Ditko or the King? (Or, Why Does It Have to Be an Either/Or?)

Nearly every second of every day, we are confronted with choices.  Many are made without our even being aware of it.  Did you just tap your foot against the floor, and perhaps not even realize it?  Did you glance up at the ceiling?  Look to the left?  To the right?  Maybe you cracked a knuckle, stretched your calf muscle, took a quick sip of coffee.

 

We make choices all the time.

When writing–be it a novel, a short story, a newspaper article, or a journal entry, and everything in between–we also make myriad choices.  Again, the vast majority of these are at an unconscious level.  If you were to stop and ruminate over every word you wrote, you would, quite literally, be paralyzed, incapable of creating a single sentence.  The words come as they come. The story evolves–often on its own, as if imbued with a certain ineluctable magic.  Authors and thinkers and scientists have pondered the creative process for centuries.  It may never be fully understood.

 

But, whether understood or not, whether made beyond the awareness of the conscious mind or only after a tortuous and seesawing inner conflict–the choices are real.  And, when writing, one of those choices is:  Should you tell it with gusto, with in-your-face enthusiasm and beefy, muscular prose?  Or should you go for a more subdued, subtle approach, using the quiet power of understatement to capture the essence of the scene?

 

Fifty-five years ago, in the offices of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee faced a very similar dilemma.

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In the summer of 1962, Marvel Comics was on the rise.  Just over the past year alone, the company had introduced The Fantastic Four, The Ant Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and The Mighty Thor to the world.  The driving creative force behind this comic book revival–Marvel (previously called Timely Comics during the Second World War and Atlas Comics through the 1950s) had been mired in a slump for several years–was Stan Lee, the company’s lead writer and editor.

 

But Lee certainly wasn’t acting alone.  For any comic book endeavor to thrive, it needs the services of a top-notch artist, and Marvel, at the dawn of the 1960s, had two of them:  Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.  Both were accomplished, worked quickly, and brought their own, unique form of genius to their work.  Kirby was the older and more experienced of the two. The King, as he was called, had already put his stamp on The Fantastic Four--he would be their primary artist for a decade.

 

Nevertheless, Stan Lee’s next planned her0–The Amazing Spider-Man, set to debut in the high summer of 1962–needed a different touch.  Kirby’s work was larger-than-life, his covers and panels bursting with energy.  He was ideal for penciling giants and powerful, musclebound monsters, action sequences, and battle scenes.

 

But for Spider-Man, Lee wanted a defter touch.  Spidey’s alter-ego, after all, was Peter Parker, an awkward teenager, a nerdy bookworm, the antithesis of powerhouses like Thor and The Hulk.  Who better to draw Spider-Man than Steve Ditko, a master of shadows and the macabre?

 

Ditko’s Peter Parker would be skinny, almost scrawny, a science geek who accidentally is bitten by a radioactive spider.  And Spider-Man himself, particularly in those early days, is lithe, a creature of the night, hunting criminals in back alleys and climbing buildings, elusive, hunted by the law and striving to avoid the limelight.

 

And so–who is the top dog here?  Does the decision go to Ditko, or the King?  To subtlety and nuance or bold, in-your-face power?  Perhaps there isn’t a clear-cut decision.

Maybe it just depends . . .

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

When it comes to the writing process, the Ditko method, if you will, is ideal for dialogue, where the characters’ words and body language, along with a sprinkling of interior monologue or brief descriptions of place and surroundings, say everything, and the need for lengthy, power-packed narrative exposition is limited.  This approach also works for emotions–rather than crafting paragraphs that tell what the character is feeling, a writer can instead simply describe what the character does, or how he or she acts, thereby indirectly informing the reader what is going on inside the character’s head.

 

In chapter eight of The Eye-Dancers, there is an attempt to accomplish something like this with Mitchell Brant.  Mitchell, self-conscious and lacking in confidence, is afraid of girls his own age. And so:

 

“Suddenly, the girl appeared—the pretty one.  She looked at him, and, up close, she was even more beautiful than he’d feared.  She had shoulder-length dark brown hair, close in color to his, and wore a sleeveless sundress that showed off a summer tan.  Worst of all, she smiled at him.

“So he did the only thing he could think of.  He escaped into the diner.

“As soon as he opened the door, a bell jangled, announcing his presence.  Faces turned to look at him.  Grizzled old faces, coated with stubble.  Fresh, young faces, questioning, sizing him up.  Middle-aged faces, embedded with deep smile lines and wrinkles around the eyes.  The attention made him uncomfortable, and he glanced behind him, through the window.  He saw the girl walking away.

“Whew.

 

But the Kirby approach definitely has its place, as well.  The Eye-Dancers is a sci-fi/fantasy novel, so there are parts of it that are “out there,” complete with interdimensional transfers and dreams that are far more than “just dreams.”  These portions are built for Kirby-esque flair.

 

In chapter six, Marc Kuslanski and the others are pulled into the void, bridging this universe with another.  From Marc’s perspective, the journey begins this way:

 

“‘Wake up!’ he said.  ‘You have to wake up!’  He wanted to shake them, hit them, but he couldn’t.  He had no hands.  All he could do was yell and plead and hope they would hear.  But they were almost gone now—beyond the point of hearing, perhaps beyond the point of anything.  And he was joining them.

“His arms were gone.  He had no feet, no shins, it felt like he was standing on air.  Horrifically, he watched as his thighs slowly vanished, eaten away by the invisible force that had trapped him.  The others were completely gone now, and he felt himself being pulled . . .

“He had no body now, none of him remained, but he could still think, was still aware of his surroundings.  The basement grew indistinct, fading out of focus.

“He tried to talk, to say something, anything, but no words came out.  And now the basement was gone, the bar, the blue glasses and bottles of champagne, a memory.  He looked around, saw nothing, no one—only emptiness, a vast blue ocean that spread out as far as he could see.

“‘What the . . .?’ he said, or thought he said.  There was no sound, only thought.

“And then, in a flash, he was there again—his hands, his feet, his legs, all of him—there.  He clenched his hands into fists, smacked himself in the chest.  Yes.  He could feel.  He could move and kick and reach.  But what good did it do?  There wasn’t anything solid to hold onto, no firm ground to walk along.  He was surrounded by blue, the deepest blue he had ever seen, stretching on forever.”

 

So often in life, we want to declare a winner and a loser, to settle a competition.  But some contests are better left undecided.  Or, perhaps more accurate, some contests are better left unplayed.  Because when said contest calls for us to choose between the literary equivalencies of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, that is just as difficult, and unnecessary, as choosing between the artists’ original creations.  Why decide which style, or which approach, is “better” than the other?

 

Stan Lee found room for both men in the offices of Marvel Comics.

Surely, we can do the same.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Most Bittersweet of Words

On the surface of it, the accomplishment should elicit nothing but joy.  So much work has been put in, so many hours spent, so many unexpected hurdles and twists and roundabouts have been navigated.  It should be a celebration on par with a holiday parade.

 

And yet . . .

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

Recently, after three-and-a-half years of working on the manuscript, I finally completed the first draft of The Singularity Wheel.  The Singularity Wheel (which didn’t name itself until I was three-quarters of the way through the story) is the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  It wasn’t necessarily planned.  When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, I expected it to be a one-off, not the start of a protracted story arc that would need to span multiple books.

 

But one day, while taking a walk, an image popped into my head–just like that.  Snap-your-fingers fast.  I hadn’t been thinking of The Eye-Dancers on that walk.  I hadn’t been thinking about any of the characters, or anything related to the novel.  But there it was, and it was strong enough that I had to stop moving.  I just stood there, seeing it.  I blinked, shook my head.  The mental painting did not recede or fade away.  If anything, it clarified, coalesced, the blurred edges straightening and sharpening, the smaller details coming in to focus, as if caught under a magnifying glass.

 

There they were in my mind’s eye–Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski–the main characters of The Eye-Dancers.  Only, in this image, they were devoid of color.  Everything was.  The road they were standing on, the field behind them, rich with tall grasses swaying in the breeze–all was a monochrome, a black-and-white world drained of greens and oranges and yellows.  There was only gray.

 

They stood before a monstrous structure, easily the width of a dozen football fields and as tall as a skyscraper.  Each floor of the building had an exterior walkway and countless doors, all closed.  And somewhere, several stories up, they saw a gray, colorless man frantically roaming from door to door, trying to open them, desperate, as if in search of something lifesaving.

 

High above them, above the structure and everything else, the sky was gunmetal gray.  But then it changed.  Two eyes formed in the clouds.  They expanded until they blotted out the sky, became the sky–a deep, penetrating blue.  The image shifted, the picture moved, and the eyes slanted and darkened.  They were angry.  The boys shrank back, but there was nowhere to hide, nowhere to run.  They knew, as well as I, that those weren’t just anyone’s eyes.  They belonged to Monica Tisdale, the “ghost girl” from The Eye-Dancers.  After five years, she had come back for them.

 

Nothing else came to me that day, but it didn’t matter.  Something within me was urging me forward, letting me know there was a new story that needed to be told.  In the days that followed, gaps filled in, motives crystallized, story lines emerged.  A fortnight later, I sat down in front of my PC, opened an empty Word file, and keyed in the first sentence.

 

At the time, I couldn’t have known how difficult, or how long, the journey would be.  If The Eye-Dancers was “out there,” The Singularity Wheel was a million light-years away, spinning its threads from some far-off corner of the universe, regularly making me pause, rub my eyes, and ask, “Is there any way I can pull all of this together?”  The characters’ problems this time around were more nuanced, more complex.  Five years had passed since the conclusion of The Eye-Dancers.  They were about to enter their senior year in high school.  They were saddled with girl problems, family issues, worries about their future.  Some of them felt as though a continent had fallen on their shoulders.

 

But perhaps the character who had changed the most in five years was the “ghost girl” herself.  Unlike in The Eye-Dancers, in The Singularity Wheel, Monica is now a point-of-view character.  In fact, the sequel begins with her, in her bedroom, about to undertake a (quite literally) infinity-spanning trip across the layers and undulations of time and space.  And it will be a trip that puts her life–along with those of Mitchell, Joe, Ryan, and Marc–in peril.

Throughout the creative process–through the surges of “aha” moments, the flourishes of frenzied writing sessions on the dark side of midnight, the inevitable blocks that at times seemed to render the entire project null and void, and the incessant, nagging self-criticisms–the ending often felt far away, a high meadow lying beyond a range of towering mountain peaks.  But I forced myself to persist.

 

The only way I could, I discovered, was to focus on the now.  Sure, I needed to have an overall goal in mind, a general direction I was working toward.  But if I thought too far ahead, I would become bogged down, overwhelmed with the vast distances I still needed to traverse to reach the destination.  “One chapter at a time,” I said to myself, over and over.  “One scene at a time.  One paragraph at a time.”  I felt like a walking, living cliche, the coach who spouts off “coach-speak” to overeager reporters desperate for a scoop they wouldn’t get.  But it was the only way I could keep moving forward.

 

And when I got there, when, just the other night, I keyed in the bold, decisive words “The End,” I felt elated–for perhaps a minute.  And then I realized–I had been living with these characters, thinking with and through them, struggling along with them and cheering them on for over three years (almost eight, in fact, if you go all the way back to the start of writing The Eye-Dancers).  And while I still need to flip back to page 1 and undertake a full-book edit, and while I will blog about the characters and the sequel quite a bit in the weeks and months to come, the actual process of writing the story itself is over.

 

Writing a novel, particularly when there are stops and starts to the writing process, and when you can’t devote uninterrupted time to writing the book, is a marathon, a grueling exercise that tests an author’s will just as much, and probably more, than it does his or her imagination and storytelling abilities.  To finally arrive at “The End” is a tremendous relief, an event to celebrate.  And celebrate I did.  I popped some popcorn, fired up a DVD of a favorite movie (I am old school with digital entertainment!), kicked back, and enjoyed.  (I know, I’m a wild one, aren’t I, with the way I celebrate?)

 

But, mixed with the relief and feeling of accomplishment, there is also a profound loss.  Writing about the characters that populate your novel is not the same as writing through and with and for them.  When you are in the middle of writing a novel, you not only are writing it when you’re sitting at your desk pecking away at the keyboard.  You are “writing” it 24/7.  At any point of the day–in the shower, half-asleep in bed, at work, driving down the interstate–an idea might arise, a new direction might become clear, a new approach to a scene or a chapter might manifest itself.  Those moments, once you have typed “The End,” are gone.  They cannot return–the book is finished, the race is over and run.

 

There will be future books, of course, future projects.  I will get back in the game.  But for now, it is on to editing, to blogging more (which I look forward to doing!), to transforming an imperfect first draft into a (hopefully) polished and presentable product.

 

So am I glad?  Happy?  Satisfied?  You bet.  A literary-sized albatross–the work-in-progress–has been lifted from my neck.  The sense of relief is tangible.

 

But will I miss it?  Will I miss the process, the Everest-like highs of inspiration, when the muse is generous?  I will.  I’ll even miss the struggles, the walls, the worries of what I’ll do ten chapters hence.  It’s exhausting, confounding, and at times all-consuming.  But I love it.  And its absence leaves an undeniable void.

 

Then again, maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow with a new idea, a new seed that demands to be planted and allowed to grow.

 

Can it be, then, that “The End” is only just the beginning?

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Blogger Recognition Award–and a Few Notes and Sundries

It seems beyond belief to me that The Eye-Dancers blog has been in existence for nearly five years now.  The old saying is true–time flies when you’re having fun.  It has been a blessing beyond anything I ever imagined interacting with all of you over the past five years.  It’s true, of late, this blog has been less active than it used to be, and posts have gradually become fewer and further between.  That, however, is temporary, and about to change.

 

For the past three years, I have been writing the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  And now, at last, that sequel–The Singularity Wheel–is close to completion.  There are, literally, fewer than ten pages to go before the first draft is done.  This has been a project full of stops and starts, beset with major surgeries midway through, rewrites and revisions galore, and just over the past several months, a wild dash to reach the end.  The first draft will be finished before the end of the month, and then it will be time to dot the I’s and cross the T’s, to edit and polish and cut, cut, cut.  Indeed, you must “kill your darlings” as Faulkner once said.

 

So–over the past few months, while concentrating on finishing The Singularity Wheel, I have neglected The Eye-Dancers blog more than I would like.  But I needed to buckle down, make the commitment, and complete the writing project.  Now, at long lost, that is about to happen.  And when it does, I will return to blogging more frequently.  I will be sharing much more information about The Singularity Wheel, which has a planned release for this summer, and will gladly get back in the swing of the wonderful WordPress community.  I have missed blogging, and I hope you’ll welcome me back when I return in full force within the next few weeks.

 

Even while being too often AWOL over the past few months, though, I have still been humbled and honored by your encouragement, support, and friendship.  Recently, I was nominated for a Blogger Recognition Award.  Ipuna Black nominated me for the award just last month, while Dear Kitty nominated me last fall.  I wanted to take this time to thank both of you and accept this award.  I also encourage everyone to become acquainted with Ipuna’s blog and Kitty’s blog.  They are great places to visit, pull up a chair, and stay for a while–and return to again and again.

 

The rules for The Blogger Recognition Award state that recipients need to explain why and how they started their blog.  Well, in my case, I began The Eye-Dancers blog in the summer of 2012, for the primary purpose of “getting the word out” for my then-upcoming novel, The Eye-Dancers.  I had never blogged before, had never been on social media–I was a neophyte in the purest sense of the word.  I was also nervous.  Who was I to tell people to download my book?  Who really wanted to read anything I wrote?  Was it arrogant to pitch my novel?  These questions, and many more, dogged me through the earliest days of this blog.

 

But as I soon discovered, I had nothing to worry about.  Right from the start, the blogosphere was welcoming, warm, kind, and encouraging.  What had begun as a means for me to spread the word about my book quickly morphed into a gift of virtual friendships that spanned the globe, an opportunity to hold ongoing, invigorating discussions about writing and the mysteries of the creative process, to connect on tangible, as well as intangible, levels.  For me, The Eye-Dancers blog has been a joy.  I treasure the friendships I have formed over the years with so many of you.

 

There is another layer of instruction to The Blogger Recognition Award–and that is to give two pieces of advice for new bloggers.  I’m not sure I have anything profound to say here; I can only share two of the best things I learned along the way.  The first is–just be yourself.  Post about what interests you and what motivates you, and write with honesty and passion.  The great readers on WordPress will appreciate your willingness to share.  And the second is–don’t be afraid.  Don’t hesitate.  You might think you don’t have anything special or unique or profound to say, and, amidst the unrelenting doubts, you may choose not to post.  Don’t give in to the doubts.  You had a reason to start a blog.  You have something to say.  You have a unique and special point of view.  Don’t worry about the topic.  Just write whatever you feel compelled to write, and share your thoughts and perspectives with the rest of us.

 

Now here is where I will break the rules!  The Blogger Recognition Award instructs to choose ten other bloggers to nominate for the award.  But I want to share this award with all of you–anyone and everyone reading, the friends who have supported me from day one.  You are the reason I’m here.  You are the reason I love to blog, and can’t wait to return in full force within the next few weeks.  I hope many of you will accept this award.

 

Thank you, Ipuna, and Kitty!  I greatly appreciate your nomination!

And thanks so much to everyone for reading.

–Mike

 

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.

mysterydinnerstart

 

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 . . .

mysterymenu

 

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.

plottwistsasreaders

 

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.

outline

 

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.

thevoidgetbackhome

 

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.

slinkymallebale

 

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.

cracketrsend-ofpost

 

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.

writerworkshopstart

 

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.

backpackeurope

 

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?

writersquestionsanddoubts

 

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?

thisclosesequeltoosmall

 

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.

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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.

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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!

wintervermontstart

 

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.

snowsqualls

 

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.

hotchocolate

 

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.

winterdirtroadvermont

 

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.

turkeyinsnow

 

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.

squirrel

 

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?

tweeting

 

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.

georgebaileyconfusednearendrabbithole

 

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.

clarencenoteend

 

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.

happyholidaysveryend

 

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.”

achristmasmemory

 

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.

adxrayvision

 

adseamonkeys

 

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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comiccoversuperman117

comiccoversa46

 

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

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:

marcie

 

“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

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