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

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

Into the Abyss

The other night, I had a dream.  It wasn’t just any old dream, though.  It was extraordinary in several respects.

For one, I rarely even remember my dreams.  On average, I recall maybe one or two dreams per month, and even then, they are often fleeting, swift seabirds flying undetected, beyond the radar screen of my consciousness.  I might remember them for a few minutes, perhaps an hour at the outside.  The dream I had the other night, though, remains fresh and vibrant in my mind, holding on and unwilling to let go.

seabirdinflight

 

It started innocuously enough.  I was driving along a dirt road, somewhere in the wooded hills of rural Vermont, where I’ve lived for the past dozen years.  It was evening, the light of day fading, slowly, into dusk.  The road was isolated, off the beaten path–not another car in sight.  I had my window rolled down, and the sounds of the encroaching night were all around me:  the distant call of a hoot owl, returned moments later by a friend; the high-pitched, almost electronic song of the spring peepers as they stirred from their winter-long slumber; the whisper of the wind, rustling the dried-out fallen leaves from the previous autumn.  Early springtime in Vermont.

springpeeper

 

The thing was–I had a sense of being lost.  I didn’t know quite where I was–not exactly–or where I was going.  I was just . . . driving.  But that was when a sudden realization dawned on me.  I was going the wrong way.  Why or how I knew this, I wasn’t sure.  No new landmark had cropped up; I still felt lost, uncertain where I was headed.  It was just a strong, forceful conviction:  I needed to turn around.

lostonroadhavetoturnaround

 

That would be easier said than done.  Back roads in Vermont are notorious for their lack of turnabouts.  It might take miles to find one.  The stretch I was on contained no houses, no driveways, no intersections with other roads, and the road itself was too narrow to turn the car around.  I was forced to keep driving, in the wrong direction (or so I told myself), my heart rate increasing, an undefinable tension rising within me.

vermontbackroadnoplacetoturn

 

Suddenly, I spotted it–a slight widening of the road just ahead.  It was apparently a man-made section designed specifically for turning your car around.  (Who would have gone to the trouble of putting that in, way out here?)  I didn’t bother signaling.  Who would see me?  The owls?  I doubted they’d mind the oversight.

hootowlswontmind

 

I veered to the left, toward the turnabout.  I just needed to pull in, then back out and head in the direction from where I had come.  But I didn’t step on the brake.  I just turned the wheel to the left, confident I wasn’t going too fast.

I was.  Immediately the car began to skid, tires sliding along gravel and dirt.  I slammed on the brakes–too late.  There was no way to stop in time.

skidcantstop

 

Just beyond the turnabout, the road gave way to a small, narrow depression, perhaps a foot or two deep, cut through by the trickling of a shallow stream and flanked by a thick copse of trees and shrubs, their still bare limbs reaching out as if attempting to catch the car and prevent a potential disaster.  If only they could . . .

tricklingstream

 

As the car’s front wheels left the security of the road, suspended momentarily in midair, I felt a sick sense of inevitability.  I was about to crash into the depression.  The car might even tip or roll over.  Would I be trapped?  As if in response, another hoot owl cried out in the rapidly darkening twilight.

darkeningtwilight

 

The car careened over the edge, and I braced myself.  The force of the impact would be significant.  The stream appeared to be only a few inches deep, so at least I wouldn’t be submerged.

Or so I thought.

There was no sudden, crashing jolt of fender and metal against hard, rocky New England earth.  There was only a sudden splash, and a complete and overwhelming darkness.

rockynewenglandearth

 

The stream had somehow been something more, something it hadn’t appeared to be.  The car sank, deeper, impossibly fast, into what had become a bottomless pool of dark, still water.

bottomlesspool

 

I’m sinking, I thought, looking for something, anything, to see, to grab hold of.  That’s when I realized.  My driver’s-side window was closed–no water was pouring in.  How had that happened?  I hadn’t remembered closing it.  But what good would it do me now?  It served as nothing but a death trap.  At the rate I was falling, I had probably sunk several hundred feet already.  There was no way to force open the door–the pressure of the water pushing against it would be far too great.  I took a breath, tried to open the window, knowing I had to make a break for it before I sank deeper still.  It wouldn’t budge.  I scrambled, looking for something to break it with, but the car continued to sink at an alarming rate.  Was I a thousand feet from the surface now?  Two thousand?  There was no way to tell.

twothousandfeetunder

 

I felt a rising tide of panic.  I could see nothing–it was black, the most complete blackness I had ever experienced.  There was only absence–of light, of sound, of anything life-giving and life-sustaining.  And the air supply wouldn’t last long.

absenceoflightandeverything

 

No longer thinking clearly, I tried breaking the window with my elbow, tried to pry open the door.  Nothing worked.  I gasped, the air already dwindling, and the car continued to sink . . .

That’s when I woke up, sat bolt upright, breathing in short, choppy gasps.  It took a moment to register that the darkness around me was nothing more than the soft curtain of night, and not the impenetrable black hole of a bottomless pool on the side of some preternatural back road in the hill country of Vermont.

softcurtainofnight

 

I got out of bed, walked around the house for a while, as if attempting to assure myself that I was still here, still alive.  I didn’t sleep well the remainder of the night.

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

Later, once the sun came up and the songbirds greeted the day with a springtime chorus, I began to think of the dream in a new, less sinister, light.  The way it had unfolded was like a story.  It might have been the beginning of a novel (or the end!).  And where had it come from?  What had caused me to dream of such a scenario to begin with?  (Oddly, it resembled a dream from my childhood.  Perhaps my subconscious is telling me something about my feelings for water!)

feelingsforwater

 

Where does any dream come from?  Are our dreams and nightmares merely chance occurrences, the whims and megrims of our slumbering mind?  Or do they originate from a more personal place, perhaps symbolizing deep-rooted fears, too long denied, or elaborate metaphors stemming from life experiences or long-held aspirations?  Maybe they are even offering us brief glimpses of alternate selves, parallel worlds, or previous lives.  Science may never truly know the answers.

parallellives

 

Or maybe, just maybe, they serve as reminders, teachers of a sort, guiding us along on the right path.  And perhaps, specifically, my dream was trying to tell me something about the storytelling process, a truth I sometimes forget.

The creative life, to a large degree, is much like falling into an abyss.  I learned early on that, try as I might, I cannot take the reins of the creative process.  I cannot force ideas that aren’t there or force characters to behave in ways they are unwilling or unable to.  Ideas come when they come, out of the ether–out of the depths.  Sometimes they resonate, sometimes they don’t.  But they are always capricious, even shy, revealing themselves only when they’re ready.

theether

 

I first took the plunge into creative writing years ago, when I was a student in the second grade.  Anytime I have tried to force the issue, to grab the wheel and direct the flow, to steer the car along that country back road of the mind rather than let the road take me where it will, I have hit the proverbial brick wall, mired in a tangle of undersea snarls and weeds.  It is only when I can swim with the current, fall gently into the deep flumes of my imagination that the story flows and the characters speak in truth and with sincerity.

underseaweeds

 

The abyss of the writing life isn’t a scary thing.  It may seem like a nightmare at times, but in actuality it’s not something to fight and resist and fear.  We just need to take that jump, go over the edge, and fall . . .

edgeend

 

. . . right into the waiting arms of our muse.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

“Outstanding”? (Or, The Delicate Act of Writing a Sequel)

It’s true.  For years, it’s been my dream to be a full-time creative writer, earning a living solely through the art of storytelling.  I guess every writer wishes for this.  But for most of us, we have day jobs that help us to pay our bills, forcing us to pursue our true literary passions in the early-morning hours, late at night, or on weekends–or simply whenever a moment arises where we can spare an hour or two and just write.

writewhencanstart

 

My day job is as a technical writer for a computer software company.  The material I produce in this capacity is, admittedly, drier than day-old toast, but it’s a comfortable environment, and the act of writing technical documents doesn’t drain any of my creativity, leaving me fresh and ready to explore the imaginary byways of my mind after hours.

toast

 

I got started in the technical writing field just as the specter of Y2K hung over the IT world like a giant, ominous shadow.  I was fresh out of college, unsure and uncertain what to expect, when I was hired by a large company in my hometown of Rochester, NY, into a department called Documentation & Publications, or Doc & Pubs for short–which consisted of approximately fifteen technical writers and eight publishers.  I was one of the publishers.  I hoped to graduate into the role of technical writer eventually, and I did, but for a different company and in a different state.

y2k

 

Being a part of the publisher group was good, solid experience.  The publishers, as the department manager told us more than once, represented “the last line of defense.”  Our chief responsibilities were to fact-check and proofread the material sent to us by the technical writers, ensuring grammatical correctness and subject accuracy.

lastlineofdefense

 

One member of the publishing team stood out to me.  John was two years my senior, with a flattop haircut, a mustache, and thick, retro 1970s-style Elvis sideburns.  And whenever anyone asked him how he was, or how his day was going, he would invariably say, “Outstanding!”  (The exclamation point was always audible.)  It didn’t matter if it was Monday, if the morning commute had been marred with blizzard-like conditions or traffic jams, or if he’d just had a run-in with one of the more particular or dour technical writers.  He was always “outstanding.”

elvissideburns

 

I asked him once about that.  “You’re not really ‘outstanding’ all the time, are you?” I wanted to know.

“Actually I am,” he said.  “It’s a choice I make.  I don’t want to be just ‘okay’ or ‘not bad’ or ‘fine.’  I want to be outstanding.  And so, I am.”

He made it sound so simple.

The documents came in fast and furious, every day.  A few were new, created from scratch as it were, detailing some new system or product.  But most of the documents we had to proofread were preexisting ones–voluminous, intimidating manuals in which the writers would add a section here or there, or, in many cases, simply add a sentence or a paragraph to the text.  Many of the changes to systems they documented were, in fact, minor tweaks, building upon the vast amount of material that had already been in place.

preexistingmanuals

 

“The trick,” one of the writers explained to me once, “is to be able to add to what we already have without being redundant.”

Little did I recognize at the time the parallels that existed between tweaking company manuals and the art of writing a sequel . . .

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

When I published The Eye-Dancers, I did not intend to follow it up with a sequel. It had been a rewarding project, and writing about four protagonists all inspired by friends I knew growing up was fun.  But I had no ongoing story line in mind.  I figured I would move on to something else, perhaps something vastly different.

That’s when an image struck me.  It came, as these things so often do, out of the ether, unasked for, unplanned.  I saw Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski standing at the base of a gigantic stone building, looking up at a sky the color of ash.  And then the sky changed.  The clouds dispersed, as if by magic, replaced by a pair of unblinking blue eyes that glared down at the boys with unmistakable ill-will.

eyeinsky

 

I resisted at first.  Did I really want to undertake a sequel?  But the image remained, beckoning, a window to a new story demanding to be told.  Before long, a fully fleshed adventure came into view, and the conviction to write it grew stronger by the day.

And so I began–attempting to write my first-ever sequel.  I immediately encountered issues I’d never considered or dealt with before.  How much information from the first book needed to be touched upon or referenced in the second?  Granted, a sequel should be able to stand alone, on its own merit.  But at the same time, to ignore pertinent bits of information from the first book seemed like a blatant omission.  The question was–how much was too much?  Or too little?  I remembered the discussion I’d had with that technical writer a decade and a half earlier–about building on a preexisting foundation without being redundant.  Somewhere in all this, there had to be a happy medium.

happymediumgoldenmean

 

Months elapsed, and the story progressed.  Then life would get in the way, inspiration would dwindle, and the pace would slow.  Every now and then, Mitchell or Joe, Ryan or Marc, or even Monica Tisdale, the “ghost girl,” would trip me up, forcing me to look at something in a way I hadn’t planned.  And sometimes the plot would take a sudden turn, away from the paved road I had mapped out, forging instead over unpredictable marshy swampland, through thick, canopied forests, or barbed-wired ravines.  Through it all, though, I have felt a burning drive to carry the story to its conclusion, to travel with the characters as they battle and discover and scratch and stumble their way on the path of self-growth and accomplishment.  It’s been a long, sometimes turbulent, but always interesting ride.

canopiedforest

 

The current status of the project remains–in progress, but with an eye toward the finish line.  Twenty-one chapters have been written, complete with numerous, laborious revisions.  Nine chapters are left to write.

nineleft

 

The goal is to have the sequel ready right around the time the ball is dropped in Times Square on that cold, dark winter night.  The characters, as they always do, are leading the way, and they are urging me on, eager to finish the race.  But it won’t be easy.  They are being tested more than ever this time around.

timessquareball

 

As I’ve examined and picked through what I have so far, I’ve been critical, doubtful, unsure.  Is the story any good?  Will readers of The Eye-Dancers enjoy this continuation?  Or will it flop, crashing and burning like a doomed meteor breaking through the earth’s atmosphere, reduced to smoking fragments of dust and debris?

meteor

 

I wish I knew.  Time will tell.  But as I round the bend and endeavor to complete the journey, overcoming the delays and potholes and moments when the sheer scope of the project and story line makes me want to pull out my hair at its roots, I will try, as best I can, to harness my inner John.

How’s the sequel going?

“Outstanding!”

outstanding

 

Thanks so much for reading!

Mike

The Most Dangerous Game–Of Gourds, Objects of Prepositions, and Serial Commas

When I was in the eighth grade, I read “The Most Dangerous Game,” the classic 1924 short story written by Richard Connell. My English teacher that year, Miss Goggin, a fun woman in her fifties who continually looked for ways to approach topics in an unconventional manner, decided that every student would read the story, and every student would then give a brief oral report on it.

mostdangerousgame

 

“Now, I’m hoping this will inspire each of you to look at the story in unique and different ways,” she said on the cold, gray November morning she issued the assignment. “The last thing any of us wants is to hear the same report, verbatim, over and over.”

Good intentions, perhaps, but on this occasion, Miss Goggin’s instincts backfired.  Of the twenty-five or so oral reports on “The Most Dangerous Game,” nearly all were, if not identical, then close to it.  Even Miss Goggin admitted defeat halfway through.  “This wasn’t one of my superlative ideas,” she said, and then:  “Next!  Kimberly, regale us with your synopsis of the story . . .”  No doubt, Kimberly groaned inwardly as she rose from her chair to give the same report we had already heard a dozen times over.

superidea

 

Thinking about all this now, it strikes me that another very dangerous game, for many people, revolves around English grammar.  Even the mention of the term “grammar” might give some the shivers.  During my eighth-grade English class, it seemed Miss Goggin made it her personal mission to instill in us an appreciation for grammar.  She didn’t want us avoiding it, or letting “the editor handle it.”  One day, she brought in a handful of gourds, using them as props to help diagram sentences.  I can’t remember the specifics of that lesson very well, but I’ll always remember the gourds.  They stayed in the classroom for weeks, and became an ongoing, running joke between Miss Goggin and our class.

gourds

 

One of her pet peeves was the misuse of objects of prepositions, especially when someone made the mistake deliberately in an attempt to speak or write in a “correct” or formal manner.  She hammered this home so many times, I doubt I’ve used a subject, rather than an object, of a preposition since!  “Don’t ever say, ‘Between you and I,’ she instructed on multiple occasions, often punctuating the proclamation with a firm shake of the head or even a shrill sound that wasn’t quite a scream, but awfully close.  “Or, ‘for you and I.’  Prepositions take objects, not subjects!  Take away the ‘you.’  Would you say, ‘For I‘?”  And then she would pause for dramatic effect.  Point taken.

objectpreposition

 

I remember her lessons fondly.  Her “Most Dangerous Game” fiasco notwithstanding, Miss Goggin’s ideas hit much more often than they missed.  Her class was always lively and interesting, and I discovered, even then, that I was the odd sort who enjoyed grammar.  Grammar is a building block, a collection of tools–a chisel here, a hammer there, perhaps a paintbrush and a socket wrench over there, a few inches to the left.  Used properly, the tools can polish and hone prose, cleaning it up and pruning it to maximum effect.

hammerchisel

 

But it is a “dangerous game,” indeed.  On Fridays, I tutor writing at a local college.  And when students come to me with their first drafts of essays and term papers, they invariably say, “Can you check it for grammar?  I don’t do grammar!”  I gladly go over the nuts and bolts with them, and hopefully the effort is worthwhile and helpful.  But I tend to believe most students aren’t absorbing the grammar lessons all that much.

nutsandbolts

 

“See, here, it looks like your professor is using the style that calls for serial commas,” I said to one student just last month.

“Serial commas?” she said.  “Is that, like, serial killers or something?”

serialcomma

 

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

There is no doubt about it.  Grammar is, for many, the dentist drill of the writing trade, the necessary evil that, if not mastered, at least needs to be understood and properly applied.  It isn’t as exciting as literary symbolism, alliteration, powerful imagery, or multi-layered characters who grab the reader’s attention and never let go.  And, it may be argued, it isn’t as important, either.  Certainly a raw talent can be honed; breathtaking prose that inspires and awes, yet is littered with technical errors, can be smoothed over and perfected–and surely will garner more praise and attention than a grammatically flawless but uninspired and wooden piece.

dentistdrill

 

Good grammar does not guarantee a good writer.  But it goes a long way toward making a good writer better.  Additionally, when is it okay to break the rules, as it were, and use sentence fragments, split infinitives, end sentences with prepositions, and so on?  The answer is, in my eyes, often!  Even so, knowing the rules helps us to see when it’s appropriate and advantageous to break them.

grammargorillas

 

It would be foolish to believe that many people will ever truly enjoy English grammar.  The endless rules, exceptions to rules, and various styles and usages are enough to make anyone’s head spin.  I suppose it helps when you can look back at an old teacher from your childhood who some way, somehow, made grammar fun.

So, thanks, Miss Goggin!

You made “the dangerous game” of grammar a gourd-filled and lifelong adventure.

lifelongadventureend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

When a Pee-Wee-Sized Idea Turns into a Bases-Clearing Home Run

It’s happened to me more times than I can remember.  An idea strikes, out of the blue, an inspiration from the creative ether, and I feel energized, inspired, eager to begin a new story.

boltfrombluebeginning

 

But then a funny thing happens.

I realize, sometimes after keying in the first few sentences, sometimes while thinking about the idea more fully, before having written a single word, that my construct, this gift from the muse, is in fact woefully underdeveloped.  Perhaps it represents a situation, a concept, a character’s epiphany, a new twist on an old theme–it is a good starting point for a story, but it is not, by itself and in itself, a story.  Not even close.  Once the white-hot glow of new creation cools to a steady simmer, once I step back and examine things with a cool and analytical eye, I realize I am nowhere close to beginning a story.  There is still much to flesh out.

simmering

 

This is precisely what happened with The Eye-Dancers.  One night, while still in high school, I had a vivid dream of a girl outside my bedroom window.  She was just a child, maybe seven years old, standing in the light of the street lamp, out in the middle of the road.  But she was no ordinary child–the light went right through her.  She was more ghost than girl, more apparition than flesh-and-blood human being.  She beckoned for me to come outside, and I remember, all these years later, how real it all seemed.  When I woke up moments later, the bedsheets were in a tangle at my feet, and my skin was wet with perspiration.  Immediately I jotted down the essentials of the dream, knowing, instinctively, that this was the germ of a story.  The girl from my dreams couldn’t be wasted, tossed into some discarded literary oblivion from which she might never be heard from again.  She needed to come alive, on the printed page, the centerpiece of a story I was sure I was meant to write.

ghostgirl

 

The thing is, it took twenty years for that story to materialize, two decades for the pieces to fit together into a coherent and structured whole.  Many times, I doubted if I would ever be able to work this “ghost girl” into a story, but finally, in a far-off and futuristic 21st century, Mitchell Brant and Joe Marma and Ryan Swinton and Marc Kuslanski emerged, one by one, against a backdrop of parallel worlds and nightmares come to life, and the “ghost girl” at last had a home.

nightmarescometolife

 

But that’s the way ideas often are.  Every now and then, when we’re lucky, they arrive fully evolved, fleshed out, ready to lead us where they will. Much more frequently, at least in my experience–they come in pieces, bit by bit, at their own pace, and in their own time.  They cannot be rushed, and they cannot be forced.

bitbybitcantberushedtortoise

 

They demand our patience.

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

Harold “Pee Wee” Reese was so small as a child that he didn’t manage to get onto his high school baseball team until his senior year, and even then it was for only six games.  Nicknamed “Pee Wee” as a boy because of his mastery of playing marbles, Reese weighed all of 120 pounds as a high school senior.  Few talent scouts indeed would have predicted a future in baseball for the diminutive infielder.

peeweemarbles

 

But Reese continued to play the game he loved, and when his amateur church league team played their championship game on the minor league Louisville Colonels field, personnel for the minor league club were impressed by what they saw.  Maybe the small kid with the slick glove and quick feet had a future in the game, after all.

peeweereese

 

Within two short years, Reese was playing shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers, in the Major Leagues.  His big-league career got off to a rocky start, as he broke a bone in his heel during his rookie campaign of 1940, and then the following year, Reese led the Majors in errors.  But as time went on, it became clear that Pee Wee Reese was a keeper.  The Dodgers never traded him or released him; he would go on to play for the heroes of Flatbush for sixteen years.

ebbetsfieldflatbush

 

Never a great pure hitter, Reese still managed to get on base with regularity, drawing walks and using his savvy to set the table as the leadoff batter in the National League’s most feared lineup, featuring the power of Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo, the skill of Junior Gilliam, and the all-around mastery of Jackie Robinson.  It was in regard to Robinson, in particular, where Reese made his most profound mark, helping his teammate along during Robinson’s trailblazing and tempestuous rookie year of 1947.  Reese, the team captain, played such a pivotal role that Robinson later wrote, “Pee Wee, whether you are willing to admit what your being a great guy meant (a great deal) to my career, I want you to know how much I feel it meant.  May I take this opportunity to say a great big thanks and I sincerely hope all things you want in life be yours.”

reeseandrobinson

 

Pee Wee Reese retired from baseball as a player in 1958, the year after the Dodgers moved to the West Coast.  (He lost three years of his career in the 1940s while serving in World War II.)  In 1984, deservedly, and long overdue, the Little Colonel, the captain of the Dodgers, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

reeseinthehall

 

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

It’s easy to wish that all ideas, when they come, arrive fully formed and ready to go, complete with all major plot developments, character motivations, and even, perhaps, subthemes and story tangents.  And sometimes they do.  In particular, there have been times when an idea for a short story has hit me with such force, such actuality, I knew it was a winner, and all I had to do was sit down at my keyboard and let the tapestry of the idea unravel, word by word.  Ideas like this are the phenoms, the high school superstars who even the most nearsighted of scouts can discern have a bright and accomplished future.

superstarideasnearend

 

But you can’t count on them.  They are the Halley’s Comets of the literary world, only coming round once every blue moon, teasing us with a glimpse, a flourish, and then vanishing, like mist, once again into the farthest depths of the cosmos.

halleyscomet

 

No–most ideas take work, thought, honing, patience.  It’s often easy to become frustrated with such ideas, works-in-progress as they are.  But if we allow these soft-spoken and demure gems the time they need to grow and mature, we may just have a winner on our hands.

Sometimes, even a Pee Wee can make it all the way to the top.

greatsmokiesgemsendofpost

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Inner/Outer Writing Paradox (Or, From an Old Oak Desk in New England)

Where is your special place, the place where you block out the clutter and noise and distractions, and let your creative energy flow?

Mine is an old oak desk that my father used to use when he was a student in school, decades ago.  It’s solid, heavy, and not designed for the accoutrements of 21st-century digital technology.  But it’s my little oasis to think and dream and create.

oasis

 

My father actually passed the desk on to me while I was still living with my parents, a high school student with my eyes peeled toward the future, the promise of ten thousand tomorrows, of horizons to be explored and aspirations realized.  We are old friends, my desk and I.  The oak is scarred in spots, dented in others, victim to the long passage of time and the elements.  But the imperfections merely serve to make it more approachable, more real, more mine.

imperfections

 

I’ve spent countless hours sitting at the old desk, pecking away at my keyboard, working through stories and ideas and inspirations–some of which took shape and became full-bodied manuscripts and novels; others that died a quiet, gray death, falling into the oblivion of the unfinished and uncompleted.

tossedoutmanuscripts

 

Through it all, one thing has remained constant–the desk, my sturdy oak friend, has always offered solitude and seclusion–it’s just me, tucked away in my den.  There are times, at night, the drapes drawn, the house dark and still, as if surrounded by a giant, soundproof glove, when I feel like the only person, the only creature, on earth.

aloneatnight

 

Writing is a lonely task–sometimes, it seems, the loneliest of all, especially when the words won’t come, the characters won’t cooperate, the sentences and paragraphs refuse to flow into anything resembling a coherent whole.

writersblockcharacterswontcooperate

 

And yet, and yet . . .

There is a paradox at work here.  From the solitude, a reaching out; from the stillness, a sharing of words and thoughts and ideas–sending them out, perhaps with confidence, perhaps with trepidation, to be read and contemplated and critiqued by others.  What was originally crafted in the quiet of a bedroom, the seclusion of a Thoreau-like woodland getaway, is now dispersed, as if by magic, away from the confines and isolation of self and out toward the vastness of an ocean of readers.

writersgetawayinwoods

 

And yet still, there is a paradox within the paradox. I, like many writers, am a lifelong introvert.  I recharge my batteries when I’m alone, lost in thought and wonder.  I suppose I’ve become a bit more skilled at social gatherings through the years (though perhaps my friends may disagree!), but mingling among partygoers or making small talk in a group setting has never, and will never, come naturally to me.  Much like Mitchell Brant or Marc Kuslanski, I tend to feel awkward and clumsy in such situations.  When I observe my extrovert friends or family members, the effortless way they break into, or begin, conversations, I cannot help but admire them for their skills and panache.  They make something I struggle with look easy.

partysocial

 

But the funny thing is–the majority of them would likely never dare to share the intense, personal accounts we writers do on a regular basis–often, to people we don’t even know.  A paradox, indeed, that an introverted writer feels the desire, the longing, the need, to become naked and vulnerable, sharing his feelings, fears, dreams, memories, foibles, passions, ideas, loves with anyone who chooses to read them.

passionsanddreams

 

It’s as if the solitary act of writing needs to shed its literary cocoon and fly out the window, looking for places to land.  There is value, of course, even in writing just for yourself.  Diaries and journals through the ages lend proof to this truth.  But within every writer’s heart, isn’t there a calling, as if a voice were whispering, to share the depth and breadth of her essence?  The ideas, expressed as words on a page, are disconnected from the whole, separate from the world, so long as they reside only in our computer hard drive or in a dusty corner of our dresser drawer.

writingflyingoutwindow

 

And the world, as it were, may contain only a handful of readers–perhaps family members and a few close friends–or it may include everyone, the reach as limitless as our imaginations.  The power of the Internet certainly offers such reach.  We write a blog post in New England, or Berlin, or San Francisco, or Prague, and we, through the simplest of clicks, instantly share it across the globe.  And we, more than likely, wish for our words to be read, and, hopefully, appreciated and digested and thought about, by as many people as possible.

earth

 

Perhaps writers, then, are, in actuality, closet extroverts?  Or, maybe more accurately, writers are people, and feel the same longing all people share–to be recognized, to be understood, to be heard.  We just go about it in our own way.

We try, “in utter loneliness,” as John Steinbeck once said, to “explain the inexplicable.”

steinbeck

 

So the next time you tuck yourself away in your room or your office or your secluded writer’s cabin in the wild, and you feel a pang of guilt that you’re not spending that time with your family or your friends (a feeling I’ve certainly experienced on numerous occasions), perhaps you can offer them (and yourself) a reminder.

cabininwoodsend

 

Tell them that you have something inside of you, insisting, unceasing, that must come out, something so personal, so inherently you, that no one else on earth can produce it.  And that it’s a wistful thing, ungraspable, really, like a phantom flower that materializes out of thin air, but when reached for, vanishes like mist.  All we can do, while sequestered in our little writing corner, the door shut, the phone off, is try to capture that feeling, that idea, that insistence within us and express it to the best of our abilities.

writersroom

 

And then, when we step back out into the light of day, share it with the world.

sunrisesharingveryend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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