“It’s Time to Watch ‘Forrest Gump'” (Or, The Art of Not Forcing the Issue)

We’ve all been there.  You’re working on something–a story, perhaps, or a song, a poem.  A painting.  Something creative, something you believe in and aim to finish.  You’ve managed to juggle your schedule today, delegate chores and to-dos, plan ahead.  It’s the first time all week you have a chance to dig in and proceed with your masterpiece.  You have a glass of water or tea at the ready, maybe even a snack.  You plan on being here for a while.

 

“Let’s go,” you say, psyching yourself up.  “Let’s get this party started.”

And then . . . nothing happens.

The words don’t come.  The characters don’t cooperate.  The brushstrokes feel heavy and blunt, messy, as if you’re trying to paint underwater. The image you’re creating, the story you’re weaving, the art you’re making is stuck, dead on the page.  Your tea gets cold, the snacks sit there, uneaten.  And your cursor blinks at you, in and out, in and out, like a silent, mocking accusation.

 

But you aren’t ready to admit defeat.  You’re not sure when the next block of hours will present itself.  You’ve arranged your entire day around this!  Why are the words playing hard to get?

 

Certainly, I have experienced this phenomenon more times than I care to remember.  While writing The Singularity Wheel, there were days when it felt as though my head was in a blender, the words and phrases and paragraphs jumbled into a miasma of incoherence.  And since time was at a premium, and I was already so far behind my publication schedule for the book, I would resist, push back against the reluctant and ever-capricious muse.

 

The odd thing was–I might be struggling like this after a successful literary sojourn the last time I sat down to write.  In The Singularity Wheel, for example, Chapter 10 went smoothly–I sat down and wrote that chapter in two hours flat, and it required only minimal revisions.  But Chapter 11 was a brier patch, a wasteland of pitfalls and quicksand and hidden, poisonous vipers lying in wait to strike.  The first run-through took multiple sessions, and even then, the chapter later went through various revisions.  I even started thinking of it as “the nightmare chapter,” or, when I was feeling especially dramatic, “the chapter where my novel goes to die.”

 

Out of frustration, when I encounter a rupture in the creative process, a session where I just can’t produce, I too often try to force it.  I’ll write a sentence, then another, and another, and after several minutes, they may bleed to two or three paragraphs.  It is like attempting to find water in an abandoned and dry well.  Every word is an effort, every sentence a marathon.  What’s worse, nothing sounds right.  After a half hour or an hour of this, I will pause and read what I’ve got.  Almost without fail, what I’ve got is junk.

 

But the streak of stubbornness dies hard.  During one particularly unproductive session, I pulled my chair away from the desk, stood up, did a dozen push-ups, two dozen sit-ups, jogged in place, took a walk around the house, upstairs, downstairs, in the basement, and then back again.  I just need to get the old juices flowing, I told myself.  Work out the kinks.  When I returned to the manuscript, however, the kinks were still there, binding me with their inflexible, industrial-strength straps.

 

It’s times like this when I truly appreciate the flip side–those sessions when the words flow like lava, pouring out, my fingers barely able to keep up with my thoughts, swept away in a creative tsunami.  It is a high like no other.  But it cannot be forced.  It comes when it comes, as mercurial as the weather in the hill country of central Vermont.

 

Ultimately, this is a truth we have to accept.  Even the best-laid plans of writers and artists must sometimes be altered to fit the mood of the muse.  We fight against a barren spell.  We might rant and rave and swear, and try to will the words to come.  But that rarely works–at least not for me.

 

Once I know I’ve given it all I have, once I’ve stared at the screen long enough with no results to show for my efforts, however well intentioned; once I’ve taken a long walk along the country road where I live and still cannot produce even a single decent sentence, I grudgingly acknowledge the truth.  Today just isn’t my day.

 

Temporarily defeated (but only temporarily, I remind myself!), I endeavor to get away from the work and the frustration and perhaps watch a favorite movie or TV show.  Who knows?  If I’m lucky, something in whatever I decide to watch may serve as an artistic catalyst of sorts and get me out of my funk.

 

But which movie?  Which TV show?  I sort through my collection of old-school DVDs.  (What, me download?)  I settle on Forrest Gump.

It’s better than banging my head against the creative wall.

We’ll get ’em next time.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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

P.S.  Speaking of old school, the paperback copy of The Singularity Wheel is now available on Amazon!

A Holiday Classic, and a Reminder to Imagine

We all have certain favorites that we like to turn to this time of year–go-to movies or television episodes or songs that beckon like a lighthouse in the dark.  And certainly, in my adopted state of Vermont, “dark” is an apt description.  The winter solstice occurs during the heart of the holiday season.  Sunset is early.  Sunrise is late.  In between, there are frigid, snow-filled days, gloomy with gray clouds that hover low over the frozen land like unwashed, soiled laundry.

 

It’s no wonder, then, that many people look for a tonic, some reliable holiday classic that never fails to elicit a feeling of warmth and thankfulness, of appreciation and goodwill.  For me, movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Trading Places serve to brighten my December, offering annual strolls down memory lane, retaining their luster and their shine.

 

The list of holiday classics is long, though.  I never have the chance to watch as many movies or select TV shows as I’d like to in any given holiday season.  But this month, I thought of one movie in particular that I hadn’t viewed in years, and I made a firm decision to remedy that oversight.  So, just last night, after a day in which nine inches of fresh snow had fallen on the Green Mountain State, I popped in the DVD, settled in with some popcorn and hot chocolate, and enjoyed . . .

 

Surely, Miracle on 34th Street is a Christmas classic.  Filmed in 1947, it as endearing now as the day it debuted in theaters seven decades ago.  And though I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen it, many of the scenes instantly came back to me as I watched, like being reacquainted with an old friend, too long absent but the memory of whom burns bright and vibrant in the soul.

 

The plot of Miracle on 34th Street is simple–corny, even.  And yet–there is a magic to this movie, and when the final credits roll at the end, you feel better for having watched it.  While Miracle on 34th Street is undoubtedly a Christmas movie, and deals with the theme in specific point of view–the true gift of this film runs deeper.  The crux of the plot centers around a lawyer’s attempt to “prove” that Santa Claus exists.  And in true vintage Hollywood fashion, he accomplishes this, and then goes one further by “proving” that an eccentric old man, who calls himself Kris Kringle and who plays a department store Santa at Macy’s in New York City, is, in fact, the genuine article.

 

For me, though, the heart of Miracle on 34th Street has very little to do with Santa, or even the holiday itself.  It has to do with faith. with the limitless power of thought, the vistas of our imagination, the lifelong struggle, and opportunity–even as we grow older and assume the responsibilities of adulthood–to retain at least some spark, some essence of our youth.

 

At one juncture in the movie, old Kris Kringle has a talk with Susan, a serious, thoroughly sensible little girl.  Susan tells Kris that she doesn’t like it when her friends and classmates play pretend games.  Such things are “silly,” she says–echoing her practical and everything-is-factual-and-tangible-minded mother.  Susan thinks to pretend is to depart from the real world, and is therefore a waste of time.

 

Kris flips the argument on its head, turning the perceived flaw into a strength.

In order to pretend, he tells the girl, you have to have the ability to imagine.

“Imagination is a place all by itself,” Kris explains.  “A separate country.  Now, you’ve heard of the French nation, the British nation.  Well this . . . is the imagi-nation.”  He promises her it’s a wonderful place.  “How would you like to have a ship all to yourself,” he asks, “that makes daily trips to China?  And Australia?  How would you like to be the Statue of Liberty in the morning, and then, in the afternoon, fly south with a flock of geese?”

 

Susan nods, moonstruck.  The old man is unlocking something heretofore buried inside of her, something real and essential, and needing to come out.

 

We all need the occasional flight of fancy.  We all need the ability to take a step back, temporarily forget about the bills, the doctor appointment, the in-box, the stack of papers on the desk, the planning for the party next week.  Granted, planning for the party next week is important.  And those bills won’t pay for themselves.  But it’s all too easy to get stuck on a treadmill, or caught on a straight and narrow path, hemmed in by featureless gray walls.

 

The Kris Kringle from Miracle on 34th Street, in crisp black-and-white, the department store Santa Claus from the 1940s, the physical, earthy, jocular fellow, is a relic, the sights and sounds around him a living, moving time capsule.  But he has much to say to us even now, on the cusp of 2018.

 

The imagi-nation is a magical place, not just during the holidays, but the whole year through.

I’ll be sure to see you there.

 

Have a wonderful and blessed holiday, and 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.

tiretracksinsnow

 

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.

mountainsendpartone

 

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

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?

jigsawpuzzle

 

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.”

itsawonderfullifefirstmention

 

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?

whatisrealbeginningoflast6section

 

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.

miracleon34thstreetend

 

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.

novemberskystart

 

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 . . .

comiccovermysteryinspace

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:

someofmyfavoritethings

 

“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

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.

northbynorthweststart

 

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!

grantconfused

 

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.”

everyonewantstobecarygrant

 

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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grantandsaint

grantandhepburn

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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.

archieleachchildhoodphoto

 

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.

leachorgrantchoosebeforebreak

 

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.

marcspocklogic

 

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.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Finding Hope at Shawshank, the Swing Set in the Backyard, and the Transcendence of Story

There is a scene in the movie The Shawshank Redemption that has always moved me.  Granted, many scenes in this tour de force of a motion picture, based on Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, leave an impact.  But one in particular stands out . . .

shawshankbeginning

 

Andy Dufresne, an innocent man convicted to life in Shawshank State Penitentiary for a crime he did not commit, has just spent the past two weeks in solitary confinement.  His offense?  He played a duet from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro over the prison’s PA system.

mozartrecord

 

 

figaromusicandy

 

During the rendition, every prisoner at Shawshank stood, transfixed, listening to lyrics they couldn’t even understand.  As  Ellis “Red” Redding, Andy’s fellow inmate and friend, and the film’s voice-over narrator, describes:  “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about.  Truth is, I don’t want to know.  Some things are best left unsaid.  I’d like to think they were singing of something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it.  I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream.  It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

menlisteningtomozart

 

It didn’t matter.  The warden wasn’t amused.  And as Andy emerges from his solitary confinement and joins his friends in the prison cafeteria, he tells them his time in the hole was easy.  They scoff at this, but he tells them he had “Mr. Mozart to keep me company.”

“So they let you tote that record player with you into the hole?” one of the men at the table asks.

lunchatshawshank

 

Andy shakes his head, points to his head and his heart, explaining those are the places where Mozart played.  In response, he is greeted with blank, uncomprehending expressions.

“That’s the beauty of music,” he says. “They can’t get that from you.”  He pauses, glances around the table, then continues, “Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?”

Red replies, “I played a mean harmonica when I was a younger man.  Lost interest in it, though.  Didn’t make much sense in here.”

harmonica

 

Andy looks at him.  “In here’s where it makes the most sense.  You need it so you don’t forget.”

“Forget?” Red asks, not following.

“Forget that there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone, that . . . there’s something inside that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch . . . that’s yours.”

prisonplacesmadeofstone

 

“What you talkin’ about?” Red says.

To which Andy Dufresne replies, simply, “Hope.”

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

When I went to college, as an English major, I was surrounded by fellow students who loved literature, and many were aspiring writers.  Some, like me, focused more on fiction, and others more on nonfiction.  I took creative workshops in both.

englishmajorslovingliterature

 

When I took the nonfiction workshop, a classmate named Kim approached me one day after class.

“I liked your essay,” she said, regarding a piece I had just shared with the class about a memorable and impactful childhood experience.  “Did you ever think about switching over to nonfiction exclusively?”

It was a question I had fielded before, from others.  I knew that Kim wanted to be a journalist.  She was passionate about social justice and hoped for a career crafting flaming editorials that hit her readers hard and forced them to tackle issues head-on.  Likewise, she knew my bent was to write fiction, to come up with stories “out of the ether,” as it were; or, to put it as she did, “to make things up.”

outoftheether

 

“Don’t you think you could have more impact if you wrote about relevant topics in the news?” she went on.  “I mean, don’t you just want to have someone read something you write and think, ‘Yeah!  That is so true!  We need to change that, we need to make this world a better place.'”

makeworldbetterplace

 

I wasn’t sure how to respond.  I had to think about it for a moment.  Then I said, “Of course.  I think we both want the same things, and we both have the same goals with the things we write.  We just go about them in different ways.”

I’m not sure she was satisfied with that answer, and I sensed she felt I was somehow on the wrong path.  But that’s the way we left it.  That was the only answer I could give her.

In the years since, especially in the wake of mass shootings and political upheavals and deep cultural divisions, I’ve thought about it more.  After all, didn’t Kim have a point?  Shouldn’t we strive to make a difference, in whatever areas we are called?  And if we write, if we feel the desire, the need, to express ourselves via the written word, shouldn’t we aim to tackle the big issues our world faces?  Shouldn’t we deal with the here and now rather than inventing characters and situations and, in the case of The Eye-Dancers, parallel dimensions that may not even exist?

paralleldimensionthatmaynotexist

 

But then I realize the answer I gave Kim that day, in the last, waning years of the twentieth century, perhaps wasn’t so off-base, after all.  It’s true, there are editorials, histories, social commentaries that move me and make me see things in new and different ways.  There are journalistic pieces that hit home with such force, it can feel you’ve been bludgeoned with a sledgehammer.  But there are also novels and plays and short stories that do the same.

storiesthatmakeimpactthelottery

 

A key word, that–“story.”  Even in journalism, or in speeches or long social or historical treatises, the major points are often illustrated through story.  We can read about the statistics of homicide or homelessness or student debt and shake our heads.  The numbers are staggering.  But then we can read about one situation, one individual, one person’s experiences, and we can be moved to tears.  The numbers are brought to life through the power of story.

No doubt from the dawn of humankind, from the first instance an individual mesmerized an audience with flair and creativity, story has always been this way, fleshing out and giving emotional meaning to the bare, bald skeleton of fact,  An engaging story can reel you in with a paragraph.  A strong opening sentence or two, and we are already there, transported, as if by magic, to a different place, seeing the world through another person’s eyes, living and breathing and experiencing with them, their joys and hopes, their losses and defeats.  And yet, simultaneously, through the eyes of the characters, whether they are from our culture or the other side of the world (or the universe!), our time period or some distant past or faraway and undreamed-of future, we can also see ourselves in them, and experience our own world more fully and richly.

timemachinesothersideofworld

 

And, it is my earnest hope, that this ability, this transcendence of story even applies to ghost girls, hypnotic blue eyes, and journeys through the long and timeless void.

timlessvoidnearend

 

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

When I was six years old, my parents bought a swing set.  It allegedly was for the entire family, but seeing that my siblings were already teenagers and in high school at the time, it didn’t take much deductive reasoning to figure out who among us would use it the most.  My father put it together and positioned it at the northern edge of the backyard.  “Don’t worry,” I assured.  “I’ll use it a lot!”

swingset

 

And I did.  I’d spend entire afternoons on that swing.  I’d swing after school until suppertime.  I’d swing deep into the fall, sometimes all the way to Thanksgiving, before the snow and the ice shut things down.  And then I’d be forced to sit it out through the interminable western New York winter, waiting for the arrival of a shy and capricious spring.  When the snow finally retreated, stubbornly giving way to April sunshine, I’d scamper out into the muddy yard and reacquaint myself with the swing set.

swingingthrutheseasons

 

Perhaps the best times were on summer evenings, swinging in the warm dusk of July, the crickets chirping, the cicadas playing their synthetic instruments from their hidden, unseen perches in the trees.  I’d pump my legs and go higher, higher . . . and I’d look out beyond the yard, toward the distant horizon.  Sometimes, I was sure I could see a glimmering city in the clouds.  But I only saw it when I swung high.  The higher I swung, the clearer the sparkling buildings and shiny, golden streets came into view.  I remember wishing for a way I could reach that city, walk down those streets.  If I could only swing high enough, maybe, just maybe . . .

cityinsky

 

It’s easy now, of course, looking back through the rational, commonsense lens of adulthood, to disregard my imaginings on that old swing set as the whims of a little boy, the flights of fancy and nonsensical musings of a child.  But I like to think it was more meaningful than that. More relevant.  Perhaps, in its own way, that shimmering city in the sky represented a hope–not unlike that of Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption–a yearning for something more, a striving for something pure and real and unifying, venturing beyond the boundaries of self and circumstance.

andyhopeend

 

I don’t swing anymore.  I write.  And, with luck, the stories I write offer that same hope, and dare to reach somewhere just beyond the stars.

beyondstarsend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Of Doubts, Questions . . . and Lost Weekends

It was the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to showcase his talents as he never had before.  But there was one big problem.  He rarely drank, didn’t know the first thing about being addicted to the bottle.

bottlebeginning

 

So how was he going to play an alcoholic in anything resembling a convincing manner?

These were the questions swirling through the mind of Ray Milland as he studied a novel sent to him personally by the head of Paramount Pictures.  The powers-that-be wanted to adapt the novel, written by Charles R. Jackson, into a film and have Milland play the lead role of Don Birnam, a writer whose life and career are in shambles, swamped under the heavy, unrelenting pressures of alcoholism.

millandbeginning

 

Milland hesitated.  How would he be able to master the role of the haunted Birnam?  Aside from his complete lack of understanding and firsthand knowledge of alcoholism, Milland also questioned his own acting ability.  He had been a leading man in films for nearly a decade, but didn’t consider himself to be on par with the true icons of the Silver Screen, legends such as Cary Grant, Clark Gable, James Stewart, and others.  He was a serviceable actor, a veteran, but could he pull something like this off?  No doubt the bad memories from his first Hollywood experience, fifteen years earlier, when the director berated him in front of the entire cast and crew for his amateurish and clumsy acting, were alive and playing over and over in his mind, like a movie reel gone out of control.  But despite the doubts, the nagging insecurity that wouldn’t let go, Milland took the role.

He would play the lead part in The Lost Weekend.

thelostweekend

 

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

Have you ever faced a similar circumstance?  Maybe it was the looming specter of a job interview, the second guessing prior to hitting the Publish button on a blog post or taking the final step to release your new book on Amazon.  Maybe it was the jitters before a first date or the unrelenting self-doubt before standing up in front of your supervisors and fellow coworkers to deliver a major company presentation.

weveallbeentheredoubtfear

 

It’s fair to say we’ve all been there.

I know I have.  I’ve felt Milland-like doubts and insecurities more times than I can count.  And, sad to admit, but there have certainly been instances when, dogged with what-ifs and self-recriminations, I backed down, failed to take the challenge, and let an opportunity pass.

One moment that immediately comes to mind took place in eighth-grade Algebra.  On the surface, it was a small thing, trivial, really, but it has stayed with me all these years.  The teacher, a blond guy with a big, beefy mustache named Mr. Edwards, presented the class with a complex mathematical problem.  “Don’t try to solve it here in class,” he warned.  “It’ll take way too long.”  He asked us to tackle the mind-bender at home that night–not for extra points, not for a grade.  Just for fun.  Old-fashioned algebraic fun.  I can’t remember the specifics of the problem.  All I can remember is that it was a rambling thing, meandering on like a twisting trail that snakes its way ever deeper into the woods.  And as I set out to solve the problem that night, that’s exactly where I felt I was heading–into some dark, uncharted territory, overrun with wild vegetation and exotic creatures never before encountered.  But I stuck with it, and, well over an hour later, came up with an answer.

algebraproblem

 

The thing was–the answer seemed ludicrous.  Again, memory fails, but it was something like: three-hundred-ten trillion, two-hundred-twenty-one billion, thirteen million, two-hundred thousand and eighty-three.  It was some ridiculous number that trailed on across half the width of my notebook page.  I didn’t understand.  I had worked so hard on it, and this was the nonsensical answer I came up with?  I reviewed my work, couldn’t find an error, but was convinced I must have made one.  No way was the answer anything close to that outrageous number.

verylargenumber

 

Fast-forward to the next day, and sure enough, old Mr. Edwards asked the class straightaway for the answer to his math problem.  No one raised their hand.  I wanted to, and I nearly did.  But all I could think of were the laughs and snickers that would result from the class, and the wide-eyed, glazed-over stare on Mr. Edwards’s face when I gave my mouthful of an answer.  So I just sat there, waiting.

Mr. Edwards smiled, as he often did, and wrote the correct answer on the blackboard.

No, I thought,  It can’t be.  But it was.

It was the precise answer I had come up with the night before.  I wanted to raise my hand then and say, “Wait!  I had that!  Really, I did!”  But it was too late.  The opportunity had come and gone.

regretiknewtheanswer

 

I wish I could say I learned my lesson so well that day that nothing of the sort ever happened again.  The truth is, nearly every time I publish a blog post, see a new review on Amazon for The Eye-Dancers, or share my work with anyone, anytime, any place, I feel the same old butterflies.  Maybe that’s a good thing, in its own way.  Maybe it keeps me on my toes.

butterflies

 

Certainly I have been beset by doubts galore concerning the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  It is a project three years running now, with more stops and starts than a rain-hampered tennis match at Wimbledon and enough revisions and rewrites to make my head spin, and even as I close in on the stretch run, preparing to finish the first draft in the months ahead, I am nagged with questions.

wimbledonrain

 

Do the various plot points intersect and come together?  There are so many threads to the story–is it too complex, too convoluted?  Or will it read as one unified whole?  Are the characters’ motivations ringing true?  Are all the story arcs rising and falling in optimal fashion, or are things progressing without rhyme or reason?  In a nutshell, is this thing any good?

convoluted

 

The questions rarely, if ever, fall silent, the insecurities are always there.  All I can do–all any of us can do–is continue to move forward and choose to believe.

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

When The Lost Weekend was released in the theater, the reception was positive, from audiences and critics alike.  It proved to be a groundbreaking motion picture, particularly in the manner in which it portrayed alcoholism in a frank, uncompromising, and serious light.  No film had tackled the issue in such a way before, and The Lost Weekend would inspire other movies to follow suit in the years to come.

At Oscar time, The Lost Weekend won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

And Ray Milland?  The gentleman who doubted his ability to play the lead role?

millandacademyaward

 

He won the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Evidently, not all lost projects or assignments or challenges or weekends are really lost, after all.

nolostweekendsafterall

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

 

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