This is intended to be a semi-regular column devoted to my various enthusiasms, pet peeves and the strange notions that all-too-frequently bedevil me. Not intended for folks with delicate sensibilities or soft brains. Read on.
- Recently received a note from an Italian digital musician wishing to use images from one of my strange, short films to accompany a piece of music he’s been composing. Why not?
- Things like that happen every so often. Like the two academics (one from Hong Kong, the other the Netherlands) who contacted me seeking permission to include some of my photos on the “cut-up” method for presentation at separate conferences. Happy to oblige…always in the hope that exposure in different venues will help draw attention to my literary work (well, a fella can dream, can’t he).
- Some good, smart discussions on Twitter lately regarding books, writing process, films, politics, etc. (Shout out to Shaun Hamill, Steve Savile, Geoff Andrew, among others.) The trolls seem to have gone into hiding for the time being, leaving room for rational discourse. A refreshing development.
- How do my fellow progressives feel about the first month of Joe Biden’s presidency? Anyone who was expecting massive policy changes, a sudden lurch to the Left, an administration to rival FDR’s is either soft in the head or has only just awakened after a fifty-year coma. “Meet the new Boss/Same as the old Boss.”
- Go out today and either buy or borrow a good book. Just this once treat your frontal lobes and higher brain functions with the respect they deserve. Enough with the empty-headed, escapist fare. Remember: you are what you read.
- The fact that Justin Trudeau and his cabinet declined to join the rest of their parliamentary colleagues in a motion condemning the treatment of the Uyghur people at the hands of the Chinese shows just how morally bankrupt and hypocritical the Liberal Party of Canada has become. An absolutely disgraceful display.
- We’ve signed up for a three-month tryout of the MUBI movie-streaming service. Great selection of cinema from around the world…but the goddamn thing keeps freezing and buffering, even during a 15-minute short film. I’ve contacted them and they’ve reached out, trying to effect a fix but so far, no good. And if they don’t solve the problem soon, hasta la vista MUBI!
- Is it just me? It seems like my fingernails and toe nails are growing at an accelerated rate during this extended lockdown. Please apprise if something similar is happening to you.
- Sherron keeps trying to get me to explore the wonders and benefits of kimchi…but I still recoil from the stuff. It looks like the material that gets caught in our kitchen drain; it may be a miracle food for some, but my rising gorge says otherwise.
- Back to the Big City (Saskatoon) soon to check the state of my new hip. Hopefully will have a bit of extra time for a side trip to Peryton Books and, later, some tasty ethnic cuisine before heading back on the road.
- Making excellent progress on what will be my next Black Dog Press release, Notebooks: 2010-2020. Printed up a draft and will give it to Sherron for proofing in about a week-ten days. And then final tinkering and polishing. Still anticipating an early May release date (perhaps even sooner, but don’t you dare quote me on that).
- Listening to a couple of newish Bob Mould CDs in my office the past few days. Ol’ Bob still rocks, the spirit of Husker Du lives on!
- These days half the time when the landline in our house rings it’s either a “robocall” or a scammer. This is what our society has been reduced to.
- One Twitter post in particular caught my eye the other day. A high school student was seeking advice on how to publish their book. Excuse me? Isn’t this a case of putting the cart before the horse? How about learning the rudiments of grammar and syntax first, gaining a basic understanding of language or, like, paying your fucking dues? We don’t need more books published, we need to identify and weed out the absolute shit that’s already being churned out at an accelerating pace. Most of it produced/excreted by sub-literate tits with no notion of just how terrible they really are. Sorry, kid, you won’t be getting any help from me.
- I’ll close this first installment with an appropriate quote from Aldous Huxley: “If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful and we prefer the pleasures of illusion.” Yep, that about sums it up. See you next time!
But, as I’ve said before, if I’m not blogging I’m undoubtedly at work on some project that is utterly consuming me.
In this case, it’s actually three projects.
I should explain.
Last year I was supposed to release a collection of short stories with urban settings called Electric Castles. But that one sort of got over-taken and set aside when I wrote and released an e-book of topical and controversial non-fiction material titled Mouth: Rants and Routines.
I’ve gone back to work on editing the stories in Electric Castles...but I’ve also been assembling a collection of new poetry as well as making additions to Notebook, a compilation of thoughts, reflections and meditations I’ve been gathering for nearly ten years.
The order of publication is: Electric Castles in June-July, 2020, Notebook in 2021 and the poetry collection in 2022 (I have a tentative title for that one, just not willing to share it yet).
Putting the finishing touches on Electric Castles has been time consuming and intense (my approach to editing obsessive and exhausting), especially the last tale in the book, a 50-page, 12,000+ word novelette. Still pondering a cover and hoping to nail that down soon. A couple of possibilities, including some of my own visual efforts.
* * * *
I realized recently that it’s now been a decade since I rebooted my Black Dog Press imprint. It sort of went into hiatus after the release of The Reality Machine in 1997. PS Publishing (U.K.) published my book Righteous Blood in 2002 and I retained some hope that finally I would be able to find presses out there that would provide a venue for my writing.
That turned out to be wishful thinking and by 2008, I’d had enough. I wrote up a venomous press release and sent it out to a couple of writing forums, announcing I was tired of playing the game, submitting work and waiting sometimes YEARS for editors/publishers to grace me with a response. Fuck that and fuck them. Basta!
Shortly thereafter, I started this blog and began posting big chunks of material, short stories and novel excerpts that thousands of people read and downloaded.
But I still wanted print versions of my books and that meant familiarizing myself with POD (print on demand) technology (and terminology) and in 2010, I published my first Black Dog Press offering in 13 years, my occult thriller So Dark the Night.
I was back, with a vengeance. Since then, I’ve produced a dozen titles, doing my best to satisfy my small but vocal cadre of readers.
The indie world is the place for me and I have permanently (I think) set aside any notion of commercial success or mainstream acceptance.
I hope those of you who are familiar with my oeuvre will continue to support this eccentric venture of mine and that new readers will drop in and discover an author who defies expectations and subverts preconceptions, creating wholly original and provocative titles for those who love challenging, literate books, short stories or poetry.
Welcome to Black Dog Press.
Pull up a chair, make yourself at home.
There’s a lot to see here and we’ve got all the time in the world.
This blog is now ten years old. Ten years to the day.
Well, well, well.
Who could’ve imagined “Beautiful Desolation” would still be around? I’ve seen the stats: most blogs sputter out after a year or two, the individual(s) involved eventually losing interest or not finding the time or unable to post regularly enough to keep it up to date and viable.
I can understand that. Over the lifetime of this blog, I’ve written 450+ posts, averaging about one every ten days or so. Which for a full time scribe and stay-at-home dad is a pretty hefty investment of time and energy. Plus, I’ve never posted just for the sake of posting, I’ve always had something to say or share (even if it’s frequently, especially in the early days, invective and bitter, icy fury).
Right from the beginning, “Beautiful Desolation” was a platform, a bully pulpit from where I could hold forth on subjects near and dear to my indie, contrarian heart. My thirty+ years as a professional author provides me with a host of experiences and encounters to draw from, and I must say it gives me considerable pleasure when young writers contact me and tell me how a certain article or mini-essay or rant I’ve posted inspired them or bucked up their courage during a low patch in their life. My entire career, from the get-go, has been all about empowering myself as an artist and not allowing others to tamper with my work, diluting its emotional, aesthetic and spiritual intensity and passion. That was an obsession for me even before I “turned pro” way back in 1985. I have always fiercely defended my work and questioned the effectiveness/competence of editors who take it upon themselves to “improve” my writing, “smooth out” the rough spots, etc.
I made it plain from those initial posts that this blog is devoted to the celebration of literary, intelligent, innovative, genre-busting fiction that defies fashion and formula and seeks truly new and unique representations of the world around us. I’m contemptuous of amateurish drivel and people who think insisting on proper grammar and syntax is “old school”. I respect authors who make herculean efforts to write and revise their work, laboring tirelessly, excellence their only goal. I’ve been a full-time author for a long time and struggle each day to find the courage and inspiration to go on. It takes me weeks to polish a story, years to finish a full-length manuscript. So you’ll excuse me if I say that, by those standards, dabblers and weekend scribblers and NanoWriMo wannabes just don’t make the grade, sorry.
It’s been interesting to go back to some of those early posts on “Beautiful Desolation”—some of them are very, very angry and confrontational. I’m thinking of my pointed words on contemporary science fiction, Cormac McCarthy’s rather lifeless interview on “Oprah”, the mediocrity that is CanLit and my repeated diatribes against the idiocy that is National Novel Writing Month (“part-time writers unite!”)
The nastier stuff kind of flickered out after the first couple of years, though I’m still capable of delivering withering scorn on command. I’ve said a few things about paranormal romance and shapeshifter-erotic-fiction that had a few people gnashing their teeth and hastily “unsubscribing”.
Ah, well. Some folks are touchy about being sub-literate and dull-witted.
Recently, this blog has taken on a more overtly political tone, which reflects my growing interest in leftist politics, socialism, Marxism…really, anything that is an alternative to the capitalist juggernaut devouring all the resources on this planet, rendering it unsuitable for a growing number of species (a list that will eventually include, y’know, us).
The election of CEO Trump to head Corporation America, the emergence of the far right around the world, as well as the on-going shenanigans of the neo-liberals and their wealthy sponsors, have alarmed progressives and activists, who view the rising intolerance and racism as part and parcel of a system that disenfranchises and impoverishes the masses, in order to fatten the wallets of the elite.
A concerted effort to unite disparate voices and causes under the banner of freedom, true freedom, must be undertaken or we are headed down a long, dark, scary road. I hesitate to predict what our society will look like when we reach the end of that particular journey. My imagination quails at the notion, quite frankly.
But, as I’ve come to realize, one can’t always dwell on these gloom and doom scenarios; for the sake of balance (and sanity), you have to be able to conceive of a better, healthier, more equitable world, a chance at a brighter tomorrow. And so I’ve sought out individuals and organizations, voices that offer entirely different perspectives on where the human adventure might lead us, given the right kind of moral and spiritual leadership. I’ve been fortunate enough to discover people like David Harvey and Terry Eagleton and Slavoj Zizek; Paul Mason, Naomi Klein and Tariq Ali. The LEAP Manifesto and the existence of good, ideologically committed leaders like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders offer at least the hope for change, the introduction of real ideas into a partisan, over-heated discourse.
Books like Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism, Klein’s This Changes Everything and Karl Marx’s Capital provide us with workable blueprints for correcting our course, indicating different, less spooky paths to travel, and once absorbed they alter your whole mode of thinking—I’m talking a complete paradigm shift. We don’t have to live the way we do, there are methods we can employ, mindsets we can adopt to alter our lives, our ingrained habits and actually make the world a better place, just by our example.
I’m sure I’ll be writing about this in more detail in the months/years to come.
In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed “Beautiful Desolation” in its various guises. Ten years has given me the time and scope to cover a lot of ground and during that interval I’ve undoubtedly said some things I probably shouldn’t have and managed to piss off an impressively wide assortment of people. But all along I’ve made it manifestly clear to even the most desultory, unwary visitor: if you’ve come to this blog looking for reassurance and treacle, a collegial atmosphere and warm, fuzzy support system, you’ve opened the wrong door, I’m afraid. This site is about the price we pay for having feelings, for being alive and sentient in a world that’s increasingly chaotic and disorienting, our “civilization” gradually losing its thin veneer of humanity, revealing the glistening skull beneath its skin.
“Beautiful Desolation” is, in that sense, the perfect title for this blog.
The more I think of it, what could have been more appropriate?
* * * * *
A few recent developments I should mention:
The Mindful Word, a site devoted to conscious creativity and holistic wellness (hey, how can you argue with that?), has published two short essays I composed, offering advice to young, developing writers…and warning of the possible perils of semi-autobiographical fiction and memoirs. Pop over there to check them out and then take some time to poke around–it’s a cool site.
I also somehow managed to place an extremely odd piece, “A Personal Cosmology”, with The Oleander Review, a literary journal published by the University of Michigan—the issue in question is due out in April. Here’s a sample from “Cosmology” I posted awhile back. Just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.
Finally, “Happy Birthday” to my pals Laird and Karen—who share the same birth date and the unfortunate tendency to root for two historically dreadful hockey clubs (the Leafs and Canucks, respectively). This lifelong Bruins fan tries not to hold that against them, although sometimes, I admit, it takes concerted effort to restrain my natural tendency to trash talk. But, then again, it’s hard to feel smug when your favourite team includes an unrepentant arsehole like Brad Marchand.
Note: the accompanying pictures are drawn from our Summer, 2016 visit to Greece, Turkey and the Czech Republic. Istanbul, in particular, continues to haunt our memories (and sometimes our dreams). What a magical, terrifying, wondrous metropolis. One day, we hope to make it back…
Over the holidays I devoted a considerable amount of thought to what should happen next with Black Dog Press.
So far, my imprint has released eleven books, a couple of limited edition chapbooks…but now what?
I’ve come to the determination that I won’t be publishing anything in 2017—and before the emails and complaints start flying, let me elaborate.
Despite my considerable efforts, Black Dog Press remains a very marginal enterprise. It is a constant struggle to draw attention to my writing when there are so many tomes being published and self-published, churned out like dumb, identical widgets. I want to pursue new methods for advertising my books, trying my best to overcome my aversion to self-promotion (a particularly ugly manifestation of narcissism). I’ve never been an author who haunts forums, always looking for an opportunity to reference my own work, and I’m not much a joiner, if you get my drift. More like your classic lone wolf.
In the past, I’ve sought out other, like-minded indie authors/publishers but, candidly, haven’t found many who take the printed word as seriously as I do. Very few scribes these days produce genuinely original, literary work; their prose is often derivative (fan fiction) or stuck in a genre of little interest to me (zombie, shapeshifter romance, etc.). Sadly, the proliferation of technology, the growing number of publishing platforms, means that the amateurs and wannabes out there can publish all the crap they excrete, with the minimum of editing or critical scrutiny. Pounding their chests and calling themselves writers, having a fit when anyone dares question their professional credentials. As petulant as they are untalented, vicious, rather than visionary.
Sending out review copies doesn’t work—that much has been made clear. Again, too many books, too few good publications (even fewer qualified critics)…and then there are the unnamed rags that want you to buy advertising space before they’ll even consider your book for review. There’s a special red-hot poker in Hell waiting for that scum.
I adamantly refuse to purchase a positive, five-star review from Kirkus or Publishers Weekly. Never, never, never.
What does that leave?
I’ve been looking into hiring a publicist, but that would mean leaving my comfort zone and putting my books, my personality, my face in the hands of a stranger. Granting them permission to do what’s necessary to “raise my profile” (I’m literally squirming as I type those words).
But something has to be done. I’m publishing terrific, intelligent, compelling novels and stories and they’re not getting the attention they deserve. After over 30 years as a professional author, my stature isn’t anywhere near what it should be…and the fault lies with me.
I have to do better at promoting my growing body of work, even if that means trying things I’ve never dared attempt before.
It’s an approach I’ve always shied away from, but there’s no other option.
If I want to continue growing my readership, keep Black Dog Press afloat, I have to cast aside my aversion to, gulp, selling myself to the public.
This isn’t going to be easy…
I make that commitment with, I confess, some serious misgivings. My absolute nightmare is emulating my hero, Orson Welles, who spent the vast majority of his time trying to beg, borrow or steal the money he needed to finance his pictures. He frequently bemoaned wasting his energy on this soul-destroying scut work when he could have been, y’know, making great movies. When he died, he left a string of unfinished projects and his body of work was far, far smaller than it should have been. That represents a crime against cinema itself.
I measure myself by the latest project in front of me—and that’s a major drawback. Once I finish a book or short story or poem I quickly lose interest, already eying the next challenge. I admit it: I have been completely negligent when it comes to plugging the ten books this press has released thus far. I send out review copies, write up some accompanying background material…and then pretty much forget about it. Onward and upward!
But I’m a sentient creature, I can learn, adapt, change. So during the past week I’ve signed up for both Smashwords and Wattpad, making a substantial selection of my writings available for free downloading and sampling on those sites (see: the “Links” sidebar to the right of this post). I’ve also contributed comments to a couple of writing forums and reached out to a few fellow indies.
As well, in the coming weeks, I’ll be giving you a step-by-step (blow by blow?) account of my efforts to publish the next Black Dog Press offering, a reprint of Righteous Blood, a volume featuring two terrifying novellas originally released by PS Publishing back in 2002. You wanna know how to publish a book, experience the joy and (mainly) torments of that process firsthand, well, keep watching this space.
I spent part of last autumn getting the text of Righteous Blood into shape, making sure there were no formatting glitches, etc. I also wrote a foreword and some end story notes. That part is pretty much ready to go. But I still need to find cover art, select an interior layout person (Chris Kent will once again handle cover design) and start the production ball rolling. My tentative release date is April 1st—better get a move on.
So…busy times. But I can’t forget to leaven all that labor with a little bit of fun.
Which means…see you at the first home game of this province’s new professional lacrosse team, the Saskatchewan Rush. I’ll be driving in to Saskatoon on Friday, attending the match with four of my favourite lads (including my two sons). The forecast is for cold weather but that doesn’t deter the hardy sports fans in this part of the world. Watch for me, I’ll be the guy in the yellow/gold Bruins hat, imbibing good, Canadian ale and grinning from ear to ear.
I love lacrosse. Fantastic game. Canada’s real national sport.
For not the first time (and certainly not the last), I find myself apologizing for the lengthy interval between blog posts.
But, as I’ve pointed out previously, when I’m deeply immersed in a project I don’t have the time or energy to blog—so when these long silences (inevitably) crop up, I think you can safely assume I’m up to something.
In this instance, two short stories have been devouring my waking hours. One, “The Grey Men”, is a mystery/suspense tale clocking in at 1900 words, and “Magic Man”, the one I’m just wrapping up, is 8700 words (33 pages) long.
Upon its completion “The Grey Men” struck me as more accessible and genre specific than my usual efforts, so I did something very out of character and actually submitted it to a magazine for consideration. Longtime readers know I swore off that practice ages ago and only rarely offer my short fiction to publications or writing competitions. Why bother with extended (interminable) response times and form rejections when I can just go ahead and release my work either here or over on Scribd? But, I dunno, “The Grey Men” is a solid, convincing story and maybe just this once a perceptive editor will see its merits and snap it up. I’ll let you know.
I tackled “Magic Man”, in all honesty, because I was feeling quite smug and confident after completing “The Grey Men”. I should have known better.
The first draft of “Magic Man” was written back in 1984. I kid you not. It was one of the tales that signalled a shift from narratives centred around myself, my own life experiences, to venturing out into unexplored waters, creating entirely fictional worlds and characters. For that reason, I’ve always had a rather fond view of “Magic Man”, never completely forgot about it. And so, as an exercise, I pulled the one, typed copy of “Magic Man” out of my archives and set to work.
It was torture. First of all, I had to tap in the story, 4-5000 words of it, and that was an excruciatingly slow process because I couldn’t help correcting and doing adjustments as I went along, which really was incredibly stupid and stretched the process out. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Just type the fucking thing in, Cliff, and then start editing. Nope. Finally, got the entire draft on computer…and that’s when it really got difficult.
Obviously, I’m a much better writer now than I was thirty-one years ago. That guy back in 1984, he was still basically a rookie, a kid learning the ropes. So “Magic Man” needed work, lots and lots and lots of work. At the same time, however, I wanted to show respect to the kid, the one I remembered slaving away on this story, really excited about it because he knew it was a step, more like a lurching, uncertain stumble, in a new and different direction. I wanted to recognize that effort, the courage it took to complete “Magic Man”, and so I was also determined to preserve as much of the spirit of the original as possible.
Finally, two weeks later, it’s almost done. Sherron is downstairs reading the copy of “Magic Man” I printed last night. I didn’t tell her (never do) what I’ve been up to so she’s in for a treat. She’ll remember this story very well: after all, it’s one of the first I ever dedicated to her.
If “The Grey Men” falls into the mystery/suspense category, “Magic Man” is a bit more problematic. There are elements of dark/urban fantasy, I suppose, but for the most part it’s a mainstream effort. Realistic setting and scenario. Which will likely make it next to impossible to sell or market the bloody thing. The extended length will factor against it as well. In the old days, I might have sent it to magazines like Cemetery Dance or Midnight Graffiti, but the latter no longer exists and the former has been closed to submissions for ages. I might release the tale as a Kindle “single”, sell it for 99 cents a download, but I’m not sure what that would achieve. I’m very happy with how “Magic Man” turned out and would like to see it presented to readers in an attractive, respected venue.
So let me throw it out there: anybody know of a decent-sized anthology or magazine willing to look at an 8700-word story featuring a “touch of strange”? If so, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
400 blog posts? Can that possibly be right? Even with all the long gaps, the periods of time when I’ve completely ignored and shunned Beautiful Desolation?
Amazing. Inconceivable. I think that averages out to 40-45 blog posts a year or around one a week. Not bad for a full-time workaholic author.
Looking back over the years it’s interesting to note the changes in tone and content. I confess I was a very, very angry man when I first started posting on Beautiful Desolation eight-and-a-half years ago—check out a few of those early blog posts and you’ll see what I mean. I was fed up with money-hungry, corporate publishers and their idiotic editors, and the greedy literary agents colluding with them to destroy any chance of interesting, innovative authors getting into print. The publishing biz, especially after the big, multi-national takeovers in the 1980s (something else to thank Ronnie Raygun for), has systemically dummied down the marketplace to the extent that sub-literate, amateur purveyors of fan fiction have a better chance getting their work in book stores and sales racks than the next Don DeLillo or David Foster Wallace. Disgusting, innit? My fury with that situation finally boiled over when a draft of my first novel, So Dark the Night, was rejected by an editor who kept me waiting over a year before delivering the bad news. I penned a very public “fuck off” letter to the industry, a portion of which which was reprinted in “GalleyCat“, an on-line site devoted (mainly) to the New York publishing scene. Folks who responded to my expletive-filled tirade warned me that I’d burned all my bridges and “would never work in this town again”.
But by that point I was beyond caring. I had recently discovered print-on-demand (POD) publishing and immediately recognized that printing had finally caught up with the times and authors now had a relatively inexpensive and efficient way of releasing their own work without involving editors and agents or gate-keepers of any kind. I had self-published my first book, Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination in 1990, but those were the bad, old days of offset printing and all the horrors associated with that. Print-on-demand simplified and streamlined the process…and it also didn’t encumber you with 500 or 1,000 copies of your book to store and inventory (with POD there are no minimum print runs).
Thanks to print-on-demand, my wee imprint, Black Dog Press, was reborn, rejuvenated…and I was a much happier camper.
And so the rants here came a lot less frequently—though topics like the amateurization of the arts and National Novel Writing Month always seem to spark more vitriol—and I settled down, embracing the independent (indie) writing world, feeling empowered and artistically fulfilled, knowing that my work was available to the reading public exactly the way I envisioned it. No middlemen, no interference.
Coming up on ten (10) books later, and I keep doing my thing, making no apologies, kickin’ against the pricks. Older, greyer, a little wiser, a “grand old man” (at 52) of self-publishing/indie writing. Still refusing to pay obeisance to fashions and trends, still refusing to whore my talent, writing what I want to write. Power to the people, motherfuckers!
I’ve got a catalog of excellent books and every single one of them is unique and original and highly literate.
After thirty years as a professional author, I’ve seen ’em come and go but, hey, here I am, still standing, still creating and publishing intelligent, highly crafted prose while many one-hit wonders and flashes-in-the-pan have slipped into obscurity or disappeared altogether. Where are they now?
I’m a “neglected” author, I’m a “cult” author, operating on the fringe, below the radar, working without the slightest desire for fame or monetary reward.
But the main thing is I’m working, staying relevant, productive, thematically and stylistically daring. Consumed by the act of creation.
It will be interesting to read blog post #500 in a couple years’ time.
I wonder how much will have changed, with my writing, the state of the world.
In either case, I can only hope (and pray) it’s for the better.
- Sherron finished “Magic Man” a few minutes after I completed this post and loved it. Just for the record…
“…these people…want to be considered serious writers; but they have come to believe that they can accomplish this by means of a convenient shortcut. And the industry that produces how-to manuals plays to them, makes money from their hope of finding a way to be a writer, rather than doing the work, rather than actually spending the time to absorb what is there in the vast riches of the world’s literature, and then crafting one’s own voice out of the myriad of voices.
My advice? Put the manuals and how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you really need if you want to write. And wanting to write is so much more than a pose. To my mind, nothing is as important as good writing, because in literature, the walls between people and cultures are broken down, and the things that plague us most—suspicion and fear of the other, and the tendency to see whole groups of people as objects, as monoliths of one cultural stereotype or another—are defeated.
This work is not done as a job, ladies and gentlemen, it is done out of love for the art and the artists who brought it forth, and who still bring it forth to us, down the years and across ignorance and chaos and borderlines. Riches. Nothing to be skipped over in the name of some misguided intellectual social-climbing. Well, let me paraphrase William Carlos Williams, American poet: literature has no practical function, but every day people die for lack of what is found there.”
Richard Bausch, in The Atlantic Monthly
Would the posers and wannabes out there PLEASE note: when you’re a real writer, every fucking month is “national novel writing month”.
Now go back to flipping burgers or whatever it is you do, and leave literature to the professionals…the people who, through years of sweat and sacrifice, have earned the right to call themselves authors.
Shame on you for daring to include yourself in their company…
It can be a somber, sobering process, this kind of self-evaluation, and, inevitably, I get around to my writing.
Thirty years as a professional author and not much of a dent made. Black Dog Press, my imprint (described as a “micro-press” on my Saskatchewan business license) barely scrapes by. It’s no coincidence that I usually publish my titles in the early spring, right after the annual check from the Public Lending Rights folks arrives. It just about pays for each new release.
And let’s be honest, my books sell very modestly; outside a small coterie of readers, I am virtually unknown. I sent out something like 45 copies of my last book, Disloyal Son, to newspapers, magazines, assorted literary folk, receiving precisely three polite acknowledgements and no reviews. Not one. One mystery magazine emailed me, thanking me for sending a copy their way and offering to sell me a full-page ad that could maybe/possibly run in the same issue as the review (hint, hint). I didn’t have money for the ad and they didn’t end up publishing a review. It’s the way things work these days. Kirkus Reviews? Publishers Weekly? For the right price you can commission a four-star review and laudatory blurbs…never mind that no one has even glanced at the book in question.
Publishing is a dirty business, there’s no denying it.
And it’s hard to stay positive, to keep on keeping on, when you know the deck is stacked, the marketplace flooded with a quarter million new releases every year, a clammer of dissonant voices begging to be heard, a hellish, caterwauling chorus.
But it’s the work, that joyfulness I feel when everything is clicking, sentences and paragraphs almost being dictated to me, that’s what makes it worthwhile. As long as I’m able to put pen to paper, as long as those words don’t dry up, inspiration fleeing from me, I think I can endure almost anything.
Creation is everything to me. As soon as I’m done a project, I’m ready to move on, tackle another challenge. And that’s why I don’t spend much time mourning the poor sales of my last novel or short story collection, or grind my teeth down to the gums as I watch their rapid plummet to the bottom of Amazon’s sales rankings. Those four-dollar royalty checks? Hey, bring ’em on.
Just…keep the words coming. In good times and bad. Darkness and light. Ecstasy and despair.
Anything but that screaming silence.
“And that had been with me for as long as I could remember, gaining in intensity at each new impertinence of the external world with which I signed no contract when I was ejected bloodily from my mother’s warm womb. I developed early a horror of all groups, particularly those which without further ado claimed the right to subsume all my acts under certain designations in terms of which they would reward or punish me. I could feel no loyalty to anything so abstract as a state or so symbolic as a sovereign. And I could feel nothing but outrage at a system in which, by virtue of my father’s name and fortune, I found myself from the beginning so shockingly underprivileged. What shocked me most as I grew up was not the fact that things were as they were, and with a tendency to petrify, but that others had the impertinence to assume that I would forebear to react violently against them.”
Alexander Trocchi, Cain’s Book
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.