Yesterday I was feeling completely listless and dull-witted. Couldn’t work up the energy to do much of anything.
Then I remembered a couple of photos Sherron sent me. Sometimes, in the morning light, our kitchen walls get these really cool shadows and patterns projected onto them; my visually-oriented wife noticed this pair and took some shots with her cell phone.
I called up the photos, placed them side-by-side on my computer screen, stared at them for about thirty seconds.
Then I grabbed my blue Hilroy exercise book…and started scribbling. No thought, no pre-planning, just went for it.
It’s an old trick…worked for the surrealists and, by God, it worked for me.
Here’s the story, accompanied by the images that inspired it:
* * * *
The Test Subject
ALL RIGHT, TERRY, YOU KNOW THE ROUTINE. WE NEED YOU TO TAKE US THROUGH WHAT YOU’RE EXPERIENCING AND DESCRIBE—
It’s hard…I don’t…there aren’t any…
COME ON, YOU HAVE TO DO BETTER THAN THAT. WE NEED SENSATIONS, COLORS. PAINT US A PICTURE.
(Laughter) You don’t…it isn’t like that. God, I wish I could explain, show you…but there’s no (indecipherable), no, ahhhh, common reference points.
ARE YOU DISORIENTED, DO YOU—
What? Did you say ‘distortion’? Everything’s distorted. It’s like…like…
…this kaleidoscope…constant movement…twisting and spiraling…
ARE YOU FEELING NAUSEOUS?
I feel—oh, Jesus! Jesus! Did you see that? It just…wow…this bolt of pure blue light…zipped right past me and it—I swear it smelled like cinnamon.
THAT’S WHAT WE WANT TO HEAR! YOU NEED TO DESCRIBE THE EFFECTS, HOW THIS THING MANIFESTS ITSELF. TERRY? TERRY, DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?
I know. I see what you’re…but it’s really got on top of me and…and…it’s just too…and then everything just changes, like that! Did you see it? Like the whole universe suddenly switched polarities and—and flowed in the opposite direction. Whoa, trippy. And there’s something…I see something…
I dunno…a shape…presence…now it’s up there, by the ceiling, sort of floating…
POINT. SHOW US WHERE YOU MEAN.
There. It keeps shifting, flowing, like I said. I can’t quite…it blends in with these other blob things…they kind of swirl and mesh…yeah…swirl and mesh…mesh into a mess…
WHAT ELSE? DO YOU GET A SENSE OF ANY—
–someone turn up the heat? It’s freezing in here.
THE TEMPERATURE IS KEPT AT A CONSTANT 24 DEGREES CELSIUS.
I’m telling you—fuck! That time it zoomed right past me. This bright-colored blur…I could’ve reached out and—
TELL US WHAT IT LOOKED LIKE. GODDAMNIT, TERRY—
It’s made of light and…uhhh…wow! Oh, wow…there it is. Hovering, just in front of me. Holy shit, I think it’s looking at me—
EASY, TERRY, COME ON NOW. YOU’RE TRIPPING, REMEMBER? IT’S ALL IN YOUR HEAD. SO GET A GRIP—
It’s staring at me, man. Studying me. I’ve never…I’ve seen little green men before but…this thing knows…
KNOWS? WHAT DO YOU—
–knows I’m here and it’s curious too. Wondering who I am, what I’m doing. This is its backyard and I’m trespassing on…
–ONLY AN HALLUCINATION—
Bullshit! Bullshit! There’s something in here and it isn’t just the fucking drug. It sees me. It sees me and I want out. Get me out of this! Somebody! I need to–
Gimme the fucking antidote! I want to (indecipherable). This is fucked, this is totally—
AT THE REQUEST OF THE TEST SUBJECT WE ARE DISCONTINUING THE SESSION AND—
What the fuck are you? What do you want from me? Keep away from me—
IT’S OKAY, TERRY, WE’RE COMING IN. BOB AND ANGELA ARE RIGHT OUTSIDE AND THEY’LL—
Oh, Jesus, oh, Jesus– (Heavy breathing, panting)
It’s coming, it’s—ahhhhh…Christ, it’s got me…help me…it’s–(indecipherable).
(Shouts of alarm, a woman screams)
BOB? ANGIE? SECURITY! SECURITY! WE HAVE AN EMERGENCY SITUATION UP HERE AND WE NEED A COMPLETE LOCKDOWN, REPEAT—WHAT? WHO’S THAT? WHO’S THERE? IS SOMEONE OUT THERE? HELLO? HELLO?
I suppose it’s understandable that young and developing writers mine personal experience for inspiration, borrow from real life for key characters, settings and episodes in their narratives.
But sooner or later, if you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you have to abandon this rather narcissistic approach and begin to invent, extrapolate, imagine, conflate, collage, transpose. Eschewing a slavish imitation to the “facts”, finding the courage and tenacity to follow a story no matter what strange paths and nooks it might choose.
For a good many authors, the idea of leaving their safe, tidy, self-appointed microverse and venturing Outside is too terrifying to ponder. Their protagonists thinly disguised versions of themselves, storylines and essential details paralleling their own life arc. To these literalists, their writing is a chance at redemption, to make sure their viewpoint is somehow vindicated and wins out in the end. Writing is not an act of imagination, it is a form of exoneration. But is such a mindset healthy—for them or for literature? I would offer a firm “No”, on both counts.
I confess that on occasion I’ve written “autobiographical” stories, tales that include some detail or nugget from life, a small touch that adds to the overall atmosphere, a dab of authenticity. Other offerings contain what I would call “emotional truths”, characters reliving some trauma drawn from my convoluted psychological history. Primal terror, feelings of self-loathing and disgust; manic spasms of joy, rapid disillusionment.
I think of older short stories like “Invisible Boy” or “Carl” (from Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination). Raw and edgy. Spare and relentless and credible…and all the more powerful and frightening for that reason.
More recently, my novella “Second Sight” (from Exceptions and Deceptions) features a married couple that bear a strong resemblance to Sherron and I. If you want a semi-accurate portrait of what daily life around Casa Burns is like, check out “Second Sight”. Not a word of it is true, of course, but the couple at the heart of the tale have a depth and subtlety that take the offering to another level.
The unnamed narrator of my last novel, Disloyal Son, is a Canadian writer and some of his genealogy is borrowed from my family history, but Mr. X, candidly, is a lot nicer than me, much more passive and considerate. Yin to my Yang.
It could even be fairly said that I share some traits with my all-time favourite character, Evgeny Nightstalk (So Dark the Night). I certainly manifest Nightstalk’s ferocious loyalty and hair-trigger temper. His twisted moral code is like an externalization of my id.
But while there are definitely similarities, I would argue that none of these characters is really me—they’re all composites, Frankenstein monsters, a jumble of body parts. I made them up. In my humble opinion, working exclusively from real life is boring, not to mention lazy.
The art is in creating individuals and scenarios from dust and mud, shaping them with your own hands, breathing life into them with each word, each sentence.
On those rare occasions when I recognize that I’ve come up with something undeniably original and unique, there’s a thrill of joy and accomplishment that quickens my very soul. It’s the ultimate high. Nothing else I’ve experienced in my creative/artistic life compares to that peak moment.
So put away your diaries and journals, smash every mirror in the vicinity.
Time to write stories that defy expectations and conventions, yarns that even the author cannot control or confine.
Surprise us, amaze us, take us somewhere we haven’t been before.
Make us laugh and cry.
Anger us, if you have the nerve.
Show us a face other than your own.
Don’t start thinking about the last pass you made through the new release section of ___________ (fill in the blank with your favourite box store).
Shelves of books by the likes of Tess Gerritsen, Harlan Coben, James Patterson.
Tepid mysteries and formulaic thrillers. No music to the prose, no originality, nothing to recommend them except their elementary school reading level. Forgettable and digestible; like fast food, only not nearly as good for you.
Comparisons are inevitable but you can’t start placing the intelligent, literate work you do alongside such mindless pap. That way lies madness. It will only inspire a blind, incoherent fury toward the “average reader”, which, these days, appears to be a euphemism for “hideously in-bred moron with the reasoning capacity of a plasmodial slimeworm” (see? it’s started already!).
A couple hundred thousand books published every year, God knows how many cable channels, the internet, social networking, “sexting”…it’s pretty hard for anyone to get noticed these days, at least for the right reasons. Behave badly, on the other hand, and the whole world seems to lap it up. Check out the latest wardrobe malfunction or celebrity meltdown; share it, like it, plug another quarter into some asshole’s ad revenue stream.
After all, it’s essential to keep up with the latest trends, highlighted by hashtags like #Kardashianweightgain or #femaleViagra. Absorbing the world in 140-character bites, possessing the attention span of a Jack Russell terrier.
Let’s face it, you’re not the kind of author who appeals to that sort. No media stroking or flame wars for you, right? You’d rather folks discover your work on their own, rather than hawking it about like an old style newspaper vendor. Or a whore. You’d like to believe there are still smart readers out there, looking for original, daring fiction. Looking for you.
But you’re fifty years old now, heading into the autumn of your life. You’ve got ten solid books to your credit, given everything you’ve got to Literature…and part of you is starting to seriously wonder about those discerning, thoughtful readers. If they really exist, why aren’t more of them finding you and singing your praises? Spreading the word. Providing for your retirement.
Maybe they don’t exist. Deep breath. Maybe the internet and connectivity has rewired brains to the extent that light entertainment and diversions are all people can handle these days. Dark, depressing visions like yours are out—bring on the mind candy! It explains the proliferation of rom-coms and the continued existence of “talents” like E.L. James, Jennifer Anniston and James Cameron.
Suddenly, it’s become clear to me. It’s the day after the zombie apocalypse.
Cripes, what a depressing post.
I warned you not to go there, didn’t I? And I’ll bet it’ll take a lot more than a Marx Brothers flick or a few old Looney Tunes cartoons to shake you out of it this time…
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)
They stopped counting at four hundred billion.
Just threw in the towel.
Resorted to a shorthand of equations, accompanied
by hair-pulling and other frantic gesticulations.
That’s a lot of stars, of suns–
but still only one, single galaxy,
not an especially distinguished
galaxy at that.
Kind of humbling, isn’t it?
To realize from a cosmic perspective we’re
the equivalent of country bumpkins, living
wayyyy out in the boonies.
And so can any god suffice?
Persuade us of a divine flame
burning invisibly within us, shining
like one of those stars?
Or have you murdered faith,
Galileo, by measuring the glory of
Creation with your heretical gaze,
recanting except in your heart?
© Copyright, 2015 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
I get quite a number of notes from individuals requesting my advice on matters relating to publishing, indie or otherwise.
Recently, two or three people queried me about how to better “monetize” their writing.
Folks, anyone who has spent even a brief period on this site or has read a mere handful of my Tweets would know that I hold such attitudes in absolute contempt.
Trying to break into writing to make money, seeking fame, fortune and bestseller-dumb? Sorry, you’ve come to the wrong place.
If you’re a purveyor of fan fiction, you should have your hands burned off with an acetylene torch. You are the shit real writers scrape off the bottom of their shoes.
If you concoct shapeshifter/paranormal romance you are a literary pornographer. You exhibit Grade Six-level writing and, it’s clear, retain an absolute horror of penetrative intercourse. As Bill Hicks would say: case fucking closed.
If you “lease” your talent to some franchise, averring that your penny dreadful writing subsidizes your “good” stuff, you’re only fooling yourself…and the gods of Literature can be very, very cruel. Regardless of how you rationalize it, you are whoring your Muse, peddling her ass for a fistful of loot. Your self-righteousness, the ferocity of your denials, only reveals the depth of your insecurity, your secret shame. You disgust me.
A twenty-something twat knows fuck all about life and has no right to claim an authoritative view on anything. You are also far too young and insignificant for a memoir. No one gives a shit about the suffering and pain (largely self-inflicted) you’ve endured during your brief existence. Your life is not unique or particularly interesting. You are part of a growing demographic: an egotistic, narcissistic non-entity with delusions of self-importance. There’s a lot of that going around nowadays and no vaccine in sight. Pity…
Demanding correct spelling and competent syntax is not “old school” thinking.
Unless you approach your craft with devotion and seriousness, work tirelessly and daily at improving yourself, you are a dabbler. A wannabe. Your efforts the equivalent of macaroni art: the gold paint may be slightly more gaudy, the noodles more generous, but it amounts to the same, unsightly mess stuck to the front of your fridge.
This blog is dedicated to a higher purpose, a celebration of the power and majesty of the printed word.
There are plenty of sites for people who compose in crayon, scribble on walls or any available surface and congratulate themselves for their artistry.
If that last sentence describes where you’re at, I think you’ve overstayed your welcome.
There’s the door.
Don’t let it hit you on the ass on the way out.
Yes, boys and girls, time to do some house-cleaning, add a lick or two of paint, shake out the cobwebs, freshen up the ol’ joint a little.
Presenting a reboot of “Beautiful Desolation”, hopefully a version that is more readable and easy on the eyes.
Let’s celebrate these latest renovations with some new music.
I mentioned I’d purchased a MIDI keyboard for my Mac—well, yesterday I put the finishing touches on the first batch of music I’ve created with the MIDI and today I loaded a whopping fifty-three minutes worth of aural oddities on to my BandCamp page.
Here’s a sample cut from Primordial, a trippy number called “Corona” that’s quite representative of my recent work.
To listen to the album in its entirety, click here.
New music, new look…a good beginning to my summer.
And there’s more to come. Much more.
Keep watching this space.
A gratifying response to my last post, a couple of the writers I cited reaching out and offering words of thanks.
No problem, folks.
But I also took some stick for neglecting to include some other neglected authors on my list and for that let me say merely mea culpa.
Here are some more names to ponder and, hopefully, seek out. These wordsmiths are/were absolute masters and deserve to be discovered (or rediscovered):
Past (Honorary) Members:
M. John Harrison
Compared to the junk currently being excreted by traditional publishing, these fine scribes are like brilliant flowers growing out of dung. Help save great works from obscurity and superb writers from the bottomless trash can of history.
Awhile back, I exchanged some e-mails with my colleague Andrez Bergen, both of us bemoaning the sorry state of the publishing biz. Andrez is a superb writer, his novel Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat a stunning blend of Phil Dick at his best and “literary noir”—if you haven’t read it, you don’t know what you’re missing.
Which is kind of the point of this post.
In one of my final missives I joked to Andrez that I was going to start an association called The Neglected Authors Alliance (NAA), and that the two of us would be charter members. Over the ensuing weeks, the idea kind of stuck with me and sometimes, as I passed my bookshelves, I’d take note of an author or two who weren’t household names, who had either slipped into obscurity or had never been widely read in the first place. I started putting together a roster; the living and the dead.
It was a depressing task; once I saw the sheer amount of raw talent represented, I felt sick. If these guys and gals couldn’t garner the rewards and praise and posterity to which they’re entitled, what chance do I have? Thirty years I’ve been putting pen to paper and my literary profile isn’t exactly where I want it to be (he says, choosing his words with extreme care).
And so, in tribute to Andrew and some other very fine scribes who deserve(d) far, far better from fickle readers and negligent publishers, I would like to recommend to you the following authors who have labored selflessly and courageously to produce innovative, literate prose, and who I am honored to add to the rolls of our oddball “society”:
Paul Di Filippo
Abraham Rodriguez, Jr.
Steve Rasnic Tem
Past (Honorary) Members:
Louis Ferdinand Celine
Adolfo Bioy Cesares
Notice to any authors on my list who come across this post: drop me a line if you’d like to have your own, official NAA button, with all the perqs and benefits that implies.
And, in the meantime, don’t give up, don’t stop producing great work, refuse to cede the field to the hacks, “share-croppers” and pornographers plying their trade today.
We need you.
The barbarians are at the gate…
Photo by Sherron Burns