Category: writing life

Enchanted days

fenceThis post is long overdue—hey, what can I tell you, it’s been crazy around here. Like a zoo without keepers.

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”.

In other words, don’t be expecting to see either movie coming to your local Cineplex or Galaxy any time soon. bark

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)

From the Mailbag

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.

Deep breath.

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.

To clarify:

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.


Neglected Authors, Part II

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.

Nobody’s perfect.

Here are some more names to ponder and, hopefully, seek out. These wordsmiths are/were absolute masters and deserve to be discovered (or rediscovered):

Wilton Barnhardt
Lydia Davis
Christopher Fowler
Craig Grant
Eric McCormack
Ted Mooney
James Morrow
Christopher Priest
Ishmael Reed
Iain Sinclair
Colson Whitehead

Past (Honorary) Members:

Kathy Acker
Antonin Artaud
Elizabeth Bishop
Thomas Disch
Ivan Doig
Martha Gelhorn
William Goyenne
Knut Hamsun
M. John Harrison
Lucius Shepard
Freya Stark

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.


“Neglected Authors Alliance” (Now Accepting Applications)

shadow1Awhile 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”:

Andrez Bergen
Michael Blumlein
Nicholas Christopher
John Crowley
Tony Daniel
Dennis Danvers
Peter Darbyshire
Paul Di Filippo
Katherine Dunn
Steve Erickson
Carolyn Forché
Barbara Gowdy
Ken Kalfus
Jim Knipfel
Thomas Ligotti
John Metcalf
Michael Malone
Corey Redekop
Abraham Rodriguez, Jr.
James Sallis
Steve Rasnic Tem
Christopher Tilghman
Wells Tower
Sean Virgo

Past (Honorary) Members:

Charles Beaumont
Martin Booth
Angela Carter
Louis Ferdinand Celine
Blaise Cendrars
Adolfo Bioy Cesares
James Crumley
Mahmoud Darwish
Guy Davenport
Stanley Elkin
William Fairchild
Mavis Gallant
Donald Harington
Georg Heym
Bohumil Hrabal
J.K. Huysmans
B.S. Johnson
Ernst Junger
Crad Kilodney
Rosa Luxemburg
David Markson
Seth Morgan
Flann O’Brien
Silvina Ocampo
Cynthia Ozick
Francis Picabia
James Salter
Bruno Schulz
Georg Trakl
Alexander Trocchi
Robert Walser
Denton Welch

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

“After the Robbery” (Poem)

Fence 1

After the Robbery *

My fence keeps me safe
Yours keeps me out

His fence is broken
Hers like a fortress

Some build a barrier of guns
Others leave a gate

Theirs is but a daisy chain
(God preserve such trusting souls)

Fence 2

* This past week, two individuals used a pretext to gain admission to our home and then stole from us. Initially, I was possessed by feelings of betrayal and rage…but, finally, a sense of equanimity and calm is returning. Although I think this bit of verse reveals some on-going (and longstanding) misgivings regarding my fellow human beings.

(C. Burns)

Plugging along

Tree:faceAnother lengthy interval between posts. Talk about inconstant. Talk about maddening. Talk about…busy.

You know that’s always the case. When I’m hard at work, the last thing I think about is composing another blog entry. Don’t get me wrong, you folks are great, love hanging out with you, but writing, the creative act…well, that’s my lifeblood. My raison d’être.

This time, yes, there’s been creativity, a new short story…but, in all honesty, I’ve been devoting most of my time and energy to promoting Disloyal Son. With the hundreds, thousands of books being released every month, how do I draw attention to a solid, literate novel that anybody with two neurons to rub together will love? How do I compete with shapeshifter erotica and zombie porn and glorified fan fiction? Well, first of all, I send out review copies. Lots of review copies. To the major newspapers, mystery magazines, selected bookstores. Along with promo material and fliers that we agonize over, striving to come up with the most enticing wording. Again, trying to separate this book from the herd. The dung pile.

Good God, there are a lot of terrible books out there. Not just “self-published” either. The traditional publishers apparently believe the vast majority of contemporary readers (especially women) have the I.Q. of brain-damaged marsupials. If you’re looking for a quality book to read this summer, good luck. The trads no longer have any interest in cultivating authors, helping them find their voice and develop as artists. They’re staffed by corporate drones who merely seek “product”, mass market releases—swiftly excreted, endlessly repeated. Passionless, derivative, facile, inept.

And then something like Disloyal Son comes along. cover,jpeg

You want to know the difference between my approach to writing, as opposed to just about everyone else’s? I care. I respect language, the traditions and legacy of literature. I treasure a well-constructed sentence and expend enormous efforts honing and shaping my work. I’m a freak when it comes to editing—meticulous to the point of, well, insanity. While many of my colleagues seem content with one or two drafts, getting their slop out as soon as possible, I drag out the process of creation to the extent that completing a short story takes weeks and a novel like So Dark the Night required over three years before I was finally satisfied and released it. And that was working on it full time, every single day.

Writing is not a craft to me, it’s an art. There’s a difference. A big difference. Most scribblers can’t make that leap. I can. Every single one of my books is intelligent, challenging, innovative; none conform to expectations or fall back on formula. I try to get that across to readers, reviewers but it’s hard. They see that Black Dog Press is my imprint and right away start thinking “this is more self-published crap”. Dismissing me out of hand. Never giving me a fair shot.

I defy anyone to read the first 5-10 pages of one of my books, choose whichever you like, and then stop. By that point it will no longer be a question of the origins of the book, the circumstances of its publication—you’ll be too caught up in a great read. Of that, I am 100% certain.

Reviewers have written about the element of surprise in my books and stories and I think that’s key. When you’re reading one of my tales you have no idea how it’s going to end or what’s coming next. I love pulling the rug out from under you, leaving you in a whimpering heap. Never saw that coming, did you?

That quality is very much in evidence in Disloyal Son. It’s a mystery, within a mystery (and then some). The truth revealed in bleeding layers. If you give it a chance, it will be the best book you read this summer, maybe this year. And I don’t need to buy a four-star Kirkus review in order to know that.