The Road (Not) Taken

On July 12, 1979, at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, between games of a twi-night doubleheader, there was a disco explosion.  Literally.  In game one, the Detroit Tigers defeated the Chicago White Sox, 4–1.  There would be no second game.  The reason?  A promotion that turned into a riot.

The White Sox were slogging through the 1979 season, mired in mediocrity.  Attendance was spotty, and the team was going nowhere fast.  Hoping to inject some interest, the Sox teamed up with local radio personality Steve Dahl.  Why not have a hate-on-disco night?  Why not cart thousands of disco records out onto the field between games of the doubleheader and then–explode them!  And so–Disco Demolition Night was born.  It all sounded good to the promoters.  But then things got out of control.

When the button was pushed, and the disco discs were blasted into bits, waves of fans stormed the field.  A riot broke out, and, due to the explosion and fans, the playing field was damaged, forcing the White Sox to forfeit the second game of the doubleheader.

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To this day, Disco Demolition Night remains one of the most ridiculed and notorious  baseball promotions of all time.  It also is sometimes referred to as “the day that disco died.”  Days after the demolition, on July 21, 1979, the top six songs on U.S. music charts were disco.  Just two months later, by the end of September, not one disco song was listed in the top ten.

What happened?  How could something so enormously popular one minute become so mocked and dissed just a short while later?  As the 1970s flickered and died, so, too, did disco.  I remember, growing up in the ’80s, how my two older brothers and their friends would mock the disco craze of their younger years.

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Disco was, essentially, a fad.  It had no staying power, no ability to transcend its generation.  There are still some who enjoy it, and think fondly back to its heyday, and there has even been something of a disco revival among fans.  But, culturally speaking, it enjoyed its proverbial fifteen minutes of fame.  And that was all.

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This brings another question to the forefront.  Are things so different with writing?  Certainly there are fads in the literary world, as well.  Trends.  “Hot” topics and genres.  The Twilight series caused an explosion in young adult vampire fiction.  The Hunger Games and its sequels have initiated a surge in dystopian story lines.  Is this a trap writers should avoid?  Is it a mistake to ride the coattails of Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins, as well as the other best-selling novelists who determine the trends of the industry?

Perhaps it’s better to go in a different direction.  Maybe it’s wiser to write about other things, to explore the realms that are not “hot” today, but may be tomorrow.  Maybe we can be the trend-setters.

Robert Frost famously wrote:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–

I took the one less traveled by.

And that has made all the difference.”

roadnottakenbetter

 

Granted, these lines are taken slightly out of context, used in isolation here.  But the idea is still worth thinking about.  Is it better to travel the untrodden path?  Or the popular one?  Is it better to write what’s “hot”?  Or to deliberately go against it?

I would argue both are valid, and both are misguided.  Because, whether you write about something that’s in vogue or about something that’s currently standing far removed from the crowd, the end result won’t be worth reading unless it’s your story.  You can write about sultry, beautiful vampires with a mysterious and unknowable backstory.  You can write about flesh-eating zombies that create havoc in a world reeling from their takeover.  You can write about erotic red rooms of pain.  Something is not artistically “less than” simply because it fits in with contemporary popular culture and trends.  If you approach the story with your own ideas, and if you write it because you feel like you’ll burst if you don’t get it down on the page–then it’s a valid, original piece of work.  Likewise, if you decide to write the “anti-vampire” story just to prove a point, just to throw dirt in the eye of popular culture, such a work is not really your own.  It’s merely a forced attempt to go against the grain, to be contrary for contrary’s sake.

We each have a unique and layered perception of the world.  Shaped by our experiences, which in turn are distilled and perceived through our personalities, bents, idiosyncrasies, passions, desires, fears and dreams, we each have a story to tell that is uniquely our own.

I wrote The Eye-Dancers because I felt driven to write it.  The initial idea formed after a dream I had more than twenty years ago.  I dreamed of the “ghost girl” who haunts the dreams of Mitchell and Joe and Ryan.  I dreamed of her, wraith-like, frightening, yet unable to be ignored, and I knew I had to write about her.  For years, I didn’t know how or where to put her into a story–until I dreamed of her again more than a decade and a half later.  This time, when I woke up, the genesis of The Eye-Dancers was in place.  Immediately, I began writing it.  There is nothing like that epiphany, that moment when an idea hits, unasked for, unplanned, and you just know you have a story to tell.  It is a high like no other.

And so I wrote.  I wrote about the ghost girl, yes.  But I also wrote about childhood, and the four main characters in the story are inspired by friends I knew growing up.  We used to talk about things, wonder aloud what’s “out there.”  We’d ask questions like, What if this world, this earth we know and live on, is just one of many earths?  What if we each have doubles, triples, an infinite number of “selves” in other, parallel universes?  And what if there existed a connection so strong between two people, two strangers, that, even a universe apart, they were somehow able to communicate?  Questions like these, the kinds of things I’ve always been fascinated by, drove the story of The Eye-Dancers.  And the relationships I shared with my childhood friends served as the heart-engine of the novel.

Maybe The Eye-Dancers is a good story, well told.  Or–maybe it’s full of shortcomings and faults.  Perhaps it’s a little of both.  Ultimately, that’s not my call to make.  I leave that to you.  But what I can say is this–it is my story, something I felt compelled to write, and driven to complete, even on those days when the narrative seemed to bog down or the characters didn’t want to cooperate.

In the end, that’s about all we can do.  Write the things that matter to us as individuals.  Sometimes these topics, themes, and passions yell and kick, demanding to be let free onto the page.  Other times, they are hidden, like fragments tucked away in a secret corner of the heart.  Either way, cultivate them.  Listen to them.  Share them.  They are yours.

A paradox, perhaps.  But a truth nonetheless . . .

When you write for yourself, you write for us all.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Making Sure Grronk Doesn’t Turn Into Chuck

Have you ever read a novel or watched a TV series where a character of some prominence appears near the beginning of the story, but then never shows up again?  And, even worse, is never even mentioned again?  It’s as if they never existed in the first place.  Granted, for very minor characters, this isn’t an issue.  In fact, it would be an awkward tale indeed if we felt compelled to bring back even the most trivial of characters for an encore scene.  But if a character leaves an impression, if a character exchanges in a lengthy dialogue or does something noteworthy for the story, it’s probably a good idea to bring them back at a later point, or, at the least, mention them again.

Perhaps one of the most notorious (though often laughed-about) occurrences of this character-who-disappears-act comes from the 1970s sitcom Happy Days.  I have watched reruns of Happy Days many times–guilty as charged!  I especially enjoy the first two seasons, when the show really tried to portray a 1950s look and feel.  Of course, the story revolved around Richie Cunningham (played by Ron Howard).

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And one of the supporting characters during the first season was Richie’s older brother, Chuck.

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Now, it’s true that they never developed Chuck as a character.  He pretty much just chewed gum and dribbled a basketball around everywhere he went.  He had all the depth of an eight-by-ten white envelope (non-self-sealing at that!).  Nevertheless, he was the main character’s brother.  And yet, after season one, he just . . . disappeared.  Gone without a whisper, without a trace.  It was as if he’d never existed at all.  Just a wisp, a figment of viewers’ imaginations from that inaugural season of the show.  Again, given that his character offered nothing of substance to the story line, his boot off the set wasn’t a big deal.  But not to mention him?  Not to say, “Oh, we just got a letter from Chuck.  He’s doing okay at college”?  Not to give even the smallest of details about what became of him?  That’s just sloppy, even if it has morphed into something of a pop culture joke.  They should have acknowledged Chuck’s existence post-season one.

When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, I wanted to make sure I didn’t follow in the same footsteps as Happy Days.  In chapter four of the novel, we meet Marc Kuslanski for the first time.  He of course is one of the four main characters in the story.  But in that same chapter, we also meet Matt Giselmo.  Or, as Joe Marma likes to call him, Grronk.  Grronk is not a major character–but he is significant in his own way, and that becomes clearer after the boys find themselves in the variant town of Colbyville.  I tried to make sure, when I introduced Grronk early on, that he was a memorable character–annoying enough to stay with the reader.  Obnoxious enough to leave an impression.  So when we see him again (or someone very close to him–I’m trying not to insert a plot spoiler here) much later in the book, hopefully we remember him from chapter four.

The key, though, was–after giving Grronk so much screen time in chapter four, I needed to reintroduce him at a later point.  Not to do so would cheat the reader.  Just like Happy Days did with their audience.  I know that I, for one, would like to know what became of old Chuck Cunningham.  Maybe he went off to star in the NBA.  Maybe he drifted around and never found a direction in life.  Maybe he settled down, got married, worked in an office.  The possibilities are endless.

What happened to Chuck? . . .  Sounds like the basis for a story.  Maybe I should go ask Grronk.  He’s bound to have some ideas.

Thanks for reading!  I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday.

–Mike

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