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.
This is a cartoon by Mike Twohy—my pal Robert Runte sent it (so blame him, wannabes).
I’m relieved to discover that this habit isn’t necessarily a manifestation of mental illness, nor is it unique in the world of the arts. I’ve read enough biographies and articles on authors to know that a good number of them have well-developed fantasy lives and often immerse themselves in their self-created environments, sometimes to the detriment of real world relationships and obligations. I think of writers like Ray Bradbury, P.G Wodehouse and and H.P. Lovecraft. For prolonged periods of time they take up residence in fictional universes, describing their journeys with such detail and depth that they seem almost like parallel existences, places we could visit if we took one wrong turn on a dark street or wandered off the path, into the endless forest.
I’ve devoted nearly four years of my life to conceiving, researching, writing and editing my novel So Dark the Night. Working on it every day, day in and day out, month after month after month. Frequently I’m in my office from 8:00 in the morning ’til 9:00 at night, coming out only to use the bathroom or gobble down a few quick bites of food. So fully inhabiting the city and environs where my two main characters ply their trade that at times it’s hard for me to fully re-emerge and engage with family and friends. Some days it’s absolutely spooky. I open up the door of my office and expect to see…what? The city of Ilium, home of my detective duo, a dilapidated former industrial center, hugging the shores of Lake Erie, long past its prime, presently in the midst of an accelerated decline. The dockland the repository for rusting hulks, bristling with abandoned gantries and infrastructure. The factories that once employed thousands now empty husks, ringed by concertina wire, patrolled by private security goons. The ground laced with heavy metals and toxins, poisoned for ten thousand years.
I see it so clearly in my mind’s eye.
Dunno about the other fellows but I confess to a preference for my imagined worlds, personal playgrounds where my my mind can roam, unfettered by the demands of mundane reality. When I shut the door to my office, everything on the other side ceases to exist. The phone is unplugged, the doorbell is ignored, nothing is allowed to break the spell. Music is the first step–sometimes an hour of howling metal or spacey, ambient stuff or track after track of Dylan. Depends on how I’m feeling.
–and then all at once I find myself sitting at my desk, pen in hand. I don’t remember how I got there or when I started writing. That’s the truth. So when I say “spell”, I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass. I can’t tell you how many thousands of words I’ve put to paper that have no clear origin; I looked down and there they were. And the process is as mysterious now as it was a quarter century ago. That’s the fucked up part. I’m no closer to understanding what it takes to create a successful work of prose or verse, even a single, melodic sentence, than I was when I first dared imagine myself a writer.
That’s why I take such offense at workshops and creative writing classes. You can teach someone basic grammar but you can’t help them create music with a few strokes of a pen. Sorry. Nor can you impart to your students the ability to absorb the pain and prolonged physical, mental and spiritual exertion the writing life demands from its (usually) unhappy acolytes. Basic compositional skills are empirical; a good ear for dialogue isn’t.
Writing is hard work, as hard as digging ditches or mining coal. That is, if you’re doing it right. Putting words down on paper, that’s nothing. Arranging them so that the exact right one is in the exact right place…that is a feat of engineering on par with any building, bridge or monument from the present day to ancient epochs.
When I’m working, my focus is absolute, like a laser beam. Nothing else matters except that page in front of me. I am there and nowhere else. I see my characters’ faces, breathe the same air. A camera swooping and dipping, discreetly recording the scene that’s unfolding. At such moments, it is temporal reality that seems entirely unconvincing and implausible.
Perhaps that’s why writers sometimes behave like such buffoons in the real world. We’ve forgotten social conventions and have no idea what constitutes appropriate behavior and language back on Earth Prime. I think of someone like Wodehouse, who cheerfully admitted to preferring the worlds he created to the real thing. Maybe that’s why he was gulled into those wartime radio broadcasts from occupied Paris for which he was so vilified. To his mind, they were harmless trifles…but to his countrymen across the channel, teetering on the brink of apocalypse, each syllable was treason.
Fantasy can beguile too.
Lovecraft was reclusive, a man who evinced little interest in worldly affairs, steeping himself in history and lore. More comfortable conversing in lengthy correspondences than face to face. His “mythos” an attempt to impose order on a civilization he felt far removed from. His attitudes, frankly, reactionary, which explained his fascination with the past and his fear of the things that might lurk just beyond his safe threshold, the darkness that yawned…
His writing is fevered, a cascade of obscure or archaic words, all in a vain (and overblown) attempt to describe the indescribable, put features and traits to things beyond human ken. The Lovecraftian universe is, even this non-fan must confess, a thrillingly imagined one, seemingly consistent and lavishly illustrated. For a considerable portion of his short life he resided in strange climes and, within the limits of his talent, did his best to describe the bleak and blasted vistas he saw there.
And then we have Bradbury…Raymond, the child-man. For Ray, the view from his window is pristine and richly coloured: small town Illinois, circa 1924. Memories of the cataclysm of war fading, a renewed sense of optimism surging through America, the first forebodings that an isolationist republic might have bigger, more ambitious aspirations on the world scene. An era of silent movies and loud jalopies; traveling circuses and lonely leviathans. White picket fences, dandelion wine and well-attended churches. In a second story bedroom, a child lies beneath clean, flannel blankets, blinking in the early Saturday morning light, listening to birdsong. In thirty years, this same child, grown tall and ramrod straight, will mount a silver rocket and blast off for the red sands of Mars…
Ray is all about nostalgia, a sense of what could/should have been. His ability to re-imagine a past that never was rivals that of Walt Disney–and I think it fair to say both are obsessed with bygone eras and far-flung futures and care not a whit for the present day. You gotta believe Ray has a rich fantasy life and I’d kill to be able to walk into one of his dreams.
Ray Bradbury’s stories are reflections of the man…just as Lovecraft’s tales reveal a twisted, inner psyche and Wodehouse’s lengthy canon a yearning for a well-ordered paradigm where the worst thing that can happen to a person is an accidental betrothal.
And as for me…hmmm. I think there’s a similar desire to impose some kind of cohesion or logic to a world I regard with more than a little cynicism and disapprobation. In the early part of my career, I wrote almost exclusively about characters who were somehow disenfranchised, powerless, marginalized. I approached those tales from the point of view of victims and that says something about my childhood and formative years. The fears that besieged and threatened to overwhelm me.
But in the past five years or so I’ve noticed that my characters have gotten tougher, taking control over their lives, no longer cowering in the face of their oppressors. And I think that change was accompanied by a great deal of healing as well as a better balance in my brain chemistry. At 46, except for the inevitable bad days (no one can avoid them), I’m feeling pretty good. Well enough that I can talk candidly about my secret places in a radio play like “The First Room“. No longer having to avert my eyes, try to think of anything but. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still as neurotic and nutty as ever, it’s just that I’ve come to terms with my inner loon.
I think my continuing survival is actually a very positive life lesson. If someone with my childhood, my psychological problems, my genetic history, can manage to make it this far, there’s hope for anyone. My writing saved and redeemed me and if you’re out there, dangling by a thread, there’s something for you too, something to pull you up from the precipice. Trust me.
And not only have I survived, I’ve thrived. Over the years I’ve taken on the roles of husband and father and that has equipped me with better coping skills and patience to deal with the frictions that are inevitable in any close personal relationship, no matter how loving and supportive. Those childhood fears and insecurities crop up in funny places and so does the anger, the rage of a kid who is powerless; a witness, an accomplice, a victim, a pawn of larger, darker forces.
I mentioned the bad days, those intervals where reason and balance seem to flee from me. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to (thank God) and the bouts of fury and despair are no where near as intense. I find myself raging against the small chores and obligations that are part and parcel of daily life, chafe at an off-the-cuff comment, smolder because some small, petty desire has been denied me. Until the feelings pass, I retreat to my office, read, meditate, listen to extremely loud music, waiting for the worst of it to be over.
These fits usually coincide with some “down time” in my writing, any period when I don’t have a big project in front of me. I simply have to be doing something every single day…or my mind begins to turn on me. Most people around me view me as a terrible workaholic, too driven and consumed by my calling; they don’t understand that it’s the writing that keeps my demons at bay. All those long hours I spend in that other place, the worlds I construct from memories, epiphanies and passing impressions. They sustain me, are a crucial article of my faith. Without that outlet…I shudder to think.
I’m not saying mine is necessarily a healthy lifestyle. I’ve read the reports that warn of the health risks of a sedentary existence; I definitely should get outside more, stretch and exercise. Often, when I’m really locked into a project, I forget to eat, barely aware of the passage of time. That can’t be good.
But I also know that because of the way I live my life–on my terms, with few accommodations to outside influences–I’ve managed to spend the last decade or so (for the most part) in a state approaching happiness. Is it a trade-off? I think so.
Without the ability to shut off the world and use my office as a portal to possibility, amazement, redemption and hope I would never have lasted this long. I truly believe my fantasy life is key to my continuing survival. When the stories run out, I’m finished.
I think the other fellows know what I’m talking about. I ponder the life of Ray Bradbury–I know he’s had some health setbacks and that has affected his legendary productivity. But at 90+ years, he’s still telling tall tales, even if someone else has to take dictation and type them up for him. Each day he commutes to that place where his visions dwell. His fortress of solitude. Sitting in a comfortable chair, barely able to see but hardly sightless. His gaze far, far away. In Green River or navigating the Valles Marineris; lost in a funhouse or at the helm of a gleaming rocketship, bound for the stars.
After all, nothing is impossible if we allow ourselves to think with the mind of a child. Experience has not yet affected one so young and no one can convince them that dreams can’t ever come true.
My Muse has taken charge of my summer and is refusing to relinquish it. Writing a couple of stories for the Esquire fiction contest was supposed to be a warm-up, something to limber up the ol’ wrists and get the synapses firing. I wrote the first story and the second one occurred to me and a third…and all of them featured a recurring character, this Conrad Dahl fella, at various ages, from 13-19. I’ve pondered and batted around the idea of writing (at some point) a linked series of stories but had made no specific plans, didn’t even have an outline committed to paper. Now here I am with three stories–“Twenty-Ten”, “An Insurrection” and “Never, Ever Say That To Me Again”–written for that fucking contest. One (“Twenty-Ten”) is complete and was submitted with about four hours to spare before the deadline and the other two need at least a week of polishing and I’m bouncing around the notion for a fourth Conrad Dahl story that would (he hopes) complete the cycle. Which means at least another 2 or three weeks and pretty much the rest of my summer devoted to short fiction.
What about that novel I was supposed to be revising? What about the filming and recording I had planned, to sample and explore some of the features of this amazing, stunning, paradigm-shifting new iMac (I’m still enamored, can you tell)?
And do you think I can seize back the initiative, demand that my Muse shitcan this story cycle, at least for now, and get back to the novel? Not bloody likely. It doesn’t work that way, my dears. I can’t program my inspiration, channel it with any degree of success. Not this lad. And I’m very single-minded, I can only focus on one project at a time; I’m not one of those agile bastards who can juggle any number of novels, article ideas, short stories, what have you. After I finish this blog entry it will take me the rest of the morning to regain a fiction-writing mindset. I’ll play lots of music, pace around my office, let every last vestige of this post evaporate away before I’ll be able to return to my regular work. Get my game face on again.
I have no idea why my Muse has determined that these short stories should be given precedence. I’m frustrated by this change of plan; I thought I had my summer all figured out. Matter of fact, this entire year to this point has been taken up with works that weren’t exactly at the top of my list of priorities. My “Innocent Moon” radio play took me wayyy too long to research and complete, eating up the early part of 2009. And then I worked on finishing the long version of “First Room” and a short story that will shortly appear on this blog called “Death Threats”. And now these linked tales.
So what happens if my Muse decides to try to try her hand at writing a ballet or a libretto to a fucking opera? There’s no way of getting around it: I’d have to give it a shot. I throw up my hands in frustration, I curse and shake my fist at the sky but in the end I must accede to the wishes of the one who defines me as an artist and person. I’m a control freak and the act of writing is the only time I let that go. That can be terrifying, enlivening, thrilling, daunting; like walking a high wire naked, with no safety net and only half the world watching, hoping you’ll fall. Addictive and sick-making. Adrenaline-charged and gut-churning. I often quote Robert Penn Warren, the act and process of writing the pain I can’t live without.
I’m guessing some of you out there know what I’m talking about.
We’ve sacrificed our backs, fingers, even our peace of mind. All for the sake of following our Muse wherever she takes us: never without complaint but, in the end, always obedient, wary of offending her fickle, unpredictable sensibilities.
The horrific, unspeakable risk such an attitude might entail…