Brian Burt's Blog: Work in Progress
December 27, 2019
I haven't posted in quite a while. Life's been messy and complicated lately. My mom passed two weeks ago after a long, agonizing battle with Alzheimer's Disease. Especially around the Holidays, coping with this kind of grief is a challenge. My dad (who was married to Mom for more than 60 years) is struggling mightily, as are all of us. In truth, I'm utterly conflicted: I've watched my mom slip through our desperate embrace for years now, disappearing in slow motion. My dad (with considerable wisdom) has described it as "the long goodbye." I'm going to miss her terribly... but, in many ways, I've been missing her terribly for years. And -- on some level -- I'm relieved that her suffering has ended, that she's finally free.
So here goes nothing. I've had a vision stuck in the middle of my mind's eye since my mom's passing, something sad but uplifting that I simply haven't been able to escape. I decided to try to capture it, although I'm sure I won't do it justice. I'm no poet -- that will probably become obvious -- but I've tried to express what I see through my own inelegant attempt at verse. (Call it group therapy via blog.) If you have a loved one struggling with, or stolen by, the scourge of Alzheimer's, I sincerely hope this brings you a bit of consolation.
For Barbara Burt:
After endless, aching years of battling fiercely,
My mom at last succumbs to the demon ALZ.
It is a cruel, callous, and relentless enemy,
Smothering its victims in fog-shrouded misery.
Its spiny tentacles entwine the mind, ensnare the soul.
It slices slivers from your self until you are unrecognizable.
My mother dreaded this. She told me of her terror at this fate.
She exercised mind and body to delay it; measured every drop she drank and bite she ate.
She did everything she could – and still it claimed her in the end;
Siphoning her essence, stealing her from family and friends.
But I have news for you, remorseless ALZ:
You didn't win at all. She was adored, and now she's free!
I see her, shining brighter than the sun, rising high into an azure sky.
Her laughter musical, she dances on the clouds that drizzle liquid joy.
Her spirit soars, escaping Dark's dominion and again made whole.
She swirls and sweeps around us, whispering that life was rare and rich and beautiful!
She shatters suffering, weaves her story into vibrant tapestries of celebration.
She blazed a brilliant trail – leaving memories to be our salve and our salvation.
You tried to cage her in your impenetrable shell, but it became a chrysalis.
Now she emerges. Silken wings brush against our cheeks to leave a phantom kiss.
My deepest sympathies to any family afflicted by the curse of Alzheimer's. If you're struggling to cope, to comprehend, I can also recommend this brilliant novel that explains the experience with clarity and compassion:
Happy Holidays, y'all. I wish you health and peace!
April 6, 2019
I owe much gratitude to the Writers of the Future contest. Many moons ago, they gave me my first big break as a writer when my short story "The Last Indian War" won the grand prize. That was an awesome experience. For the first time, I had a chance to mingle with and meet other speculative fiction writers, to compare notes and commiserate about the challenges of getting published. It was a rare and wondrous opportunity to geek out with other SF geeks; I loved it. These were my people! ;-)
Well, I once again owe a huge debt of gratitude to the folks at WotF as they feature new works from a number of WotF alums in their Brand New Science Fiction blog. I'm honored to have two books included in this collection.
Price of Eden is the third book in the award-winning Aquarius Rising eco-fiction trilogy, set on an Earth where global warming has wreaked havoc on the environment and human-dolphin hybrids called Aquarians take refuge in reef-cities built among the drowned human cities along the coasts. Book One in the trilogy, In the Tears of God, won EPIC's 2014 eBook Award for Science Fiction; Book Two, Blood Tide, won the 2016 Readers' Favorite Gold Medal for Science Fiction. Price of Eden concludes the series as the Aquarians and their allies fight against extremists on both sides to avoid a genocidal global war with humanity.
Resurrection Trust: Stories about living sustainably from the Green Stories competition features an eclectic set of tales that explore potential futures where humanity figures out ways to at least attempt to solve the most serious ecological challenges facing us. We all need some optimism infused into our visions of the future, eh? This anthology includes contributions from a number of different WotF alums. You can learn more about the Green Stories writing competitions, mission, and values here:
Green Stories Writing Competition
September 9, 2018
I love writing fiction. Spawning a world from your imagination, searching for the right words to give it depth and meaning, is both wondrous and terrifying. What could give a writer more satisfaction than that simple, creative act? Contributing the result toward a worthy cause. In the past year, I've been fortunate enough to stumble across two projects intended to give writers this precious opportunity to blend their passion with a purpose.
Anthology House has just been released from ASEI Arts. This collection of eco-fiction stories features contributors from four continents, with all profits benefiting Habitat for Humanity’s “Habitat Hammers Back” initiative to help rebuild homes destroyed by last year's devastating hurricanes. Maia Kumari Gilman and the folks at ASEI Arts wanted to share an ecological vision with their audience, and to help hurricane victims at the same time. What an awesome concept! I was honored to contribute "Storm Rider" to this anthology.
The second project -- the Green Stories "Sustainable Societies" competition -- invited submissions in any genre and almost any format (play, film, radio, book, tv). Sponsored by the University of Southampton in the UK, the goal, and unifying theme, was to solicit fiction works that envision a more optimistic, sustainable future for humanity despite our environmental challenges. This visionary competition inspired hundreds of entries and culminated in an anthology of the best stories. I was thrilled to learn that my eco-fiction short story submission, "Resurrection Trust," will be the title story for this anthology. Other contests and projects are planned for the future as well, so if you're interested, check out this link to learn more:
Green Stories - Sustainable Societies - What's Next?
Granted, fiction isn't activism. Usually, it's enough to just tell a story you want and need to tell, hoping that it will touch readers in some way. But, sometimes, it's possible to join other like-minded writers to combine that passion with a common purpose. And that's pretty cool when the opportunity presents itself.
Authoring works of fiction isn't an act of charity. (Although, based on my recent royalty checks, maybe it is for me... ;-) Still, I believe that fiction can reach people in ways that nonfiction simply can't. And -- if it's a message that resonates with you -- helping communicate that vision can be a pretty wicked buzz.
Here's hoping that we all find similar chances to blend our passions with a shared purpose in the future. It's the ultimate win-win!
July 12, 2018
My family and I are proud residents of Plainwell, Michigan. For more than a decade, we’ve been blessed to have the Ransom District Library (RDL) only a short car ride (or a long walk) away. It’s a magical place: a gateway to other worlds, to other moments in history, and to other points of view. Every book opens a door into a fiction writer’s imagination or an insightful observer’s perspective on real-world events that have shaped, or will shape, our lives. In the age of the internet, of course, information delivery has changed dramatically… and the library has changed with it. RDL still hosts a rich collection of paper books but also offers online channels for patrons to check out digital content: e-books, audiobooks, movies, and music.
RDL goes far beyond traditional library boundaries, though. Its innovative staff organize an in-library concert series showcasing local musicians, host author talks featuring writers as renowned as West Michigan literary treasure and National Book Award finalist Bonnie Jo Campbell, and create fun family events like the annual Dr. Seuss Night. RDL isn’t just a “book depository”: it’s a hub of activity for the surrounding community. It enriches us in ways too numerous to list.
And it’s accomplished all of this in an aging, undersized building now far beyond its expected useful life; a facility that challenges the staff’s efforts to meet the evolving needs of younger patrons in a connected, digitized, web-enabled world. The folks at RDL have managed to make it work, despite the constraints that limit how many physical books they can shelve, how many computers they can deploy for information-hungry kids, or where they can carve out space to host the wonderful events they schedule for members of the community to attend free of charge.
They’ve given us so much. Now it’s time to return the favor.
On August 7, voters have a chance to approve a critical bond issue to fund the construction of a new Ransom District Library. For about five dollars per month per local homeowner, the new RDL will be able to expand its collection of books, DVDs, audiobooks, and special collections; provide more study and meeting space; offer a venue actually designed for performances and programs; maintain a storehouse of local history; and make it far easier for patrons to find parking. This isn’t a tax or a fee. This is an investment in our community, one that will pay steady dividends year after year.
RDL and its staff have contributed an immense amount of time, effort, creativity, and value to the city of Plainwell. They’ve done this responsibly: adhered to the budget, squeezed the last drop of use out of their current home. Now they’ve outgrown that home. They deserve an upgrade, one that will provide a solid foundation to benefit all of us — book lovers, music lovers, local history buffs, teens looking for a place to meet, families searching for kid-friendly activities — for decades to come.
So here's a shout-out to my fellow Plainwellians: on August 7, please invest in our shared future. Vote yes to Grow Ransom Library. Give this story a happy ending!
June 17, 2018
I confess I'm struggling to maintain a positive outlook these days, given the political and social climate. The news often buries us beneath an avalanche of stories hell-bent on crushing the last breath of hope. Still, I keep searching for the mood-lifters... and I feel obliged to share the wealth when I find such treasures. So I'm happy to tell you about two books I recently read that can inoculate the most jaded among us against cynicism and despair.
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress chronicles the key trends measuring human progress since the Age of Enlightenment. Author Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist who seems determined to remind us all how many reasons we have to celebrate how far we've come as a species in the past several centuries. He doesn't just evangelize the value of science, reason, and humanism with generalities; he presents actual statistics, charted for easy visualization, across a variety of criteria. I take some of this with a grain of salt. We all know that statistics can be used creatively to distort the landscape and justify questionable conclusions. But this book presents, overall, a highly compelling case for optimism, despite our polarizing times. We've lifted millions (or billions) of people out of extreme poverty world-wide, have improved education, increased tolerance toward those of us who belong to groups that have historically faced dreadful persecution, and expanded the level of comfort, happiness, and leisure. Deaths from war, violence, and disease per capita have plunged dramatically.
Bottom line: the rise of science, technological advancement, rationalism, and evidence-based decision-making have transformed the standard of living for most of the people on this planet. The rise of humanistic moral and ethical codes, woven into maturing social structures, have reduced our tendency to distrust, demonize, and torment anybody we can brand as "other." Things are far from perfect. We can't be complacent, as Dr. Pinker points out. But it's toxic for our individual and collective mental health to consistently ignore the good news and dwell only on the bad.
The second antidote to depression and disillusionment is Jon Meacham's new book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. For those of us in the U.S. it's easy to feel like the political divide is wider than it's ever been, that polarization and tribalism have plunged us into the abyss. Mr. Meacham retraces key moments in American history to remind us that this assumption is dead wrong. We, as a nation, have been here many times before. We've faced chaotic, disruptive events that have threatened to shred our social fabric: in the formative decades of our republic, in the face of slavery and civil war, the rise of the KKK, the misery of the Great Depression and two world wars, the dark stain of McCarthyism, and the cultural upheavals during the Civil Rights movement. We've struggled against our darkest instincts, as a country... and in every case, our better angels eventually won out. Meacham cites historical precedent in illuminating detail to convince us that this troubling era, too, shall pass.
Both of these books buoyed my spirits when I really needed a lift. They dispelled the media gloom with sensible, well-reasoned cause for optimism. I don't know about you, but I need that these days. We all benefit from realizing that the trends of recent human history, writ large, continue to climb. Our politics, while sometimes turbulent enough to obscure the barest glimmer of light, do eventually settle into calmer seas and clearer, sunlit skies. We can't rest on our laurels or take past human progress for granted. But we can remind ourselves that human progress is real, and (by all objective measures) moving pretty steadily in the right direction.
I'm grateful for the dose of enlightenment. It's precious salve for this American soul; I hope it soothes yours, too!
May 20, 2018
Last week, my wife and I had the distinct privilege to attend an author's talk at our local library. Not just any author's talk, either. The guest of honor, Bonnie Jo Campbell, is literally a community treasure: a National Book Award finalist for her haunting short story collection, American Salvage, I've heard her referred to (reverently) as the "literary voice" of our region. She lives just down the road in another small town outside of Kalamazoo, but it was still incredibly gracious of her to share her time and insights with our humble gathering of readers and writers.
Honestly, I haven't had that many opportunities to interact in "realspace" with other writers, especially one as accomplished as Bonnie Jo. She was awesome: funny, down-to-earth, wearing a relaxed pair of jeans and an infectious smile, she welcomed us all to a talk that quickly became more of a conversation than a lecture. She took questions from a fascinated audience for almost 90 minutes, delving into the details of her own personal writing process, her life and experiences, her publishing frustrations and ultimate critical triumphs. She actually teaches fiction writing as part of MFA residency programs, and that experience shone through as she addressed our questions. Her answers were illuminating. I've heard the gist from other sources I respect, but she boiled things down to the essentials in a way that really resonated with many of us in the crowd. In a nutshell:
- Write about subjects that fill you with passion. If you don't care, the readers certainly won't.
- Start with a vivid but flawed character in a unique and challenging situation. Tweak the details of the character, and the situation, until you're sure they've meshed (and collided) as dramatically as possible.
- Remember that your first draft is only a way to excavate the block of marble. Your challenge, then, is to chisel delicately at that raw stone to reveal the work of art hidden inside it. Revision is everything!
- Realize that you're not going to get rich, or even make a living, purely from your writing. That only happens for a tiny fraction of "mega-stars" in the literary firmament.
- Writing excellent stories is only one part of the job. Understand that your second job is to study the publishing landscape exhaustively to figure out which markets feature your kind of writing. And, of course, to do this, you need to actually grasp what "your kind of writing" really is.
The more Bonnie Jo regaled us with her own story, the more inspired I (and other attendees) felt. She writes raw, poignant fiction about the lives of real people in real circumstances: tales of Midwesterners struggling with joblessness, hopelessness, and addiction. Her stories aren't easy on the reader; they have sharp edges that draw blood. But they provoke. They scape away the patina of complacency. They move us out of our comfort zone.
What more can you ask from a writer, whether you're a reader or a fellow practitioner eager to hone his own craft?
It was a great session. I learned a lot. And I was heartened to see that such a celebrated author can maintain perspective, humility, and the kindness to share her hard-earned knowledge with others hungry to follow her path. According to the dictionary, salvage means "to rescue from loss, retrieve or preserve." Bonnie Jo explores characters whose gritty, messy lives cry out for this. She's also pretty adept at salvaging the dreams of other writers.
Thanks, Bonnie Jo!
April 15, 2018
In the immortal words of Andrew Lewis (a.k.a., blue_beetle), "If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold." Most of us realized this, at least on some level, when we joined Facebook. If we're paranoid, we try to lock our privacy settings down as tightly as possible. We're careful about what we share, and how widely. We avoid posting information that is too sensitive or personal. We tell ourselves that it's a worthwhile tradeoff: we can keep track of geographically dispersed friends and family, stay in touch across the miles and time zones. We're members of a vast online community, a global village growing in cyberspace beyond its original creator's wildest imaginations.
Then the Cambridge Analytica revelations come along to slap us in the face, and we wake up to realize where we really are.
As somebody who works in cybersecurity for my day job, I've had reservations for a while. But authors are exhorted to maintain an active social media presence, to "build our platform." There can be value in that, certainly. Social media offers wonderful potential to connect with an audience for all kinds of writers, artists, craftsmen, and small businesses. But, like everything in life and on the internet, it has its darker side.
I have a relative who was "Facebook-stalked" by her abusive ex... to the point where he gleaned enough intel to track her down in the real world. Unfortunately, her experience is not unique.
Burglars have for years been using Facebook to target victims, casing those targets who post purchases of valuable items and striking when they know (via "location posts") that the victim isn't home. Worse, the platform has been abused to lure, kidnap, and traffic children.
Beyond the baldly criminal and nefarious, Facebook has been shown to have a more insidious, but far wider, effect on millions of its subscribers. It presents a carefully crafted, "curated" image of others' lives, and a stress-inducing pressure to respond to every post or comment to avoid becoming a "social exile." The result? A series of studies have confirmed that the more you use Facebook, the worse you feel.
For me, Cambridge Analytica was the last straw. In cybersecurity, we're quickly taught that most cybercriminals use social engineering to trick users into letting them in the door so they can loot the digital assets. In other words, in the vast majority of cases, bad guys don't hack the systems; they hack the people. Now shadowy "social data scientists" are exploiting weaknesses in Facebook's user targeting algorithms and APIs to hack massive numbers of people for their own financial benefit... or to serve their clients' hidden agendas. They use our private online profiles to identify our fears, our phobias, our likes and dislikes so they can manipulate us with precise disinformation. They call it personality profiling. It's social engineering. They're mind-hackers. And -- if you're an active Facebook member -- you're inadvertently letting them inside your skull.
Creepy and hyberbolic, eh? I can appreciate that reaction. I have many friends and family who continue to use and enjoy Facebook. They're smart people, and I respect their choice. I just decided, based on the preponderance of evidence, to make a different one.
I pulled the digital trigger. I did in fact delete my Facebook account. It may be mostly a symbolic gesture, but fiction writers know full well that symbolism carries weight. Do I have second thoughts or regrets? Sure, a few. But in the world of social media, where I'm the product, I exercised my right to a personal product recall. And I'm glad I did.
February 26, 2018
When Solitaire Townsend first reached out through my web site to make me aware of her new nonfiction book, The Happy Hero: How to change your life by changing the world, I confess I cringed a bit at the title. I was instinctively afraid that the book might be a tad Pollyannaish, exhorting readers to just "think positive" in order to achieve positive results. I was wrong. This book is far more nuanced than that. Ms. Townsend acknowledges early on that this kind of happy heroism is devilishly difficult to master in one's own life. She spends the remainder of this instructive book advising readers on how to approach the intimidating challenge of overcoming our natural inclination for pessimism and self-doubt to exert a positive influence on ourselves and those around us.
One of the aspects of this book that impressed me the most is this fundamental insight: she cautions readers against the traditional new-age advice to "turn inward" in order to find their happiness / heroism. That doesn't work. She cites numerous scientific studies that echo this, and ultimately exhorts us to turn our attention outward instead of inward; that "doing good deeds" will lead to finding the righteous center of ourselves. This rings true to me. She asks each of us to work "outside-in" rather than "inside-out" to find our best selves. This, to me, conveys great wisdom. More than that, her book is relentlessly optimistic and positive about the good each of us can do -- on a grand or less grandiose scale -- by simply doing basic things in our daily lives. "Paying it forward" seems like very sound advice to me. Incremental change is more likely to take root in our complicated lives than drastic, transformative change. This book spells out the recipe for achieving this, one step at a time.
We're all inundated with negative stories and depressing news, from conventional sources and social media. It's increasingly difficult to hold on to a positive outlook. This book, and Ms. Townsend's infectious optimism, are an antidote to that. And she doesn't just talk the talk: with Futerra, the sustainable development consultancy she co-founded more than two decades ago, she walks the walk every day.
If you're a "denier" or a "doomer," you may be predisposed to doubt the message Ms. Townsend conveys in this book... but, in that case, you may need that message even more desperately. I highly recommend this book to anyone struggling to find a path toward positive change in a complex and polarized world.
February 25, 2018
On a fundamental level, writing fiction is an intimate act. It's about trying to reach out and affect readers at their core; to inspire a visceral reaction, to make them consider (or reconsider) closely held beliefs. For many writers, it's also about self-expression and self-examination -- about relieving an internal tension that otherwise builds up until it can become unendurable.
So the act of writing can be a source of great relief. How awesome, then, when that relief helps others and not the author himself?
I'm absolutely thrilled that my short story "Storm Rider" has been accepted for inclusion in the Anthology House anthology intended to generate proceeds for Habitat for Humanity. The point of this particular fiction project is to raise awareness of the eco-fiction genre while simultaneously raising money for a very worthy cause: efforts to rebuild in the wake of the devastating hurricanes (Harvey, Irma, and Maria) that struck Texas, Florida, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.
I've been writing speculative fiction for a pretty long time. I've rarely had a chance to contribute (as a writer) to a cause as laudable as this one. ASEI Arts is leading the charge on this effort to channel eco-fiction stories in the direction of hurricane relief; I can't commend them enough on their visionary approach to "writing for relief."
Here's hoping that we'll see more projects, like this one, that focus creative energies in the direction of sorely needed humanitarian aid or environmental causes. It's a win-win. I'm certain every contributor to the ASEI Arts anthology is more than happy to forego payment in the hope that their work might generate some funds to help people desperately in need.
Writing for Relief Rocks!!!
February 22, 2018
So I especially enjoyed his short, crystal-clear explanation of climate change:
He puts this in the same blunt, accessible terms I remember from the classic nonfiction book Our Angry Earth: A Ticking Ecological Bomb, penned by two of my SF idols, Isaac Asimov and Frederik Pohl. After explaining that we will inevitably be forced to go down the renewable energy path (because fossil fuels are after all a finite, non-renewable resource) -- and displaying a jaw-dropping chart of how the CO2 level has exploded upward in the past few decades after 10 million years of minor fluctuations around 300 ppm -- he nails our current (at least in the U.S.) approach to carbon pollution without consequence as "the dumbest experiment in history - ever."
Who can argue with that assessment, when you consider what's at stake?
But, despite the scary implications of the current trend lines, I'm finding more and more cause for optimism. The price of solar and wind energy continues to fall, and adoption rates (even in the U.S., in the face of a total lack of federal leadership) continue to rise. And our younger generation (Generation Z?) gets it. You can see the energy (hopefully renewable? ;-) behind their efforts to exact justice against fossil fuel companies and/or intransigent governments in a series of lawsuits both in the U.S. and abroad:
So what does this mean? I think it means that the tide is turning. The younger generation fully appreciates the potential impact, and the effect it may have on them and their children; voters in many nations around the world are tired of hearing politicians dismiss the problem as a "hoax" or as "too expensive to address." Most of the globe is moving forward, determined to solve the problem. If the U.S. government is hell-bent on ignoring the reality, other countries are stepping up to lead the way. And everyday Americans are still working to advance the cause, in spite of the complete impotence of their elected leaders.
Our most innovative entrepreneurs are on board. Almost all world governments are on board. Our youngest, most visionary citizens are leading the way. That's a recipe for success, in my opinion. Very encouraging! I only hope and pray I live to see how the younger generation undoes the climate damage my generation has wrought.