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:
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
In My Room
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.