That kind of longevity, in any vocation, is pretty rare, but when it comes to the arts? Writing? Are you kidding? It either shows tremendous faith, an overweening ego…or the simple acknowledgement that there’s nothing else I’m any good at. Or all of the above.
Over the past three decades, I’ve witnessed a lot of changes in terms of technology, trends, the way the publishing business is run. Hell, I’m so old, I can recall a time when it wasn’t embarrassing to call yourself a horror writer and John Updike and Ray Carver represented the high bar in terms of American literature. Jesus, where’s my cane and adult diapers?
In that interval, I’ve seen ’em come and I’ve seen ’em go. One-hit wonders, lighting up the sky like a rogue comet and then exploding, leaving not the slightest trace of their passing. The darlings of the critics and cultural poobahs, earnest scribblers telling their very personal stories of suffering and courage and redemption, seeking applause and acclamation the way a junkie probes for a fresh vein. Their offerings winning all the literary prizes, earning highly coveted media attention, getting their names in lights. Hooray!
Except…where are they now?
I won’t name names (that would be cruel) but how many highly touted scribblers have popped up during my 30-year tenure, sucked up some attention (and sometimes a considerable amount of money) and then faded away? Check out the prize lists since 1985—Pulitzers and Bookers and GGs and Gillers, right down to the regional level: how many of those names are still prominent today, still producing quality work?
Exactly. I’d have to use a quantum calculator to determine the number of “bold new talents” and “exciting voices” that have come down the pike in my professional lifetime. It’s an annual rite, like checking to see if Wiarton Willy can spot his shadow. Never mind that the vast majority of the “stories” these bright, young things are telling are very much their own: fictionalized accounts of their journals and diaries, their pathetic lives laid bare. A love affair gone bad, tender hearts cruelly broken; often one detects a faint whiff of revenge. The only problem is, when you write solely about yourself, sooner or later the material grows stale…or runs out all together.
Which is why the latest “next Margaret Atwood” or “next ______” (your favorite literary icon here) invariably lasts one or two books and is never heard from again.
I’m reminded of the old song that goes: It don’t mean a thing/’til you prove it all night.
True, I think, for any worthwhile endeavor.
The creative life demands a special kind of courage and commitment—it requires a soul-defining leap of faith because there’s no guarantee you’ll be successful, very little chance of your work achieving posterity. Many superb artists have died broke and unknown.
But those who are truly chosen don’t give a whit for fame and fortune, they create for the sheer pleasure of knowing that they are working without restrictions or outside expectations, designing and shaping their efforts to their own specifications and aesthetic purposes. They’re not trying to emulate someone else or jump on a popular bandwagon. Their visions may be personal, unprecedented, bizarre (by popular standards), but there’s a shining brilliance to them, helping them achieve a universality that makes them accessible to people of vastly different geographies, even epochs.
Think Homer. Sophocles. Poe. Baudelaire. Kafka. Picabia.
Authors who defy convention, risk penury, disapprobation, despair.
Vasili Grossman and Friedrich Reck, writing in the face of discovery, imprisonment, death.
And yet they persevered.
So you’ve written a clever poem, a halfway decent short story, posted it on your blog. Six people have “Liked” it. Good for you.
Are you prepared to sit down tomorrow and the next day and the day after that…until your allotment of days run out? Writing and re-writing, driving yourself to distraction trying to achieve quality, well-crafted prose. The search for improvement, perfection never ceases. I’ll testify to that.
I’ve been in this biz a long time, much longer than most, and it’s still hard, still a challenge every day to summon the courage to walk into my office, plunk myself down and commence work on my latest writing project. As I’ve gotten older, my standards have risen and so the act of composition has become even more challenging and immersive than it was when I first started out. In other words, it doesn’t get easier, kids, it gets harder.
Dreaming about writing doesn’t get you there, promising yourself that you’ll start something serious in November, when National Novel Writing Month rolls around, won’t cut it either. If you’re a writer, a real writer, you can’t wait. As much as the chore of writing depresses and intimidates you, you can’t resist reaching for a pen and putting something down on paper. Anything to fill that blank page, defeating the white silence. Only then is there a sense of fulfillment, completion, our purpose for existing realized.
How does that gibe with your experience?
Are you a dabbler? A hobbyist? A wannabe?
Or do you have the courage to take a great leap…without the slightest notion or concern for what awaits you far below?
Once back at my place she plays it coy scuttling under the couch until I menace her with a can of Raid using it to steer her toward the bedroom antennae twitching in excitement crawling up the edge of my bedspread chittering as I run my fingers along her polished carapace stroking her thorax her withered ornamental wings fluttering mandibles dug into my pillow in insectile ecstasy while I prepare to mount her probing for anything resembling a vagina wondering if she uses protection and if not if the pupa will look anything like me.
* * * * *
I’m not going back to you. I’m gone. I’m outta here. You won’t find me. It’ll be like we never met. Just another face in the crowd. On a forgotten street. In a strange country. One of the disappeared. Yeah. Lost in time and space. I wasn’t born in the first place. Back to the womb. Stillborn. No. Aborted. A puddle of pink flesh. Gristle and blood. Dumped in an incinerator. Reduced to ash. Floating in the troposphere. Burned by the sun. Ultraviolet radiation. A cancer on your body.
* * * * *
These are two of my favorite short prose pieces, excerpted from my recently released volume Stromata: Prose Works (1992-2011).
For ordering information, please go here.
Photo credit: Sherron Burns
Initially, I read to escape.
Found my way to the neverlands and never-will-bes as part of a protracted and determined effort to seek refuge from a real world in which I was vulnerable, helpless.
Books also helped assuage the loneliness, the sense of otherness that frequently assailed me. I’ve always had an earnestly held desire to isolate myself from an indifferent, possibly hostile universe lurking just outside my front door. It’s a type of agoraphobia, I suppose, a reluctance to leave an environment where I wield power and control and venture out into the Chaosium.
Ray Bradbury was an early companion, The Golden Apples of the Sun an important reading experience when I was ten or eleven. So was Arthur C. Clarke’s tale “A Walk in the Dark”. I went through many anthologies and short story collections (I have a love of short fiction that persists to this day). Candidly, I was an indiscriminate reader. Popular fiction, history and, when I was particularly desperate, books plucked from my grandmother’s shelves: Daphne DuMaurier, Harlequin Romances, just about every offering in the Companion Library Series (I was bored by Hans Brinker but loved Baum’s Wizard of Oz and also, surprisingly, The Five Little Peppers).
Science fiction dominated my young adulthood: Lucifer’s Hammer (Niven & Pournelle), Childhood’s End (Clarke), Voyage of the Space Beagle (van Vogt) and every story by Robert Sheckley I could lay my hands on. Sheckley was a fortuitous discovery—I can reread his fiction today and still enjoy it. There’s something about the combination of SF and satire that definitely appeals to me. Some of Sheckley’s best stuff is in Citizen in Space, a volume that shouldn’t be too hard to find. Check it out.
By my mid-teens I was writing a fair bit (mainly bad poetry) and seeking out literary role models, authors whose sensibilities came closest to my own. I found I liked tales with a Twilight Zone-ish aspect to them, something not quite right with the world, fate lying in wait for our hapless hero just around the next bend. Enter Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont; Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison and Jerome Bixby. They became big influences–I think it could be fairly said that their grim(m) worldviews and melancholy ambience still inform the work I produce today, twenty-five years later. That’s how strong an impact their books and tales had on me.
By the time I was eighteen, I’d given up on poetry and was turning my hand to short stories. Slowly, incrementally, I got better and that’s entirely due to the excellent tutelage of my literary heroes. I’ve never taken a writing class or workshop; my “education” is entirely the product of a lifelong addiction to the printed word. I’ve evolved into a better, more critical reader by seeking out authors and books that challenge me intellectually and aesthetically. In the process, I’ve also become a better writer, more demanding when it comes to evaluating and critiquing my own work.
My literary tastes are constantly progressing, expanding. For a time I was enamored with the surrealists and then Samuel Beckett, J.G. Ballard and William Burroughs, authors and movements bent on distorting or eliminating traditional narrative. I was also drawn to the intricate, cerebral mazes constructed by Jorge Luis Borges.
Over the past decade or so, other writers have instructed me, helped propel my work in interesting new directions: Paul Auster and Jonathan Carroll (his first novel, Land of Laughs is a magnificent effort). Don Delillo and Cormac McCarthy. James Crumley. Robert Stone. Jack O’Connell. Irvine Welsh.
Each passed along important lessons—I luxuriate in prose by good authors, immerse myself in it, dissect and analyze it to discover how a certain effect was achieved. My hyper-critical mind has little time for those who resort to “hackdom”, it recoils from the discordant, tuneless prose produced by such derivative or porous imaginations.
Lately, my reading has ranged all over the place—one day, Robert Fagles’ translation of The Iliad, the next something lean and mean by Charles Willeford. Nonfiction in the morning to get my brain moving, fiction to wind me down at night. I may go two weeks without reading a book, then binge on them, blasting through six in the next six days. For the longest time I didn’t read science fiction; now, thanks to authors like Tony Daniel, John Barnes, Charles Stross, Peter Watts, Vernor Vinge, James Morrow, Iain M. Banks, Paul Di Filippo, Dennis Danvers and others, I’m back in the fold.
Can’t say the same for horror, unfortunately. The field is in a dreadful state. Do most of the guys and gals scribbling zombie stories these days even know who Matheson and Beaumont are? Do they understand that a well-told tale is a beautiful and enduring thing? Doubtful. They’re too busy ministering to their printers. All that blood and viscera keeps clogging up the works. Such “writers” have nothing to teach me.
Right now I’m really attracted to condensed narratives, brief and fierce and tight. Many books these days are afflicted by clutter and bloat…so I seek out authors who have pared down their prose to the bare minimum. Providing descriptions and back stories with a few well-chosen words. Those fat tomes by Proust, Tolstoy and Durrell will have to wait for another time.
I think it’s important for an indie writer these days to be aware of the DIYers and mavericks who preceded them. Independent spirits like Arthur Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry, Poe, Lovecraft, Kafka, Celine, Artaud, Dick and Ellison. Non-conformists and originals, determined to protect the integrity of their work, willing to risk rancor, exile, public indifference or disapprobation. While our themes and objectives may differ, the examples they set as individuals of great fortitude and perseverance have served to inspire me when I’ve questioned my talent, the direction my life and/or career is going in.
Each of the authors I just cited suffered mightily for their art, endured great privation and ignominy…but their books and stories are still read today. Their travails have been vindicated by slow posterity, their creations consigned to the ages. Art that ennobles the human experience, that faithfully reproduces the pleasures and pains of existence and depicts without flinching the true state of the soul will prevail over yesterday’s bestseller, today’s flavour-of-the-moment. Count on it.
We will always have cause to empathize with Lear’s rage and despair and have it within us to hate with the virulent malice of the Count of Monte Cristo. A thousand years from now the persecution of Jean Valjean will still move us to tears (virtual or otherwise). As a species, we’ve been imbued with the capacity to love and the capability to do enormous harm. Great art does not allow us to shrink from such notions nor concede responsibility to outside agencies. It is a mirror, the ultimate reflecting surface; it does not lie and when we balk, commands us not to look away.
Cliff’s Reading List:
A few years ago my nephew Jesse asked me to put together a reading list for him—this is a revised and updated version of that roster of faves. Books I commend without reservation for their intelligence, savagery, grace and wit:
Martin Amis DEAD BABIES (vicious/hilarious)
Paul Auster ORACLE NIGHT; THE COUNTRY OF LAST THINGS (magic realism)
J.G. Ballard RUNNING WILD (chilling short novel)
Wilton Barnhardt GOSPEL (brilliant!)
James Carlos Blake IN THE ROGUE BLOOD (terrific western)
Joseph Boyden THREE DAY ROAD (Sherron & I loved this book)
Anthony Burgess EARTHLY POWERS
Benjamin Cavell RUMBLE, YOUNG MAN, RUMBLE (brilliant, edgy stories)
L.F. Celine JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE NIGHT; DEATH ON THE INSTALLMENT PLAN
Michael Chabon AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY; YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION
Nicholas Christopher VERONICA; A TRIP TO THE STARS
James Crumley: (anything by this author)
Don DeLillo UNDERWORLD
Philip K. Dick A SCANNER DARKLY
Katherine Dunn GEEK LOVE (shocking, bizarre…one of our faves)
Steve Erickson DAYS BETWEEN STATIONS (surreal, well-written)
Timothy Findley NOT WANTED ON THE VOYAGE (brilliant)
Ken Grimwood REPLAY (suppose you had your whole life to live over?)
Jim Harrison TRUE NORTH (great American novelist)
Ernest Hemingway FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (his best book)
Nick Hornby HIGH FIDELITY (avoid Americanized movie)
John Irving HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE (still his best)
Denis Johnson JESUS’S SON (grim, powerful stories)
William Kotzwinkle THE FAN MAN (another big favorite)
Ira Levin A KISS BEFORE DYING (very suspenseful; terrible movie)
Lee Maynard CRUM
Cormac McCarthy BLOOD MERIDIAN; OUTER DARK
Ian McEwan BLACK DOGS; CEMENT GARDEN
Martin Millar LUX THE POET
Henry Miller TROPIC OF CANCER; BIG SUR & THE ORANGES OF HIERONYMUS BOSCH
David Mitchell CLOUD ATLAS; BLACK SWAN GREEN
Seth Morgan HOME BOY (staggeringly good; author died tragically young)
James Morrow TOWING JEHOVAH (blasphemous; hilarious)
Chuck Palahniuk LULLABY; CHOKE; FIGHT CLUB
Stephen Pressfield GATES OF FIRE
Mordecai Richler COCKSURE (very funny); BARNEY’S VERSION (what a swan song)
Tom Robbins ANOTHER ROADSIDE ATTRACTION; STILL LIFE WITH WOODPECKER
Bruce Robinson THE PECULIAR MEMORIES OF THOMAS PENMAN
Abraham Rodriguez SPIDERTOWN (amazing novel); THE BUDDHA BOOK
J.D. Salinger THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (legendary)
George Saunders (anything by Saunders; he’s one of the best)
Jim Shepard PROJECT X (he’s a great short story writer too)
Robert Stone OUTERBRIDGE REACH; DAMASCUS GATE
Donna Tartt THE SECRET HISTORY (excellent first novel)
Hunter S. Thompson FEAR & LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (changed my life)
John Kennedy Toole CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES
Guy Vanderhaeghe MY PRESENT AGE (very funny & sweet)
Rich Wallace WRESTLING STURBRIDGE (great YA novel)
Evelyn Waugh DECLINE & FALL
Colson Whitehead THE INTUITIONIST
Karen Armstrong A HISTORY OF GOD
Thomas Cahill DESIRE OF THE EVERLASTING HILLS
Wade Davis ONE RIVER (travels in Amazonia & elsewhere)
Annie Dillard HOLY THE FIRM
Richard Ellmann JAMES JOYCE (biography); OSCAR WILDE (biography)
Jon Krakauer INTO THIN AIR
Bill McKibben ENOUGH (too much technology is gonna kill us)
Margaret McMillan 1919 (story behind Versailles negotiations)
Graham Robb RIMBAUD (biography)
Eric Schlosser FAST FOOD NATION; REEFER MADNESS
Andrew Smith MOON DUST
Anthony Storr SOLITUDE
Barbara Tuchman MARCH OF FOLLY
Elie Wiesel NIGHT