(Not Quite) All Quiet on the Western Front . . .

As someone who has pursued his flights of fancy in written form since childhood, there are times when I’m asked why I write the things I do.  What motivates me to write a certain short story or a novel featuring four seventh-graders who cross through the void to a parallel world?  It’s a fair question, of course.  After all, what inspires any of us to do the things we do, to create the things we create?


There are multiple answers, layered answers.  Interests, passions, points of view . . . each of us pursues those things that matter to us, those things we feel a need to share with others.

But there is also a simpler answer, something that delves deeper, moves beyond the subjects and themes, similes and metaphors.


There is something more . . .


Consider an event that took place one hundred years ago–on the battlefields of western Europe, enemy lines entrenched mere yards apart from each other, five months in to the “War That Would End All Wars.”


Already the combatants were shell-shocked.  Each side had entered the fray believing one knockout blow, one decisive thrust, would assure a quick and easy victory.  The initial German push had caused great alarm in the Allied capitals, and, for a brief moment, Paris itself felt threatened.  But the offensive sputtered at the Marne before bogging down in the cold mud of Flanders.  By the time the 1914 holiday season rolled around, soldiers on both sides of the line had taken to earth, digging trenches and establishing firm boundaries that squared the forces directly across from one another.  It was beginning to be apparent that this would not be the short conflict both sides had hoped for.  Like a thick, toxic fog seeping in through unseen holes, a harsher reality was setting in.


Thousands upon thousands of soldiers had already died in the fighting.  Ancient rivalries and hatreds burned deep.  Neither side considered defeat, thought about surrender.  These attitudes and beliefs, so firmly ingrained, make the events of December 1914 that much more remarkable.


In the days leading up to Christmas, official requests for at least a temporary cease-fire had emerged from various factions, including a call from the pope himself that “the guns may fall silent.”  But leaders on all sides shrugged these pleas off.  This was war.  It was no time for cease-fires.

But some of the soldiers living and fighting in the trenches took matters in their own hands.  As the month of December pushed on, signs were evident that something different, something unusual, was in the air.


Many soldiers would later write home about the events that followed.  One of the most well-known such letters was penned by British soldier Frederick W. Heath, a Private.  In his epistle, Heath writes of the “ghostly shadows that haunt the trenches,” the “grave-like rise of ground that marked the German trenches two hundred yards away.”  “The soldiers’ Christmas Eve had come at last,” he states, but “it was hardly the time or place to feel grateful for it.”


Homesick, “with overcoat thick with wet mud, hands cracked and sore with the frost,” he writes: “Back somewhere in England, the fires were burning in cosy rooms; in fancy I heard laughter and the thousand melodies of reunion on Christmas Eve.”


But then, in the middle of this reverie, Private Heath sees “a light in the enemy’s trenches”–something “so rare at this hour that I passed a message down the line.”  He “had hardly spoken when light after light sprang up along the German front.”

It is at this point where the young Private hears a voice rising from the German trenches.  “English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!”  The voice urged the British to rise out of their trenches and “come out here to us.”  Heath and his comrades feared a trap, and remained where they were, though a running conversation with the Germans ensued all through the night.

Finally, “came the dawn, pencilling the sky with grey and pink,” and the Germans were moving “recklessly about” on top of their trenches, “no seeking the security of the shelter but a brazen invitation to us to shoot and kill with deadly certainty.”  But they did not shoot.


The German soldiers continued to ask them to rise from their trenches, to meet halfway, and began walking toward the British line.  Initially Heath and his comrades were cautious, staying where they were, but “not for long could such an appeal be resisted.”  They met the Germans in No-Man’s Land, between the trenches, and “out went the hands [which] tightened in the grip of friendship.  Christmas had made the bitterest foes friends.”


“Here was no desire to kill,” Heath continues, “but just the wish of a few simple soldiers . . . that on Christmas Day, at any rate, the force of fire should cease.”  The men gave each other cigarettes and exchanged “all manner of things,” along with names and addresses on field service postcards.


They “stayed together for a while and talked,” and after they had chatted, they “turned back to our respective trenches for breakfast.

“All through the day no shot was fired.”


But then, after Christmas had come and gone, Private Heath writes, “As I finish this short and scrappy description of a strangely human event, we are pouring rapid fire into the German trenches, and they are returning the compliment just as fiercely.  Screeching through the air above us are the shattering shells of rival batteries of artillery.  So we are back once more to the ordeal of fire.”


Undoubtedly, the Christmas Truce of 1914 has been mythologized and romanticized in the years since, especially this holiday season, which marks the one-hundred-year anniversary of the event.  Tall tales, legends concocted from pure imagination, fictional narratives have thrived.  But something very real and very remarkable did occur a century ago on the mud- and frost-strewn battlefields of France and Belgium.  “It was absolutely astounding,” one British soldier wrote, “and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!”


And why not?  In the midst of a terrible war that would drag on for four interminable years, across the still, cold lines, the silence was broken by the sounds of soldiers singing the Christmas carols of their youth, the songs they missed and loved and remembered.


And perhaps this, more than anything, is what lies behind the need we feel to write, to share, to create.  We are all human, in our frailty, our faults, our conflicts, but also in our love, our joy, and our triumphs.  The duality of life never ceases to amaze.  From the Christmas Truce of 1914 to the horrors of Verdun, the Somme, and Ypres a mere two years later, the highs and lows of the human condition mystify and astound.


Maybe, when it’s all said and done, we write because we have no other choice; we need an outlet, a way of communicating ourselves to the world and the world to ourselves.

Have a wonderful holiday, full of the spirit of the season, and thanks so much for reading!



To Entertain or to Illuminate, That Is (Not) the Question . . .

On September 22, 1959, on the eve of the premiere of the new television series The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling sat down for an interview with Mike Wallace.  Serling, by that time already considered one of television’s brightest writing stars, had amassed a formidable resume.  He was known throughout the industry as television’s “angry young man” due to his ardent and very vocal criticism of the censorship so rampant in the medium at that time.



Determined to produce gritty, realistic scripts that dealt with injustice, inequality, and greed, Serling wrote for Kraft Television Theater, Playhouse 90, and other venues that featured live TV dramas of the day.  His breakthrough script, “Patterns,” which aired in February 1955, launched him into orbit, and by the time of the Wallace interview, Serling, already a winner of three Emmy awards, was an established industry heavyweight.



At the start of the interview, Wallace credits Serling as the accomplished writer he is; he discusses Serling’s rise within the industry, and his ongoing battles against sponsor-mandated censorship.  About midway through the conversation, the discussion takes a turn . . .



“You’ve got a new series coming up called The Twilight Zone,” Wallace says, and simply from his tone of voice, his delivery, one can sense Wallace’s disappointment.  After all, in the interview, Serling himself admits to be being “tired,” and that he doesn’t “want to fight anymore”–with corporate sponsors and their dictates on what can and cannot be included in his scripts.  The Twilight Zone, a short, half-hour sci-fi and fantasy excursion, was deemed by many, Wallace among them, as a sellout on the part of one of TV’s most serious and hard-hitting writers.

Wallace suggests the episodes will be “potboilers,” which Serling rejects, stating that he believes the shows will be “high-quality . . . extremely polished films.”



Undeterred, Wallace then says, “For the time being and for the foreseeable future [since Serling would be so focused on The Twilight Zone going forward], you’ve given up on writing anything important for television, right?”

Even here, Wallace is not finished. He quotes TV producer Herbert Brodkin as saying, “Rod is either going to stay commercial or become a discerning artist, but not both.”



To which Serling replies, “I presume Herb means that inherently you cannot be commercial and artistic.  You cannot be commercial and quality.  You cannot be commercial concurrent with having a preoccupation with the level of storytelling that you want to achieve.  And this I have to reject. . . . I don’t think calling something commercial tags it with a kind of an odious suggestion that it stinks, that it’s something raunchy to be ashamed of. . . . I think innate in what Herb says is the suggestion made by many people that you can’t have public acceptance and still be artistic.  And, as I said, I have to reject that.”




When I was an English major in college, there was a fellow student, named John, who shared several classes with me.  I’ve blogged about John before.  In addition to wanting to create something new, uniquely his own, John also wanted to create something artistic, arcane, even inaccessible.

“If just anyone can understand it,” he said once, “then I’ve failed.  I’m not writing for the layperson.  I’m writing for the select few.  If John Q. Public ‘gets’ my story, then what’s the point?  Anyone can write a story like that!”



I understood his sentiment–up to a point.  All writers, all artists want to say something, to have one of their stories or songs or paintings or performances move an audience to tears, open eyes, create dialogue, and promote new viewpoints.  We all want our work to matter.



But I strongly disagreed with his assertion that a work is somehow elevated if it’s nearly incomprehensible; that a story can only have merit if it needs a literature professor to explain its themes, ideas, and structure to a room full of confused and bored students.

Sure, I want my stories to make people to stop, think, perhaps question things they hadn’t even considered before, or, if they had, maybe the story enables them to see something familiar through a different lens, changing their perspective, granting them a peek on the other side of the mountain, as it were.  But to accomplish that, I don’t believe I, or any other writer, needs to create a piece that requires a literary road map through which to navigate.



Certainly it is my hope that The Eye-Dancers will prompt readers to step back and think about the very nature of what we term “reality”; to consider the mysterious, even seemingly otherworldly psychic connection two strangers can share; and to wonder at the possibility that we, each of us, are just one piece of an infinite puzzle that includes countless variants of ourselves scattered throughout worlds that parallel our own like invisible, silent shadows.



But more than this, it is my hope that readers will relate to the characters, cheer them on, root for them, get swept up in the flow and momentum of the story, and have fun as they read.

When I explained this to John, when I told him I wanted a wide swath of people to enjoy my stories, not just a select few, he simply shook his head and gave me a look that I could only interpret as pure pity.


The Twilight Zone remained on the air for five unforgettable seasons; and those “potboiler” episodes, those flights of fancy that delved into the genres of science fiction and fantasy, those “commercial” attempts at expression have endured and prospered.  It can be argued, indeed, that The Twilight Zone is more appreciated, more loved, more respected now, on the precipice of 2015, than it was when it actually ran.

Serling himself expressed a possible reason for the show’s ongoing popularity.  “On The Twilight Zone,” he once said, “I knew that I could get away with Martians saying things that Republicans and Democrats couldn’t.”  He was able, in other words, to utilize imaginative storytelling, plots that took viewers by the hand and led them to strange, often frightening new worlds, to comment on and critique the social ills, prejudices, and personal crises occurring in our own, very real lives.



The Twilight Zone accomplished Serling’s vision and proved beyond a doubt that a story, a novel, a piece of art, does not need to choose between entertaining and illuminating its audience.

The great pieces, the truly memorable works that hold up through the dust and years and passing of decades and centuries are the ones that accomplish both.



Thanks so much for reading!


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