Category: writing

A Future Imperfect

moon

The future is nothing like I expected.

In 1969, watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin gambolling about on the surface of the moon, I honestly believed that before long there would be monthly shuttles to Mars and, for the super-rich, luxury holiday excursions to the outer planets and far reaches of our solar system…

That future never arrived.

Instead we have: cell phones, laptops and social media. Not quite the same thing as faster-than-light travel and flying cars, is it?

I wanted something grander, something worthy of a curious, ambitious species with big brains and clever hands. Fleets of silver, finned rockets, navigating between the nine planets as easily as my dad’s old Ford got us to town and back. Intelligent robots. Permanent colonies on the moon and Mars. What a letdown when I look around today and realize ordinary citizens are far more interested in cyberspace than outer space. Ambitious schemes to leave our safe cradle and challenge that “final frontier” have devolved into, let’s face it, a sparsely manned space station parked only a few hundred kilometers above the surface of the earth, serviced by a private, for-profit company because NASA can no longer afford to maintain a shuttle to supply it.

A human footprint on Mars? Unlikely, at least during my lifetime.

Which makes me feel cheated. That six-year-old boy, glued to a black-and-white TV, witnessing history, men on the freakin’ moon, wouldn’t have believed me if I told him that’s it, that’s the absolute high-water mark in terms of our presence in space. Sorry, kid, after this it’s robot probes and science on the cheap.

My younger self would be outraged to see his dreams dashed by the cowardice and stupidity of those who make policy and manipulate the levers of power.

A smart lad, he would have recognized a failure of nerve when he saw it. And he would have been the first to point out: a computer is not a robot.

Some might contend there’s no difference but, I assure you, there is.

Those who think otherwise are operating on an entirely different wavelength than me. They likely see nothing wrong with the way the world has turned out and wouldn’t change anything if they could.

I, on the other hand, am appalled by the reality that has been presented to me as a fait accompli and since childhood have made it my mission, my calling to reimagine the whole thing so it conforms to the better tomorrow we were all promised back in those heady, halcyon days when everything seemed possible, the universe ours to explore, the stars our destination.

I don’t intend to forsake those youthful fancies, surrender my dreams, lose my sensawunda because of other people’s temerity and lack of vision.

It’s a major reason why I started reading science fiction almost fifty years ago…and why (for better or worse) I’m the writer I am today.

“How do we change the world? By changing the story.”

(Charles Eisenstein)

Apollo 11:plaqe

Mutant Thoughts (ii)

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.

It’s been a long time since we last touched base and, as always, the fault is mine. I’m a lousy friend, a terrible correspondent, constantly getting sucked up into a project and completely forgetting those nearest and dearest me.

I fully admit it: I am a selfish, thoughtless bastard.

But I’ve been working and so that erases all sins, all culpability. A brand new, 40-page story under my belt, plus a number of solid poems, ideas bouncing around in my skull like pingpong balls in a dryer. So no apologies: as far as I’m concerned, when it comes to my writing, the ends always justify the means.

* * * * * * *

  • Our thirty-first anniversary yesterday. Sherron and I half a country apart but still talked on the big day, and I sent her a couple of poems, as well (what can I tell you? I’m an old school romantic). We have an amazing relationship, a partnership of equals. She keeps me honest and human—without her I’d be much more nihilistic and misanthropic (believe it or not). Friend, lover and comrade. To the end.
  • More fun on Twitter this past week: some twerp who writes urban dragon novels putting me in my place because I dared offer a few words of advice to a fellow colleague. He had posted about doing research for his next book, I responded with my thoughts and he told me not to attempt to communicate with higher order beings such as himself. And remember, folks: he writes books about dragons.
  • The great “de-cluttering” continues, as we divest this house of decades of accumulated stuff. This has been in the works ever since we started renos in late spring. Boxes and boxes of books and VHS tapes hurled out the door. Old clothes, crap we haven’t used in years, taking up space, gathering dust. No more. And not a single regret, only relief, the house seeming lighter since we started the process.
  • My mantra this week: “What does it cost me to be tolerant?”
  • There’s a possibility (however slight) that my second hip surgery might happen in September. Inconvenient, since we’ll also have another grandchild arriving around that same time but, damnit, just to be able to walk normally again…won’t believe it until I get the call to report for pre-op. Then the game is on.
  • Hoping that the forecast is right and we’ll get some decent rain in the next few hours. Like a lot of North America, it has been a hot, dry summer on the Canadian prairies, the skies reeking of burning boreal forests. Dystopia is here, folks, the future you refused to believe in banging on your door.
  • Finished two great books in the past month: Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry For the Future and The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars by Peter Cozzens. Movies that impressed me: Clio Barnard’s “The Selfish Giant” and Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire”.
  • That’s it for now–hopefully it won’t be a month before you hear from me again. But, in the meantime: let’s be civil to each other, shall we? At least try it…and see what happens.

Ambient

I love the sounds Nature makes
when she’s happy and none trouble
her serene countenance, vexing
her with their tireless machines

She hums contentedly
tending her bursting flower boxes
attentive to each seed or shoot
showering them with maternal love

She likes to get her hands dirty
except for the blood
which flows so copiously
it inevitably leaves a stain

She would say she’s blameless
as an iris, tender as a fawn
but we know her as a ruthless foe
when her existence is threatened

Leave her to her graces
praise her in word and deed:
the many shades of green she grows
the beauty she won’t concede

 

Written on my back deck June 2, 2021, while being serenaded by several varieties of bird song.

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A Word of Advice (I)

I’ve been a professional author for 30-odd years now and I think it can be fairly said that I’ve earned a reputation as someone who stubbornly (ruthlessly?) defends my aesthetic autonomy.

With that in mind, I guess it’s understandable that I field the occasional question from other artists who find themselves wondering whether or not they have the right or strength of character to resist the suggestions and/or demands of editors, agents and fans.

I tell them:

Listen, as far as I’m concerned your inner editor should always take precedence over any external influences. It’s your name on the story or book or painting or piece of music, not someone else’s, which means you have a personal, vested interest in making sure your work is presented exactly the way you envision it. Brook no compromises or attempts to dilute the power and integrity of your project. 

Editors and agents aren’t collaborators, that is a mindset that must be impressed upon them right from the get-go. You might welcome their opinions, but their input is not necessarily required and won’t be followed if it runs counter to your own thinking. I have encountered more than a few inept, dim-witted editors in the past three decades and I’ve learned to take everything they say with a grain of salt. They aren’t all bad, of course, but, truthfully, most are poor-to-mediocre, their contributions to literature existing largely in their own heads.

Agents, well, agents want to make money. That’s their primary focus and never think otherwise. They aren’t interested in developing the next DeLillo or Nabokov, they’re seeking clients who follow trends and deliver bright, shiny, commercial product. For which they will collect a tasty percentage. It’s all quite cold-blooded and transactional. Why should they hold your hand when they’re more interested in the contents of your wallet?

As for fans, who gives a shit? Your role as an artist is to frustrate expectations and short-circuit preconceptions. Your work shouldn’t reassure or offer words of comfort; if it does that you are kowtowing, truckling to popular opinion. Wrap everything up into a nice, tight bundle, adhere to formula, offer happy endings and you might as well be a ten-dollar hooker on a seedy street corner. You’re laboring on behalf of filthy lucre, rather than contributing to the legacy of creative endeavors extending back to the timeless cave paintings of Lascaux. 

Art that resists imitation, that refuses to be derivative, is the work that lasts, achieving posterity because of its uniqueness, a courageous, unprecedented approach to your chosen discipline.

Why yearn for fifteen minutes of fame when you should be seeking something far more permanent and profound?

*******************

Finally, on a completely unrelated topic, let me say to those idjits who insist there are no new stories to tell, that they’ve all be told, you are out of your tiny fucking minds.

Every single minute of every single day, billions of human beings are interacting with each other, talking, engaging, sharing space, and each of these encounters represents a narrative that is distinctive and unrepeatable. 

Each restorative walk you take, a trip to the bank or back fence discussion with your neighbor is a short story waiting to happen. No two individuals are exactly alike, every encounter potentially fraught with drama or humor (or, ideally, a bit of both).

Open your eyes, ears, hearts to possibility and it will find you.

Remember that the next time you’re out and about.

Turning a corner, bumping into a stranger…watch what can happen when two ancient souls meet for the first time.

Sometimes it makes for great Art.

Photo: Sherron Burns

A poem for “wannabe” writers & other miscreants

An Intimation of True Genius

Before I sit down and write my masterpiece

I think I’ll take a few minutes and go over my notes

check my sources and of course compose a brief 

biography of the author who despite his apparent 

lack of credentials has achieved true greatness with

his soon-to-be completed debut novel a sensation on 

all seven continents endorsed by the glitterati honors and

prizes pouring in optioned by Hollywood dining with

royalty hobnobbing alongside jetsetters existing in

a social whirlwind object of adoration and naked envy

topping every bestseller list appearing on all the right

programs lionized by my peers no limit to my reach and

power once I finally find the time to buy pen and paper

take a seat at my humble desk and commence work on what

will undoubtedly become a pillar of the Western canon

my much-anticipated long-awaited magnum opus

the only story left untold

*******************************

The context of this poem:

I don’t know how many of my fellow scribblers have been annoyed by some arsehole you encounter—perhaps after a reading or literary gathering—who assures you that they’ve got a great book idea and “one day” hope to have occasion to commit it to paper. Or a total tool who, upon hearing you’re an author, gets very excited because “I’ve had some amazing things happen to me, you should write them down, I bet it would be a bestseller”.

If you’ve had a similar experience, you have my permission to print this poem and carry it around in your wallet, to hand out whenever you come across one of these utter, contemptible fuckwits. That ought to shut them up.

“Mutant Thoughts (I)”

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 individuals (one from Hong Kong, the other the Netherlands) who contacted me seeking permission to include my photos of the “cut-up” method for inclusion in a scholarly book or as part of a presentation at an academic conference. 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!
Photo: Sherron Burns

…but, baby, it’s cold outside

A solid week of windchills in excess of forty below.

So, I’ve been hunkered down, editing my Notebooks, prepping for a May release of what will be my fifteenth book.

Fifteen books, not one of them a dog, all of them written out of love for the printed word, rather than for the purpose of fulfilling a contract or meeting some hairy-palmed editor’s neolithic expectations. Let’s see you top that, all you hacks and wannabes.

The editing process is always incredibly intense for me, driving myself nuts finding the exact right word (and, as Don DeLillo insists, “the right sounding word”). 

At the same time I am still not back to 100% from my hip replacement surgery so can’t stay seated for the prolonged periods of time I’m accustomed to—gotta get up frequently to stretch, move about, which, of course, interrupts my train of thought and then it takes me awhile to re-focus on the manuscript. I’m having trouble adapting to the new regime but that’s the reality I have to deal with now, no use bitching about it.

When I’m not editing, I’m reading and some of the excellent books I’ve finished since the beginning of the year include N.K. Jemsin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson, The Cold Millions (Jess Walter), The Great Glass Sea (Josh Weil) and Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, a stunning exposé of how wealthy special interest groups are undermining democracy.

Movies with Sherron to unwind after a hard day of polishing my book: last night it was “Hud”, a classic starring Paul Newman; other favorites are David Fincher’s “Mank” (best movie of the year so far), Michael Haneke’s “Code Unknown” and the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit”.

I tend to devote the first part of the morning to catching up on Twitter, checking out the headlines and snorting with laughter as I read other writers’ self-congratulatory posts about their latest zombie novel or slasher offering. Sometimes I can’t help firing a comment their way and am always amazed by the sheer vitriol of their replies. The moment you bring up literary standards to these arseholes they completely lose their shit. Their reactions always serve as a reminder that genre people tend to have the smallest brains and thinnest skin.

But once I’ve had my fun it’s back to the business at hand.

Giving myself a deadline/release date is always an effective way of directing my nose to the grindstone. Otherwise I’d drag the process out past the point of sanity.

As I wrote in the introduction to the Notebooks, I have absolutely no idea why anyone would have even the slightest interest in the thoughts and reflections of a cult author with a tiny readership and a marked propensity for misanthropy. 

Nonetheless, come May Notebooks: 2010-2020 will be released into the world and we will just have to wait and see how it’s received.

I’ll probably be posting some teasers in the coming weeks so I hope you’ll pop in for a look.

Have to say, I love having another title in the publishing pipeline. 

It’s not for all tastes but, then again, that pretty well sums up my entire body of work, don’t you think?

After 30+ years, why would I change my approach now?

Photo courtesy Ashley Johnson

Man, Reassembling

It’s been six weeks since my left hip replacement, time for a status report.

I am able to do this because I can finally sit for extended periods without getting too sore, something that has only been possible for the past 14-21 days. Which, of course, plays hell with my writing routine; I’m used to being sedentary for many long hours but that may well be a thing of the past. Also might have to invest in a standing desk at some point—hey, Hemingway used to write standing up so maybe it will be all right.

The first few days after surgery were the toughest. Thanks to the blessings of good health I had never spent a single night in a hospital and so being immobilized, reliant on others for my basic needs, took some adjusting. The surgery itself went without a hitch. I was given a spinal, which meant I was partially conscious during the procedure, listening as the surgical team bored out the hip socket to better fit the new titanium ball they were installing or tapping in some component, the force of the impact shaking my body on the table. I was lucid enough that at one point I asked to see the original ball and they brought it over, showing me how it was pitted by arthritis.

“Good riddance, you sonofabitch,” I murmured, a remark that drew chuckles from some of those present.  

Post-op, pain management became very important. The night of my surgery, after the spinal anesthetic wore off, the nursing staff plied me with Dilaudid, Tylenol and some sort of nerve pill to take most of the edge off. On a scale of 1-10, my discomfort level probably peaked at 7 (I think I have a pretty high pain threshold). Each day afterward got better—by Thursday (day after surgery) I was able to sit on the end of my bed, standing briefly, and by Friday the physio people were wheeling me down to their little gym to teach me how to climb stairs, get in and out of the shower, etc.

Have to say, the worst aspect of the whole experience was getting fitted for a catheter. I was told that, ahem, older gentlemen tend to have a bit more trouble restoring their waterworks after a spinal and often a catheter is required. I get that…but it took three separate staff members to perform the procedure, which was no fun at all. My privates aren’t used to being manhandled by strangers. I was delighted when that sucker was finally removed…although the first time I went to relieve myself, it felt like I was pissing napalm.

My incision healed up very quickly, no complications with infection or draining. Once I was back home, I was contacted by our local hospital physio department and every week went in for a consultation and exercises to restore the damaged muscles. I was meticulous about doing said exercises and made speedy progress.

At the moment, I am only using a cane (see: below and note the Bruin colors on the knitted sock my wife had made for me) for trips out of the house and the new hip seems to be performing up to expectations.

The bad news is, the other hip also requires replacement, so I’ll have to go through this again in another six months.

At least I’ll know what to expect. Osteo-arthritis runs in our family, unfortunately, a genetic predisposition I would gladly do without. My hands and lower back are also afflicted, which doesn’t bode well for my sunset years.

But I’m grateful to be back on my pins again, on the mend and looking forward to a more active, pain-free future.

Many thanks to Dr. Anthony King, his surgical team and the nursing and support staff at Saskatoon’s City Hospital for their first-rate care. Hopefully I’ll be renewing acquaintance with them this summer, getting the right side dealt with, and then enjoying my new-found mobility, playing with the grandkids and feeling like, quite literally, a new man.

Cheers.