Gas ‘N Go, Seeds from a Stem, and Lumberjack’s Reward (Or, Of Mystery Dinners and Storytelling)

“So, Michael, what do you think?” my mother asked me.  “Do you want to be a waiter?”

I couldn’t say with any enthusiasm that I did–even if it was just for one day.

My mother had decided to host a mystery dinner.  She invited our neighbors, a few close friends, some friends of friends, not to mention a few relatives.  It was going to be a big affair, and she needed all the help she could get.

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But I had other ideas.  It was summer, the weather had been picture-perfect, with no reason to expect that to change anytime soon.  And, at twelve years old, there were many other things I would have rather been doing.  Some of the kids in the neighborhood (including my friends who ultimately inspired the main characters in The Eye-Dancers) were setting up a kickball game at a local playground.  I didn’t want to miss that.

kickball

 

“I could really use your help,” Mom went on.  “And it’ll be fun.  When you serve the guests food, they might not have any silverware to eat it with.”

silverware

 

Hmm.  Things suddenly sounded more interesting!  I asked her to tell me more.

Turns out, a mystery dinner was a good time.  Who knew?  I did decide to serve as a waiter that evening, back in the now-vintage 1980s.  My friends gave me guff the next day, informing me I had missed an incredible kickball game, but I told them I’d play in the next one.  Even back then, I knew I’d never forget that day, that dinner . . .

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The concept of a mystery dinner is simple.  Guests are provided a coded menu.  There are a set number of courses for the meal.  My mother’s mystery dinner had ten courses.  Her menu had thirty items on it–so, three items were served per course.  What really made it interesting, though, was that the dinner guests had no way of knowing what they were ordering.  The menu didn’t have words like “potatoes, peas, chicken, or water” on it.  Rather, it contained cryptic descriptions such as, “gas ‘n go,” “seeds from a stem,” and “lovers cuddle.”  Seeing that the guests didn’t start the dinner out with silverware (forks and spoons and napkins needed to be selected from the menu), it was inevitable that some of them would be served mashed potatoes without a fork or a spoon; or butter without anything to spread it on; or a fork, a stick of celery, and a straw.  Each course was an adventure.  I remember a lot of laughing that evening.

butter

 

I also remember the moment when I passed out the menus.  As the guests read through the nonsensical items, they questioned what it was they were looking at.

“Wait and see,” I told them.  “Just make sure you only circle three items at a time!”

Of course, the guests chatted among themselves, trying to figure out the mystery terms.  What was a lumberjack’s reward?  A devil’s advocate?  How about a degreaser or golden rods?  If their subsequent orders were any measuring stick, however, they didn’t decode the terms successfully!

chocolatecakedevilsadvocate

 

At the end of the dinner, many of the guests vowed they would need to throw their own mystery dinner.

“I can’t wait to fool my neighbors!” one of our friends said, smiling.  “Eating mashed potatoes with a toothpick . . . I’d like to be on the other side of the menu the next time!”

toothpickeatingmashedpotatoes

 

I’m not sure if she ever went on to host a mystery dinner.

But I do know a thing or two about being fooled.

******************

We often think about being fooled as readers.  We become engrossed in the plot of a novel, following the course of events, and then–wham!  Something happens that we never saw coming, and we feel as though we’ve been felled by a two-by-four.  Sometimes the surprise is troubling, and we may even put the book down without finishing it.  How could she have done that?  How did he get away with that?  No way!  But just as often, and probably more so, the surprise is welcome.  Predictability, after all, is rarely the hallmark of compelling literature.

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But it isn’t only reading that oftentimes throws a mystery-dinner-like nugget our way.  Writing offers its own collection of surprising twists and developments.

When I begin a new writing project, I usually have a broad outline–not overly detailed, but nevertheless something I can use as a guideline of sorts, a plan designed on the macro-, as opposed to the micro-level.  Without such an outline (which is by no means formal; my outlines generally consist of a series of scratchy hand-scrawled notes organized in such a fashion that probably only I can decipher them!), I would feel lost, like a ship at sea without any navigational equipment.  On the other hand, if I crafted a super-detailed, point-by-point outline, I would feel stifled, and would run the risk of not allowing the natural creativity of the writing process to flourish midstream.

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And that writing-process creativity often strikes at the least-expected times.  The muse is nothing if not capricious.  For example, as I started writing The Eye-Dancers, it never occurred to me that two of the main characters–Mitchell Brant and Marc Kuslanski–would turn out to be friends.  At the start of the book, they were acquaintances, classmates, who rarely spoke to each other.  And the fact that they would soon be thrust into a literally otherworldly adventure together didn’t mean they would suddenly become kindred spirits.  I envisioned them trying to join their heads together to solve their problem, work toward finding a way through the interdimensional void and back home–nothing more, and nothing less.  But a funny thing happened along the way.

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In chapter 14, on their first morning in the alternate town of Colbyville, Mitchell and Marc chat by the banks of a stream.  They discuss their opposing viewpoints on what happened to them and how they ended up in this world on the other side of creation.  They bicker, they argue, and . . . they bond.  I envisioned the bickering and arguing.  But the bonding?  Not so much.

streambanks

 

Confronted with this, I had a choice to make.  Revert back to my original broad outline, which did not include Marc and Mitchell bonding.  Or–allow the characters themselves, as they transformed right there on the page, to dictate the course of events.  It really wasn’t a hard decision.  Marc and Mitchell had spoken, outline or no outline!  There was a natural give-and-take between these two.  In a way I hadn’t foreseen, and despite being on the surface polar opposites, they were able to relate to each other.  It would not only be a mistake, it would be dishonest to deep-six this organic and spontaneous story development.

The creative process always has surprises in store for us.  And while sometimes it may seem chaotic to alter our original plans halfway through, for the most part such changes generally strengthen our works-in-progress, giving them a malleability and integrity they would otherwise lack.

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A menu of green beans and mashed potatoes and brown gravy is surely needed to organize thoughts and point the way for a successful literary endeavor.  But along the way, don’t forget to sprinkle in a dash of lumberjack’s rewards, a touch of rolling stones, and a mix of sailor’s crumbs.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Let Your Voice Be Heard

“Wow, I don’t know how I can compete with that,” she said.  “That’s a tough act to follow!”

Jennifer, like everyone else in the class–a Creative Nonfiction Workshop–was a would-be writer, and, also like everyone else in the class, shared the same nervousness and reservations prior to a critique of her work.

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Every week, we would read two essays, submitted by fellow Workshop students, and would then critique the essays during the next class.  This particular class, held on a cold upstate New York November evening in the late 1990s, featured two essays that were very different in scope and tone.  The first one, which we had just reviewed with glowing praise, was a ten-page tour de force of a young man’s experience backpacking through Europe the summer after he graduated from high school. It told, in clipped, precise prose, his adventures traveling through the small towns and rural beauty of France, his foibles in Paris, even a near-arrest in Switzerland.  It was an engaging, oftentimes edgy, irreverent, and highly entertaining piece.

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Jennifer’s essay, on the other hand, was quiet, short, and homey.  It told of a stormy January day when she was six years old.  She was home–school had been canceled due to the weather–and didn’t know what to do.  Her brother was sick in bed, and her mom was in the kitchen baking chocolate chip cookies.  So Jennifer joined her, asked if she could help with the baking. It was a day, she wrote, that on the surface appeared ordinary and run-of-the-mill.  Baking cookies in a snowstorm?  Not the stuff of blockbuster movies or prize-winning novels.  But the experience left a lasting impression.  She said she could close her eyes and return to that day, could still smell the sweet aroma of the cookies as they baked, the tender touch of her mom’s hand patting her on the shoulder.  She said whenever she felt overwhelmed, unsure, scared of what the world might have in store, she would pause and reflect on that day in the kitchen, the windowpanes steaming up, the snow falling outside, softly.

chocoloatechipcookies

 

But in the wake of the essay that had preceded hers, Jennifer felt intimidated.  “I wish we’d have looked at my essay some other week,” she said to the class, eliciting a few laughs.

The professor, a tall woman with thick glasses who always wore her hair in a ponytail, took the moment to pursue the topic.  “Why do you say that?” she said.  “I don’t mean to preempt the class’s thunder, but I loved your essay.  It moved me deeply.”  This seemed to comfort Jennifer.  She let out a relieved breath, her shoulders falling back, more relaxed.

“My story just seems so small,” she said then.  “I mean, backpacking through Europe?  Really?  And I just write about baking some cookies with my mom.”  She shook her head.

There was an uncomfortable silence, but then the professor said, “So, what’s wrong with small?  I think there’s this old lie that says writers need to see the world, do all these incredible things, maybe save the planet a few times, and then write a masterpiece about all of it.  But you know what?  That’s not life for most people.  Here, let’s take a poll.  How many of you have climbed Everest?”  A few murmurs, no hands.  “Been to the moon?  Dived in the Marianas Trench?”  No one said a word.  We just listened.  “It’s the quiet moments, the little moments, we all have in common,” she went on.  “As writers, we just need to share our stories.  I think that’s the most important thing.  No matter how ‘small’ your story is, let your voice be heard.”

mteverest

 

I think that was the only time that semester our professor veered off topic quite like that.  She normally was laser-focused on the essays themselves, without any editorializing.  This just added weight to her words that day.

As I drove home after class, I knew that I would never forget.

**********************

It’s easy to feel the way Jennifer did that day.  I know I have, plenty of times.  The old insecurities arise, threatening to sabotage the creative process and prevent the sharing of ideas.  Questions and accusations are quick to malign and judge and condemn:  What do I know?  Who would want to read anything I write?  Do I really have anything important or worthwhile to say?  Why am I fooling myself?  Who would listen to my advice or believe my characters or be interested in my stories?

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It can be crippling if we let it.

And sometimes things happen, events take shape in the world around us–perhaps at the personal level, the local level, or maybe at the national or even global level–and we feel the need, the conviction to say something, do something, make some kind of meaningful difference.  In the face of such a conviction, however, it is all too easy to succumb to the doubts.  You are just one person, after all.  One voice among billions . . .

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And what do you even write, anyway?  If you generally focus primarily on fiction, do you now need to scrap your “business-as-usual” projects and start crafting op-eds and social commentaries?

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These are the sorts of questions I have asked myself more than once over the past few weeks.  I am deeply concerned–troubled, even–about what 2017 will bring.  And I admit–it has been hard to focus on fiction at times, hard to get lost in story and characters.  I am thisclose to finishing the first draft of the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  And yet–is this novel I’m working on too small, too unimportant, just as my classmate worried her essay was twenty years ago?

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But no.  No, I don’t think it is.  And when I feel as though I should be writing something else, blogging about something else, I stop, take a breath, and remind myself.  Because though The Singularity Wheel is even more “out there” than The Eye-Dancers is, and though it features parallel worlds and quantum mechanics and a weird intergalactic virus that can snuff the protagonists right out of existence, it also, it is my hope, explores themes and ideas that are universal and enduring–themes like discovery, friendship, our connection to the universe and each other, understanding, and love.  And in the climate of 2017, when so many are so divided by so much, these are themes worth writing about.

themeslove

 

So I write.  I write.  And I hope you will, too.  One voice becomes two, which in turn becomes four, and it expands exponentially, rising in pitch, impossible to ignore.

voicesjoiningexponentially

 

When that nagging inner critic tries to sabotage your attempts and tells you to deep-six your efforts, that what you have to say is too “small” and lacks the scope to make a difference in a world so much in need of healing, fight back.  Write that story.  Craft that article or poem.  Post that blog.  And realize that your truth, your message, your courage to speak out and speak up is like a ripple in a pond, spreading and multiplying.  And inspiring others to join you.

ripplesinpond

 

Now, more than ever, let your voice be heard.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Winter Walk in Old New England (Or, Down the Rabbit Hole)

Winter in Vermont arrives early, and it hits hard.  Already there is a stubborn sheen of ice on my driveway, creating an adventure every time I drive down.  The meadow out behind the house, with its rolling hills and undulations, is an unbroken sea of pure white.  And the wind chills?  Let’s not even talk about the wind chills!

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I make no secret that winter is my least-favorite season.  People sometimes kid me about that.  “You live in Vermont, and you don’t like winter?” they say.  I reply that it’s not a big deal.  I love the spring, summer, and fall–three out of four seasons isn’t bad.  Nevertheless, winter in New England has a way of holding on, reluctant to let go.  Even in the brighter, milder months of March and April, winter digs in its heels, delaying the inevitable, resisting the birth of spring with every harsh gust of wind and squall of snow.

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So I am under no grand illusions.  A long, unbroken string of arctic-like months awaits.  Still, I have no desire to huddle beside the portable heater all winter, hot chocolate in hand.  (Though surely there will be some of that!)  I enjoy the outdoors, and on days not quite so harsh, on days when the sun–too often a stranger in New England–chooses to shine, I will take advantage.

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Recently, on one such sunny, crisp afternoon, I took a walk.  Navigating the icy slope of the driveway, I walked down to the road.  The road in question, as are so many in rural Vermont, is dirt–dry and dusty in summer, muddy and soft in early spring, hard and snow-packed right now.  If I turned right, I’d walk toward a paved road a mile away.  But if I turned left, within a third of a mile, the road would morph into a narrow trail, not maintained by the town.

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I went left.

As I walked, I was struck by the silence.  No cars.  No people.  No sounds.  There was a gentle breeze, but no leaves to rustle–only the empty spaces in bare trees and lonely expanse of snow-covered fields and stripped woodland floors.  Even the songbirds were silent.   Briefly, a sound to my right–a wild turkey, startled by my intrusion, scurried into the woods, disappearing from view.  More silence.  I inhaled.  The air was a winter knife, cold, sharp, as if it might draw blood if I weren’t careful.

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I walked on, reaching the trail, where the snow depth swelled, coming up above my ankles.  Even back here, though, there were tire tracks, the residue of rugged four-wheel drives and snowmobiles, no doubt.  My footfalls crunched the packed snow, punctuating the stillness.  My breath hung on the air before dissipating, molecule by molecule.

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Then I paused.  Stopped.  I listened to the silence.  It washed over me like a vacuum, snuffing out the sound.  I breathed again, in and out, in and out.  A gray squirrel chattered from a nearby tree, but then climbed higher.

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Everything was so quiet, so white–the world seemed asleep, slumbering beneath the blanket of snow.  For a moment, reality itself seemed slippery, as if, perhaps, I had gone down a rabbit hole and was standing there only as an apparition, or maybe some figure within the realm of someone else’s dream.

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What is real? I wondered, looking over the frozen pond that lay just meters before me, and, beyond that, the snowcapped mountains that rose in the distance like ancient giants worn and weathered by time.

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****************

In The Eye-Dancers, what we perceive as real is explored, and challenged, over and over again.  Indeed, in chapter 2, Joe Marma feels so disoriented that “reality felt too elusive, too fragmentary, as if it were crumbling away into jigsaw pieces that could not be put back together.”  Indeed–are his dreams, along with Mitchell Brant’s dreams and Ryan Swinton‘s dreams, real or “just a nightmare,” something to wake up from and escape and put safely and securely in the rearview mirror?  Who is this “ghost girl” who continues to haunt them?  And when they are transported to a different dimension, an alternate universe, is what they experience “real” or illusory?

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When the boys first arrive in the alternate town of Colbyville, Ryan isn’t sure:  “The line between dreams and reality had certainly been blurred, if it existed at all.”

Have you ever felt that way?

George Bailey did.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a holiday staple, and one I partake of every year.  Many people know the story of Bedford Falls and George and Mary and Old Man Potter.  We know George has a string of bad luck and at one point contemplates jumping to his death off a bridge, only to be saved by Clarence the bumbling but lovable angel who is still searching for his wings.  And we all know the movie ends with a rousing rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” along with Zuzu’s memorable line, “Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

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And George’s response:  “That’s right, that’s right.”

But how does Clarence ultimately convince George to step away from the cliff, or, in this case, the bridge?  How does he earn his wings at the end?

georgeatbridgehowdoesclarenceconvice

 

By showing George what the world would look like without him.  Admittedly, this isn’t Clarence’s idea.  It is his response to a despondent George’s muttering that he wishes he’d never been born.  Wish granted!  You want to be erased, George Bailey?  Consider yourself erased.

clarencegrantingwishneverborn

 

In other words, Clarence helps George to see his many blessings not by hopping on to his personal soapbox or through any words of wisdom; rather, he rescues George by taking him down the rabbit hole and in to an alternate reality, allowing him to witness the fallout of a world that could have been, might have been, had he never existed to touch the lives of others.

georgeseeingworldwithouthim

 

He saves him by changing the very nature and shape of what we deem to be real.

*****************

I stayed there on that path, overlooking the iced-over pond and the far-off majesty of mountains and sky, for several minutes.  The wind picked up, and the bite of the cold chomped down, stinging my face and eyes.  But I just wanted to take it all in.  What is real?

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In an age where unfiltered bias is immediately disseminated to millions upon millions of people, when individuals can and do attempt to delegitimize the press, when various forms of social media can be used to spread truth or lies with equal fervor, what is real?  If someone tweets out a lie, and sixty million people read it and believe it, is it now true?

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The shifting, changing, amorphous lens through which the world views itself, and through which we view the world, is in a state of disarray.  Reality for many has become as confusing and inexplicable as George Bailey’s journey through his own personal rabbit hole.

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But as I turned to leave the path, to retrace my steps in the snow and head back home, I attempted to answer the question that lingered on the air like wood smoke.  What is real?

George Bailey found the answers at the end of the movie.  Clarence the angel penned a personal note to George:  “No [one] is a failure who has friends.”  And with George surrounded by friends and family, singing off-key in a cinematic moment for the ages, he understands the truth, the essence, and so do we.

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So, as 2016 nears its end, as we forge bravely ahead into the uncertain climes of 2017 and beyond, maybe, just maybe, we can all pause for a moment and tune in to a corny old holiday classic, walking the avenues and sidewalks of Bedford Falls, reliving the miracle on 34th Street, soaring with a red-nosed reindeer as he leads the way, or witnessing a walking, talking snowman.

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These are, it seems to me, rabbit holes very much worth exploring.

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Have a wonderful holiday season and a happy and blessed New Year.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

Words of Wisdom from a Cartoon Character–Or, Reminders of the Meaning of the Season

Sometimes we just need to be reminded.  Sometimes world events, presidential elections, and our far-too-often harried personal lives threaten to throw us for a king-sized and ever-expanding loop.  The weather this time of year doesn’t help.  Daylight Savings is more than a fortnight in the rearview mirror; it’s dark when you go to work in the morning, and dark when you come back home.  And what little light there is, especially here in northern New England, is often muted by brooding thick gray clouds that hang low and bloated over the land, like dirty laundry concealing the blue beyond.

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For me, the reminders begin with the little things, the homey things, the kinds of things Truman Capote writes about at the beginning of his gem of a short story “A Christmas Memory” . . .

“Imagine a morning in late November.  A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago.  Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town.  A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it.  Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.”

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Every year, early on Thanksgiving morning, when the house is dark and the sunrise is yet a rumor, I flip through some of the old classic comic books I’ve had since I was a kid, when I began a lifelong hobby of collecting comics.  Many of the issues I have tucked away in closets and boxes were printed decades before I was born.  Their pages, musty and faded with age, never fail to bring a smile.  There are old ads in those pages, tempting the children of sixty years ago with baseball gloves and magic tricks, radio sets and sea monkeys.

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And then there are the stories, of course–simple, far too often devoid of any real character or nuance, distilled to the most rudimentary of plot devices.  But for all that, they are brilliant, ingenious, and, perhaps most important of all, fun.  They offer a break from the stresses and strains of daily living, an escape from the next doctor appointment or set of bills, while simultaneously laying out a bridge to an imaginary world that is always there, only a thought away, ready and willing to amuse and cheer and revitalize us, if only we take the time to visit it.

On Thanksgiving morning, I spend fifteen, maybe twenty minutes with these old issues, these relics from a bygone era, these simple reminders of childhood . . .

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********************

In the 1965 musical The Sound of Music–based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway classic of the same name–Julie Andrews’s character, Maria, sings about some of her favorite things:

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“Raindrops on roses/And whiskers on kittens/Bright copper kettles/And warm woolen mittens . . . Cream-colored ponies/And crisp apple strudels/Doorbells and sleigh bells/And schnitzel with noodles . . . Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes/Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes/Silver white winters that melt into springs . . .”  These are a few of her favorite things!

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It’s a basic list, simple and everyday; it echoes the sentiments of Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.”

But perhaps it was everyone’s favorite bookworm, Marcie, who said it best in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving:

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“But Thanksgiving is more than eating, Chuck. . . . We should just be thankful for being together.  I think that’s what they mean by Thanksgiving, Charlie Brown.”

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Quest for Archibald Leach

Cary Grant just wasn’t getting it.  He’d signed on to be the star of the film, was being paid handsomely for his efforts, and he was working with the legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, no less.  What could possibly go wrong?

North by Northwest seemed destined to be a box-office smash when it debuted in 1959.

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Indeed, prior to the start of shooting, screenwriter Ernest Lehman was quoted as saying he wanted to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” He held nothing back, and created a melange of suspense, lighthearted fun, intrigue, and nonstop action.  There’s even a fight-to-the-death sequence that takes place on the face of Mt. Rushmore, not to mention arguably the most famous scene in Hitchcock’s long, storied career–the crop-duster attack!

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And, of course, and above all else, the film features Cary Grant.

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During filming, though, Grant wasn’t thrilled with the direction North by Northwest was taking. One day, he pulled Hitchcock aside, and said, “It’s a terrible script.  We’ve already done a third of the picture and I still can’t make head or tail of it!”  Hitchcock assured his leading man that things were going well.  The film is designed to be confusing, with myriad twists and turns, so if his lead actor was finding the story line hard to follow, all the better!

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All Hitchcock said to Grant was to be himself.  Don’t even worry about the acting.  Don’t worry about the script.  Just be Cary Grant.  The rest would take care of itself.

And it did.

Hitchcock understood a fundamental truth, and used it to his advantage–people just liked Cary Grant.  He’d been Hollywood’s most luminous star for decades, the epitome of charisma, debonair charm, and cool.  Indeed, Grant himself once famously said, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant.  Even I want to be Cary Grant.”

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Grant’s on-screen persona was larger-than-life.  If you wanted to see raw emotion, vulnerability, weakness, you weren’t going to find that here.  His roles were designed to match his never-let-them-see-you-sweat mystique.  He was made out to be more icon than actor, more romantic ideal than flesh-and-blood person.  Grant’s public image surely wouldn’t have been so spotless if he were acting today, but in Old Hollywood, he was lifted up to stratospheric heights, and for the duration of his career, he never came down from his perch.  Well on into his fifties and early sixties, Grant played the lead opposite actresses such as Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Audrey Hepburn, and Sophia Loren–all two or three decades his junior.

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Then, abruptly, in the mid-1960s, at the age of sixty-two, Grant retired from the cinema.  Hollywood’s quintessential leading man would not go on to play the sage, grandfatherly roles that would surely have come his way if he’d pressed forward with his career.  He would simply walk away and preserve the image, the concept, the legend that was Cary Grant.

It hadn’t always been that way.  During his growing-up years in the suburbs of Bristol, in southwest England, Cary Grant wasn’t known as Cary Grant.  He was born Archibald Leach, and his hardscrabble childhood bore little resemblance to the fame and prestige that would materialize decades later.  His father struggled with alcoholism and his mother was clinically depressed, sent to a mental institution when Grant was just nine years old.  His father simply told him that his mother had gone on a “long holiday,” and later, when she failed to come home, said she had died.  Grant didn’t learn of the lie for over two decades, and at that time, arranged to meet his mother just as his movie career was taking off.  But in his childhood, Archibald Leach, the future hero of the Silver Screen, was antsy, on edge, uncomfortable around others, nervous and awkward in his interactions with girls.  Described by a classmate as a “scruffy little boy” and by his teacher as “the naughty little boy who was always making a noise in the back row and would never do his homework,” Leach was expelled from school when he was fourteen.

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Over a decade later, after honing his craft onstage and in vaudeville, and on the doorstep of Hollywood superstardom, Archibald Leach was advised to change his name to Cary Grant.

If you were to choose between “scruffy” Archie Leach and his later, more celebrated alter ego, and select the winner to serve as the main character for a novel you wanted to write, the choice would seem to be obvious.

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And it is.

*******************

The four primary protagonists in The Eye-Dancers each struggle with their own personal hang-ups, outlooks, inner demons, and shaky self-esteem.  None of them are what anyone would call popular in school.  They don’t hang out with the “in” crowd, they’re not the trendsetters or movers-and-shakers of their peer group.  Mitchell Brant feels the need to fabricate and invent stories about himself, as he’s not confident that he’s “good enough” as he is.  Joe Marma lives in the shadow of his high-achieving older brother, and as the shortest boy in his grade, he has a king-sized chip on his shoulder.  Ryan Swinton doesn’t want to rock the boat; he likes to go along with the crowd and tell jokes to make people laugh.  Marc Kuslanski never met an equation he didn’t like; he closes his mind to the mysterious, the unexplained, the supernatural.  In his logical, rational worldview, everything, no matter how extraordinary, has a commonsense explanation.

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As the novel progresses, each character is confronted with circumstances that challenge his perspective, threaten to erode his already fragile sense of self, and even sabotage his ability to survive.  The boys can either be swept away and swallowed up by their own insecurities and weaknesses, or they can rise to the occasion to learn, grow, and adapt.

It strikes me that any character, really, needs to have the motivation, ability, and impetus to change over the course of a story.  If Character X begins a novel one way and ends the novel exactly the same way, we as readers might pause and ask ourselves, “What was the point of it all?”  Then again, maybe “character” isn’t the best word to use.

characterxnochange

 

“When writing a novel, a writer should create living people,” Ernest Hemingway once said.  “People, not characters.  A character is a caricature.”

hemingway

 

Real people are flawed.  They have moles and in-grown toenails, regrets and long-held secrets, wistful memories and would-be dreams that, through lost opportunity and the inexorable march of time, are now irretrievably lost.  The Cary Grant that the world saw, and thought they knew, was, in the words of Hemingway, a caricature–a glittering creation of Hollywood and the movies.  Archibald Leach was in there somewhere.  We just couldn’t see him.

hollywoodhidingleach

 

If a literary character is Cary Grant-perfect right from the first page, there is no room for growth, no way for readers to relate.  The plot may wind through hills and valleys, wander through wooded ravines and turn sharply around sudden hairpin curves, but the protagonist will remain static.  The story will not engage.

hairpincurves

 

If I were a producer or a director in Hollywood sixty years ago, the choice would be a no-brainer.  I’d take Cary Grant in the proverbial heartbeat.  But as an author, looking for a character to build a novel around?

Give me Archibald Leach.

grantleachendofpost

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

So . . . What’s a “Singularity Wheel”? (Or, a Title Finally Emerges)

Ideas are funny things.  Sometimes they strike with no warning, no foreshadowing, completely unasked for and unplanned.  Other times, you might be searching doggedly for the resolution of the next scene, the next chapter, the next story, and you peek around every corner, under every stone, every nook and cranny, hoping to find the missing piece–only to be rebuffed each time.  Sometimes ideas come complete, a gift from the muse, a fully developed story just waiting to come alive, one keystroke at a time.  And sometimes they tantalize, tease, coyly offering a hint or a lead, providing a glimpse but not revealing the whole.

ideastart

 

When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, I experienced all of this and more, and in fact the genesis of the story began two decades before the first word was even written.  When I was in high school, I had a dream one night, a taut affair where I saw a ghost outside my bedroom window–or, at least, I thought it was a ghost.  She was a little girl, no more than seven years old, and as I peered through the window, I saw her standing in the road, beneath the streetlamp that stood beside our mailbox.  The light from the streetlamp filtered right through her; she seemed more spirit than flesh-and-blood girl.  This “ghost girl” signaled for me to come outside and join her, and I was sure she wanted to lead me somewhere from which I would never return–perhaps the cemetery across town; perhaps a hidden hollow deep within the woods where boy-eating wolves or nameless, sharp-fanged creatures roamed; or maybe some ethereal phantom world, a far-away limbo on the other side of tomorrow.

wolves

 

I felt myself fighting hard to resist, not wanting to leave the security of my room.  But there was an inevitability to it all, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I succumbed.

That’s when I woke up, sweating, my sheets a crumpled mess at my feet.  It took a moment for me to gather myself, but when I did, I knew this “ghost girl” from my dream was someone I needed to write about.  In the days that followed, excited, fired up, eager to launch into a new adventure, I tried putting her in various short stories, tried to begin a novel with her as the focal point.  I even tried writing a poem about her, and I am no poet!  Nothing worked.  Frustrated, I jotted down a few notes about the dream, making sure I wouldn’t forget, and filed them in a literary to-do pile, hoping one day a story would emerge.

ghostgirlstorynothingworks

 

It took twenty years.  Then one night, I had the very same dream, taken back to the house where I grew up, seeing the same specter standing out there in the street.  Only this time, upon waking, I had the germ of an idea.  Over the next few days, the idea sprouted, watered by the suddenly giving and generous gifts of a capricious muse, fueled by enthusiasm and a drive to write the story.  And when I wrote the first words, the first scene–in which Mitchell Brant has the same dream of the same “ghost girl” I did–I believed this time would be different.  This time, the tale would be told, the story brought to its completion.

eyedancerscapriciousmuse

 

The key word being “story”–singular.  I never thought or intended that The Eye-Dancers would be continued.  At the time, I had a fully developed single-story idea, not the beginning of a series.  I had no reason to believe there would ever be a sequel.

But again, ideas are funny things, and one late-winter day, three years ago, a dramatic visual formed in my mind’s eye.  I wasn’t thinking about any of the Eye-Dancers characters, wasn’t thinking of the novel at all.  I was merely out taking a walk, enjoying the crisp New England air, the sunshine, relishing the first, shy, almost indistinguishable signs of the coming spring.  And then, from out of nowhere, it seemed, I saw it.

hintsofspringwhilewalking

 

As if by magic, the image took shape.  There were Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski–slightly older versions than what we see in The Eye-Dancers–standing before an impossibly large structure.  The building was easily the width of ten football fields, and it rose countless stories into a sky the color of ash.  And above the structure, in that ash-colored sky, were Monica Tisdale’s (the “ghost girl’s”) swirling blue eyes.  They dominated the scene, growing, expanding, overtaking the sky.  Her eyes glared down at the boys, as if challenging them to a duel.

eyesinsky

 

What was most striking about this image was the absence of color.  Aside from the “ghost girl’s” blue eyes, everything, including the giant building, was gray, a monochrome world of black-and-white. What could such an image mean?  On that day, taking that walk (I nearly collided into a tree, distracted as I was with this scene-from-nowhere!), I didn’t know.  I just knew something was stirring, a seed had been planted, the first kernels of a new idea were cracking open and waiting to grow.

blackandwhite

 

And grow they did until I realized–I had a sequel to write, after all.  Other scenes seared themselves into my mind:  Ryan, now a card shark, shuffling a deck of playing cards as if his life depended on it–and maybe, just maybe, it did.  A blue queen of spades, with eyes as blue as the “ghost girl’s,” staring out of the deck, her expression so real as if to be animate.  What did a blue queen of spades signify?  I didn’t know yet, but somehow I knew she was to be called The Singularity Queen and that she was the only blue card in the deck (all the other spades were the customary black).  The “ghost girl” herself splitting into a million versions of herself, a foot in each world, somehow in tune with an infinite number of universes.  Marc and Mitchell and Ryan and Joe vanishing from view, first a finger disappearing, then a foot, then an entire leg, and . . . ?  What did all these scenes signify?

bluequeenshufflingcards

 

The ideas came in bunches, the story evolved, fleshed out, expanded tenfold.  The boys were older now, seventeen, on the verge of their senior year in high school.  And the “ghost girl” was older, too–no longer a girl of seven, but twelve now, on the precipice of the teen years.  What struggles would they all have now, five years removed from the conclusion of The Eye-Dancers?  As I started to write, the answers came, and the journey took off.

journeybegansequel

 

It’s been a long, oftentimes challenging journey at that.  Several times throughout, I became stuck, at a crossroads or what sometimes felt like a dead end.  There have been gaps in the writing, periods of intense distraction or busy-ness where the next chapter had to wait.  But through it all, I’ve kept going.  It’s taken longer than I’d hoped, and the end has still not been reached.  Four more chapters remain.  The aim is to finish the first draft by the New Year, then edit the manuscript over the winter, and have it ready for release next spring.  As I near closer and closer to the finish line, I will post more about the story, the events, the challenges the characters will face.

2017nextspring

 

But one thing I can do right now is offer a title.  Titles are just as temperamental as ideas.  For me, sometimes titles come at the start, before I write the first word.  Often, though, when I sit down to start a story, I leave the title page blank.  “What’s this going to be called?” I wonder.  And I have no clue.

whatistitle

 

It remained this way for two-and-a-half years with this sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  And believe me, I tried.  I spent hours trying to come up with a title.  Nothing came.  Then, one day this past summer, it did.  At first, I hesitated.  Would it work?  Or was it too confusing?  Too obscure, too odd?

I wasn’t sure, but it felt right.

The fourth definition of the word “singularity” in Webster’s dictionary reads:  “a point or region of infinite mass density at which space and time are infinitely distorted by gravitational forces and which is held to be the final state of matter falling into a black hole.”

singularityblackholewebster

 

This coincided with another visual from the story–the blue queen of spades in the center of a circle of playing cards.  In the “ghost girl’s” alternate world, the card game in question is called The Singularity Wheel.

As it turns out, the sequel to The Eye-Dancers is called that, too.

singularitywheelend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Fantasy Football Draft Plan, Marching to the Beat of Your Own Drum, and–Going Over the Deep End?

I went back to my hometown of Rochester, New York, recently to spend the Labor Day weekend with my parents.  It was a great trip, and the drive across Vermont and upstate New York was pristine.  Town squares in the shadows of the Green Mountains were quiet in the morning hours as I rolled down the windows and listened to the give-and-take of blue jays, grackles, and other assorted early risers.

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Later, driving west through New York State, as morning gave way to afternoon, I passed through old Erie Canal towns, which were brimming with the activity of the holiday weekend–carnivals, farmers’ markets, people enjoying the weather and savoring summer’s golden swan song.  I take this trip back home every year on Labor Day weekend.  It has become something of a personal tradition.

amsterdamnystart

 

Another tradition is the annual fantasy football draft.  Way back in the 1990s (Is it just me, or does saying “way back” and the “1990s” in the same sentence strike anyone else as odd?!), my brothers heard about what at the time was a fairly new pastime called fantasy football.  Being a statistical nerd all my life, I eagerly joined them, my father, and some old friends in a fantasy league.  We’ve been playing ever since, now over twenty years strong.  The annual draft is like a reunion every year–getting together with childhood friends, catching up, and, well, drafting our teams!  To this day, we do it the old-fashioned way–everyone gets together in my parents’ front yard, seated around folding tables replete with snacks and other high-calorie fare, pencils and paper in hand, and we hold an in-person event.

hicalsnacks

 

Over the years, I’ve been known ro utilize some extreme draft plans.  Granted, every league participant puts their own special, unique stamp on the team they select, but more often than not, I zig when everyone else zags.  This year, I took that mind-set to another level.  I crafted my most extreme draft plan to date, and was determined to see it through, no matter what.

zigzag

 

Midway through the proceedings, after yet another of my unorthodox picks, my brother John couldn’t resist.  He looked over the players I’d selected to that point, shook his head, and said, “Mike, I think you’ve finally gone off the deep end.  I think it’s finally happened!”  Of course, I enjoyed his jab.  One of the many fun aspects of employing an extreme, almost outrageous draft strategy is gauging the reaction of everyone else at the table.  But more importantly, the plan I incorporated was something I believed in, something I thought would work.

offthedeepend

 

Regardless of the prevailing opinion of the league or the fantasy football community at large.

*************************

There is a scene in The Eye-Dancers where Mitchell Brant talks with Marc Kuslanski, as they brainstorm over the predicament they are in–marooned in a parallel universe.  Marc, logical and rational to the core, is looking for sound scientific solutions.  But Mitchell, more intuitive and less bound by the “book,” eschews logic and contradicts Marc at nearly every turn, infuriating his data-minded friend to no end.

parallelworldmarooned

 

Trying to explain himself, Mitchell says, “Haven’t you ever just felt something to be true?”  Against all logic, all objective analysis, has there ever been a time in your life when you knew the numbers were wrong, even when two plus two still added up to four?  Has there ever been a time when common sense screamed for you to do one thing, yet you deliberately chose the other?

2plus2

 

This is exactly what Mitchell Brant is getting at.

Going against the grain almost always elicits a strong reaction from others.  “Are you crazy?” they might say, with an eye roll or a head shake.  “Have you lost your mind?”  “Come again?  Did you just say what I thought you said?  Please say it ain’t so!”  As if refuting the counterarguments in our own mind isn’t hard enough, we are now confronted with the disbelief and disapproval of others.  It’s easy to crack at this juncture, to reign things in, get back on the well-traveled path, and return to our comfort zone.  After all, what if everyone else is right?  What if the idea we’ve come up with, the action plan we’ve decided to follow really is doomed to fail?  Conventional wisdom is conventional in part because it’s usually true, isn’t it?  The doubts seep in, the naysayers’ objections rise to a crescendo, and it is so easy to discard the idea we had once felt so passionate about.

goingagainstconwisdom

 

Albert Einstein once said, “The person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd.  The person who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever seen before.”

einsteinquote

 

And Thoreau famously wrote, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

waldenthoreau

 

The “different drummer” in question might be a particular job or place to live.  It might be an eccentric date or a loud tattoo, a new diet or an off-the-wall idea for a book.  It can be anything different than or apart from.

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As long as it’s uniquely your own.

*******************

When the fantasy football draft came to an end, as the sun slowly sank in the west, casting long, lazy late-summer shadows that undulated across the ground in the soft breeze, we lingered for a while, talking about everything, and nothing.  It’s a relaxing time–every year, following the draft.  There’s no reason to rush it.  But eventually, inevitably, the participants leave for home, one by one.

sunsetend

 

And before he left, my brother pulled me aside and said, “Seriously, Mike–are you deliberately trying to lose this year, though?  Your draft was crazy!”

“Like a fox,” I wanted to say, but didn’t.  All I did was smile.

foxend

 

When the season ends, we’ll see who has the last laugh.

lastlaughend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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