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.
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”.
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)
That kind of longevity, in any vocation, is pretty rare, but when it comes to the arts? Writing? Are you kidding? It either shows tremendous faith, an overweening ego…or the simple acknowledgement that there’s nothing else I’m any good at. Or all of the above.
Over the past three decades, I’ve witnessed a lot of changes in terms of technology, trends, the way the publishing business is run. Hell, I’m so old, I can recall a time when it wasn’t embarrassing to call yourself a horror writer and John Updike and Ray Carver represented the high bar in terms of American literature. Jesus, where’s my cane and adult diapers?
In that interval, I’ve seen ’em come and I’ve seen ’em go. One-hit wonders, lighting up the sky like a rogue comet and then exploding, leaving not the slightest trace of their passing. The darlings of the critics and cultural poobahs, earnest scribblers telling their very personal stories of suffering and courage and redemption, seeking applause and acclamation the way a junkie probes for a fresh vein. Their offerings winning all the literary prizes, earning highly coveted media attention, getting their names in lights. Hooray!
Except…where are they now?
I won’t name names (that would be cruel) but how many highly touted scribblers have popped up during my 30-year tenure, sucked up some attention (and sometimes a considerable amount of money) and then faded away? Check out the prize lists since 1985—Pulitzers and Bookers and GGs and Gillers, right down to the regional level: how many of those names are still prominent today, still producing quality work?
Exactly. I’d have to use a quantum calculator to determine the number of “bold new talents” and “exciting voices” that have come down the pike in my professional lifetime. It’s an annual rite, like checking to see if Wiarton Willy can spot his shadow. Never mind that the vast majority of the “stories” these bright, young things are telling are very much their own: fictionalized accounts of their journals and diaries, their pathetic lives laid bare. A love affair gone bad, tender hearts cruelly broken; often one detects a faint whiff of revenge. The only problem is, when you write solely about yourself, sooner or later the material grows stale…or runs out all together.
Which is why the latest “next Margaret Atwood” or “next ______” (your favorite literary icon here) invariably lasts one or two books and is never heard from again.
I’m reminded of the old song that goes: It don’t mean a thing/’til you prove it all night.
True, I think, for any worthwhile endeavor.
The creative life demands a special kind of courage and commitment—it requires a soul-defining leap of faith because there’s no guarantee you’ll be successful, very little chance of your work achieving posterity. Many superb artists have died broke and unknown.
But those who are truly chosen don’t give a whit for fame and fortune, they create for the sheer pleasure of knowing that they are working without restrictions or outside expectations, designing and shaping their efforts to their own specifications and aesthetic purposes. They’re not trying to emulate someone else or jump on a popular bandwagon. Their visions may be personal, unprecedented, bizarre (by popular standards), but there’s a shining brilliance to them, helping them achieve a universality that makes them accessible to people of vastly different geographies, even epochs.
Think Homer. Sophocles. Poe. Baudelaire. Kafka. Picabia.
Authors who defy convention, risk penury, disapprobation, despair.
Vasili Grossman and Friedrich Reck, writing in the face of discovery, imprisonment, death.
And yet they persevered.
So you’ve written a clever poem, a halfway decent short story, posted it on your blog. Six people have “Liked” it. Good for you.
Are you prepared to sit down tomorrow and the next day and the day after that…until your allotment of days run out? Writing and re-writing, driving yourself to distraction trying to achieve quality, well-crafted prose. The search for improvement, perfection never ceases. I’ll testify to that.
I’ve been in this biz a long time, much longer than most, and it’s still hard, still a challenge every day to summon the courage to walk into my office, plunk myself down and commence work on my latest writing project. As I’ve gotten older, my standards have risen and so the act of composition has become even more challenging and immersive than it was when I first started out. In other words, it doesn’t get easier, kids, it gets harder.
Dreaming about writing doesn’t get you there, promising yourself that you’ll start something serious in November, when National Novel Writing Month rolls around, won’t cut it either. If you’re a writer, a real writer, you can’t wait. As much as the chore of writing depresses and intimidates you, you can’t resist reaching for a pen and putting something down on paper. Anything to fill that blank page, defeating the white silence. Only then is there a sense of fulfillment, completion, our purpose for existing realized.
How does that gibe with your experience?
Are you a dabbler? A hobbyist? A wannabe?
Or do you have the courage to take a great leap…without the slightest notion or concern for what awaits you far below?
Down to the grind now, my novel really tightening up and starting to take on a polished appearance.
Just about finished my “Sherron Draft”.
I started this book last August (2013) and, except for a few breaks to work on small side projects or conduct research, I’ve been pounding away on the manuscript ever since, grappling with it, trying to find the shape within the stone (if you know what I mean). When discussing the book with my wife, I’ve spoken only in generalities and other than a broad outline, she really isn’t privy to plot details or my approach to the material. But in 2-3 weeks I’ll print what I have, a complete third draft, 225 pages, and hand it over for her perusal.
Sherron’s a smart, discerning editor and she knows my aesthetic—she’ll spot any lapse, identify shortcomings, ruthlessly point out awkward passages. She’s well read and has a sharp, critical mind. She won’t soft-pedal or candy-coat her remarks. We both want the same thing: to make this the best possible book and, in that sense, there’s no room for wishy-washy critiques.
No one likes criticism, we all like to feel that every word we commit to paper is the very essence of perfection. Sadly, that isn’t the case.
If you want to know the biggest difference between me and 99.999% of the “self-publishers” and indies out there, it’s the time and effort I lavish on my novels, short stories, poems and essays.
You think those assholes who excrete paranormal romance and shapeshifter erotica will spend over a year going through their work line by line, meticulously editing literally every syllable? And, I want to emphasize, I’m a full-time author, I do this every single day of the year, from eight in the morning until eight at night. Yup, weekends and holidays too. Each paragraph, each individual comma is carefully, endlessly, tirelessly scrutinized and weighed and measured.
And I’m not close to being done yet.
After Sherron’s had a chance to read and comment on the manuscript, there will be yet another complete draft and more editing until the book finally meets my exacting standards. Tentative release date in April, 2015, so I’ve got, by my estimation, five more months of work ahead of me.
And you wonder why writers drink like fish and use every substance known to Nature to soothe their jangled nerves and quiet their raging minds?
I’m a fortunate man to have someone in my life who is able to contribute in such a practical, selfless manner to my obsession and is as serious as I am about my writing and my desire to achieve the status of elite literary author. A world class talent.
We’re a team dedicated to excellence and we will countenance no slapdash writing or unoriginal thinking.
We’re creating literature for the ages.
Nothing else will suffice.
When I consider the amount of writing that represents, the amount of words, I’m more than a little taken aback.
I find it fascinating how much the blog has morphed in the past six years. It started out as a platform for an angry-not-so-young man venting about the stupidity of traditional publishing and now it’s pretty much anything goes. A couple of years ago I started adding music and short films and recorded spoken word pieces—that was exciting. New technologies put film-making, the creation of music and visual art, into the hands of more of us and while that’s led to an explosion of amateurism and incompetence, it has also allowed a few bright lights to shine as they try out new disciplines (and make some rather brilliant beginner’s mistakes).
But the absolute best part of having this blog is that it puts me in person-to-person contact with my readers. I was somewhat slow getting on the whole blogging bandwagon but now I can’t tell you how thrilled I am at how many people have written and reached out to me through this site. I soon came to realize I have readers from virtually every part of the world—I recall one chap who wrote to me from a university classroom in Melbourne, Australia. Bored with his instructor, wanting to talk about writing. Still makes me smile.
I’m also pleased that Beautiful Desolation has put me in touch with fellow indie artists, writers and musicians who have little truck with the corporate scene and want to express themselves without interference or compromise. I think after close to 30 years in this biz, I’m seen as some kind of “grand old man” of indie writing/publishing. Occasionally, I’ll get calls or e-mails from someone in the press, a reporter seeking my views on independent publishing, e-books, the state of writing in general, and I have to smile. As a prognosticator, my record isn’t exactly stellar. I think I’m on record as saying a few years back that e-readers were mere gadgets and people would eventually tire of them and return to physical books.
Let’s face it, life ain’t easy for us indie types. Most publications refuse to take us seriously or review our work so it’s very hard to get any “buzz” going when we release new material. On top of that, there’s the absolutely unprecedented amount of writing being released these days (see my last blog post), and that flood of material, that deluge of (mostly) offal, renders it well-nigh impossible to draw readers to excellent, literate, world-class writing. Who wants to pick through a reeking dung pile in the faint hope you might find a glistening pearl?
But I’ve stuck it out for nearly three decades, refusing to be cowed by idiotic editors and scumbag agents. Yeah, the money is lousy and the rewards few and far between but, y’know what? My strange little imprint has released some really fine titles over the years and there isn’t one of them I’m not honored to call mine. No hackwork, no sharecropping, no selling out. Every one of my books, right from the first, is original, innovative, literary, intelligent. How does that compare with the shite polluting the last box store you browsed?
* * * *
A couple of weeks since my previous post and you know what that means:
25,000 words on paper in the last ten days. A new project in a new “genre” I’ve never tried before. Good Lord. Sometimes even longtime readers must just throw up their hands and wonder what possesses me. I wish I knew. All I can do is follow my Muse, wherever she leads me. And often that’s taken me into some mighty strange territories. I mean, a western, for heaven’s sake?
I’m quite encouraged by this new project (still unnamed) but it’s going to involve a lot of research at some point. As soon as this rough draft is completed, I’ll be Googling like a sumbitch, trying to find out all about—well, never mind. Think I’ll wait a bit, hold off until this piece is further along before I open up about it. Even my wife is in the dark as to what I’m up to.
Not much time for leisure and entertainment in the past while, but my sons and I did manage to zip in to Saskatoon to see Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest flick, “Only God Forgives”. My review appears over on my film blog.
One last thing: three hundred blog posts deserves some kind of special recognition. So I’ve prepared a treat for #300, a little freebie for everyone who’s dropped in out of curiosity and came back because they liked what they saw.
My thanks to you, one and all.
Which always seemed like the perfect title for a porn film. But I digress…
Christmas approacheth and there is much to give thanks for.
First and foremost, my oldest son Liam returns from Brazil on Thursday; nearly four months away from home and hearth and, man, did we miss him. Having him back with us is the best Christmas present we could ask for. The tree is up and awaiting ornamentation, the Christmas CDs and (mainly) cassette tapes have been retrieved from the basement and dusted off. I know I have the reputation as being something of a curmudgeon but I love Christmas and there’s something about the holiday season that brings out the best in me. Even standing in a long lineup at the post office isn’t going to set me off (according to Canada Post, this is the busiest week of the year).
Other blessings of note doled out in 2012:
Three, count ’em, three new releases. Three books in one year? From me? That’s nothing less than miraculous. I’m delighted with all of them: The Last Hunt turned out far better than I’d hoped, a great story and a worthy addition to the western genre. I know I raised a lot of eyebrows when I announced I was working on a good ol’ fashioned horse opera, but I approached my task with seriousness and the respect of a true devotee. With the help of my father-in-law Ken Harman (a real, live cowboy) and folks like Lee Whittlesey, a superb historian and raconteur, I think I carried it off. Judging from the responses I’ve received, I’d say readers think so too.
The other two books are “Best of…” compilations of poetry and short prose. Stromata: Prose Works and New & Selected Poems. Both drawing from over two decades’ worth of material; slim, elegant volumes of surreal verse and prose poems. Beautiful, austere covers, powerful, intense material. I’m looking at them as I type these words and am still struck by what lovely tomes they are.
That’s the wonderful thing about being an indie author and publisher: I can supervise every aspect of my books’ creation, from their conception to their production and distribution. I even choose the margins and fonts, find the cover art. Etc. And I work with some great people, like my wife, Sherron, and my designer, Chris Kent, to ensure my books are as eye-grabbing, artful and evocative as they can possibly be. Check out my Bookstore page, see for yourself.
Shot, edited and scored three short films in 2012—have to admit, I’m most chuffed with “First Contact“, a surreal combo of music and images. Can you tell I’m a huge sci fi fan?
Also put together more of my ambient music, took lots of photographs, traveled more than I have in the past…
And the end of the year finds me plugging away on my next volume, a collection of short stories I hope to release in June or July, 2013. Already over 100 pages in and delighted by the diversity of voices, the unsettling and entrancing tales they tell.
Other then the expected sniffles and aches, we all stayed healthy in 2012—something else to give thanks for.
But I’m most grateful for my life, the freedom it affords me to follow my bliss, write in an atmosphere of peace and security, devote myself full-time to the task of creation. That’s what it’s all about. Birthing something that wouldn’t have existed, drawn breath, if it hadn’t been for your painful, protracted labor.
“Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.” (Robert Bresson)
For me, no other existence will suffice. Without the ability to create, immerse myself completely in my invented worlds, I would wither away, cease to exist in material form. A thing more sensed than perceived, shadow-dweller, incorporeal yet still cursed with sentience, formless but denied the release of death.
I’m honored and privileged to lead the life I do. That’s something I must never forget or take for granted. I’m blessed and renewed by the knowledge that I’m serving some higher purpose, contributing (in some tiny way) to the Grand Design. Sometimes, when I’m at my absolute wits end, that’s my sole motivation for continuing to put words down on paper. That and the unqualified support and faith of my family. Whatever successes I’ve had are the result of the love and encouragement I’ve received, the sacrifices those closest to me have made to allow me such a fortunate existence.
For that and much, much more, thank you, to my family and friends, my readers…and my Creator.
Couldn’t do it without you.
Wouldn’t even try.
It’s Thanksgiving for our American cousins—it strikes me that late November is a weird time to be giving thanks, especially if you happen to live above the Mason-Dixon Line and your kids have already built a congregation of snowmen in your front yard.
And, frankly, I don’t need the excuse of a national holiday to carve up a turkey and then subsist for the next week on turkey leftovers, turkey sandwiches and, finally, turkey soup (sorry, I just drooled all over my keyboard). Turkey, mashed potatoes and corn on the cob, with pumpkin pie for dessert. If I somehow manage to gain admission through the Pearly Gates I fully expect that to be the first meal St. Peter and his horde of super-efficient seraphim waiters place in front of me.
* * * * *
Yes, indeed, busy times here at Burns Central: Sherron seems to have been on the road since her first day back at work in September. Driving hither and yon throughout her massive, far-flung school division, giving workshops and presentations. She’s seen more of this area of the province than this homebody ever will.
Both my sons are deeply involved in their individual obsessions, namely, submission wrestling and film-making. Sam and his creative partner Sean hope to have a short movie ready to enter in the “Youth” component of the Yorkton Film Festival and are collaborating on a script. I accompanied Liam to his twice-a-week wrestling session last night and my 48 year old body recoiled and quaked when I saw how those young lads (and one lass) were bending and twisting each other, their bodies impossibly elastic. I was one of those seriously inept, uncoordinated kids who couldn’t even stand on his head so watching my athletic oldest son going through the paces with grace and strength fills me with immeasurable pleasure…and pride.
Meanwhile, I continue to labor away on my western novel, The Last Hunt. Two consecutive weeks of 12 hour days, grinding and polishing, adding in some of the research material I gathered during my Montana sojourn this summer. Still insisting that I will release the novel in late March (2012), come hell or high water. But it ain’t been easy and my body is feeling the effects of the strain.
You’d think after 25+ years I would have learned how to pace myself, manage my time and energy more effectively. Er, no. Instead, I completely immerse myself in a project for prolonged intervals, work myself into a state of exhaustion and then, literally when my body-mind-spirit can take no more, I pronounce the story/novel finished…and collapse. At that point, I usually come down with a nasty virus which lays me out for a week (complete with cold sores, intestinal problems…ah, fun).
How does that gibe with your methods?
And then I read a comment by self-publishing’s latest superstar, Amanda Hocking. Yes, she of a million Kindle sales. She states, without an ounce of self-consciousness, that she writes her juvenile vampire novels in about 2-4 weeks. That’s right, all you fuckheads who were stupid enough to download her awful tripe, a month (usually less) to write a novel. And some of you “writers” out there actually hold her up as an example of a successful author, someone you’d like to emulate. Message to you wannabe assholes: I spit in your face. You disgust me. May your fingers rot off your hands and your putrid brains liquify in your paper-thin skulls. Leprosy and ALS are too good for you. I loathe you and what you and your ilk are doing to literature. You are nothing more than ambulatory turds.
But I won’t cede the field to you, do you hear me? I refuse to allow your excremental scribbling to carry the day. To my last, dying breath I will be composing literate, intelligent, innovative fiction, even if only six people on the planet read it. I will follow the lead of the Masters, write in defiance of all the trends and market niches, write despite the Amanda Hockings of the world and the offal they disgorge. Hocking will be nonexistent in a very short time, her moment in the sun is almost up—let her have her money, it will keep her warm as she wallows on literature’s scrap heap, where all the non-talented hacks end up.
I’ll trust posterity and put my faith in the notion that as long as humankind exists, there will be discerning readers and that, eventually, my work will find the audience it deserves (even if I’m long gone).
I’d rather work for nothing than be stinkin’ rich and unable to look at myself in the mirror.
Which begs the question: what price do you put on your soul?
“B.C.” comic strip by Johnny Hart