The True Fortune in “The Fortune Cookie”

Recently, I came across some of my old stories, written when I was still in middle school and high school–not, as today, via a keyboard and word processing program, but with a yellow mechanical pencil, the lead on the pages now faded by the onslaught of years.  I’m not sure why I was rummaging about.  It was one of those quiet, gray, nondescript January days in New England, when the world seems to be slumbering, taking a long nap before reemerging, green, and flowery, in the spring.

vermontslumbering

 

I suppose it was just something to do.  I went through long-neglected boxes and plastic tubs, uncovering memorabilia, books I hadn’t flipped through in years, old school assignments, and, yes . . . old stories.  Looking at the sheets of paper, realizing my handwriting had improved not at all since high school, I sat down beside a window and began to read.

boxesinatticbeginning

 

The stories are decades old.  Honestly, I had forgotten some of them even existed, but now, with the pages in my hands, the words before my eyes, they came back to me.  Yes.  “The Penny.”  I hadn’t thought of that one in years!  A cliched clunker with a predictable climax–though when I originally wrote it, surely I’d thought it was a nail-biter.  “The Wager,” “The Martian Library,” “The Right One,” “Pea Soup on a Foggy Day” (don’t ask!).  I read them all.  I couldn’t put them down.  It was easy to cringe at the over-the-top writing, the lack of believable characters, the flawed motives, the well-worn plot devices.  Had I really liked these stories when I’d written them?  But then I began to view them with a more forgiving eye.  I’d just been starting out, after all.  They were my first forays into a craft that takes a lifetime to hone, and even then, there is always room for improvement.

peasoupfog

 

But there was more there than just words to read and critique.  There were memories, old feelings that came back to the surface after being submerged for decades, hopes and dreams and ways of looking at the world when I was twelve and fourteen and seventeen.

That’s when I pulled out “The Fortune Cookie.”  I remembered that one well.  I had written it as a senior in high school, and back then thought of it as my best work, easily my most accomplished story at the time.  I remember that summer, shortly after graduation, submitting it to a handful of magazines, hopeful, confident that one of them would accept it.  They didn’t.  It wasn’t the first time I’d received rejection slips–but it did hit me harder that summer.  Why didn’t they like the story?  Could I have been so wrong in my assessment of it?  Wasn’t it any good?

fortunecookie

 

Rereading it now, through the cold, hard light of two decades’ worth of perspective and experience, I am able to admit–it’s not a publishable story.  It’s not entirely flawed.  There are some good scenes, some taut dialogue, and the conclusion, unlike the other stories I had written as a teenager, actually does pack a punch.  But it’s still the work of a beginning writer, barely finding his voice, still with so much to learn.  Even today, as I write this post, there is a part of me that is tempted to revise the story, edit it, prune it, sharpen it, make it better.  But I don’t.  And I won’t.

beginnerwriting

 

“The Fortune Cookie,” for all its flaws, is irreplaceable–a piece front and center in my own personal literary time capsule.  It belongs to a different era, just before the dawn of the Internet and email, and years before smartphones and social media.  It was written, in that faded mechanical-pencil lead, by a teenage version of myself, approaching the story from a different angle, with a different skill set and a different point of view, than the way I’d approach it today.  As frustrating as it might be to read it now, with all of its warts and fallacies and portions of illogic, “The Fortune Cookie” will remain as it is, in its original format.

timecapsule

 

I’ve never been one to keep a journal.  I’m not sure why.  I tried a couple of times, but quickly grew bored with it.  I suppose I’ve always needed the added layer of taking my personal experiences and using them in stories that I make up, worlds that emerge from somewhere deep within my subconscious, perhaps mirroring our own, perhaps quite different.  For whatever reason, I’ve always felt a need to create something new, as opposed to reporting on and writing about true events.  But in doing so, I have often felt the lack of a journal as a loss.  There is no record of how I felt on September 6, 1992 or June 29, 2001, or October 5, 1987.  It’s hard not to lament sometimes and wish I had such things recorded, in a weathered and bound notebook that I could access anytime I wanted, that provided a peek, however brief, however terse, into the shadows of my past.

writingjournal

 

That’s when I stop myself, and come to understand the true value in the poorly written stories from my youth.  When I read “The Fortune Cookie” today, there are certain passages that take me back, completely, to my senior year in high school, to the day when I hunched over the same wrinkled pages I hold now.  I can remember the feelings that raced through me as I wrote the last scene, the way the pencil couldn’t move fast enough, unable to keep pace with the speed and direction of my thoughts.  I can remember sitting down to write the first word, feeling inspired, fired up, and realizing, then as now, that there is no high so dizzying as a new idea that needs to be let loose onto the page.  I can even remember the feelings I had as I wrote specific sentences, the onrush of adrenaline, the urging to press on.

dizzyingflyinghigh

 

And so, in many ways, “The Fortune Cookie,” and stories like it, are my journals–and will continue to be.  I can imagine a time, thirty years hence, looking back at this very post and thinking, “Remember when?”  Or rereading portions of The Eye-Dancers and recalling exactly the way I felt as I wrote the scene.  It doesn’t end.  It doesn’t have to be confined to a different decade or a previous century.  It will go on as long as words are written, thoughts shared, and hearts and souls expressed onto the printed page.

sharingyourheartend

 

Do you have any old stories lying around, collecting dust, hidden in a dark corner of the attic or a forgotten folder on your hard drive?  When you come across them, your own “Fortune Cookies,” as it were–perhaps cringing at the words, perhaps smiling, perhaps a little of both–I hope you decide to keep them.

I know I will.

nostalgiaend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Going Forward . . . by Going Back

When I was growing up, there were a few nights each summer when I would host a sleepover–not all that different from the sleepover that occurs in chapter six of The Eye-Dancers.  Of course in my case, my friends and I were not haunted by a swirling-eyed “ghost girl” who whisked us off to a faraway and alien dimension.  But the adventures we shared, the things we talked about, the “what-ifs” we brought up were the inspiration behind the novel.

diffdimension

 

As were my friends themselves.  Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski, along with several supporting characters in The Eye-Dancers, were inspired by the friends I knew growing up, indeed the same friends who would sleep over on those warm July and August nights, when thoughts of school and homework, of college majors and impending adulthood, seemed galaxies away.

summernight

 

When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, it often felt as if I were returning back to those days.  And that, I suppose, is one of the many joys and wonders of creative writing.  You can be sitting at a desk in an office, in a studio apartment, anywhere, decades removed from the childhood you’re writing about, and yet, with a flourish of keystrokes and finger taps you can be transported back through the years, as if by some whimsical magician waving a white-tipped and wonder-filled wand.

magicwand

 

It’s a cliche, I suppose, but in my case it’s the truth.  I write because I love to write, need to write.  And now I am in the midst of writing the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  At first I was reluctant.  Did I really want to write a sequel?  But the idea, which arrived unasked for–not at all a preplanned project–demanded attention.  So I began writing, not convinced it would go anywhere, but scratching the itch, as it were, allowing the process to take me where it will.

writingprocess

 

I wrote the prologue, and chapter one, which grew into chapter two and three and four . . . and by that time, the scope of the novel began to take shape in my mind.  I don’t outline my novels, but I do formulate a general plan–or, perhaps more accurate–the plan forms on its own, a result of the characters’ decisions.  And now, nine chapters and 40,000 words into this still-untitled WIP, I have an overwhelming urge to continue, to keep the story going . . . to find out where Mitchell and Joe and Ryan and Marc and the “ghost girl” will take me.  I am along for the ride, and I can’t wait to round the next bend.

bendinroad

 

At this point, I would like to devote more time to the sequel than I have so far.  In fact, Joe Marma himself told me just the other day, “C’mon, bud, get with the program.  You gotta start working on this novel more, or else . . .”  And as readers of The Eye-Dancers know, you don’t want to frustrate Joe! As a result, I will be posting on The Eye-Dancers site every two weeks for the foreseeable future, down from the once-weekly schedule I have maintained for over a year now.  This is definitely not a blogging break or blogging sabbatical–just a slight scaling back.  I enjoy the WordPress community far too much to take any extended leaves.

wordpress

 

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

On those summer sleepovers from yesteryear, sometimes I would read aloud stories I had written.  Back then, they were pencil-written plays, starring myself and my friends–no fictional names used!  Looking back, they were very poorly done–highly imaginative but sloppy and far too often over the top.  But one thing they were for sure was fun.  I used to laugh out loud when I read them, and my friends would join in.  Even today, if I need a pick-me-up, or a creative boost, I will pull out one of the old stories and remember . . .

It is with that spirit of adventure, fun, and love that I will turn to the sequel of The Eye-Dancers this summer.  And, with hope, that same spirit will manifest itself on every page.

nostalgia

 

So even though I’ll be posting less, I hope you’ll all continue to read and follow this blog.  You are the reason blogging is so much fun for me.

glaxiesend

 

Thank you so much for reading!

–Mike

The Colors of the Writing Rainbow

As time pushes on, as the months and years pass by and life navigates its twists and turns, the things we learned in school sometimes blur into the trees and promontories of the background.

windingpath

 

We might remember our first date, our best friend from school, we may recall, painfully, feelings of rejection and loneliness, moments of ridicule.

But how many in-class lessons do we remember?  Can we remember anything pertinent our 8th-grade algebra teacher taught us?  (Well, surely, Marc Kuslanski can!)  How about 10th-grade history or chemistry?  Sadly, so much is lost, often irretrievably so.  But some lessons endure.  Some remain vibrant and alive, decades later.

lessonslearned

 

For me, one such lesson occurred one sunny spring day in English class when I was a freshman in high school.  The teacher, a large, balding man with a soft voice, was a writer at heart, and sometimes, seemingly at random, he would provide the class with tips for the craft.  Some of the students would roll their eyes, yawn, check their wristwatches.  But I was riveted.  Even back then, I knew I wanted to be a writer.  So I watched as he scrawled his ideas on the blackboard, and I listened . . .

rochesterspring

 

That particular early May morning, one of the first hot days after the grueling, gray upstate New York winter, at the start of class, he had written the following on the blackboard . . .

R

O

Y

G

B

I

V

“Can anyone tell me what those letters stand for?” he asked?

Several students looked away–at their sneakers, their desks, their textbooks, the wall–anywhere but at the teacher.  But one girl raised her hand, eager to provide the answer.

“They’re the colors of the rainbow,” she said.  “Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and . . .”  she paused for effect  . . . “violet.”

roygbiv

 

The teacher nodded, but then explained that, today, they stood for something else.

“Let’s call them the colors of the writing rainbow,” he said.  “Each letter stands for some quality you should always bring to your writing, be it essay assignments, newspaper articles, poems, or the great American novel.”

greatamericannovel

 

He turned to the blackboard, and began to write.   Many of the students in class that day did not take notes on what followed.  It wasn’t something we’d be tested on, after all.  It was just an ancillary lesson, a teacher’s effort to venture outside the box of the curriculum and share with us something he loved, something he felt deeply about.

I did take notes, however, jotting them down in my spiral notebook.  Even today, they serve as a reminder, a guide of sorts, and they were very much with me when I wrote The Eye-Dancers, like lingering echoes from an old friend.

notebook

 

What follows, in a nutshell, is what my 9th-grade English teacher taught that day.

***********

R is for “Read.”  Any writer serious about his or her craft, first and foremost, needs to read.  A lot.  Read what you like and read a few things you don’t like.  Learn what works and what doesn’t.  Absorb like a sponge.

read

 

O is for “Open-mindedness.”  When someone criticizes your work, listen, carefully, to what they are saying.  Do not close your mind or your ears.  Weigh the critique, objectively, examining its merit.  Do not become defensive.  If you agree with the criticism, even in part, then keep it in mind for future writing projects.  If you genuinely disagree with it, factually disagree with it–then brush it off and move forward.

critique

 

Y is for “Young.”  “Even I can remember what it was like to be eight years old,” he said, smiling.  “So surely you can, too.”  Approach each writing project with fresh eyes and a child-like enthusiasm.  Be excited.  Be passionate.  Don’t be jaded.  Rekindle that sense of wonder you once had.  Remember the first time you wrote something you loved?  Try to approach each new creative project with the same spirit.

passion

 

G is for “Give.”  Give of yourself, generously, completely–be willing to bleed, to open your heart and spill its contents onto the page.  Be honest with your readers always.

heart

 

B is for “Basics.”  They are not the most exciting aspects of the writing trade, but the fundamentals are crucial.  Sweat the small stuff.  Revise, revise, and revise some more.  And learn the nuts and bolts of the language, the rules of grammar and usage.  Don’t fall into the trap of saying, “That’s what my teacher is for,” or, “That’s what my editor is for.”  You are your own editor.

grammar

 

I is for “Indefatigable.”  Be tireless, be persistent, never give up.  If you send out a hundred stories for publication and receive a hundred rejection slips back, send out the one hundred and first.  Persistence is as important in writing, and pursuing your goals, as talent, perhaps more so.  Do not allow yourself to quit.  Hold on tight to your dreams, and keep reaching for the stars.

tortoise

 

V is for “Vistas.”  Explore new areas of interest, read and write in new genres.  Swim far out, where you can no longer glimpse the land, and dive down deep into the creative waters.  Try not to allow yourself to be pigeonholed as a writer.  You are not exclusively a “poet” or an “essayist” or a weaver of “fairy tales.” You are not a “suspense” writer or a “romance” writer or a “young adult” writer.    You are a writer.

vistas

 

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

When he was finished with this impromptu lecture, he simply segued into that day’s regular lesson.  I can’t remember what it was.

But I’ll never forget the Colors of the Writing Rainbow.

rainbow

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Marc Kuslanski, “Know-It-Alls,” and the Sixth-Grade Spelling Bee

Marc Kuslanski is a know-it-all, plain and simple.  From the time we first meet him in The Eye-Dancers, in chapter four, it’s all too evident that he loves the sound of his own voice, and rarely doubts that his theories or explanations are accurate.  Marc’s the kind of person who, when asked a question about anything, will be quick to offer his opinion.  Even if he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he acts like he does.

I have to admit, I used to be a little bit like Marc myself.  I like to think I’ve matured a bit over the years, and no longer go around trying to prove my point or picking arguments about inconsequential pieces of trivia (though some of my friends may disagree!).  But when I was right around Marc’s age in The Eye-Dancers, I was all too quick to try to prove how much I knew.  Geography?  I memorized the state capitals of all fifty U.S. states, not to mention numerous nations around the world.  Presidents?  I made it a point to recite all the U.S. presidents, in a row, in under twenty-five seconds.  When my parents had guests, I’d go over to them and say, “You wanna hear something?”  And then:  “WashingtonAdamaJeffersonMadisonMonroeQuincy-AdamsJacksonVan BurenHarrisonTylerPolkTaylorFillmore . . .”  I don’t think I ever stopped for a breath.  And when I ended with Reagan (this was the ’80s, after all), I checked my watch.  My record was eighteen seconds.

Looking back, I shake my head.  I needed a humbling experience in the worst way, and in the sixth grade, I got one. . . .

The Spelling Bee.  I had done well enough in the preliminaries to make it to the final bee–in the school auditorium on a cold, snowy western New York winter day.  The auditorium was full of parents, teachers, students.  Was I nervous?  Who, me?  I would win the bee, no problem!  I didn’t have a doubt.  I looked to my left and right–sizing up my competition.  A dozen students sat in a line, on metal folding chairs.  Onstage, we looked out over the auditorium.  I saw my mom and dad four rows back.  They caught me looking and waved.  Let’s get this show going, I thought.  Time to win.

Mrs. T. asked the questions.  She had been my third-grade teacher and was once again my teacher for sixth grade.  She approached the mic, and asked the first word to be spelled.  The boy next to me, Tom, from my homeroom, misspelled it.

“I’m sorry, Tom,” Mrs. T. said somberly, her curly red hair a shade too light under the harsh, bright stage lights.  She held the mic with her left hand, the multiple bracelets she always wore jangling on her wrist.

Tom, defeated, bowed his head and walked off the stage.  I saw him slink in beside his parents in the audience, forced to watch the rest of the competition from the crowd.  Beside me, his empty gray chair seemed lonely and forlorn without its occupant.

“Michael,” she said, smiling at me.  I stood up.  And then she asked me the same word that Tom had just misspelled.  Honestly, I can’t remember what the word was.  But I spelled it right, and sat back down.

By the time the next word came my way, three other students had been sent to sit with their parents in the crowd.  There were eight of us left.

“Okay, Michael,” Mrs. T. said, the sound of her jangling bracelets competing with her voice.  I stood up, ready.  “The next word is ‘boundary.'”  And then she used it in a sentence, the way she always did when introducing a new word.  “The boundary between the two nations was well defined.”  Thinking about it later, I realized, she had pronounced the word in a very clear manner–stressing the “a” between the “d” and the “r.”

And yet, at the time, standing there under the lights, looking out at the audience, I somehow overlooked it.  And I didn’t think through the spelling.  I just whipped off a fast response.  After all, it was simple, right?

“Boundary,” I repeated after Mrs. T.  “‘B-o-u-n-d-r-y.’  Boundary.”  I prepared to sit back down in my metal folding chair, without a doubt in the world.

But then Mrs. T.’s voice cut through like an ice pick.  “I’m sorry, Michael.  That is incorrect.”

For a moment, I thought I’d heard her wrong.  Incorrect?  But how could that be?  How could I get such an easy word wrong?  I stood there, frozen for a second, and the clinking of Mrs. T.’s bracelets seemed like giant metal boulders clashing into each other, creating a cacophony of sound.  I glanced at my parents, and they looked at me as if to say, “It’s okay.  No big deal.”

But it was a big deal.  It felt like one, anyway, at the time.  I walked off the stage, looking down at the floor the entire while, and quickly joined my parents in the fourth row, eager to merge with the crowd, turn invisible.

I can’t tell you who won the bee that day, or what any of the other words were.  But “boundary” stays with me, even to this day.  I laugh over the memory now.  It was a lesson I needed at the time.

Marc Kuslanski needs the same lesson.  And over the course of The Eye-Dancers, he does in fact learn it, however reluctantly.  In the end, he has no choice.

So, here’s to you, Marc.  Here’s to the know-it-all in each of us . . .

“Boundary,” huh?  No problem.  Piece of cake.  “B-o-u-n-d-r-y.”

Next question, please . . .

–Mike

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