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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

To have a literary path to follow.

I’ll just need to see where it leads.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Into the Abyss

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

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

seabirdinflight

 

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

springpeeper

 

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

lostonroadhavetoturnaround

 

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

vermontbackroadnoplacetoturn

 

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

hootowlswontmind

 

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

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

skidcantstop

 

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

tricklingstream

 

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

darkeningtwilight

 

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

Or so I thought.

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

rockynewenglandearth

 

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

bottomlesspool

 

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

twothousandfeetunder

 

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

absenceoflightandeverything

 

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

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

softcurtainofnight

 

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

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

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

feelingsforwater

 

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

parallellives

 

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

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

theether

 

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

underseaweeds

 

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

edgeend

 

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

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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

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

boltfrombluebeginning

 

But then a funny thing happens.

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

simmering

 

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

ghostgirl

 

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

nightmarescometolife

 

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

bitbybitcantberushedtortoise

 

They demand our patience.

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

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

peeweemarbles

 

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

peeweereese

 

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

ebbetsfieldflatbush

 

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

reeseandrobinson

 

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

reeseinthehall

 

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

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

superstarideasnearend

 

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

halleyscomet

 

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

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

greatsmokiesgemsendofpost

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

On a (Cloudy) Day, You Can See Forever

There are places in the state of Vermont, high meadows, where, if you stand in them and look out over the land, you feel as though you’re on top of the world.  In winter, thick, crusty snow crunches underfoot; the air, cold and sharp, feels like it will draw blood when you inhale; and your breath rises with the wind before vanishing like smoke.

wintermeadow

 

In summer, tall grasses sway in the breeze, the distant hillsides are a palette of green, and, if the sky is clear, you feel like you can see beyond the asteroid belt, out into the far corners of the galaxy.

vermontmeadow

 

Sometimes in those moments, ideas come, whole, complete–like a lightning strike out of the blue.  It is as exhilarating as it is rare.  One moment, there is nothing.  In the next, you carry with you an idea that screams and kicks and demands release.  When this happens, I rush to my PC, open that new Word document, or WordPress Edit form (!), and let the sentences come . . .

ideas

 

But other times, most of the time, ideas do not arrive as gift-wrapped wholes.  Usually there is but a peek, a whisper, a shooting star that speeds across the canvas of the sky so fast, you barely have a chance to see it.  I can’t even count how many times I have experienced this–a germ of an idea, tantalizing, but far from workable.

shootingstar

 

In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King pens that he doesn’t believe stories come from within us.  Rather, he says, they are “found things, like fossils in the ground . . . relics, part of an undiscovered preexisting world.”  I agree.  I have always believed that ideas discover us, not the other way around, and how they discover us, and how much of themselves they share–is often out of our hands.

onwriting

 

One night, as the 1980s gasped their last, dying breath and while I was still in high school, I had a dream–a dream so vivid, it stayed with me for decades.  I dreamed of a girl, six, perhaps seven years old, with an airy, translucent quality to her.  She stood outside, beyond my bedroom window, the light of the streetlamp passing through her–as if she were only partly there.  As if she were a ghost.  She beckoned for me to come outside, her eyes, even from a distance, appearing so blue that I felt if I looked into them long enough, hard enough, I would see where the universe ended, and began.  There was a visceral feel of threat about her.  Who was she?  What was she?  And what did she want?

ghostunderlight

 

And then, I woke up.  The bedsheets were kicked away, crumpled in a heap at my feet.  I looked out the window, wondering if she would still be there.  She wasn’t.  Slowly, my breathing returned to normal, and I wrote down the aspects of the dream that stood out to me.  Even back then, decades ago, I knew I had an idea I needed to write about.

messybed

 

The thing was–I didn’t know how to incorporate this “ghost girl” into a story.  Should she be the protagonist?  Or the villain?  Should it be a twelve-page short story, or an epic novel?  A few days later, I attempted to write a short story about her, but it fizzled by the third page.  I had a scenario, a scene.  But I didn’t have a story.  If there was a story to be told here, it was still hidden from view, shyly concealing itself behind a thick, gray mass of clouds.  Several times, I tried to force it, inserting the scene into existing story lines–just to see if it would fit.  It never did.  As frustrating as it was, I realized I would have to remain patient.  The story would bloom and take shape only when, and if, it was ready.

throwawayideas

 

The wait lasted nearly twenty years, and then, on a late August night eight years into the twenty-first century, I dreamed of the “ghost girl” again.  But this time, upon waking, the mists and clouds had cleared, and I was able to see the story.  I took a deep breath, amazed, as I always am, at the capricious whims of the creative process.

capricious

 

And then I got to work on the first draft of The Eye-Dancers.

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

Just the other day, I had another scene strike me, another partial image, the rest of the story obscured, half-hidden in the shadows, tucked away behind a rocky, impenetrable promontory.  Will it ever materialize into something whole?  Time will tell.

promontory

 

But for now, I return to that high Vermont meadow.  The sky is sealed behind a sea of clouds, gray, thick like lead.

grayclouds

 

But the clouds will disperse, eventually, the lead will melt away, drip by drip, revealing the blue beyond.  And somewhere in that expanse, the entire story lives.  I just need to watch, and wait, and hope that it will fall to me, the words and images tumbling down like pieces of the sky.

cloudsdisperse

 

And maybe that’s the most exhilarating thing of all.  Knowing that somewhere up there, high above the clouds, a new creation awaits, something with your name on it, for you to tell and share with the world.

The possibilities are as endless as the sky itself, and limited only by the scope of our imagination.

milkyway

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

No Story too Small

Have you ever wanted to write something–be it an essay, a short story, a novel, a blog entry, a poem, a song–anything . . . but then never did?  The idea perhaps seemed too small, too trivial, too run-of-the-mill.  “Who’d want to read about that?” you might have said.  I know I have.  There is an expectation sometimes that the things we write need to be big–life-altering masterpieces that ignite universes and give birth to new and exciting ideas.  We want to “wow” our audience.

This is something that John-Boy Walton once struggled with, too.  I have long been a fan of The Waltons–the 1970s dramatic television series about the struggles of a family living through the Great Depression in rural Virginia.

waltons

 

I suppose as a writer myself, I’ve always gravitated toward John-Boy, the main character on the show.  When the series begins, John-Boy is seventeen, still in high school, and an aspiring writer.

johnboy

 

In a season-one episode titled “The Literary Man,” John-Boy crosses paths with a well-traveled and well-read fellow who is passing through the area.  John-Boy invites the man, A.J. Covington, to his family’s home, where Covington stays on for a few days, helping out with the Waltons’ sawmill operation.

ajcovington

 

As John-Boy quickly discovers, Covington is a writer–or at least he claims to be.  Older, more experienced, Covington impresses John-Boy with stories of Jack London, Carl Sandberg, Theodore Dreiser, and other master wordsmiths.  He quotes passages from Moby Dick.  “Melville was my model and inspiration when I was learning the craft,” he explains.  He sees in John-Boy the makings of a writer, but he gives him this advice:

“If you want to make it [as a writer], your writing has to come first–before comfort, security, happiness . . . Very few stick it out.”  As Covington explains to the young and impressionable teenager, he travels a lot.  When John-Boy asks him where home is, the older man replies, “The world’s my home.”  He is always on the lookout for new experiences–grist for the writer’s mill.

Covington says that when he was younger, he grew up on a small farm in Indiana–rural roots similar to John-Boy’s.  But when he was seventeen, Covington left home, venturing out into the world without money, without prospects, but with determination.  He says he knew then, as he knows now, that a writer needs to leave everyone and everything behind in order to find the big story he or she is meant to write.  That story is out there–somewhere.  You just have to find it.

Hearing this, thinking about it, John-Boy becomes discouraged.  He tells Covington that he’ll never make it as a writer because his writing can never come first.  He can’t turn his back on the people who depend on him, can’t cut the ties with family and friends to go searching for the big story he was meant to write.  He doesn’t have the courage, he explains.  He’s just not cut out to be a writer.  And he plans to give up his writing and concentrate on his chores and his family.

Covington feels bad.  He never intended for his advice to have this effect.  Near the end of the episode, he has a long talk with John-Boy.  He tells him he’s not much of a writer, not really.  He’s talked out all his stories in saloons and on street corners.  But he has written very little.  And then he attempts to undo the damage he had earlier and unwittingly heaped upon his new young friend  . . .

“Don’t waste your life searching for the one big story you were born to write,” he says.  “Write the little stories.  Who knows?  The sum total of them might be the big story.  Write about . . . your feelings about your family and this place–just the way you’ve been doing.  Write about how it is to be young and confused and poor–groping, but surrounded by a strong father and loving mother, and surrounded by brothers and sisters that pester you and irritate you . . . but who care about you.  Try to capture that in words, John-Boy.  That’s as big a challenge as the Klondike or the white whale or flying the Atlantic Ocean alone.  It was too big for me.  But I think you might just be up to it.”

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

If there is a character in The Eye-Dancers who needs to hear the same message, it is undoubtedly Mitchell Brant.  A dreamer, someone who thinks big but is not satisfied with his day-to-day self, Mitchell continually invents extravagant stories about himself, hoping to impress his friends and classmates.  He doesn’t think plain old Mitchell Brant is good enough, or likeable enough, or popular enough . . .  It takes the kind words of a new friend in the variant town of Colbyville to get him to realize, or at least begin to realize, that he doesn’t need to lie and invent and exaggerate.  He just needs to be himself.

At some point or another, we all feel like Mitchell Brant.  We feel, as John-Boy Walton did throughout much of “The Literary Man,” that our stories are not exciting enough or grand enough, or big enough.  But the flip side is also true.  A person like A.J. Covington spends his entire life searching, searching . . . for the epic story he was born to write.  But all along the story he was truly meant to write was inside him.  It wasn’t something to search for.  It was something to let out.

We all have stories to tell.  Sometimes they’re nail-biting–a death-defying chase across a busy highway; a sports triumph with much of the world watching; a journey to the stars and beyond.  Other times they’re small, quiet, tiptoeing along without making a sound–baking cookies with a since-departed grandmother on a cold winter day; tossing the ball around with a big brother who could’ve been out with his girl or his friends but instead took the time to play with you; lying in bed at night, looking up at the ceiling, wondering why it hurts so much to be rejected by someone you don’t even care about, don’t even like.  The simple joys and hurts and challenges and loves and memories of living . . .

storytotell

 

One of my very favorite short stories is Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.”

christmasmemory

 

The opening paragraph reads as follows:

“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.”

A late-November morning.  A country kitchen in a small town.  A black stove, a table, a fireplace, and two rocking chairs.  It is hard to paint a more “ordinary” picture.  It would be a challenge to begin a story in a more soft-spoken and simple manner. And yet–it is riveting.  Evocative.  Magical.

Do you have a story to tell?  Do you feel it is “trivial”?  That it won’t captivate and interest people?  Tell it anyway.  Tell it honestly, openly.  Share a little piece of your heart.

story

 

Your readers will be glad you did.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Impossible (and the Possible) Quest

I’ll never forget him.  His name was John.  I really didn’t know him all that well, but he was a fellow English major back when I went to college, and he shared several of the same classes with me.  John was passionate about writing, creating, coming up with something new.

“That’s what I want, more than anything,” he said to me one crisp fall day as we exited our class on Victorian literature.  It was the kind of clean, fresh, fragrant western New York October afternoon that makes your eyes water, the air is so pure.   “To come up with something different, something no one’s ever written before.  Some completely new idea!”

original

 

 

I shrugged, smiled.  He had expressed this to me (and anyone who would listen) before.  I had never really responded, though–until now . . .

“You know,” I said.  “I think, maybe, you’re not looking at this in quite the right way.”  Not the best choice of words, perhaps, but I just felt he needed to hear me out.

And he did . . .

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

I can relate to John’s quest.  I think any writer can.  Anyone who has ever created anything, written anything, painted anything, anyone who’s penned the lyrics of a song or the musical notes of a ballad, anyone who has ever dreamed of reaching up into the sky on a lazy summer day and grabbing hold of a billowy, passing cloud just to experience the exhilaration of it all can relate.  We all want to be unique.  We want to do what no one has ever achieved before.  We want our voices to be heard.

creativity

 

The thing is, though–there are no truly new ideas.  Every story has been told.  The ex-con who wants a second chance after he serves time for his wrongdoing?  It’s been told.  The jilted lover who vows revenge on the creep who wronged her?  It’s been told.  The lunatic fan of a writer who captures him and tortures him in her remote Colorado home?  That’s been told, too.

misery

 

miserybates

 

The three seventh-graders who share the same dream of a mysterious “ghost girl,” and who tell their troubles to the class genius, which, in turn, kicks off a wild, imaginative journey across the void?  Yes.  That’s been told, too . . .

ed

 

Does this mean we’re all doomed?  That all artists, all creators of any kind are all relegated to endless regurgitations of the same, chewed-over themes and ideas?  To a degree, yes.  But, to a greater degree–absolutely not.  Even though every story has been told a thousand times over, a thousand-thousand times over, there is still much room for originality and “newness.”  But how?  On the surface, this appears to be a contradiction.  How can we offer anything new or different when everything’s already been done?

If we are talking strictly about ideas, themes, plots, techniques, as my friend John was–then yes.  It is impossible to be unique.  But that’s not what we’re talking about.  We are talking about individuals, writers, artists–people.  You and me.  You might write a story about a jilted lover who vows revenge.  Is that “new”?  Of course not.  But!  This particular jilted lover arises from your own imagination, which, in turn, is nurtured and shaped by your own circumstances, perspectives, points of view, experiences, outlooks, and a multitude of other aspects that are uniquely yours.  These aspects, these attributes, then, become the guiding force behind your tale.  They give newness and vitality to your voice.  They present the world with a picture, a story, a creation that only you could have made.

voice

 

The idea may be as old as time itself.  But the essence, the heart of the story–that is what you bring to it.  A contradiction?  Perhaps.  But I believe it is also the truth.  We all tell the same stories.  And yet . . . we all tell different stories, too, stories that are autographed by our own imaginary and unique fingerprints.

So, John, old friend–if you’re reading this . . . somewhere . . . your quest to create something new and different is in fact possible.  Just write what you feel, write what you fear, write what you hate, write what you love.  From your perspective.

Then share it with the world.

And rest assured . . .

We’ve never seen anything like it before.

writing

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Fact or Fiction?

It’s a question I get asked often:  “Are your stories autobiographical?  How much from your own life do you incorporate into your fiction?”

truestory

 

The answer to this question, at least for me, has always been–no, the stories I write are not autobiographical per se.  But yes, absolutely, I do include many experiences from my own life in the fiction I write.  I always urge people not to read too deeply between the lines, trying to “decode” the author behind the words.  Just because Joe Marma or Ryan Swinton react a certain way to a problem doesn’t mean I would react the same way.

On the other hand, there are fragments of me scattered throughout my stories like road maps.  If you were to gather up all of these fragments, they would begin to form a picture.  For instance, in The Eye-Dancers, Mitchell Brant‘s love of The Fantastic Four mirrors my own.  His overly imaginative mind is also a reflection of me.  His shyness and awkwardness around girls very much relates to the way I felt when I was in middle school.

Marc Kuslanksi‘s thick tortoiseshell glasses, and the way he continually pushes them up the bridge of his nose?  I did that myself, thousands of times, growing up.  (I now wear contact lenses.)  His feelings of loneliness and alienation from kids his own age?  I went through spells just like that.  Most children do, I think, at one time or another.

And of course there are the themes.  I genuinely care about the stories I write and the characters who reside within them.  The themes and ideas presented in The Eye-Dancers are themes and ideas that resonate for me:  childhood; growing up; the struggles, joys, friendships, and bonds formed during adolescence; quantum physics; comic books; camaraderie; dreams; parallel worlds; 1950s-style settings; and examining the very concept of the term “reality.”

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This takes me back to the question that began this post.  “How much of your own life do you incorporate into your fiction?”  The question, of course, by its very nature, assumes that one’s own life is “real” and the fiction he or she creates is, well, fiction.  But is this entirely true?  What makes something “real”?  And what makes something “fiction”?

The textbook answer here is simple.  If something actually happens, it’s real.  If it’s made up, it’s fiction.  But let’s look deeper.  This morning, I laughed at a good joke.  It was funny, and I enjoyed it.  This is reality, correct?  But then let’s say I tell the same joke in a story I’m writing, through the mouth of someone like Ryan Swinton, and you as the reader laugh at the joke.  What’s the difference?  Does it matter that I laughed at a joke told by a “real” person, and that you laughed at a joke told by a “fictional” character?

When we read stories that engage, when we become captivated, riveted by the words on the page, the characters in the story start to seem real.  We care about them, worry about them, love them, hate them, cry with them, and laugh with them.  We experience the same emotions we would in our “real” everyday lives.  And this begs the question.  Is “reality” determined by facts, actual physical events?  Or is it determined by our feelings, the way something moves us or touches us?

I can read a bland news article on tort reform, and not care.  Or I can read a short story that touches me deeply and makes me look at the world in a new and different way.  Which is more “real” in this case?  The tort reform, or the characters in the work of “fiction” that speak to me in such a personal way?

writing

 

In The Eye-Dancers, the four main characters’ understanding of reality is brought into question in more ways than one.  How could some mysterious “ghost girl” haunt each of their dreams, three nights in a row?  And are they just dreams, or something more?  When they travel through a blue, infinite void, are they dreaming it, or actually experiencing it?  And is there a difference?  When they arrive in the variant town of Colbyville, where is it?  How did they get there?  Where is the ghost girl, whose swirling blue eyes drew them in and through the void?  So many questions, so many riddles.

At one juncture, in chapter 12, convinced they are marooned in a parallel universe, science wiz Marc Kuslanski explains his theory on alternate worlds, on the layers upon layers of reality . . .

“It is a challenging concept. . . . Infinity will blow your mind if you let it.  What I do is, I try to visualize one universe overlapping another, sort of like an invisible shadow.  And these shadows go on in every direction.  They keep overlapping and they never end, and most of the time, people within one of the shadows never know about the people in any of the other ones.”

parallelworlds

 

And what The Eye-Dancers does is ask, What if?  What if Marc’s multi-verse hypothesis is correct?  What if parallel-worlds theory is true?  And what if someone out there, say, a little girl with haunting blue eyes and powers she doesn’t even understand, has the ability to pierce through the dimensional gap?  What if “reality” is actually a multi-layered thing that cannot truly be defined by Webster or Wikipedia?

And what if what we term “fiction,” with its ability to reach deep into the secret, precious corners of the heart, is in fact just another, and perhaps more profound, version of “reality”?

So, yes, when it’s put that way, the fictional stories I create are truer and more personal than any diary entry I could ever write.

Fact or fiction?

factfiction

 

Is there really a difference?

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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