The Writing Disorder




New Nonfiction


by Michael Burns

      Growing up in post-WWII rural Vermont as an only child for the first eight years of my life, I was susceptible to bouts of fantasy as a way to fill in those interludes of loneliness when my only companion was a rather dotty grandmother. I was not to put any of these fantasies to paper, however, until I was a sophomore in high school, and my English teacher assigned the class a creative writing exercise as homework. It was the only assignment in that class I actually enjoyed doing. The result was a little story whose theme, “Crime Pays” got the attention of my teacher, who in turn brought it to the attention of a departmental colleague who had taught me English freshman year. It was their conviction, based solely on the work I had done for them in the past, that I had plagiarized the story. No amount of argument I could offer to the contrary was able to budge them from this belief. They couldn’t prove that my story was plagiarized, of course, but the idea was planted in their minds, and that was enough to spoil it for me. I wrote nothing more from the imagination for quite a number of years.
      Ironically, my second encounter with fiction writing came under similar circumstances. I had deferred entrance to college after high school to join the Navy. I mustered out of the Navy after four years service. A year later I was married, working a full time job, and attending university classes at night. This time, the creative writing assignment came from my freshman English professor. She was impressed enough by the story I had written (a story about a young sailor, what else?) that she shared it with Thomas Williams, a novelist on the English Department faculty, and a rising literary star. (Williams won the National Book Award in 1975 for his novel The Hair of Harold Roux.) When I matriculated full time at the university I made it a point to enroll in Williams’ courses for several semesters. There were some pretty heavy hitters in his fiction writing workshops (John Irving for one), and I never felt I could measure up to my talented classmates. Nevertheless, the itch to write was strong, and it really never went away. I continued to write, in rather a desultory fashion, after college and throughout my teaching career.
      In 1986 I took a sabbatical from my teaching position to write a novel. I had never before attempted a novel length project, and I knew that it would require a whole new kind of discipline to bring it off. I went into it with some trepidation, not knowing if I was capable of such discipline. If, in my life as a writer, I had waited for inspiration to drive me, my output would have been even more meager than it is. What little writing I have produced over the years—a dozen or so short stories, a handful of non-fiction pieces, four novels and one rather long, abandoned attempt at a fifth novel—has come about by means other than pure inspiration. In other words, by being at my writing station every day, or every day that I am physically able to. So, on those rare moments when the muse comes calling I want to be ready to answer the door. Sometimes the very act of writing, no matter how prosaic the stuff I’m putting to paper, can serve as inspiration. In truth, my writing habits are quite mundane. When I am working on a novel, for instance, I like to compose on a yellow lined tablet of fifty pages, in ballpoint pen. The goal I set for myself is three handwritten pages a day until the fifty pages are filled. This amounts to 800-1000 words each day. I spend as long on this target goal as it takes, whether it’s a half hour or the whole day. When I have completed a yellow tablet I go to my word processor to transcribe, and to edit cosmetically until the fifty pages are finished, then I go back to a fresh yellow tablet, and so on until I think the story is finished. After transcribing and editing the last tablet I will print out the whole piece and go over the typescript carefully, making marginal notes. It is at this phase that I try to decide what revisions I need to make, minor or major. These revisions, along with further copyediting, I perform on the word processor. When I finish with this, I print out another copy, and put it away for a month, maybe more, then go back to it to see what I have actually written, and not merely what I had wished I had written. If after this “cooling off” period something strikes me as particularly egregious, I will try to correct it. By now, it is time to let go. Before I send it anywhere for possible publication, however, I will send a copy to my good friend and editor for his counsel.
      My stories are essentially character driven. I can only get interested in a story if I am interested in the characters that populate it. Faulkner is reported to have said, when asked about his approach to writing stories, that he followed his characters around with pencil and pad in hand, and wrote down everything they said and did. I believe that’s only part of it, however. Once I have identified the characters in my story it is still my task to invent histories for them, give them desires, and motives for realizing them, and fashioning situations which pit these characters in conflict when those wants and desires clash. As I said, I have written four novels and part of a fifth. And while I seem to have learned something about technique from the writing of each of them, I still have not the slightest idea when I begin a new one if I will succeed in making it work. There is no algorithm that I know of which guarantees a successful outcome. Therefore, each new attempt at storytelling is a unique adventure for me. And like any adventure there is an element of fear in each undertaking.

      The fear of screwing everything up by writing it down; the fear of being trite, commonplace; the fear of dishing up the standard fare. There are so many writers nowadays dishing up the standard fare. It seems too daunting to think that I can write anything original. As if it were possible to decide to be original! I fear the opinion of my fellow writers; I fear that someone I know or care about will see himself in my fiction and take offense. And in this state of mind I recall something Howard Nemerov once said: “If I never write another word the world will be no poorer.” The only way to overcome this kind of paralysis, I’ve found, is to write through it. This is where sheer force of will comes in, and this is where I depend upon the habit of being at my station dutifully every day, seven days a week to write through the fear.
      Why do I write? I can’t think of any clear-cut answer, but I am inclined to feel, as Orwell did about his own drive to write: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.” I don’t mind much being compared to a baby squalling for attention; what I do dread, as I look over my shoulder and see the years gaining on me, is that degrading return to bedwetting. With that in mind, I feel a special urgency to get everything I have left in me down on paper before that day arrives.
      As a youth I was an avid reader. From the time I learned to read I was never without a book in front of my nose. Early on I was enamored of biographies of famous people, people as disparate as Lou Gehrig and Clara Barton, Eli Whitney and Stonewall Jackson. I couldn’t get enough stories about famous people in history. Later, as a pre-adolescent, I became enthralled with the mysteries of Ellery Queen Jr. and his young protagonist named Djuna, whose unusual name caught my fancy. I went through a phase of the hard-boiled detective genre, unfortunately for my literary education I concentrated not on Raymond Chandler or Dashiel Hammett, but Mickey Spillane. In my Navy years my reading tastes grew more eclectic, ranging from Norman Mailer to Leon Uris, Ben Hecht to Bud Schulberg. It wasn’t really until I entered university full time that my literary tastes started to take shape.
      As for being influenced in my own writing, I can’t point to a specific writer or writers whom I can say I either intentionally or inadvertently emulated. In fact, I seem to have affected a habit (many of my friends describe it as irrational at best, neurotic at worst) since I have been writing novels in earnest, of avoiding the works of my contemporaries. Why? Because of a fear of being influenced in my own writing at some subconscious level, thus sacrificing whatever originality I might possess. Consequently, for many years I have concentrated on the works of the very dead. It would take more space than I have at my disposal to list all of the writers I admire. What they have in common is the ability to speak to me in profound ways. Since my retirement from teaching in 2004 I have had the delicious pleasure of reading the great classics, which I had neither time nor inclination to do in my youth or in my busy life as teacher in a boarding school. At present I am having a good time reading Lawrence Durrell’s The Avignon Quintet. I can’t think of anyone whose writing is more unlike my own. As I said, my reading is almost exclusively confined to authors dead and buried, and I will continue to read my way through the masterpieces, from Austen to Zola, and continue to pursue my own struggle with the art by trying to make the most of a mediocre talent by being faithful to my habit of hard work and perseverance.

Michael Burns was born in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. He deferred entrance to college to serve in the U.S. Navy for four years in the early days of the Vietnam War. Burns returned to New Hampshire where he met his wife at the University of New Hampshire. Encouraged by his freshman English teacher, Burns first became interested in writing fiction in 1963. In 1971, Burns joined the faculty of St. Paul’s School, a college preparatory boarding school in Concord, New Hampshire. He retired in 2004 after 33 years of teaching. At present, Burns is living with his wife in rural New Hampshire where he is at work on his fourth novel. He has published short stories and essays in Pembroke Magazine, and has had two short stories receive awards in Serpentine’s annual short story contests. His first novel, Gemini, was published by All Things That Matter Press. They also published two of his later novels, Where You Are, and Gemini's Blood.

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