Journey to the Center of the Earth (Or, The Dirt Hole at the Side of the Yard)

The summer when I was eight years old, I fell in love with digging.  Not just any digging.  Not some small pea-hole in the corner of the yard.  No.  I went all-in. I recruited my friend Matt, and together, we planned on digging our way straight through to the center of the earth.


Of course, the question had come up–where could we even undertake our mission?  My mother wouldn’t go for us digging up her flower garden or vegetable garden.  She wouldn’t want us to tear up the front yard, either.  That didn’t leave us with many options.  We asked if we could use the side yard.


The side yard consisted of a narrow alley that separated our house from our neighbor’s.  Abutting our house was a red-brick patio that led to the back gate, but beyond that was a small strip of grassy real estate just begging to be ripped into.  The thing was, that small strip wasn’t technically on our property.  It belonged to our next-door neighbor, George.

George had lived in that house since it was built, decades ago.  He lived there with his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and two grandsons (who, incidentally, inspired two of the characters in The Eye-Dancers!)  At the time, he was a tall, jovial man in his sixties who, every Christmas, dressed up as Santa Claus.  As far as I was concerned, there was no chance he’d tell us we couldn’t dig a dirt hole in the side yard.


And he didn’t.  He said, “Go ahead!”

My father handed Matt and me a pair of shovels and told us not to overdo it.  “Just take it easy,” he said.


By lunchtime, we’d already tunneled down several feet.  When my mother came out to check on our progress, I was standing in the hole, nearly up to my chest.  Matt was up top, examining a large rock we’d unearthed.

“I don’t think George thought you’d be digging a hole that deep,” she said, her eyes wide.  I swelled with pride.  All this in just a few hours . . .

We ate heartily, our appetites stoked, and then resumed with our work.  We widened the hole, making sure we had plenty of elbow room, and created small earthen “steps” on one of the sides, ensuring that we’d be able to climb out once we dug in over our heads.  By three o’clock that afternoon, we were both drenched in sweat.  But we didn’t stop, didn’t slow down.

“We’re almost in all the way,” Matt said when the top of the hole was at eye level.  “How far do you think we can go?”

“All the way,” I said.  In my mind, we had only just begun.  We had an entire summer before us, yawning like a chasm full of wonders.  “And who knows what we’ll find down here.  Maybe we’ll even see Merwks.”  Merwks (not a typo–the “w” was very important!) were creatures who inhabited the depths of the earth.  They were small, brown, furry monstrosities with no eyes and fangs sharp enough to sever stones.  I had first imagined them two years earlier, and was convinced they existed.  When I told Matt about them, he was sold.


“We better be careful,” he said.  “Merwks have sharp teeth!”

We brought our shovels down again, and again, and again, striking earth, eager to discover ancient secrets, buried treasures, perhaps even a skeleton or two.  We were tired, bone-tired, but our effort did not flag, our eagerness did not waver.  There was a new universe that awaited, monsters in the dark we needed to reveal.  Looking back now, I can still remember, clearly, vividly, the elation I felt that day.  I was young and free, embarking on an adventure for the ages.


But then my mother came outside and put an end to it.

“That’s enough for today, boys,” she said.  “Time’s up.”

We whined a little, but we were tired enough not to carry on with it too long.  There was tomorrow, after all.

Or was there?  My mother warned me that when George came home that night, he might not like seeing his side yard with a four-foot-deep hole smack dab in the middle of it.

“But he already said we could dig,” I protested.

“I’m not sure he realized how . . . committed . . . you were,” she said.

When George got back, we all joined him at the side of the yard.  He smiled at me when I looked up at him.

My mother apologized for the size of the hole, told him she hadn’t expected it to be such a crater.  But George held up a hand.

“They’re only kids once,” he said.  “Let ’em dig.”


And so we did.  Matt and I were at it the next day.  We had Merwks to find.


Anytime I begin a new writing project, I need to feel excited.  I might have a workable idea, a complex plot, an intriguing protagonist, but if I don’t feel completely fired up, I know, before I even start, that the story will go nowhere.  Over the years, I have tried to force it, attempted to manufacture enthusiasm that wasn’t there organically.  It never works.  At least not for me.


When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, I truly believed it was a one-shot deal.  Sure, I’d write other stories, other novels.  I wasn’t retiring as a writer.  But I didn’t plan or intend for there to be a sequel.  Then, about a year and a half ago, I had–for lack of a better term–a vision.

I was lying in bed in the middle of the night–something had jarred me awake.  A dream?  A nightmare?  Something my subconscious had been wrestling with, interacting with?  I suppose I’ll never know.  All I know is that, when I woke up, I visualized something with crystal clarity.  I saw a huge building, larger than a dozen football fields, its walls and columns climbing high into a nighttime sky.  I saw the four main characters of The Eye-DancersMitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski–standing before the structure, gazing up at the sky.  They weren’t looking at the moon or the stars or a meteor that had entered Earth’s atmosphere, afire, burning up as it sped toward the surface.


They were staring, transfixed, at a pair of blue eyes that stretched across the entire canvas of the night sky.  The eyes glared at them, swirling, the blue in them darkening like a bruise.  And I knew.  I had a surge of momentum rush through me like a lava flow.  I didn’t have a plot.  I didn’t have a direction.  But I had an inspiration, a need, to tell a story.  There was no silencing it.  It was time to write a sequel.

And as I sit here, eighteen months later, nearing the end of the middle portion of the novel, as the stretch run comes into view, just around the next bend, I still feel that enthusiasm, that desire, that need to make it all the way, to tell the story to the best of my ability straight through to the end.


That, I believe, is the key to it all.  Whether you’re writing a novel or painting a picture, crafting a memoir or singing a song, you have to feel that same sense of wonder and excitement you once did, when you were eight years old.  Sometimes, I think, writing novels is nothing more than my way of remaining a kid, discovering new adventures to explore, new avenues to traverse, new enthusiasms to pursue.


“May you live with hysteria,” Ray Bradbury once wrote, “and out of it make fine stories. . . . may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days.  And out of that love, remake a world.”


Matt and I continued to dig throughout that summer.  Granted, our efforts waned as the calendar ticked on, as the start of the school year and third grade approached.  But we kept at it, telling each other scary stories the deeper we went, wondering if our next shovelfull of dirt would finally unearth a sightless, sharp-fanged monster.

It never did.  Try as we might, we never came face-to-face with a Merwk.


My parents still live in the old house, and, invariably, when I visit, I wander over to the side of the yard and walk along that narrow strip of grass.  The dirt hole has long since been filled in, of course.  But I always look, and remember.

The thing is, even to this day, I still believe in Merwks.

If you want to discover them, you just have to dig a little deeper.


Thanks so much for reading!


A Step-by-Step Journey–Or, Words of Wisdom from a Fictional Minor-League Catcher

In the 1988 romantic comedy Bull Durham, there is one sequence when veteran minor-league catcher Crash Davis pulls aside the young pitching phenom Nuke LaLoosh to offer words of advice.  Davis knows talent when he sees it, and he knows that LaLoosh is headed, ultimately, for the Major Leagues.  Though raw, and with much to learn, the young pitcher has a golden arm, blessed with a rocket-like fastball and an off-the-table curve.  He has future superstar written all over him.



But he’s arrogant, hot-tempered, immature, and, Davis is sure, not at all prepared to handle the fishbowl lifestyle of the Major Leagues.  And so on a road trip, as their minor-league team, the Durham Bulls, gears up for a new opponent, Davis instructs LaLoosh on the fine art of the interview.



“You’re gonna have to learn your cliches,” he says.  “You’re gonna have to study them.  You’re gonna have to know them.  They’re your friends.  Write this down: ‘We gotta play it one day at a time.'”

As LaLoosh does indeed write this down, he says, “‘Got to play’ . . . it’s pretty boring.”

Davis is quick to respond:  “‘Course it’s boring, that’s the point.  Write it down.”



He provides two other canned responses to interview questions, as well, both as cliched and dull as the first.  Indeed–how many times have we heard this oft-repeated phrase:  “One day at a time; one game at a time . . .”

“So, are you looking forward to playing the Yankees next month?”

“Next month?  Next month?  This is this month!  We’re not even thinking of the Yankees.  Who are they?  We gotta take this one game at a time.  If we start looking ahead to next month, the series against the Yankees won’t even matter because we’ll have lost the next few anyway.”



It’s frustrating for the interviewer and the audience alike.  We listen to this, and think, “Can’t they ever be honest?  Of course they look ahead.  They have to.  Anybody would.”



But maybe, just maybe, it’s not always just a tired cliche.  Maybe sometimes, they’re actually telling the truth.


Have you ever been there?  You’re writing a novel, or a memoir, or any long work of literature, and you know that just down the road, perhaps as near as the next chapter, a major development beckons.  The protagonist will face a monumental challenge, a huge shift in the plot will occur, perhaps someone instrumental to the story will die.  Regardless of the specifics, it is a crucial development, one of the most important sequences of the entire work.



But it’s not the chapter you’re working on . . .

Speaking of, the chapter you are working on is relatively minor.  There are no groundbreaking events, no epiphanies or “aha” moments, no twists and turns that will create a sea change for the rest of the story.  It’s a quiet chapter, understated, a small hors d’oeuvre before the meal is served, an undercard to kick off an evening where everyone in the audience is breathlessly awaiting the main event.



When I wrote The Eye-Dancers,  there were certainly moments just like this.  There is a short chapter where Ryan Swinton walks off from the group, needing some space to think and reflect.  Later on, toward the climax of the novel, Marc Kuslanski has a similar conversation with himself, exploring the troubling reality of paradoxes, that not everything can be rationally and neatly explained.



It’s precisely at such times as these that Crash Davis’s advice to his young teammate most applies.  Because–if we rush through the little scenes, the reflective and subdued chapters, if we slap them together without much effort out of sheer impatience to move forward, it won’t even matter what that earth-shattering revelation will be in chapter 29, or how our protagonist will manage to survive the dangers at book’s end.  Regardless of how mesmerizing the big scenes are, they are built, in large part, by the “small” chapters and interludes that precede them.



I have found that, when writing a novel, the task sometimes seems so large, so daunting–often literally taking years to complete–that it’s dangerous thinking too far ahead.  Granted, there needs to be some sense of direction.  I know, for me, I like to have an idea where I’m going before I begin the first chapter, and at times, during the course of writing the story, if an idea strikes me for a scene several chapters off, I’ll jot it down to make sure I don’t forget it.



But if I start worrying too much about scenes as yet unwritten, developments around the bend, as it were, if I spend too much time stressing about specifics five or ten chapters hence, then I am in real trouble.  Suddenly the scenes I am working on become harder to write, and I find it more difficult to concentrate on the task at hand.  I may even get bogged down with doubts, wondering if the novel as a whole will be worthwhile or just some disastrous literary flop.



Indeed, if I am about to begin chapter 17, as I am in the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, even as I write this post, I need to focus exclusively on chapter 17.  Not chapter 18, or chapter 19, or chapter 26.  Even more specific than that, I need to focus on the next word, the next sentence, the next paragraph.  For, when it’s all said and done (a fitting description in a post talking about an old cliche!), a story is indeed built one word at a time, one chapter at a time.

The Yankees next month?  They can wait.



Just ask Crash Davis.

Thanks so much for reading!


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