By Cliff Burns
By any standard of measurement you care to apply, my writing career, now spanning over three decades, has been nothing short of a failure.
Perhaps not as disastrous as I sometimes like to pretend—“the least popular author since Joey Gutenburg first started printing books!”—but, let’s face it, my professional profile and standing are nearly nonexistent, my “fan base” the size of an extended family.
That’s the truth, but saying it doesn’t make me feel better; instead, it provokes nausea.
In the past thirty+ years I’ve collected at least two thousand* rejection slips. Stories, poems, essays, novels, submitted to magazines and publishers around the world, and just as many coming back, marked “Thanks, but no thanks”.
The natural and inevitable question is, why keep doing it? Why do I stubbornly continue putting pen to paper, day after day, jeopardizing my physical, mental and spiritual health, with little or no expectation of getting anything in return for my labors?
A streak of masochism?
Or, maybe, an unshakeable belief that everything I write, everything I create, is something new, something never before depicted, a work that is original and innovative and authentic. I don’t tend to repeat myself or tell twice-told tales.**
My aim is to try and communicate the intimate experience of being alive, the daily terrors and anxieties that define our existence, the dark shadows they cast on our psyches, individually and collectively. I think I do that job well, very well, perhaps too well.
Because in my search for truth and meaning, I am unrelenting. I will not avert my eyes from the scene before me, no matter how horrible or ghastly, and don’t allow readers that luxury either.
And that’s just not what folks are looking for these days. They prefer narratives that are more palatable, offering convenient escape hatches so they’re not unduly agitated by what they’re reading.
I’m not diluting my writing, watering down its message for the sake of some silly airhead who wants to “put his brain on hold” or “chill out with a fun read”. If you want to lighten the load a little, take some weight off your mind, could I suggest inserting your head into a wood chipper?
But, see, it’s that attitude that alienates potential readers; my body of work gives off heavy vibes, the impression that if you open one of my books you’re basically signing on for a trip through the lowest regions of Hell, with no guarantees of safe return.
It’s a fair cop.
If you’re seeking sympathetic characters, happy endings, cheerful storylines, better beat the bushes elsewhere.
I reject the fallacy that good is stronger than evil.
I do not accept the principle of “original sin” and believe that saints are merely people who happened to be very good at keeping their deep, dark secrets hidden from the rest of us.
Sinners, on the other hand, are the ones unlucky enough to get caught.
At heart, I’m a pessimist. Our species, despite its indisputable cleverness, is nothing more than a vicious primate, with one foot firmly planted in its monkey past, the other marching, lockstep, toward technological oblivion.
Individually, any one of those attitudes would be enough to spook readers; put them all together in one basket, however, and you have failure writ large, half a lifetime of personal and aesthetic disappointment and disillusionment.
I won’t lie, I’d love to have a million readers around the world eagerly awaiting each new story or novel. I’d strangle an orphan to give a public reading to an auditorium full of fans, chatting with them and signing dozens of copies of my books afterward.
But…if that means abandoning credibility and honesty, embracing phony sentiment and escapism, I’m afraid I’m going to have to pass. Temperamentally, I just can’t do it.
I will persist in saying the things that must be said.
I’m with Kafka who stated we should only read books that “wound and stab us”, going on to conclude: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
Life is suffering—on that point I am in accord in the Buddhists. They also believe almost all suffering is self-inflicted and I’m with them there too.
We don’t need a god to damn us, shun us, cast us out of his private garden.
We don’t need a savior or messiah to wash the sins from our souls.
There is no supernatural source for an evil act. The motivation to inflict pain and suffering comes from within, not without.
These aren’t exactly popular views these days—most people prefer pointing their scrawny finger at someone/thing else when bad shit happens. Personal responsibility is a tough sell to folks like that; among their kind the buck is passed so often, it’s starting to look mighty threadbare and frayed in places.
The bravest artists, those most worthy of that honorific, hold up a mirror to society, a highly polished looking glass that reveals every blemish and imperfection, remorselessly documenting the wounds and injuries we’ve absorbed or inflicted, magnifying the worst bits for close scrutiny.
For such a brazen act, these courageous men and women are treated as pariahs, faceless lepers, often exiled from their home and native land, relegated to the bottom rung of the social ladder.
A foolish tactic, it turns out.
Can’t you hear them down there, sawing?
This essay has been excerpted from Mouth:Rants & Routines, available as an e-book/Kindle published by Black Dog Press; May, 2019.
Cliff Burns has been an independent publisher since 1990. His books include So Dark the Night, Righteous Blood and Disloyal Son. Several of his efforts have been optioned for adaptation into films and three books have been nominated for national independent press awards. He lives in western Canada with his wife, Sherron, and several thousand books.
Visit my blog Beautiful Desolation
* No, sadly, that is not a typo.
** As Sir Ernest Shackleton said: “Never for me the lowered banner, never the last endeavor.”