Ligeti is perfect for a
cold late autumn day in
Saskatchewan the first
flakes of snow visible
outside my window
trees audibly creaking
a stiff north wind
oblivious of the
bad news it bears.
© Cliff Burns; 2015
“…these people…want to be considered serious writers; but they have come to believe that they can accomplish this by means of a convenient shortcut. And the industry that produces how-to manuals plays to them, makes money from their hope of finding a way to be a writer, rather than doing the work, rather than actually spending the time to absorb what is there in the vast riches of the world’s literature, and then crafting one’s own voice out of the myriad of voices.
My advice? Put the manuals and how-to books away. Read the writers themselves, whose work and example are all you really need if you want to write. And wanting to write is so much more than a pose. To my mind, nothing is as important as good writing, because in literature, the walls between people and cultures are broken down, and the things that plague us most—suspicion and fear of the other, and the tendency to see whole groups of people as objects, as monoliths of one cultural stereotype or another—are defeated.
This work is not done as a job, ladies and gentlemen, it is done out of love for the art and the artists who brought it forth, and who still bring it forth to us, down the years and across ignorance and chaos and borderlines. Riches. Nothing to be skipped over in the name of some misguided intellectual social-climbing. Well, let me paraphrase William Carlos Williams, American poet: literature has no practical function, but every day people die for lack of what is found there.”
Richard Bausch, in The Atlantic Monthly
Would the posers and wannabes out there PLEASE note: when you’re a real writer, every fucking month is “national novel writing month”.
Now go back to flipping burgers or whatever it is you do, and leave literature to the professionals…the people who, through years of sweat and sacrifice, have earned the right to call themselves authors.
Shame on you for daring to include yourself in their company…
It can be a somber, sobering process, this kind of self-evaluation, and, inevitably, I get around to my writing.
Thirty years as a professional author and not much of a dent made. Black Dog Press, my imprint (described as a “micro-press” on my Saskatchewan business license) barely scrapes by. It’s no coincidence that I usually publish my titles in the early spring, right after the annual check from the Public Lending Rights folks arrives. It just about pays for each new release.
And let’s be honest, my books sell very modestly; outside a small coterie of readers, I am virtually unknown. I sent out something like 45 copies of my last book, Disloyal Son, to newspapers, magazines, assorted literary folk, receiving precisely three polite acknowledgements and no reviews. Not one. One mystery magazine emailed me, thanking me for sending a copy their way and offering to sell me a full-page ad that could maybe/possibly run in the same issue as the review (hint, hint). I didn’t have money for the ad and they didn’t end up publishing a review. It’s the way things work these days. Kirkus Reviews? Publishers Weekly? For the right price you can commission a four-star review and laudatory blurbs…never mind that no one has even glanced at the book in question.
Publishing is a dirty business, there’s no denying it.
And it’s hard to stay positive, to keep on keeping on, when you know the deck is stacked, the marketplace flooded with a quarter million new releases every year, a clammer of dissonant voices begging to be heard, a hellish, caterwauling chorus.
But it’s the work, that joyfulness I feel when everything is clicking, sentences and paragraphs almost being dictated to me, that’s what makes it worthwhile. As long as I’m able to put pen to paper, as long as those words don’t dry up, inspiration fleeing from me, I think I can endure almost anything.
Creation is everything to me. As soon as I’m done a project, I’m ready to move on, tackle another challenge. And that’s why I don’t spend much time mourning the poor sales of my last novel or short story collection, or grind my teeth down to the gums as I watch their rapid plummet to the bottom of Amazon’s sales rankings. Those four-dollar royalty checks? Hey, bring ’em on.
Just…keep the words coming. In good times and bad. Darkness and light. Ecstasy and despair.
Anything but that screaming silence.
I suppose it’s understandable that young and developing writers mine personal experience for inspiration, borrow from real life for key characters, settings and episodes in their narratives.
But sooner or later, if you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you have to abandon this rather narcissistic approach and begin to invent, extrapolate, imagine, conflate, collage, transpose. Eschewing a slavish imitation to the “facts”, finding the courage and tenacity to follow a story no matter what strange paths and nooks it might choose.
For a good many authors, the idea of leaving their safe, tidy, self-appointed microverse and venturing Outside is too terrifying to ponder. Their protagonists thinly disguised versions of themselves, storylines and essential details paralleling their own life arc. To these literalists, their writing is a chance at redemption, to make sure their viewpoint is somehow vindicated and wins out in the end. Writing is not an act of imagination, it is a form of exoneration. But is such a mindset healthy—for them or for literature? I would offer a firm “No”, on both counts.
I confess that on occasion I’ve written “autobiographical” stories, tales that include some detail or nugget from life, a small touch that adds to the overall atmosphere, a dab of authenticity. Other offerings contain what I would call “emotional truths”, characters reliving some trauma drawn from my convoluted psychological history. Primal terror, feelings of self-loathing and disgust; manic spasms of joy, rapid disillusionment.
I think of older short stories like “Invisible Boy” or “Carl” (from Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination). Raw and edgy. Spare and relentless and credible…and all the more powerful and frightening for that reason.
More recently, my novella “Second Sight” (from Exceptions and Deceptions) features a married couple that bear a strong resemblance to Sherron and I. If you want a semi-accurate portrait of what daily life around Casa Burns is like, check out “Second Sight”. Not a word of it is true, of course, but the couple at the heart of the tale have a depth and subtlety that take the offering to another level.
The unnamed narrator of my last novel, Disloyal Son, is a Canadian writer and some of his genealogy is borrowed from my family history, but Mr. X, candidly, is a lot nicer than me, much more passive and considerate. Yin to my Yang.
It could even be fairly said that I share some traits with my all-time favourite character, Evgeny Nightstalk (So Dark the Night). I certainly manifest Nightstalk’s ferocious loyalty and hair-trigger temper. His twisted moral code is like an externalization of my id.
But while there are definitely similarities, I would argue that none of these characters is really me—they’re all composites, Frankenstein monsters, a jumble of body parts. I made them up. In my humble opinion, working exclusively from real life is boring, not to mention lazy.
The art is in creating individuals and scenarios from dust and mud, shaping them with your own hands, breathing life into them with each word, each sentence.
On those rare occasions when I recognize that I’ve come up with something undeniably original and unique, there’s a thrill of joy and accomplishment that quickens my very soul. It’s the ultimate high. Nothing else I’ve experienced in my creative/artistic life compares to that peak moment.
So put away your diaries and journals, smash every mirror in the vicinity.
Time to write stories that defy expectations and conventions, yarns that even the author cannot control or confine.
Surprise us, amaze us, take us somewhere we haven’t been before.
Make us laugh and cry.
Anger us, if you have the nerve.
Show us a face other than your own.
You know that’s always the case. When I’m hard at work, the last thing I think about is composing another blog entry. Don’t get me wrong, you folks are great, love hanging out with you, but writing, the creative act…well, that’s my lifeblood. My raison d’être.
This time, yes, there’s been creativity, a new short story…but, in all honesty, I’ve been devoting most of my time and energy to promoting Disloyal Son. With the hundreds, thousands of books being released every month, how do I draw attention to a solid, literate novel that anybody with two neurons to rub together will love? How do I compete with shapeshifter erotica and zombie porn and glorified fan fiction? Well, first of all, I send out review copies. Lots of review copies. To the major newspapers, mystery magazines, selected bookstores. Along with promo material and fliers that we agonize over, striving to come up with the most enticing wording. Again, trying to separate this book from the herd. The dung pile.
Good God, there are a lot of terrible books out there. Not just “self-published” either. The traditional publishers apparently believe the vast majority of contemporary readers (especially women) have the I.Q. of brain-damaged marsupials. If you’re looking for a quality book to read this summer, good luck. The trads no longer have any interest in cultivating authors, helping them find their voice and develop as artists. They’re staffed by corporate drones who merely seek “product”, mass market releases—swiftly excreted, endlessly repeated. Passionless, derivative, facile, inept.
You want to know the difference between my approach to writing, as opposed to just about everyone else’s? I care. I respect language, the traditions and legacy of literature. I treasure a well-constructed sentence and expend enormous efforts honing and shaping my work. I’m a freak when it comes to editing—meticulous to the point of, well, insanity. While many of my colleagues seem content with one or two drafts, getting their slop out as soon as possible, I drag out the process of creation to the extent that completing a short story takes weeks and a novel like So Dark the Night required over three years before I was finally satisfied and released it. And that was working on it full time, every single day.
Writing is not a craft to me, it’s an art. There’s a difference. A big difference. Most scribblers can’t make that leap. I can. Every single one of my books is intelligent, challenging, innovative; none conform to expectations or fall back on formula. I try to get that across to readers, reviewers but it’s hard. They see that Black Dog Press is my imprint and right away start thinking “this is more self-published crap”. Dismissing me out of hand. Never giving me a fair shot.
I defy anyone to read the first 5-10 pages of one of my books, choose whichever you like, and then stop. By that point it will no longer be a question of the origins of the book, the circumstances of its publication—you’ll be too caught up in a great read. Of that, I am 100% certain.
Reviewers have written about the element of surprise in my books and stories and I think that’s key. When you’re reading one of my tales you have no idea how it’s going to end or what’s coming next. I love pulling the rug out from under you, leaving you in a whimpering heap. Never saw that coming, did you?
That quality is very much in evidence in Disloyal Son. It’s a mystery, within a mystery (and then some). The truth revealed in bleeding layers. If you give it a chance, it will be the best book you read this summer, maybe this year. And I don’t need to buy a four-star Kirkus review in order to know that.