A Land of Long Shadows

The hill country of east-central Vermont, where I have lived for over a dozen years now, is famous for its fall colors.  Tourists flock to the Green Mountain State from across the nation, and the world, to catch a glimpse of the reds, oranges, and golds that light up the hillsides every October.  The blazing foliage of autumn is as synonymous with Vermont as its ski slopes, dairy farms, and Rockwellesque small towns.

 

For me, though, October in Vermont is about much more than multicolored tree leaves.  Don’t get me wrong.  I marvel at the beauty of the season as much as anyone.  There is nothing quite like a stroll along a country lane in Vermont in the fall.  But it is the subtler, less showy aspects of the season that leave the most indelible mark.  The musky scent of woodsmoke on the air.  Fallen leaves crunching underfoot.  Warm, sunny days, the humidity of high summer over and gone.  Crisp, starry nights, quiet, the chorus of crickets silenced by frost and the encroaching winter.

 

And shadows.

Just the other day, I took a walk out back, in the meadow behind the house.  The land slopes down, gently in places, steeply in others, to the meadow, which is here and there interspersed with maple trees and elm trees and birches, their bark white and clean against the copper-yellow of the autumn leaves.

 

It was late afternoon, the sun was sinking to the west, and a recent end-of-summer heat wave was in the process of retreating, moving south like a migrating bird, leaving New England to the rightful, cooler temperatures of the season.  I looked at the maple trees at the top end of the meadow, standing, side by side, like deciduous twins, their leaves mostly green still, with the occasional flash of gold.  The sun was hitting them just so, and their shadows reached out across the expanse like dark, giant fingers.  My own shadow was long, too, as I stood in the path of the westering sun.  It spread across the grass, comically elongated, as if I were a colossus, a wanderer come down from Brobdingnag.  I walked south, changed direction to the east.  My shadow followed, sometimes merging with the shadows of the maples or the birches, or the woods, which ringed the meadow on all sides.  No matter where I walked, it came with me, always there.  Always present.

 

There was no escape.

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

There have been times when I was told that I am not always present–not fully, anyway.  “Sometimes, even when you’re here, you’re not here,” a friend told me once.  And I don’t deny it.  Ever since I was a boy, my mind has had a tendency to wander, to daydream, to roam over hills and valleys in search of the unknown and the unexplored.  Sometimes it’s playacting.  I spent more time than I like to admit growing up visualizing, in vivid detail, myself winning Wimbledon or batting in the bottom of the ninth inning in the World Series, the game on the line.  I’d pretend to hold an interview with the press afterwards, going through an elaborate question-and-answer session.  I’d think of new games to invent, new theories to drum up, new ways of looking at the tried-and-true.  Often, at night, I’d look up at the sky, count the stars, realizing that, as numerous as the visible stars were, they represented but a tiny fraction of the whole–just a slice of the firmament, a drop in a cosmic sea without end.

 

Truth be told, I still do all of these things from time to time.  Not as much as I used to, but I still do them.  On one level, it’s embarrassing.  I’m not a kid anymore, after all.  On another level, I hang onto these wonderings, these musings left over from childhood.  Without them, something essential, something life-affirming and good, would be lost.

 

More than anything, though, I get lost in my stories.  That’s to be expected while I’m hunkered down at my PC, of course, frantically pecking away at the keyboard.  (I’m old school.  I don’t have a laptop.  I still prefer the bulky old desktop.)  But it’s not only when I’m physically writing.  My stories are with me always–especially the novels.  I can be seated at my desk at work, out taking a walk along the shoulder of the road or through the woods, showering in the bathroom, even visiting friends or family–and suddenly, out of the blue, an idea will hit me.  So that’s how chapter 27 should be resolved!  Oh, so Ryan shouldn’t do that, he should do this.  I’m not sure if Joe handled that the way he really might have.  How about this . . .?  And on and on it goes.

 

Beginning with The Eye-Dancers, which I started in 2009, and continuing on through its sequel, The Singularity Wheel, still on schedule to be released in November, I have lived and breathed with the protagonists in these tales for almost a decade.  They are never far from my thoughts, always ready to intervene or interrupt, as if to say, “Hey, remember me?  You got that last scene all wrong, partner.  I would never do that!  You better go back and fix it.”  Or the story itself, like a living, breathing entity, a sentient thing, will communicate with me, vying for my attention.  If I’m not sure what to do in an upcoming chapter, it does not stay silent, tucked away in the background.  It speaks, shouts, demands to be solved.

 

So forgive me if, while we talk, I occasionally have a distant, faraway look in my eye.  The story never sleeps.  The characters can never be put to bed.  The questions and musings and machinations of the creative process are as stubbornly and persistently present as shadows.

 

And while there are times when this is taxing, draining, even downright annoying, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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

Ready to come inside, I walked back up the slope, leaving the meadow behind me.  As I crested the hill, I paused to take another look at the trees and the grass and the deep, forever blue of the sky.  I stood there like that, taking in the scene, pondering its beauty and its vastness, and its truth.  Then I turned around, and headed for the house.

 

My shadow followed me every step of the way.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Walk Across Upstate New York (Or, The Rewards of a Step-by-Step Process)

I’d been looking forward to it for weeks.  We had been talking about it since the early spring, and now, at the height of summer in western New York, the time had come.

It was 1995, I was still in college, and the prospect of a new century, a new millennium, was still five years into the future.  Cell phones were still mostly a novelty, and the Internet was a newborn, slowly gaining traction, just beyond the outskirts of the mainstream.  No matter.  As summer approached that year, I was excited, eager to partake of the adventure.

 

It wasn’t hard to plan.  School was out, we had cleared our schedules.  We had a full week to do it.  I had hoped to corral the entire gang–Rick and Joe and Matt and Andy, the neighborhood friends I had known for years–and also the people who inspired the protagonists in both The Eye-Dancers and its soon-to-be-released sequel, The Singularity Wheel.  But some of the guys backed out, citing potential dangers, scheduling conflicts, previous commitments.  That was okay.  We still had three of us going.

 

So it was that on the warm, humid morning of July 10, 1995, precisely twenty-two years ago today, my neighbor Rick (on the right), my cousin “Moose” (left), and I (center) set out on our mini-journey.

 

We would spend the next week walking across a portion of upstate New York.  I had long romanticized about walking across America.  This bite-sized facsimile would have to do.  We’d trek west from Rochester, traveling through remote, rural towns, experiencing the pastoral heart of the Empire State on foot.  And while our experience would only last a few short days, I knew, even before we started, that I would never forget.

 

The first day was the hardest.  We weren’t used to walking so many miles.  Our feet ached, we drank copious amounts of water, and we rested every few miles.  But we had a blast.  Walking mostly on the shoulder of the road, we traveled along both main thoroughfares and sparsely used back roads.  With our packs and gear, it was obvious to passing motorists what we were up to.  Some cars honked at us.  A group of college students sped past at one point, calling us “nerdballs.”  That made our day.  A middle-aged man in a straw hat, doing yard work at the base of his lawn, stopped us and offered us water.  We politely declined, letting him know were well stocked.  He asked us where we were going.  I’d like to say we were honest–just a weeklong walking trip across western New York.  Alas, we embellished the details–substantially.  Something about Colorado to Cape Cod, and back again.  What’s worse, the guy believed us.

 

“I wonder if we should have told him the truth,” I said, a mile up the road.

“Well, we’re walking across most of the country in spirit,” Rick said.  “So, I mean, it’s kinda, sorta the truth, right?”  That was good enough for us.  I have no good excuse to offer now.  What can I say?  It was a heady moment.  We were young.

That first night, we stayed at the farmhouse of a family friend just outside the small college town of Brockport.  Well, we didn’t spend the night in the house.  We slept out in the yard, in sleeping bags, under a sky dotted with stars.  We were tired–we had walked twenty miles that day, and had run through the wheat field out back behind the farmhouse that evening.  It took us a while to get to sleep, though.  We lay down, listened to the cries of hoot owls, the rustlings in the plants and shrubs that flanked the yard, the whispers of the night breeze as it shared its sacred, eternal wisdom.

 

We talked.  We joked.  We savored.

And the next morning, bright and early, we set out west again.  The walking was already growing easier, our bodies acclimating to the journey, adjusting to the rhythm.  It rained, briefly, and then the sun came out, a hot, large July sun that tested our stamina.  More cars beeped at us.  More insults were hurled.  More strangers stopped us, took a moment to chat.  For every derogatory remark we received along the way, we got ten more that were kind.

 

We walked through tiny, speck-on-the-map towns, with names like Clarendon and Holley and Albion, dotted with old capes and town squares and corner stores.  Interspersed between the towns, acres and acres of cornfields and dairy farms spread across the land like a luxurious green carpet.  We slept in cheap motels and ate convenience store pizza.  And then, on the fourth morning, we turned around, headed east, back to Rochester.

 

Suddenly, it seemed, the miles grew longer, the movements more laborious.  We had lost some of the spring in our step.  It was easy to understand why.  While we had journeyed west, away from Rochester, we were exploring new ground, in full discovery mode.  Sure, we’d seen many of these same towns before, but it’s far different zipping by in a car than it is taking the time to really look and listen and experience while walking.  Not to mention, a few of the smallest towns were in fact new to us.  We had never visited them prior to the walk.

 

Now, though, we were going back, covering much of the same ground we had just days earlier.  We took a few different roads, tried to change it up a bit.  But the truth was undeniable.  The return trip back was a known quantity.  We were heading back to the point of origin, no longer breaking new ground, no longer heading away, deeper into the unexplored.  The sun felt hotter, the humidity more taxing, the water supply less plentiful.  Even the pizza lost some of its zing.

 

As I reflect back on the experience now, two decades later, I realize the entire episode was not unlike writing a novel.  The walk away from Rochester was akin to the twists and turns and highs of creating the first draft.  You know where you’re going in a broad, general sense, yet the specifics of how to get there are shrouded in mystery and intrigue.  There is always a bend up the road, and until you take it, you can’t be sure what lies beyond. The euphoria of discovery is in the air as you boldly journey into the unknown.

 

Likewise, the return trip back to Rochester, plodding through familiar territory, was like the editing process, hashing over material already on the page, pruning, crafting, reshaping.  There is nothing new here.  The story has already been written.  This is the time to sharpen the focus, tighten the prose, and make sure the plot developments and characters and events link seamlessly together from front to back.  If Character X does this in chapter two, the reverberations must be felt in chapter twenty-seven.  The editing process can be tedious and slow–but it is a crucial aspect to completing a finished project.

 

And that’s where I am currently, in the process of finishing The Singularity Wheel.  I’m walking back to Rochester, as it were, through towns and streets and along back roads I have traveled along before. And yes, it can feel like walking uphill sometimes.  But I have to hope that the extra time and effort will help to shape the final product into something worthwhile.

 

One thing I do know for sure.  When we did get back home to Rochester that hot July of 1995, we felt as though we had accomplished something.  Sure, it would have been easier to hitch a ride back, shorten the journey.  But it wouldn’t have been the same, wouldn’t have meant as much.

 

That first evening back, the sofa had never felt so good.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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

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

 

We make choices all the time.

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Maybe it just depends . . .

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

“Whew.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Surely, we can do the same.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Most Bittersweet of Words

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

 

And yet . . .

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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

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

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

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

mysterydinnerstart

 

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

kickball

 

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

silverware

 

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

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

mysterymenu

 

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

butter

 

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

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

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

chocolatecakedevilsadvocate

 

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

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

toothpickeatingmashedpotatoes

 

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

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

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

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

plottwistsasreaders

 

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

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

outline

 

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

thevoidgetbackhome

 

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

streambanks

 

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

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

slinkymallebale

 

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

cracketrsend-ofpost

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Let Your Voice Be Heard

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

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

writerworkshopstart

 

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

backpackeurope

 

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

chocoloatechipcookies

 

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

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

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

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

mteverest

 

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

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

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

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

writersquestionsanddoubts

 

It can be crippling if we let it.

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

insignificantoneamongbillions

 

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

oped

 

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

thisclosesequeltoosmall

 

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

themeslove

 

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

voicesjoiningexponentially

 

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

ripplesinpond

 

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

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Quest for Archibald Leach

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

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

northbynorthweststart

 

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

cropduster

 

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

carygrantofcourse

 

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

grantconfused

 

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

And it did.

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

everyonewantstobecarygrant

 

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

grantandkelly

grantandsaint

grantandhepburn

grantandloren

 

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

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

archieleachchildhoodphoto

 

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

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

leachorgrantchoosebeforebreak

 

And it is.

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

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

marcspocklogic

 

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

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

characterxnochange

 

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

hemingway

 

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

hollywoodhidingleach

 

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

hairpincurves

 

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

Give me Archibald Leach.

grantleachendofpost

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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