“Suddenly Seymour” Moments (Or, On Epiphanies)

Before the start of fifth-grade, I was afraid.  Granted, I never wanted summer vacation to end, but that year, I was filled with an unusual dread.  My teacher that year would be Mr. Bansbach.  He’d been teaching the fifth grade since the time of Confucius, or so it seemed to my ten-year-old sensibilities.  He was old-school, even when old-school was still in vogue–this was the 1980s.  He was tough.  He was no-nonsense.  But, more than anything, he was strict.

 

Not that I was a troublemaker.  Shy to the core, I said little at school and was a good student.  But I still worried.  Stories about Mr. Bansbach circulated through the school.  He was as feared as any teacher I ever had.  I dreaded that first day.

When it arrived, Mr. Bansbach introduced himself and, standing at the front of the class in his suit and tie, his thick glasses reflecting the fluorescent overhead lights, his thinning, dyed-black hair combed back on his head, he called us “preteens.”  “You’re not ‘kids,'” he said.  “A ‘kid’ is a baby goat.  You are preadolescents, you are growing up, and you will take responsibility in my class.”  Great, i thought.  The rumors were true.  This guy was going to be a nightmare.

 

One day, about a week into the new school year, I finished an in-class assignment early.  Not sure what to do, I just sat there, hands folded, waiting for the other students to finish.

Mr. Bansbach was not impressed.

“Class,” he said.  “I want to direct your attention to this young man.” He pointed at me.  “He finished his assignment early.”  That was good, wasn’t it?  I was on the ball!  Evidently not.  “Don’t do what he just did.  Ever.  When he finished, he sat there, blankly, wasting time.  Next time, young man”–he stared right at me–“take out a book and read.  Make use of your time.  Understand?”

 

I did.

And I didn’t like Mr. Bansbach.

A few weeks later, before class, Mr. Bansbach pulled me aside in the hallway, just outside his classroom.  I stiffened.  What had I done now?  Finished my homework too early the night before?  Did he have some way to monitor me at home?

“That was an impressive victory last night,” he said.  “Maybe your Steelers will win a fifth Super Bowl this season.”

And he patted me on the shoulder and winked.  Then he went into the classroom and I followed.

What had just happened?  And how did he know I was a Pittsburgh Steelers fan?  And why did he care?  Was he a sports fan, too?

 

He was.  Throughout that fall, he would talk to me about the Steelers games.  Win or lose, he always took a few minutes early in the week to go over their previous game with me.  I didn’t say much.  I was still nervous around him.  But it impressed me that he was so in tune with his students.

As the year rolled on, I genuinely learned to like Mr. Bansbach.  And he seemed to like me.  He congratulated me on several homework assignments, when I went above and beyond the parameters of the assignment.  The following year, when I entered sixth grade and had a new teacher, Mr. Bansbach would still seek me out in the hallways on Monday mornings and talk about the most recent Steelers game.

And while I learned to like him more and more as my fifth-grade year progressed, it was that first kind gesture, that initial time he talked to me about my favorite football team, that stuck with me.  I can still remember it–the way he stood there, outside his classroom, waiting for me.  His way of letting me know we were okay.  That I was okay.

 

You might call it a moment of epiphany, a realization, that the rumors were false, and that Mr. Bansbach was different from his reputation.  Oh, he was strict.  You definitely did not want to slack off in his class.  That part was true.  But no one ever said he was nice, that he cared.  That he would take the time to learn about his students and show them he was on their side.  I had to learn that for myself.

There are moments like that throughout literature and film–moments of awakening, when a character learns something about him- or herself, or someone else.  Indeed, The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel are chock-full of such moments–Joe Marma learning that he doesn’t even like football, a sport he pursues with reckless abandon, but only plays it to best his brother; Mitchell Brant finding out that his long-distance (a multiverse away!) relationship with Heather doesn’t mean what he’s thought the past five years; or Marc Kuslanski coming to grips with his guilt over the accident he feels responsible for with his little brother.  The characters realize these things in a moment of revelation, a tipping point in the symphony of their lives.  Epiphanies are real.  But they are also hard to pull off in literature or on film.

 

You want to say so much without, well, saying so much.  You want the scene to speak for itself.  You want the reader or the viewer to feel it right along with the character.

Like the performance of “Suddenly Seymour” in the 1986 remake of the musical Little Shop of Horrors.  Throughout the film, Seymour (Rick Moranis) and Audrey (Ellen Greene) work together at a florist shop.  Seymour is shy and awkward, but clearly carries a torch for his coworker.  She, however, is in a relationship with someone she, herself, describes as a “semi-sadist” (an outrageous dentist played by Steve Martin).  Audrey thinks lowly of herself, and she gets involved with abusive men like the dentist.  Throughout the movie, she speaks in a squeaky, mousy voice, almost as if she doesn’t even feel she is worthy to say anything.

 

But then this scene happens.  Seymour encourages her, praises her, and expresses his true feelings for her.  He stands, and sings “Suddenly Seymour.”

Audrey is touched, listening to him.  Then she joins in the song.  At first, her singing voice matches her speaking voice–timid, lacking in confidence, unsure.  But then, when she hits her own “Suddenly Seymour” note, there is a transformation, an awakening.  An epiphany.  Audrey finds her voice, literally, and she belts out the rest of the song in an astonishingly strong, beautiful, and full-throated rendition.  Before our eyes, without any speeches, without any blaring announcement, she and Seymour have changed.  They have awakened.  It is a cinematic performance for the ages.

 

And that’s how epiphanies work–in life, and in story.  They hit you with the force of a tidal wave, but, counterintuitively, they also do so quickly, quietly, in a moment, without any narrator making a bold, big proclamation.  There is no need to tell or exclaim or pontificate.  There is only a moment, the moment, when everything becomes clear.

Even just a moment in a song, or a moment when your fifth-grade teacher shows you–rather than tells you–that he’s had your back all along.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

People You Know, Characters You Create

Have you ever wanted to write–or actually written–a piece of fiction that featured characters based on actual people you know?  Now, granted–even when we create our characters “out of thin air,” there are elements of people we know in them.  Or, sometimes, a composite of several people’s characteristics rolled into one.  This may be on a subconscious level–you’re not necessarily trying to base your characters on anyone.  But it’s inevitable that traits from some people you know (or you. yourself, as the author) will find their way into some of your characters.

However, that’s not what we’re talking about here.  What we’re talking about is . . . you know Jane from across the hall in your apartment complex, and you want to create a character “based” on her.  Or perhaps someone from school–a bully, your best friend, a teacher, a nerd–whoever it is.  You want to feature them in your next novel (with a different name, of course).  Can you literally have at it, and re-create the real-life person in your fictional story?  Or do you need to add several layers of a literary buffer, effectively “disguising” them, perhaps even from themselves should they read your work?

 

The interesting thing about that is–whatever your intention, it likely doesn’t matter because as you write, as you go forward with your literary endeavor, creative elements will take over.

As I’ve posted about in the past, the main characters in The Eye-Dancers were based on friends I had growing up.  Specifically, Mitchell Brant was inspired by Matt B.; Ryan Swinton by Rick S.; Joe Marma by, well, Joe M.; and Marc Kuslanski by MattK.  The supporting character of Matt “Grronk” Giselmo was also inspired by a Matt–Matt G.  A lot of Matts!  As for last names, of course I changed them, though I matched the first letter of the fictional characters’ last names with their real-life inspirations.

 

And, honestly, when I set out to write the novel, my intent was to keep the characters relatively close to my real-life friends.  I wasn’t aiming to incorporate much “separation” at all.  Sure, I’d change details and respect their privacy.  Of course.  But as for their personalities, quirks, inside jokes, nicknames, and even physical tendencies, I was drawing form the real thing.

But then, as I continued to move forward with the story, a funny thing happened.  I began seeing the protagonists solely as who they were, and wasn’t even thinking of the real-life Matts or Rick or Joe.  Ryan Swinton was only Ryan Swinton.  Marc Kuslanski was only Marc Kuslanski.  At a certain point during the writing process, it was as if the characters weren’t inspired by anyone.  They had matured, grown, morphed, and become exclusively who they were.  Obviously, even with this development, the characters retained elements of their real-life inspirations.  How could they not?  That’s how they were “born.”  But they had fully and completely become their own entities.  As I wrote their scenes, I no longer even glimpsed the actual people they were based on.  I saw only the protagonists themselves.

 

It was a revelatory experience, one I honestly did not expect.  At the outset, I was “seeing” them so much as offshoots of the people I knew; I assumed it would remain that way throughout the process.  But as so often happens with creative endeavors, the process, the experience, the flow, the wonder takes on a life of its own and leads you where it will.  The writing is in charge.  Not the author.

So, if you are in a similar circumstance–about to begin a novel or a fictionalized work of some sort and are basing your characters on people you know (or knew), and you’re wondering how “close” to cut it . . . you probably have nothing to worry about.

Because as you begin, as you wade through the literary waters, as the bones of the story fill out with muscle and sinew and soul and emotion . . . the characters will become who they decide to become, and the initial inspirations will fade into the background.

So write.  Let your characters lead on.  It promises to be a journey as exciting as it is unpredictable.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

From the Micro to the Macro (Or, a Red Squirrel Tells a Story)

Imagine this situation.  A writer (let’s call her Jane) has a story idea–something that resonates, will not recede into the background, and something that, as if having a life of its own, continues to progress and grow and mature.  Jane is fired up, enthusiastic, and prepared to put in the long hours to craft a novel.

But she hesitates.  Despite wanting–needing–to write it, she pauses and thinks about it.  Her mind is all too ready to issue doubts and protestations, reasons to chuck the project and go back to reading others’ work instead of creating her own.

 

“Your idea’s too small,” her inner critic says.  “It’s so common, so run of the mill.  It’s just day-to-day family stuff, domestic life.  Who cares?”

Jane shoots back that she cares, and, as the author of the piece, doesn’t that count?  Doesn’t that matter?

But her inner critic is unrelenting.  “You have to come up with something bigger.  Bolder.  More exciting and universal.  Don’t waste your time on what you have now.”

Angered by the thoughts swirling in her own head, Jane feels an urge to punch . . . what?  Her own thoughts?  Her own doubts and fears?  But how can she do that?  And besides, maybe her inner doubts are right.  There is little violence in her story.  No international politics or major business deals.  No espionage.  The movers and shakers of the world do not appear.  It’s insular, isolated, just a mother, a daughter, a beloved cat.  A few friends.  Small-town settings, and small-town goings-on.  She’s writing about her memories.  Her loves and passions.  But they are small.  Who will care?  Who will be engaged with any of it?

 

She sleeps on it, tossing and turning through the night.

Early the next morning, Jane takes a walk through the woods that surround her home.  It is fall, there is a bite to the air, but it is invigorating, wakening, a tonic to her senses.  Fallen leaves crunch under feet.  Squirrels chatter nearby, scolding her for the intrusion.  Chipmunks dart to and fro, preparing for the winter ahead.  Songbirds twitter, mostly unseen, from the trees.  A particularly brazen red squirrel darts in front of her, on some mission that, evidently, cannot wait.

 

And that’s when she realizes.

To that rushing squirrel, at that moment, in this remote, out-of-the-way corner of the globe–no human voices to be heard, no car engines roaring in the distance, no city noises or excitement for miles around–this is the universe, the be-all and end-all.  It is everything.  Perhaps no one but Jane will ever know of this squirrel.  Perhaps her eyes are the only human eyes who will ever see it.  But that doesn’t matter.  This squirrel’s mission, this squirrel’s task, is the most important thing in the world, here and now, in this place.

 

And, she realizes, isn’t that the same for us?  For the lonely widow with no one to talk to you?  For the homeless person, down on his luck, trying to figure out a better way?  For the high-end executive, alone, at night, stressing over the details of the latest progress report?  For the little boy or girl, with two days before summer vacation, looking forward to two months without homework?  For the neighbor down the street who everyone disregards as “boring” and “dull” and doesn’t really talk to?

We all have stories.  Our lives are comprised of moments, thoughts, hopes, dreams, triumphs, sadness, and countless “mundane” things that make up the bulk of day-to-day living.  To us, as individuals, our “little problems” are the universe.  They are our stories.  And they are worth sharing.

 

Because what you are feeling today, countless others are, too.  What I am struggling with in my day-to-day, many others are, too.  Are there differences?  Of course.  We are each our own person, with our own unique set of experiences and thoughts and feelings.  But there is a thread, invisible perhaps, but as real as the air we breathe, that links us.  We are both unique and universal, individuals and a part of the whole.

There is no such thing as a story “too small,” a subject too “mundane.”  If someone is living it, feeling it, if someone is moved by it, then it can reach others, too.  It can serve as both a window and a mirror, a reminder that we are all different, but all inextricably connected.

 

So, if you have an idea about a “small” thing, a particular “mundane” situation, write it.  Share it.  Give it to the world.

We will all be better for it.  And, if we are looking, really looking, we will see the macro in the micro, and recognize ourselves in the story.  And maybe, even learn something new about ourselves (and those we know) along the way.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Swing Set in the Backyard (Or . . . So, You Want to Write a Novel?)

When I was eight years old, my parents bought a swing set for the backyard.  It was red and yellow, with two swings.  My father installed it at the extreme northern end of the yard, a few feet to the left of the brick fireplace he had built upon moving into the house, years before I was born.  I cannot say I remember whether or not I had asked for a swing set or if my parents decided it would be a good idea to get one.  Either way, that summer–the summer I was eight–I spent a lot of time on those swings.

 

Well, I mainly used the swing closer to the fireplace.  If anyone wanted to join me, they needed to use the other swing.  Sometimes, I’d swing for hours.  I used to love swinging on July evenings, the air warm, the yard fragrant with flowers and freshly cut grass, the scent of a late barbecue from next door wafting on the breeze.  I’d plop down on the swing, push my way into a swinging motion, and kick . . . and kick . . . and kick.  Higher.  Always trying to get as high as possible, so I could see.

 

Indeed.  Especially at twilight, when I reached the apex of my swinging journey, I would peer to the north, beyond the backyard, beyond the neighbor’s yard . . . above the rooftops.  And I would glimpse . . .

But then I bottomed out again, beginning another rotation.  When I returned to the top of the arc, though, there it was . . . a netherworld.  A distant, ghostlike village just beyond the horizon.  As dusk descended, the village would, counterintuitively, glow brighter, shining in contrast to the darkening landscape.  If I looked closely enough, I could see spectral shapes moving to and fro.  Every few seconds, as I reached the apex of my swinging arc, I would see them again, a moment or two removed from my last glimpse.  Glimpse after glimpse, for an hour or more each night . . . before it became full-on dark and my mother called me inside.  Snapshots into another world, another dimension.

 

Back then, immersed in the wonder of being eight years old, I believed–fully–that what I was seeing out in the twilit distance was real–an alternate dimension of sorts, with wraiths living their lives and doing whatever it was they did.  I’d think of them during the day, too, or when I was inside, or at night while I slept.  What were they doing when I couldn’t see them?  I began to write down ideas.  Stories.  A love of the creative process was born.

 

That’s probably how it starts for many writers and artists–early on, at some point during childhood, you realize that your mind tends to drift.  That, even more than most kids, you question and conjure and wonder, and ask, “What if?”  You get lost in story and have conversations with yourself when no one’s around . . . or sometimes even when they are.  And as you get a little older and master the language more, the nuances, the flow, the texture and taste of the words . . . you write.  Short stories.  Essays.  Plays. Novels.

 

Novels.  I would have to say the number one question I get from non-writers who are aware that I have written novels is: “Where did you get the idea?”  And that is often followed by: “I could never write a novel.  Way too long!”

Long it is.  And that’s the challenge.  That’s the price that must be paid if you want to turn your aha-light bulb idea into three hundred pages of story and forward motion.  Ideas are a dime a dozen (even good ones).  Be it fiction or nonfiction, writing a book is work.  A lot of work.

 

Do you outline?  If research is needed, how much do you do?  After writing seven chapters–riding the roller coaster of inspiration–what happens when you come to chapter eight and, suddenly, the shine wears off, the plot becomes murky, and you’re not sure which direction to take?  And–if you’re like 99.9 percent of writers in the world, you also have a day job.  You have bills to pay, responsibilities to attend to, tasks to complete, people to care for.  How on earth do you carve out the time to write a novel?  And even if you do, will you have any energy left over after all the responsibilities of the day are done?  Writing takes energy and creativity.  These may be in short supply after a full day.

 

Or maybe you set your alarm for 4:00 a.m. and try to get some writing in before anyone else is up.  But are you?  Or will you feel like a zombie author, staring half-asleep at your screen, unable to process thoughts?  Make no mistake about it–writing a book is difficult.  In many ways, the writing itself is the easiest part.  It’s everything else that can trip us up, even when we enter the project with the best of intentions.

 

And that’s the trick, really.  Does writing a novel take talent?  I suppose.  Some writers have an abundance of talent; others may not have quite as much, but they have enough–they can do it.  If they didn’t have the ability to write a book, they wouldn’t have arrived at this point–planning out a story line, falling in love with an idea so much, they are willing to spend the next year or more bringing it alive on the page.  Anyone who reaches this point in the journey has the ability to write a book.  It is hard–it requires creating something out of nothing and then spending countless hours editing and honing and slicing away at the result–polishing it, killing your darlings, and revising, revising, revising.

 

Which brings us to the key.  The secret ingredient, if you will, of not only starting, but finishing a novel.  Well, perhaps there are two ingredients.  The first is commitment.  Given all of the challenges already touched on here, it can feel impossible–literally–to find the time and energy to complete a novel.  How do you overcome the challenge?  You have to be committed to your work, your idea, and have the perseverance to see it through.  There is no other way.

 

The other ingredient?  Confidence.  Self-belief.  Have you shared your idea with others?  Quite likely, you have received some very encouraging and positive feedback.  “Great idea!  I’ll buy it when it’s available!  Wow!  I wish I’d have thought of that!  Sounds like a best seller!”  But, just as likely, you will have received some lukewarm or even negative feedback, too. “Really?  Sounds contrived to me.  I don’t think your idea is believable.  Who cares?  The market is full of stories like that.  Your novel will get lost in a sea of similar stories.”  Or–“There’s no market for that, though.  No one will buy it.”  The list of would-be criticisms can stretch on, as long as the Sahara Desert.  It is easy to become discouraged, assess the monumental task ahead, and then shrug your shoulders and say, “Maybe they’re right.  Who am I kidding?  Who would want to hear what I have to say?”

 

This is where belief must come in.  There is no one–no one–in the world with your unique perspective.  It is likely true that your story idea is not entirely original (in reality, at this point, there may not be a truly original idea in existence; everything, in one way or another, has already been done).  But it has not been done, and not been told, in your point of view.  Only you can bring your life experiences, your voice, your essence, to the subject.  In short, only you can tell the story you have inside you, the story you feel a need to share with the world.

 

And that matters.  That’s what it’s all about.  Something–some force, some pure and true element of your soul–has instilled in you a need to write a story.  If you don’t write it, it will nag you, always.  So, press on.  Don’t listen to the naysayers (including the ones inside your own head).  Find a way to complete the project, even if it takes years.

Because, when it comes right down to it, we all have that eight-year-old inside of us, full of inspiration and imagination and wonder–with a story to tell.

So tell it.  Share it.  The world will be a better place when you do.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Carpe Diem (Or, Pursue an Idea When It Hits)

There is a scene, early in the 1989 drama Dead Poets Society, where the new English teacher at the Welton Academy prep school, John Keating, has one of his students read aloud from a 17th-century Robert Herrick poem.  The stanza reads:

Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to day,
To morrow will be dying.

Keating and his class are standing in a hallway, beside the school’s trophy case.  Old team photographs of long-ago academy sports teams are hung inside the case, the students from a different time staring out at the onlookers, their expressions locked in place across the chasm of decades.

 

Keating asks his class what the verse means.  What was Herrick getting at?  “Carpe diem,” he tells them.  “Seize the day.”  But why?  Why “seize the day”?

“Because we are food for worms, lads,” Keating goes on.  “Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room, will, one day, stop breathing.  We’ll die.”

Here, Keating asks the students to step forward to look at the photographs of the old sports teams.

“They’re not that different from you, are they?” Keating says to his class.  “Same haircuts. . . . Invincible, just like you feel.  The world is their oyster.  They believe they are destined for great things, just like many of you do. . . . But you see . . . these boys are now fertilizing daffodils.”

 

Keating then has them lean in close, tells them to listen, listen to the voices, the murmurs of the ghosts before them.  Do they hear it?  Keating whispers in a voice meant to sound like the grave:  “Carpe . . . diem.  Seize the day, boys.  Make your lives extraordinary.”

This scene is memorable for many reasons, not the least of which is the remarkable performance of Robin Williams, who plays Keating.  But what of the message?  What of carpe diem?  Is it wise counsel?

As with anything, if misunderstood or taken to the extreme, it can harm more than help.  After all, I may want to “seize the day” by climbing Mount Everest, even though I have no training and no preparation.  Or I may want to drop everything and experience life to the full by walking across America, leaving all my responsibilities and cares behind me.  That might feel good in the moment, but doubtful it would lead anywhere beneficial.

 

What, then, is carpe diem, and how should we apply it?  How about with writing or creativity?  Is there a literary version of carpe diem?  And if so, what does it look like?

I don’t know about you, but when it comes to anything creative–a story idea, a scene from a novel, an inspiration–I cannot force things.  If I say, “I want to write a short story today,” but have no workable idea to write about, try as I may, I won’t produce anything of value.

On the other hand, my best ideas always come unasked for, unplanned.  I can be doing anything–mowing the lawn, taking a walk, lying in bed–and boom!  It hits.  Where does it come from?  We may never know.  But it comes.  And it comes in its time and its choosing.  What to do then?

 

Carpe diem, of course!  It’s not every day an inspired idea strikes.  Whether it’s a novel idea, a short story, a poem, a song . . . it doesn’t matter.  When that idea strikes, in the white-hot fire of the creative epiphany, that is the time to act.

 

If it’s a poem, write it.  Right then and there, if possible.  Same with a song.  If it’s a short story, maybe jot a few notes if you can’t write it immediately.  Capture the details lest you forget them, and then, at the first opportunity, write the story.  If it’s a novel, again, jot down plot points, character traits, perhaps even make an outline.  However you work, whatever preparations you need to do before undertaking a long-form creative endeavor . . . do what you must.  And then begin writing the actual novel as soon as you can.

Because . . . why wait?  Why wait and allow apathy or indifference to seep into the picture?  Carpe diem.  Seize the literary day!  Take advantage of that gift–that new idea–while it’s fresh and you are fired up.

Write.  Create.  Make your words sing.

And make your (literary) life extraordinary.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Walk Down Memory Lane (Or, Where the Inspiration Comes From)

Recently, I took a short trip “back home” to visit my family in Rochester, New York, where I was born and spent the first two-and-a-half decades of my life.  Only . . . “Rochester” is too general.  I stayed at the old house, the house where my father still lives, where I grew up, where I spent a childhood and adolescence living and learning, and dreaming.

Rochester, New York - Wikipedia

 

Mostly dreaming.  I was an introvert growing up (and still am), and I spent a good portion of my time “elsewhere” in my mind.  I’d go out into the backyard and hit the Wiffle ball, pretending to be participating in the World Series.  I’d create lineups, do play-by-play, and even keep statistics.  Or I’d head out to the driveway and shoot baskets.  My parents had a hoop attached just above the garage.  The gutter that lined the garage bore the brunt of numerous misfired shots–by me, my friends, my brothers–you name it.  Even today, though the hoop is long gone, that gutter still wears its decades-old battle scars.  Other times, I’d go down into the basement and spend hours writing in the cool, dimly lit space, escaping the heat and humidity of summer days.  The common theme was–a lot of solitary activities, sequestering myself away from others, content to create an alternate universe, as it were, one as boundless as my imagination, with no limits and no restrictions.

The Wiffle Ball, Inc. - Official Site

 

That’s not to say I was always alone!  I often got together with my neighborhood friends, some of whom were the real-life inspirations behind the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers.  We’d do all manner of things throughout the year, but especially during summer.  We’d even have sleepovers, in my basement, that same space in which I spent so much time on my own.  I’d tell them of the ghosts and vampires that lurked in the shadows, under the stairs, in the crawlspace.  I was so convincing, I avoided going down there alone after sundown!  My solo basement adventures were exclusive to times when the sun was up and streaming through the cellar windows.  To be down there at night, I needed the company of my friends.

Soundbytes: Pop Music's 5 Best Vampire Songs | Wisconsin Public Radio

 

In the main, however, I was a loner.  Though often by myself, I never felt “lonely.”  There was always so much going on in my imagination, so many story plots being concocted, so many “out-there” scenarios playing across the movie screen of my overactive and fanciful mind.  And these flights of fancy did not occur only within the confines of the house.  No, indeed.

I would take walks through the neighborhood, sometimes for hours.  I’d go far afield at times, several miles out, walking, observing, saying hi to the cats and dogs that sometimes would follow me for a block or two.  I’d look at the houses, the architecture, especially examining the older abodes.  Two stories, with rotting shingles, mature oak trees and maple trees, and surely full of memories and experiences lurking within their walls, these houses never failed to capture my attention.  Sometimes I’d stand there on the sidewalk, just looking at the house, a corner of the yard, a specific tree or bush.  More likely than not, people inside probably watched me and wondered what the odd boy on the sidewalk was doing, and what he was staring at.  No one ever came out to interrogate, though.

Toronto seeks to save oak tree older than Canada | CTV News

 

Numerous story ideas were born on those walks.  Potentialities, possibilities, hauntings, evil, goodness, all manner of things would percolate in my mind, to the point where, often, when I arrived back home, I would whip out my old-school pencil and paper and jot down notes, or even dive right in to the story proper.

When I visited the old house, the old neighborhood, earlier this month, I took a long walk.  It was along the same route as some of my childhood walks.  Some things had changed.  Some of the houses–especially the ancient, haunted ones (or at least what I always told myself were haunted)–were gone, replaced by newer, more sterile homes.  Much of the neighborhood remained unchanged, however, and as I walked through the interlocking streets, it felt as though I were walking through time, my steps commingling with those of my younger self.  Memories swirled, regrets.  Joys.  And when I returned to the house, I whipped out a pencil and some old-school notebook paper, and jotted down a few new story ideas.

Meet the Andromeda galaxy, the closest large spiral | Astronomy Essentials | EarthSky

 

Works every time.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Dalkowski vs. Koufax (Or, the Importance of Sharpening Your Tools)

There is likely something you take to–something that, for as long as you can remember, has always come naturally to you.  As a child, when others around you struggled, you enjoyed doing it; it flowed like water down a mountain slope, easy, fast, and free.  The something in question can be anything: tennis, a foreign language, algebra, memorization, dancing, singing, juggling, writing.   But whatever it is, you always knew you had a natural bent toward it, a tilt, as if the skill in question were a star and you were a planet kept in orbit through its gravitational pull.

How to Understand Algebra (with Pictures) - wikiHow

 

For Steve Dalkowski and Sandy Koufax, the talent in question was throwing a baseball.  Indeed, it’s possible that someone could be a bodybuilder, the world’s strongest human, and still not be able to throw a ball inordinately hard.  And then you get someone like Dalkowksi, an unremarkable five foot eleven and 175 pounds but who could, reportedly, throw a baseball as fast as 110 miles per hour.  Koufax wasn’t quite as fast, but he was a contemporary of Dalkowski’s, and he threw plenty hard enough.

the long, hard journey of steve dalkowski, possibly the fastest pitcher ever!

 

Both men were lefthanders, and, at least early in their careers, despite their obvious inborn natural gifts, they were not overly successful.  Dalkowski, in fact, never was.  He never made it to the Major Leagues.  Blessed with that golden arm though he was (every batter who faced him maintained no one ever threw harder), he was fragile mentally, heaping enormous pressure onto himself before he took the mound.  He also, how shall we say, enjoyed a good time and did not train with the vigor he might have.  During his minor-league heyday, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dalkowski would essentially strike out, or walk, every batter he faced.  In 1960, for instance, he both walked and struck out 262 batters in a single season.  Statistics that would be unthinkable for anyone else.

Dalkowski never made it out of the minor leagues.  He toiled away for nine seasons before flaming out, a footnote in baseball history despite being the fastest pitcher who ever lived.  He had all the natural talent in the world.  But talent, alone, wasn’t enough.

Meanwhile, Sandy Koufax began his career in much the same manner.  Admittedly, Koufax was never as wild as Dalkowski–no one was.  And he did make it to the Major Leagues at a young age and stuck around.  But for the first handful of years of his career, Koufax was a mediocre pitcher–full of potential but not coming close to realizing it.  Like Dalkowski, Koufax was a lefthanded flamethrower, but he was also blessed with an off-the-table curveball that, coupled with his fastball, made batters look silly.  He had one major problem, though–he did not have pinpoint control.  He would walk too many hitters and didn’t hit his spots consistently in the strike zone.  As a result, for the first five years of his big-league career (1955-1960), Koufax was a forgettable player–just “a guy” as they say.

Sandy Koufax Gallery | Trading Card Database

 

But he worked at it.  He was determined to get it right, smooth out his form, take away the hitches in his delivery, and overcome his control issues.  The hard work really started to pay off in 1961, when he won eighteen games and posted a 3.52 ERA.  Not earth-shattering numbers, but he was on the right track.  Then 1962 came along, and the countless hours he’d put in, perfecting his craft, would manifest in the best five-year stretch of any pitcher in baseball history.  From 1962 until his forced early retirement in 1966 (Koufax had suffered massive arm injuries during his career), the lefthander was virtually untouchable, posting ERAs as low as 1.93 and 1.85, winning twenty-five or more games in three of those magical seasons, and striking out 382 overmatched hitters in 1965.  “Trying to hit Sandy Koufax,” Pittsburgh Pirates great Willie Stargell once said at the peak of Koufax’s career, “is like trying to drink coffee with a fork.”

From Oakland to Pittsburgh, Willie Stargell - African American Registry

 

Two pitchers–both blessed with almost freakish talent–but only one of them “made it.”  The difference?  One honed his craft, worked endless hours, refused to accept mediocrity, and never relied on just his talent alone.  If you are a writer, for example, maybe you have an innate sense of pacing, of language, of turning a phrase just so.  Maybe people have said things to you like, “Wow.  You are such a poet!  The way you put words together.  You make them sing.”

 

All may be true.  But if you don’t take that gift and work with it, if you don’t master grammar and punctuation; if you don’t study story structure and learn how to “kill your darlings”: if you don’t strive to prune and pare down and remove pesky adjectives and adverbs and redundancies from the text, you will be the equivalent of the 100-mph pitcher who couldn’t throw strikes.  Your talent will shine through, but it will be buried underneath too-wordy and sloppy prose.  It will not be maximized, and your potential will not be reached.

Off to the Red Pen! – Heidi Eliason

 

So, whether you write or sing or play basketball, or pitch a baseball–put in the hours necessary to master your skill.  Sweat the small stuff.

It can make all the difference.

Just ask Steve Dalkowski and Sandy Koufax–and the batters they faced.

PRACTICE CHART - Callirgos Music

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

What’s Old Is New Again (Or, Tapping into Your Own Personal Literary Slush Pile)

One way or another, fiction or nonfiction, seeking publication or simply scribbling away for my own enrichment and edification, I have been a writer for a long time now.  Not all of my literary endeavors have been successful, that’s for sure.  And some will never be seen, even fleetingly, by any eyes not belonging to me.  But the point is, good or bad, published or unpublished, I’ve been at this for a while.  And so–there is quite a “slush pile,” as it were, on my hard drive.

Infographic: Publicist Slush Pile | Real Pants

 

But before delving into the slush . . . of course, I am wanting to create something new, to explore an idea that is swimming around, like a rogue fish, in the fluids and nooks and crannies of my brain.  Do I have such ideas?  I do.  All writers do.  Ideas are our stock-in-trade, after all.  The thing is, not all of these ideas are good, or even workable.  In fact, the majority are not.  Or–maybe an idea has potential, but, in its current state, it is too unformed, too skeletal to work with.  So, though enthused by the germ of it and intrigued to pursue it, you temporarily set it aside, allowing it the space and quiet it needs to form sinews and cartilage and nerve endings, to pulse with the literary blood flow of a living, breathing story.  I know, for me, such idea-germs need to work themselves out on their own.  I can never force them.  I must be patient and wait for them to tell me when it’s time to put them down on paper.

Swim bladder disease--is your fish swimming sideways?

 

The question naturally arises, then.  What to do in the meantime?  What to write, what to create, while awaiting the muse’s unannounced and capricious call?  For me, I sometimes simply write a scene–even if it has no chance of developing into something more.  Working out the narrative muscles, keeping dialogue top of mind, describing the situation, letting it all play out.  It’s the literary equivalent to practice.  And sometimes–rarely, but sometimes–such a writing exercise can bloom into a full and fleshed-out story.  It does happen.

Exercising your Literary Muscle – Limelight Publishing

 

But what if even that amounts to nothing more than a dozen unrelated scenes, scattered around your hard drive like unreadable hieroglyphics from an ancient civilization, unable to be deciphered or turned into anything more?  Where do you go when the fully formed ideas are few and far between, or even nonexistent?

Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics Alphabet

 

Perhaps . . . to your own work?  If you have any sort of track record of writing projects, surely you have some old stories lying around.  Some of them may be so old, and so forgotten, they read as if another person created them.  (An odd, almost disembodied sensation, but recommended!)  Now, it’s true–some, or even most–of these stories may strike you as second-rate–especially if they’re more than ten years old.  After all, we move forward as writers, as artists.  We accrue more life experiences, hone our craft, enrich our voice.  Our old work really shouldn’t be as polished as our more recent efforts.

Top 5 Creepiest Disembodied Voices Ever Recorded

 

But sometimes, every now and again, they are–or, if not, they contain enough depth, imagination, and spark to revisit them.  So, if the well is running dry–maybe dig into that old slush pile.  And if you see a short story, or even a novel that has been collecting dust for years–perhaps sit with it for a while, and then . . . if you’re encouraged by what you’re reading–begin to rework it.  Editing an old piece of writing to make it new again.  Superimposing your in-the-now abilities over your abilities from ten or twenty years ago.  Making the old new.

Dry Wells

 

Of course, such a project is only applicable if you are, in fact, short on new ideas, and if you find the old work in question worthy enough to edit.  But it’s an often overlooked source of material–your own stories!  (Sometimes, too, your old stories can ignite an entirely new idea, and off to the races you go on a brand-new novel.)  There are plenty of possibilities.

Either way, though, it is a good idea to check out your old stuff–whether you want to rework it or not–if, for nothing else, to see how far you’ve come as a writer, how you’ve matured and grown.  And to see a snapshot into what the younger version of you thought was important enough to write about.  In some ways, it’s almost like reading old journal entries.

The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives | The Morgan Library & Museum

 

And, right now?  I think I’ve convinced myself.  I have an entire thumb drive of old stories I wrote, years ago.  Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to revisit them.

After all, our younger selves have much to say to our current selves.  There has to be a story in there, somewhere.

Daily Devotional – 12/1/16 “Letter to my younger self!” – Lakisha, the  Author

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

Thankful (for the Memories, and the Inspiration)

Late November, the northeastern United States, the hill country of east-central Vermont.  No snow whitens the landscape yet this year, as the fields and meadows remain a stripped, subdued green dotted with dead, scattered leaves.  Cows and sheep enjoy the cool, bug-less weather.  There is a stillness, a quietness in the air.  It is a season of thanksgiving, even amid the calamitous year of 2020.

Post-Thanksgiving R&R AND Putney Craft Tour! Nov 27-29 | Vermont Gay Male  Rock River B&B Resort near Brattleboro

 

And for me, today, this year–and always–one thing I am eternally thankful for is my childhood.  I was lucky.  I was raised in a stable and loving family.  My father still lives in the same house where I grew up.  I never had to move as a kid.  And, with that stability, I acquired neighborhood friends who stood the test of time, season after season, year after year.  Fixtures of my youth.

Indeed, as I’ve mentioned previously over the years on this blog, the protagonists from The Eye-Dancers were inspired by the friends I grew up with, the kids from the old neighborhood.  And I think, even back then, in those long-ago summers of the 1980s, navigating a childhood without the Internet, without smartphones and tablets and smart speakers and Wi-Fi, I knew that what we shared was something special.  Something enduring.  To this day, when I hit a dry patch in my creativity, I pause, think back, and remember.  Because I know that the essence of creativity–my creativity, anyway–streams forth from those adventures decades ago–the inquisitiveness of childhood, the explorations, the stories, the inventions.  The wonder.

1980s retrospective - National Library of Scotland

 

I am thankful for that.

Rick and his brother, Bill (Ryan and Tyler from The Eye-Dancers), lived next door, and Joe (well, Joe, from The Eye-Dancers) lived kitty-corner across the street.  Grronk (well, Grronk from The Eye-Dancers), Matt K. (Marc from The Eye-Dancers), and Matt B. (Mitchell from The Eye-Dancers) lived a few streets away.  If I felt bored or had nothing to do on a weekend or a summer day, I’d head outside, grab the basketball, and start shooting at the hoop my parents had in place above the garage.  And–like clockwork–snap!  Screen door opening and shutting.  Rick next door, coming over, responding to the bouncing basketball.  And, moments later: slam!  Joe’s screen door across the way banging shut, as he waddled over. And we’d shoot at the hoop.  Talk.  And plan something for when Matt, Matt, and Grronk would come.

93,032 Basketball Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images - iStock

 

There were sleepovers, too.  We’d head down into the basement, where we’d play games I had invented.  Sometimes I’d read aloud from stories I’d written, and it would be well past midnight before we turned in in our sleeping bags.  The basement was old, creepy, with mysterious noises and strange clicking and hissing sounds that would come unbidden, in the dark.  As we drifted off to sleep, I’d be sure to tell them of the ghosts, the goblins, and the vampires that hid, silently, underneath the stairs.  Invariably, a flashlight would flick on, cutting through the gloom.

A guide to ghosts by Jonathan Stroud | Children's books | The Guardian

 

Mostly, though, I just remember the camaraderie.  The walks we’d take.  On some of those summer sleepovers, we’d take a walk around the neighborhood, after midnight.  Was it safe?  We thought so.  Safe enough, anyway.  Besides, there was strength in numbers, and there were half a dozen of us.  As we walked, we’d look at the houses.  Most were dark.  A few still had lights on.  We’d guess who lived there (if we walked far enough afield and no longer knew), what they might be doing on the other side of the walls and windows.  We’d look up at the sky, and if the stars were out, we’d talk about space travel, time travel, and how the light from those stars took millions and millions of years to reach us, and how, seeing them now, we were, in effect, gazing into the past.

What's Your North Star? A Short Guide In Defining Your Purpose | The  Minimalist Vegan

 

“Is it possible that some of those stars aren’t even there anymore?” Matt B.  (Mitchell) would ask.

“What kinda stupid question is that?” Joe shot back.  “‘Course they’re there!”

“Well, I don’t know,” Matt K. (Marc) would chime in.  “Theoretically, they could be gone.  The light we’re seeing is from millions of years ago.  We have no way of knowing what’s happened in the intervening years.”  (Hey, Marc Kuslanski didn’t materialize out of thin air!  Matt K. was a grade-A inspiration for the character.)

We’d keep walking, talking, wondering, arguing.  We felt very young, and very strong.  Full of potential, the years ahead of us yawning wide, decade upon decade.

ᐈ Vortex stock pictures, Royalty Free vortex images | download on  Depositphotos®

 

That’s what I remember the most.  The feeling of possibilities.  Ambitions.  Dreams.  The sense that we had all the time in the world, and nothing was going to stop us.  The full-throated expression of creativity and what-ifs.  Daring to imagine.  To wonder.  To consider.  Nothing was off-limits.

Which brings me back to today, 2020, decades removed from those days of my childhood.  Back then, the year 2020 would have seemed like a century away, some distant, inconceivable future on the other side of tomorrow.  Yet here I am.  Here we are.

The City of the Future: Closer than We Imagined? | IndustryWeek

 

But those memories live on.  And the energy and enthusiasm of those long-ago days, and the friends with whom I shared them–spur me to press on, to continue dreaming and writing and creating.  To continue looking up at the night sky and asking questions.

And to never, ever forget.

What's the matter with the Universe? Scientists have the answer | Deccan  Herald

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Name’s the Thing (Or, “Call Me Galen!”)

By all accounts, I have a simple first name.  “Mike” is as run-of-the-mill as it gets.  Throughout my life, whenever I’ve been in a group of people and someone says, “Mike!  Hey, Mike!” several heads turn toward the voice.  It’s a common moniker.

Mike | All names have meanings................

 

In my case, though, there are backstories, and stories behind the backstories.

When I was a toddler, I decided early on that I loathed the name “Michael.”  “I don’t like the ‘cole’ at the end,” I said.  “Everyone call me ‘Mike.'”  And, basically, they did.  In fact, this is a preference I still hold to this day.  I still prefer “Mike” to “Michael”–though I do not loathe my “proper” name anymore.  It’s okay!  I don’t hate the “cole” anymore.  But “Mike” is still the name of choice.

Coal | Facts, Uses, & Types | Britannica

 

The thing is, shortly after I declared that childhood proclamation, I swerved headlong into a new name.  When I was four years old, I fell in love with Planet of the Apes.  And I mean, head  over heels!  I watched the movie dozens of times, collected the action figures, played made-up games with all the characters.  One time, my cousin Symone–born in the same year I was–came over to play.  She wanted to play with my Planet of the Apes action figures.  “Okay,” I told her.  “Just don’t play with Galen!  You can touch anyone else, but not Galen.”  I can’t remember why I didn’t play with her.  I just let her play with my action figures, and did my own thing.

Ape Soldier (Planet of the Apes 1968) | Deadliest Fiction Wiki | Fandom

 

To back up, as much as I loved Planet of the Apes, I loved the character Galen more.  I wanted to be Galen.  In fact, in my mind, I was Galen!

“Call me Galen,” I announced one morning to my mother.  She may have thought I was joking.  I was not.  “I won’t answer to ‘Mike’ anymore.  My name is Galen!”

Galen (APJ) | Planet of the Apes Wiki | Fandom

 

I also announced this to my sister and two brothers, my father, grandparents, aunts, uncles, everyone.  I was Galen!  Not Mike.  Who was he?  He didn’t exist anymore.

So, when Symone did exactly what I told her not to do, I lost it.  The first thing she did was reach for Galen.

Instantly, I snatched the figure away from her.  But that wasn’t all I did.  I got up, ran out of my room, Galen in hand, and yelled to my mother, “She touched Galen!  She touched Galen!”  I felt compelled to make the case against her, as if arguing before a grand jury.  This was an infraction of the highest order.

Virtual Grand Juries? | New Jersey Law Journal

 

Symone came running out, too, trying to take Galen back.  “It’s not fair!” she said.  “It isn’t fair!”  (Keep in mind, we were both four!)

I honestly cannot remember how it all turned out that day.  But even now, all these years later, the family gets a good laugh out of it.

But that was just the start.

I didn’t limit my new name of choice to my family.  Far from it.  My mother had recently signed me up for a book club at the local library.  Two dozen or so toddlers would sit in a circle in the library once a week, and the librarian would read to us, the parents watching, nearby.  Each child in the group had a name tag they needed to wear.  I insisted the librarian write my name in as “Galen.”  I’m sure my mother had to explain why, but in the end, “Galen” it was.

Library / Library Policies

 

It was summer.  There were two months before I would begin kindergarten.  My mother, surely, was anxiously eyeing the calendar, hoping against hope that my Galen obsession would clear, like the summer heat and humidity, at the start of the school year right after Labor Day.

But right then, in mid-July, it was going as strong as ever.

My parents took the entire family to the Adirondack Mountains, a three-hour drive through upstate New York, before arriving at our destination of Whiteface Mountain.  It was a rare mini-vacation for us back then.  And I was in full Galen mode.  Both of my older brothers mocked me on the drive up, taking liberties with my adopted name.  Bring it on!  I was Galen.  I didn’t care what they said.

Exploring Whiteface Mountain - The Whiteface Lodge

 

At one point during the trip, after we’d arrived, I was frolicking in a playground, my mother right there, monitoring.  Several other children were there, swinging, sliding, running around in circles like puppies chasing their tails.  I was having a blast.  But then my mother called out, telling me it was time to go.

“Michael, we have to go,” she said above the din of children’s voices and the sounds of our play.

I ignored her, kept right on playing.

“Mike!” she said, knowing that was the name I preferred.  I didn’t acknowledge her.  She knew what my name was.

There was a pause.  Then:  “Galen!”

I came running!  All I asked was to be called by my new name!  There were other parents there, too, no doubt glancing askew at the child with the odd name.

But from there, the Galen fascination did in fact wane, I moved on to other things, and, indeed, by the start of school that fall, I was “Mike” again.

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

In the years since, I have never populated a story I’ve written with a character named Galen.  But I always think about what to call my characters.  They are not named without consideration and consequence.  It’s an odd feature of being an author–we create people, living, breathing human beings on the page–and we must name them.

What Are the Different Parts of a Book?

 

For The Eye Dancers, the protagonists were inspired by real-life friends of my childhood.  Each character’s initials mirror those of my actual friends, so Mitchell Brant is inspired by the real-life “MB,” Ryan Swinton by “RS,” Marc Kuslanski by “MK,” and so on.  Beyond that, why Mitchell Brant?  Why Marc Kuslanski?  Why Joe Marma?  Like Galen when I was four, something popped.  The neurons fired.  The names felt right.  It’s the kind of thing where . . . you know it when you see it (or hear it).  It’s more an art than a science.

Amazon.com: The Eye-Dancers (9780692262788): Fedison, Michael S., Gaston, Matt: Books

 

So much of writing, creating, exploring, imagining, is.

The main thing is–when you write for your characters, when you craft their dialogue, personas, loves, hates, dreams, fears, hopes, and aspirations . . . invest in them.

Maybe even as much as I did when I was four with my favorite character from Planet of the Apes.

AusReprints - Planet of the Apes (Marvel, 1974 series) #5

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: