I comment on different topics: “The Writing Life”, “Inspired by Fear”, “Why I Love Science Fiction”.
Hope you find something worthwhile in these monologues, insights into the way I approach my craft, the psychology behind some of my best known stories.
Let’s say I do it, let’s say, dearest,
I tear down this crummy, old fence
of ours—then what?
Do I replace it with another fence,
clean and white and perfectly straight,
the wood treated with poison
solvents to keep it from weathering?
Perhaps a higher fence, six feet
or more, the boards squeezed close
together to dissuade prying eyes;
a solid wall to keep others out.
If I plant some kind of hedge, caragana
or what have you, as has been suggested,
will I feel suitably secure (i.e. is such a flimsy
barrier a credible deterrent against thieves)?
The other option is to leave our backyard
wide open and accessible to the alley…but
I’m not comfortable with that.
I agree that our fence is worn out,
dilapidated, something of an eyesore;
I apologize if it embarrasses you.
But as I’ve just explained, it’s no easy
matter replacing it—and some of your ideas
involve considerable expense. We must not
act hastily, allow emotion to over-rule reason.
I think for now I’ll keep propping it up as best
I can, until a practical solution presents itself
or, more likely, the entire goddamned thing finally
collapses, defeated by a horde of years.
* * * * *
Apparently I suffered from a
“cute anxiety”, that’s what Miss Haynes,
the school counselor, told my mother,
which somehow explained the boils,
bed-wetting and frequent crying fits.
I remember wondering if this cuteness
was curable and how I got it when I
was such an ugly child, my sisters said
so, and no one else took my side or
stated a contrary view.
At long last it’s done.
My son Sam completed final edits on the film he shot of my reading back in October, 2012. The official launch of New & Selected Poems (1984-2011) and Stromata: Prose Works (1992-2011).
It was a huge file and he had to combine footage from a couple of cameras, synch sound, touch-up glitches and try to make an author reading as visually interesting as possible. No mean feat. But he’s done a fantastic job. The kid has an amazing eye and even if you don’t think much of the prose (or performer), I think you’ll agree that this effort is striking to look at, cut and trimmed and shaped with precision. All credit to my son, Sam Burns.
Here’s the reading, in its entirety.
Sit back and hit that play button…
In the spring, when the snows subside, dissolve away. Sometimes a careless farmer will plough up the wrong field. Or children will make a grisly discovery in the woods.
We have been condemned, collectively, for those dark times. You would think we all owned Kalashnikovs and a cluster of hand grenades.
They will not forgive the desecration of the churches. Those pictures. Awful, awful. Though some of us insist they were faked…
Listen, we can’t keep apologizing for the past. What’s done is done. It could happen in any modern, civilized state.
They want to call it genocide but we reject that.
It was war and terrible things occurred.
We won’t be treated as pariahs.
We have sinned but are answerable only to God.
Copyright, 2013 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
Writers who put great stock in their editing know exactly what I’m talking about. You can obsessively work on a piece to near irrationality, trying to get the sound, the tone exactly right. Note perfect.
The art, after all, is not in the initial act of creation, it’s how you shape and hone the material afterward. Can’t tell you how many books or short stories I’ve read where I had to give credit for the originality of a concept or approach, only to see that uniqueness surrounded, besieged and eventually defeated by drab, unremarkable prose; featureless, uncolored sentences, bereft of rhythm, dumb as stone.
Right from the beginning, I wanted to tell my stories as simply as I could, in as few words as possible. I loathe long reams of description or exposition, what some of my colleagues call “info dumping”. Conversely, I love snappy dialogue and believe that a brief conversation between two people reveals far more about them than five pages of backstory.
I take the editing process to ridiculous extremes. Exceptions & Deceptions includes (at least at this point) around twenty stories culled from the past fifteen years. Most have been previously published but that doesn’t mean I can’t go in and “touch them up”. I’m a different writer than I was back then, a better writer. I’ve raised the bar a number of times since I began the oldest story more than a decade and a half ago.
I’m also a tougher, more demanding editor.
So I’ve really been putting these nineteen tales through their paces, demanding that every word, every syllable be accounted for.
It’s a tiring process. Make that exhausting (more descriptive and accurate). Three months of poring over three hundred manuscript pages, running through them again and again, watching and listening for anything the slightest bit off-key . Going at it day and night, seven days a week. Falling into bed utterly spent, knowing the collection will be the first thing to pop into my head when I open my eyes in seven or eight hours.
But, honestly, I don’t think it’s as bad as it used to be. I pace myself a bit better these days. Take frequent short breaks, stretch, go for walks. Shut down my brain earlier, try to unwind with a movie or good book in the evening. I go for a massage occasionally and sometimes Sherron will set up our big, clunky table, give my shoulders and lower back a solid working over. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the woman has healing hands.
Over the past few years, I’ve been making a concerted effort to break this cycle of artistic self-abuse. Thanks to tools like Garageband and iMovie, I’ve been able to expand my horizons to other disciplines and, with Sherron’s encouragement, I’ve been applying myself to more visual art: painting, collage, photography. I’ve periodically posted samples of my film and music experiments, the ones that don’t blow up and end up wrecking my secret lab. I no longer rely on the printed word solely to express myself…and I think that’s a healthy development. Might even literally be a life-saver.
However, I sense that no matter what steps I take, writing will always take a toll on me. I want to be an author of stature, respected by my peers, acknowledged and sought after by intelligent, discerning readers. Placing those kinds of expectations on yourself as you commence each new poem, play, novel, short story is bound to create enormous creative tensions, which might translate into fine work, but are also accompanied by certain rather distressing emotional and physical side effects. Trust me.
That said, I have to stop equating the creative process with torture. There has to be a happy medium. I have to approach my work more playfully and allow myself the very human possibility of failure. I don’t want my fiction to become so perfect, polished and tight it’s almost robotic.
Recognize my writing for the blessing it is, rather than a curse that exacts nothing but pain and toil.
Yes, a blessing. A gift. A calling.
So, if that’s the case, what’s with all the angst?
Work, work, work…more specifically, edit, edit edit, as I plug away on my next project, a compilation of the short stories I’ve written since 1997. Over 300 manuscript pages to go through but I’m making surprisingly speedy progress. A fascinating mix of stories, many of them “mainstream”, others veering further off-track. Not sure how readers will react to such a diverse selection of tales. Literary and genre fiction rubbing shoulders.
But I’ve also been toiling away at some new prose, including a 4,000 word tale I’ll be posting on this blog closer to Christmas, a special gift to readers and regular visitors. It’s already passed muster with Sherron, who found it a real treat. I’ll tell you more about it in December. Watch this space.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to work. I’ve set myself a May 30th, 2013 deadline for this project, which would free me up for the summer. Able to take the time to weigh ideas, conceive new notions, scheme ambitious schemes.
Something to look forward to after all this grinding is done.