(Not) A Day at the Beach

I sat in the chair, the gray, metallic surface hard and cold and unforgiving against my back.  I rested my elbow on the small wooden desk attached to the chair’s right arm, my legs moving in restless spasms, up and down, side to side, as I waited.

metalchair

 

The time had come.  All of my preparation, the writing completed over the summer,  had been accomplished with this moment in mind.

Would they like my story?

waitingwouldtheylikemystory

 

I felt reasonably confident sitting there.  I had completed four short stories ahead of the semester, and, the previous week, at the end of the first class, I had handed out the one I thought was the most polished.  It was titled “A Day at the Beach,” and I’d gone over it with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, sharpening themes, honing the focus, cleaning up the prose.

finetoothcomb

 

Even so, there were some very real nerves.  This was my first-ever graduate-level writing workshop, after all.  My classmates, about fifteen in all, were talented wordsmiths, and no doubt some of them were veterans of previous workshops–not rookies like me.

Two other intrepid souls had shared their stories with the class as well, and theirs as well as mine would be critiqued thoroughly over the course of the next couple of hours.

Whose story would be put to the test first?

The professor, a bald, bespectacled man in his late fifties with a thick British accent, announced, “To get things started, we have Michael Fedison’s ‘A Day at the Beach.'”

dayatbeachearly

 

So much for that question!

My legs grew more restless as the professor called for someone, anyone, to get the critique under way.

A blond, bearded guy named John was all too eager.

“I began this story, and I didn’t really find what motivated this character to do the things he did,” he said, thumbing through the pages of his printed copy.  “I kept waiting for that to change, for something to happen to show me something.  But it never did.”

charactermotivationuse

 

Ugh.  I felt as if I’d been punched in the solar plexus.

To back up, all throughout the previous week’s class, the professor, in a sort of introduction-to-creative-writing lecture, had discussed the all-important function of character in storytelling.  As I listened, I grew a bit concerned–not because I disagreed, but because “A Day at the Beach,” the copies of which were printed out and sorted in a stack at my feet, ready to be distributed to the class, was the exception to the rule.  It was a theme-based story, attempting to tackle social mores, group psychology; and, packed within its dozen pages, I had tried to delve into big issues that affected us as a culture and world.

socialmores

 

It was not in any way a character-driven story.  Looking back now, I can clearly see the problems this presented.  Lacking any real character development, the story needed to be a slam dunk in every other aspect to succeed–and even then, its impact would be muted.  At the time, though, on that warm September evening deep into the 1990s, I hardly thought that mattered.  Surely, the other students in the class would see the themes jumping off the page, and an intriguing discussion of said themes would emerge.

slamdunk

 

That’s not the way it happened.  John’s opening salvo had broken the literary ice, and several of the others began to chime in.

One young woman, whose name I’ve long since forgotten, pointed out that the prose style was arrogant, and she felt talked down to as she read the story.  Another student said she couldn’t follow the plot and agreed about the writing–it seemed forced, she said, awkward, the words self-conscious and without flow.  Still another complained that “A Day at the Beach” had no forward momentum, no thrust that wanted to make him turn the page.  It just sat there, flat and lifeless as a suffocated fish.

cantfollowstoryfish

 

By this time, when I wished a hole would open up in the floor beneath my chair and swallow me, the professor asked me to explain my story, to discuss what I had wanted (and obviously failed!) to accomplish with it.

And that’s what I did.  I talked about the different scenes, the character’s reaction to the events, even his name, all of which were symbolic.  When I was finished, I felt a little better.  Some of the students nodded and seemed a bit more receptive to the story than they had upon reading it.  But it was a Pyrrhic victory.  If I had crafted the story in the most effective manner, I wouldn’t have needed to explain it to the class.  It would have explained itself, without any postscripts from me.

emptypyrrich

 

When I drove home that night, I felt beaten, defeated.  I didn’t turn on the radio.  I just drove in silence.

I wondered if perhaps I’d made a big mistake taking this class.

More than that, I wondered if I was really cut out to be a writer.

deepcaverncutouttowrite

 

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

In The Eye-Dancers, Ryan Swinton fears rejection more than just about anything else in the world.  A class clown of sorts, when he tells a joke, he needs for others to laugh and enjoy the punch line.

classclown

 

As writers, we’ve all been there–and I’m not sure if it’s something we ever fully overcome.  Is there anyone among us who is completely and unequivocally immune to reader response?  We toil and we labor and we plot and we live and breathe through our characters . . . and then we share our work.

And when we do, no matter how much praise we garner or positive feedback we enjoy, it is also inevitable that we will receive criticism.  It might come via a scathing remark from a friend or even family member, an angry email, or a negative review.  The question is–when the critical words come, and they will–what do we do with them?  Do we get angry?  Do we ignore them, blissfully unconcerned?  Do we take them to heart and begin to doubt our worth as a writer?  Do we disregard the ninety-eight positive reviews and fixate on the two negative?

criticism

 

Perhaps, as with so many things, there is a happy medium, a middle path.  Some criticism, after all, is valid, and should be weighed and considered.  When students in that creative writing workshop said “A Day at the Beach” suffered due to a lack of a strong lead character, they were right.  I would have been foolish to ignore that.

Other criticism, however, might not be valid.  Overly general, vitriolic, or irrelevant critiques, while they may scald, can justifiably be ignored.  How to discern the difference between sound, reasonable criticism that prods and encourages you to be better, reach higher, and hone your craft and critiques that offer little more than insecurity-inducing doubts that offer nothing of value can, admittedly, be a tricky and difficult task.  The only way I know how to attempt it is to try to detach myself emotionally as much as possible and apply the criticism to the story as if the story had been written by someone else.  With an objective eye (or as an objective of an eye as I can hope to attain under the circumstances!), I can then better digest the critique in a thorough and neutral manner and either learn from it or disregard it.

stayneutral

 

That’s easier said than done, of course–just one more aspect of the writing trade that is more art than science.

But whatever we do, it’s important to remind ourselves why we write to begin with–why we log the long hours, the writer’s block, the struggles, the joys, the failures, and the exhilaration of the creative process.

We have passions and loves and fears and longings that need to be expressed.  We have words inside of us that must be poured out, calling, prodding, kicking, screaming to be let loose onto the page.

wordspouringout

 

And we have a desire–no, more than that, a need–to share those words with others.

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

I handed out two more short stories in that creative writing workshop.  Neither was as well received as I’d hoped, but both represented progress over my first attempt.  The feedback, though highly mixed, grew more positive with each effort, and by semester’s end, I was determined to keep at it, to keep trying, keep writing.

mountaintop

 

Sometimes the writing process is exhilarating, a mountaintop experience like no other; sometimes it is exhausting, draining, stripping you to the core.  But it’s what I love.  It’s what I am, and what I do.

Even if it isn’t always “A Day at the Beach.”

beachend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Looking Out the Window . . . Or, the Cure for Writer’s Block?

It was difficult to feel motivated, and I don’t think I was the only person in the class who felt that way.  Fellow students yawned, fidgeted.  A couple of times, the professor, a tall, bespectacled brunette in her late forties, had to remind the class to focus on the discussion at hand.

tiredclass

 

The malaise was understandable, perhaps even unavoidable.  It was the first week of the spring semester, which in itself seemed a cruel joke.  Spring?  It was the end of January, and outside, a soft snow was falling from clouds the color of ash.  The temperature had been stuck several degrees below freezing for days, and the sun, a shy, long-lost acquaintance, seemed perpetually hidden.

Western New York State in midwinter . . .

nyjanuary

 

“So,” the professor said, her voice high, energetic.  No doubt she sensed that she needed to inject some much-needed enthusiasm into the classroom.  “Today I want to talk about writer’s block.  We’ve all been there before, am I right?”  Nods, faint murmerings from the class.  “Well . . . when you want to write something, and you just can’t seem to, what do you do?”

writersblock

 

One girl raised her hand and said she just waits it out.  Ideas come when they will come, she said.  I nodded.  I had tried to force-feed ideas in the past, but it never worked.  The creative process was a mystery.  It wasn’t something you could order around.  It was the one in charge.  Not me.

creativity

 

The professor didn’t agree.

“Look outside,” she said.  “Everyone.  Look out the window.”  Heads turned, slowly, and I overheard one student behind me whisper to herself that she needed another cup of coffee.  It was an early morning class on top of everything else.

coffee

 

“Now,” the professor continued.  “I want you all to describe what you see.”

Blank looks and an audible grunt from one guy who looked as if he’d literally stumbled out of bed two minutes before the start of class greeted her direction.

“In your notebooks, write what you see through the window,” she went on.  “Just a single paragraph.  But in that paragraph, I want you to paint a picture.  Create a mood.  Get those writer’s muscles working!  I’ll write something up, too.”

One girl asked if we’d all have to share our literary creations with the rest of the class.  The professor rolled her eyes behind the lenses of her glasses, and shook her head.  “Only if you want to.”  The girl breathed a sigh of relief.

I peered out the window, taking in the scene.  The classroom overlooked a snow-covered expanse interspersed with walkways and dotted with maple trees, stripped bare for the winter.  This section of campus was presently empty, the early hour and cold, snowy weather keeping students and faculty inside.

mapletree

 

One tree in particular caught my eye.  It stood perhaps twenty feet beyond the window, its limbs reaching up into the white, wintry haze.  The trunk was large, solid–I estimated it must have been there a hundred years, if not more, an ancient guardian, a sentry of the walkways and classrooms within its watch.  A crow, cawing as it flew (or so I imagined through the closed window), landed on a branch, its black feathers bold against the whites and grays of a Rochester January.

crow

 

I stared at the crow, thinking, imagining, and began to write . . .

“In the maple that has been here so long, no one alive can remember its absence, a crow perches.  Midnight black on slate gray.  What secrets does the tree know?  What hushed conversations has it overheard?  What conspiracies has it been privy to?  It stands and watches.  And listens, listens . . .  Not eternal, perhaps.  But enduring.  The bird flies away.  Perhaps, just perhaps, it had sensed something in the tree.  A knowledge, maybe.  A probing . . . as if its innermost being, its secrets tucked away in a quiet corner of its black heart were being exposed, one by wintry one . . .”

I never did share that paragraph with my classmates.  And, truth be told, I’m not sure it should see the light of day now!  But it illustrates the point the professor was trying to make that day.  If you observe the simplest thing and decide to write a paragraph, or a page, about it, you can escape the creative logjam you might be in and ride with the river’s current.  Sometimes the current is slow, winding, hesitant.  Sometimes it rushes headlong toward some unknown destination, full of promise and optimism.  Either way, however, you are moving, not stuck in the mire and muck of writer’s block.

river

 

While the scene you describe may not find its way into a short story or chapter (though it might!), it very well may kindle the flame of an idea, kick-start a story line, or help you to navigate the maze of the novel you’re working on.

maze

 

There were times while writing The Eye-Dancers that I did indeed feel stuck.  What should happen next?  Sometimes your characters act in the most unpredictable ways!  That’s generally a good thing, except for when they act so unpredictably they cause you, the author, to question the next scene, or peer ahead, bleary-eyed and overwhelmed, not sure where the story should journey next, or if it should even be completed at all.

writersblock2

 

And for me, these creative crisis points are the moments when I need to remind myself to step back, take a breath–and write.  Create something fresh and new, completely unrelated to the work-in-progress that has me bogged down and frustrated.

Because whether you live in upstate New York as I once did, or northern New England as I do now, where the January landscape is a black-and-white photograph, the snowdrifts deep, the wind a serrated knife, the growth and renewal of spring seemingly a lifetime away; whether you live by the sea in a sunny, mild climate, the sound of the waves an echo from some long-ago century; or whether you live on a farm or in a bustling downtown, or on the outskirts of a Norman Rockwell-esque village, there is always something to watch, to hear, to contemplate.

rockwell

 

All you have to do is look out the window . . .

window

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

More Than Meets the Eye (Or, What Lies Behind the Horn-Rimmed Glasses . . .)

She was quiet, so quiet, in fact, that sometimes it seemed she wasn’t even there.  It was as if she blended in with the beige walls, the gray metallic chairs, the very molecules and atoms in the air.  The other students would criticize and argue and critique–but she barely said a word.  The professor, a bald man originally from London and since moved to western New York State. would sometimes single her out.  “To prime your pump,” he would explain.  It was a creative writing workshop, after all.  Students were expected to participate, not just sit there, looking down at the small wooden desk attached to the right arm of the chair.

workshop

 

Her name was Renee.  Her wardrobe was as subdued as her manner–plain, dark clothes, sweaters, usually, and a pair of retro, black, horn-rimmed glasses that gave her the look and feel of someone from a generation three decades earlier.  She would spend much of the class period adjusting those glasses as they continually slid down the bridge of her nose.

glasses

 

The chairs were arranged in a semicircle, encouraging face-to-face interaction as we discussed and dissected each other’s short stories.  Renee would always sit at the back corner of the semicircle, as far away from the professor as she could arrange herself.  Every class period, four students would turn in a new story, distributing a copy to the teacher and each student in the class.  The following week, the four stories handed out in the previous class would be critiqued.  Additionally, each member of the class would write comments on the hard copy of the story, and return them to the author once the oral critique was finished.  For those students who did not participate so much verbally, this offered a way to express their opinions in a more comfortable manner.

critique

 

But Renee didn’ t even do that.  Not only didn’t she participate in class, but her written comments were, to put it mildly, brief.  After I had turned in my first story of the semester, she had written, “Cool,” on the top of the first page, emphasizing it with a loopily-drawn smiley face.  That was it.  She hadn’t jotted one word in the margins, and nothing at the end.  I asked others in the class if she had offered anything more on their stories.  She hadn’t.  She just continued to blend in to the background, gray on gray.  Even the instructor seemed to give up.  By the semester’s second month, he no longer called on her.  She just sat there, period after period, saying nothing.  A locked, featureless door.

door

 

Then the day came when she was scheduled to share one of her own stories with the class.  I overheard a student, who sat close to me, whispering to another, “I bet it’s probably like two pages or something.”

But it was not two pages.  And it was not what anyone had expected . . .

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

Throughout the opening chapters of The Eye-Dancers, Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, and Ryan Swinton each dream of the girl with the blue, swirling eyes.   The “ghost girl,” they call her.  After all, in their dreams (or are they more than dreams?), she appears less like a flesh-and-blood creature of this earth and more like a wisp, a breath, a denizen of the spirit world.  They fear she is a ghost who is haunting their dreams.

ghost

 

But is she?  Is their first impression the right one?  Or is she less than she seems?  Or, perhaps, more than she seems?

And once they are transported through the void and find themselves in the variant town of Colbyville, they encounter many other things that cause them to question their surroundings, their perceptions, at times even their own sanity.  Science wiz Marc Kuslanski is there, too, and he offers (or tries to offer) a sensible, rational, scientific reason for everything.  But as he learns over the course of the novel, not everything can be explained away.  Not everything can be pigeon-holed and classified and packed neatly into its own box.

Not everything is what it appears to be at first glance.

illusions

 

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

When I took Renee’s story home that day, I honestly did not have high expectations.  I guessed reading her story would be a chore, just something to get through.  And her title, “Dead Man Walking,” struck me as cliched.  I did not give her the benefit of the doubt.

Then I read the first paragraph.  It drew me right in to a brutal world, where a dead man walks among the living, works with them, looks like them, loves them, hates them, and, every now and again, eats them.  He isn’t a vampire.  He isn’t quite a zombie.  He’s just . . . dead.  But not dead.  It was a graphically violent story, merciless in its portrayal of the lead character and the people he comes across in his experiences.  From our perspective today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, a story like this may sound derivative, or least inspired by, the zombie and “undead” mania caused by hit shows such as The Walking Dead.

walkingdead

 

But this was back in the mid-1990s.  Renee’s story was, without question, her own, and she had a very distinct and original voice.  Her prose was edgy, yet literary, vulgar, yet elegant.  In a word, it was riveting.

When the following week’s workshop met again, there was a buzz among the students.  Even the professor, an unflappable sort, seemed off his game.

He cleared his throat, his way of signaling it was time to begin.  The whisperings and murmerings among the students came to a stop.  We all looked at the instructor, waiting.

“Our first story to look at today is ‘Dead Man Walking.'”  He cleared his throat again, glanced at Renee.  “And as we always do, we’ll let the author have the first word.  Renee?”

The class looked at her, and she looked up, meeting our eyes for what seemed like the first time all term.

“Well,” she said, with a smile, “as you probably know by now, my stories tend to be a little bit crazy.  And loud.  Very, very loud.”

For a moment, you could have heard the proverbial pin drop.  But then someone laughed, and then another, and then another.  Renee joined them.

And here we’d all thought she was just the quiet girl with the horn-rimmed glasses who sat at the back of the room. . . .

istimp

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Silent Scream

It was just another in a long, monotonous line of bleak, nondescript November days in western New York, the clouds gray and low, like bruises in the sky.  The last sunny day had been well over a week ago. I was driving to my Creative Writing class, the twenty-mile commute to the college taking me through small towns and country farms and fields.  The bare trees, with their twisted, skeletal  limbs, appeared as if they were trying to reach up and puncture holes in the clouds, perhaps, like the rest of us, desperate to reveal the blue that lay beyond.

baretrees

 

I had been in a bit of a funk.  November in the Northeast can be a depressing time.  The days continue to grow shorter, as evening falls by 5:00 p.m.  The air has a bite to it, reminding you, every time you step out the door, that a long, snowy wintry season is just around the bend.  Spring seems a long ways off, a distant thing that floats around on the wind like some vague rumor, some hushed secret nobody quite dares to believe.

But it wasn’t just the season that was getting me down.  It was my creative life–or lack thereof.  Take the Creative Writing class I was driving to.  Just a fortnight ago, I had turned in a short story called “A Day at the Beach,” full of optimism, confidence, sure that the professor and the rest of the class, who would read it and critique it for the following week’s session, would appreciate the symbolism, thematic nuances, and structure of the story.

They hadn’t.  None of them really “got” what I was trying to say, and very few of them liked the story.  In the days that followed, I wondered about that.  I had tried so hard to create something literary, rich with similes and metaphors, and subthemes that tackled the key issues of life and our existence on this planet.  What had gone wrong?

I passed a dairy farm, the cows grazing languorously in the fading light of day.  They seemed so relaxed, content simply to be.  Everything I wasn’t, with my strivings and studying and worrying over GPA.  Beyond the dairy farm, a dead November corn field stretched for acres, the stalks yellowed, dessicated, like a battalion of corpses. And on the western edge of the field stood a weathered old barn.  I had passed it many times before, on the drive out to the college.  But today it looked different.

corn

 

Its door was open, revealing dark shadows that retreated further into the interior.  Coupled with the two upper window slots near the roof and the one slightly lower, the front of the barn resembled a giant face, the eyes gazing out at the corn field, at the flock of crows gathering, searching for a morsel.  But the door–the open door . . .

It looked like a mouth, open wide, screaming . . .  I shuddered, literally, as I drove past.  My imagination–always overactive–instantly imagined reasons why the barn would feel compelled to scream.  I visualized the terrible things that may have happened within its four wooden walls, its loft, its dusty, hidden corners full of cobwebs and rusted-out equipment, long since useless but lurking, lurking, like monsters in the dark.  What secrets did that barn have to tell?  What horrors did it have to scream about?

barnface

 

I drove on, still thinking, still haunted by the image of the screaming barn.  It screamed, but without a sound.  It had a story to tell, but it remained mute, like a creature without a tongue.  And suddenly, I realized that was exactly the way I had been operating in my Creative Writing class.  I had been writing with the art of writing foremost in my mind.  I had been pressing, the literary equivalent to the baseball batter who overswings, trying to hit every pitch over the fence.  I hadn’t been letting my stories tell themselves.  I hadn’t even been writing the stories I needed to write.  If some idea didn’t strike me as “literary,” I chose to toss it aside, ashamed of sharing it with the class.  Instead I stressed over the merit of ideas, the complexity, the themes and symbols.  This was a Graduate-level class, after all.  I couldn’t just write the things I wanted to write about.  I had to write literary stories.

drained

 

No wonder my stories were lacking, uninspired, flat and lifeless on the page.  Just like that barn I had passed, I had my own screams, the ideas that kicked and punched away inside of me, ideas that yelled to be let out, shared with others, not because they were necessarily complex or literary, but because they were mine.  They were the things I was passionate about, the things I cared about and thought about and feared and hated and loved, the things that kept me up at night, tugging away at the soul, not letting go, never relenting.  These were the stories I was meant to tell.  These were my screams, which, too often during that Writing class, I had stifled and ignored.

blankpage

 

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

I have had a few people ask me why I wrote The Eye-Dancers.  Why sci-fi/fantasy?  Why young adult?  Why are four boys the protagonists?  Why not two boys and two girls?  Or three girls and a boy?  Or . . .?  And I’m sure I could try to come up with some layered answer, discussing the themes and story arcs and character traits represented in the novel.  I could probably break out some aspects of literary theory and point of view and symbolism.  But none of that would express anything real.  None of that would come close to sharing the real reason why I wrote the book . . .

. . . I had a story to tell.  It found me, I didn’t find it.  It came knocking, pounding, banging . . . and I had to answer.  Once I did, it set in motion an inexorable tide of ideas and characters that would not rest until their story had been told.

It is like that with anything, I think.  We each have things inside of us that need to be unleashed, that need to be heard.

letourcreativity

 

So go ahead.  Write.  Create.  Draw.  Paint.  Play.  Talk.  Dance.  Decorate.  Sing.    Share the things you care about, not because they are “literary” or “artistic” or “multi-layered” (even if they are).  Share them because they are yours.

Our screams should not be silent.

beach

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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