In Praise of Clark Kent

Among the pantheon of comic book superheroes, Superman is the greatest and the first.  Indeed, prior to Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster’s super creation in the spring of 1938 (in Action Comics number 1, DC Comics), comic books were decidedly ordinary with characters like private detective Slam Bradley and Scribbly the boy cartoonist.  Nothing wrong with old Scribbly!  But those early titles lacked the pizzazz and punch of the hero age.

 

Superman changed all that.  The world had never seen anything like him, and his popularity took off like a runaway locomotive.  The character’s popularity quickly led to the emergence of a star-studded lineup of other DC universe heroes:  Batman, the Flash, and Wonder Woman, among them.  Not to mention a collection of villains such as Lex Luthor, The Prankster, and Mr. Mxyzptlk.  The Man of Steel’s superhuman power and abilities, coupled with his otherworldly adventures, mesmerized readers every month, providing needed entertainment and relief as the 1930s bled into the war-ravaged 1940s.

 

But what truly made Superman so memorable?  What enabled him to transcend time and place?  How did he remain so popular decade after decade, despite changing styles, new generations, new worldviews?  I would argue that his alter ego, Clark Kent, had a lot to do with it.

 

Clark is the complete opposite of Superman.  Where Superman is brave, bold, daring, strong, Clark presents himself as hesitant, soft-spoken, bookish, and gentle.  Obviously, he does this as a guise, to conceal his identity as Superman.  (Incidentally, I have always thought it hilarious that Clark’s only “disguise,” when out of costume, is a pair of thick glasses.  As if observers wouldn’t be able to discern that Clark and Superman are one and the same merely on account of a pair of spectacles.  But, this, too, is part of Clark’s enduring charm.)

 

Clark, of course, is a reporter for the newspaper the Daily Planet, where he consistently acquires the best stories and photos–obviously because he is Superman and therefore is right in the middle of the action.  But no one ever figures this out.  Clark has his super intelligence, of course, and he is always one step ahead of those who would discover his legendary secret.

 

Clark Kent is a study in quiet, in calm introspection, in everyday blandness, in hominess.  He is the antithesis of the action hero.  He is milk and cookies at 8:00 p.m. while settling in to watch PBS.  He is a quiet evening in front of the fire reading Dickens or Austen or Montgomery or Hardy.  He is a weekend at home, writing in his journal, making a homemade meal, sipping hot chocolate, tending to his garden, walking to the mailbox, and heading to bed early.  He represents our home self, our quiet self, relaxed, in contemplation, at rest, still, taking a step back and allowing the world and its noise to slip on by.

 

And we need that.  Action stories need pauses.  Novels need moments of introspection, where characters reflect and where we get to know them better, settling in beside them as they sit back, recline, and let their guard down.  If Superman were only, well, Superman, all action and fighting and saving the world, it would be too nonstop, too frenetic, too loud.

We need Clark Kent to hit the pause button, ground us, make us smile, and charm us with his quiet, steady presence.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’ll always be a Superman fan.  The Man of Steel’s adventures never disappoint.

 

But if it weren’t for Clark Kent coming onto the scene from time to time, those adventures would surely be less enjoyable.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

After All These Years (Or, You Can Go Home Again)

This Friday, I’ll be taking a little trip.  I’ll be hopping in the car, driving west through the state of Vermont, then crossing into New York State, where I’ll head south for fifty miles and then travel west, across much of the Empire State, until I reach the Rochester area, where I’ll spend the Labor Day weekend with my family.  It’s a tradition that goes back decades.  Every year, for Labor Day, I head back home, to the town, to the house where I grew up.

 

I’ve lived in Vermont for two decades now, but I grew up in Rochester.  I never moved growing up–my parents bought their house before I was born, and kept it through the decades.  When I go back now, the house feels both different and the same.  My mother is no longer there, passing in 2018, and the absence is palpable when I’m there.  But the memories are alive and close in the old house, swirling around like pixie dust.

 

One thing I enjoy tremendously about the trip back home is, well, the trip.  Late summer is my favorite time of the year in the northeastern US, and the landscape in Vermont and upstate New York is especially beautiful this time of the year.  Summer crops are ripe and lush, the corn taller than me.  Trees are still mostly summer green, though a few hints of fall can be observed, some of the leaves getting a jump-start on the autumn color show to come.  Fields are green and vibrant.  Late-summer flowers dot the roadsides–goldenrod bobbing and dancing in the breeze.  If I stop in a Vermont town early on the drive, I might smell woodsmoke in the distance, lingering in the mountain air, the scent musky and invigorating.

 

Then, into New York State, I drive, listening to an audio recording of The Illustrated Man, Bradbury’s words taking me back, back, the poetry of the phrasing sublime in the late summer sun.  The towns I pass through in eastern upstate New York, in the foothills of the Adirondacks and then, farther west, the green, lush Mohawk Valley, are old, at times run-down, but magical–at least to me.  Storefronts a century and a half old line the main streets.  Stately old mansions, weather-beaten and often in need of repair, stand stoically and proudly along the way, like thoughtful old philosophers pondering the meaning of life, repositories of countless memories in their ancient walls.

 

And as I draw closer to Rochester, the hours melting away as I continue west, as the terrain flattens out into the farm country of western New York, my own memories beckon.  Heading home.  The same house.  Family.  Friends that date back to a different century.  Indeed, a few of the inspirations for The Eye-Dancers will be there, and we’ll get together for a while, and we’ll remember.  We are grown men now, from the perspective of our childhood selves in the 1980s impossibly old, and yet . . . when we get together, it feels like 1988 again.  The vibes are the same.  The laughter is the same.  It is good, even if it’s only for just a single weekend.  Maybe that’s as it should be.  Special things, by their very nature, must remain rare.

 

Of course, when I return to Vermont after the trip, I’ll need to dig back in to work and responsibilities and the rhythms of everyday life.  But for a couple of days this weekend, I’ll be entering the past, as if starring in a Twilight Zone episode.  Revisiting.  Going back.  Remembering.  Reliving.

 

It is good.  I look forward to it.  And maybe, while I’m there, I’ll create a new memory to look back on in future years.  To blend and merge with the old.

Going home again won’t always be possible.  There will come a day when the old house belongs to a different family, when no familiar face is left in the neighborhood I grew up in.  But that day is not yet here.

And for that I am grateful.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

She Called Me “Decade” (Or, Ten Years! Thank You for Still Being Here!)

When I turned ten years old, back in the 1980s, my older brother’s girlfriend at the time called me “Decade” to commemorate the milestone.  Little did I dream at that time that, many years hence, there would be an internet and a blogging universe and a way to publish posts for anyone, anywhere in the world, to see in real time.  I also never would have dreamed that I’d be doing such a thing for, well, a decade.

 

Indeed.  When I began The Eye-Dancers blog, I did so without much of a plan–except I knew I had just finished a novel of the same name and wanted to “get the word out” to would-be readers.  I had never blogged before, had no idea what I was doing, but decided to take the plunge.  At the time, I figured I’d write a few promotional posts–maybe for a few weeks or months–and that would pretty much be it.

 

That was in the summer of 2012.

And now, here we are, ten years older.  In the summer of 2022.  Never at the outset of this blog did I think I’d still be here a decade on.  I suppose something I wasn’t counting on when I began this cyber-adventure was the friendships and online connections I would make.  I didn’t realize how special and loyal and stellar the WordPress community was, and is.  But I found out in a hurry.

 

This blog turns ten years old this summer, and you all are the reason I am still here.  I don’t post as often as I used to–not even close.  A quick check of the archives would tell the tale.  Back in 2013, at the height of this blog’s output, I would publish multiple posts per week.  As time went on, that dipped to two per week, then one per week, then one every two weeks, and now it is one per month.  But I’m still here, still enjoying this wonderful online literary adventure, and still trying my best to come up with posts that are interesting and, hopefully, sometimes encouraging.

 

I cannot thank each and every one of you enough for welcoming an online neophyte a decade ago and, through your ongoing support, keeping me writing and blogging all these years.  Whether or not I am working on a novel or short stories–whether I am in a literary whirlwind of ideas or a dry, barren desert without a story to be seen or discovered for miles, one constant has been posting on this blog.  And you are the reason for that.

 

So, again, my deepest appreciation to all of you.  If you’ll keep reading, I will certainly keep posting.

 

Thanks so much for reading these past ten years!  And now, on to the next ten . . .

–Mike

 

The Sibling’s the Thing (Or, Broken Bones and Unpaid Bets)

In The Eye-Dancers novels, siblings play a sizable role–and a dominant one in Joe Marma‘s case.  This naturally evolved during the writing of the stories, but also it is a reflection of the siblings in my own life.  As the youngest of four children, I know firsthand what it’s like to share a household with multiple siblings growing up.

 

In my case, I am more than seven years younger than my next-oldest sibling, so there is an age gap–nothing that matters now that we’re adults, but back when I was a little kid, my siblings were already in high school.  They seemed like full-fledged grown-ups to me.  And sometimes, they were tasked with watching me–especially when we visited the neighbors’ pool across the street.

My family used to have a pool when I was too little to swim.  But by the time I could actually use a pool, it was long gone.  And so we’d use the pool in the backyard of the neighbors’ house–kitty-corner and across the street. (In fact, these neighbors were the same family the Marmas were inspired by in The Eye-Dancers!)

 

I remember especially the summer I was eight years old, I would go over to their pool every day.  Joe and his brother did not use the pool much, and so it was usually just me–and sometimes my brothers.  My mother would often be there, too, to supervise.

But one time she tasked my brother Dave to watch me.  He was outside the pool.  I was the only one in the water.  “Don’t throw anything into the pool!” my mother had warned us before we crossed the street and I jumped into the pool.  She knew I liked to play “diving catches” in the pool, where someone would throw a ball several feet away from me and I would dive to try to catch it before it hit the surface of the water.  As luck would have it, that day, there was a volleyball in the neighbors’ backyard, not ten feet from the pool.  How could we resist?

 

“Dive!” Dave said, and whipped the ball just out of reach.  I dived, reached for the volleyball.

Crack!  My left pinky snapped back, the force of the ball rivaling a Nolan Ryan fastball.

Houston Astros Nolan Ryan pitching

 

“Ow!”  I grabbed my finger, the pain immediate and sharp.  The game ended as fast as it had begun.

I wound up with a broken pinky for the summer.  My mother was not pleased.

Another time, later that same summer, once my pinky had healed enough for the cast to be removed, my other older brother, John, made a wager with me.  He was in the pool with me. He knew I liked to submerge and swim underwater from one end of the pool to the other multiple times, seeing how many laps I could complete before needing to come up for air.

“I bet you ten bucks you can’t make it across the pool underwater six times,” he challenged.  My record was four.  Six was a stretch.  But I accepted the challenge.

“Ten bucks?”

 

“Ten bucks,” he reiterated.  In the 1980s, to an eight-year-old, ten dollars was a fortune!  I was all in.

“You’re gonna owe me,” I said, and dove under.  I made the first two laps easily.  The third was a little harder–I was starting to feel the lack of oxygen.  The fourth lap–my old record–was harder still.  Then the fifth–I was venturing into uncharted waters, never having stayed under this long before.  But I made it, tapping the far end of the pool.

Can I make this last lap? I wondered.  I seriously considered coming up for air, losing the bet.  But I wouldn’t give my brother the satisfaction.  I kicked off the side, determined to complete the final lap.

My lungs felt like they would rupture; I was getting woozy.  But I made it, tapping the side of the opposite end and surfacing.  I gulped in the air, letting it slide down into my lungs like a healing balm.  I couldn’t talk for several seconds, gasping, regaining my wind.

 

Finally, I said, “I want my ten bucks!”

My brother swam up to me.  “I can’t believe you did it!” he said.  “I didn’t think you had a chance.”

“Fork it over,” I said.  “When we get home.”

“What?  The ten bucks?”  He smiled.  I didn’t like the looks of that smile.  “Here.  Ten bucks.”

And he proceeded to hit me on my upper arm.  Ten times.

“There!” he said.  “There’s your ten bucks!”

I laid into him, told him it wasn’t fair.  But all he did was laugh.

Now, decades later, I look back at both of these scenarios and smile. I sure wasn’t smiling when they happened!  But now they are treasured memories.  It is memories such as these–little things, anecdotes, small events really, but monumental in their own way–that inspire me to write.  To capture something of the spirit of youth, of my past, of life in a previous century.

 

I am grateful and blessed for the memories.

And yes.  My brother still owes me ten bucks.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

People You Know, Characters You Create

Have you ever wanted to write–or actually written–a piece of fiction that featured characters based on actual people you know?  Now, granted–even when we create our characters “out of thin air,” there are elements of people we know in them.  Or, sometimes, a composite of several people’s characteristics rolled into one.  This may be on a subconscious level–you’re not necessarily trying to base your characters on anyone.  But it’s inevitable that traits from some people you know (or you. yourself, as the author) will find their way into some of your characters.

However, that’s not what we’re talking about here.  What we’re talking about is . . . you know Jane from across the hall in your apartment complex, and you want to create a character “based” on her.  Or perhaps someone from school–a bully, your best friend, a teacher, a nerd–whoever it is.  You want to feature them in your next novel (with a different name, of course).  Can you literally have at it, and re-create the real-life person in your fictional story?  Or do you need to add several layers of a literary buffer, effectively “disguising” them, perhaps even from themselves should they read your work?

 

The interesting thing about that is–whatever your intention, it likely doesn’t matter because as you write, as you go forward with your literary endeavor, creative elements will take over.

As I’ve posted about in the past, the main characters in The Eye-Dancers were based on friends I had growing up.  Specifically, Mitchell Brant was inspired by Matt B.; Ryan Swinton by Rick S.; Joe Marma by, well, Joe M.; and Marc Kuslanski by MattK.  The supporting character of Matt “Grronk” Giselmo was also inspired by a Matt–Matt G.  A lot of Matts!  As for last names, of course I changed them, though I matched the first letter of the fictional characters’ last names with their real-life inspirations.

 

And, honestly, when I set out to write the novel, my intent was to keep the characters relatively close to my real-life friends.  I wasn’t aiming to incorporate much “separation” at all.  Sure, I’d change details and respect their privacy.  Of course.  But as for their personalities, quirks, inside jokes, nicknames, and even physical tendencies, I was drawing form the real thing.

But then, as I continued to move forward with the story, a funny thing happened.  I began seeing the protagonists solely as who they were, and wasn’t even thinking of the real-life Matts or Rick or Joe.  Ryan Swinton was only Ryan Swinton.  Marc Kuslanski was only Marc Kuslanski.  At a certain point during the writing process, it was as if the characters weren’t inspired by anyone.  They had matured, grown, morphed, and become exclusively who they were.  Obviously, even with this development, the characters retained elements of their real-life inspirations.  How could they not?  That’s how they were “born.”  But they had fully and completely become their own entities.  As I wrote their scenes, I no longer even glimpsed the actual people they were based on.  I saw only the protagonists themselves.

 

It was a revelatory experience, one I honestly did not expect.  At the outset, I was “seeing” them so much as offshoots of the people I knew; I assumed it would remain that way throughout the process.  But as so often happens with creative endeavors, the process, the experience, the flow, the wonder takes on a life of its own and leads you where it will.  The writing is in charge.  Not the author.

So, if you are in a similar circumstance–about to begin a novel or a fictionalized work of some sort and are basing your characters on people you know (or knew), and you’re wondering how “close” to cut it . . . you probably have nothing to worry about.

Because as you begin, as you wade through the literary waters, as the bones of the story fill out with muscle and sinew and soul and emotion . . . the characters will become who they decide to become, and the initial inspirations will fade into the background.

So write.  Let your characters lead on.  It promises to be a journey as exciting as it is unpredictable.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Swing Set in the Backyard (Or . . . So, You Want to Write a Novel?)

When I was eight years old, my parents bought a swing set for the backyard.  It was red and yellow, with two swings.  My father installed it at the extreme northern end of the yard, a few feet to the left of the brick fireplace he had built upon moving into the house, years before I was born.  I cannot say I remember whether or not I had asked for a swing set or if my parents decided it would be a good idea to get one.  Either way, that summer–the summer I was eight–I spent a lot of time on those swings.

 

Well, I mainly used the swing closer to the fireplace.  If anyone wanted to join me, they needed to use the other swing.  Sometimes, I’d swing for hours.  I used to love swinging on July evenings, the air warm, the yard fragrant with flowers and freshly cut grass, the scent of a late barbecue from next door wafting on the breeze.  I’d plop down on the swing, push my way into a swinging motion, and kick . . . and kick . . . and kick.  Higher.  Always trying to get as high as possible, so I could see.

 

Indeed.  Especially at twilight, when I reached the apex of my swinging journey, I would peer to the north, beyond the backyard, beyond the neighbor’s yard . . . above the rooftops.  And I would glimpse . . .

But then I bottomed out again, beginning another rotation.  When I returned to the top of the arc, though, there it was . . . a netherworld.  A distant, ghostlike village just beyond the horizon.  As dusk descended, the village would, counterintuitively, glow brighter, shining in contrast to the darkening landscape.  If I looked closely enough, I could see spectral shapes moving to and fro.  Every few seconds, as I reached the apex of my swinging arc, I would see them again, a moment or two removed from my last glimpse.  Glimpse after glimpse, for an hour or more each night . . . before it became full-on dark and my mother called me inside.  Snapshots into another world, another dimension.

 

Back then, immersed in the wonder of being eight years old, I believed–fully–that what I was seeing out in the twilit distance was real–an alternate dimension of sorts, with wraiths living their lives and doing whatever it was they did.  I’d think of them during the day, too, or when I was inside, or at night while I slept.  What were they doing when I couldn’t see them?  I began to write down ideas.  Stories.  A love of the creative process was born.

 

That’s probably how it starts for many writers and artists–early on, at some point during childhood, you realize that your mind tends to drift.  That, even more than most kids, you question and conjure and wonder, and ask, “What if?”  You get lost in story and have conversations with yourself when no one’s around . . . or sometimes even when they are.  And as you get a little older and master the language more, the nuances, the flow, the texture and taste of the words . . . you write.  Short stories.  Essays.  Plays. Novels.

 

Novels.  I would have to say the number one question I get from non-writers who are aware that I have written novels is: “Where did you get the idea?”  And that is often followed by: “I could never write a novel.  Way too long!”

Long it is.  And that’s the challenge.  That’s the price that must be paid if you want to turn your aha-light bulb idea into three hundred pages of story and forward motion.  Ideas are a dime a dozen (even good ones).  Be it fiction or nonfiction, writing a book is work.  A lot of work.

 

Do you outline?  If research is needed, how much do you do?  After writing seven chapters–riding the roller coaster of inspiration–what happens when you come to chapter eight and, suddenly, the shine wears off, the plot becomes murky, and you’re not sure which direction to take?  And–if you’re like 99.9 percent of writers in the world, you also have a day job.  You have bills to pay, responsibilities to attend to, tasks to complete, people to care for.  How on earth do you carve out the time to write a novel?  And even if you do, will you have any energy left over after all the responsibilities of the day are done?  Writing takes energy and creativity.  These may be in short supply after a full day.

 

Or maybe you set your alarm for 4:00 a.m. and try to get some writing in before anyone else is up.  But are you?  Or will you feel like a zombie author, staring half-asleep at your screen, unable to process thoughts?  Make no mistake about it–writing a book is difficult.  In many ways, the writing itself is the easiest part.  It’s everything else that can trip us up, even when we enter the project with the best of intentions.

 

And that’s the trick, really.  Does writing a novel take talent?  I suppose.  Some writers have an abundance of talent; others may not have quite as much, but they have enough–they can do it.  If they didn’t have the ability to write a book, they wouldn’t have arrived at this point–planning out a story line, falling in love with an idea so much, they are willing to spend the next year or more bringing it alive on the page.  Anyone who reaches this point in the journey has the ability to write a book.  It is hard–it requires creating something out of nothing and then spending countless hours editing and honing and slicing away at the result–polishing it, killing your darlings, and revising, revising, revising.

 

Which brings us to the key.  The secret ingredient, if you will, of not only starting, but finishing a novel.  Well, perhaps there are two ingredients.  The first is commitment.  Given all of the challenges already touched on here, it can feel impossible–literally–to find the time and energy to complete a novel.  How do you overcome the challenge?  You have to be committed to your work, your idea, and have the perseverance to see it through.  There is no other way.

 

The other ingredient?  Confidence.  Self-belief.  Have you shared your idea with others?  Quite likely, you have received some very encouraging and positive feedback.  “Great idea!  I’ll buy it when it’s available!  Wow!  I wish I’d have thought of that!  Sounds like a best seller!”  But, just as likely, you will have received some lukewarm or even negative feedback, too. “Really?  Sounds contrived to me.  I don’t think your idea is believable.  Who cares?  The market is full of stories like that.  Your novel will get lost in a sea of similar stories.”  Or–“There’s no market for that, though.  No one will buy it.”  The list of would-be criticisms can stretch on, as long as the Sahara Desert.  It is easy to become discouraged, assess the monumental task ahead, and then shrug your shoulders and say, “Maybe they’re right.  Who am I kidding?  Who would want to hear what I have to say?”

 

This is where belief must come in.  There is no one–no one–in the world with your unique perspective.  It is likely true that your story idea is not entirely original (in reality, at this point, there may not be a truly original idea in existence; everything, in one way or another, has already been done).  But it has not been done, and not been told, in your point of view.  Only you can bring your life experiences, your voice, your essence, to the subject.  In short, only you can tell the story you have inside you, the story you feel a need to share with the world.

 

And that matters.  That’s what it’s all about.  Something–some force, some pure and true element of your soul–has instilled in you a need to write a story.  If you don’t write it, it will nag you, always.  So, press on.  Don’t listen to the naysayers (including the ones inside your own head).  Find a way to complete the project, even if it takes years.

Because, when it comes right down to it, we all have that eight-year-old inside of us, full of inspiration and imagination and wonder–with a story to tell.

So tell it.  Share it.  The world will be a better place when you do.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Carpe Diem (Or, Pursue an Idea When It Hits)

There is a scene, early in the 1989 drama Dead Poets Society, where the new English teacher at the Welton Academy prep school, John Keating, has one of his students read aloud from a 17th-century Robert Herrick poem.  The stanza reads:

Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to day,
To morrow will be dying.

Keating and his class are standing in a hallway, beside the school’s trophy case.  Old team photographs of long-ago academy sports teams are hung inside the case, the students from a different time staring out at the onlookers, their expressions locked in place across the chasm of decades.

 

Keating asks his class what the verse means.  What was Herrick getting at?  “Carpe diem,” he tells them.  “Seize the day.”  But why?  Why “seize the day”?

“Because we are food for worms, lads,” Keating goes on.  “Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room, will, one day, stop breathing.  We’ll die.”

Here, Keating asks the students to step forward to look at the photographs of the old sports teams.

“They’re not that different from you, are they?” Keating says to his class.  “Same haircuts. . . . Invincible, just like you feel.  The world is their oyster.  They believe they are destined for great things, just like many of you do. . . . But you see . . . these boys are now fertilizing daffodils.”

 

Keating then has them lean in close, tells them to listen, listen to the voices, the murmurs of the ghosts before them.  Do they hear it?  Keating whispers in a voice meant to sound like the grave:  “Carpe . . . diem.  Seize the day, boys.  Make your lives extraordinary.”

This scene is memorable for many reasons, not the least of which is the remarkable performance of Robin Williams, who plays Keating.  But what of the message?  What of carpe diem?  Is it wise counsel?

As with anything, if misunderstood or taken to the extreme, it can harm more than help.  After all, I may want to “seize the day” by climbing Mount Everest, even though I have no training and no preparation.  Or I may want to drop everything and experience life to the full by walking across America, leaving all my responsibilities and cares behind me.  That might feel good in the moment, but doubtful it would lead anywhere beneficial.

 

What, then, is carpe diem, and how should we apply it?  How about with writing or creativity?  Is there a literary version of carpe diem?  And if so, what does it look like?

I don’t know about you, but when it comes to anything creative–a story idea, a scene from a novel, an inspiration–I cannot force things.  If I say, “I want to write a short story today,” but have no workable idea to write about, try as I may, I won’t produce anything of value.

On the other hand, my best ideas always come unasked for, unplanned.  I can be doing anything–mowing the lawn, taking a walk, lying in bed–and boom!  It hits.  Where does it come from?  We may never know.  But it comes.  And it comes in its time and its choosing.  What to do then?

 

Carpe diem, of course!  It’s not every day an inspired idea strikes.  Whether it’s a novel idea, a short story, a poem, a song . . . it doesn’t matter.  When that idea strikes, in the white-hot fire of the creative epiphany, that is the time to act.

 

If it’s a poem, write it.  Right then and there, if possible.  Same with a song.  If it’s a short story, maybe jot a few notes if you can’t write it immediately.  Capture the details lest you forget them, and then, at the first opportunity, write the story.  If it’s a novel, again, jot down plot points, character traits, perhaps even make an outline.  However you work, whatever preparations you need to do before undertaking a long-form creative endeavor . . . do what you must.  And then begin writing the actual novel as soon as you can.

Because . . . why wait?  Why wait and allow apathy or indifference to seep into the picture?  Carpe diem.  Seize the literary day!  Take advantage of that gift–that new idea–while it’s fresh and you are fired up.

Write.  Create.  Make your words sing.

And make your (literary) life extraordinary.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Walk Down Memory Lane (Or, Where the Inspiration Comes From)

Recently, I took a short trip “back home” to visit my family in Rochester, New York, where I was born and spent the first two-and-a-half decades of my life.  Only . . . “Rochester” is too general.  I stayed at the old house, the house where my father still lives, where I grew up, where I spent a childhood and adolescence living and learning, and dreaming.

Rochester, New York - Wikipedia

 

Mostly dreaming.  I was an introvert growing up (and still am), and I spent a good portion of my time “elsewhere” in my mind.  I’d go out into the backyard and hit the Wiffle ball, pretending to be participating in the World Series.  I’d create lineups, do play-by-play, and even keep statistics.  Or I’d head out to the driveway and shoot baskets.  My parents had a hoop attached just above the garage.  The gutter that lined the garage bore the brunt of numerous misfired shots–by me, my friends, my brothers–you name it.  Even today, though the hoop is long gone, that gutter still wears its decades-old battle scars.  Other times, I’d go down into the basement and spend hours writing in the cool, dimly lit space, escaping the heat and humidity of summer days.  The common theme was–a lot of solitary activities, sequestering myself away from others, content to create an alternate universe, as it were, one as boundless as my imagination, with no limits and no restrictions.

The Wiffle Ball, Inc. - Official Site

 

That’s not to say I was always alone!  I often got together with my neighborhood friends, some of whom were the real-life inspirations behind the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers.  We’d do all manner of things throughout the year, but especially during summer.  We’d even have sleepovers, in my basement, that same space in which I spent so much time on my own.  I’d tell them of the ghosts and vampires that lurked in the shadows, under the stairs, in the crawlspace.  I was so convincing, I avoided going down there alone after sundown!  My solo basement adventures were exclusive to times when the sun was up and streaming through the cellar windows.  To be down there at night, I needed the company of my friends.

Soundbytes: Pop Music's 5 Best Vampire Songs | Wisconsin Public Radio

 

In the main, however, I was a loner.  Though often by myself, I never felt “lonely.”  There was always so much going on in my imagination, so many story plots being concocted, so many “out-there” scenarios playing across the movie screen of my overactive and fanciful mind.  And these flights of fancy did not occur only within the confines of the house.  No, indeed.

I would take walks through the neighborhood, sometimes for hours.  I’d go far afield at times, several miles out, walking, observing, saying hi to the cats and dogs that sometimes would follow me for a block or two.  I’d look at the houses, the architecture, especially examining the older abodes.  Two stories, with rotting shingles, mature oak trees and maple trees, and surely full of memories and experiences lurking within their walls, these houses never failed to capture my attention.  Sometimes I’d stand there on the sidewalk, just looking at the house, a corner of the yard, a specific tree or bush.  More likely than not, people inside probably watched me and wondered what the odd boy on the sidewalk was doing, and what he was staring at.  No one ever came out to interrogate, though.

Toronto seeks to save oak tree older than Canada | CTV News

 

Numerous story ideas were born on those walks.  Potentialities, possibilities, hauntings, evil, goodness, all manner of things would percolate in my mind, to the point where, often, when I arrived back home, I would whip out my old-school pencil and paper and jot down notes, or even dive right in to the story proper.

When I visited the old house, the old neighborhood, earlier this month, I took a long walk.  It was along the same route as some of my childhood walks.  Some things had changed.  Some of the houses–especially the ancient, haunted ones (or at least what I always told myself were haunted)–were gone, replaced by newer, more sterile homes.  Much of the neighborhood remained unchanged, however, and as I walked through the interlocking streets, it felt as though I were walking through time, my steps commingling with those of my younger self.  Memories swirled, regrets.  Joys.  And when I returned to the house, I whipped out a pencil and some old-school notebook paper, and jotted down a few new story ideas.

Meet the Andromeda galaxy, the closest large spiral | Astronomy Essentials | EarthSky

 

Works every time.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Dalkowski vs. Koufax (Or, the Importance of Sharpening Your Tools)

There is likely something you take to–something that, for as long as you can remember, has always come naturally to you.  As a child, when others around you struggled, you enjoyed doing it; it flowed like water down a mountain slope, easy, fast, and free.  The something in question can be anything: tennis, a foreign language, algebra, memorization, dancing, singing, juggling, writing.   But whatever it is, you always knew you had a natural bent toward it, a tilt, as if the skill in question were a star and you were a planet kept in orbit through its gravitational pull.

How to Understand Algebra (with Pictures) - wikiHow

 

For Steve Dalkowski and Sandy Koufax, the talent in question was throwing a baseball.  Indeed, it’s possible that someone could be a bodybuilder, the world’s strongest human, and still not be able to throw a ball inordinately hard.  And then you get someone like Dalkowksi, an unremarkable five foot eleven and 175 pounds but who could, reportedly, throw a baseball as fast as 110 miles per hour.  Koufax wasn’t quite as fast, but he was a contemporary of Dalkowski’s, and he threw plenty hard enough.

the long, hard journey of steve dalkowski, possibly the fastest pitcher ever!

 

Both men were lefthanders, and, at least early in their careers, despite their obvious inborn natural gifts, they were not overly successful.  Dalkowski, in fact, never was.  He never made it to the Major Leagues.  Blessed with that golden arm though he was (every batter who faced him maintained no one ever threw harder), he was fragile mentally, heaping enormous pressure onto himself before he took the mound.  He also, how shall we say, enjoyed a good time and did not train with the vigor he might have.  During his minor-league heyday, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dalkowski would essentially strike out, or walk, every batter he faced.  In 1960, for instance, he both walked and struck out 262 batters in a single season.  Statistics that would be unthinkable for anyone else.

Dalkowski never made it out of the minor leagues.  He toiled away for nine seasons before flaming out, a footnote in baseball history despite being the fastest pitcher who ever lived.  He had all the natural talent in the world.  But talent, alone, wasn’t enough.

Meanwhile, Sandy Koufax began his career in much the same manner.  Admittedly, Koufax was never as wild as Dalkowski–no one was.  And he did make it to the Major Leagues at a young age and stuck around.  But for the first handful of years of his career, Koufax was a mediocre pitcher–full of potential but not coming close to realizing it.  Like Dalkowski, Koufax was a lefthanded flamethrower, but he was also blessed with an off-the-table curveball that, coupled with his fastball, made batters look silly.  He had one major problem, though–he did not have pinpoint control.  He would walk too many hitters and didn’t hit his spots consistently in the strike zone.  As a result, for the first five years of his big-league career (1955-1960), Koufax was a forgettable player–just “a guy” as they say.

Sandy Koufax Gallery | Trading Card Database

 

But he worked at it.  He was determined to get it right, smooth out his form, take away the hitches in his delivery, and overcome his control issues.  The hard work really started to pay off in 1961, when he won eighteen games and posted a 3.52 ERA.  Not earth-shattering numbers, but he was on the right track.  Then 1962 came along, and the countless hours he’d put in, perfecting his craft, would manifest in the best five-year stretch of any pitcher in baseball history.  From 1962 until his forced early retirement in 1966 (Koufax had suffered massive arm injuries during his career), the lefthander was virtually untouchable, posting ERAs as low as 1.93 and 1.85, winning twenty-five or more games in three of those magical seasons, and striking out 382 overmatched hitters in 1965.  “Trying to hit Sandy Koufax,” Pittsburgh Pirates great Willie Stargell once said at the peak of Koufax’s career, “is like trying to drink coffee with a fork.”

From Oakland to Pittsburgh, Willie Stargell - African American Registry

 

Two pitchers–both blessed with almost freakish talent–but only one of them “made it.”  The difference?  One honed his craft, worked endless hours, refused to accept mediocrity, and never relied on just his talent alone.  If you are a writer, for example, maybe you have an innate sense of pacing, of language, of turning a phrase just so.  Maybe people have said things to you like, “Wow.  You are such a poet!  The way you put words together.  You make them sing.”

 

All may be true.  But if you don’t take that gift and work with it, if you don’t master grammar and punctuation; if you don’t study story structure and learn how to “kill your darlings”: if you don’t strive to prune and pare down and remove pesky adjectives and adverbs and redundancies from the text, you will be the equivalent of the 100-mph pitcher who couldn’t throw strikes.  Your talent will shine through, but it will be buried underneath too-wordy and sloppy prose.  It will not be maximized, and your potential will not be reached.

Off to the Red Pen! – Heidi Eliason

 

So, whether you write or sing or play basketball, or pitch a baseball–put in the hours necessary to master your skill.  Sweat the small stuff.

It can make all the difference.

Just ask Steve Dalkowski and Sandy Koufax–and the batters they faced.

PRACTICE CHART - Callirgos Music

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

What’s Old Is New Again (Or, Tapping into Your Own Personal Literary Slush Pile)

One way or another, fiction or nonfiction, seeking publication or simply scribbling away for my own enrichment and edification, I have been a writer for a long time now.  Not all of my literary endeavors have been successful, that’s for sure.  And some will never be seen, even fleetingly, by any eyes not belonging to me.  But the point is, good or bad, published or unpublished, I’ve been at this for a while.  And so–there is quite a “slush pile,” as it were, on my hard drive.

Infographic: Publicist Slush Pile | Real Pants

 

But before delving into the slush . . . of course, I am wanting to create something new, to explore an idea that is swimming around, like a rogue fish, in the fluids and nooks and crannies of my brain.  Do I have such ideas?  I do.  All writers do.  Ideas are our stock-in-trade, after all.  The thing is, not all of these ideas are good, or even workable.  In fact, the majority are not.  Or–maybe an idea has potential, but, in its current state, it is too unformed, too skeletal to work with.  So, though enthused by the germ of it and intrigued to pursue it, you temporarily set it aside, allowing it the space and quiet it needs to form sinews and cartilage and nerve endings, to pulse with the literary blood flow of a living, breathing story.  I know, for me, such idea-germs need to work themselves out on their own.  I can never force them.  I must be patient and wait for them to tell me when it’s time to put them down on paper.

Swim bladder disease--is your fish swimming sideways?

 

The question naturally arises, then.  What to do in the meantime?  What to write, what to create, while awaiting the muse’s unannounced and capricious call?  For me, I sometimes simply write a scene–even if it has no chance of developing into something more.  Working out the narrative muscles, keeping dialogue top of mind, describing the situation, letting it all play out.  It’s the literary equivalent to practice.  And sometimes–rarely, but sometimes–such a writing exercise can bloom into a full and fleshed-out story.  It does happen.

Exercising your Literary Muscle – Limelight Publishing

 

But what if even that amounts to nothing more than a dozen unrelated scenes, scattered around your hard drive like unreadable hieroglyphics from an ancient civilization, unable to be deciphered or turned into anything more?  Where do you go when the fully formed ideas are few and far between, or even nonexistent?

Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics Alphabet

 

Perhaps . . . to your own work?  If you have any sort of track record of writing projects, surely you have some old stories lying around.  Some of them may be so old, and so forgotten, they read as if another person created them.  (An odd, almost disembodied sensation, but recommended!)  Now, it’s true–some, or even most–of these stories may strike you as second-rate–especially if they’re more than ten years old.  After all, we move forward as writers, as artists.  We accrue more life experiences, hone our craft, enrich our voice.  Our old work really shouldn’t be as polished as our more recent efforts.

Top 5 Creepiest Disembodied Voices Ever Recorded

 

But sometimes, every now and again, they are–or, if not, they contain enough depth, imagination, and spark to revisit them.  So, if the well is running dry–maybe dig into that old slush pile.  And if you see a short story, or even a novel that has been collecting dust for years–perhaps sit with it for a while, and then . . . if you’re encouraged by what you’re reading–begin to rework it.  Editing an old piece of writing to make it new again.  Superimposing your in-the-now abilities over your abilities from ten or twenty years ago.  Making the old new.

Dry Wells

 

Of course, such a project is only applicable if you are, in fact, short on new ideas, and if you find the old work in question worthy enough to edit.  But it’s an often overlooked source of material–your own stories!  (Sometimes, too, your old stories can ignite an entirely new idea, and off to the races you go on a brand-new novel.)  There are plenty of possibilities.

Either way, though, it is a good idea to check out your old stuff–whether you want to rework it or not–if, for nothing else, to see how far you’ve come as a writer, how you’ve matured and grown.  And to see a snapshot into what the younger version of you thought was important enough to write about.  In some ways, it’s almost like reading old journal entries.

The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives | The Morgan Library & Museum

 

And, right now?  I think I’ve convinced myself.  I have an entire thumb drive of old stories I wrote, years ago.  Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to revisit them.

After all, our younger selves have much to say to our current selves.  There has to be a story in there, somewhere.

Daily Devotional – 12/1/16 “Letter to my younger self!” – Lakisha, the  Author

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

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