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)
It’s an annual ritual, dating back more than two decades.
Right after Christmas I sit down and take stock of the past year, assaying it in terms of the quality and quantity of work I’ve composed, what I feel I accomplished and where I fell short. This assessment is rarely kind: I can be awfully hard on myself. On that point, I’m not alone:
“It is now sixteen years since my first book was published and about twenty-one years since I started publishing articles in magazines…There has literally been not one day in which I did not feel that I was idling, that I was behind with the current job, and that my total output was miserably small. Even at the periods when I was working ten hours a day on a book, or turning out four or five articles a week, I have never been able to get away from this neurotic feeling.”
George Orwell wrote those words in a notebook he kept during the last year of his life. His heroic work ethic unquestionably contributed to his early demise; this fact is not lost on me. You can literally write yourself to death.
Cheery thought, innit?
But I’m not going to let my neuroses get in the way of celebrating a productive and creative year. Not me. No, sirree. I mean, I should be pleased with what I accomplished and a fair summary of 2007 would probably go something like this:
It was, to my mind, a year of retrenchment and learning. Retrenchment in that I finished a couple of longstanding projects and, re: the latter, thanks to my blog I got a real education as to the scope and limits of technology and came to a clearer understanding of the possibilities inherent in cyberspace.
I get the sense that during this past year I was tooling up, doing my utmost to marshal and focus my skills, honing them to razor sharpness.
Preparing for things to come…
The high points:
- In the early part of 2007 I completed final edits on Voiceworks. It’s a thin volume (71 pages), made up of 50 or 60 of my favorite monologues and short, spoken word pieces. The material is drawn from the past twenty years and includes offerings like “Cranes” and “A.I.” and a number of monologues from The Break (my one-act play).
- I finally put the finishing touches on my Redbook poetry collection (so named because of the red notebook I scribble the first drafts into). Sherron helped me paste it onto the background I wanted and it looks great. This one took a mere decade to whittle and pare into shape.
- Revised two older stories, fleshing them out and coming up with luvly new versions of “Adult Children” and “Matriarchy”. I especially treasure the latter and was pleased when CBC Radio producer Kelley Jo Burke picked it up for broadcast on “Gallery” (air date: October 27, 2007).
- Sewed up the movie deal for “Kept”, acting as my own agent and going through about twenty drafts of the contract with the increasingly frustrated producers and screenwriter. Used the Writers Guild of America’s model contract to help me restrict the option period, secure compensation for sequels and remakes, protect literary rights, etc. A time-consuming, frustrating, annoying, nerve-wracking process but it got done and now we’ll see what happens.
- I revised a few of the short stories from my venerable (1990) short story collection Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination. It gave me the chance to tighten up the prose and fix the last line of “The Cattletruck”, which never seemed right to me. The new versions are leaner, tighter, superior to the originals. Worth the weeks of murderous edits.
- In March, I finally heeded Sherron’s prompting and allowed her set up this blog. Beautiful Desolation. One of the smartest decisions I ever made. Started out as an experiment, a lark. And then it grew and grew as I added rants, commentaries, reviews, loaded on stories that hadn’t seen the light of day for years, an excerpt from the best unpublished novel kicking around (So Dark the Night). Presently, we find ourselves victims of our own success. Far more hits than we expected, people expecting new content on a regular basis—sheesh. So we’ve expanded the site and intend to utilize new publish on demand and podcasting technologies to…well, there are big plans afoot and we’ll leave it there. Stay tuned.
- But the absolute best thing to happen (writing-wise) in 2007 was undoubtedly finally summoning up the nerve to commence work on a longer effort, my novella “Of the Night”. Took every ounce of courage and willpower I had to stick with it but I did (thank you, Creator). You’ll be hearing more about this one in the months to come. Sherron loved the draft I gave her just before Christmas and I see big things ahead for this 160-page, 40,000 word beauty.
* * * * * *
When I actually list what I’ve done in the past 365 days, at first blush it seems like a pretty significant amount of work. What do you expect, I write every day, often failing to pace myself, working overtime to the detriment of my fingers, shoulders and back (to say nothing of my mental state).
But when I stack myself up against some of the truly prolific writers out there, I’m a time-waster, a lazy, itinerant asshole. Look at the sheer amount of titles folks like L.E. Modesitt, Kevin Anderson, Timothy Zahn or Robert Jordan can thrash out. These guys have bibliographies that would choke a fucking stegosaurus. How do they do it? I’m not talking about the quality of the work, I mean how can they physically produce that amount of prose, year after year? How can they put out so many pages a day when I can manage only a fraction of that while maintaining a schedule that sucks my strength down to the last dregs? How? How? How?
“What we write with difficulty is written with more care, engraves itself more deeply…”
Well, all right, granted, there’s that. The guys I just mentioned aren’t exactly literary stylists, straining to compose brilliant sentences, so lyrical they practically serenade you from the page. They’re hacks and their readers have minimum expectations when it comes to their work.
But what about authors like Anthony Burgess, Joyce Carol Oates and William T. Vollmann? They produce(d) a flood of pages every year and, for the most part, have secured their literary reputations and earned the highest awards in the land. Hugo, Balzac, Stendhal, Dumas pere et fils—huge canons, literary immortals.
It baffles me. Are they that much smarter, more efficient, better focussed than I am? While I struggle and grope for words, does the prose flow from their hands, whole chapters emerging fully formed, committed to the page with hardly a correction? Didn’t I read somewhere that Kevin Anderson dictates most of his books into a tape recorder and has them transcribed later?
My mind reels at the thought. If I did the same thing, the best I would likely manage would be a few constipated groans and a string of scatological profanities. And that’s on a good day…
I know it’s ridiculous to draw parallels between my career and that of other authors—everyone is unique, each of us a prisoner of psychology, circumstance and other factors harder to label and categorize. But the whole physical aspect fascinates me—I completed a good draft of my novella in about 3 1/2 months. I worked on that novel from the first week of September until Christmas, taking only 2 days off for Thanksgiving. 160 pages. Some of these fantasy fucks can excrete the equivalent over a long weekend. Knock out a novelization in a month or six weeks to help pay the rent….
(Long, drawn out sigh.)
But you knew me better than that…
I know…I’ll close off my last posting of 2007 by listing the things I’m grateful for, the people who remind me life is worth living and some of the stuff that redeems my boring and uneventful existence:
God. Yup, I’m serious. I am inspired and sustained and strengthened by the knowledge that my life, my work is serving the aims of a conscious, enigmatic Creator, an entity encompassing every square nanometer of our universe and a similar proportion of the other 10 dimensions currently thought to exist. So there.
Family. Couldn’t do it without you. Sher, boys, thanks for everything.
Friends. The people who care for me despite my long silences and busy schedule, who stick around despite my inattentiveness, who persist in believing in me against all evidence to the contrary.
Writing. Obvious, huh? But writing isn’t only about putting words on paper; it’s also prayer. It’s when I feel closest to my Creator—often, when my talent and resolve falter, something takes control and gets me back on track again. How many times have a looked up from a paragraph in wonder, not remembering having composed it? Those are the moments I live and pine for…
Books. I’ve repeatedly insisted the printed word saved my life and I mean it. God bless you Arthur Conan Doyle and Philip K. Dick and L. Frank Baum and William S. Burroughs and Cormac McCarthy and Homer and Franklyn W. Dixon…
Music. Soothes this savage beast like nothing else. Electronica, soundtracks, alternative, metal…and Glen Campbell singing “Wichita Lineman”.
Movies. Not as many as the old days, just not enough time. But doing my best to see some of the classics I’ve missed, discovering for myself the genius and vision of artists like F.W. Murnau, Tati, Georges Henri Clouzot and Val Lewton…
Sports. Every Saturday night (from September to June) finds me in front of the TV set, watching the nationally broadcast hockey game (a rite going back about, oh, 40 years or so). Whenever I can, I try to squeeze a few quarters of a CFL football game in between marathon revision sessions. I’m a frustrated athlete, if I died and could be reborn as anyone, it would be Joe Montana, two minutes left in the game, the ’Niners on our own ten yard line…
Radio. Old tyme radio dramas, CBC documentaries and features, BBC World Service…the possibilities nearly endless since we started piping in high speed internet. Radio Moscow anyone? NPR…
Art. Blame Sherron for this one too—every so often words fail me and only a visual image will suffice. Collage, acrylic paint, short films…over the past few years I’ve dabbled in just about everything. Sher’s a great teacher in that she does the best she can despite her student’s ineptitude.
Canada. I really do live in the best country in the world. I bag about the stupid cultural bureaucrats and the mediocrity I see all around me…but, cripes, I’m free to speak my mind, there’s nobody strapping a bomb to his ass and hopping on a bus behind me, nobody telling me what to think or say…my home and native land. I despair for it sometimes but I wouldn’t trade citizenship with anyone, anywhere.
You. Didn’t think I’d leave that out, did you? If you’re a repeat visitor or if this is the first time you’ve popped by—don’t matter, I’m grateful to you for seeking me out. The amount of “hits” this year surprised me and convinced me that there’s a potential audience out there, smart folk with an appreciation for good writing, good company and who appreciate (or, at least, tolerate) a certain amount of hyperbole and/or satire. Hang around because there’s more good stuff coming in 2008. A change in format, lots of new material including—
Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself again. But I’m really excited about what the next year will bring. I have a strong hunch 2008 is gonna be a good one.
And I sincerely hope it’s the same for you.