Category: independent writing

Listen up, NaNoWriMo Wannabes: Richard Bausch quote

“…these people…want to be considered serious writers; but they have come to believe that they can accomplish this by means of a convenient shortcut. And the industry that produces how-to manuals plays to them, makes money from their hope of finding a way to be a writer, rather than doing the work, rather than actually spending the time to absorb what is there in the vast riches of the world’s literature, and then crafting one’s own voice out of the myriad of voices.

My advice? Put the manuals and how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you really need if you want to write. And wanting to write is so much more than a pose. To my mind, nothing is as important as good writing, because in literature, the walls between people and cultures are broken down, and the things that plague us most—suspicion and fear of the other, and the tendency to see whole groups of people as objects, as monoliths of one cultural stereotype or another—are defeated.

This work is not done as a job, ladies and gentlemen, it is done out of love for the art and the artists who brought it forth, and who still bring it forth to us, down the years and across ignorance and chaos and borderlines. Riches. Nothing to be skipped over in the name of some misguided intellectual social-climbing. Well, let me paraphrase William Carlos Williams, American poet: literature has no practical function, but every day people die for lack of what is found there.”

Richard Bausch, in The Atlantic Monthly


Would the posers and wannabes out there PLEASE note: when you’re a real writer, every fucking month is “national novel writing month”.

Now go back to flipping burgers or whatever it is you do, and leave literature to the professionals…the people who, through years of sweat and sacrifice, have earned the right to call themselves authors.

Shame on you for daring to include yourself in their company…


The Price of Independence

cover,jpegI recently “celebrated” my 52nd birthday and, not unusually, I think, spent part of the day musing and reflecting on my life arc, decisions made, paths chosen.

It can be a somber, sobering process, this kind of self-evaluation, and, inevitably, I get around to my writing.

Thirty years as a professional author and not much of a dent made. Black Dog Press, my imprint (described as a “micro-press” on my Saskatchewan business license) barely scrapes by. It’s no coincidence that I usually publish my titles in the early spring, right after the annual check from the Public Lending Rights folks arrives. It just about pays for each new release.

And let’s be honest, my books sell very modestly; outside a small coterie of readers, I am virtually unknown. I sent out something like 45 copies of my last book, Disloyal Son, to newspapers, magazines, assorted literary folk, receiving precisely three polite acknowledgements and no reviews. Not one. One mystery magazine emailed me, thanking me for sending a copy their way and offering to sell me a full-page ad that could maybe/possibly run in the same issue as the review (hint, hint). I didn’t have money for the ad and they didn’t end up publishing a review. It’s the way things work these days. Kirkus Reviews? Publishers Weekly? For the right price you can commission a four-star review and laudatory blurbs…never mind that no one has even glanced at the book in question.

Publishing is a dirty business, there’s no denying it.

And it’s hard to stay positive, to keep on keeping on, when you know the deck is stacked, the marketplace flooded with a quarter million new releases every year, a clammer of dissonant voices begging to be heard, a hellish, caterwauling chorus.

But it’s the work, that joyfulness I feel when everything is clicking, sentences and paragraphs almost being dictated to me, that’s what makes it worthwhile. As long as I’m able to put pen to paper, as long as those words don’t dry up, inspiration fleeing from me, I think I can endure almost anything.

Creation is everything to me. As soon as I’m done a project, I’m ready to move on, tackle another challenge. And that’s why I don’t spend much time mourning the poor sales of my last novel or short story collection, or grind my teeth down to the gums as I watch their rapid plummet to the bottom of Amazon’s sales rankings. Those four-dollar royalty checks? Hey, bring ’em on.

Just…keep the words coming. In good times and bad. Darkness and light. Ecstasy and despair.

Anything but that screaming silence.



Resisting Biography

breakwaterTo me, it’s not about telling my story, it’s about telling a good story, one that isn’t (at least) twice told.

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.

witingMore 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.


Enchanted days

fenceThis post is long overdue—hey, what can I tell you, it’s been crazy around here. Like a zoo without keepers.

That nasty bout of sciatica (see: previous posts) threw off my summer schedule and I’ve been playing catch-up ever since. Summertime (for whatever reason) is the season when I usually bear down; most of the major projects I’ve undertaken in the past decade were initiated from June-August. Who can figure these things? You’d think I’d be more creative and productive during our infamously long Canadian winters but that just isn’t the case. When the days heat up, so do I.

We’ve managed a fair amount of traveling, as you can tell from the accompanying pictures.

A trip to the sand hills (west side of the province, stretching from Leader, almost down to Swift Current) and we just got back from a few days at Waskesiu Lake (Prince Albert National Park) , hanging out with some people very dear to our hearts. Two very different ecosystems—we’re blessed with a variety of them in this big, tall province of ours and Sherron and I are determined to visit as many as we can. I’d really like to get a good look at the huge sand dunes on the south side of Lake Athabasca but that’s way up in the boonies, inaccessible to those whose wallets are on the thin side. I’m drawn to desert climes—there has to be a reason why three of the world’s major religions have their origins in the dry, pitiless environs of the Middle East. Something about a wasteland, something to do with privation, life/existence whittled down to the bare minimum.

While I was prostrate with back pain there wasn’t a whole lot I could manage. I either dozed (I was on quite a few pain killers), watched Adult Swim ‘toons (“Rick & Morty” was a favorite distraction) on a borrowed iPad or roughed out storyboards for a couple of film projects I’ve been pondering for at least ten years. If I had to pick one thing to slot in at the top of my “bucket list”, it would be writing and directing a full-length, independently produced movie. Both of my scenarios could be shot on a shoestring here in Saskatchewan and neither would be over 70 minutes long. If an hour and change was good enough for Val Lewton, it’s good enough for me.

I won’t go into detail, but one of them is intended as an homage to German “Expressionist” films of the 1920s and the other is an end-of-the-world saga that’s also a nod to weird, obscure 1970s flix like Jodorowsky’s “El Topo” and Monte Hellman’s “The Shooting”.

In other words, don’t be expecting to see either movie coming to your local Cineplex or Galaxy any time soon. bark

But I felt it was important to at least get them down on paper so once I was able to sit at my desk again, I typed up my notes and concocted two film “treatments” (30 pages each) that summarized the plots and major characters. Done.

Now I find myself in a strange, unfamiliar place, at least as far as I’m concerned:

I have no pending projects, no looming deadlines, self-imposed or otherwise.

My desk is clear.

I can’t recall this happening before. Now what do I do? Aye, that’s the question…and over the coming weeks I’m going to be feeding a lot of ideas and odd notions into the ol’ hopper. Possible stories, short films, visual projects (collages, etc.).  I have no inkling of what I’m going to tackle next, not the slightest clue. That’s exciting. And terrifying. Mostly terrifying. How does a workaholic keep from going absolutely bonkers when he has nothing to engage him? Well, if you’re Sherlock Holmes, you might resort to a seven per cent solution of cocaine. That’s not to my taste but the thought of just sitting around, doodling, allowing my mind to wander holds little appeal either (God knows where it might meander off to). So I think for the time being I’ll be doing what I can to recharge my mental batteries by reading challenging books, watching good movies, feeding my imagination as many words and images as I can. Keeping it occupied, satisfying its insatiable curiosity.

I’m hoping the anxiety I experience as I anticipate the days ahead will fade. It’s important to keep reassuring myself this is not a writing block, this is a fallow period following eighteen months of back-breaking labor on, count ’em, three major projects (including a tribute book I compiled for Sherron in honor of her 50th birthday in June).  No matter what I undertake—a painting, a film, a poem—it will be a creative endeavour, an expression of my spirit. I must have faith that this brief pause is some sort of  object lesson; perhaps it will inspire some humility (wouldn’t that be nice?) or lead to a period of honest, unfiltered reflection. All the masks and pretensions stripped away, a ruthless appraisal of who I am and what I have or haven’t achieved.

If I’m fortunate I’ll come away with a clearer understanding of my purpose, the reason I’m here . ‘Cause Mr. Dylan is right: “It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord/but we all gotta serve somebody”.

Speaking of whom, it’s high time I had a few words with the Boss, got some new marching orders. A whole different job description might be in order.

Just pray I don’t get the sack…


(Click on images to enlarge)

“Neglected Authors Alliance” (Now Accepting Applications)

shadow1Awhile back, I exchanged some e-mails with my colleague Andrez Bergen, both of us bemoaning the sorry state of the publishing biz. Andrez is a superb writer, his novel Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat a stunning blend of Phil Dick at his best and “literary noir”—if you haven’t read it, you don’t know what you’re missing.

Which is kind of the point of this post.

In one of my final missives I joked to Andrez that I was going to start an association called The Neglected Authors Alliance (NAA), and that the two of us would be charter members. Over the ensuing weeks, the idea kind of stuck with me and sometimes, as I passed my bookshelves, I’d take note of an author or two who weren’t household names, who had either slipped into obscurity or had never been widely read in the first place. I started putting together a roster; the living and the dead.

It was a depressing task; once I saw the sheer amount of raw talent represented, I felt sick. If these guys and gals couldn’t garner the rewards and praise and posterity to which they’re entitled, what chance do I have? Thirty years I’ve been putting pen to paper and my literary profile isn’t exactly where I want it to be (he says, choosing his words with extreme care).

And so, in tribute to Andrew and some other very fine scribes who deserve(d) far, far better from fickle readers and negligent publishers, I would like to recommend to you the following authors who have labored selflessly and courageously to produce innovative, literate prose, and who I am honored to add to the rolls of our oddball “society”:

Andrez Bergen
Michael Blumlein
Nicholas Christopher
John Crowley
Tony Daniel
Dennis Danvers
Peter Darbyshire
Paul Di Filippo
Katherine Dunn
Steve Erickson
Carolyn Forché
Barbara Gowdy
Ken Kalfus
Jim Knipfel
Thomas Ligotti
John Metcalf
Michael Malone
Corey Redekop
Abraham Rodriguez, Jr.
James Sallis
Steve Rasnic Tem
Christopher Tilghman
Wells Tower
Sean Virgo

Past (Honorary) Members:

Charles Beaumont
Martin Booth
Angela Carter
Louis Ferdinand Celine
Blaise Cendrars
Adolfo Bioy Cesares
James Crumley
Mahmoud Darwish
Guy Davenport
Stanley Elkin
William Fairchild
Mavis Gallant
Donald Harington
Georg Heym
Bohumil Hrabal
J.K. Huysmans
B.S. Johnson
Ernst Junger
Crad Kilodney
Rosa Luxemburg
David Markson
Seth Morgan
Flann O’Brien
Silvina Ocampo
Cynthia Ozick
Francis Picabia
James Salter
Bruno Schulz
Georg Trakl
Alexander Trocchi
Robert Walser
Denton Welch

Notice to any authors on my list who come across this post: drop me a line if you’d like to have your own, official NAA button, with all the perqs and benefits that implies.

And, in the meantime, don’t give up, don’t stop producing great work, refuse to cede the field to the hacks, “share-croppers” and pornographers plying their trade today.

We need you.

The barbarians are at the gate…

Photo by Sherron Burns