Yes, can’t hold back any longer. The second floor renovations almost done, the restored hardwood floor an enormous improvement over the ancient, dusty, shag carpet that once covered it (said aged, toxic carpet being one of the suspected “hot zones” for the initial onset of COVID-19, report from the CDC still pending).
My office is now up and running, stocked with some new book cases, hundreds of volumes surrounding me…and yet there seems to be more space than ever, each square foot fully utilized. Gone is the clutter and torn, sagging posters. Even minimized my display of toys and miniatures. This is the space of a grown, mature artist, not a terminal juvenile (that stuff goes down to my “man cave” in the basement).
Here are some pictures to show you what we’ve done. First a “Before” shot, once the carpet had been ripped up and the office virtually emptied out:
Now here’s a couple of pictures taken this morning:
Just looking at these snaps has my left hand twitching in anticipation of some serious writing. I’m talking about a binge that leaves me emotionally and physically mangled (ah, the good old days). Imagine having a space completely designed around your wishes and specifications. It’s a dream come true. The beautiful little touches that make it completely mine—
Including, as a grand finale, one wall that my wife and I layered with papier mache…incorporating fragments torn from an old, tattered copy of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man I had lying around.
I call it the “Joyce Wall” and a closeup looks like this:
Work on the upper floor still isn’t complete—there’s scraping and crack-filling and painting…and then all the furniture has to be put back in the proper rooms. It’s been a process but we’re getting there.
My new creative play area excites me beyond belief. There’s a sense that my career and approach to writing are getting a reboot, a fresh beginning, distant, unexplored horizons beckoning.
What dreams may yet come…
This project began as a musical piece which turned out so well, I decided it might make a strange and unsettling soundtrack for an original movie. Sherron and I shot footage over two days and then loaded the images from our two cameras on to iMovie (a process rendered extremely difficult because of the age of my DV camera). I commenced editing, spending many long hours shaping the footage to the music, even concocting a kind of/sort of narrative.
You can view the film here and then, I hope, either drop a comment on my blog or over at YouTube:
I won’t try to summarize or explain “Beautiful Desolation” except to say that even on a planet that now boasts over six billion souls, there are still places where one can gain a profound impression of isolation, neglect, Nature reclaiming her own.
Enjoy the movie and I hope it inspires some thought and reflection. Perhaps it will cause you to contemplate the place where you live and view it in an entirely different light.
This morning I was sitting at my desk and happened to glance out the window, at the ungainly maple tree in our backyard that is always in need of trimming back.
Last night we had a substantial amount of rain. The air rich with a variety of living scents, pouring into my home office, filling the room. All at once, I started scribbling…
dripping morning light
brushed by the wind
its relentless entreaties
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
I just finished posting a short essay (“Last Days”) on my RedRoom author site.
Pop over for a look, I like how this one turned out.
Off to see the new “Star Trek” film tonight. After skimming the Anthony Lane New Yorker review, I’m going in with pretty low expectations.
But a friend gave us free movie tickets as a family Christmas gift (thanks, Amy!) so what the heck, let’s go for it. We’ll only be out 126 minutes of our lives (and twenty-five bucks for popcorn and drinks).
Review to follow shortly. In the meantime, check out that RedRoom essay.
It’s a peach…
Postscript: Special thanks to Gord Ames for providing this author with fascinating links and drawing his attention to articles and resources I would’ve otherwise missed. Gracias, Gord.
Well, I couldn’t let an opportunity go by without referencing the upcoming Star Trek movie. The franchise is hanging on this one, boys and girls; the Next Generation sputtered out after the woeful “Nemesis” and nothing that followed appealed to anyone other than hardcore fans. A drastic re-tooling was in order. That’s why the guys in suits chose J.J. Abrams to carry the torch. A guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Hell, that Lost show made buckets of money–as a gun for hire he comes with a pretty high rep.
Abrams has been around awhile, longer than I realized. And he hasn’t always been a golden goose either. He receives a brief mention in Richard E. Grant’s film diary With Nails. Grant runs into him at some Hollywood gathering and with his acute perceptiveness, describes J.J. and his cronies thus: “Meet a twenty-four-year old screenwriter called J.J. who wrote ‘Regarding Henry’, has a three-picture deal, and talks real fast, as do his friends, all of whom seem young, ruthless and rich.”
Hmmm… “ruthless and rich”. Not “gifted” or “witty” or “intelligent”. Ruthless and rich. And “Regarding Henry”? Remember that turkey?
But all will be forgiven if J.J. can revitalize the old gal, make it contemporary without abandoning the campiness and charm of the original show; I’m a retro nut and I’m worried the writers (one of them the “genius” behind “Transformers: The Movie”), will bury the story under CGI, comic book level dialogue and stock characterizations, while bending as far as possible to meet the abysmally low expectations of the fan boys/girls.
End of rant.
Now, as you’ve likely guessed, since my last post a couple of weeks back I’ve been working, plugging away on new material and prepping old stuff for revision. Beginning to gear up…there’s something about the summer that gets my creative energies revved up to full throttle. I can’t explain it. While the rest of my family is off traveling or out at the beach, I’m up in my office, sweating buckets, scribbling like mad.
With the coming of warmer weather this month, something clicked into place and I’ve been at it for long stretches, working on–well, I can’t say yet. You know me. Like to play it close to the vest. Might show it to Sherron later on this week but until then–shtum.
So I’ve been working hard and every so often scrambling down the stairs to watch a period of hockey–it’s the Stanley Cup playoffs, doncha know–before rushing back upstairs to work some more and then back downstairs to check the score, watch highlights, never missing Don Cherry…
I’ve been a Boston Bruins fan for nigh on forty years–oh, yes, my children, the big, bad Bruins and I go wayyy back. Watching old footage of Bobby Orr still brings tears to my eyes. And this year…well, the boys had a terrific regular season and then they destroyed the Habs in four straight games. I hardly dare wish for anything else. Must not tempt the hockey Gods to turn on the B’s like some blind Greek guy with a taste for older women…
It’s a pleasure to watch players like Marc Savard and I love that Lucic kid. Wideman is an under-appreciated talent and Tim Thomas has been good when called upon. But if that idjit Phil Kessel doesn’t stop with the lookit-me-dangle-all-by-myself-I’m-Jason-bleedin’-Spezza lone man dashes up the ice (which, inevitably lead to odd man rushes the other way), I’m going to end up kicking the front of my television set in.
Sorry, had to get that off my chest. It’s just that one commentator described Kessel as the Bruins’ best player during the Montreal series and I just about swallowed my beer mug.
Okay, besides work and the odd period of hockey, I’ve also somehow managed to squeeze in a fair amount of reading, lotsa music and even a movie or two. Part of that whole getting-some-balance-in-my-life thing I’ve been working toward. With mixed results (hey, but at least I’m trying!).
Read John Fante’s 1939 novel Ask the Dust and absolutely loved it. Set in 1930’s Los Angeles, the story of Arturo Bandini, aspiring novelist, come West to seek his fame and fortune. I described the book elsewhere as a cross between Nathanial West (Day of the Locust) and Knut Hamsun (Hunger). I photocopied two pages and glued them into a “Book of Commonplace” I keep of favorite quotes and excerpts. I also hand-copied these sentences:
Over the city spread a white murkiness like fog. But it was not the fog: it was the desert heat, the great blasts from the Mojave and Santa Ana, the pale white fingers of the wasteland, ever reaching out to claim its captured child.
Here’s a piece from Salon.com that talks about about Mr. Fante’s life and work. Definitely a book–and an author–worthy of rediscovery.
In terms of movies, Sherron and I puzzled our way through David Lynch’s ultra-weird “Mulholland Drive” and I’m nearly done watching the second and final season on the 1967 TV series, “The Invaders”. Fun to slam down one or two episodes with a stiff glass of scotch after a hard day of writing. That’s my method for stress relief (patent pending)…
Lots of time in my office means lots of tunes playing too…and, as of yesterday, that includes Bob Dylan’s latest, Together Through Life. Not sure what I think of the new one yet. Maybe give it a few more listens before I decide. It lacks a cut with the mythic, spiritual power of something like “Man in the Long Black Coat” or, from Time out of Mind, the searing and entrancing “Highlands” (all sixteen-and-half minutes of it). Some good songs, especially “Beyond Here Lies Nothin'”, “My Wife’s Hometown” and “It’s All Good” and I like the Tex-Mex flavor but I wouldn’t count Together Through Life in the front rank of Dylan’s body of work. Not by a long shot.
Plenty of instrumental, ambient stuff pouring out of my speakers: Explosions in the Sky, God is an Astronaut, the soundtrack of “Mysterious Skin” (Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie collaborating). Old Tangerine Dream (“Atem”), Mogwai and NIN’s “Ghosts I-IV”.
The perfect accompaniment; the music transports me to a place beyond physical laws and temporal constraints. In this undetermined location I can work without distraction, removed from obligations and duties. That door over there opens on nothing, the backdrop outside my window cunningly executed but, upon close inspection, reveals imperfections, chips in the paint and swirls left by careless brush strokes–
The artifice holding, for now, but I keep the door closed and the blinds mostly drawn. To maintain the necessary illusion, preserve it through a combination of higher physics, prayer, alchemy and the judicious use of duct tape, when all else fails…
I never thought I’d do this.
This room is sacred to me, the most personal, intimate, safe place I can imagine. Here, I can let my mind roam and give myself over to all manner of foolish thoughts and schemes.
My office is on the second floor of our house, first door on the left at the top of the stairs. There must be something about this space: I don’t know how many friends and people we know have come by the house, ventured upstairs to see me…and stop cold at the threshold of my office. It’s like an invisible barrier holds them back and they peer inside, uncertain of whether or not to enter until I actually say “C’mon in, it’s all right…”
The space is so manifestly mine. It’s like an extension of my mind, all of my obsessions and interests crowded into about 120 square feet of area. High and low culture co-existing side by side. Proust and Gumby. Sam Beckett and Captain Kirk.
But, look, it’s all right, I’m smiling, waving you inside and some of your misgivings dissipate. First thing I always do is point out Sherron’s artwork (the space painting, cave art, 3-D Beckett and book sculpture are hers’), and once you’ve expressed your appreciation, steer you toward my bookshelves. As Borges famously wrote: “To arrange a library is to practice, in a quiet and modest way, the art of criticism”. It’s plain to see where my interests and reading tastes lie. I revere authors who break with convention, push the envelope until it’s somewhere beyond Alpha Centauri and stubbornly present their vision of the world without apology, eschewing artifice and formula. Pynchon, Calvino, Ballard, McCarthy, Joyce.
Not too many genre books in evidence (that should come as no surprise). I keep most of my SF and mystery books in the basement—at least until we can invest in more bookshelves. But even then they won’t be allowed in here: this is a place where I make ART, not look for diversion and escape.
“He speaks truly who speaks the shade…” (Paul Celan)
Ah, you noticed all the toys. Yes, well, that’s part of me too, I suppose. The child inside who resists the notion of growing up and putting away childish things. I think that’s why I’ve retained such curiosity for the world around me and such a profound sense of wonder. I hope that stays with me ’til my dying day.
That’s my “power shelf” there at the top; some of my most sacred objects are up there along with pictures of my family. The real source of my strength when it seems like fate, circumstances and my own stupidity are combining to take a massive diarrhetic dump on me. Below that, a shelf of spiritually oriented tomes, from Rumi’s poetry to the prison letters of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. More inspiration for when the “black dog” of depression and despair is chewing on my ass.
Sometimes this place seems filled with a creative spirit, to the extent that the hairs on my arms stand up because of such close proximity to the Ineffable. There’s a sense of connecting with, becoming part of something far vaster than I’m able to comprehend.
Other days, the air is still and dead, uninhabited.
You can see from the posters and the mini-stereo that music plays a crucial part in my life. The three CD’s I have on rotation right now are Ministry’s “Rio Grande Blood”, Nine Inch Nails’ “With Teeth” and Nick Cave’s “Grinderman” (“No Pussy Blues” fucking rocks). But at the moment I’m playing a recording of the great Jacqueline Du Pre performing Elgar’s Cello Concerto (someone once dubbed it “the saddest music in the world”).
What else? My gorgeous desk, which Sherron bought for me with a paycheck from her first real grownup job. The top opens up like a big hinge and there’s an old Olympia typewriter underneath, used only in case of emergencies. Just can’t quite let it go yet.
The computer I use is an old Power Mac a friend gave us after she upgraded. I’ve had it for about eight years but suspect that it might be time to invest in some new hardware. But…have you priced out an iMac lately? Around eighteen hundred bucks, possibly more if I wanted to get some of the specialized software that would allow me to edit movies and compose music. Maybe in a year or two…besides I detest change, any kind of change, so I suspect part of me would be quite traumatized by switching computers. Knowing me, I’ll likely drag out the process as long as I can.
The big yellow armchair isn’t as comfortable as it looks and it’s probably not good for my bad back. I’ll wait until I can get a really nice rocking chair—something that will keep my wonky spine in alignment without taking up too much room.
But, really, this office isn’t about sitting around and relaxing, it’s a work space. For 8-10 hours a day I immerse myself in my latest project, getting up frequently to pace, talk to myself or burst another one of those stress balls with constant, compulsive squeezing. And then I spring back into my chair and have at it again, repeating the process dozens of times during the course of the day.
Lately, I’ve been re-editing So Dark the Night, an incredibly tedious process, going through a 475 page manuscript over and over again. For the past while I’ve been editing standing up (Hemingway wrote that way too), which is a real departure for me but it seems to be helping the back and shoulder strain. It might be paying creative dividends as well because the editing is going faster and more smoothly than I expected.
Anything else? Yes, I’m a Boston Bruin fan—you got a problem with that? I didn’t think so (Bruin fans are notoriously pugnacious). The great Bobby Orr was my earliest hero, along with Neil Armstrong and Gene Autry. All are represented in the office (Autry symbolically, with a lineup of plastic cowboys and Indians over my office door).
Well, I think that’s everything. Whew. This hasn’t been as stressful an experience as I imagined. Rather liberating, really.
I don’t know if any of this provides you with fresh insights into my personality or work…or if it’s just given you a very good idea of what sort of disturbed mind you’re dealing with.
Regardless, thanks for stopping in.
Me? Well, in a little while I’ll head downstairs to crack open a Guinness and then it’s back up here, the fourth section of So Dark the Night awaiting my slashing red pen. One of my sons will get your coat (don’t worry, he won’t expect a tip). No problem, it was good to meet you.
Uh, sorry, would you mind closing the door behind you on the way out?
Thanks…hope to see you again soon.