My Muse is very odd.
Drives me like a pitiless slave-mistress one minute, refuses to speak to me the next.
Then, yesterday, a bit of a bone. An offer to collaborate on something with me, except it had to be a visual piece. Sherron had given me a square of canvas to play with, so I went down to my basement cubbyhole and there, with watercolors, model pigments and a shot or two of spraypaint, I concocted “Europan Blue”.
God knows what she’ll have me doing today….
(Click on image to enlarge)
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
I haven’t traveled a lot—as frequent readers of this blog know—and find the concept of leaving my home office for an extended period of time onerous. But my two trips to the state of Montana have convinced me this mindset is not only silly but perhaps even counterproductive. On both occasions I returned refreshed, energized and inspired…and produced some fine work as a direct result of my rambles through “Big Sky country”.
The first time was back in late Spring, 2002 and I was in pretty wretched state. I’d just expended enormous energies completing final drafts of the two novellas that comprise my book Righteous Blood. There is incredible darkness in those pieces, almost as if I was trying to purge myself of all the vileness and fury I’d accumulated for who knows how long. The book was also intended to be a kind of “fuck you” to the entire horror genre, which, to my mind, took a nosedive into the toilet sometime in the mid-1990’s (sadly, it’s in even worse shape now). I no longer wanted anything to do with the field and had zero desire to be lumped in with the losers and hacks who made their home there. The morning we left for Great Falls, I was a burnt out case. When we returned, a week or so later, I was a new man.
Montana had worked its magic on me.
This time around, I had the same travel partner (my father-in-law, Ken Harman) but was in far better condition, mentally and creatively. The motivation behind our latest voyage was different too: we were going down to Livingston and spending a week interviewing historians and curators, familiarizing ourselves with some of the settings featured in my western novel, The Last Hunt. A research trip and I had a satchel of notes and a box of resource material to prove it. And because some of the action takes place in Yellowstone Park, we spent one entire day viewing some of the most spectacular, mysterious and breath-stealing scenery the world has to offer. I stood on a spot where I could see where much of the final part of the novel is set and, I gotta tell ya, kids, it gave me goosebumps.
Met a number of pretty amazing people as we rambled about the state and couldn’t believe how generous people were with their time, how friendly and forthcoming. Lee Whittlesey, historian at the Heritage and Research Center down in Gardiner, was a wonderful host and raconteur, his knowledge of the Park extraordinary, his anecdotes and detailed answers to my questions had me scribbling furiously to keep up. Lee, you’re a gem.
Paul Shea, the curator of the Gateway Museum in Livingston, showed me dozens of photos from the town’s early years and there were also amazing shots of Cinnabar and other local places of interest. And he did so in an office shrouded in plastic, workmen banging and sawing away, the museum undergoing extensive renovations at the time.
Our most fortuitous encounter in Livingston was with John Fryer, a man who just might be the single most charming individual I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. A natural, innate charm, nothing affected or manufactured. Anyone fortunate enough to be acquainted with John knows exactly of what I speak. We walked into John’s bookstore (“Sax & Fryer Company”) on Callender Street and knew we’d come to the right place. A terrific selection of novels and non-fiction and the ladies employed there rang in our purchases on a cash register that was over one hundred years old. Ken mentioned a certain classic saddle he’d just sold and John’s eyes brightened.
“Come on downstairs.” We followed him to his basement lair where he showed us a mini-museum of saddles and western-related gear. John and Ken chatted about the various items, both of them momentarily (and happily) cast back more than a century, men who could happily exist in less civilized times, untouched by modern technology.
Through John, we met the great western writer Richard Wheeler. Mr. Wheeler is a national treasure, six-time winner of the Golden Spur Award; he and Elmer Kelton are the two consistently best writers the genre has produced in the past thirty years. We spent several hours in his company and every minute of it was a treat. I’m not much of a drinker but I raised a bourbon or two that night, I tell you. Jim Beam Black, a truly infernal concoction. And, another true confession, that same evening I stood eight feet from one of the five finest authors in America and didn’t know it. After we’d said our farewells to Mr. Wheeler, the bartender signaled me over and murmured “Did you notice Jim Harrison at the end of the bar?”
I think I might have stopped breathing. Of course I had. I’d looked over, saw this rather hard-looking seed, and thought “Hmmmm…” Didn’t think “Could that be Jim Harrison?”, more like “What an interesting face…”
I wanted to beat my forehead against the bar. What a lost opportunity. Just to wander over, hold out my hand and say “Thank you for every word you’ve ever committed to paper.”
Well. There it is.
Livingston is a mecca for fine writers and artists of all stripes. Harrison and Tom McGuane are regularly sighted. Margot Kidder has a place in the hills and Walter Hill has been known to visit. Sam Peckinpah loved it there and shot holes in the ceiling of the Murray Hotel to prove it. “What did you do when Sam did that?” someone once asked the Murray’s long-suffering proprietor. “Plug ’em up and send him the bill,” was the wise, terse reply. There’s kind of a roll call of honor in the Murray’s decidedly un-trendy bar, signed photos of some of its more celebrated patrons. While Ken listened to a rather manic guy explain the proper way of catching and subduing a six-foot black snake, I took a wander, checked out the various black and white pictures—
And there he was. James Crumley. Thick, craggy face, somehow managing to simultaneously convey humor and immense sadness. To me, Crumley is the man. For years I dreamed of buying him a drink in a joint much like the Murray Bar, perch myself on a stool beside him and just…listen. He told wonderful, funny stories, the locals remember him well. Always attracted a retinue of hangers-on and sycophants when he blew into town for some good fishing and hard drinking. Ah, Jim…
I experienced a wave of sadness looking at his picture. Went back to the bar and ordered another bourbon, raised it in the direction of his portrait. To your good soul…
Met any number of terrific people in our travels. We stayed in three separate RV parks in the state and ran across all kinds of interesting folks, every one of them with a story to tell. I have no doubt that they will appear, in various guises and composites, in upcoming stories and novels; hope I can do justice to their complicated and conflicted natures. Never encountered anyone I didn’t like, nor did I hear the lame jingoism that one frequently associates with our friends south of the border.
Montana is a western state, its citizens contrary, stubbornly independent. They’re folks who believe in hard work, straight talk and minding your own damn business. People who don’t think much of government at any level—local, state and most especially those vultures in Washington. They’re tolerant of dissent and possess the sharp, practical minds of their ancestors. I admire them for their respect for their heritage and history and thank them for the hospitality they extended to Ken and I, the fellowship we found in their company.
Hopefully it won’t be another decade before I go back. I felt at home there and it’s taken time to re-acclimatize myself now that I’m back in Saskatchewan. The walls of my office seem a lot closer, almost oppressive. I miss the mountains and suspect I might have left a vital, irreplaceable part of myself at that overlook near Hell-Roaring Creek.
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
Time to take that next step and address some of the stagnation that I believe has crept into my writing, seek out new modes of expression.
First of all, that means upgrading the technology I’ve been working with. My old Mac no longer made the nut; it was slow and lacked sufficient memory. Obsolete. It had to go. It was an emotional parting. For months Sherron has been pestering me to look into purchasing another computer but the price tag always made me balk. I’m a Mac guy but, let’s face it, there are PCs out there that could perform adequately for, literally, half the price of a new Mac. But…they weren’t Macs and I had a very bad experience with an IBM computer when I first made the leap to the digital age 20 years ago and I’ve never forgotten it.
We pondered on “settling” for a Mac mini but after consulting folks like our pal Rob (who knows more about computers than I ever will), we went for the pricier iMac. More room to grow and expand, better suited for some of the projects and tasks I had in mind.
A couple of Sundays ago, I bowed to the inevitable and we made the purchase on-line.
Then came the hard part: saving the files from my old computer and starting the shutdown process.
That ancient Mac served me well and I don’t know how many millions of words I tapped into it. Never any big glitches and nothing mechanically went wrong in the twelve years I used it to foist my weird visions on the world. Replaced a couple of keyboards that I battered to death, that’s about it.
My mourning period ended abruptly, however, when my new iMac arrived.
Within fifteen minutes of accepting the box from the delivery dude I was up and runnng. That’s hookup, internet, everything. And I am, as previously mentioned, a complete mechanical moron. That’s why I love Macs. Steve Jobs, I could kiss you!
I’ve spent the last couple of days getting acquainted. This machine has everything I could ask for, including the capability to make and edit movies, compose music, record readings and podcasts, desktop publish…cripes, I could put a man on Mars with it if I had the know-how and a trillion bucks.
I’ve promised myself I will be patient, recognizing that there’s a learning curve for a technophobe like me when dealing with a machine of this complexity. Fortunately, Sherron and both my sons are very adept using iMovie and Garageband and many of the other features this Mac offers so I’m hardly on my own, learning by trial and terror. Although that will be part of it too: doing something stupid and learning from my mistakes. So be it.
I. Am. In. Love. Utterly smitten with the promise this machine represents. A fresh start and an opportunity to explore other disciplines that have long held a fascination to me. And you’re invited along for the ride. My first efforts will be crude, unsophisticated, amateurish but I’ll get better, I promise. And I will share the results of my experiments with you, show you my successes and not shy away from relating my disasters. Bear with me, tell me about your own experiences, offer advice…I’m a slow learner but a stubborn one too. I won’t give up until I discover for myself the limits of this machine (if there are any), fusing it with my fertile, perverse imagination to create some original and daring work. That’s my second promise.
And as long as we’re on the subject of new beginnings, here’s my third vow: to interact more directly with people who find and comment on this site. Previously, I’ve maintained the policy of letting my essays speak for themselves and not responding publicly to those who have left comments, positive or negative, on Beautiful Desolation. I felt I’d said my piece in my essays and commentaries and to rebut a reply from a reader would be, to some extent, unfair. If I thought a certain question had to be addressed or a troll warned off, I did so through private communications with those individuals. Not any more. You wanna talk to me, offer praise or brickbats, I’m here.
I hereby declare from this post (#87) onward, I’ll do my best to answer your questions and debate and engage with readers directly and honestly. These discussions will be as well-mannered, fruitful and polite as I can make them…but I will continue to leave the “moderation” function on to weed out the nutbars and those who believe they can hide behind the anonymity of the internet to say scurrilous, despicable things with absolute impunity. The kind of slime Trent Reznor refers to in a recent post on some of the bizarro on-line communities that exist out there. My thanks to Mike Cane for sending me a link. Have a look, it’ll make your skin crawl.
The vast majority of people who pop by here are nothing like the douchebags Reznor describes–they’re curious, seeking alternative sources of fiction, perhaps drawn by my reputation for being, ah, outspoken, something of a maverick, an outsider who seems perfectly content with that status. My work, my life has nothing to do with perpetuating the status quo or offering warm, fuzzy words of reassurance. I’m here to upset your equilibrium, destroy carefully held preconceptions, rip you out of that comfort zone you’re happily immersed in.
I won’t dummy down my writing, compromise my talent or thrust my fists into soft, velvet gloves. That wouldn’t be doing me, you or anybody else any favours. I’ll present what I know, what I’ve experienced, what I’m thinking “with the bark on”, as FDR liked to say. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
So help me God.
Today, a new page has been turned. Welcome to Beautiful Desolation, Phase II.
Let me hear from you and tell me what you think.
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.
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.