On Symmetry (Or, There’s Something about November)

“Hey, how about that?” I said when I received the schedule for my senior year in high school.  I had been waiting for it for a few days, eager to see who my teachers were and what order my classes would be in.  (Mind you, these were the days, in that long-ago 20th century, when class schedules were snail-mailed.)  For three days, I had been watching for the mailman, a rotund fellow by the name of Al, to deliver it.  Finally, the schedule had arrived.

 

The first thing I noticed was that one of my teachers would be someone I knew well, someone who had taught me in a different class as a freshman.  I will call him Mr. D.  And back in my freshman year, he taught English and unlocked for the class the treasures of great literature and the colors of the writing rainbow.  But now, in my senior year, he would be teaching a class called Current Events.  Great, I thought.  I always liked Mr. D.

 

On the first day of school, I lingered after class for a couple of minutes, talked with him about what might be in store for the semester, reminisced about ninth grade.  “Freshmen,” he said with a roll of his eyes.  He still taught freshman English, too.  In fact, even as we spoke, the first brave souls of his freshman English class began to trickle in to the room.

 

I told him about the impact his writing rainbow lesson had on me, how I still thought about it, still tried to live it, and always would.  That made him smile.  I asked him if he still talked about writing rainbows and creativity and reaching for your best to the current crop of freshmen.  “Indeed, I do,” he said.  I was glad to hear it, and hoped some of the wary underclassmen filtering into the room, eyeing me suspiciously as I conversed with the teacher at his desk, would be as motivated by the lesson as I had been.

 

“Well, it’s good being back in your class,” I said then, knowing I needed to go.  If I didn’t leave soon, I’d be late for my next period.  “I look forward to the semester.”

And I did.  I meant it.  And it didn’t disappoint.  Mr. D. didn’t disappoint.  Throughout the term, he assigned for us to read through issues of Time and Newsweek, and report on the news, every week.  (Again, this was early 1990s education!  No Googling.)  Frequently, my worldview clashed with his, and we’d have spirited debates.  He’d write in the margins of my handwritten essays that he disagreed with my interpretation of events but that he supported my right to hold views contrary to his own.  We argued, we clashed about politics, but I enjoyed the class.  And, I like to think old Mr. D. enjoyed having me as his student again.

 

One morning, a frosty, early November, hint-of-winter morning, I arrived in his class a few minutes early.  Since it was the first period of the day, there were no departing students from a previous class.  It was just Mr. D. seated at his desk.

 

I approached, and we started talking.  I mentioned again how it was good having the opportunity to take a class he taught.  “I never thought I’d be in your class again,” I said.  “Freshmen year and now senior year . . .”

“There’s a kind of symmetry to it,” Mr. D. said.  “You got stuck with me at the start, and at the end, of your high school career.”

 

A kind of symmetry, yes.  I liked the sound of that.

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

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost five years since I published the e-book version of The Eye-Dancers.  Time continues to speed along on rapidly fluttering wings.  I remember well the stops and starts that led up to publication day.  There were hiccups, hurdles, and unexpected delays.  But eventually, release day arrived–in November 2012.

 

So it seems fitting somehow that, five years later, there have been delays and hurdles and hiccups with the sequel, as well.  Editing has taken longer than expected.  The writing process has taken longer.  And of course sometimes things simply crop up, a week’s delay here, a month’s there.  The end result has been a later-than-originally-anticipated release date.  But The Singularity Wheel is getting close!  I am working through the final substantive edits this week and next.  Following that, a few heaven-sent beta readers will comb through the manuscript.  Once they are done reading and offer feedback, I will do a final, final round of edits followed by a thorough copy edit/proofread.  The cover will be completed.  The file readied for publication.  And . . .

 

A November release date is planned.  Five years, to the month, following the release of The Eye-Dancers.

There is something about November, indeed.

 

As Mr. D. might say, there’s a kind of symmetry to it.

Thanks so much to everyone for all your ongoing support.  It means the world.  And thanks so much, as always, for reading!

–Mike

 

Arriving at the Intersection of Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Classic Comic Books

What is your nostalgic pleasure, the thing that makes you hark back to a simpler time?  For me it is, and has always been, old, vintage comic books.  Since I was in junior high, these gems from yesteryear have called out to me with a song and a story I can’t resist.

 

I have always found it easy to imagine transporting myself to a time years before I was born–say, circa 1955 in a drugstore or a little corner shop, browsing through the comics rack, listening to the squeak it emits when I make it spin, and figuring out which issues to plunk my dimes on.

 

When I started collecting comics, the mid-1950s were, to me, an alien world glimpsed primarily via old, grainy, black-and-white TV shows or Hitchcock classics.  I enjoyed them, but they belonged to another era, beyond the purview of my personal experience.  Vintage comic books, however, brought the mid-20th century alive to me in ways television and cinema never could.  The culture of that period jumped off the pages, both from the stories themselves as well as from the ads and fan letters. I couldn’t afford the issues that were in tip-top condition.  I could only buy the ragged copies, with missing staples and spine rolls and water stains.  Some even had corners chewed off by rodents who had no doubt long since met their demise.  If anything, though, these imperfections just made me love these comics even more.  They were more personal this way.  More mine.

 

To this day, I still have hundreds of old comics.  I have the tried-and-true titles, such as Mitchell Brant’s favorite, The Fantastic Four, along with other stalwarts like Superman, Batman, The Avengers, and The X-Men.  But it is the science fiction comics from the 1950s, sans superheroes, that appeal to me the most.  The ingenuity of the stories, the old-fashioned and innocent tone, the crisp, imaginative artwork all inspire.

 

Perhaps more than anything, though, I respect the attempt these vintage issues made to educate as well as entertain.  Granted, it was with a light touch, but the effort was deliberate and consistent.  The authors and editors of DC’s (the same company that gave birth to Superman and Batman) famous sci-fi duo of Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space eschewed all-out, no-holds-barred fantasy in favor of hard science fiction that always managed to have one foot firmly planted in the laws and realities of science.  By approaching their work in this way, the creative team inserted tidbits of learning for their readers.  The hero would generally solve a puzzle, perhaps even save the world, through some ingenious application of a scientific principle.

 

While it’s true that many liberties were taken, nuggets of actual science were always there to be mined.  For example, in Strange Adventures number 95 (August 1958), in a little tale titled “The Boy Who Saved the Solar System,” the protagonist, a twelve-year-old son of a scientist, accomplishes what the best minds of the Solar System cannot.  (Indeed, in the story, we meet the brightest minds from Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Saturn.  Liberties!)  The entire Solar System is imperiled by a great gaseous cloud that emits a blight, the effects of which are ruining the crops and farmlands and limiting the food supply.  As the twelve-year-old’s father tells him one evening, “”It’s slow starvation, Son–for the entire human race.”

 

The boy is interested in science himself, and while his father tries to find a remedy for the worldwide (actually, Solar System-wide) blight, he fills balloons with hydrogen gas.  When his father forgets his wedding anniversary (he’s busy trying to save the world, so the date slipped his mind until it was too late!), the boy tells him not to worry, he’ll find something to give to Mom and then offer Dad the credit.  The boy picks some roses from the backyard–from the same rosebush one of his hydrogen balloons broke on the day before.  The thing is–the roses are perfectly healthy, not a sign of the blight that has plagued virtually all other plant life on Earth.

 

That’s when the boy and his dad realize–hydrogen kills the blight!  And Dad dutifully informs us that hydrogen is the simplest element in the universe.

 

So we have a good son, covering for his absent-minded dad, and in his kind act, he accidentally discovers the cure for the worldwide blight.  A neat and tidy (and deliciously corny) tale wrapped up and delivered in six pages.

In addition to the stories, there were other methods of sharing scientific information with the audience.  Take this same issue, Strange Adventures number 95.  In a page called “Amazing Ratios,” we learn that the weight of the earth in tons is equal to the number of atoms in a single drop of rain–6,000,000,000,000,000,000,000!  And that Phoebe, the outermost of Saturn’s moons, takes longer to revolve around the planet it orbits (550 days) than Earth does to revolve around the sun (365.25 days).

 

There is even a “Spotlight on Science” letters page, where readers ask science questions for the editors to research and answer.

Likewise, in both The Eye-Dancers and its sequel, The Singularity Wheel (scheduled for release this fall), an attempt is made to tether the far-out and the mind-boggling with some semblance of scientific explanation.  And the primary vehicle for achieving this, in both novels, is Marc Kuslanski, the science wiz, who is, in some respects, the scientific mouthpiece for the unfolding events.  When Mitchell or Ryan or Joe stray far afield in their speculations, Marc is there to reel them back in, often with a theory or a hypothesis grounded in quantum mechanics or cold, hard logic.  And does he ever have his work cut out for him in The Singularity Wheel--which takes the concept of parallel worlds from The Eye-Dancers and expands it exponentially.

 

At the outset of The Singularity Wheel, Monica Tisdale, “the ghost girl” from The Eye-Dancers, is five years older and five years more advanced in her ability to bridge the chasm between dimensions.  And she wants to explore.

From the opening scene of The Singularity Wheel:

 

“She was endless.  Infinite.  She knew that now.

Monica Tisdale smiled.

With her eyes tightly closed, she sent out a mental thought-wave to . . . herself.

No.  That wasn’t right.  Not to herself.  To herselves.  She was more than one—far, far more.

She had practiced religiously, diligently, ever since she’d contacted the boys who had rescued her.  The boys who had come here from another world.  That knowledge had awakened a thirst in her, a quest to learn and discover.

And connect.

She was not like other girls.  The day-to-day happenings in Colbyville, New York, bored her.  Sure, she loved her mom and dad, liked a few of her classmates at school, and sometimes just wanted to have carefree fun.  But she had always been different, attuned to phenomena most people didn’t recognize and didn’t see.  As the weeks merged into months, and the months to years, her awareness of these things had sharpened.

She was ready.”

 

And in so doing, Monica sets off a chain reaction that will push her to the brink, as she sees and experiences her life in an infinite number of worlds, remembering things from a billion places, unable to know one world from another, one self from another.

 

Marc will be there, of course, to try to make sense of it all–if he can.

So while The Singularity Wheel will be as much fantasy as sci-fi, it will, hopefully, in the tradition of the classic sci-fi comic books from decades ago, keep its eye on the factual and the actual as it ventures off into the shifting, capricious landscapes of the unknown.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Our Stars, Our Memories (Or, a YA Reminder)

“So, why do you write YA fiction?” is a question I get often.  “What is it about YA that inspires you to write in that genre?”

I suppose the question is natural enough.  After all, The Eye-Dancers is a YA sci-fi/fantasy novel, and its sequel, The Singularity Wheel, due out late this summer, is as well.  But the truth is, I’m not a YA writer–at least, not exclusively.  Prior to The Eye-Dancers, in fact, I had rarely ventured into the YA waters.  For years, I wrote short stories–dozens of them.  And nearly all of them are mainstream/literary.

 

Even at that time, though, there was an occasional appeal to write about younger protagonists.  One story in particular, called “Marbles,” about a teenage boy who has a moment of epiphany causing him to realize and fully embrace that he’s no longer a child, and that he must look forward and prepare for his life as an adult, stayed with me.  It wasn’t long after writing “Marbles” that I began working on The Eye-Dancers.

 

It’s odd on the surface.  I am a long way from being a teenager myself.  The days of junior high and high school, for me, reside in a previous century, back when smartphones were unheard of and the personal computer was only just becoming mainstream.  When I was in junior high, Larry Bird was the three-time reigning NBA MVP, postage stamps cost 25 cents, and Tiffany was topping the pop charts with “Could’ve Been.”

 

It was a long time ago.

And yet . . . are we ever truly beyond our formative years?  Do we ever “outgrow” our first date, our first rejection, our first triumph?  Experiences from our past do not disappear like smoke upon an autumn breeze.  They linger.  Sometimes they hide in the shadows, buried beneath the layers of intervening years.  Other times they rise to the fore, reminders of an experience decades gone, remarkably vivid, as sharp and vibrant in our mind’s eye as the day they happened.

 

But still.  Why revisit the old haunts of adolescence on purpose?  Why write an entire novel (or two!) about teenage protagonists up to their chins in angst and insecurities?  Why walk the perilous path down memory lane that retouches old wounds and scabs?  It’s something many writers, as well as readers, do.  In fact, a 2012 survey concluded that 55 percent of YA readers are adults.  Again, the question of why resurfaces.

 

I can’t speak for others, only myself, and for me, writing The Eye-Dancers–and now, finishing up The Singularity Wheel–has been a labor of love.  The characters of Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Marc Kuslanski, and Ryan Swinton were all inspired by neighborhood friends from my childhood, and then merged together with sprinklings from my own life.  When, for instance, I describe Mitchell’s enjoyment of his favorite comic book in chapter 1 of The Singularity Wheel, I am, in essence, remembering my own discovery of that same issue when I was a teenager . . .

 

“He refocused on Fantastic Four number 51.  It was a remarkable issue—the first appearance of The Negative Zone, an alternate universe composed of negative, rather than positive, matter.  In the story, Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, has just made the discovery and resolves to explore this new and dangerous place.  He journeys through the void, bridges the gap between dimensions.

“Just like I did once, he thought.  Like we all did.  Five years ago.”

Of course, I’ve never traveled across time and space, as Mitchell has, but the appreciation he and I share for old comic books is real–and a reminder for me of what it was like when I was Mitchell’s age.

 

Not all of my adolescent memories are positive. Some of my most humiliating experiences happened in school.  Like so many others, I was at times the butt of jokes, the object of derision.  In high school, I struggled with acne and was overweight.  Believe me, I was made aware of both on a weekly, and sometimes daily, basis.

 

But I was lucky.  Even on the worst days, I understood that.  I had a strong, stable family life–my parents never moved.  Many of our neighbors remained the same through the years.  Friendships in the old neighborhood ran deep.  The real-life inspirations for Mitchell, Joe, Marc, and Ryan would all get together with me–especially in summer.  We’d hang out on the driveway, shooting baskets; we’d invent games and spend entire afternoons arguing about the ever-evolving rules, having a blast the whole time; when we grew a little older, became teenagers, we’d talk about the things adolescent boys talk about, and we’d compete in sports and play strategic board games that lasted for hours.

 

Through it all, there was a camaraderie that was resilient, strong, enduring.  We still keep in touch today–not that often, not like we used to.  But whenever we get together, special things happen.  The years peel away, and the memories merge with the present day, creating a synchronicity in the space-time continuum that can only be described as magic.  And I am taken back to a simpler time, a time when forty was still decades hence, when, despite setbacks and doubts and insecurities, opportunities still seemed endless and all things were possible.

 

Maybe that’s why we write, and read, YA fiction, even as we get older.  Maybe as we take on the burdens and responsibilities of adulthood, as we perhaps feel trapped in a career we don’t love, a situation we can’t extricate ourselves from, a diagnosis we can’t pretend away, we need a reminder.  We need to remember what it was like when we were young.

 

As I look back through the lens of memory, I remember those summer evenings, lingering in the driveway, leaning against the car, talking with my friends as we swatted at the mosquitoes in seek of our blood and watched the fireflies dance and glow in the dark.  We’d talk about nothing, and everything.  We weren’t in a hurry.  Just being there was enough.

 

And we’d look up at the night sky, feel a sense of awe, and wonder.  I hope that sense of awe, that desire to probe and question and discover, that willingness to wonder and to believe in the so-called “impossible,” remains always.  I hope it never grows old.

 

“The stars are yours,” Ray Bradbury once wrote, “if you have the head, the hands, and the heart for them.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Ditko or the King? (Or, Why Does It Have to Be an Either/Or?)

Nearly every second of every day, we are confronted with choices.  Many are made without our even being aware of it.  Did you just tap your foot against the floor, and perhaps not even realize it?  Did you glance up at the ceiling?  Look to the left?  To the right?  Maybe you cracked a knuckle, stretched your calf muscle, took a quick sip of coffee.

 

We make choices all the time.

When writing–be it a novel, a short story, a newspaper article, or a journal entry, and everything in between–we also make myriad choices.  Again, the vast majority of these are at an unconscious level.  If you were to stop and ruminate over every word you wrote, you would, quite literally, be paralyzed, incapable of creating a single sentence.  The words come as they come. The story evolves–often on its own, as if imbued with a certain ineluctable magic.  Authors and thinkers and scientists have pondered the creative process for centuries.  It may never be fully understood.

 

But, whether understood or not, whether made beyond the awareness of the conscious mind or only after a tortuous and seesawing inner conflict–the choices are real.  And, when writing, one of those choices is:  Should you tell it with gusto, with in-your-face enthusiasm and beefy, muscular prose?  Or should you go for a more subdued, subtle approach, using the quiet power of understatement to capture the essence of the scene?

 

Fifty-five years ago, in the offices of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee faced a very similar dilemma.

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

In the summer of 1962, Marvel Comics was on the rise.  Just over the past year alone, the company had introduced The Fantastic Four, The Ant Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and The Mighty Thor to the world.  The driving creative force behind this comic book revival–Marvel (previously called Timely Comics during the Second World War and Atlas Comics through the 1950s) had been mired in a slump for several years–was Stan Lee, the company’s lead writer and editor.

 

But Lee certainly wasn’t acting alone.  For any comic book endeavor to thrive, it needs the services of a top-notch artist, and Marvel, at the dawn of the 1960s, had two of them:  Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.  Both were accomplished, worked quickly, and brought their own, unique form of genius to their work.  Kirby was the older and more experienced of the two. The King, as he was called, had already put his stamp on The Fantastic Four--he would be their primary artist for a decade.

 

Nevertheless, Stan Lee’s next planned her0–The Amazing Spider-Man, set to debut in the high summer of 1962–needed a different touch.  Kirby’s work was larger-than-life, his covers and panels bursting with energy.  He was ideal for penciling giants and powerful, musclebound monsters, action sequences, and battle scenes.

 

But for Spider-Man, Lee wanted a defter touch.  Spidey’s alter-ego, after all, was Peter Parker, an awkward teenager, a nerdy bookworm, the antithesis of powerhouses like Thor and The Hulk.  Who better to draw Spider-Man than Steve Ditko, a master of shadows and the macabre?

 

Ditko’s Peter Parker would be skinny, almost scrawny, a science geek who accidentally is bitten by a radioactive spider.  And Spider-Man himself, particularly in those early days, is lithe, a creature of the night, hunting criminals in back alleys and climbing buildings, elusive, hunted by the law and striving to avoid the limelight.

 

And so–who is the top dog here?  Does the decision go to Ditko, or the King?  To subtlety and nuance or bold, in-your-face power?  Perhaps there isn’t a clear-cut decision.

Maybe it just depends . . .

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

When it comes to the writing process, the Ditko method, if you will, is ideal for dialogue, where the characters’ words and body language, along with a sprinkling of interior monologue or brief descriptions of place and surroundings, say everything, and the need for lengthy, power-packed narrative exposition is limited.  This approach also works for emotions–rather than crafting paragraphs that tell what the character is feeling, a writer can instead simply describe what the character does, or how he or she acts, thereby indirectly informing the reader what is going on inside the character’s head.

 

In chapter eight of The Eye-Dancers, there is an attempt to accomplish something like this with Mitchell Brant.  Mitchell, self-conscious and lacking in confidence, is afraid of girls his own age. And so:

 

“Suddenly, the girl appeared—the pretty one.  She looked at him, and, up close, she was even more beautiful than he’d feared.  She had shoulder-length dark brown hair, close in color to his, and wore a sleeveless sundress that showed off a summer tan.  Worst of all, she smiled at him.

“So he did the only thing he could think of.  He escaped into the diner.

“As soon as he opened the door, a bell jangled, announcing his presence.  Faces turned to look at him.  Grizzled old faces, coated with stubble.  Fresh, young faces, questioning, sizing him up.  Middle-aged faces, embedded with deep smile lines and wrinkles around the eyes.  The attention made him uncomfortable, and he glanced behind him, through the window.  He saw the girl walking away.

“Whew.

 

But the Kirby approach definitely has its place, as well.  The Eye-Dancers is a sci-fi/fantasy novel, so there are parts of it that are “out there,” complete with interdimensional transfers and dreams that are far more than “just dreams.”  These portions are built for Kirby-esque flair.

 

In chapter six, Marc Kuslanski and the others are pulled into the void, bridging this universe with another.  From Marc’s perspective, the journey begins this way:

 

“‘Wake up!’ he said.  ‘You have to wake up!’  He wanted to shake them, hit them, but he couldn’t.  He had no hands.  All he could do was yell and plead and hope they would hear.  But they were almost gone now—beyond the point of hearing, perhaps beyond the point of anything.  And he was joining them.

“His arms were gone.  He had no feet, no shins, it felt like he was standing on air.  Horrifically, he watched as his thighs slowly vanished, eaten away by the invisible force that had trapped him.  The others were completely gone now, and he felt himself being pulled . . .

“He had no body now, none of him remained, but he could still think, was still aware of his surroundings.  The basement grew indistinct, fading out of focus.

“He tried to talk, to say something, anything, but no words came out.  And now the basement was gone, the bar, the blue glasses and bottles of champagne, a memory.  He looked around, saw nothing, no one—only emptiness, a vast blue ocean that spread out as far as he could see.

“‘What the . . .?’ he said, or thought he said.  There was no sound, only thought.

“And then, in a flash, he was there again—his hands, his feet, his legs, all of him—there.  He clenched his hands into fists, smacked himself in the chest.  Yes.  He could feel.  He could move and kick and reach.  But what good did it do?  There wasn’t anything solid to hold onto, no firm ground to walk along.  He was surrounded by blue, the deepest blue he had ever seen, stretching on forever.”

 

So often in life, we want to declare a winner and a loser, to settle a competition.  But some contests are better left undecided.  Or, perhaps more accurate, some contests are better left unplayed.  Because when said contest calls for us to choose between the literary equivalencies of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, that is just as difficult, and unnecessary, as choosing between the artists’ original creations.  Why decide which style, or which approach, is “better” than the other?

 

Stan Lee found room for both men in the offices of Marvel Comics.

Surely, we can do the same.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Let Your Voice Be Heard

“Wow, I don’t know how I can compete with that,” she said.  “That’s a tough act to follow!”

Jennifer, like everyone else in the class–a Creative Nonfiction Workshop–was a would-be writer, and, also like everyone else in the class, shared the same nervousness and reservations prior to a critique of her work.

writerworkshopstart

 

Every week, we would read two essays, submitted by fellow Workshop students, and would then critique the essays during the next class.  This particular class, held on a cold upstate New York November evening in the late 1990s, featured two essays that were very different in scope and tone.  The first one, which we had just reviewed with glowing praise, was a ten-page tour de force of a young man’s experience backpacking through Europe the summer after he graduated from high school. It told, in clipped, precise prose, his adventures traveling through the small towns and rural beauty of France, his foibles in Paris, even a near-arrest in Switzerland.  It was an engaging, oftentimes edgy, irreverent, and highly entertaining piece.

backpackeurope

 

Jennifer’s essay, on the other hand, was quiet, short, and homey.  It told of a stormy January day when she was six years old.  She was home–school had been canceled due to the weather–and didn’t know what to do.  Her brother was sick in bed, and her mom was in the kitchen baking chocolate chip cookies.  So Jennifer joined her, asked if she could help with the baking. It was a day, she wrote, that on the surface appeared ordinary and run-of-the-mill.  Baking cookies in a snowstorm?  Not the stuff of blockbuster movies or prize-winning novels.  But the experience left a lasting impression.  She said she could close her eyes and return to that day, could still smell the sweet aroma of the cookies as they baked, the tender touch of her mom’s hand patting her on the shoulder.  She said whenever she felt overwhelmed, unsure, scared of what the world might have in store, she would pause and reflect on that day in the kitchen, the windowpanes steaming up, the snow falling outside, softly.

chocoloatechipcookies

 

But in the wake of the essay that had preceded hers, Jennifer felt intimidated.  “I wish we’d have looked at my essay some other week,” she said to the class, eliciting a few laughs.

The professor, a tall woman with thick glasses who always wore her hair in a ponytail, took the moment to pursue the topic.  “Why do you say that?” she said.  “I don’t mean to preempt the class’s thunder, but I loved your essay.  It moved me deeply.”  This seemed to comfort Jennifer.  She let out a relieved breath, her shoulders falling back, more relaxed.

“My story just seems so small,” she said then.  “I mean, backpacking through Europe?  Really?  And I just write about baking some cookies with my mom.”  She shook her head.

There was an uncomfortable silence, but then the professor said, “So, what’s wrong with small?  I think there’s this old lie that says writers need to see the world, do all these incredible things, maybe save the planet a few times, and then write a masterpiece about all of it.  But you know what?  That’s not life for most people.  Here, let’s take a poll.  How many of you have climbed Everest?”  A few murmurs, no hands.  “Been to the moon?  Dived in the Marianas Trench?”  No one said a word.  We just listened.  “It’s the quiet moments, the little moments, we all have in common,” she went on.  “As writers, we just need to share our stories.  I think that’s the most important thing.  No matter how ‘small’ your story is, let your voice be heard.”

mteverest

 

I think that was the only time that semester our professor veered off topic quite like that.  She normally was laser-focused on the essays themselves, without any editorializing.  This just added weight to her words that day.

As I drove home after class, I knew that I would never forget.

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

It’s easy to feel the way Jennifer did that day.  I know I have, plenty of times.  The old insecurities arise, threatening to sabotage the creative process and prevent the sharing of ideas.  Questions and accusations are quick to malign and judge and condemn:  What do I know?  Who would want to read anything I write?  Do I really have anything important or worthwhile to say?  Why am I fooling myself?  Who would listen to my advice or believe my characters or be interested in my stories?

writersquestionsanddoubts

 

It can be crippling if we let it.

And sometimes things happen, events take shape in the world around us–perhaps at the personal level, the local level, or maybe at the national or even global level–and we feel the need, the conviction to say something, do something, make some kind of meaningful difference.  In the face of such a conviction, however, it is all too easy to succumb to the doubts.  You are just one person, after all.  One voice among billions . . .

insignificantoneamongbillions

 

And what do you even write, anyway?  If you generally focus primarily on fiction, do you now need to scrap your “business-as-usual” projects and start crafting op-eds and social commentaries?

oped

 

These are the sorts of questions I have asked myself more than once over the past few weeks.  I am deeply concerned–troubled, even–about what 2017 will bring.  And I admit–it has been hard to focus on fiction at times, hard to get lost in story and characters.  I am thisclose to finishing the first draft of the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  And yet–is this novel I’m working on too small, too unimportant, just as my classmate worried her essay was twenty years ago?

thisclosesequeltoosmall

 

But no.  No, I don’t think it is.  And when I feel as though I should be writing something else, blogging about something else, I stop, take a breath, and remind myself.  Because though The Singularity Wheel is even more “out there” than The Eye-Dancers is, and though it features parallel worlds and quantum mechanics and a weird intergalactic virus that can snuff the protagonists right out of existence, it also, it is my hope, explores themes and ideas that are universal and enduring–themes like discovery, friendship, our connection to the universe and each other, understanding, and love.  And in the climate of 2017, when so many are so divided by so much, these are themes worth writing about.

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So I write.  I write.  And I hope you will, too.  One voice becomes two, which in turn becomes four, and it expands exponentially, rising in pitch, impossible to ignore.

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When that nagging inner critic tries to sabotage your attempts and tells you to deep-six your efforts, that what you have to say is too “small” and lacks the scope to make a difference in a world so much in need of healing, fight back.  Write that story.  Craft that article or poem.  Post that blog.  And realize that your truth, your message, your courage to speak out and speak up is like a ripple in a pond, spreading and multiplying.  And inspiring others to join you.

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Now, more than ever, let your voice be heard.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Words of Wisdom from a Cartoon Character–Or, Reminders of the Meaning of the Season

Sometimes we just need to be reminded.  Sometimes world events, presidential elections, and our far-too-often harried personal lives threaten to throw us for a king-sized and ever-expanding loop.  The weather this time of year doesn’t help.  Daylight Savings is more than a fortnight in the rearview mirror; it’s dark when you go to work in the morning, and dark when you come back home.  And what little light there is, especially here in northern New England, is often muted by brooding thick gray clouds that hang low and bloated over the land, like dirty laundry concealing the blue beyond.

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For me, the reminders begin with the little things, the homey things, the kinds of things Truman Capote writes about at the beginning of his gem of a short story “A Christmas Memory” . . .

“Imagine a morning in late November.  A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago.  Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town.  A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it.  Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.”

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Every year, early on Thanksgiving morning, when the house is dark and the sunrise is yet a rumor, I flip through some of the old classic comic books I’ve had since I was a kid, when I began a lifelong hobby of collecting comics.  Many of the issues I have tucked away in closets and boxes were printed decades before I was born.  Their pages, musty and faded with age, never fail to bring a smile.  There are old ads in those pages, tempting the children of sixty years ago with baseball gloves and magic tricks, radio sets and sea monkeys.

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And then there are the stories, of course–simple, far too often devoid of any real character or nuance, distilled to the most rudimentary of plot devices.  But for all that, they are brilliant, ingenious, and, perhaps most important of all, fun.  They offer a break from the stresses and strains of daily living, an escape from the next doctor appointment or set of bills, while simultaneously laying out a bridge to an imaginary world that is always there, only a thought away, ready and willing to amuse and cheer and revitalize us, if only we take the time to visit it.

On Thanksgiving morning, I spend fifteen, maybe twenty minutes with these old issues, these relics from a bygone era, these simple reminders of childhood . . .

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In the 1965 musical The Sound of Music–based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway classic of the same name–Julie Andrews’s character, Maria, sings about some of her favorite things:

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“Raindrops on roses/And whiskers on kittens/Bright copper kettles/And warm woolen mittens . . . Cream-colored ponies/And crisp apple strudels/Doorbells and sleigh bells/And schnitzel with noodles . . . Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes/Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes/Silver white winters that melt into springs . . .”  These are a few of her favorite things!

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It’s a basic list, simple and everyday; it echoes the sentiments of Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.”

But perhaps it was everyone’s favorite bookworm, Marcie, who said it best in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving:

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“But Thanksgiving is more than eating, Chuck. . . . We should just be thankful for being together.  I think that’s what they mean by Thanksgiving, Charlie Brown.”

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Quest for Archibald Leach

Cary Grant just wasn’t getting it.  He’d signed on to be the star of the film, was being paid handsomely for his efforts, and he was working with the legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, no less.  What could possibly go wrong?

North by Northwest seemed destined to be a box-office smash when it debuted in 1959.

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Indeed, prior to the start of shooting, screenwriter Ernest Lehman was quoted as saying he wanted to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” He held nothing back, and created a melange of suspense, lighthearted fun, intrigue, and nonstop action.  There’s even a fight-to-the-death sequence that takes place on the face of Mt. Rushmore, not to mention arguably the most famous scene in Hitchcock’s long, storied career–the crop-duster attack!

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And, of course, and above all else, the film features Cary Grant.

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During filming, though, Grant wasn’t thrilled with the direction North by Northwest was taking. One day, he pulled Hitchcock aside, and said, “It’s a terrible script.  We’ve already done a third of the picture and I still can’t make head or tail of it!”  Hitchcock assured his leading man that things were going well.  The film is designed to be confusing, with myriad twists and turns, so if his lead actor was finding the story line hard to follow, all the better!

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All Hitchcock said to Grant was to be himself.  Don’t even worry about the acting.  Don’t worry about the script.  Just be Cary Grant.  The rest would take care of itself.

And it did.

Hitchcock understood a fundamental truth, and used it to his advantage–people just liked Cary Grant.  He’d been Hollywood’s most luminous star for decades, the epitome of charisma, debonair charm, and cool.  Indeed, Grant himself once famously said, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant.  Even I want to be Cary Grant.”

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Grant’s on-screen persona was larger-than-life.  If you wanted to see raw emotion, vulnerability, weakness, you weren’t going to find that here.  His roles were designed to match his never-let-them-see-you-sweat mystique.  He was made out to be more icon than actor, more romantic ideal than flesh-and-blood person.  Grant’s public image surely wouldn’t have been so spotless if he were acting today, but in Old Hollywood, he was lifted up to stratospheric heights, and for the duration of his career, he never came down from his perch.  Well on into his fifties and early sixties, Grant played the lead opposite actresses such as Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Audrey Hepburn, and Sophia Loren–all two or three decades his junior.

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Then, abruptly, in the mid-1960s, at the age of sixty-two, Grant retired from the cinema.  Hollywood’s quintessential leading man would not go on to play the sage, grandfatherly roles that would surely have come his way if he’d pressed forward with his career.  He would simply walk away and preserve the image, the concept, the legend that was Cary Grant.

It hadn’t always been that way.  During his growing-up years in the suburbs of Bristol, in southwest England, Cary Grant wasn’t known as Cary Grant.  He was born Archibald Leach, and his hardscrabble childhood bore little resemblance to the fame and prestige that would materialize decades later.  His father struggled with alcoholism and his mother was clinically depressed, sent to a mental institution when Grant was just nine years old.  His father simply told him that his mother had gone on a “long holiday,” and later, when she failed to come home, said she had died.  Grant didn’t learn of the lie for over two decades, and at that time, arranged to meet his mother just as his movie career was taking off.  But in his childhood, Archibald Leach, the future hero of the Silver Screen, was antsy, on edge, uncomfortable around others, nervous and awkward in his interactions with girls.  Described by a classmate as a “scruffy little boy” and by his teacher as “the naughty little boy who was always making a noise in the back row and would never do his homework,” Leach was expelled from school when he was fourteen.

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Over a decade later, after honing his craft onstage and in vaudeville, and on the doorstep of Hollywood superstardom, Archibald Leach was advised to change his name to Cary Grant.

If you were to choose between “scruffy” Archie Leach and his later, more celebrated alter ego, and select the winner to serve as the main character for a novel you wanted to write, the choice would seem to be obvious.

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And it is.

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The four primary protagonists in The Eye-Dancers each struggle with their own personal hang-ups, outlooks, inner demons, and shaky self-esteem.  None of them are what anyone would call popular in school.  They don’t hang out with the “in” crowd, they’re not the trendsetters or movers-and-shakers of their peer group.  Mitchell Brant feels the need to fabricate and invent stories about himself, as he’s not confident that he’s “good enough” as he is.  Joe Marma lives in the shadow of his high-achieving older brother, and as the shortest boy in his grade, he has a king-sized chip on his shoulder.  Ryan Swinton doesn’t want to rock the boat; he likes to go along with the crowd and tell jokes to make people laugh.  Marc Kuslanski never met an equation he didn’t like; he closes his mind to the mysterious, the unexplained, the supernatural.  In his logical, rational worldview, everything, no matter how extraordinary, has a commonsense explanation.

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As the novel progresses, each character is confronted with circumstances that challenge his perspective, threaten to erode his already fragile sense of self, and even sabotage his ability to survive.  The boys can either be swept away and swallowed up by their own insecurities and weaknesses, or they can rise to the occasion to learn, grow, and adapt.

It strikes me that any character, really, needs to have the motivation, ability, and impetus to change over the course of a story.  If Character X begins a novel one way and ends the novel exactly the same way, we as readers might pause and ask ourselves, “What was the point of it all?”  Then again, maybe “character” isn’t the best word to use.

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“When writing a novel, a writer should create living people,” Ernest Hemingway once said.  “People, not characters.  A character is a caricature.”

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Real people are flawed.  They have moles and in-grown toenails, regrets and long-held secrets, wistful memories and would-be dreams that, through lost opportunity and the inexorable march of time, are now irretrievably lost.  The Cary Grant that the world saw, and thought they knew, was, in the words of Hemingway, a caricature–a glittering creation of Hollywood and the movies.  Archibald Leach was in there somewhere.  We just couldn’t see him.

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If a literary character is Cary Grant-perfect right from the first page, there is no room for growth, no way for readers to relate.  The plot may wind through hills and valleys, wander through wooded ravines and turn sharply around sudden hairpin curves, but the protagonist will remain static.  The story will not engage.

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If I were a producer or a director in Hollywood sixty years ago, the choice would be a no-brainer.  I’d take Cary Grant in the proverbial heartbeat.  But as an author, looking for a character to build a novel around?

Give me Archibald Leach.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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