When the Lilacs Bloom

Spring, in my neck of the woods, is easily the most longed-for season of the year.

All too often, however, spring is like a bashful pixie, a reluctant, shy, embarrassed late-arrival to the all-season party where winter dominates the proceedings and monopolizes the conversation. Eventually, though, as the pages of the calendar flip forward, day by day, we reach the month of May, when spring finally unfurls its plumage, the self-consciousness gone, the reticence of March and April a forgotten thing.

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Almost overnight, it seems, grasses that were yellow and brown turn a rich, verdant green.  Buds appear, as if by magic, on the trees.  Colorful grosbeaks and bobolinks return to the area, and the year-round songbirds sing louder and longer, as if basking in the long-awaited, nearly forgotten warmth.

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And. perhaps most spectacular of all, May is when the lilacs bloom . . .

This weekend, I will take the seven-hour drive from Vermont, my adopted state for the past eleven years, “back home” to Rochester, New York.  I’ll visit my parents, my brothers and sister, extended family, and old friends.  I look forward to it.  It is always nice visiting my roots, inspirations, the people and places who have been there for me from the beginning.

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And, time permitting, I will also make a point to see the lilacs.

Rochester has long been nicknamed the Flower City, and no time of the year embodies this more than the month of May, and no single piece of real estate more so than Highland Park.

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Situated on the city’s south side, Highland Park is home to the largest collection of lilac bushes in the United States, boasting more than 500 varieties of lilacs and 1,200 plants in all, bedecked on a green hillside that spans 22 acres.  Every May, for a span of ten days, the park hosts the Lilac Festival. It’s an enormous event, bringing in more than 500,000 visitors from around the world.

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For me, though, I most enjoy the park early in the morning, before the food and craft stands open, before the crowds gather–when there is still dew on the grass and when you can listen, without interruption, to your thoughts and luxuriate in the heady fragrance of the lilacs.

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I savor it, savor them, drinking them in because I know they will be gone within a fortnight, the delicate petals fallen, the purples and pinks and lavenders stripped away, the color show over and done until the same time next year.  It always seems sad that such a magnificent display should be so brief, such a bounty so fleeting.

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Perhaps it is.  But it also serves as a reminder.

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Have you ever been struck by an idea, something so inspired, so riveting, so full of life and vitality that you instantly knew you had to let it out?  Maybe it was a concept for a short story, or a new focus for a novel.  Maybe it was a poem, gift-wrapped, arriving in total, the lines and rhythms dancing before your eyes like gemstones.  Maybe it was a landscape or a street scene for you to paint, the contours, shadows, and nuances perfectly clear in your mind’s eye.  Maybe it was a tactic, an approach, a way to sway your audience or win the approval of your coworkers on a long-debated and polarizing project.

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Moments like these are energizing, and often hit us without warning, a creative bolt from the blue, as it were.  They are as invigorating as they are rare.

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Sure, ideas strike every day.  But how many of them make you stop what you’re doing mid-thought, or distract to the point where you forget the supper in the oven or fail to see that red light switch over to green (the motorist behind you will certainly let you know should this happen–and yes, I speak from experience!)?  I know for me, such ideas only occur infrequently, and there is no way of guessing when they will come.

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I’ve tried to figure it all out.  Is there something specific I tend to do that might encourage the best ideas to strike?  Is there a certain TV show or movie I should watch?  Maybe a book I should read?  Or maybe a particular food . . . perhaps a “creativity diet” that exists, a certain combination of vegetables, starches, and nuts that assures at least one winning idea per day?

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But if there’s a secret magic formula, I’ve yet to discover it.  The muse strikes when it will, a capricious, fickle thing, as inscrutable as the undiscovered wonders at the bottom of the sea or the farthest reaches of space.

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The truth is, those earth-shattering ideas that rock my creative world and send paradigm shifts running through every page of a manuscript are as rare and transitory as the lilacs that grace Highland Park for a fortnight every spring.  And maybe that’s as it should be–for all of us.  If they struck every day, they would no longer be special, no longer demand our attention and make us take notice.  They’d become ordinary, just another check mark on the to-do lists of our lives.  “Brush teeth, check.  Make breakfast, check.  Pick up groceries, check.  Pay the bills, check.  Be inspired by fabulous, Pulitzer-Prize-worthy idea, check.”

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As tempting as it sounds (especially in those seasons of writer’s block) to have an ideas-on-demand app that we could tap into anytime we want, I kind of like it the way it is now.  Not everything should be so convenient and easy.  Some things are meant to be special.

Like Highland Park in the month of May . . .

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. . . when the lilacs bloom.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Magnolia Moments

This weekend, I will go back home to Rochester, NY, and visit family and old friends.  It’s always an enjoyable time, and if I’m lucky, I’ll also have an opportunity to experience something as magical as it is rare. . . .

On the city’s southeast side, Oxford Street is a well-tended residential avenue, pleasant and attractive for much of the year.  But for one week in early May, a portion of Oxford Street is transformed into a fragrant, flowery paradise.

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The Oxford Mall is a tree-lined section of the street, flanked on either side by stately homes that watch over the avenue like old poets contemplating the beauty in their midst.  And what beauty it is . . .

The Oxford Mall is famous for its long row of magnolia trees, which bloom each year in early May.  Area residents often make it a point to stroll or drive down the avenue, basking in the display.  I have experienced the magnolias on Oxford Street many times.  It’s something that never gets old.

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But you have to catch the magnolias at the right time, or else you’ll miss them.  Generally, they are in full bloom for a few days, perhaps a week, and then they are gone, not to appear again until the following spring.  I have sometimes wondered–Why is something so beautiful, so breathtaking, also so fleeting?  Shouldn’t the flowers stay a while longer?  Why must they tease us, tantalize us each year, only to fall away within a matter of days?

Then I rethink it.  Maybe it’s their very transience that makes them what they are.  If the magnolias decorated the Oxford Mall for months on end, would they remain so special?  Or would the residents begin to take them for granted–just one more feature, albeit a lovely one, of the Rochester summer landscape?

It is much the same with writing.  Of course any writer wants each word of a manuscript to count.  Every sentence should lead into the next sentence.  Every paragraph should be germane to the story.  Every slice of dialogue should ring true to the character who speaks it.  But at the same time, can every line be a masterpiece?  Can each sentence be a miniature prose poem?

Try it sometime.  Even for one paragraph–try to make every word sing, try to end every sentence with a flourish.  It simply doesn’t work.  Much like the magnolias on Oxford Street, there is a time and a place to “wow” your audience in a manuscript.  If every paragraph was a thing of utter beauty, the overall beauty of the story would blur, blinded by its own brilliance.  You can’t hit a home run with every swing of the bat–nor should you attempt to.  Sometimes there are runners on first and second with nobody out, and a sacrifice bunt makes more sense.

Generally, especially in a long work like a novel, the role of the language is to move the story along, engage the reader, and intrigue.  Simplicity and straightforwardness accomplish this.  The story, in essence, needs to tell itself.  If each sentence is adorned with gold earrings and diamond necklaces, readers will become distracted.  The language elevates itself and becomes the star of the show, thrusting the story and characters into the background.  It may be beautiful writing, but it’s not necessarily effective.

There are, however, places in a story where you do indeed want the language itself to resonate, to leave an indelible impression on the reader.  If you pick your spots, and don’t overdo it, these sections of your story should make an impact.  They will stand out.  They will take the reader by the hand and not let go.  In The Eye-Dancers, I sometimes would try for this effect at the end of a chapter.

At the end of chapter 12, for example, after listening to Marc Kuslanski‘s theory on parallel worlds,  Mitchell Brant ponders the possibility of multiple realities, multiple Mitchells.  It’s a concept he finds equal parts fascinating, equal parts confusing.  The last paragraphs of chapter 12 read as follows:

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“It seemed like hours before he got to sleep. . . . [He] lay there, thinking–of worlds upon worlds, layers of existence, side by side.  And he wondered.  What was he doing in those other worlds right now?  Did he have a sister?  Were his parents the same?  Did they get along, somewhere?  Were there really worlds out there where his mom and dad didn’t fight with each other?  Were there worlds where Mitchell was confident?  Where he could talk with ease, and his tongue worked as fluidly, as effortlessly, as his mind?

‘Good night, Mitchell,’ he whispered, to himself, to all of his selves, in all of the worlds in existence.  His last thought before sleep finally took him away was of a line of Mitchell Brants.  They stood, single file, one in front of the other.  He started to count them in his mind’s eye, but the line went on and on, forever.  He was infinite, endless.

When he counted the two hundred sixty-third Mitchell Brant, the line began to melt away, disintegrating into the netherworld of his dreams.”

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Yes, I will be driving along Oxford Street this weekend when I’m in Rochester.  And yes, I hope I catch the magnolias at the right time.  But if I don’t, there’s always next year.

And there’s always the reminder . . .

Magnolia moments are precious.  Because they are beautiful?

Yes.

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But also, because they are rare.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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