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…
I’m a writer. But the printed word isn’t merely my vocation, my bread and butter; it has been, from an early age, a constant companion, confidante… and refuge. It gives my life purpose and direction, helps define me and makes me who I am.
I’ve always been a reader. For diversion and escape, yes, certainly, but I also possess an insatiable desire to know, learn everything I can about other people and places, give in to possibility, open myself up to astonishment. As a child I discovered that the ability to suspend disbelief for prolonged periods of time was a valuable coping mechanism, a life skill they didn’t teach in school.
I read anything I could lay my hands on. Remember the Companion Library series? Two classic kids’ books printed back to back: Heidi and Black Beauty. Hans Brinker and Tom Sawyer. We had the entire set and once I finished them, I scanned the rest of our modest collection, plucking out anything that looked halfway promising. I can recall spending many a rainy afternoon with the likes of Zane Grey, John Buchan and Daphne DuMaurier.
Remained a bookworm through my teens, acquainting myself with the work of Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick. They were the guys who inspired me to scratch out my first short stories. Crass imitations of far better authors; calling those early efforts “juvenilia” is being excessively kind.
But I caught the writing bug and what followed was a long apprenticeship that continues to this day. My first sales came in my early 20’s, to CBC Radio and a now-defunct literary magazine called Rubicon. Writing was no longer a hobby, it was an obsession. “The pain I can’t live without,” as my colleague Robert Penn Warren puts it.
Even after twenty-five years the process of creation, committing words to paper, is still a source of profound mystery to me…perhaps even magic. At the end of the day, when I look at what I’ve written, I get goosebumps. I have no firm recollection of composing those pages. In truth, I’m no closer to understanding how and why I write than I was when I first started out, all those years ago.
But here’s the strange thing: while I continue to revere fine writing and apply myself, day by day, year after year, to the service of literature, the amount of reading I do has declined precipitously in the last couple of years.
Now, as I’m sure you’ll understand, that’s a hard admission for a man in my line of work to make.
In partial defense, I add that I do read a fair amount for research purposes, books and magazine articles, not to mention the endless hours spent on-line, Googling like crazy. I like to read non-fiction to get my mind warmed up in the morning. Something historical, twenty or thirty pages over breakfast before heading upstairs to my office and commencing work.
But reading for pleasure, picking up a book for the sake of killing a few hours, immersed in a fictional universe? For a considerable length of time that notion hasn’t held much appeal. I’ve found other activities, diversions to occupy me.
It’s no coincidence: since 2007, I have enjoyed a period of remarkable productivity in terms of my writing–two novels completed, a couple of radio plays, short stories, essays. That productivity comes at a steep price, i.e. many long hours sequestered away in that little room at the top of the stairs.
When I finally lurch out of my office in the late afternoon or early evening I’m bleary-eyed, soft-headed with fatigue, barely sentient. Words. I’ve spent the last eight or ten hours staring at words, wrestling with and endlessly rearranging words, so many bloody words—
And so settling into our big arm chair with the latest Ian McEwan or Irvine Welsh doesn’t interest me. Sorry, lads. At that point I want to hang out with my family, catch up on their lives. As well as being an author guy, I’m also a husband and father. Those responsibilities are important to me.
Then, as it gets on into the evening, I’ll chill out with a glass or two of scotch, pop in a “South Park” DVD or an old “Black Adder” episode. Later, in bed, I might get through another ten pages of that non-fic book before my eyes refuse to stay open a moment longer and I reach over and turn out the light…
How did a lifelong reader descend to this, treating books like a luxury, an indulgence, rather than a necessity? Holding off starting a new novel by a favorite author because I don’t want to “waste” an afternoon reading it.
Shame on me.
And I feel worse when I check out on-line forums and see how much the real bibliophiles are reading. The sheer amount of books these people claim to go through is ridiculous, unbelievable, impossible. They have to be lying. When do they have time to, oh, y’know, work, sleep, interact with their families?
Their devotion to books is inspiring—to the extent that I had decided to amend my ways. I’ve got shelves and shelves of wonder-filled books and I’m giving myself permission, here and now, to spend every free moment I can rediscovering my all-consuming passion for reading. No movie or other media can move me like a good book can. Nothing else gives me that sensawunda.
And I’m going to do my best to ignore that niggling, insistent voice bemoaning the valuable time reading takes away from my own writing. Pay no attention…or, better yet, counter with the argument that it was through reading that I learned everything I know (what little that amounts to) about writing. Reading a well-crafted book is a form of professional development, damnit! How can I grow and improve as an author unless I acquaint myself, firsthand, with the work of gifted colleagues who are breaking new ground in character, structure and narrative? Closely studying their sentences, the way they frame their thoughts.
As a child, I recognized the power and majesty contained in words. Reading untethered my imagination and charged my creative energies. I dearly wanted to do what my literary heroes did, tell a tall tale that would hold readers in its thrall. Make them forget who they were, all their problems, the fears bedevilling them. That was the initial impetus.
I aspired to be the next L. Frank Baum or Arthur Conan Doyle. Creator of something that would live forever.
A story for the ages…and the ageless child inside us all.
Copyright, 2009 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)