Neither Here Nor There (The World of the In-Between)

As I sit down to write this post, night has fallen with a warm, humid embrace on the hills of east-central Vermont.  In a few hours, I’ll lie down and go to sleep.

 

And dream.  Do you dream?  I suppose everybody does.  The real question is–do you remember your dreams?  I don’t–at least, not often.  But sometimes . . . sometimes, I do.  Especially a specific type of dream . . .

To back up for a moment–I have always been fascinated with dreams.  Science has studied them for decades, yet–do we really understand them?  Do we know why they sometimes seem so random, and other times so prescient, even supernatural?  And do we understand the makeup of our dreams, the weird, uneven settings, timelines, hops, skips, warps, mental wormholes?  And do we even know what dreams are?  Are they strictly the nighttime musings of the subconscious?  Or are they more?  A visitation from a spirit, perhaps?  A foreshadowing of a future event?  A glimpse into a parallel world?  Who’s to say?

 

Readers of The Eye-Dancers may recall that the book opens with a dream sequence (that ends up being far more than a mere dream sequence).  Mitchell Brant dreams of the “ghost girl,.”  It’s a dream I, myself, had had years earlier.  Upon waking from it, I jotted down the pertinent notes, in a state of frenzy, knowing that the details might work themselves into a story at some future point,  Thanks to Mitchell, they did.

 

Dreams can be like that–they can offer such rich detail, such raw emotion, such remarkable scenes and events that they are begging to be memorialized on the written page.  But, again, how many of our dreams do we forget?  How many nocturnal adventures do we undertake that never register in our conscious mind?

This leads me back to type of dream I alluded to at the start of this post–the kind of dream I am much more likely to recall, in vivid detail, upon waking.  I think of it as the in-between dream, a murky, shadowy state where we have one foot in our dreams and one foot in the conscious world.  A state of half-and-half, of here and there, of sleep and awakeness.

 

It is an interesting place to be . . . and it most often occurs in the predawn hours.  I am an early riser–not by choice (I am naturally a night person), but by necessity.  Generally, I am up and at ’em by 5:30 a.m. each day.  And so my in-between period occurs in the minutes directly beforehand.  True, some mornings, I am nowhere near the in-between; I am in full-on sleep mode, and am only roused by the piercing, shrieking whine of the alarm.

 

Many mornings, however, in those still, quiet hours before dawn, when the day itself is in a state of in-between, not quite night and not quite day, I am vaguely aware.  Aware that I’m half-asleep but not all the way asleep, aware that I will need to get up shortly and be productive.

But I am also, often, dreaming during this time, and, though half-awake, I have no control over the events unfurling before me in my mind’s eye, a moving, weaving tapestry that might be horrifying or weird or otherworldly (but rarely joyous or carefree).  The action proceeds on its own accord, taking me along for the ride.  Recently, I dreamed, in this half-awake, half-asleep state, that I was in an old house, upstairs, in bed, and a storm was moving in.  The house was unfamiliar–I haven’t a clue why I dreamed of it.  But suddenly, there was a flash of lightning across the street, a darkening of storm clouds, and a feeling of imminent peril.  The next moment, the lightning struck the roof above me, and the tiles from the ceiling rained down on me, as I sat bolt upright, feeling the fury of the elements.  In the dream, I felt air.  A hole in the ceiling!  A bird fluttering above, the storm, enveloping the house just moments ago, now a memory, an echo, a whisper.

 

And consider:  While I dreamed all of this, while I was held hostage by the tempests of my mind, I was aware I was dreaming it.  I lay in bed, feeling tense, nervous.  What would happen next?  It was like watching a scary movie, afraid to keep your eyes on the screen.  The best way to describe it is as an out-of-body experience–realizing that, in reality (whatever that means), I was safe in my own bed, but also lost in the dream, feeling the dream, aware of it even as it happened, with no idea where it would lead, heartbeat quickening, traveling along the pathways and avenues of the in-between.

 

Have you ever experienced that?  That murky, shadowy world where you are at once awake and at once asleep, experiencing a universe far away while also knowing that you are lying in your bed, beneath the covers, the predawn air filtering in through the window, the sounds of the nocturnal creatures rustling from the grass and the trees?

To me, it is a similar phenomenon as writing a first draft of a story when the words are flowing.  You are the author, the writer, the creator, so you’re in control, right?  Well, not really.  Think about it.  When you are writing a scene, and your characters are talking, chewing the mozzarella, advancing the plot.  Do you know, in advance, what John will say to Kathleen on the next page?  Do you know what Jay will ask Jennifer?  Maybe in a broad, general sense, you do.  (Or maybe you don’t.)  But specifically, word for word.  Where does the dialogue come from?

 

Or what about the narrative itself, the thousands upon thousands of words that compose a novel?  Sure, you may have a general outline.  You may even have a detailed one.  But if you’re going to write 80,000 words, how many of those words do you know in advance?  Precious few.  And if you were to think about all of this before starting, worry about the muse and the well of words and ideas, you may cripple yourself and deep-six the project at the outset.

Creativity is all about faith.  Trust.  Belief.  A conviction that, if you have the courage to take that first step, and write that first sentence, the next word, the next sentence, the next paragraph will follow–and it will follow almost as if on its own accord, the words and dialogue and descriptions emanating from a mysterious and undefinable realm that cannot be controlled or defined.  It just is.  It exists.  And, as authors, it is our job to access it, delve into it, and get lost in it.

 

So, the next time you find yourself in bed, lost in the world of the in-between–even if in said world there’s a lightning storm overhead and your roof is about to collapse–settle in, lie back, and just appreciate the story.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Curious Case of the Beagle and the Purloined Loaf of French Bread (Or, You’ll Never See Unless You Look Up)

She’d been gone the entire morning, and I was worried.

“Mom, we should go looking . . . in the car.”  I’d already walked the neighborhood, without any luck. I didn’t see our dog anywhere.  And, at eight years old, I couldn’t very well drive myself.  I needed someone else to step up.

“I’m sure Poopsie will be back soon,” Mom said.  “You know how she is.”

To step back, yes, you read that right.  Our dog was named Poopsie.  Well, Poopsie III, if you want to be precise. Don’t blame me.  It was a family tradition.  Every dog we ever had, my mother named Poopsie.  She wouldn’t have it any other way.  We had four in all, and number four would end up being my best friend throughout my teen years and beyond.

 

But Poopsie III was a good friend, too.  She was a beagle, who spent most of her time in the fenced-in backyard.  My father built her a doghouse, and she would hole away in there for hours on end, only to reemerge ready for food and play.

 

Play, indeed.  Poopsie III was a high-energy dog, often running around in circles chasing her own tail, hunting birds, and playing fetch with the stamina of superdog.

And, oh, yeah.  She liked to run away.

We tried to prevent it, but it was a losing proposition.  We didn’t want to keep her on a leash 24/7–she was too rambunctious and full of energy.  And we hoped the fence would keep her safe and secure in the yard.  It didn’t.  Not only did Poopsie III have the stamina of superdog; she had the leaping ability of superdog, too.  She jumped the fence with ease.  (She also dug underneath it, burrowing down and crossing into the neighbor’s yard via her hastily constructed subterranean path  The neighbor had a poodle, Satch, and when Satch was in his own backyard, Poopsie would invariably tunnel under the fence to go play with him.)  Of course, I recommended that we just let her in the house and have her live with us inside.  My mother objected (though Poopsie IV, a cocker spaniel, would indeed be an indoor dog).  What could I do?  I didn’t have the necessary clout as an eight-year-old.

 

And on that day, that overcast, muggy August morning, Poopsie was missing.  When I checked the clock that hung above the sink, the hands told me it was nearing noon.  And Poopsie had been gone since before eight–four hours ago!  She’d never been gone this long.

“Mom!” I protested, unwilling to let this go.  But my mother stood firm.  She gave me a two o’clock deadline.  If Poopsie didn’t show up by then, we’d head out in the car and search for her.

Those two hours crawled by like a tortoise lugging a piano.  Finally, though, 2:00 p.m. arrived–and still no Poopsie.

“Okay,” Mom said.  “Let’s go.”

 

We headed out to the driveway.  But rather than entering the car directly, we decided to walk into the street and peer into the distance–just in case.  By this time, there was a break in the cloud cover, and a warm summer sun shone upon the neighborhood.  I shielded my eyes with my right hand and peered up the road.  A few seconds went by, and nothing–only a few neighbors milling about in their front yards. The street was empty–not even a car. But then, I saw movement–a shape emerging atop the hill that lay beyond the stop sign at the nearest intersection . . . could it be?  I took a few steps forward.  I sensed Mom did the same, though I didn’t know for certain as my focus was 100 percent on the tableau playing out before me.

 

As the shape in the distance grew nearer, sprinting down the hill, closer, closer, running faster, I knew.  Poopsie!  There was no doubt.  But where had she gone?  Why had she been missing for so long?  And . . . what did she have in her mouth?

Indeed, as she bolted through the intersection, now on flat ground, and approached us, we could make out what she had: a long, full loaf of French bread.  She hadn’t taken a bite out of it–and it had to be two feet long.  She gripped on tight, careful not to drop her catch.  When she finally reached us, my mother and I burst out laughing.  How could we not?

 

“Poopsie!” Mom shouted.  “Where did you get that?”

There was a bakery way up and over the hill, two miles up the road on a different street–Ricardo’s.  We went there sometimes to acquire fresh bread and other delectables.  Had Poopsie gone inside the bakery?  Or had she hid in the shadows nearby and waited for an innocent customer to emerge with a loaf of French bread?  I tried to picture the theft.  How had she managed it?  And why wasn’t anyone chasing her?

 

Before Poopsie could settle in and partake of her ill-gotten bread, my mother yelled at her for running away and for stealing the loaf.  Instantly, Poopsie–still with a vice-grip on her prize–darted toward the backyard and hopped the fence.  We went back in the house, looked through the window, and there she was . . . trying to enter her doghouse with the loaf of bread.  But the bread was too wide and kept barring entry.  She’d plow ahead, but the bread would catch on the wood of her house, rebuffing her time and again.  Finally, Poopsie solved the riddle, dropping the load and nuzzling it into her doghouse with her nose.  When she vanished inside her abode, we knew she’d be there for a while.  We just hoped she wouldn’t get an upset stomach!

 

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Have you ever felt desperate for an idea?  Have you ever experienced writer’s block?  Do partial ideas come your way, tantalizing in their promise, but frustrating in their incompleteness and the many gaps that still need to be filled?  The muse isn’t always in a giving mood.  Sometimes, we just need to wait.  Because I know that, at least for me, ideas cannot be forced.  Creativity cannot be coerced.  I can think about a skeletal idea, I can attempt to build muscle and sinew and attach them to the bones, but, in the end, the full flower of the idea, the complete telling of the story, will come when it comes.

 

And this happens a lot.  More times than I can count, I get fragments, partial inspirations, intriguing scenarios and what-ifs.  But until those scenarios can be expanded, until characters and subplots and layers upon layers of story can be added to the initial idea, until a palette of colors can be applied to the sketch, I am stuck, in an embryonic state of the process, waiting on a capricious and too often shy muse to come to call.

 

And there are times when it all feels so hopeless, when the lack of workable ideas rises up like a taunt, when it’s easy to wonder if the literary well has gone dry and the pump forever malfunctioned.  But in those moments, after searching and cajoling and overthinking and obsessing, when characters and dialogue are silent as the grave, be sure to look up.

To believe.

To survey that hill in the distance.

Because maybe, just maybe, the answer, like a jubilant, rediscovered dog with a purloined bakery prize, will come dashing toward you with the answers you need.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Better Angels of Our Nature (Or, Rediscovering the Wonder)

When I was growing up, in the halcyon days of the 1980s, I used to invent things . . . and they ran the gamut. I scribbled my first stories with a yellow #2 pencil.  Most were short–eight pages max–and all involved some aspect of fantasy or science fiction.  I then began writing plays–epic adventures featuring my real-life friends, journeying to other worlds, other times, other places. We’d have sleepovers and I’d read them the entire play!  Hard to believe, looking back on this, that they stayed awake through the whole thing.  It would take hours.

 

I also invented games.  Active games that incorporated running and jumping and searching. Takeoffs of existing sports, too.  One game was a combination of soccer and basketball, where, outside ten feet of the hoop, soccer rules reigned, but within ten feet of the basket, the rulebook switched over completely to basketball.  We called it “Manny Ball”–christened for a neighbor who had been a professional soccer player in his youth and who would sometimes come over and watch us play.

 

But there were sit-down games, too.  I collaborated with my friends (the same ones who inspired the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers) as we created our own board game–an adventure epic with ourselves as characters in the game, along with other people we knew and some select professional athletes and celebrities.  We played that a few times.

 

And spoken-aloud stories!  Lots of those.  We’d stand on the driveway in July, the sun setting to the west, and we’d start talking about nothing, and everything, and I’d just make things up, invent narratives, what-ifs, scenarios, and we’d go from there.  I told them about the “window to nowhere” in the basement, the “dirt hole to the center of the earth” in the backyard, the swing set (also in the backyard) that, if you were able to get high enough, pump hard enough, you’d be able to see into a shadowy other-dimension, similar to the “Upside Down” in Stranger Things. Maybe the Duffer brothers telepathically listened into our conversations, via time and space travel . . .

 

All in all, I admit.  It’s fair to say that a good portion of my childhood was spent on fantasy, on invention, on transporting my mind to . . . elsewhere.  Did I do that more than the average kid?  Almost for sure. I’d head into the backyard, play wiffle ball with myself, going through the lineups of a fictional World Series matchup, creating my own teams, broadcasting the play-by-play as I went, televising to an audience of one–me.  I was on a cloud somewhere, in my own universe. Letting my mind wander where it will.

 

All children do that to a degree, of course.  That’s an aspect of childhood that inspired The Eye-Dancers–the unfettered ability to imagine, to allow the “unbelievable” to permeate the consciousness, to accept without question that supernatural forces exist in the universe (well, unless you’re Marc Kuslanski). On the surface, this quality, these whims and megrims of children, don’t appear to be overly important or eventful.  Kids are kids, after all.  They invent things.  And then they grow up and deal with reality.  Isn’t that the way of the world?  But maybe we have it backward.  Maybe it is we, the adults, who can learn from the ghosts and fancies of our long-ago past.  Maybe we had it right back then.  Maybe there is wisdom in the games and inventions of our youth.

 

It’s not as if “reality” is going so well.  The year 2020 is rapidly deteriorating into one of the worst in recent memory–and perhaps non-recent memory.  A worldwide pandemic.  Employment numbers that compare to those of the Great Depression.  Intolerance festering and spreading.  Governments laced with corruption and grift.  We have to deal with it all.  We can’t pretend it away.  But then again . . . in the face of it, in the dark bowels of the muck and mire, a little pretending, a little escapism never hurt anyone.  In fact, escaping when you can might just well be the tonic you need to remain sane and productive as we trudge forward as a society and a world.

 

And here, I believe, creativity is a godsend.  For, as authors, we can make our own worlds, our own characters, even, as in the case of The Eye-Dancers, our own universes.  We can leap across the chasm of the solar system in a single bound.  We can imagine a parallel world into existence, and make it come alive on the page (or the screen, as the case may be).  We can imbue our protagonists with a sense of wonder, and send them on a mind-altering journey across the void.  We can imagine.  We can rise above.  We can believe in the unbelievable, the grand, the mysterious, the magical.

 

In short, we can tap into the sense of discovery and boundlessness we had once, long ago, a spirit of imagination and possibilities that we too often lose upon the mantle of adulthood.  So yes.  Some might say writing a novel, creating a fictional universe, is frivolous.  But you know what?  If allowing our minds to soar above the clouds, to picture the what-ifs of a new and better way, to imagine worlds and places and times where things could be different, to pursue the unvarnished creativity of our truest self is frivolous–then I would counter that we should all be frivolous in our own way.  For you, it might be through painting.  Or singing.  Or cooking.  Or inventing a new form of mathematics.  Or dancing.  Or playing softball.  It doesn’t matter what the outlet is.  It just matters that there is one.

 

Because, when it’s all said and done, imagination and creativity are aspects of our humanity that allow us to strive to become more human, more understanding, and more compassionate.

Or, as Lincoln said long ago, at another time in our history fraught with peril and uncertainty, they pave the way for us to live our lives according to “the better angels of our nature.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

“And a One-Two-Tree-Tree, Two-Two-Tree-Tree . . . (Or, the Endless String of Jumping Jacks)

School memories are enduring.  Regardless of how many years have elapsed, the events and experiences from adolescence and young adulthood stay with us, forever fresh and seemingly tailgating us in our own personal rearview mirror.  And for me, some of the clearest and most vivid memories are of high school physical education.  Gym class.

 

Now, I have to say . . . most of the time, I dreaded gym class.  When I was a teenager, back in the antiquity of the late 1980s, I was an introvert who often worried for days on end what our phys ed instructor would have in store for us.  I was actually very good at sports, but not in that environment.  I preferred neighborhood games with friends, matches with my brothers, where I could be myself and feel comfortable.  But in the dog-eat-dog world of high school gym class?  With the ruthlessness of the locker room, the specter of square dance sessions, the mile run?  Back then, these were my school Waterloos, the things I most loathed about high school.

 

But through it all, regardless of what activities we were pursuing in gym class (soccer and football in the fall; basketball, swimming, and square dance in winter; baseball and track in spring–not to mention other odd assortments thrown in, like dodge ball–a personal favorite!–or rope climbing), one thing remained constant, especially when Mr. DeVos was the instructor.  Calisthenics.  Or, as Mr. DeVos liked to call them, “Cals.”

 

Let me back up.  By the time I had him as a phys ed instructor, Mr. DeVos was a veteran coach and teacher of two decades.  He was a former Marine, who enjoyed nothing more than putting his charges through the ringer.  I wasn’t on the high school track team–which Mr. DeVos coached–but those who were would regularly share with classmates the horror stories of practice under Mr. DeVos.  He would run his track team ragged, and, famously, when they needed a drink, would offer up cups of warm water.

 

He was a stickler for regular old gym class, too, and he began every class, rain or shine, come what may, without fail, with his beloved cals.

“We need to warm you up,” he’d say.  A few times, he would tack on “men” at the end, even though the class was always co-ed.  “Get the blood pump-pump-pumping!” he’d shout.  And he’d make us run laps around the gymnasium, do a set of sit-ups and push-ups, perform a series of sprints between cones.

 

But the one exercise he religiously made us do, every class, was jumping jacks.

“Get ready!  Jumping jacks!” he’d say, and some in the throng would utter a groan, as if they, somehow, had hoped the jumping jacks might not be on the agenda that day.  I always felt like asking them which Mr. DeVos they thought was teaching the class. Jumping jacks were an automatic, a given.  Every time.  Expecting anything less was ludicrous.

 

Mr. DeVos would have us assemble in a long straight line, and he’d stand in front of us, whistle around his neck.  Then he’d say, “Okay. Ready, Aaaaaaannnnd . . .”

And then he’d blow his whistle and say, “Give me thirty!”  And he’d do the set of jumping jacks right along with us.  He’d not only do them; he’d count aloud, so we all knew where we stood in the progression.

 

The thing was, thirty jumping jacks for Mr. DeVos wasn’t really what it sounded like.  Officially it was thirty.  In reality, it was several times that.  Why?  Because of the way he counted . . .

“And a one-two-tree-tree,” he’d begin.  (He pronounced “three” as “tree.”)  Keep in mind, this represented one jumping jack.  In the duration it took him to utter all this, we’d all probably completed three jumping jacks, maybe four if his cadence was especially slow.  And on and on he’d continue, in this way, all the way up to thirty . . .

 

” . . . one-two-tree-tree; two-two-tree-tree; tree-two-tree-tree; . . . eighteen-two-tree-tree; nineteen-two-tree-tree; . . . twenty-nine-two-tree-tree; and tirty-two-tree-tree.  Alley-oop!”  That was the signal that we were done.  And when we were, many of the students in the long line were panting.  A hundred (officially thirty) jumping jacks could do that!  Not to Mr. DeVos, though.  The old ex-Marine wasn’t breathing hard at all.  He never did.

The thing I remember the most about all of this was the feeling of duration, of no end in sight.  While the set of jumping jacks probably lasted no more than a couple of minutes, it always seemed like hours. “And a one-two-tree-tree; two-two-tree-tree . . .”  We all knew it was going to be a long road ahead until Mr. DeVos finally got around to thirty and blowing that whistle.

 

He was a man who took his time, particularly when it came to exercising his gym-class pupils.  He wasn’t rushed.  He wasn’t looking to finish the regimen too soon.

A few times, he’d surprise us, mid-jacks, and announce that we’d push onward to forty or even fifty jumping jacks.

 

Endless.

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Endless can also describe what it feels like to finish your work-in-progress. True, there are times when you’re struck by a bolt of pure inspiration, and, especially for a shorter work such as a short story or poem, you may be able to ride that current of creative electricity to its necessary and satisfying conclusion within a single day.  More often, though, and particularly for a novel-length manuscript, that initial surge of optimism and energy is replaced by a grueling marathon of stops and starts.  A novel is a maze, and what begins so promising in chapter one can ultimately turn into a literary quagmire by chapter twelve.

 

Where is the story going?  Why did I introduce that tangent in the previous chapter?  What should I do with it?  Is Character X really going to do that?  I never thought she would!  What changed her mind?  (As we all know, characters tell you, the writer, what to do much more than the other way around.)  The questions seem endless; the decisions and consequences, daunting.  And then, then!  Even when you are able to key in those magical words, “The End,” having navigated the twists and turns of the first draft . . . the work has only just begun.  Because now, you have entered the revisions stage.

 

Flipping back to page one, you painstakingly go through everything you’ve written.  For me, this is the hardest part because I see, with clarity, that wide swaths of my first draft were awful.  Character and story arcs that weren’t followed up; needless repetition and wordiness; entire scenes that can and should be sliced off.  It is always humbling, and whatever sense of accomplishment, of completeness I may have had upon finishing the first draft, vanishes like vapor.  The race has just begun.

 

Of course, editing and revising the manuscript is rewarding, in the end.  Taking a rough draft and polishing it, rubbing away the hard edges, the plot abnormalities, the padding that weighs the story down is gratifying.  It’s a long, often tortuous process–but when you finally finish this stage, that sense of completeness, this time, is genuine.  Perhaps one last proofread is in order–but the heavy lifting and the hard yards have now been accomplished.

 

Now is the time to celebrate.  But only now.  There are no shortcuts.

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I certainly thought of old Mr. DeVos as I was going through the revision stage of both The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel.  I even mimicked his cadence at times, doing a series of internal jumping jacks.  Heck–sometimes I did actual jumping jacks, to try to get myself going.  And as I did, I realized that the very thing I dreaded in gym class long ago was now something I appreciated, and called on, to help get me through.

 

So, thanks, Mr. DeVos.  This jumping jack is for you.

Everybody now . . . “And a one-two-tree-tree; two-two-tree-tree . . .”

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Twilight in February

The state of Vermont–the only New England state without an ocean coastline–is a rural place. And the hills in east-central Vermont, where I live, are rural even by Vermont’s standards. There’s an old saying in the Green Mountain State that there are more cows than people.  I’m not sure if that’s true statewide, but it is in the town where I live.  Just up the road, there is a family-owned dairy farm.  Sometimes, when I drive by it, I need to put the brakes on and stop to allow the cows to cross the road.  Cattle crossings are as much a part of the fabric of Vermont as skiing, maple syrup, and sharp cheddar cheese.  I don’t mind it, though.  In fact, I love it.  I enjoy the quiet, the forests, and the mountains that beckon in the distance.

 

I live in a house that sits atop a hill surrounded by meadow, which itself is ringed by woods on all sides, sixteen acres in all.  No neighbors can be seen from the house, and few can be heard.  Not that many people venture out of doors for long stretches of time.  It’s February, after all, and Vermont in winter is not for the faint of heart.

 

I don’t go outside myself as often as I should in winter.  Too often, the sub-freezing temperatures and arctic winds deter me.  But one evening, a week or so ago, just after sundown, I decided to don my gloves and boots and coat and take a walk out in the meadow behind the house.  For this time of year, the snow depth was modest–not even a foot.  That foot, however, felt like three or four as I trudged along, my feet barely sinking in, the crusty and icy surface hardened by a recent freezing rain.  It was an odd sensation.  The same expanse that I mow in summer covered beneath a shell of snow, the grass hidden, the flowers a distant memory from a warmer and more vibrant season.

 

I approached the pair of bare maple trees, in the front-middle of the meadow, that stand, side by side, like silent sentinels on guard duty, overlooking the property.  To the west, on this clear evening, there was still the faint afterglow of the just-vanished sun, visible through the woods in the distance.  Above me, the first handful of stars began to appear, and I knew, within the next several hours, on a crisp, clear night like this, there would soon be hundreds of them–giving the effect of an outdoor planetarium, the night sky a-glitter.  And to the east, rising above the birch grove behind me, a near-full moon lit the meadow in an orangish-blue glow.  It appeared close enough to reach up and touch, to call out to and half-expect an answer, or an echo.

 

I stood there, listening.  But there was nothing to hear.  The wind was calm.  The daytime denizens of the winter woodlands were no doubt hunkering down for the night, seeking shelter from the cold in caves and tree hollows and under logs and downed limbs.  The creatures of the night, meanwhile, the hardy ones who brave the subzero nocturnal temperatures, were nowhere to be seen, or heard.  Not yet.  For as much as my senses could discern, I was alone out here, in the middle of this meadow, on this starlit midwinter evening.  It was at once a sobering and comforting thought.

 

I trudged deeper into the meadow.  My footsteps were loud as they sought purchase on the ice-covered snow.  Around me, illuminated by the moonlight, I spotted wild turkey tracks, their three-toed hieroglyphics scattering this way and that, like a script waiting to be deciphered.  And I wondered.  Standing out there, in the frosty silence–would a story idea hit me, emerging out of the darkening twilight?  But then I stopped myself.  Ideas never come when called upon, when thought about, when desired.  At least not for me.  For me, they come when my mind is elsewhere, absorbed in something completely unrelated.  Nevertheless, it was so still, so quiet, so ideal for the muse to come a-calling.  I waited, stood there, a little bit longer.  Just in case.

 

Nothing came.  And the house, and warmth, beckoned.  I walked back up the meadow, pausing every now and again to savor the moment, to linger there.  More stars appeared overhead, as if by magic, their light, originating from somewhere in the long-ago past, reaching me at the end of a journey so boundless, our imaginations struggle to comprehend it.  There is a story in there somewhere, I am sure.  We are all made of stardust.

 

As I headed back inside, I felt invigorated.  Just for a while, I could forget about the upcoming week’s schedule and to-do list, the work that needed to be done, the dark and ominous direction of America’s politics.  Rather, I thought about potentialities, possibilities, infinities.  The way, when we begin a story, it can go in any number of directions, imbued with a lifeblood of its own.

 

And then, I went to my trusty PC, fired it up, and began to write.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Ode to November (and a Call-Out to Fellow Authors)

Anyone familiar with the northeastern United States in general, and Vermont in particular, may find the idea of an ode to November puzzling.  After all, November “up here” is one of the darkest months of the year.  The mercury consistently dips below freezing, and the foliage that lit the hillsides with red, gold, burnt-orange, and copper has long since fallen, shedding the hardwoods of their leaves and turning the woodlands into a stark and barren landscape.  And yet.  And yet . . . it is that very starkness, that very lack, that gives November its austere and minimalist charm.

 

The lush undergrowth of July, the tangles and brambles and the seemingly limitless expanse of all the green, growing things that, not so long ago, overcrowded the natural landscape, have vanished, crumbling to dried organic matter that will merge with the soil, slumber awhile, and spring forth in the new year to come.  For now, in this cold, quiet month of November, there are only the grays and the browns, the absence of, the empty spaces among the trees, the wind whispering through the gaps, the penetrating screech of a hoot owl under a dark and cloudy night sky.

 

And I love it.  I am here for it.  The deep frosts and snowdrifts of January have yet to overtake the land.  The natural world seems almost in a state of limbo, of waiting, of transitioning away from one season and meandering, slowly, shyly, perhaps reticently, toward another.  In this stripped-down landscape, I am reminded of some things.  Things that deal with the craft of writing.

 

When I was a college student, back in the last, gasping years of the twentieth century, I was drawn to the ornate, flowery language of the Victorians.  Bronte, Dickens, Hardy, Montgomery, and Eliot–I read them all.  No one will dispute the brilliance of these literary titans.  They rank among the best, without question.  But it can also be stated that Victorian authors, to put it delicately, were rather liberal with the amount of words they used to convey a message.  A modern-day editor very well might snip thousands of words from a Victorian-styled manuscript if said manuscript were submitted in 2019 by an aspiring author.

 

Don’t get me wrong.  I am still as big a fan as ever when it comes to the classics.  But over the years, I’ve learned the importance of snipping, cutting, pruning, and, as they say, killing your darlings.  While it would be fun to write four-hundred-word sentences and pepper dialogue attributions with adverbs, it would be over-the-top for a twenty-first-century audience.  Surely there is a middle ground for writers, like me, who enjoy compound-complex sentences, the occasional flowery turn of phrase, and who don’t always concern themselves with word count as they might!

 

This is why the month of November serves as a gentle reminder.  Looking into the woods, swept clean of leaves and berries and bushes, I think of William J. Strunk’s directive in his Elements of Style:  “Omit needless words.”  To be sure, what words are needless and what words are needed is a subject ripe for debate.  But the lesson is noted, nonetheless, and November serves as the natural world’s analogy.

 

All this to say . . . readers of this blog have probably observed that posts have been coming fewer and further between in recent months.  This is, in part, due to the amount of freelance work I have undertaken as an editor and proofreader.  What once was a “side gig” is rapidly becoming a full-time job!  Not that I’m complaining.  I enjoy the work, and relish the opportunity to provide a valuable service to fellow writers and content creators.

 

You will notice a new Page on this website: Freelance Editing and Proofreading Services.  Please consider this post (and the concomitant new Page) an invitation, a call.  If you would like a professional writer and editor, an old English major, and a proud grammar nerd to assist you with your work–be it a blog post, an article, a technical report, or a novel you are in the final stages of polishing for publication–I am here and eager to help.

 

Hopefully longtime readers of this site will know that I am uncomfortable soliciting work or sales of my novels.  Self-promotion does not come easily for me.  I thank you for your indulgence, and I do hope very much to work with many of you on your writing and publishing endeavors.  More than anything, thank you for your years of support of The Eye-Dancers blog.  I may not post as often as I once did, but I’m still here and intend to stick around for the long haul.

In this season of thanksgiving, I thank the month of November for its simple reminders.  And I thank each and every one of you for your support over the years.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

 

Where Freedom Lies

Have you ever turned your attention heavenward on an overcast day? I think it’s safe to guess you probably have.  I know I have.

Maybe you’re feeling low, beaten down, hampered by circumstance and the unfortunate course of recent events. And when you look up, hoping, perhaps, for a kind of solace, a jolt of inspiration, instead you are confronted with a sky that is low and gray, appearing as if some celestial giant has dumped their dirty laundry into the dark slate of the clouds.  And sometimes it’s easy, and natural, to feel trapped.  Is there any way out?  Is there some unseen escape hatch that can be discovered and pulled?

 

We’ve all been there, at one time or another.

In The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel, the protagonists find themselves in an alternate reality, after having traveled through an interdimensional void.  Quite literally, during their adventure, their very survival depends on their point of view, their ability to transcend their predicament with perspective, insight.

 

And thoughts.

In The Eye-Dancers, as he ponders the manner in which Mitchell Brant, Ryan Swinton, and Joe Marma have been able to tap into the “ghost girl’s” otherworldly powers and navigate through time and space, Marc Kuslanski, as is his wont, attempts to drill everything down to the rational, the scientific, disregarding anything that is supernatural.  As he does this, however, he reflects on how quantum mechanics intersects with the limitless capacity of thoughts.

 

From chapter 22:

“If a person could alter reality simply by observing something, then how much more powerful were his thoughts?  Take Ryan and Joe and Mitchell.  They had convinced themselves that some ‘ghost girl’ was contacting them in their dreams.  They had no doubt that this was true.  And so . . . their thoughts created a new reality. . . . Their potent and shared belief had transported them from one world, one universe, to another.”

Indeed.  The realm of the physical is finite, limited, and restricted.  We can only walk so many miles, jump so high, meet so many deadlines.  But the internal space, the world of the mind . . . is as boundless as the universe itself, able to traverse infinity instantaneously, able to elevate and overcome and conquer.

 

Able to be free.

In the last stanza of his poem “To Althea, from Prison,” 17th-century British poet Richard Lovelace expounds on this liberation of the mind, this ability of thought . . . and love.

“Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage.
If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.”

 

I find that all of this is especially germane to the creative world.  The transformative quality of the story, the magic of the written word, is an elixir for the soul.  On the writing side, I can be having a long day at work, slogging through a pile of bills, cleaning out the attic–but the story, the idea–it lives on.  It just needs to be written; or, if a work in progress, continued, edited, polished.  I can lose myself in my characters, their struggles, triumphs, tragedies, and accomplishments.  I can be lifted high above the clouds during that “aha” moment when the plot clicks together, a jigsaw puzzle fitting in place after months of searching.

 

And as a reader?  The dynamic is similar.  Open a book.  Or scroll through a Kindle.  With no visual aid, you are transported, instantly, to the time and place the author has created from their imagination.  It’s a kind of magic, really, a form of telepathy.  You can find yourself in a drab, windowless room, a gray office cubicle (not that you should be reading on the job, mind you, *wink*, *wink*), or a crowded, stuffy waiting room.  It doesn’t matter.  The words on the page (or the screen) offer an almost out-of-body experience, where, regardless of what’s happening around you, you can live vicariously through characters born from the mind of someone who may live half a world away, or who may have died hundreds of years earlier and yet is able to speak to you across the chasm of centuries.

 

Magic, indeed.  The ability to soar high above, to travel through the depths of space and land on the far side of the universe.  Or right in your own hometown, able to see your world in a new and different way through the adventures of the characters you read about.  Or created yourself.

Freedom can be found anywhere, so long as you can dream, and think, and imagine.

“The stars are yours,” Ray Bradbury once wrote, “if you have the head, the hands, and the heart for them.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Window to Nowhere

I am drawn to basements.  Dark places–cool, quiet, and, if you listen, alive with the whispers of long-ago events, memories, soft but enduring echoes.  On the surface, perhaps, this may seem odd.  Drawn to basements?  Why on earth . . .?

 

The answer is simple.  When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time in the basement.  I’ve written about some of my experiences in previous posts.  I often went down there alone–though only in the daytime, never at night!  It was a love-fear relationship.  As long as the sunlight streamed in through the small rectangular windows on either end of the cellar, I was okay.  I’d play pool (with myself), fiddle around with my older brother’s weights, write stories, imagine them.  But at night, when unverified sounds rose up from back corners, when I imagined unseen eyes watching me from the shadows, I steered clear.

 

Except when my friends were over (the same friends who inspired the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel).  There is strength, and bravery, in numbers.  They’d come over, and, oftentimes, we’d head into the basement.  We entertained ourselves in various and sundry ways–ping-pong, pool, board games, and just hanging out and telling stories, talking about nothing, and everything.  And, just as the boys do in the novels, we’d have sleepovers–in the basement.  As long as we were all down there, I was okay.  The settling noises of the house could more easily be attributed to things of this world as opposed to apparitions who were in the mood for a good haunting.  At least–that’s what I tried to tell myself.

 

I wasn’t above scaring them, of course.  I’d make up stuff about ghosts and goblins, ghouls who lingered in the dark.  They laughed–but they were nervous, too.  I could see it in their eyes.  Especially when I talked about The Window to Nowhere.

To back up, the basement in my parents’ home was partitioned into two halves–the “front” half, facing the street, was semi-finished, and that’s where the games, weights, pool table, and ping-pong table were.  It was a pleasant enough space with a bright ceiling light and food shelves; there was even a freezer, tucked tight against the wall.  A perfect spot for adventurous boys to congregate at night and let their imaginations run wild.  But the other half?  The back half?  That was a different piece of real estate altogether.

 

The back half of the basement was unfinished, with a cracked, cold concrete floor, an ancient, paint-splattered workbench, an old basin that looked like a relic from the 19th century (despite the fact that the house was built in the 1950s!), and the furnace, which hummed and thrummed like a beast alive on cold winter nights.  Beyond all that, though, the back half of the basement was dark.  The only light came from a naked ceiling bulb with an attached pull-chain.  And there was a “closet” of sorts, under the stairs, where long-forgotten items were stashed and where, I was certain, gremlins laid their heads to sleep each night.

 

Also, and most importantly, the back half of the basement was home to The Window to Nowhere–a dark, small, rectangular window that looked into the bowels of the crawlspace under the dining room.  When my parents purchased the house, back in the mid-1960s, years before I was born, there was no dining room.  My father added it on later.  When he did, he created the crawlspace underneath.  The Window to Nowhere, therefore, led somewhere . . . but it didn’t.  Not really.

 

When I looked through it, all I could see was total darkness.  Day or night, winter or summer, there was nothing to observe beyond the glass.  It was, to the eye of a growing child with overactive flights of fancy, a looking-glass to nothing, a gateway to zero, a Window to Nowhere.  I’d show it to my friends, tell them of the monsters who lived beyond the window, in the dark.  I’d tell them if they ever crawled in there (they wouldn’t, of course), they’d disappear from the earth, swallowed by the depths of no-space and no-time.  Could a human being exist in Nowhere?  None of them dared to find out.

 

The truth is, though, and always has been, that The Window to Nowhere represented its polar opposite.  For . . . wasn’t it, in actuality, a Window to Everywhere, and Every-When?  In the absence of anything but darkness through its glass, it opened the possibility to everything.  I imagined it leading to the center of a black hole, where all matter, all space, and all time was sucked into a vortex that predated the known universe.  I created, in my mind’s eye, negative-energy creatures, fanged monsters, vampires of the unknown, all of which resided in that crawlspace that defied and transcended the three-dimensional world I otherwise saw and experienced around me.  Without a doubt, the seeds of the void in The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel were sown from that window, in that basement.  My love of speculative storytelling, my penchant to ask “what if,” and my lifelong tendency to get lost in my imagination surely stem, at least in part, from The Window to Nowhere and the mysteries it evoked.

I think most writers have their own, personal Window to Nowhere.  Maybe it’s an old attic, or a tucked-away room in your grandmother’s house.  Maybe it’s a remote wooded glen or an empty mall just before closing.  The possibilities and variances are as endless as the imagination, as limitless as thought itself.

Today, when I go back home and visit the old house, the house where I grew up, put down roots in this world, the house where I scribbled my first short story and first novel, and the house that will always be a part of who I am and what I write, I make it a point to go downstairs and take a good, long look at The Window to Nowhere.

But only in the daytime.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Persian Flaw

It’s happened to all of us . . . likely more than once.  You’ve finished a piece of writing.  It can be a novel, a poem, a short story, an essay, a blog post.  Anything.  The point is–you wrote it, and it’s done.

Or is it?

If you publish it, it’s already “out there,” of course.  You can’t “undo” the act of initial publication.  But you can delete a blog post, remove an indie book from Amazon, or, if you haven’t published the work in question, you can hold on to it and allow it to collect virtual dust hidden securely in your computer’s hard drive.  (Then again, if a publisher distributes your work, or a magazine prints it, you’re stuck.  It will remain in public view.)

 

But isn’t that the point?  What published author wants to retract their work?  After toiling so hard on your story, it would seem self-defeating to withhold it, or, once published, to remove it.  And yet, we’ve all been there, haven’t we?  We thought we were finished with the blasted thing, but now, upon rereading it, and re-rereading it, and re-re-rereading it, we discover mistakes we overlooked before, errors the size and scope of Everest we were blind to just days or weeks ago, whenever we declared the work “complete.”

 

“How can I have missed that?” we might say.  “I can’t believe I thought this was ready for prime time!  What was I thinking?”  The mistake in question may be a grammatical one; it may be a collection of typos.  Or, perhaps more serious, we might encounter issues with our characters or plot structure or overall wording and pace.  Whatever it is we find, and grimace about now, is something new, something we simply didn’t notice before.  Maybe a negative review caused us to look at the story in a new light.  Maybe the fact that hundreds, if not thousands, of others have since looked at it since publication has made us hyper-vigilant in our post-publication literary detective work.  What are all those readers seeing?

 

And so we read it over again, and again, and again, hoping for perfection.  Hoping we find no blemish, no miscue, expecting every sentence to be Shakespearian, every plot twist Dickensian, every line of dialogue a melody from a literary symphony.

 

It grates us, therefore, when we encounter imperfection.  What’s that on page 98?  Why did I begin chapter 8 there?  I should’ve done it this way instead.  Why did I let that scene drag out so long?  And on and on it can go.

If we let it.

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

Centuries ago, the Persians were renowned for their peerless craftsmanship when it came to making rugs.  Persian rugs would take years to complete, and the final product would tell an indelible tale.  Each rug was a work of art, one of a kind, perfect.  Well . . . not entirely.  The Persians had a practice whereby they would introduce a flaw into the rug.  It was subtle, and perhaps indecipherable to the untrained or the indifferent eye.  But it was there.

 

Why, though?  Why deliberately make a mistake, as it were, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential?  Isn’t it better to quest for the perfect rug, or the perfect work of art?

The Persians believed only the divine could attain perfection and that humans, no matter how valiantly we try or how stubbornly we toil, cannot achieve it.  By weaving a flaw into their rugs, they were visually and symbolically yielding to this truth.  To attempt to craft a “perfect” rug would be an act of arrogance and foolishness, destined to fail.

 

There are no perfect carpets.  There are no perfect novels.  There are no perfect people.

Everything, and everyone, comes with a Persian Flaw.

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

One of the primary themes in both The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel is an acceptance of one’s idiosyncrasies and flaws.  Mitchell, Joe, Marc, and Ryan each have traits about themselves they dislike.  Even the “ghost girl,” Monica Tisdale, must face her shortcomings and learn to embrace herself for who she really is.

 

After all, what makes for a well-rounded and memorable literary character?  Is a great character perfect, always having the right answer, the best solution, the magic words for every situation that arises?  Perhaps, if you’re talking about Ward Cleaver or Cary Grant (and Grant was a “character” as much as any he played on-screen).  But “perfect” characters like this, while charming and enjoyable to watch when the mood strikes, come across as artificial, Hollywood constructs that represent ideals, not real life.

 

Why should our writing be different?  Why should we stress over stories already finished, already published?  Hemingway once said, “There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Frank Herbert said, “There is no real ending.  It’s just the place where you stop the story.”  (I’m sure he could have said the same about the start, as well!)

None of this means we shouldn’t strive to produce our best work.  By all means, edit your story as long as it takes for you to say, “That’s it.  That’s all I can do.  It’s the best I have.”

And then, as much as possible, accept that final determination.  “It’s the best I have,” not, “It’s the best I have until I get a bad review,” or, “It’s the best I have until I read it again next month and discover that error on page 18.”  Because the fact is, if you go in and fix that error on page 18, a month after that you might find another error on page 27 or 88 or 222.  It can turn into an endless loop of reading and rereading and editing and re-editing.

 

The Persians understood this.  We writers understand this when we create our flawed and human characters.  We understand it when we read other people’s work.  We can appreciate their work for its artistic merit and technique, despite whatever “mistakes” may be present.  We can see the beauty in it.  The truth in it.

Now, if we can only learn to view our own work through that same lens.

It doesn’t have to be perfect to be great.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Literary Gruntwork

How many books have you read so far in 2019?  Five?  Ten?  Twenty?

I have read forty-six, and counting!

 

Though, “read” is not 100 percent accurate.  More to the point, I have proofread forty-six books so far this year.  I work in a freelance capacity for seven publishers–and have the editors at said publishers ever kept me busy!  Not that I’m complaining, mind you.  After all, one of my favorite things is, and has always been, reading.  Getting paid to do it is akin to a dream job.

 

That said, the nonstop assembly line of book after book does get rather challenging from time to time.  There are weeks when I need to get through three books in six days–long books, too!  Again, I am not complaining–it is work I enjoy and am grateful for.  And the literary menu is varied.  I proofread both fiction and nonfiction, novels that range from suspense to literary to romance, nonfiction about religion, politics, finance, philosophy, health, science, pop culture, humor, and more.  I can go from reading a 400-page tome on investing to a crime-suspense novel all within the span of a couple of days.  It is interesting, to say the least.

 

And it all began by accident.  Way back in 2001, not far removed from finishing graduate school, I was calling around, looking for employment.  One of the places I contacted was a small book publisher here in Vermont.  “We don’t have an opening,” they said, “but we can always use a freelancer.”  At the time, I wasn’t even aware that publishers often utilized the services of freelance proofreaders.  As a writer myself, a grammar nerd, and a former English major, I decided, “Why not?”  I gave it a shot.  And, right from the outset, I realized–this was a gig for me!

 

The work is flexible, I can do it from home, and it even allows me to (virtually) meet editors and professionals inside the publishing industry.  It also has, over the years, strengthened my grammar skills and honed my ability to edit and check my own work.  Admittedly, I have always enjoyed grammar, dating back to high school (weird, I know).  But after proofreading close to a thousand books since the turn of the century, my grammar eye has become sharper, more observant, more disciplined.  And that matters.

 

I’ll be the first to admit:  grammar and mastery of style are not the most important skills in a writer’s toolbox.  Especially when it comes to creative writing, what matters above all is the talent to weave a story, engage a reader, create three-dimensional characters, understand the rhythm of words and the art of pulling it all together.  Some of this can be learned, studied, enhanced through reading and practice (i.e., writing).  But some of it, too, is innate–an inborn ability to tell a tale, an untaught sense of where to begin, how to escalate, where to pull back, how to capture the dialogue and mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of your characters.  In short, how to captivate a literary audience.

 

Nevertheless, if a writer completely ignores grammar, or is indifferent to improving in this area, it can deep-six his or her ambitions.  If a writer litters their manuscript with dozens upon dozens of grammatical errors, even the most patient editors and readers may turn away, no matter how riveting the content.  If you have a story to tell, you have to be able to master the tools and precepts of the language you’re working in to tell it properly.

 

“I’ll let my editor deal with it,” is the lazy writer’s way out–not to mention, many of us don’t have the luxury of a full-time editor to begin with.  Granted, the “small stuff,” the gruntwork of semicolons and commas and em-dashes and dangling participles and subjects and objects and prepositions can seem not only daunting, but boring, and anathema to the creative process.  And I’m certainly okay with overlooking these stodgy tools of the trade–for a while.  No need to sweat it out during a first draft.  But at some point, in order to dress your creation up in its finest clothes, to make it presentable for the discerning eye of your readers, that grammatical toolbox needs to be opened and delved into. (Ah!  Did I just end the sentence with a preposition??  Well.  It’s important to follow the rules, sure, but also important to know when and how you can break them!)

 

For me, proofreading helps me to stay sharp with all of this.  It’s true–there are periods when the workload becomes so heavy, I cannot find the time to do what I most want to do–which is write.  I need to put my own stuff on hold until the deluge ends and a season of relative calm returns with my freelance schedule.  But it’s rewarding to be “the last line of defense,” so to speak, in the publishing process of the books I proof.  If I fail to catch errors, the readers will–and they will let the editors know about it.  In that way, for sure, as a proofreader, the best news is no news.  No news means no complaints.

 

Such is the way of literary gruntwork.  When done well, no one notices the effort.  Absent the grammatical blunders, they just notice the story.

And . . . isn’t that what every writer wants?

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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