Category: true confession

Progress of an Errant Penguin

Today is the fourth anniversary of the very first post on this blog.

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.

(Photo credit:  Guillaume Dargaud)

* * * * * *

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.

 

Mass Extinction

 

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

man-killing winds

biblical floods

the grass eating holes in our shoes?

 

And who will feed all the hungry mouths,

mother,

if you take sick and wither away?

 

Bouquet

 

Remember, thou art mortal

as doomed as a spring flower.

 

Shine brightly in your scant time

a dazzle of colors until you are plucked.

 

100:1

 

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

 

Metaphor

 

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

come shadows

come shadows

here they come

here they come

 

© Copyright, 2011  Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)

My credo

This is what’s taped over my office door.

This is what I believe, in twenty words or less.

A Life of the Mind

I spend about 70-80% of my waking hours somewhere other than here on terra firma.

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.

A Man Under the Influence

images-1Something has gone haywire.

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.

Grrrrr.

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…

images

Under a Spell

apejpeg.jpgTwo weeks into intensive revisions on my novella and every distraction, everything that pulls me away from the fictional world I am in the process of creating, is infuriating. The mundanities of life require attention—paying the bills, attending parent-teacher meetings—but I am resentful of such “trivialities”. When I’m focused on a project, my solipsism becomes downright scary. I forget to eat, wear the same clothes, grow a beard, drift through the house like a blind cat (present, but unseeing). Hour after hour up in my office, leaving only to use the washroom or grab something (anything!) to eat. I suffer withdrawal symptoms when away from my imaginary creations for even short periods of time. I pine for my characters. I miss their voices. Often find it difficult to follow dinner table conversations, occasionally forced to feign an interest in what my wife and sons are saying. A hard admission to make.

I am utterly immersed in this novella. For eight to ten hours a day I walk around in it and breathe the same air as its inhabitants. When I’m not working, I get the feeling that my characters remain in limbo, awaiting my return. There are divided loyalties, a sense of being stuck between two realities, the disorientation that results from that, confusion, my office door opening to a hallway I don’t recognize at first…

apollojpeg.jpgDuring these times, I have no interest in interacting with the outside world. I care little for consensual reality, ordinary rules and conventions; sometimes I go days without leaving the house. That is my entire universe and, believe me, it’s a whole lot bigger than it looks from the outside. My office is maybe 10 X 12 but its physical specifications are irrelevant. It is a cramped space capsule and time machine all rolled into one.

Viewed dispassionately, I lead a pretty dull and ritualized existence. I do nothing outside of reading and writing and hanging out with my family. I have no social life and a limited circle of friends and acquaintances, most of whom I’ve known for a long time. I challenge any future biographer to scrape up enough worthwhile material to fill a short article, let alone a fucking book. Good luck concocting something of interest with daybook entries like this:

Slept poorly (siege dreams again)

Into office immediately–Coffee

Work

Break for lunch

No decent mail

Good progress today

Boys home/ Sher home

Supper (shepherd’s pie)

Few more edits

Crash with book/ in bed 11:00 p.m.

And that goes on for pages and pages and pages

That’s my life. And that’s why I need that ability to project myself into the worlds I fashion one word at a time. Because my daily routine is so unbelievably fucking tedious and boring, it would kill a sane man. Retreating into fantasy is coping behavior, plain and simple. If I didn’t have this crazy, vivid imagination of mine I would’ve gone off my nut ages ago. I’d have never made it out of childhood.

flaubertjpeg.jpgBe regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” (Gustave Flaubert)

Thanks, G.F., and I appreciate that, but I also recall writers like Lawrence (T.E. and D.H.) and Isherwood and Graves and Grahame Greene and Anthony Burgess, world travelers and brilliant diarists, leading fascinating lives and growing vast reputations. Their long shadows still touch us today.

Is this it for me? Sitting in this room day after day, composing sentences, stringing them into stories or novels, producing vast reams of paperwork to little actual effect? A recent journal entry touches a sore point, my terror of being a man of no consequence. Making no mark, leaving nothing noteworthy or commendable behind me. As faceless and anonymous as a body tangled in a mass grave.

There’s a sense now that I’ve got to break out of this rut, seek new experiences, engage with the big, wide world and see what that inspires. Inevitably this brings up thoughts of travel. Are my fictional settings becoming too constricted and too familiar? Would some exotic backdrops lend a little something extra to my tales? Is this cloistered, claustrophobic existence I’m leading stunting my growth as an author and artist?

mertonjpeg.jpgThe clouds change. The seasons pass over our woods and fields in their slow and regular procession, and time is gone before you are aware of it. In one sense, we are always traveling and traveling as if we did not know where we were going. In another sense, we have already arrived.” (Thomas Merton)

I need change. I crave it. A door opening. Opportunity knocking. A thrown bone. A crumb of praise. Signs of hope. A phone call out of the blue. Something completely unexpected and scary and exciting. To make my heart race. To break this terrible thrall