It’s an annual ritual, dating back more than two decades.
Right after Christmas I sit down and take stock of the past year, assaying it in terms of the quality and quantity of work I’ve composed, what I feel I accomplished and where I fell short. This assessment is rarely kind: I can be awfully hard on myself. On that point, I’m not alone:
“It is now sixteen years since my first book was published and about twenty-one years since I started publishing articles in magazines…There has literally been not one day in which I did not feel that I was idling, that I was behind with the current job, and that my total output was miserably small. Even at the periods when I was working ten hours a day on a book, or turning out four or five articles a week, I have never been able to get away from this neurotic feeling.”
George Orwell wrote those words in a notebook he kept during the last year of his life. His heroic work ethic unquestionably contributed to his early demise; this fact is not lost on me. You can literally write yourself to death.
Cheery thought, innit?
But I’m not going to let my neuroses get in the way of celebrating a productive and creative year. Not me. No, sirree. I mean, I should be pleased with what I accomplished and a fair summary of 2007 would probably go something like this:
It was, to my mind, a year of retrenchment and learning. Retrenchment in that I finished a couple of longstanding projects and, re: the latter, thanks to my blog I got a real education as to the scope and limits of technology and came to a clearer understanding of the possibilities inherent in cyberspace.
I get the sense that during this past year I was tooling up, doing my utmost to marshal and focus my skills, honing them to razor sharpness.
Preparing for things to come…
The high points:
- In the early part of 2007 I completed final edits on Voiceworks. It’s a thin volume (71 pages), made up of 50 or 60 of my favorite monologues and short, spoken word pieces. The material is drawn from the past twenty years and includes offerings like “Cranes” and “A.I.” and a number of monologues from The Break (my one-act play).
- I finally put the finishing touches on my Redbook poetry collection (so named because of the red notebook I scribble the first drafts into). Sherron helped me paste it onto the background I wanted and it looks great. This one took a mere decade to whittle and pare into shape.
- Revised two older stories, fleshing them out and coming up with luvly new versions of “Adult Children” and “Matriarchy”. I especially treasure the latter and was pleased when CBC Radio producer Kelley Jo Burke picked it up for broadcast on “Gallery” (air date: October 27, 2007).
- Sewed up the movie deal for “Kept”, acting as my own agent and going through about twenty drafts of the contract with the increasingly frustrated producers and screenwriter. Used the Writers Guild of America’s model contract to help me restrict the option period, secure compensation for sequels and remakes, protect literary rights, etc. A time-consuming, frustrating, annoying, nerve-wracking process but it got done and now we’ll see what happens.
- I revised a few of the short stories from my venerable (1990) short story collection Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination. It gave me the chance to tighten up the prose and fix the last line of “The Cattletruck”, which never seemed right to me. The new versions are leaner, tighter, superior to the originals. Worth the weeks of murderous edits.
- In March, I finally heeded Sherron’s prompting and allowed her set up this blog. Beautiful Desolation. One of the smartest decisions I ever made. Started out as an experiment, a lark. And then it grew and grew as I added rants, commentaries, reviews, loaded on stories that hadn’t seen the light of day for years, an excerpt from the best unpublished novel kicking around (So Dark the Night). Presently, we find ourselves victims of our own success. Far more hits than we expected, people expecting new content on a regular basis—sheesh. So we’ve expanded the site and intend to utilize new publish on demand and podcasting technologies to…well, there are big plans afoot and we’ll leave it there. Stay tuned.
- But the absolute best thing to happen (writing-wise) in 2007 was undoubtedly finally summoning up the nerve to commence work on a longer effort, my novella “Of the Night”. Took every ounce of courage and willpower I had to stick with it but I did (thank you, Creator). You’ll be hearing more about this one in the months to come. Sherron loved the draft I gave her just before Christmas and I see big things ahead for this 160-page, 40,000 word beauty.
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When I actually list what I’ve done in the past 365 days, at first blush it seems like a pretty significant amount of work. What do you expect, I write every day, often failing to pace myself, working overtime to the detriment of my fingers, shoulders and back (to say nothing of my mental state).
But when I stack myself up against some of the truly prolific writers out there, I’m a time-waster, a lazy, itinerant asshole. Look at the sheer amount of titles folks like L.E. Modesitt, Kevin Anderson, Timothy Zahn or Robert Jordan can thrash out. These guys have bibliographies that would choke a fucking stegosaurus. How do they do it? I’m not talking about the quality of the work, I mean how can they physically produce that amount of prose, year after year? How can they put out so many pages a day when I can manage only a fraction of that while maintaining a schedule that sucks my strength down to the last dregs? How? How? How?
“What we write with difficulty is written with more care, engraves itself more deeply…”
Well, all right, granted, there’s that. The guys I just mentioned aren’t exactly literary stylists, straining to compose brilliant sentences, so lyrical they practically serenade you from the page. They’re hacks and their readers have minimum expectations when it comes to their work.
But what about authors like Anthony Burgess, Joyce Carol Oates and William T. Vollmann? They produce(d) a flood of pages every year and, for the most part, have secured their literary reputations and earned the highest awards in the land. Hugo, Balzac, Stendhal, Dumas pere et fils—huge canons, literary immortals.
It baffles me. Are they that much smarter, more efficient, better focussed than I am? While I struggle and grope for words, does the prose flow from their hands, whole chapters emerging fully formed, committed to the page with hardly a correction? Didn’t I read somewhere that Kevin Anderson dictates most of his books into a tape recorder and has them transcribed later?
My mind reels at the thought. If I did the same thing, the best I would likely manage would be a few constipated groans and a string of scatological profanities. And that’s on a good day…
I know it’s ridiculous to draw parallels between my career and that of other authors—everyone is unique, each of us a prisoner of psychology, circumstance and other factors harder to label and categorize. But the whole physical aspect fascinates me—I completed a good draft of my novella in about 3 1/2 months. I worked on that novel from the first week of September until Christmas, taking only 2 days off for Thanksgiving. 160 pages. Some of these fantasy fucks can excrete the equivalent over a long weekend. Knock out a novelization in a month or six weeks to help pay the rent….
(Long, drawn out sigh.)
But you knew me better than that…
I know…I’ll close off my last posting of 2007 by listing the things I’m grateful for, the people who remind me life is worth living and some of the stuff that redeems my boring and uneventful existence:
God. Yup, I’m serious. I am inspired and sustained and strengthened by the knowledge that my life, my work is serving the aims of a conscious, enigmatic Creator, an entity encompassing every square nanometer of our universe and a similar proportion of the other 10 dimensions currently thought to exist. So there.
Family. Couldn’t do it without you. Sher, boys, thanks for everything.
Friends. The people who care for me despite my long silences and busy schedule, who stick around despite my inattentiveness, who persist in believing in me against all evidence to the contrary.
Writing. Obvious, huh? But writing isn’t only about putting words on paper; it’s also prayer. It’s when I feel closest to my Creator—often, when my talent and resolve falter, something takes control and gets me back on track again. How many times have a looked up from a paragraph in wonder, not remembering having composed it? Those are the moments I live and pine for…
Books. I’ve repeatedly insisted the printed word saved my life and I mean it. God bless you Arthur Conan Doyle and Philip K. Dick and L. Frank Baum and William S. Burroughs and Cormac McCarthy and Homer and Franklyn W. Dixon…
Music. Soothes this savage beast like nothing else. Electronica, soundtracks, alternative, metal…and Glen Campbell singing “Wichita Lineman”.
Movies. Not as many as the old days, just not enough time. But doing my best to see some of the classics I’ve missed, discovering for myself the genius and vision of artists like F.W. Murnau, Tati, Georges Henri Clouzot and Val Lewton…
Sports. Every Saturday night (from September to June) finds me in front of the TV set, watching the nationally broadcast hockey game (a rite going back about, oh, 40 years or so). Whenever I can, I try to squeeze a few quarters of a CFL football game in between marathon revision sessions. I’m a frustrated athlete, if I died and could be reborn as anyone, it would be Joe Montana, two minutes left in the game, the ’Niners on our own ten yard line…
Radio. Old tyme radio dramas, CBC documentaries and features, BBC World Service…the possibilities nearly endless since we started piping in high speed internet. Radio Moscow anyone? NPR…
Art. Blame Sherron for this one too—every so often words fail me and only a visual image will suffice. Collage, acrylic paint, short films…over the past few years I’ve dabbled in just about everything. Sher’s a great teacher in that she does the best she can despite her student’s ineptitude.
Canada. I really do live in the best country in the world. I bag about the stupid cultural bureaucrats and the mediocrity I see all around me…but, cripes, I’m free to speak my mind, there’s nobody strapping a bomb to his ass and hopping on a bus behind me, nobody telling me what to think or say…my home and native land. I despair for it sometimes but I wouldn’t trade citizenship with anyone, anywhere.
You. Didn’t think I’d leave that out, did you? If you’re a repeat visitor or if this is the first time you’ve popped by—don’t matter, I’m grateful to you for seeking me out. The amount of “hits” this year surprised me and convinced me that there’s a potential audience out there, smart folk with an appreciation for good writing, good company and who appreciate (or, at least, tolerate) a certain amount of hyperbole and/or satire. Hang around because there’s more good stuff coming in 2008. A change in format, lots of new material including—
Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself again. But I’m really excited about what the next year will bring. I have a strong hunch 2008 is gonna be a good one.
And I sincerely hope it’s the same for you.
I’m a Space Age guy, wired up wrong for the IT revolution that’s in the process of transforming our world into the inside of a video game. Me, I’m still stuck with Neil Armstrong on the Moon while the rest of modern civilization rushes toward The Great Singularity.
The Singularity is like the Rapture, dig, you get taken up, leave your earthly body behind and, like, evolve into a higher state. The difference is, with the Rapture you have to earn your way into heaven…the Singularity doesn’t discriminate. As long as your credit is good and you can afford the technology, you can spend the rest of eternity fucking Marilyn Monroe senseless in the honeymoon suite of the Hilton. Virtuality allows for limitless possibilities and is capable of reproducing any era, any conceivable reality. The interface between humankind and machines. The beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?
Our family has finally joined the 21st century—yup, we now have a home internet connection, a computer on-line 24 hours a day. I’ve ducked and bobbed and weaved and tried my damnedest to avoid this day. So now we’ve got a window on the world, a valuable resource, an educational aid, a tool like no other in the history of the world—my question: when I turn the fucking thing on, what’s looking back at me?
But Sherron needs to get on-line because she’s doing her Master’s and the boys can use it for their homework assignments and research projects. And with all the weird, esoteric shit I put in my tales I can benefit greatly from access to the all-knowing, all-seeing Google.
Then again, it also means I can now spend hours fucking around on favourite sites like Senses of Cinema and Book Forum…or checking to see if there are any cheap plastic model kits for sale on eBay (don’t ask)…or “tag surfing”, looking for kindred spirits out there in cyberspace, posting comments on sites of interest, only looking up when I hear the boys’ bus stopping in front of our house after school…
What next? Cable TV? Stuck in front of the Space channel when I should be bending my brain on new fiction? Right now we have two channels and don’t feel we’re really missing anything. We, my family and I, aren’t the hippest people around. Not into brand names, fashions, trends. Big readers. About the only program we follow with any regularity is the new “Dr. Who” series. We’re completely out to lunch when it comes to what’s hot and what’s not.
Confession: I have no idea what’s on the bestseller list.
I can’t tell you one of the top-selling music CD’s or singles.
I don’t remember the last recent movie I watched. “300”? God, no wonder I haven’t seen anything since. The last new release I can remember liking is “Lord of War”. The opening title sequence of that movie is…stunning.
And these are not the least of my crimes:
I’ve never seen a single entire episode of “Lost”, “Amazing Race”, “Friends” or “The Sopranos”.
Have watched less than a nanosecond of “American/Canadian Idol”.
Reality TV? What the fuck are you talking about? It’s TV, dummy. None of it is real.
To those people who arrange their schedules around a beloved TV program or camp out overnight in front of their local theatre to be first in line to see the latest, greatest sequel of a sequel of a remake, let me ask you one simple question:
WHERE THE FUCK DO YOU FIND THE TIME?
There’s a line in a very under-rated little movie called “Those Lips, Those Eyes”. Frank Langella’s character is an aging actor, clearly talented but stuck in a shitty little touring company, playing to rubes. At one point he complains bitterly of his lot, shouting: “Time’s winged chariot is flying up my ass!”.
That’s the way I feel. I’m killing myself on this writing gig, going at it seven days a week, 6-10 hours a day, keeping up a murderous pace for months on end…and meanwhile looking over my shoulder, a la Satchell Paige, wondering what’s gaining on me.
You have to understand, the men in my family are prone to shortened life spans. And it isn’t the usual suspects—heart disease, cancer—that hand them St. Peter’s calling card. Oh, no. Details are hard to nail down; secrets are tightly kept in my family. It’s like an iron curtain descends. When you ask about what happened to Uncle So-and-So, dead at thirty-two, or cousin Fred, felled in his early forties, you receive unsatisfactory, even curt replies. “Lockjaw” or, just as likely, “Lepers got him.”.
And that’s it. No amount of questioning will pry loose anything more significant or helpful than that. “Some things are better left unsaid.”
It’s likely some old, half-forgotten scandal, a small nugget of shame but people act as if the government is involved.
Now, I happen to be a particularly morbid individual and so I look at this dismal track record (Burns male = early death) and I begin to consider my own circumstances. I’m forty-three, soon to be forty-four. What grim fate awaits me?
Will it be (reluctantly, through tightly pressed lips): “Furnace explosion”? “Spontaneous combustion”? “Gangrene”? The suspense is starting to get to me.
It’s too bad. I think I’d like to live to a ripe, old age. Work right to the bitter end. Celine finished the last draft of Rigadoon, told his wife he’d completed the book and died that evening. That’s the way I’d like to go…but it’s unlikely I’ll be that fortunate.
Allergy to book dust…
Bad paper cut…
Whatever happens, it’ll have to be sudden, unpredictable and utterly preposterous. After all, I have a family tradition to uphold…
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News and Updates
This blog has grown rather large and ungainly. There are plans currently afoot to organize it. Nothing will be lost, just a reshuffling of the deck, posts filed under their proper designations, the home page slimmed down. If you can’t find something, drop me a line and let me know.
Had a busy summer, lots of writing, a few stories, many prose poems, everything still pretty much in the first draft stage. Seem to be scribbling constantly but there isn’t any focus, can’t latch on to a project that really engages my faculties. Plenty of candidates, no clear favorites. Some of the projects I have in the bin require enormous amounts of research, time and energy that I don’t possess right now. The failure to find a publisher for So Dark the Night has damaged my confidence and I feel daunted by any project longer than two or three thousand words. I spent three years on a terrific thriller that I can’t get anyone to seriously consider.
Right now, So Dark the Night is under consideration at five different (very different) publishing houses, including Ace Science Fiction (New York), who have had the manuscript for over sixteen months. In all, I’ve contacted sixty-four (64) publishers and only a small handful agreed to have a look at it. Many begged off with form letters, saying they no longer considered unsolicited manuscripts. A few didn’t bother replying at all (despite the self-addressed, stamped envelope I enclosed).
Some good news though. Kelley Jo Burke, producer for CBC Radio’s “Gallery” program, bought my short story “Matriarchy”. It should air some time in the new year (I’ll post times and dates when I get the word). It’s a mainstream offering, set immediately after a funeral. I really love the story and it’s perfect for radio. Hope you’ll be able to tune in.
Also, miracle of miracles, someone actually accepted a poem of mine. You’ll find it at the Words on Paper site. Should take you about a second a half to read it. Go ahead, time yourself.
I note that Peter Watts didn’t collect the Hugo Award he so richly deserved for Blindsight. Peter really showed a lot of growth with Blindsight and I especially admired the way he was able to make the transition to the deep space environment (Peter’s an underwater guy, not of them thar physicist-hacks). Better luck next time, Mr. Watts…and there will be a next time, bet on it.
On a personal note, our albino hedgehog Ponyma is ailing. Yeah, I said hedgehog. You just knew we wouldn’t have conventional pets, didn’t you? We have two of the buggers, part rodent, part pin cushion. Low-maintenance creatures, I’ll give them that. And they both seem very devoted to my eldest son. Even after two years I still shriek like a high school girl whenever one of the things ventures anywhere near me.
Losing a pet is tough and I think it will hit my son hard. Death rearing its ugly head. He’ll be angry, wanting answers. What kind of God allows wonderful creatures, good friends to die? Tough one. But we’re a family, we’ll get through it. And, who knows? Maybe they’ll manage to convince me to accept another oddball pet into our oddball home.
Does anyone out there know where I can lay my hands on an armadillo? A platypus on the cheap? Call this number…
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I’ve been playing lots of music lately, accompaniment for my aimless scribbling. Faves right now include Interpol (they just released a new album, “Our Love to Admire”), Grandaddy (“Just Like the Fambly Cat”), Aqualung (“Strange and Beautiful” ), Wolfmother, White Stripes (“Icky Thump” and “White Blood Cells” ), Jesus and Mary Chain, Elbow (“Asleep in the Back”), Beck (“The Information”), Ministry (“Rio Grande Blood”), Audioslave (“Revelations”), Eels (“Shootenanny”) and NIN (“Year Zero”).
In terms of my viewing pleasure, I found a site where they archive TV shows and you can tune in for nuttin’. Finally got a chance to see “The Mighty Boosh” after hearing rumblings about it for ages. Great stuff. And “Black Books” is wonderful—Dylan Moran should be declared a national treasure. And then I couldn’t help myself…I watched the very first episode of “Land of the Giants”. For old time’s sake. And reacquainted myself with “Mystery Science Theatre 3000”, a show I’ve always found hilarious.
A friend of mine (hey, Mark!) was good enough to send us a compilation of the Quay Brothers short animated flicks and that was smashing. I’ve also recently developed a passion for the films of Henri-Georges Clouzot. I’ve seen his three most notable efforts, “Le Corbeau” (1943), “Wages of Fear” (1953) and “Diabolique” (1954). I’ll take this guy over Hitchcock any day, folks. Sherron and I also viewed Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring”—very powerful. Not as visually arresting as we would have expected (Sven Nykvist was his cinematographer, after all). The vengeance von Sydow’s character wreaks at the conclusion of the film renders him almost an elemental force. And then the miraculous finale…
An author should plug a few books: I finished Margaret McMillan’s account of Nixon’s 1972 trip to China and didn’t find it nearly as interesting as her previous effort, 1919. And, yes, I made it through the last Harry Potter book. Let me quote from the notes I scrawled afterward:
“Give the gal credit—Rowling brings back practically everybody for one final appearance, including the whomping willow and the Chamber of Secrets. Lots of battles and close scrapes—some of the magic of the movies has rubbed off on Ms. Rowling. Animated suits of armour leap off the walls and there are Star Wars –type firefights in the skies over England…The conclusion seems to go on forever, another byproduct of a clunky, rather tuneless book. Rowling is determined to get the job done, gritting her teeth and winding things up with a flourish, trying her best to satisfy Harry’s myriad fans and wash her hands of the whole thing.”
I guess you can tell I wasn’t impressed.
But I was impressed by Gerard J. DeGroot’s myth-busting take on the “real” story behind the events leading up to that great day in July, 1969, Dark Side of the Moon. I’ve been an astronaut buff for years but some of this stuff was news to me. Humankind’s greatest feat was achieved with the aid of Nazi war criminals (whitewashed for public consumption), the space race only an expensive diversion for successive adminstrations who couldn’t solve thornier issues like civil rights and poverty.
In my dreams, I’m the first man on Mars. I place my right foot on the dry, rust-coloured soil, making sure to leave a deep impression, an imprint easily visible to the folks at home. Settling my full weight on an alien land. Pausing, clearing my throat. “I claim this world in the name of the people of the planet Earth…and the corporate sponsors of this mission, which include WalMart, Sony, Compaq…”
Within five years there will be gigantic billboards on Olympus Mons.
The human stain, spreading ever outward…