Skip to content

Author/poet Cliff Burns feels a compulsive need to write

Burns was eight or nine years old when he discovered that he was a wordsmith.
Cliff Burns

BATTLEFORD — Saskatchewan author Cliff Burns has always been driven when he writes his novels, short stories and other works of literary art. For him, writing is like a normal part of his everyday life like breathing or eating.

“I am extremely driven as an artist; I simply have to create or I'm suffused with anxiety and self-loathing,” Burns told after the recent publication of his 16th book, The Definition of Melancholy.

“I think I'm more than a trifle obsessive-compulsive and the act of putting pen to paper is one of the few ways I can silence the voices in my head that insist I'm lazy or untalented or stupid. I must write something every day or I feel like a complete failure.”

The Definition of Melancholy is another full-length book, a collection of poems by Burns, where he explores ideas and themes using poetry based on closely observing human relationships and humanity’s relationship with the vast and expanding universe.

He’s been writing for more than 35 years and has numerous novels and collections of over 100 short stories under his name. His works had appeared in magazines and anthologies around the world.

Burns, who had written 15 other books and novels, said he finds poetry an entirely different form of writing compared to writing a novel or a short story.

“One must learn to think metaphorically, abandoning the literal and trying to encapsulate as much as possible in as few words as possible. In poetry, even the spaces between words and stanzas are significant and that's something lay people don't understand,” Burns said.

“The precision of word choices, and the most minor aesthetic decisions have tremendous ramifications on the success or failure of a poem. It usually takes me four-five years to accumulate enough poems to make a book ... and determining the final roster is a very demanding and intense process. Nerve-wracking.”

He added that he draws his ideas and inspiration for writing poems and his other stories from everyday life.

“They may not be factually true but they are emotionally honest and authentic and that, I think, is more important. My stories and novels very much feel like they could be real. I am not an escapist, I don't provide readers with likable characters, cheerful stories, or happy endings.

“My narratives get under your skin, they feel very intimate and the best of them leave permanent emotional scars, a sense that something terrible lurks just around the next corner... or perhaps even under your bed.

Discovering his gift with words

Burns said that his original dream when he was a kid was to become either an astronaut or a cowboy, but that changed when he was about eight or nine years old when he started writing and storytelling.

And being a voracious reader helped him write a poem that won first prize in an agricultural fair near the small town where he lived.

“It was a thrill and then I realized how much I enjoyed making up stories as part of school assignments, drawing praise from my teachers for my gift with language. It helped that I was a voracious reader, books were a much-needed escape from what could be very fraught and difficult home life,” said Burns.

“Once I realized the power that words on paper could give you — building an entire universe from scratch — I was swept up in the notion of creating my own stories, featuring people I invented out of thin air. How intoxicating is that? I tried to make my assignments as enjoyable to read as possible and I'm sure certain teachers noticed and appreciated my efforts.”

He had another winning piece when he was in the 12th grade where his short story earned the top honours that further pushed him to hone his creative side. And the rest, it might be a cliché, is history as he worked on stories that got noticed by publishers.

Talent runs in the family

Although none of his siblings were into creative arts, his wife and two kids are. His wife Sherron is an accomplished visual artist and performer, who works with puppets and animated objects.

“My oldest son has developed a tactical board game that's been gaining some notice and my youngest is a talented musician and film-maker living in Vancouver. So I'm very much surrounded by smart, creative people who ignore the beaten path and insist on breaking new ground and taking us places we've never been before,” said Burns.

"To my mind, creative artists, especially those who work in these difficult times, must make every effort to avoid formulas and tales that are at least twice told. Our future on this planet is looking more and more tenuous and it is the artists and creative thinkers who are ideally suited to confront the existential crises facing us and give us a way out of the impasse we find ourselves in, an opportunity to live sustainably and in accord with the delicate life processes on this planet.”