The Window to Nowhere

I am drawn to basements.  Dark places–cool, quiet, and, if you listen, alive with the whispers of long-ago events, memories, soft but enduring echoes.  On the surface, perhaps, this may seem odd.  Drawn to basements?  Why on earth . . .?

 

The answer is simple.  When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time in the basement.  I’ve written about some of my experiences in previous posts.  I often went down there alone–though only in the daytime, never at night!  It was a love-fear relationship.  As long as the sunlight streamed in through the small rectangular windows on either end of the cellar, I was okay.  I’d play pool (with myself), fiddle around with my older brother’s weights, write stories, imagine them.  But at night, when unverified sounds rose up from back corners, when I imagined unseen eyes watching me from the shadows, I steered clear.

 

Except when my friends were over (the same friends who inspired the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel).  There is strength, and bravery, in numbers.  They’d come over, and, oftentimes, we’d head into the basement.  We entertained ourselves in various and sundry ways–ping-pong, pool, board games, and just hanging out and telling stories, talking about nothing, and everything.  And, just as the boys do in the novels, we’d have sleepovers–in the basement.  As long as we were all down there, I was okay.  The settling noises of the house could more easily be attributed to things of this world as opposed to apparitions who were in the mood for a good haunting.  At least–that’s what I tried to tell myself.

 

I wasn’t above scaring them, of course.  I’d make up stuff about ghosts and goblins, ghouls who lingered in the dark.  They laughed–but they were nervous, too.  I could see it in their eyes.  Especially when I talked about The Window to Nowhere.

To back up, the basement in my parents’ home was partitioned into two halves–the “front” half, facing the street, was semi-finished, and that’s where the games, weights, pool table, and ping-pong table were.  It was a pleasant enough space with a bright ceiling light and food shelves; there was even a freezer, tucked tight against the wall.  A perfect spot for adventurous boys to congregate at night and let their imaginations run wild.  But the other half?  The back half?  That was a different piece of real estate altogether.

 

The back half of the basement was unfinished, with a cracked, cold concrete floor, an ancient, paint-splattered workbench, an old basin that looked like a relic from the 19th century (despite the fact that the house was built in the 1950s!), and the furnace, which hummed and thrummed like a beast alive on cold winter nights.  Beyond all that, though, the back half of the basement was dark.  The only light came from a naked ceiling bulb with an attached pull-chain.  And there was a “closet” of sorts, under the stairs, where long-forgotten items were stashed and where, I was certain, gremlins laid their heads to sleep each night.

 

Also, and most importantly, the back half of the basement was home to The Window to Nowhere–a dark, small, rectangular window that looked into the bowels of the crawlspace under the dining room.  When my parents purchased the house, back in the mid-1960s, years before I was born, there was no dining room.  My father added it on later.  When he did, he created the crawlspace underneath.  The Window to Nowhere, therefore, led somewhere . . . but it didn’t.  Not really.

 

When I looked through it, all I could see was total darkness.  Day or night, winter or summer, there was nothing to observe beyond the glass.  It was, to the eye of a growing child with overactive flights of fancy, a looking-glass to nothing, a gateway to zero, a Window to Nowhere.  I’d show it to my friends, tell them of the monsters who lived beyond the window, in the dark.  I’d tell them if they ever crawled in there (they wouldn’t, of course), they’d disappear from the earth, swallowed by the depths of no-space and no-time.  Could a human being exist in Nowhere?  None of them dared to find out.

 

The truth is, though, and always has been, that The Window to Nowhere represented its polar opposite.  For . . . wasn’t it, in actuality, a Window to Everywhere, and Every-When?  In the absence of anything but darkness through its glass, it opened the possibility to everything.  I imagined it leading to the center of a black hole, where all matter, all space, and all time was sucked into a vortex that predated the known universe.  I created, in my mind’s eye, negative-energy creatures, fanged monsters, vampires of the unknown, all of which resided in that crawlspace that defied and transcended the three-dimensional world I otherwise saw and experienced around me.  Without a doubt, the seeds of the void in The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel were sown from that window, in that basement.  My love of speculative storytelling, my penchant to ask “what if,” and my lifelong tendency to get lost in my imagination surely stem, at least in part, from The Window to Nowhere and the mysteries it evoked.

I think most writers have their own, personal Window to Nowhere.  Maybe it’s an old attic, or a tucked-away room in your grandmother’s house.  Maybe it’s a remote wooded glen or an empty mall just before closing.  The possibilities and variances are as endless as the imagination, as limitless as thought itself.

Today, when I go back home and visit the old house, the house where I grew up, put down roots in this world, the house where I scribbled my first short story and first novel, and the house that will always be a part of who I am and what I write, I make it a point to go downstairs and take a good, long look at The Window to Nowhere.

But only in the daytime.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Persian Flaw

It’s happened to all of us . . . likely more than once.  You’ve finished a piece of writing.  It can be a novel, a poem, a short story, an essay, a blog post.  Anything.  The point is–you wrote it, and it’s done.

Or is it?

If you publish it, it’s already “out there,” of course.  You can’t “undo” the act of initial publication.  But you can delete a blog post, remove an indie book from Amazon, or, if you haven’t published the work in question, you can hold on to it and allow it to collect virtual dust hidden securely in your computer’s hard drive.  (Then again, if a publisher distributes your work, or a magazine prints it, you’re stuck.  It will remain in public view.)

 

But isn’t that the point?  What published author wants to retract their work?  After toiling so hard on your story, it would seem self-defeating to withhold it, or, once published, to remove it.  And yet, we’ve all been there, haven’t we?  We thought we were finished with the blasted thing, but now, upon rereading it, and re-rereading it, and re-re-rereading it, we discover mistakes we overlooked before, errors the size and scope of Everest we were blind to just days or weeks ago, whenever we declared the work “complete.”

 

“How can I have missed that?” we might say.  “I can’t believe I thought this was ready for prime time!  What was I thinking?”  The mistake in question may be a grammatical one; it may be a collection of typos.  Or, perhaps more serious, we might encounter issues with our characters or plot structure or overall wording and pace.  Whatever it is we find, and grimace about now, is something new, something we simply didn’t notice before.  Maybe a negative review caused us to look at the story in a new light.  Maybe the fact that hundreds, if not thousands, of others have since looked at it since publication has made us hyper-vigilant in our post-publication literary detective work.  What are all those readers seeing?

 

And so we read it over again, and again, and again, hoping for perfection.  Hoping we find no blemish, no miscue, expecting every sentence to be Shakespearian, every plot twist Dickensian, every line of dialogue a melody from a literary symphony.

 

It grates us, therefore, when we encounter imperfection.  What’s that on page 98?  Why did I begin chapter 8 there?  I should’ve done it this way instead.  Why did I let that scene drag out so long?  And on and on it can go.

If we let it.

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

Centuries ago, the Persians were renowned for their peerless craftsmanship when it came to making rugs.  Persian rugs would take years to complete, and the final product would tell an indelible tale.  Each rug was a work of art, one of a kind, perfect.  Well . . . not entirely.  The Persians had a practice whereby they would introduce a flaw into the rug.  It was subtle, and perhaps indecipherable to the untrained or the indifferent eye.  But it was there.

 

Why, though?  Why deliberately make a mistake, as it were, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential?  Isn’t it better to quest for the perfect rug, or the perfect work of art?

The Persians believed only the divine could attain perfection and that humans, no matter how valiantly we try or how stubbornly we toil, cannot achieve it.  By weaving a flaw into their rugs, they were visually and symbolically yielding to this truth.  To attempt to craft a “perfect” rug would be an act of arrogance and foolishness, destined to fail.

 

There are no perfect carpets.  There are no perfect novels.  There are no perfect people.

Everything, and everyone, comes with a Persian Flaw.

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

One of the primary themes in both The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel is an acceptance of one’s idiosyncrasies and flaws.  Mitchell, Joe, Marc, and Ryan each have traits about themselves they dislike.  Even the “ghost girl,” Monica Tisdale, must face her shortcomings and learn to embrace herself for who she really is.

 

After all, what makes for a well-rounded and memorable literary character?  Is a great character perfect, always having the right answer, the best solution, the magic words for every situation that arises?  Perhaps, if you’re talking about Ward Cleaver or Cary Grant (and Grant was a “character” as much as any he played on-screen).  But “perfect” characters like this, while charming and enjoyable to watch when the mood strikes, come across as artificial, Hollywood constructs that represent ideals, not real life.

 

Why should our writing be different?  Why should we stress over stories already finished, already published?  Hemingway once said, “There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Frank Herbert said, “There is no real ending.  It’s just the place where you stop the story.”  (I’m sure he could have said the same about the start, as well!)

None of this means we shouldn’t strive to produce our best work.  By all means, edit your story as long as it takes for you to say, “That’s it.  That’s all I can do.  It’s the best I have.”

And then, as much as possible, accept that final determination.  “It’s the best I have,” not, “It’s the best I have until I get a bad review,” or, “It’s the best I have until I read it again next month and discover that error on page 18.”  Because the fact is, if you go in and fix that error on page 18, a month after that you might find another error on page 27 or 88 or 222.  It can turn into an endless loop of reading and rereading and editing and re-editing.

 

The Persians understood this.  We writers understand this when we create our flawed and human characters.  We understand it when we read other people’s work.  We can appreciate their work for its artistic merit and technique, despite whatever “mistakes” may be present.  We can see the beauty in it.  The truth in it.

Now, if we can only learn to view our own work through that same lens.

It doesn’t have to be perfect to be great.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Joy in the Journey (Or, Stopping in Dot-on-the-Map Towns Along the Way)

Tomorrow, I’ll be heading “back home” to Rochester, NY, to visit family and old friends–some of whom served as the inspiration for the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel. It’s a visit I always look forward to.  It’s good to see the old house where I was raised, to walk through the same rooms and hallways I did when I was growing up.  It’s good to sit and chat and reminisce; to enjoy the company of people I’ve known and loved for my entire life; and to play Trivial Pursuit, my favorite board game, and a tradition every time I return home.

 

So when I arise bright and early tomorrow morning and hop in the car, I will look forward to arriving in Rochester later in the day.  But that’s not the only thing.  Because, as much as I want to get there, I also enjoy the getting there.

 

Indeed, there is an appreciation for the drive from my current home in the hills of east-central Vermont to my childhood home not far from the water’s edge of Lake Ontario.  The drive itself comprises approximately 350 miles, one way–and takes just shy of seven hours.  There are different routes I can take, especially once I cross the state line into New York.  I can get on 87 South and whip down to Albany, and from there speed west on I-90 straight into Rochester.  That’s the fastest way–all highway driving.  It is also the route I will not take.

 

Sure, I’ll merge onto I-90 eventually, but not at Albany.  No.  Rather than zipping down to the state capital, I will instead travel first on Route 4 and then Route 29, traveling through small towns like Whitehall, Hudson Falls, Fonda, and Herkimer–off-the-beaten-path places with weather-beaten houses and 19th-century storefronts and village greens, straddling the verdant valley of the Mohawk River or the easy, gentle path of the Erie Canal.  The kinds of towns most motorists sail right through without a thought, eager to arrive somewhere else, somewhere bigger or glitzier and more represented in travel brochures.

 

But me?  I like to linger.  Not too long.  I want to visit my family, after all, and there are still miles to go before I get there.  But for a little while.  I’ll pull into an empty lot or park along the shoulder of the road and take a ten-minute walk–perhaps down the Capra-esque Main Street or along the quiet sidewalk of a side street, appreciating the architecture of the century-old homes, breathing in the spring air, contemplating the aroma of flowers and newly sprung leaves.  Or I’ll enter an establishment, a local shop as far removed from a chain store as possible.  Maybe it’s a general store or an antique shop, or a restaurant with the town’s name emblazoned somewhere on the awning above the door.  Even when I don’t get out of the car, I make sure to slow down, observe the surroundings, take note of the pedestrians and the signs and the banners flapping in the breeze.

 

I’m not sure why I’m drawn to these old, old little towns in eastern upstate New York.  Maybe because there is a sad charm to them, a dignified sense of age and experience that, while not showy or ornate, commands a species of respect.  Or maybe it’s just realizing that these towns, these way stations in the rural heart of the Empire State, are rich with history, with experiences.  With ghosts.  How many stories are contained within the town limits?  What might the buildings and houses, some of them crumbling, in states of disrepair, say if they could speak?  Or . . . maybe they can speak.  Maybe you just need to stop for a moment, look beyond the peeling paint and the broken shingles, and listen.

 

This isn’t so different from a literary journey, either.  How many times have we undertaken a novel or a memoir, or anything that requires us to write hundreds of pages, and bemoaned the pages yet left unwritten, the scenes yet left unrealized.  “Only on page 57?” one might complain.  “How am I going to finish?  How can I get to the end?”  It’s human nature, I suppose.  We want to complete what we start.  We want to beat our competitors.  We want to get there.

 

As such, the words “The End” are two of the most fulfilling for any author.  But . . . are they not also bittersweet?  Because while you may have become tired of the never-ending work-in-progress, and longed for the beginning of a new project, a new novel, you have also spent hour upon hour, day upon day, week upon week, with your characters.  And now–you are done.  Finished.  What once seemed a burden (“What will I do in the next chapter?  How will Jennifer deal with that?  Does George call her out in chapter 30 or not?”) now seems like a friend who’s left you, who’s gone across the globe, or the universe, to a faraway and inaccessible land.

 

In driving the seven hours to the old family home, or in writing a novel that carries on for months or even years, there will always be an ambition, a quest, a need to finish, to accomplish, to arrive.  But while in the midst of it all, it’s a good idea to take a breath, forget about where you’re going, and instead experience where you are.

There is a joy in the journey.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

Anatomy of an (Incomplete) Story Idea (Or, The Adventures of Ferdinand)

Imagine this scene . . .

A man is driving along a lonely country road as midnight approaches.  I don’t know how old the man is–perhaps 40, maybe 45.  For the time being, it’s not important.  Nor do I know his name.  Jeff?  Fred?  Ferdinand?  Pick a name, any name.  Just as with his age, it is irrelevant right now.

 

The man (okay, we’ll settle on Ferdinand!) glances in his rearview mirror.  A dark stretch of asphalt merges into the background, swallowed by the night.  He can’t help but inhale deeply, taking in the warm summer air through the open window of his car.  Above, in an oily canvas of night sky, hundreds of stars sparkle like diamonds.  He used to study astronomy as a kid, and, momentarily, he looks up, through the windshield, seeing if maybe, just maybe, he can identify some of those stars.  No such luck.  Like eighth-grade algebra, the knowledge is gone, captured by the wide gulf of years, of time and distance.

 

He hasn’t driven through a town of significant size for miles.  He’s “smack-dab in the middle of Nothingville,” as his mom used to say about the house and town he grew up in.  Where is he headed?  I’m not sure, and neither is he.  Doesn’t matter.  What matters is the drive, the stars, the gentle night breeze wafting in through the window, the fields and trees that come and go, come and go, as he drives on.  There are few houses.  But occasionally, there is a porch light in the distance, a beacon in the dark.  It makes him reminisce.  He grew up on a farm.  He couldn’t wait to get away, escape to the city.  Now he wonders if perhaps that had been a mistake.  His life isn’t what he thought it would be.  Maybe that’s why he’s on this long drive.  Maybe he’s running away, fleeing something from a long-ago, irretrievable past.

 

Ferdinand sighs, turns on the car’s radio.  He scans through the stations–not getting much, this far away from populated areas.  He comes across a sports-talk station with a caller screaming in a heavy Brooklyn accent about why the New York Jets need to move in a new direction.  The host cautions restraint, the caller yells again.  Ferdinand presses a button, and the angry Jets fan is gone.  For a moment, Ferdinand imagines the owner of that voice, that frustrated fan.  He’s shut him out, erased him from the confines of the car, but surely the man is still raging from somewhere in Brooklyn.  An apartment, perhaps?  Maybe the guy lives above a bakery or a pizza parlor, or a pawnshop.  Maybe he owns a brownstone on a busy corner, with cars honking and people talking on the streets and sidewalks outside.  Miles away from Ferdinand.  Worlds away.

 

He continues to drive, cruising along at 55.  Not a single car passes him. The road is his, and his alone.  He imagines driving through a vortex, through an intersection of space and time, plunging into a parallel world, as if a character in an old Twilight Zone episode. And all the while, he continues to scan through the radio dial.

 

There’s one station playing ’80s pop.  He pauses on this one.  Some of the songs he remembers well from his youth.  This makes him feel at once nostalgic, and old.  Could that really have been thirty years ago?  He glances in the rearview again, not to look out for traffic–he knows there isn’t any–but to check his thinning hair and the worry lines on his forehead.  Where has the time gone?

 

Muttering, Ferdinand fiddles with the dial again.  The scanner skips over stations and plays back static with others, interspersed with a few more songs that he doesn’t care for–there’s a heavy metal piece, a country song.  A grunge number from the ’90s.  Just as he’s about to switch the radio off entirely, he hears something odd.  A voice, talking to him.  But not just any voice.

 

His voice.

“Don’t do it,” the voice on the radio–his voice–says.  “Think twice, champ.  Don’t.  It will be the biggest mistake of your life–and that’s saying something, considering your track record.  Don’t go there.”

Ferdinand shakes his head, hits his forehead with the palm of one hand.  Don’t do what?  Don’t go where? And how can he be hearing himself on the radio?

“I need some sleep,” he says.  The next sign of life, the next town–he’ll pull over, get a room for the night.  Maybe order some takeout, watch a movie.  Relax.

 

He reaches to turn off the radio.

“Not that easy, you don’t,” his voice says back to him, tinny and crackling, as if losing reception.  “You’re not going to shut me out . . . or up.  Listen, for a change.  Don’t do it.  Don’t you dare.”

He takes a long, deep breath, looks out the window at the stars, at the empty, open vastness of the night.

 

Is he losing his mind?

And if he’s not . . . what does it mean?  How can it be?

Maybe he has driven into the Twilight Zone, after all.

 

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

This is an idea that hit me with the force of a hammer last week.  The scene unfolded in my mind as described above, formulated within seconds upon waking from an overnight sleep.  As I always do when an idea that energizes me comes, I immediately jotted down the gist of it, the essentials–so I wouldn’t forget anything important.  I did the same thing with the scene that came to me in a dream back when I was in high school–the dream that morphed into Mitchell Brant‘s dream in the opening chapter of The Eye-Dancers.  For two decades, I couldn’t seem to fit that episode into a story–until, at last, The Eye-Dancers was born.

 

Will this new idea, this new situation, also take weeks or months or years to grow and expand and flesh out into a story, or even a novel?  I hope not.  But I don’t have much control over it, either.  This is how ideas work for me, most of the time.  Every now and then, an idea arrives fully formed, beginning to end, a complete story that only needs to be written.  But that is the exception, not the rule.

 

The rule is both riveting and frustrating.  Exhilarating and tantalizing.  Because what normally happens is–I am given a piece, a small slice of the whole.  Just enough to hook me, pull me in, grasp onto to me like a feisty dog taking a firm hold and not letting go.  I am forced in, unable to discard, feeling the need to explore the path and see where it leads.  See what discoveries await on the other side.  Sometimes that process is sudden and immediate.  Other times it is slow and full of pitfalls, as I await the pleasure of a capricious and all too often stingy muse.

 

So, for right now, I reluctantly set Ferdinand aside.  Oh, I’ll think about him.  I’ll turn his predicament over in my mind a thousand times before Sunday.  But I know the full story cannot be forced.  Just as Ferdinand’s voice spoke to him from the radio, so it will to me–in its own way, at a time and place of its choosing.  I can coax and goad and ponder and cajole, but I cannot dictate.  The creative process must be allowed to work its magic in its own inscrutable way.

 

Then again, maybe tonight I will dream of this again, and, maybe, upon waking, the riddle will be solved, and the story will be written.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Capricious Muse Comes to Call (Or, A Walk Through the Neighborhood)

There are times when, antsy and frustrated at the lack of creative direction, I sit down and try to force the issue.  I’ll hold a brainstorming session . . . with myself.  It’s not like I don’t have any ideas.  On any given day, I generally have a handful of what I like to think of as decent possibilities.  None of them are fully formed, and all of them are as amorphous as a literary amoeba.  But they’re something.  They represent a start.

 

The thing is, these ideas have been lying around for a while, uninspired, limp and about as riveting as day-old baked potatoes.  Sure, they’re workable.  But only in the barest sense.  I don’t get excited about them.  I don’t really care.  The very thought of crafting a story around them feels like a chore.  And one thing I have learned the hard way from experience, after repeated sessions of banging my head against a granite wall, is that if I don’t feel revved up about a story idea, no motivational pep talk is going to imbue it with the necessary vigor.  Whenever I’ve attempted to begin a story in such a halfhearted manner, the result is a flat, anemic piece that never goes anywhere.  It is doomed to fail before the first word is written.

 

So what do I do, then, between stories, when I don’t have any new, inspired ideas to build upon?  Granted, in the days directly after completing a long writing project, this dilemma takes care of itself.  For a while, maybe a few weeks or even a few months, I may not want to undertake a new story.  Kind of a post-novel sabbatical, if you will.  But the literary malaise doesn’t last forever.  Eventually, as surely as fall follows summer, the need to write, to plot, to form, to create, returns, with the force of a pile driver.  And this is when the lack of a ready-made story can cause a sense of unease.  I need to write something!  But I don’t have any ideas worth writing about.

 

After a few weeks of this stalemate, this nowhere zone of literary quicksand, I begin to feel genuine panic.  Is that it?  Has the well run dry?  I can’t make ideas happen.  They either come, or they don’t.  And if they don’t, what will I do?  The questions continue in rapid-fire, machine-gun succession, taunting, accusing, pleading.  The creative path, far too often, is one laced with insecurity, and when searching for an idea to write about, the insecurity rises to a crescendo.

 

So, in response, all I can do is live my life.  If I had a magic formula, an “ideas button” I could press, I would.  Any writer would.  If I had a surefire way to send an SOS signal to the muse, the signal would be sent!  Alas.  The muse cannot be paged or prodded.  It comes when it comes, and the job of any writer is to remain open, watchful, observant, vigilant not to miss the cues.

 

Because the cues can arrive at any moment, and often when we least expect them.

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

For my “day job,” I work as a technical writer for a small-town New England software company.  The office sits at the edge of town, and there is a neighborhood directly behind it.  It’s an old neighborhood, with houses dating back to the 19th century, many of which are large colonials with covered front porches and crisp, black shutters that frame the windows.  Mature maple trees and sturdy oaks dot the lawns, in summer creating a green canopy filled with the chirping of songbirds.

 

I frequently take walks through this neighborhood.  On my lunch break, I’ll head out and weave through the side streets for the better part of an hour.  When I walk, my mind usually wanders, perhaps calculating my options for the fantasy football draft, reliving old memories, thinking about my WIP, if I’m in the middle of one.  Or, just as often, I simply observe my surroundings, taking it all in, enjoying the New England summer, which is all too fleeting.

 

And sometimes, every now and then, something will hit me.  It happened just last week.

As I neared an abandoned cape, at the back end of a dead-end street, I paused on my way.  Something about the place struck me–which was strange.  After all, I’d walked by here hundreds of times on previous lunchtime excursions.  What was so different on this day?  And yet, I was transfixed.  If a neighbor from across the way had been peering out the window just then, they may have wondered why I was just standing there, stock-still, in the middle of the road.

 

The house had seen better days.  The beige siding was peeling in places, the roof had a few shingles missing.  The lawn was uncut, the weeds spreading like a contagion, overtaking the porch.  In the driveway, parked in front of a dilapidated garage, there was a rusted-out car, its tires punctured and flattened, the out-of-control shrubbery from the side yard enveloping the vehicle in a greedy, green embrace.

 

The place looked easily a hundred years old, likely more.  Though abandoned now, no doubt much life had been lived within its walls in previous decades–children playing, laughing, people talking, planning, scheming.  Crying.  Especially that last one.  Maybe it was the angle of the sun that day, the quality of the light.  Maybe it was the cawing of a crow that flew overhead.  Or perhaps it was the silence on the street.  Not a soul stirred.  No one was outside.  The breeze picked up, and in it there were echoes.  Whisperings.  Secrets of past hauntings, past tragedies.

 

Of course, I don’t know if there were any tragedies in the old house.  Perhaps its history is as nondescript as a November Wednesday.  But something was calling out to me.  Something was resonating.  And that’s when I realized.  After a months-long hiatus, the muse was speaking to me . . .

Since finishing The Singularity Wheel. and publishing it in January, no new idea had energized me.  But now, at the back of this quiet dead-end street, gazing upon this decrepit, empty house, here it was.  Out of the ether, unplanned for, unscripted, completely of its own accord, it came.  It wasn’t complete–not even close.  The idea would need fleshing out, muscle and sinew attaching to bone; veins and arteries would require a still-absent heartbeat to manifest, to pump the blood that would drive and propel the story.  But that would come later–with hope.  At the moment, I was just riding the high that an “a-ha” creative moment always brings.  Where, seconds ago, there was nothing, now there was a firm foundation, a foothold upon which to build a literary structure.

 

I continued to look at the house.  A squirrel leaped onto a low tree branch and climbed to the top, shaking leaves as it went.  I wondered if the rodent was vying for a better view to peer in to the house, through an upper window.  Perhaps it, too, had caught wind of the muse.  And the secrets that upstairs room held . . .

 

In the story idea that had materialized, a boy, perhaps eleven or twelve years of age, with a bent toward science and inventiveness, a self-professed “nerd,” is arguing with his best friend.  Because, though they are best friends, there is jealousy, too, rivalry.  Anger.  And this boy, this nerd, has conspired with a handful of classmates–all present–to gang up on his friend, scare him . . . just a little.  Push him toward the window, make him worry that he might fall.

 

And then something goes terribly wrong.  A trip, falling backwards, toward the window, out the window, down.  He didn’t kill his friend, did he?  No–he’s not dead.  But somehow, in its own way, the result is even more horrific, even worse . . .

The nerd and his co-conspirators must live with what they’ve done.  We follow this nerd through high school and college into adulthood, as he wrestles with this catastrophic accident.  How can he erase the past, or even change it?  Is there a way?  And as he seeks and quests and pursues, how does his guilt and his obsession affect his relationships with his wife and kids, his family and friends?  And, even if he can alter the past, or twist reality itself, what would the ramifications be?  Would something unintended happen?  Is he risking too much?

 

I took one last look at the abandoned house at the back of the dead-end road.  The squirrel chattered from above.  Then I walked back to the office.

I didn’t have the answers to the story’s questions and possibilities–yet.  And I couldn’t even be sure the story would be written, or finished.  But it was good to be fired up, to have a story to start.

To have a literary path to follow.

I’ll just need to see where it leads.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

“It’s Time to Watch ‘Forrest Gump'” (Or, The Art of Not Forcing the Issue)

We’ve all been there.  You’re working on something–a story, perhaps, or a song, a poem.  A painting.  Something creative, something you believe in and aim to finish.  You’ve managed to juggle your schedule today, delegate chores and to-dos, plan ahead.  It’s the first time all week you have a chance to dig in and proceed with your masterpiece.  You have a glass of water or tea at the ready, maybe even a snack.  You plan on being here for a while.

 

“Let’s go,” you say, psyching yourself up.  “Let’s get this party started.”

And then . . . nothing happens.

The words don’t come.  The characters don’t cooperate.  The brushstrokes feel heavy and blunt, messy, as if you’re trying to paint underwater. The image you’re creating, the story you’re weaving, the art you’re making is stuck, dead on the page.  Your tea gets cold, the snacks sit there, uneaten.  And your cursor blinks at you, in and out, in and out, like a silent, mocking accusation.

 

But you aren’t ready to admit defeat.  You’re not sure when the next block of hours will present itself.  You’ve arranged your entire day around this!  Why are the words playing hard to get?

 

Certainly, I have experienced this phenomenon more times than I care to remember.  While writing The Singularity Wheel, there were days when it felt as though my head was in a blender, the words and phrases and paragraphs jumbled into a miasma of incoherence.  And since time was at a premium, and I was already so far behind my publication schedule for the book, I would resist, push back against the reluctant and ever-capricious muse.

 

The odd thing was–I might be struggling like this after a successful literary sojourn the last time I sat down to write.  In The Singularity Wheel, for example, Chapter 10 went smoothly–I sat down and wrote that chapter in two hours flat, and it required only minimal revisions.  But Chapter 11 was a brier patch, a wasteland of pitfalls and quicksand and hidden, poisonous vipers lying in wait to strike.  The first run-through took multiple sessions, and even then, the chapter later went through various revisions.  I even started thinking of it as “the nightmare chapter,” or, when I was feeling especially dramatic, “the chapter where my novel goes to die.”

 

Out of frustration, when I encounter a rupture in the creative process, a session where I just can’t produce, I too often try to force it.  I’ll write a sentence, then another, and another, and after several minutes, they may bleed to two or three paragraphs.  It is like attempting to find water in an abandoned and dry well.  Every word is an effort, every sentence a marathon.  What’s worse, nothing sounds right.  After a half hour or an hour of this, I will pause and read what I’ve got.  Almost without fail, what I’ve got is junk.

 

But the streak of stubbornness dies hard.  During one particularly unproductive session, I pulled my chair away from the desk, stood up, did a dozen push-ups, two dozen sit-ups, jogged in place, took a walk around the house, upstairs, downstairs, in the basement, and then back again.  I just need to get the old juices flowing, I told myself.  Work out the kinks.  When I returned to the manuscript, however, the kinks were still there, binding me with their inflexible, industrial-strength straps.

 

It’s times like this when I truly appreciate the flip side–those sessions when the words flow like lava, pouring out, my fingers barely able to keep up with my thoughts, swept away in a creative tsunami.  It is a high like no other.  But it cannot be forced.  It comes when it comes, as mercurial as the weather in the hill country of central Vermont.

 

Ultimately, this is a truth we have to accept.  Even the best-laid plans of writers and artists must sometimes be altered to fit the mood of the muse.  We fight against a barren spell.  We might rant and rave and swear, and try to will the words to come.  But that rarely works–at least not for me.

 

Once I know I’ve given it all I have, once I’ve stared at the screen long enough with no results to show for my efforts, however well intentioned; once I’ve taken a long walk along the country road where I live and still cannot produce even a single decent sentence, I grudgingly acknowledge the truth.  Today just isn’t my day.

 

Temporarily defeated (but only temporarily, I remind myself!), I endeavor to get away from the work and the frustration and perhaps watch a favorite movie or TV show.  Who knows?  If I’m lucky, something in whatever I decide to watch may serve as an artistic catalyst of sorts and get me out of my funk.

 

But which movie?  Which TV show?  I sort through my collection of old-school DVDs.  (What, me download?)  I settle on Forrest Gump.

It’s better than banging my head against the creative wall.

We’ll get ’em next time.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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

P.S.  Speaking of old school, the paperback copy of The Singularity Wheel is now available on Amazon!

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

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