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!


42 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Carrie Rubin
    Jun 19, 2015 @ 19:50:51

    “They’re only kids once,” he said. “Let ’em dig.”—I love that. What a great guy George must have been. And look at the memory he’s left you for life. Very cool.

    It’s nice to feel that same passion for our writing project. After all, writing a novel is a long process. If we’re not excited about it, it will be a painful one, too.


  2. chalkdustfairy
    Jun 19, 2015 @ 21:12:53

    I love Ray Bradbury – for his insight and advice about writing. He’s my hero, his passion for life and writing…so inspiring, even though he is no longer with us. I have his quotes all over the place! Good luck with your sequel and ‘happy digging’!


  3. hbhatnagar
    Jun 20, 2015 @ 01:55:07

    Oh the Merwks of childhood! Sooo much better than adulthood’s demons! 🙂


  4. Mary J. McCoy-Dressel
    Jun 20, 2015 @ 12:32:54

    Once the characters get a hold of us, they don’t like to let go. They know how to sway the muse into another book.


  5. Donna Gwinnell Lambo-Weidner
    Jun 20, 2015 @ 21:33:43

    What a fun and wonderful childhood story. Reminds me of the swamp thing we were always on the look-out for when we played in the woods. I think you’re right Mike, excitement over a new project is key. Thanks for a jolt of inspiration…yet again. Gotta go and get crackin’…


  6. Jilanne Hoffmann
    Jun 20, 2015 @ 22:09:35

    Great essay, Mike! Glad you had such an understanding neighbor. Your story reminds me of the new Mac Barnett picture book, Sam & Dave Dig a Hole. It’s like entering an alternate universe.


  7. stockdalewolfe
    Jun 20, 2015 @ 22:31:12

    Loved this, Mike!


  8. eemoxam
    Jun 21, 2015 @ 14:08:11

    I love your blogs! You must read The Laments by George Hagen.


  9. Ste J
    Jun 21, 2015 @ 16:01:16

    A great story and one that had an unexpected moral many years later, I like it when life is like that.


  10. jjspina
    Jun 22, 2015 @ 02:50:55

    Love the way you tell a story and grip the reader. It takes a special talent to do that. Congrats on another great post, Mike!


  11. laura kilty
    Jun 23, 2015 @ 15:38:17

    George sounds like an amazing man. And you guys are insanely committed. I remember me and my sister talking about digging ‘to the core of the earth so we could see lava in person’ and shovelling maybe maybe four spadefuls each before calling it a day! 😀 Beautifully told story, as always! 🙂


  12. Seyi sandra
    Jun 24, 2015 @ 19:55:06

    Lovely story Mike, I was enraptured, didn’t want it to end! 🙂 I know that feeling, that need of trying to tell a story. Wishing you best of luck old friend!
    Cheers. 🙂


  13. evelyneholingue
    Jun 25, 2015 @ 20:22:34

    I absolutely love the story of you and your friend digging to the center of earth! You are right about this unique passion that is so typical of childhood. It is also true that without the excitement and urge to return to a story we write, it won’t work. I have also abandoned manuscripts along the road when the passion wasn’t there. But on the other side what a treat to wake up and jump back to our work! As always it’s a pleasure to read you. Best of luck with the end of your second book in the series. u a


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Jun 27, 2015 @ 18:47:57

      Thanks so much, Evelyne! It’s always great hearing from you, and you are absolutely right about feeling passion for the things you write. When you’re in the midst of a long writing project that really stirs you, there’s nothing on earth that can quite compare to the high it brings . . .


  14. conniecockrell
    Jun 26, 2015 @ 15:11:24

    Love the story. My brothers used to dig holes in our back field. Lots of fun. Thanks for stopping by my blog.


  15. reocochran
    Jun 29, 2015 @ 20:36:05

    This is such a motivational post: for kids’ play, freedom, writing and filling oneself with belief in such projects. This was a fantastic story of your more than 4 foot deep hole you dug with your best friend.Thank go ones for the Neighbor George’s of the world. So heartwarming, Mike!


  16. Haylee
    Jul 27, 2015 @ 21:40:52

    Loved reading this – so many kids these days don’t get the chance since the world has become health and safety mad and many miss the opportunity to simply create. Dig and eat mud pies – never did me any harm!
    P.S. thanks for the follow – came to check you out and shall be following back 🙂


  17. imaginenewdesigns12
    Aug 01, 2015 @ 05:50:53

    Thank you for following my blog. Wonderful post! 🙂 It reminded me of some of the strange and funny things my two older brothers and I did as children for the sake of adventure. I also liked your advice about writing connected to your “journey.”


  18. ramexa8ramexa
    Aug 19, 2015 @ 10:09:48

    What an awesome neighbor you had! I am awed by your love for writing. But sometimes doesn’t blogging feel like a task instead? How do I love blogging with all my heart?


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Aug 19, 2015 @ 18:01:05

      Thank you! And that’s a good question about blogging. The best answer I can give is–simply post about the things that you’re passionate about and really care about. In that way, blogging is a true joy because it is coming from the heart. Very glad to connect with you!


  19. deborahanndykeman
    Sep 06, 2015 @ 00:35:19

    I loved your story! My brother and I spent a summer digging as well. We wanted to get to China, just on the other side of the hole. All we uncovered was a very long and heavy crowbar that my father uses to this day. I also loved how you are inspired to write. My first story came to me in a very vivid dream. I had to get it down on paper. I spent two weeks typing it on my typewriter… since this was almost 20 years ago. I still write this way. A dream comes to me, when I allow it, and I have to get it down. The series I’m working on now came to me and I wrote the first book in a month. It’s a little exhausting because it is all-consuming. But the excitement you spoke of is there to the end. I said, ‘when I allow it’ because I try not to think of things to write about, because when that story comes, I have to write it and sometimes life is just a little busy. There is always a story waiting to be told!


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Sep 06, 2015 @ 02:47:43

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! It’s funny, too, because The Eye-Dancers was also initially inspired by a dream. Dreams so often are wonderful kick-starters for stories!


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