a week-ten days, the world doesn’t seem quite as bleak and hopeless.
This year, I think I’ll confine myself to a few words of gratitude directed toward the the Vast Active Living Intelligence System (VALIS) operating in this universe, the timeless, inscrutable force directing and inspiring us, trying to help us achieve our great Destiny. When I’m really on, working at a high level, fully immersed in my writing, I can sense the proximity of that force, that consciousness, feel like I’m part of some eternal, infinite continuum. That is…intoxicating. Nothing like it. It’s why I put up with the physical, mental and psychic pain that accompanies the artistic life, the despair, the anonymity, societal indifference. Anything for a few, fleeting moments of contact/collaboration with the Ineffable.
Throughout autumn, I worked on one short story after another–over eighty (80) pages of prose. Why? There are few decent fiction markets any more and they’re so inundated with submissions, it’s hardly worth the effort of sending anything their way. The short story format is nearly as dead as the dodo…or poetry, for that matter. So why bother? Search me, you’d have to ask my Muse for the answer to that one and she’s famously enigmatic and unhelpful.
I write, therefore I am… (apologies to Rene Descartes).
For me, nothing else matters but words on paper, regardless of the genre, length, marketability, whatever. Just keep my pen moving across the page, the flow of words uninterrupted.
Keep the words coming.
My prayer for the past thirty+ years…and for 2016, as well.
Drop by once in awhile, see where all those words are taking me.
Some very odd soul journeys ahead.
I’m a sucker for Christmas.
You wouldn’t think it, would you? It goes against my curmudgeonly nature, my cynical contempt for most things human conceived and generated. But around mid-December, my icy heart thaws (a little) and I begin to harbor a few (tentative) good feelings toward the sentient bipeds inhabiting this planet.
The mood and setting are critical:
Fireplace. Blazing away. The tang and pop of pine wood. The temperature outside plunging but do we care?
Booze. Hopefully someone will bring along some single malt scotch (Glenfiddich or Glenmorangie would be lovely) and, if not, there’s wine and Guinness beer, a little something for every thirst.
Gifts. I take gift-giving very seriously. Nothing frivolous, everything carefully considered. Usually that means the right book to the right person. My track record there is pretty good.
Tree. Must be real and decorated with the minimum of ostentation. Home made ornaments and family mementos. Our ragged ass angel stuck at the top.
Programming. The essentials: the Vienna Boys Choir and Gene Autry crooning in the background and, in the evening, on TV, “Charlie Brown Christmas”, the original “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, “The Muppets Christmas” and, in the last few years “The Trailer Park Boys” Christmas show (hilarious and surprisingly touching). A few years ago I improvised, adding “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” but that didn’t go over well. Some people just don’t appreciate cinematic excellence.
Laughter. This hundred year old house shuddering on its foundations, howls and yodels of mirth rattling the windows.
Christmas, at the Burns residence.
* * * *
A couple of past posts relating to Christmas:
Click here to read “The Gospel of St. Nicholas“, based on recent archaeological digs in the Middle East. I discovered some startling new evidence on the historical figure of St. Nicholas that contradicts previous theories regarding the life and death of the man who would become Santa Claus. Shocking stuff.
And, finally, a few Christmases back I posted a Christmas story starring my two beloved occult detectives Cassandra Zinnea and Evgeny Nightstalk, featured in my novel So Dark the Night. “Finding Charlotte” is a case from the early days of their partnership, a missing person report that turns out to be more complicated than initial appearances.
Happy holidays to readers and regular visitors to this blog.
Best wishes for 2015 and here’s hoping there’s better times to come.
Our youngest kid has now flown the coop and we are, officially, empty nesters. The house seems damn strange without our boys pounding up and down the steps, blasting music or bellowing at their video games in their basement hidey-hole. The silence, as they say, is deafening. But they’re both ready to be out in the world, anxious to be on their own. They’ll have their tough days, intervals when it seems like the whole universe has lined up against them. But they’ll make it. They’re tough and resourceful and bloody smart. Which gives them a leg up in any society.
So we begin 2014, Sherron and I, somewhat sorrowful, missing the lads but eager to get on with the next phase of our lives; back to being a couple again, exploring the world together, seeing where our dreams take us.
I’m fifty years old, as of last October, and that’s also made a difference. I thought any change or transformation would be largely symbolic but turning fifty combined with our sons’ departure has put a whole new slant on things. I feel like another man.
To start with, I realize that more than half my life is gone and if I’m lucky I could have twenty or twenty-five healthy years ahead of me (with my genetics, that might be pushing it). That’s not a lot of time. As a result, I’m not going to waste any of it on stupid discussions, movies, books, music, feuds or anything that doesn’t further my pursuit of wisdom, joy and matters relating to the spirit.
I did a considerable amount of writing in 2013 (not unexpected) but I also found myself exploring other media, employing a variety of means to express myself. As a result, I created more visual pieces than ever before: acrylic paintings, charcoal drawings, lots of photographs, ambient soundscapes, even a short film. Will this trend continue in 2014 or were all these non-literary ventures merely an aberration? Experiments, nothing more.
We shall see.
I know that for some time I’ve occasionally experienced a certain amount of frustration with the limits of language and wish to communicate via non-narrative, non-linear means. Abstraction invites collaboration, interpretation, input from the audience/viewer. The vast majority of my visual work frustrates literal-mindedness—the equivalent of Rorschach Tests, shapes demanding speculation and discussion.
Not for everyone.
Obviously, one of the high points of 2013 was the release of my short story collection Exceptions and Deceptions. The book features what I think is our best cover thus far and includes a batch of stories drawn from the past fifteen years, a couple of them previously unpublished and available nowhere else. Every time I glance up and see it on my shelf, I get a tingle. Fans of Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Jonathan Carroll, Neil Gaiman take note: this one’ll rock your socks off. Trust me.
Another fun experience was collaborating with my son Sam on an instrumental number which he then incorporated into a short film for Sherron’s “Agassiz” mask/puppet production, debuting later this month. Sam’s film is a gem and as soon as he uploads it to YouTube or Vimeo, I’ll post a link.
Let’s see, what else…in November I was astonished to learn my volume New & Selected Poems (1984-2011) was shortlisted for a ReLit independent press award. My bizarre verse? Really?
Managed to read one hundred books in 2013, though at one point I didn’t think I’d make it to #80. A big surge in November-December put me over the top. The 100th book, completed December 30th? Italo Calvino’s Under the Jaguar Sun. What a way to finish off the year.
I’ve been noticing how much my reading tastes have changed over the past number of years—hardly any genre stuff these days, except for a bit of SF and the odd mystery/thriller by LeHane or Philip Kerr. Much less fiction, overall. Gimme a fat, juicy history book any day.
We don’t have cable, so we don’t watch television. Have no idea what shows are popular on the boob tube and couldn’t care less. Ditto with movies. By far the best movie I saw last year was Peter Strickland’s “Berberian Sound Studio”. Haven’t heard of it? Tsk, tsk. Grab it off NetFlix, buy or rent it from Amazon, do not miss this flick.
Music? The new Queens of the Stone Age, as well as Nine Inch Nails (live), Steven Wilson, Mogwai, Benjamin Britten and Gene Autry’s Greatest Hits. Keepin’ it diverse.
Looking ahead: I’ll be working on my new novel, as well as prepping…ah, well, mustn’t give too much away. Let’s just say that Black Dog Press has a number of releases pending in the next eighteen months and there will be further information announced in the days to come.
All the best in 2014.
Thanks, as always, for dropping by and hanging out awhile.
I never thought I’d do this.
This room is sacred to me, the most personal, intimate, safe place I can imagine. Here, I can let my mind roam and give myself over to all manner of foolish thoughts and schemes.
My office is on the second floor of our house, first door on the left at the top of the stairs. There must be something about this space: I don’t know how many friends and people we know have come by the house, ventured upstairs to see me…and stop cold at the threshold of my office. It’s like an invisible barrier holds them back and they peer inside, uncertain of whether or not to enter until I actually say “C’mon in, it’s all right…”
The space is so manifestly mine. It’s like an extension of my mind, all of my obsessions and interests crowded into about 120 square feet of area. High and low culture co-existing side by side. Proust and Gumby. Sam Beckett and Captain Kirk.
But, look, it’s all right, I’m smiling, waving you inside and some of your misgivings dissipate. First thing I always do is point out Sherron’s artwork (the space painting, cave art, 3-D Beckett and book sculpture are hers’), and once you’ve expressed your appreciation, steer you toward my bookshelves. As Borges famously wrote: “To arrange a library is to practice, in a quiet and modest way, the art of criticism”. It’s plain to see where my interests and reading tastes lie. I revere authors who break with convention, push the envelope until it’s somewhere beyond Alpha Centauri and stubbornly present their vision of the world without apology, eschewing artifice and formula. Pynchon, Calvino, Ballard, McCarthy, Joyce.
Not too many genre books in evidence (that should come as no surprise). I keep most of my SF and mystery books in the basement—at least until we can invest in more bookshelves. But even then they won’t be allowed in here: this is a place where I make ART, not look for diversion and escape.
“He speaks truly who speaks the shade…” (Paul Celan)
Ah, you noticed all the toys. Yes, well, that’s part of me too, I suppose. The child inside who resists the notion of growing up and putting away childish things. I think that’s why I’ve retained such curiosity for the world around me and such a profound sense of wonder. I hope that stays with me ’til my dying day.
That’s my “power shelf” there at the top; some of my most sacred objects are up there along with pictures of my family. The real source of my strength when it seems like fate, circumstances and my own stupidity are combining to take a massive diarrhetic dump on me. Below that, a shelf of spiritually oriented tomes, from Rumi’s poetry to the prison letters of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. More inspiration for when the “black dog” of depression and despair is chewing on my ass.
Sometimes this place seems filled with a creative spirit, to the extent that the hairs on my arms stand up because of such close proximity to the Ineffable. There’s a sense of connecting with, becoming part of something far vaster than I’m able to comprehend.
Other days, the air is still and dead, uninhabited.
You can see from the posters and the mini-stereo that music plays a crucial part in my life. The three CD’s I have on rotation right now are Ministry’s “Rio Grande Blood”, Nine Inch Nails’ “With Teeth” and Nick Cave’s “Grinderman” (“No Pussy Blues” fucking rocks). But at the moment I’m playing a recording of the great Jacqueline Du Pre performing Elgar’s Cello Concerto (someone once dubbed it “the saddest music in the world”).
What else? My gorgeous desk, which Sherron bought for me with a paycheck from her first real grownup job. The top opens up like a big hinge and there’s an old Olympia typewriter underneath, used only in case of emergencies. Just can’t quite let it go yet.
The computer I use is an old Power Mac a friend gave us after she upgraded. I’ve had it for about eight years but suspect that it might be time to invest in some new hardware. But…have you priced out an iMac lately? Around eighteen hundred bucks, possibly more if I wanted to get some of the specialized software that would allow me to edit movies and compose music. Maybe in a year or two…besides I detest change, any kind of change, so I suspect part of me would be quite traumatized by switching computers. Knowing me, I’ll likely drag out the process as long as I can.
The big yellow armchair isn’t as comfortable as it looks and it’s probably not good for my bad back. I’ll wait until I can get a really nice rocking chair—something that will keep my wonky spine in alignment without taking up too much room.
But, really, this office isn’t about sitting around and relaxing, it’s a work space. For 8-10 hours a day I immerse myself in my latest project, getting up frequently to pace, talk to myself or burst another one of those stress balls with constant, compulsive squeezing. And then I spring back into my chair and have at it again, repeating the process dozens of times during the course of the day.
Lately, I’ve been re-editing So Dark the Night, an incredibly tedious process, going through a 475 page manuscript over and over again. For the past while I’ve been editing standing up (Hemingway wrote that way too), which is a real departure for me but it seems to be helping the back and shoulder strain. It might be paying creative dividends as well because the editing is going faster and more smoothly than I expected.
Anything else? Yes, I’m a Boston Bruin fan—you got a problem with that? I didn’t think so (Bruin fans are notoriously pugnacious). The great Bobby Orr was my earliest hero, along with Neil Armstrong and Gene Autry. All are represented in the office (Autry symbolically, with a lineup of plastic cowboys and Indians over my office door).
Well, I think that’s everything. Whew. This hasn’t been as stressful an experience as I imagined. Rather liberating, really.
I don’t know if any of this provides you with fresh insights into my personality or work…or if it’s just given you a very good idea of what sort of disturbed mind you’re dealing with.
Regardless, thanks for stopping in.
Me? Well, in a little while I’ll head downstairs to crack open a Guinness and then it’s back up here, the fourth section of So Dark the Night awaiting my slashing red pen. One of my sons will get your coat (don’t worry, he won’t expect a tip). No problem, it was good to meet you.
Uh, sorry, would you mind closing the door behind you on the way out?
Thanks…hope to see you again soon.