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)
no evidence of tampering
so it’s your fingers
that finally suss out the complicated locks
admitting you to the last chamber
none have progressed as far
only one set of dusty footprints leading in
and it’s you who first catches sight of me
sliding back the heavy lid, my coverlet
July 28, 2014
Let’s say I do it, let’s say, dearest,
I tear down this crummy, old fence
of ours—then what?
Do I replace it with another fence,
clean and white and perfectly straight,
the wood treated with poison
solvents to keep it from weathering?
Perhaps a higher fence, six feet
or more, the boards squeezed close
together to dissuade prying eyes;
a solid wall to keep others out.
If I plant some kind of hedge, caragana
or what have you, as has been suggested,
will I feel suitably secure (i.e. is such a flimsy
barrier a credible deterrent against thieves)?
The other option is to leave our backyard
wide open and accessible to the alley…but
I’m not comfortable with that.
I agree that our fence is worn out,
dilapidated, something of an eyesore;
I apologize if it embarrasses you.
But as I’ve just explained, it’s no easy
matter replacing it—and some of your ideas
involve considerable expense. We must not
act hastily, allow emotion to over-rule reason.
I think for now I’ll keep propping it up as best
I can, until a practical solution presents itself
or, more likely, the entire goddamned thing finally
collapses, defeated by a horde of years.
* * * * *
Apparently I suffered from a
“cute anxiety”, that’s what Miss Haynes,
the school counselor, told my mother,
which somehow explained the boils,
bed-wetting and frequent crying fits.
I remember wondering if this cuteness
was curable and how I got it when I
was such an ugly child, my sisters said
so, and no one else took my side or
stated a contrary view.
I must redouble my efforts at keeping this blog up to date. Maintaining contact with my fellow human beings. Not that my life is full of incident—that’s part of the problem, I’m hard-pressed to come up with anything more interesting than Sat at desk, stared off into space, played shoegaze music until inspired to scribble a few words…
Writing that over and over again, like Jack Torrance in The Shining.
I’ve said it before but I’ll repeat it for the sake of added emphasis: I have no life.
I did manage a trip in to Saskatoon to see a completely whacked film called “A Field in England”, posting about it over at my film blog.
Reading lots. Music constantly thundering away in my office.
And…reflecting…yes, rather a lot of reflecting.
Think I’m still in the process of adjusting to our sons moving out, suffering a bit from “empty nest syndrome”. Occasional bouts of loneliness and melancholia. This house seems awfully bloody empty some days. Feels like I’m transitioning into a new phase in my life, a fifty-something guy whose kids are no longer underfoot, suddenly free of many (not all) of the demands of parenthood. My role, my identity, has undergone a massive change in the past few months and it’s going to take awhile, I think, before I feel comfortable in my skin again.
Will close off with something for the mothers out there—after all, it’s your special day coming up on Sunday.
In his book In Praise of Love, Alain Badiou quotes from a letter philosopher Andre Gorz wrote to his wife, Dorine. It’s one of the most beautiful statements on romantic love I’ve yet encountered, a paean to devotion and eternal, unbreakable bonds:
“You’ll soon be eighty-two. You have shrunk six centimeters, you only weigh forty-five kilos yet you are as beautiful, gracious and desirable as ever. We have now lived together for fifty-eight years and I love you more than ever. In the hollow of my chest I can feel again that ravaging emptiness that can only be filled by the warmth of your body against mine.”
Thank you to our wives and mothers, the wise women and brave sisters who give us life and protect us from the worst aspects of ourselves.
We celebrate and salute you.
Sorry. Geez. Talk about belated.
Several weeks since my last post and I offer no excuses, no rationale. Yes, I’ve been editing the third draft of my new novel, going through its 200+ pages over and over, shaping and paring, trying to find a consistent voice, a smooth, narrative flow. And, yes, my days are long and intense and my focus can be downright scary at times. That need to immerse myself (there’s no other word) in the world I’m building, basically from scratch. It’s important to envision that creation in as much detail as I possibly can so that it seems credible and fully formed. I know my readers are pretty discerning people.
You have to understand, at times like this, when I’m going full-bore on a project, it’s easy for the rest of Earth Prime to fade away…and that means all ties, all friendships, all responsibilities become, well, superfluous. Wish I could put it more nicely but that’s just the way it is. Sometimes in order to meet the demands of my work I have to become selfish and solipsistic…it’s one of the least attractive aspects of being a creative artist. When a project reaches this state, I literally have to take a leave of absence from my regular life and that can be hard on family, friends and, yes, my small circle of readers and blog followers.
The end result is a completed novel or short story but getting there, while still retaining contact with the people who mean the most to you…that can be a struggle.
I guess what I’m trying to say is be patient with me, know that I’m operating in the thrall of my Muse, my imagination racing, my brain clicking on all cylinders. If in the performance of my duties I’m negligent in terms of my worldly obligations, it is, for me, a necessary (even mandatory) state of affairs.
You want to know what life is like for a full-time, independent author?
Well, there it is.
In the pipeline…
Some publication news for you: as well as the novel, this year I’ll be working on a new edition of my very first book, a short story collection titled Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination. The collection was released back in 1990, the entire print run selling out in a matter of months. It’s virtually impossible to lay your hands on a copy of Sex and I’m going to address that by re-issuing it with a new cover, Introduction and Afterword. I’ll be formatting and correcting the manuscript this summer and will publish it through my Black Dog Press imprint either later this year or in early 2015 (the 25th anniversary of its original publication).
The new novel, meanwhile, is slated for a Spring, 2015 release.
Drop in for further updates as the year progresses.