Hunter S. Thompson became one of my literary idols when I was nineteen years old. Reading Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas changed my life…in good ways and bad.
Imagine keeping to a writing regime like this, day in and day out:
My daily routine involves a couple cups of tea first thing in the morning, long spells of staring off into space and endless hours of self-doubt and gnawing anxiety.
Clearly, I’ve been going about it the wrong way…
Last year’s trip to Europe will be pretty hard to top but I’m convinced we’ll manage.
Thirty-plus years together and every single day is still fun, the hours in your company a treasure beyond assaying.
We’re essentially very silly people. We laugh a lot. Two irrepressible clowns. Our humor definitely veering toward the strange and bizarre. “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, the Marx Brothers, Jacques Tati, “Team America”, and the bookstore gals in “Portlandia”. The sharper the satire, the more expertly the scalpel wielded, the more we like it.
Because if you start taking life too seriously, you quickly figure out, to paraphrase David Thomson, the world doesn’t really want to be saved. And that, as they say, is a mighty hard row to hoe.
Better to experience existence with a healthy sense of the absurd, gales of incredulous laughter, rather than tears of self-pity.
More than three decades of shared joy, passion, a long history of creative collaborations (including two terrific sons). Always seeking to inspire one another, egg each other on, pushing the envelope, aesthetically and spiritually and experientially.
We’re the damnedest couple. I’ve never met a pair like us, with so much obvious affinity and chemistry and yet two totally different, independent, strong-willed individuals. We’re nothing like clones, our differences can be quite profound. We’ve had some heated arguments and they haven’t always been resolved. Some are on-going and irreconcilable. Like your insistence that Justin Trudeau isn’t an airhead and humans are fundamentally good, wisdom and faith will prevail, offering a bright, shining future for our species…
What I most appreciate is your ferocious loyalty, the way you’ve supported me, my life’s work, from the moment we officially became a “couple”, recognizing and acknowledging the importance of literature to me, to my very essence. Never a flicker of doubt, despite some tough, trying times. We’ve had to sacrifice quite a bit, struggled financially to maintain my status as a full-time author and not once have you expressed any resentment or criticism.
There’s a line I sometimes quote from an otherwise forgettable Jack Nicholson movie, “As Good As It Gets”. At one point he says wistfully to Helen Hunt: “You make me want to be a better person”.
That’s it. That what you do, not just for me, but for everyone who comes into contact with you.
Thank you, Sherron. For all that we’ve shared, for everything still to come.
“Forever and ever…”
I’d count Gene among my first heroes, along with Bobby Orr, Neil Armstrong and William Shatner (“Captain Kirk”). The Yorkton TV station used to play old Gene Autry serials early Saturday morning and I can recall watching them on our cube-shaped black and white television. Listening to his Texas twang is like a trip down Memory Lane on an air conditioned tour bus with an open bar. Sherron, sadly, does not share my affection for the singin’ cowboy–if she hears “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” one more time, she’s going to string me up at high noon.
It’s finally starting feel like Christmas around here. Usually, I’m a lot more excited and pumped for the arrival of St. Nick, but with both of our lads grown up and moved away, there isn’t the same kind of ambience. Ah, well. They’ll both be joining us for the holidays, along with Liam’s wife, Erica, who has learned to tolerate our goofy, stubbornly immature family and their strange antics. This 105-year old house will be rocking with music and laughter.
Frequent visitors to this blog will know that, despite my cruel, cynical outer veneer, I am a sucker for Christmas. This time of year finds me very reflective, emotional and sentimental. It doesn’t last long, thankfully, by New Year’s Day I’m back to my cranky, hard-bitten mindset…but for awhile, a week-ten days, the world doesn’t seem quite as bleak and hopeless.
This year, I think I’ll confine myself to a few words of gratitude directed toward the the Vast Active Living Intelligence System (VALIS) operating in this universe, the timeless, inscrutable force directing and inspiring us, trying to help us achieve our great Destiny. When I’m really on, working at a high level, fully immersed in my writing, I can sense the proximity of that force, that consciousness, feel like I’m part of some eternal, infinite continuum. That is…intoxicating. Nothing like it. It’s why I put up with the physical, mental and psychic pain that accompanies the artistic life, the despair, the anonymity, societal indifference. Anything for a few, fleeting moments of contact/collaboration with the Ineffable.
Throughout autumn, I worked on one short story after another–over eighty (80) pages of prose. Why? There are few decent fiction markets any more and they’re so inundated with submissions, it’s hardly worth the effort of sending anything their way. The short story format is nearly as dead as the dodo…or poetry, for that matter. So why bother? Search me, you’d have to ask my Muse for the answer to that one and she’s famously enigmatic and unhelpful.
I write, therefore I am… (apologies to Rene Descartes).
For me, nothing else matters but words on paper, regardless of the genre, length, marketability, whatever. Just keep my pen moving across the page, the flow of words uninterrupted.
Keep the words coming.
My prayer for the past thirty+ years…and for 2016, as well.
Drop by once in awhile, see where all those words are taking me.
Some very odd soul journeys ahead.
Fundamentalists of all stripes yearn for Armageddon, a “great cleansing”, a final accounting that will separate the sinners from the righteous, the forsaken from the saved. Whacked out environmentalists and New Agers look forward with gleeful anticipation to the upheaval and destruction that, according to the Mayan calendar, are due to wreak havoc on great tracts of the planet on or about December 21st, 2012. Weird. Please note: these folks are usually separated by huge, yawning gulfs in terms of their philosophy/ideology and yet here they are pining for the same thing: the wholescale destruction of vast populations of their fellow human beings.
It will start in the Middle East. Ancient scores settled with modern day technology. The Holy Land rendered uninhabitable, reprisals that envelop the world.
Or maybe a dirty bomb in Manhattan.
A meteor from outer space.
Everyone in agreement that mankind is doomed…and deserving of every rotten thing about to happen to us. A pox on our heads!
I find this kind of thinking hateful, a self-loathing pathological in its pure virulence. Both sides are also seemingly allied by their belief in “original sin”—homo sapiens are vile and depraved from birth (and maybe before). We are beyond redemption (most of us) and should pay the ultimate price for rejecting the presence of a higher power (God or Gaia; it amounts to the same thing, right?).
Our crimes against the environment condemn us, no question. We have stripped and burnt and undermined and defaced a substantial segment of our natural world. Our voracious appetites, rampant consumerism and selfishness have also directly contributed to a disproportionate amount of suffering inflicted on the majority of our planetary brothers and sisters. We possess every creature comfort and it is entirely at their expense. There’s a First World because there’s a Third World.
Hey, I get all that.
But I also know that we walked on the moon. Sent down a paper-thin craft, guided by a computer that was little more than a glorified pocket calculator. Got Armstrong and Aldrin to the surface, then brought them back alive. And we’ve dispatched robot probes to just about every planet, even have a vessel on the verge of entering interstellar space…
Think of the books, theater, dance performances, movies, the artwork and architecture we’ve created; the way we’ve related to our environment in positive ways.
Now try to conceive of the complexity of the minds capable of imagining such things. Men and women imbued with gifts and insights which allow them to alter the way the rest of us perceive the universe.
We know of nothing more astonishing or inexplicable than the human brain. It makes the fanciest, state of the art super-computer look like a, well, a soul-less calculating machine. Which is what it is. Sorry, all you geeks out there.
The brain is capable of extraordinary mental leaps and bounds, possessing a muscularity and agility belied by its rather mundane appearance. Two pounds of inanimate tissue containing trillions of nerve endings. Every millimeter interlocked through ever-changing networks of electro-chemical connections. A magnificent feat of engineering. Clever beyond its designer’s wildest dreams.
Maker of horror and holocaust.
Jesus Christ and Buddha.
Of genocide and ethnic cleansing.
…penicillin and Groucho Marx.
Keep screaming and waving your pictures of Kigali and Katyn…meanwhile, I’ll continue my stream of conscious rant/monolog about the Salk Vaccine and the eradication of smallpox.
I will concede there’s strong evidence we’re killers, born and bred.
But we also come equipped with a conscience, a little voice that insists we atone for our wrongs. It allows us to acknowledge the darkness but prohibits us, by specific commandment, from despairing, even in the complete absence of light.
I know the news is bad (as usual), another horror unfolding right before our eyes, brought to us in real time, boasting pools of real blood. Shouts and screams; pandemonium. The gruesome footage first exploited, then preserved for posterity. There are cameras everywhere these days and not much escapes their notice. The best bits make it on to the nightly news. The ninety year-old grandma fending off two burly robbers with a replica .38. Looters smashing windows and emptying storefronts with the ferocious glee of rampaging Mongols. The fat kid facing down his tormentors in the school foyer, finally fighting back after years of taking it on the chin. Drawing on reservoirs of rage as he batters his opponent. We gape, we weep, we applaud, we shake our heads.
What a world.
But that isn’t all there is to it. There is sanity and normality out there. The crazy shit, it exists, no denying it. Usually the setting is some big city, concentrations of people leading to explosions and meltdowns with tragic consequences. But not always. Small towns and remote farm houses are just as prone to evil thoughts, the cruelties equally inventive.
I repeat: that isn’t all there is to it.
This month I’ve done more traveling than I have in ages. Usually, it’s my wife and kids who take off, leaving me alone in my office, grinding away on a big summer project. At it for eighteen hours at a time, no need to socialize or pretend to be human. It’s a ritual that’s been reprised almost every summer I can remember. But this year it was different. I had a couple of projects nearing completion and discovered a desire, an urge, an imperative, to enjoy my summer, seek out company, visit unexplored places, drink in experience. First, it was off to northern Manitoba, visiting Sherron’s brother and family. They live on the shores of a gorgeous lake and we spent several lovely evenings trolling around on their pontoon boat, our hooks dragging in the water. Snagged two lovely pickerels—no, really, here’s the proof:
Er, that’s me in the hat. My brother-in-law would never forgive me if I didn’t clarify that. And he’s a big guy, as you can tell. I caught those two babies literally our last morning there and the relief on both our faces is palpable. Finally...
Returning home, a long, ten-hour drive, barely catching our breath (it seemed) and then heading off to Grasslands National Park in southwest Saskatchewan. Stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast that used to be an old Convent (hey, Mette, Robert & Christine!), driving and hiking around the park, astonished by the diversity of the eco-system, having an unsettling encounter with a bison (no fences, folks) and constantly scanning the ground for rattlesnakes. Glorious, just glorious. Visually striking region and perhaps that explains the many artists who make their home in the vicinity. Judging by the work on exhibit at the Grasslands Gallery (hey, Laureen!) in Val Marie, there are some very talented folks in that neck of the woods. Er, bush, actually. Not many trees in those parts. Scrub, rolling ground and vast fields of wild plants and flowers.
It’s semi-arid, hilly and wind-scoured; cowboy country. This ol’ western nut felt right at home there. Wrote that poem you’ll find in the preceding post. Met a lot of really nice people who didn’t give the impression they were about to embark on an axe-murdering spree or intended to poison their neighbor in retaliation for an incident that occurred decades ago. We walked in the hills and stood on some tall bluffs and buttes that looked out over a land that was beautiful and light-filled and right. Between the sky, the universe and that modest height, there was an unspoken concord, a sense that, whatever else may be going on on the vast, spreading universe, Sherron and I had been granted a short but memorable glimpse of the goodness and majesty no dark cloud can entirely conceal.
This site sees the occasional troll drop by, looking to unload some abuse before they go on their merry way. Believe me, nothing they say comes close to the punishments I inflict on myself for various real, perceived or imagined sins and crimes. Offenses against literature, my family, fellow human beings, God…oh, yes, I am a serious transgressor. Probably should be burned at the stake: move over, Mr. Bruno, make room for a real bad guy.
This past weekend was one of those occasions when I took myself to task, first raking my personality over the coals (lots of material there), then mounting a sustained attack on my writing ability.
The latter hurt much, much more.
I can live with being pompous, unforgiving, ruthless, cowardly, unkind, cruel…but telling me I suck as an author cuts me to the quick.
Weird. I turned professional in 1985 with a couple of big short story sales, plus I received a Canada Council grant that year to write a collection of tales on the theme of nuclear war. I was riding high, well on my way to a long, successful writing career. Fast forward 27 years and I’m still berating myself for not being good enough, not writing with sufficient power and conviction to earn a decent reading audience. Christ, look at those pitiful Amazon sales—right now my books are scoring lower with readers than the guy who composed the life story of his pet turtle in Alexandrine couplets.
Another part of my brain plaintively opines that it’s not about the money, it’s about writing the books that need to be written, good books, literary offerings not constrained by market trends or readers’ expectations. And then the prissy little voice sharpens, reminding me I’m not scoring very well on that count either, that my books aren’t smart or original or stylistically daring. I’m not an innovator, I’m a pale imitation of my literary heroes.
Books not selling, readers indifferent, preferring to spend their hard-earned shekels on dry-humping teen vampires and spank me-fuck me fan fiction. Not a brilliant stylist, so I can’t even hope for the consolations of posterity.
Why bother? Why keep going on? Why keep subjecting my mind, body and spirit the the daily grind of putting words on paper?
I spent most of Saturday in this mode and devoted all of Sunday to recovering from my self-imposed funk. Yesterday evening my wife and I went for a walk in the hills near our town, just to help me breathe and reintegrate myself. I talked to Sherron about my frustrations, aired some of my fears and complaints. She gave me a fair hearing, then glanced over, smiling. “You know what the final result will be,” she teased. “What, you’re going to quit writing and get a job at a 7-11? Just to prove you’re a bread-winner?”
And I had to grin. Of course, it’s a foolish notion. She cut through my bullshit and subterfuge with a few well-chosen words.
I’ve known Sherron longer than I’ve been a pro writer. I would go so far to say I’m a pro writer because of Sherron. Before I met her my work was inner directed, self-indulgent…really quite appalling. But she opened me up to a wider world of life, experience, art, helping transform me into a better person and a better author. She is my greatest source of support, refusing to acknowledge the possibility that I might not be a literary genius. I am and that’s that. Her faith bucking me up, insulating me against all the insecurity and self-loathing I bring to bear on myself. She knows me better than anyone else so who am I to argue?
Quit writing? What an absurd proposition. It would be easier to quit eating or drawing air into my lungs. It’s my curse, my fate, my destiny to spend most of my waking life isolated, alone, scribbling words in notebooks, arranging and rearranging them until something pleasing suggests itself. And then going on to the next project…and the next…and the next…
I can protest, piss and moan about it, but in the end I will be compelled to enter my small office, plop myself down in this black, high-backed chair and commence work. Nothing else will suffice. There’s no replacement, no substitution, no possibility of a mid-life career change.
Hello, my name is Cliff Burns, I’m forty-eight years old and I’m a writer.
And I always will be.