I haven’t traveled a lot—as frequent readers of this blog know—and find the concept of leaving my home office for an extended period of time onerous. But my two trips to the state of Montana have convinced me this mindset is not only silly but perhaps even counterproductive. On both occasions I returned refreshed, energized and inspired…and produced some fine work as a direct result of my rambles through “Big Sky country”.
The first time was back in late Spring, 2002 and I was in pretty wretched state. I’d just expended enormous energies completing final drafts of the two novellas that comprise my book Righteous Blood. There is incredible darkness in those pieces, almost as if I was trying to purge myself of all the vileness and fury I’d accumulated for who knows how long. The book was also intended to be a kind of “fuck you” to the entire horror genre, which, to my mind, took a nosedive into the toilet sometime in the mid-1990’s (sadly, it’s in even worse shape now). I no longer wanted anything to do with the field and had zero desire to be lumped in with the losers and hacks who made their home there. The morning we left for Great Falls, I was a burnt out case. When we returned, a week or so later, I was a new man.
Montana had worked its magic on me.
This time around, I had the same travel partner (my father-in-law, Ken Harman) but was in far better condition, mentally and creatively. The motivation behind our latest voyage was different too: we were going down to Livingston and spending a week interviewing historians and curators, familiarizing ourselves with some of the settings featured in my western novel, The Last Hunt. A research trip and I had a satchel of notes and a box of resource material to prove it. And because some of the action takes place in Yellowstone Park, we spent one entire day viewing some of the most spectacular, mysterious and breath-stealing scenery the world has to offer. I stood on a spot where I could see where much of the final part of the novel is set and, I gotta tell ya, kids, it gave me goosebumps.
Met a number of pretty amazing people as we rambled about the state and couldn’t believe how generous people were with their time, how friendly and forthcoming. Lee Whittlesey, historian at the Heritage and Research Center down in Gardiner, was a wonderful host and raconteur, his knowledge of the Park extraordinary, his anecdotes and detailed answers to my questions had me scribbling furiously to keep up. Lee, you’re a gem.
Paul Shea, the curator of the Gateway Museum in Livingston, showed me dozens of photos from the town’s early years and there were also amazing shots of Cinnabar and other local places of interest. And he did so in an office shrouded in plastic, workmen banging and sawing away, the museum undergoing extensive renovations at the time.
Our most fortuitous encounter in Livingston was with John Fryer, a man who just might be the single most charming individual I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. A natural, innate charm, nothing affected or manufactured. Anyone fortunate enough to be acquainted with John knows exactly of what I speak. We walked into John’s bookstore (“Sax & Fryer Company”) on Callender Street and knew we’d come to the right place. A terrific selection of novels and non-fiction and the ladies employed there rang in our purchases on a cash register that was over one hundred years old. Ken mentioned a certain classic saddle he’d just sold and John’s eyes brightened.
“Come on downstairs.” We followed him to his basement lair where he showed us a mini-museum of saddles and western-related gear. John and Ken chatted about the various items, both of them momentarily (and happily) cast back more than a century, men who could happily exist in less civilized times, untouched by modern technology.
Through John, we met the great western writer Richard Wheeler. Mr. Wheeler is a national treasure, six-time winner of the Golden Spur Award; he and Elmer Kelton are the two consistently best writers the genre has produced in the past thirty years. We spent several hours in his company and every minute of it was a treat. I’m not much of a drinker but I raised a bourbon or two that night, I tell you. Jim Beam Black, a truly infernal concoction. And, another true confession, that same evening I stood eight feet from one of the five finest authors in America and didn’t know it. After we’d said our farewells to Mr. Wheeler, the bartender signaled me over and murmured “Did you notice Jim Harrison at the end of the bar?”
I think I might have stopped breathing. Of course I had. I’d looked over, saw this rather hard-looking seed, and thought “Hmmmm…” Didn’t think “Could that be Jim Harrison?”, more like “What an interesting face…”
I wanted to beat my forehead against the bar. What a lost opportunity. Just to wander over, hold out my hand and say “Thank you for every word you’ve ever committed to paper.”
Well. There it is.
Livingston is a mecca for fine writers and artists of all stripes. Harrison and Tom McGuane are regularly sighted. Margot Kidder has a place in the hills and Walter Hill has been known to visit. Sam Peckinpah loved it there and shot holes in the ceiling of the Murray Hotel to prove it. “What did you do when Sam did that?” someone once asked the Murray’s long-suffering proprietor. “Plug ’em up and send him the bill,” was the wise, terse reply. There’s kind of a roll call of honor in the Murray’s decidedly un-trendy bar, signed photos of some of its more celebrated patrons. While Ken listened to a rather manic guy explain the proper way of catching and subduing a six-foot black snake, I took a wander, checked out the various black and white pictures—
And there he was. James Crumley. Thick, craggy face, somehow managing to simultaneously convey humor and immense sadness. To me, Crumley is the man. For years I dreamed of buying him a drink in a joint much like the Murray Bar, perch myself on a stool beside him and just…listen. He told wonderful, funny stories, the locals remember him well. Always attracted a retinue of hangers-on and sycophants when he blew into town for some good fishing and hard drinking. Ah, Jim…
I experienced a wave of sadness looking at his picture. Went back to the bar and ordered another bourbon, raised it in the direction of his portrait. To your good soul…
Met any number of terrific people in our travels. We stayed in three separate RV parks in the state and ran across all kinds of interesting folks, every one of them with a story to tell. I have no doubt that they will appear, in various guises and composites, in upcoming stories and novels; hope I can do justice to their complicated and conflicted natures. Never encountered anyone I didn’t like, nor did I hear the lame jingoism that one frequently associates with our friends south of the border.
Montana is a western state, its citizens contrary, stubbornly independent. They’re folks who believe in hard work, straight talk and minding your own damn business. People who don’t think much of government at any level—local, state and most especially those vultures in Washington. They’re tolerant of dissent and possess the sharp, practical minds of their ancestors. I admire them for their respect for their heritage and history and thank them for the hospitality they extended to Ken and I, the fellowship we found in their company.
Hopefully it won’t be another decade before I go back. I felt at home there and it’s taken time to re-acclimatize myself now that I’m back in Saskatchewan. The walls of my office seem a lot closer, almost oppressive. I miss the mountains and suspect I might have left a vital, irreplaceable part of myself at that overlook near Hell-Roaring Creek.
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
There’s been a lot of bad news of late. Friends and close acquaintances in dire straits. A memorial service for a kid only a few years older than our boys. Death seems to be hovering in the air around us, playing eeny-meeny-miney-mo with people we care about. A cruel, arbitrary figure, a Shade with a mean streak.
We’ve reached middle age now and we have to expect losses. Like the old Doors song goes: no one here gets out alive. But it’s not right when it’s kids who are afflicted and young mothers and devoted partners…blameless ones who shouldn’t be singled out for torment or earmarked for an early demise. They deserve better. That they should suffer is unfair and a universe that permits that to happen can’t possibly be caring or sentient or the slightest bit aware of our existence. A cold, dead universe. Endless and eternal and empty.
I know nothing of the physics of death. I can’t tell you the weight of a human soul or confirm that such a thing even exists. I’ve tried reading up on the science—the conversion of matter to energy and the possibility of alternate universes, hyper-realities—but, in the end, my intelligence and imagination just aren’t up to the task.
All I know is that I love you and these recent, grim reminders of mortality make me appreciate what we have and give thanks for every drawn breath. These bedside vigils and funerals are rehearsals for a time that is bound to come and we lose one of ours. That may sound selfish but it’s not. Our grief is just as sincere and our sympathy for what those poor families must be enduring genuine and heartfelt. We imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes and our souls quake. When faced with such a horrifying spectacle, we avert our eyes.
To experience the death of a loved one is, to my mind, the ultimate test of faith. Can your belief system withstand a loss so profound? Can your theology and/or worldview accommodate an agony that rends your very being? Can your God bear the heat of your anguish and rage?
We’ve been together a long time, you and I. Not only in this lifetime but before that. We’ve known each other and always recognize one another each time we meet. As long as you are with me, I can survive anything. I truly believe this. Grief and despair may make me a shadow of my former self but as long as I am comforted by the knowledge of your existence, I will persist, I will struggle; against the odds, against the darkness, believing to my dying breath that being your lover and confidante ennobles me and gives me purpose, the will to go on.
You are all the proof I need. There are terrible things afoot, a darkness creeping in from the edges. Let’s treasure our time together, love, rather than allow fear to take from us all that is worth keeping and preserving. We must refuse to allow mortal dread to defeat us and it is our shared strength that will save us. In the face of death, affirm that we are alive and full of passion and joy and foolish dreams. Confronted by the worst, we pledge to show a brave face, while clutching at each other for the companionship and comfort we know we will find there.
Some of you have been around since the beginning (God bless you), while others have been late arrivals (we left you a few beers in the fridge, but be sure to leave the last one for your host). In those four years, this site has been visited by tens of thousands of folks, over a thousand of whom have seen fit to leave comments, the vast majority of which have been smart, sharp and thought-provoking.
Thank you, one and all.
About a year ago, I added a feature to Beautiful Desolation, namely a “ClustrMap”, which shows where on the planet my visitors call home—every single time I look at that darn thing, found on the lower right side of my menu, I have to smile. Man, isn’t technology something? It allows people from every part of the world to reach out to one another, make contact with another human being, regardless of political, cultural and geographic divisions. People drop in from as far away as the United Arab Emirates, even the supposedly walled off Islamic Republic of Iran. I can’t tell you how much that moves and thrills me. God knows what they think of this place once they find it but the important thing is they can find it and, perhaps, discover a community of folks with whom they have more in common then they ever imagined.
Freaks of the world, unite!
I am honored to be one of those freaks, a mutant, a rebel and non-conformist, an indie, an artist, a—a—an errant penguin.
I’d better explain that last part.
Awhile back, I watched Werner Herzog’s documentary “Encounters at the End of the World”. It’s filmed in Antarctica, a hostile and brutal region of the world which, understandably, offers up a range of features and fauna found no where else on the planet. It also tends to draw people who are quite unusual and Herzog introduces us to a number of them, including some who would definitely fall into the category of “freaks”.
But what I found most fascinating about the film is when Herzog explains the phenomenon of the “rogue penguin”. Every so often, a penguin leaves the regular nesting area and heads off into the interior of the continent. There’s no water, no food and eventually the penguin will just run out of gas, lie down and expire. There aren’t any theories, nothing that explains the bizarre behavior of these creatures and here’s the strange part:
Initially, when humans came upon one of these rogue penguins waddling along inland, miles from where it should be, they would scoop the critter up and take them back to the other penguins, congratulating themselves for a job well done.
Only one problem: the penguin would immediately turn around and start right back, retracing its tiny footsteps and damn the torpedoes. People in Antarctica are now instructed to leave the determined creatures alone, let them go, even knowing it’s to their certain death. Defying nature, defying logic, stubbornly persisting in behavior that is, apparently, purposeless and self-destructive.
I relate to those crazy little fuckers. I empathize with whatever quirk in their mindset that draws them away from the herd mentality and compels them to strike out on their own, regardless of the consequences.
Frankly, I think it’s a perfect, though admittedly weird, metaphor for my writing career. While it might be more safe and comfortable to behave like everyone else, compose work indistinguishable from a host of other authors, there’s some kind of kink in my personality or brain chemistry that simply won’t countenance it. I won’t be controlled or managed or “handled”. I refuse to create material that tries to conform to the marketplace or caters to fashion. I do not submit to the judgments of editors and agents and couldn’t care less if my books become bestsellers or earn so much as a dime. I won’t prostitute my talent by writing “franchise” novels, based on someone else’s conception. You do that, fellow scribbler, and, to quote the great Bill Hicks, you’re off the artistic roll call. Forever. End of story. You’re another fuckin’ corporate shill. Everything you say is suspect, everything that comes out of your mouth is like a turd falling into my drink.
So sayeth Saint Bill.
I am an errant penguin, tottering off to my doom. I am that freak who for, whatever the reason, can’t help veering off the beaten track, saying unpopular things, creating work that no one has seen before. Don’t bother trying to reform or cure me, there’s no hope of that happening. Just let me continue on an odd, meandering path that will, eventually, peter out, my body surrendering to the elements, dropping in my tracks, eyes still on a far horizon I know I’ll never reach.
* * * * * *
Lots more ahead in the months to come. Soon I’ll be making an announcement re: my next book projects and I think you’ll be surprised—hope it’s a pleasant surprise but, regardless, let’s just say this errant penguin won’t be dissuaded from his course. You can follow me or not; that’s up to you.
Thanks for coming by and keep those comments and suggestions coming. It’s a pleasure conversing with folks of your intelligence and perceptiveness. All I’ve ever wanted is an insightful, literate readership. And, boy, you folks definitely fit the bill.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I’ll close off this special anniversary post with a few of the poems I read at last night’s “Open Mike” at our local library.
It feels like the end of something
a dead zone spreading outward
from some remote Pacific atoll
I remember when the weather was normal
and the bees weren’t dying
and you could see the stars
Since when did the natural become un-natural
the grass eating holes in our shoes?
And who will feed all the hungry mouths,
if you take sick and wither away?
Remember, thou art mortal
as doomed as a spring flower.
Shine brightly in your scant time
a dazzle of colors until you are plucked.
in miniature rooms
furniture built to scale
stiff, painted figures
coiffed hair, handmade clothes
placed with faces averted
subdued for the sake of the kids
a scandal in smallville
plastic lawyers on their way
The 20th century is a skull
gleaming in a dry creekbed.
Emaciated goats graze nearby
while, high overhead,
the sun sets fire to the sky.
No sound but the wind,
the awful inescapable wind.
“Darkness, take my hand”
Here come the shadows
here they come
watch them come
here they come
here they come
© Copyright, 2011 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
I’m relieved to discover that this habit isn’t necessarily a manifestation of mental illness, nor is it unique in the world of the arts. I’ve read enough biographies and articles on authors to know that a good number of them have well-developed fantasy lives and often immerse themselves in their self-created environments, sometimes to the detriment of real world relationships and obligations. I think of writers like Ray Bradbury, P.G Wodehouse and and H.P. Lovecraft. For prolonged periods of time they take up residence in fictional universes, describing their journeys with such detail and depth that they seem almost like parallel existences, places we could visit if we took one wrong turn on a dark street or wandered off the path, into the endless forest.
I’ve devoted nearly four years of my life to conceiving, researching, writing and editing my novel So Dark the Night. Working on it every day, day in and day out, month after month after month. Frequently I’m in my office from 8:00 in the morning ’til 9:00 at night, coming out only to use the bathroom or gobble down a few quick bites of food. So fully inhabiting the city and environs where my two main characters ply their trade that at times it’s hard for me to fully re-emerge and engage with family and friends. Some days it’s absolutely spooky. I open up the door of my office and expect to see…what? The city of Ilium, home of my detective duo, a dilapidated former industrial center, hugging the shores of Lake Erie, long past its prime, presently in the midst of an accelerated decline. The dockland the repository for rusting hulks, bristling with abandoned gantries and infrastructure. The factories that once employed thousands now empty husks, ringed by concertina wire, patrolled by private security goons. The ground laced with heavy metals and toxins, poisoned for ten thousand years.
I see it so clearly in my mind’s eye.
Dunno about the other fellows but I confess to a preference for my imagined worlds, personal playgrounds where my my mind can roam, unfettered by the demands of mundane reality. When I shut the door to my office, everything on the other side ceases to exist. The phone is unplugged, the doorbell is ignored, nothing is allowed to break the spell. Music is the first step–sometimes an hour of howling metal or spacey, ambient stuff or track after track of Dylan. Depends on how I’m feeling.
–and then all at once I find myself sitting at my desk, pen in hand. I don’t remember how I got there or when I started writing. That’s the truth. So when I say “spell”, I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass. I can’t tell you how many thousands of words I’ve put to paper that have no clear origin; I looked down and there they were. And the process is as mysterious now as it was a quarter century ago. That’s the fucked up part. I’m no closer to understanding what it takes to create a successful work of prose or verse, even a single, melodic sentence, than I was when I first dared imagine myself a writer.
That’s why I take such offense at workshops and creative writing classes. You can teach someone basic grammar but you can’t help them create music with a few strokes of a pen. Sorry. Nor can you impart to your students the ability to absorb the pain and prolonged physical, mental and spiritual exertion the writing life demands from its (usually) unhappy acolytes. Basic compositional skills are empirical; a good ear for dialogue isn’t.
Writing is hard work, as hard as digging ditches or mining coal. That is, if you’re doing it right. Putting words down on paper, that’s nothing. Arranging them so that the exact right one is in the exact right place…that is a feat of engineering on par with any building, bridge or monument from the present day to ancient epochs.
When I’m working, my focus is absolute, like a laser beam. Nothing else matters except that page in front of me. I am there and nowhere else. I see my characters’ faces, breathe the same air. A camera swooping and dipping, discreetly recording the scene that’s unfolding. At such moments, it is temporal reality that seems entirely unconvincing and implausible.
Perhaps that’s why writers sometimes behave like such buffoons in the real world. We’ve forgotten social conventions and have no idea what constitutes appropriate behavior and language back on Earth Prime. I think of someone like Wodehouse, who cheerfully admitted to preferring the worlds he created to the real thing. Maybe that’s why he was gulled into those wartime radio broadcasts from occupied Paris for which he was so vilified. To his mind, they were harmless trifles…but to his countrymen across the channel, teetering on the brink of apocalypse, each syllable was treason.
Fantasy can beguile too.
Lovecraft was reclusive, a man who evinced little interest in worldly affairs, steeping himself in history and lore. More comfortable conversing in lengthy correspondences than face to face. His “mythos” an attempt to impose order on a civilization he felt far removed from. His attitudes, frankly, reactionary, which explained his fascination with the past and his fear of the things that might lurk just beyond his safe threshold, the darkness that yawned…
His writing is fevered, a cascade of obscure or archaic words, all in a vain (and overblown) attempt to describe the indescribable, put features and traits to things beyond human ken. The Lovecraftian universe is, even this non-fan must confess, a thrillingly imagined one, seemingly consistent and lavishly illustrated. For a considerable portion of his short life he resided in strange climes and, within the limits of his talent, did his best to describe the bleak and blasted vistas he saw there.
And then we have Bradbury…Raymond, the child-man. For Ray, the view from his window is pristine and richly coloured: small town Illinois, circa 1924. Memories of the cataclysm of war fading, a renewed sense of optimism surging through America, the first forebodings that an isolationist republic might have bigger, more ambitious aspirations on the world scene. An era of silent movies and loud jalopies; traveling circuses and lonely leviathans. White picket fences, dandelion wine and well-attended churches. In a second story bedroom, a child lies beneath clean, flannel blankets, blinking in the early Saturday morning light, listening to birdsong. In thirty years, this same child, grown tall and ramrod straight, will mount a silver rocket and blast off for the red sands of Mars…
Ray is all about nostalgia, a sense of what could/should have been. His ability to re-imagine a past that never was rivals that of Walt Disney–and I think it fair to say both are obsessed with bygone eras and far-flung futures and care not a whit for the present day. You gotta believe Ray has a rich fantasy life and I’d kill to be able to walk into one of his dreams.
Ray Bradbury’s stories are reflections of the man…just as Lovecraft’s tales reveal a twisted, inner psyche and Wodehouse’s lengthy canon a yearning for a well-ordered paradigm where the worst thing that can happen to a person is an accidental betrothal.
And as for me…hmmm. I think there’s a similar desire to impose some kind of cohesion or logic to a world I regard with more than a little cynicism and disapprobation. In the early part of my career, I wrote almost exclusively about characters who were somehow disenfranchised, powerless, marginalized. I approached those tales from the point of view of victims and that says something about my childhood and formative years. The fears that besieged and threatened to overwhelm me.
But in the past five years or so I’ve noticed that my characters have gotten tougher, taking control over their lives, no longer cowering in the face of their oppressors. And I think that change was accompanied by a great deal of healing as well as a better balance in my brain chemistry. At 46, except for the inevitable bad days (no one can avoid them), I’m feeling pretty good. Well enough that I can talk candidly about my secret places in a radio play like “The First Room“. No longer having to avert my eyes, try to think of anything but. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still as neurotic and nutty as ever, it’s just that I’ve come to terms with my inner loon.
I think my continuing survival is actually a very positive life lesson. If someone with my childhood, my psychological problems, my genetic history, can manage to make it this far, there’s hope for anyone. My writing saved and redeemed me and if you’re out there, dangling by a thread, there’s something for you too, something to pull you up from the precipice. Trust me.
And not only have I survived, I’ve thrived. Over the years I’ve taken on the roles of husband and father and that has equipped me with better coping skills and patience to deal with the frictions that are inevitable in any close personal relationship, no matter how loving and supportive. Those childhood fears and insecurities crop up in funny places and so does the anger, the rage of a kid who is powerless; a witness, an accomplice, a victim, a pawn of larger, darker forces.
I mentioned the bad days, those intervals where reason and balance seem to flee from me. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to (thank God) and the bouts of fury and despair are no where near as intense. I find myself raging against the small chores and obligations that are part and parcel of daily life, chafe at an off-the-cuff comment, smolder because some small, petty desire has been denied me. Until the feelings pass, I retreat to my office, read, meditate, listen to extremely loud music, waiting for the worst of it to be over.
These fits usually coincide with some “down time” in my writing, any period when I don’t have a big project in front of me. I simply have to be doing something every single day…or my mind begins to turn on me. Most people around me view me as a terrible workaholic, too driven and consumed by my calling; they don’t understand that it’s the writing that keeps my demons at bay. All those long hours I spend in that other place, the worlds I construct from memories, epiphanies and passing impressions. They sustain me, are a crucial article of my faith. Without that outlet…I shudder to think.
I’m not saying mine is necessarily a healthy lifestyle. I’ve read the reports that warn of the health risks of a sedentary existence; I definitely should get outside more, stretch and exercise. Often, when I’m really locked into a project, I forget to eat, barely aware of the passage of time. That can’t be good.
But I also know that because of the way I live my life–on my terms, with few accommodations to outside influences–I’ve managed to spend the last decade or so (for the most part) in a state approaching happiness. Is it a trade-off? I think so.
Without the ability to shut off the world and use my office as a portal to possibility, amazement, redemption and hope I would never have lasted this long. I truly believe my fantasy life is key to my continuing survival. When the stories run out, I’m finished.
I think the other fellows know what I’m talking about. I ponder the life of Ray Bradbury–I know he’s had some health setbacks and that has affected his legendary productivity. But at 90+ years, he’s still telling tall tales, even if someone else has to take dictation and type them up for him. Each day he commutes to that place where his visions dwell. His fortress of solitude. Sitting in a comfortable chair, barely able to see but hardly sightless. His gaze far, far away. In Green River or navigating the Valles Marineris; lost in a funhouse or at the helm of a gleaming rocketship, bound for the stars.
After all, nothing is impossible if we allow ourselves to think with the mind of a child. Experience has not yet affected one so young and no one can convince them that dreams can’t ever come true.
My Muse has taken charge of my summer and is refusing to relinquish it. Writing a couple of stories for the Esquire fiction contest was supposed to be a warm-up, something to limber up the ol’ wrists and get the synapses firing. I wrote the first story and the second one occurred to me and a third…and all of them featured a recurring character, this Conrad Dahl fella, at various ages, from 13-19. I’ve pondered and batted around the idea of writing (at some point) a linked series of stories but had made no specific plans, didn’t even have an outline committed to paper. Now here I am with three stories–“Twenty-Ten”, “An Insurrection” and “Never, Ever Say That To Me Again”–written for that fucking contest. One (“Twenty-Ten”) is complete and was submitted with about four hours to spare before the deadline and the other two need at least a week of polishing and I’m bouncing around the notion for a fourth Conrad Dahl story that would (he hopes) complete the cycle. Which means at least another 2 or three weeks and pretty much the rest of my summer devoted to short fiction.
What about that novel I was supposed to be revising? What about the filming and recording I had planned, to sample and explore some of the features of this amazing, stunning, paradigm-shifting new iMac (I’m still enamored, can you tell)?
And do you think I can seize back the initiative, demand that my Muse shitcan this story cycle, at least for now, and get back to the novel? Not bloody likely. It doesn’t work that way, my dears. I can’t program my inspiration, channel it with any degree of success. Not this lad. And I’m very single-minded, I can only focus on one project at a time; I’m not one of those agile bastards who can juggle any number of novels, article ideas, short stories, what have you. After I finish this blog entry it will take me the rest of the morning to regain a fiction-writing mindset. I’ll play lots of music, pace around my office, let every last vestige of this post evaporate away before I’ll be able to return to my regular work. Get my game face on again.
I have no idea why my Muse has determined that these short stories should be given precedence. I’m frustrated by this change of plan; I thought I had my summer all figured out. Matter of fact, this entire year to this point has been taken up with works that weren’t exactly at the top of my list of priorities. My “Innocent Moon” radio play took me wayyy too long to research and complete, eating up the early part of 2009. And then I worked on finishing the long version of “First Room” and a short story that will shortly appear on this blog called “Death Threats”. And now these linked tales.
So what happens if my Muse decides to try to try her hand at writing a ballet or a libretto to a fucking opera? There’s no way of getting around it: I’d have to give it a shot. I throw up my hands in frustration, I curse and shake my fist at the sky but in the end I must accede to the wishes of the one who defines me as an artist and person. I’m a control freak and the act of writing is the only time I let that go. That can be terrifying, enlivening, thrilling, daunting; like walking a high wire naked, with no safety net and only half the world watching, hoping you’ll fall. Addictive and sick-making. Adrenaline-charged and gut-churning. I often quote Robert Penn Warren, the act and process of writing the pain I can’t live without.
I’m guessing some of you out there know what I’m talking about.
We’ve sacrificed our backs, fingers, even our peace of mind. All for the sake of following our Muse wherever she takes us: never without complaint but, in the end, always obedient, wary of offending her fickle, unpredictable sensibilities.
The horrific, unspeakable risk such an attitude might entail…