Category: journal

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)

The Writer, On His Own

My wife and sons have temporarily departed for more northerly climes, visiting family members who live right next to a lake near Thompson, Manitoba.  Idyllic spot, natural and picturesque.

Why didn’t I tag along (you ask, impudently)?

Because my mind isn’t ready for a vacation right now.  Matter of fact, for some reason summer is the time of year when my Muse really puts the pedal to the metal.  A good number of my novels and best short stories were drafted during the months of June-August.  Maybe a hormonal thing, who knows?  So, while everyone else is outside, barbequing or going to the lake, renting a cottage, enjoying yourselves, you’ll find me in my sweltering 10′ X 12′ home office, my door open, the fan on high to make the environment livable as I toil away on some literary project.

This year is no exception.  My western novel, The Last Hunt, devours much of my time.  I’m supposed to be taking a break from it at the moment but I can’t help poking my nose in, doing more research, scribbling notes, conceiving questions for some of the historians who have generously offered to lend a hand with the scenes set in Yellowstone Park. They’ll provide me with historical background, period detail and invaluable advice and input (and God bless ’em). I’ll be visiting that region of Montana later this summer, doing some on the spot scouting and location hunting.  It will be my first trip of any significance in a long time (I blush to say how long).  This borderline agoraphobic workaholic is trembling at the notion of being away from my desk for any length of time but I am utterly convinced of the necessity of this trip.  It will better establish the mood and setting of The Last Hunt and add some of the authenticity I think the present draft is lacking.

But I must confess I have another reason for remaining home.  It isn’t often I get the house to myself for days at a stretch and on those rare occasions that I do…well, I like to take full advantage of it.  I play loud music, from the time I get up to the wee hours of the morning.  I keep the windows shut, the drapes drawn and for one or two days I let myself go.  Stalk about in my bathrobe, unshaven, neglecting the laundry, neglecting to eat properly, neglecting to answer the phone or interact with the outside world.

It’s glorious and terrifying and, ultimately, beneficial.

I sit in my office, staring at my slippers while The Vandelles, A Place to Bury Strangers, The Replacements, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, etc. thunder from overhead speakers, loud enough to force me further back in my chair.  Lately, I like my music hard and dirty, a la the Vandelles’ “Lovely Weather” (crank it up!).

Meanwhile, I’m doing a good deal of scribbling—journaling and spontaneous or “automatic” writing like the Surrealists used to champion.  These writings represent Rorschach Tests and they give a pretty good idea of what’s on my mind, the preoccupations and fears dogging me.  Plenty of speculations on the spiritual front—I keep that up, I’m liable to end up with a gazillion page Exegesis, similar to Philip K. Dick.  And will likely be considered just as loony, should anyone happen to stumble across these errant, inexpert ramblings on God, the nature of reality and my own pitiful existence.

These writing exercises often trigger intervals of hellish introspection, long hours spent reviewing past sins and ruminating over the sorry state of my literary career, even after a quarter century of putting words on paper.  The mental boo birds come out and I subject myself to a great deal of vitriol before the nattering voices either subside, wear themselves out or are chastened by a very Bugs Bunny-like snarl originating from the depths of my id:

Aaaaaaaa, shaddap!”

I have trouble sleeping when my family’s away, find the nights hard to endure. I kill time by staying up and watching a double or triple header of movies.  Guy flicks and guilty pleasures; science fiction and thrillers given precedence.  This time around I’ve set aside flicks like “Michael Clayton”, “All the President’s Men”, “The Searchers”, “Shadow of the Vampire”,  “The Bad Lieutenant”.  Nothing too crazy, re: anything by Ken Russell or (shudder) “Eraserhead”.

And for reading material, Terence McKenna’s The Archaic Revival and Graham Hancock’s Supernatural.  Far-fetched stuff?  Pseudo-science?  To me, what these lads propose is nowhere near as crazy as some of the notions held by billions of people of all faiths around the world.  I am intrigued by what triggered that “monolith moment”, when our kind first opened their eyes to the possibility and mystery of the world and took a crucial evolutionary step, moving further away from their humble origins and toward a spectacular destiny.  This transformation coincided with the earliest cave art and the enactment of burial rituals, a species awakening to the existence of other realms and principalities.

Mebbe Bill Hicks is right and a certain humble fungus, naturally occurring, is responsible.  I guess we’d need a time machine to find out for sure.  Intriguing thought, though…

I suppose when all is said and done, my time alone is therapeutic, cathartic.  I miss out on a chance to hang out with good folks, do some boating and fishing in some of the most gorgeous scenery this country has to offer.  But the soul-searching, self-Inquisition and psychic ass-kicking blows off steam, relieves the accumulated pressures that accompany the creative life.  In my solitude, I can confront my demons and it’s a no-holds-barred, no quarter given bloodbath.  It’s not pleasant but it is necessary.  All part of the ongoing struggle to define myself as an artist, to better delineate the precepts and ideals I live by, requiring me to identify aspects within me that are working against those higher purposes and undermining my essential faith in the worthiness of my endeavors.  Demons, indeed, with hideous countenances, avid, savage expressions and appetites.  They are the worst parts of me and during the next few days I shall brawl, joust and treat with them, in the end probably settling for another draw, a few more months of relative peace on the emotional/spiritual front.

You say that’s not much of a bargain but, then, clearly your demons aren’t nearly as unreasonable, their intentions not as deliberately malign.

For that, count yourself lucky.

You are very fortunate indeed.

Photos by Sherron Burns

More of my fiction on audio

imagesI warned you I had fallen in love with Garageband and that there would be more of my stuff recorded and set to music.

Here are four short-short stories, my version of “flash fiction”.  Ethereal, odd, evocative.  Literary and auditory Rorschach tests.  Give them a listen…and then tell me what you see.

Submitted for your approval, as my old pal Rod Serling would say:

Cliff Burns Reading Prose Poems (V.2)

Brief respite…and then…

images-1Took yesterday off…sort of.  I mean, I did some writing (poetry and journaling) but I didn’t so much as glance at the trio of stories I’ve been editing like a demon for most of the past month.

Speaking of which, I’d better explain what I’m up to:

This year Esquire magazine is promoting a fiction contest where authors are invited to write stories based on three titles they (the editors) provide.  You can visit their website for further details.  I discovered the contest in May, printed up the info for later reference.  Found the stuff again in late June, thought writing a story based on someone else’s title might be an interesting writing exercise.  Wrote down the first title, “Twenty-Ten”, and went for it.   Not necessarily thinking of submitting the finished work to the contest, just seeking to limber up my wrists before the real work of the summer began.

Well, I wrote one story and it turned out pretty darn good so the next day, suitably encouraged,  I wrote a second and almost immediately a concept occurred to me for the third.  So in the space of a few days I had three handwritten drafts.  Tapped them into the iMac, opened one up, did a bit of fiddling…and now, three weeks later, here I am.

But I have a problem and I’ll bet you spotted it right away, didn’t you?  You’re only supposed to submit one story and I’ve got three I’m quite taken with.  I read all of them to my family the other night, hoping they’d immediately point out a winner but the verdict was mixed.  They loved the stories, the characters, but each seemed to favor a different tale. Even I had changed my mind as to which one I preferred by the time I’d finished reading the last of them.  Good grief.  Well…I’ve got until the 31st (what is that, Friday?) to choose one story and edit it into tip-top shape.  Because I will indeed be submitting something, despite my oft-repeated reluctance to enter writing competitions.  For one thing, there’s no entry fee (mandatory).  For another, Esquire, like the BBC, is a flagship, one of those names you’d dearly love, as a writer, to have on your resume.  And one last consideration:  I’ve written three bloody good tales, any of which is worthy for consideration.

images-2My break’s over.  Yesterday was fun:  I sat around reading Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark (not one of his great ones, unfortunately), straightened up in the office, cleaned my area of the basement (we’ve been painting and installing a new ceiling light/fan in our kitchen so everything is a mess), listened to some alternative radio on the ‘net, trying to ease up and relax…but it’s time to get back at it.  Grind, grind grind.  Funny how hard you have to work on a story to make it read and flow naturally.

This tales have already taken up more of my summer than I’d intended–this started out as a simple writing exercise, remember?  I still want to dive into edits of my next novel and here we are, approaching the end of July.  Yike!

Time to finish up these tales and get back on track.  It’s been an intriguing interlude but that novel beckons, miles to go before I sleep and all that.

That’s it for the update.

Hope you’re all having a fun summer.  We’re finally getting some hot, sunny days, real Saskatchewan scorchers.

And, last but not least, it’s our 19th anniversary tomorrow.

Thanks, Sherron, for everything.

Forever and ever, doll…

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Temporarily Unavailable

RadarHill_FMy wife and sons are on the West Coast–getting their first dose of rain after a week of great weather–and I’ve stopped answering the phone, shaving, checking  e-mails and visiting some of my favorite sites and forums.  It’s summertime and that means WORK.

It must be a hormonal thing.  While everyone else is seized by an impulse to drag their sorry asses off to the woods and get closer to nature (i.e. Lyme disease, poison oak and bears), I become almost feverish with a desire to be shut away in a 10 X 12 room, scribbling like a madman all day and long into the night.  And then, when I finish, I collapse in front of our big Sony and watch old movies or foreign flicks until I zonk out.

And, indeed, that’s what I’ve been up to since I’ve bid farewell and adieu to Sher and the lads last Sunday.  I got warmed up with lots of “automatic writing”, filling page after page of my notebook with cryptic, allusive remarks cribbed from my subconscious.  Lots of journaling and personal writing too; I use these opportunities when I’m alone to blow off emotional steam, purge my system of some of the accumulated ugliness and toxic sludge.  Restoring balance and focus, checking the state of my faith life.

In the past four or five days I’ve really gotten down to business, completing three short stories and tapping them in–over 10,000 words of new prose.  But that’s just a warm-up.  In the coming weeks I want to tackle a big revision of another novel, really sink my teeth into that one and shake the living shit out of it.

imagesUnfortunately, all that work means I might not be posting here as frequently or at any length.   But I promise you there will be new work added soon, more prose you won’t find anywhere else.  Because the point of this site isn’t to provide me with a platform for my various rants and obsessions (though sometimes it might appear that way).  It’s to give you access to my work, the stories and novels and prose poems and verse and radio plays and essays that I’ve composed over the past quarter century.  It’s all here–well, a good portion of it, anyway.  Available for absolutely nothing.  Posted (see the various “Pages” above) in the PDF format, which (I’m told) makes it compatible with most of those new-fangled e-readers (even the Kindles, I and II).  So download away!

And please pop back in again soon.  I’ll make sure you have some decent summer reading, never fear.  Something for your leisure hours.

Leisure…leisure…have to look that one up in the dictionary some time.  Exotic sounding word.

Meanwhile, it’s back to work for yours truly.

Sigh.  The sacrifices I make for my hordes of readers…

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