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

The Multiverse of Creative Writing

The Eye-Dancers explores the concept of parallel worlds, universes that exist, unseen, beside our own, like a billion billion invisible shadows.  On the surface, this seems like sheer fantasy, sky-high sci-fi that does not apply, in any realistic sense of the word, to the lives of anyone save speculative fiction lovers and quantum physicists.

parallelworlds

 

But perhaps parallel-worlds theory is far more practical, far more applicable than it seems at first blush.  Take writing a novel, for example . . .

For our imaginary novel, let’s picture a story of, say, 90,000 words.  As the author, of course you go through the logical progression.  First, an idea strikes, hot, boiling, the literary waters frothy with enthusiasm and energy.  Then you make some notes–not too many–just various anchor points you need to keep in mind as you travel down the winding road of your imagination.  And then, finally, you begin.  You feel a thrill when you key in “Chapter One” on the first page and begin to tell the tale.

chapterone

 

But let’s take a step back.  Are you writing just one single novel here, or are you, in actuality, writing countless novels?  Consider.  You have to begin your story somewhere.  And surely it could have begun in any number of places, with any number of potential scenes.  You have to choose one.  But what of the others, the scenes not chosen?  What happens to them?  In one sense, nothing.  They represent the “what-ifs,” the “might-have-beens,” the ideas, scenes, words, paragraphs that will never be written–at least not in this novel.

branchingroads

 

If we were to take a quantum mechanics–style view of this, however, the scenes that go unused are not necessarily discarded.  Rather, perhaps we can look at them as “parallel openings,” “alternate versions.”  Indeed.  Have you ever written an opening scene to a story and then, just out of curiosity, opened a new file and redone the scene, in a completely different way?  I have.  It’s the same story, the same idea, but, now with a new opening, the story takes a different shape, a divergent path, a back-roads route.  If you were to carry the experiment further, the first opening sequence (call it Novel #1) would naturally lead to another scene and then another and then another, multiplying all the way down the road of 90,000 words.  Whereas the second opening sequence (call it Novel #2) would lead to a different follow-up scene and then a different third scene, and so on, creating, in effect, a wholly different novel, even though both novels are, in essence, the same story, coming into being from the same idea, the same inspiration.

longandwindingroad

 

Everywhere you find yourself within the story arc, whether chapter one or chapter twenty-one, you have decisions to make.  Does Character Y really say that?  Does Character V really want to pull that stunt?  Of course, the characters themselves are the ones calling the shots, just as much, if not more, than the writer.  But they are calling the shots, at least in part and especially the further in you get, based on all of the events that led to that point in the story.  For every chapter, for every paragraph on the journey of 90,000 words, a decision is made, the sentence is written.  And for every decision made, there are a thousand, a million, a billion decisions not made, actions not pursued, word choices and plot twists never realized.

decisionsmadeandnotmade

 

When viewed this way, each story is merely one small tributary branching off from a bottomless river, one possibility amid countless possibilities.  From a single idea is birthed an infinity of options.

rivertributaries

 

Take, for instance, the following story premise.

A young man, call him Jim, is hired by a modestly sized computer software company.  He’s shown around, introduced to the employees, but along the way, he notices one cubicle in particular.  The name plate is still there–“Wayne”–the desk is strewn with loose papers, handwritten notes.  A coffee mug rests off to the side, Post-It notes are attached to the PC monitor, and old clippings of newspaper cartoons are tacked to the cubicle walls.  But as the days press on, first a week, then two, then three, Wayne never shows.  No one cleans off the desk.  Is he scheduled to come back?  Has he taken a leave of absence?  Has he been fired or did he quit in a rage, suddenly, with no notice?  Jim asks several coworkers.  They skirt around the question, evading, dodging, not wanting to say anything.

cubicle

 

What happened?  Who is this Wayne, and why is his desk still littered with his notes and mugs and assorted papers?  If he isn’t going to come back, why not clean up his work space, or hire somebody else?

Jim can’t stop thinking about it.  He tells his girlfriend, his parents, his buddies.  They all say to forget it, who cares?  But he can’t forget it.  He can’t shake the feeling that something awful has happened, something monstrous.

intuitionbadwayne

 

Then, on an otherwise nondescript Monday morning, he receives an anonymous email.  The Sender is just called “6754.”  The subject line reads:  “Stop asking questions.”  The body of the email reads:  “Or else . . .”  And that is all.

Where can you take this story?  What would the opening scene look like?  Would it be Jim’s first day, spotting Wayne’s desk for the first time?  Would it be his asking a coworker about Wayne and getting the brush-off?  Would it be the mysterious email?  It could be any of these, and more.  And whichever scene is selected will impact the next scene and then the next, and the next . . .

dominoes

 

In fact, perhaps we should start a new blog hop.  Blog hops have to start somewhere, right?  Why not call it the “Parallel Worlds of Creative Writing” Blog Hop!  Jim’s scenario can be used, or another can be created.  And, to begin, seven interested bloggers can write the first scene of the would-be story.  Then, each of these bloggers would tag another seven bloggers to write the second scene.  The thing is, if seven bloggers wrote the first scene, there would be seven unique opening scenes–one opening scene per each blogger.  When these bloggers tag the next group of seven bloggers, the latter would only be able to work with the opening scene they received.  So, in effect, the bloggers next up in the chain would each be working with different opening scenes–no two opening scenes would be alike.  The second wave of bloggers would write their scene, the next scene in the story, and then pass it along to a third group of seven bloggers each, and so on.  Every blogger tagged would be working with a unique chain and furthering that chain by writing their version of the next scene and passing it on.

multiplestoriesbloghop

 

The process could go on as long as interest remained, and by the end of the blog hop, there would be a plethora of versions of the same story, each thread, each individual blog-tag branching off in its own direction, visual manifestation, as it were, of the multiverse of creative writing.

pondripples

 

Every time we begin a story, every time we start a new scene, we toss a pebble into our own personal literary pond, the resulting ripples circling out, farther, deeper, into the water.  And when it’s time to begin the next scene, the next chapter, the next paragraph, we can only choose one of them, the others drifting, away, out of reach.

All any writer can do is hope they choose the right one.

inspirationend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Precious Jewels Hidden in Tattered Pages

I remember it well.  It was one of those lazy midsummer days in western New York State, the air thick with humidity, the droning, mechanical call of the cicadas giving voice to the trees.

cicadas

 

My parents were entertaining an old family friend, who lived out of state.  He hadn’t visited in several years, and now, upon his arrival, I wanted to impress him–with my growing comic book collection.  I was seventeen years old, a month away from my senior year in high school, and I was eager to show this well-traveled gentleman, who lived in a fancy home out West, that I was no slouch myself.

senioryear

 

He slapped me on the back, told me he remembered me as a little kid with a bowl-shaped haircut, four feet tall–where had that kid gone?  I told him I collected old comic books, had been for years now.  Would he care to see the cream of my collection?

me

 

“Comic books?” he said.  “They’re worth something, eh?”

Were they ever!  I showed him the latest edition of the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, published annually each April with updated market values for every American comic book that has ever graced the newsstand.  And I pointed out some of the issues I owned, purchased months or years ago, but which, over time, had appreciated, their price tag growing like green plants in a well-tended garden.

overstreet1

 

“Kind of like buying blue chip stock, I see,” he said, as I showed him my most prized issues, vintage copies of The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, along with select issues of Superman, Batman, and other heroes from yesteryear.

avengers57

 

ff48

 

After a few minutes, I could no longer resist.

superman

 

“You know what these are all worth, put together?”

He didn’t hesitate.  “Absolutely.  They’re worth whatever someone will pay you for them.”

I exhaled, feeling like a pin-pricked balloon, all my pride and anticipation and excitement bleeding out of me, drip by drip.  Whatever someone will pay for them?  But . . . what if I didn’t want to sell them?  Did that negate their worth altogether?  And besides, I didn’t like viewing my comic books as commodities in such a bald, in-your-face manner.  Sure, I bought the Overstreet Guide every spring when it came out.  And sure again, I enjoyed seeing issues I already owned rising in value.  But that wasn’t why I owned them, or why I’d bought them.

Was it?

balloon

 

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

In The Eye-Dancers, Mitchell Brant shares my love of old comics, particularly The Fantastic Four.  They hold for him, as they always have for me, an undeniable magic.  And yet, he, too, feels the need to put a monetary value on them–and a fictional one at that.  As he is prone to do, Mitchell exaggerates their worth, claiming, to anyone who will listen, that his collection would go for thirty thousand dollars if he wanted to sell it.  He knows this is a gross misrepresentation of the truth, but he just can’t seem to help himself.

comiccollection

 

I would like to believe, however, that when he is alone, thinking about it in more depth, he will realize he is not only lying to his friends.

He’s also lying to himself–for reasons that go far beyond the actual market value of his collection.

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

When the out-of-state family friend left the next day, returning to the house he had built, the life he had fashioned, I still felt bad.  And I felt worse when I checked the values of my best issues yet again in the price guide.  What was I doing?  Had my perspective really shifted so far from center?  I needed a new outlook, or, to be more accurate, an old outlook–the same one I once had, when I was nine years old buying my first comics off the drug-store  rack that squeaked when I spun it, round and round, watching the covers flash before my eyes like action scenes from the greatest movie I ever saw.  I needed something to remind me why I had started collecting old comic books in the first place.

spinningrack

 

So I sat down on my bedroom floor, cross-legged, and pulled out my priciest issues–not as a collector, or an investor, or even a hobbyist.  But as a reader.  As a lover of the ride they took me on.  As a seventeen-year-old, standing on the rocky, high precipice of academic choices, college majors, and career decisions but wanting, desperately, to cling to an aspect of my childhood that seemed to be receding, day by day, further into the shadowlands of an irretrievable past.

cliff

 

I read issue after issue that day, copies printed years before I was born, stories that transported me to other worlds, distant galaxies, negatively charged universes, where the very atoms of matter itself were in complete opposition to our own.  I read about super villains who wanted to rule the world and who spouted off the corniest dialogue I had ever heard, and yet I loved every word.  I read about characters I had grown up with, who I knew so well it seemed they were real, and might at any moment jump out of the illustrated panels and join me in my room.

negativezone

 

And when I put those comics away, I felt better than I had in days . . .

I won’t lie.  I still purchased the Overstreet Price Guide in subsequent springs, still checked the market value of my comics from year to year.  But I also read through the entire Price Guide, enjoying the pictures of countless old comic book covers and reading the informative articles on the hobby.  It was now a supplement, a part of a whole.  It no longer defined the whole.

Because the truth of the matter was, those old comic books, many with brittle covers and spine rolls, water stains and clipped-out advertisements, housed jewels of the rarest sort within their tattered and yellowed pages.

sparklingjewels

 

Later that same summer, talking with a friend of mine, my comic book collection came up.

Inevitably, perhaps, the question arose:  “So, what’s your collection worth?”

I looked at him, smiled.

“Priceless,” I said.

sunsetpriceless

 

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

To Believe or Not to Believe . . . (Or, How Far Can You Run?)

Whenever you produce something, and enough people see it, there are bound to be critics.  The world’s great masterpieces are not universally loved.  And Oscar-winning movies elicit a wide range of opinions.

So it was one day, several years ago, when, during a free moment at a former job of mine, I had a disagreement with a coworker named Rob.  Rob was a good, reliable employee, neat, orderly, someone who painstakingly dotted his I’s and crossed his T’s.

tie

 

He had an event planner on his desk that was always filled in months in advance.  If you were to look up the term “detail-oriented” online, you might just see Rob’s picture staring back at you.

I liked Rob.  He and I got along well–except when it came to movies.  We agreed every now and then, but most of the time we were the amateur version of Siskel and Ebert–always finding ways to contradict each other.  And on that particular day, he took aim at one of my all-time favorite films, Forrest Gump.

“It’s the worst movie I ever saw!” he exclaimed.  “Totally idiotic.  The guy runs across America.  For three years!”  (Actually, it was, according to Forrest, three years, two months, fourteen days, and sixteen hours, but who’s counting?)  “A superhero couldn’t do that!  It’s not humanly possible.  It’s completely illogical and stupid.”

forrestbeard

 

I tried to explain that on many levels, Forrest Gump, based on the novel of the same name by Winston Groom,  is a fairy tale.  Not everything in the movie can be, or should be, taken literally–which is one of the many aspects of the film I love.

forrestrunsawaycar

 

On the one hand it is the humorous, wacky, larger-than-life story of a man who always finds himself at the center of history-making events.  But on the other hand, it is a probing character study, a very personal story about Forrest and the people closest to him.  It is a rich, layered movie that never gets old, no matter how many times I watch it.

Rob wouldn’t hear of it.  He was able to accept many of the film’s eccentric qualities and plot lines (“I liked the ping pong,” he admitted), but Forrest running across America?  That’s where he drew the line.  Much like Marc Kuslanski, Rob could not, would not, get past the logic/commonsense divide.  No one can run across America for three solid years.  For him, the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy any fantasy was shattered during that scene.  It ruined the story for him, and, as much as I disagreed with him, it did get me thinking about the kind of speculative storytelling that stretches and challenges the imagination.  How do authors, screenwriters, television producers, creators, present fantasy in a way that most people can digest as believable and “real”?

void

 

For me, the “running sequence” in Forrest Gump works beautifully.  It fits the theme, tone, and style of the movie, and enhances the story.  But why?  How?  And, while there will always be some readers (or viewers) like Rob, who cannot take the leap you as the storyteller want them to take, what elements need to be in place to portray an “impossible” or improbable scene in a believable way, a way that an audience can enjoy despite (or perhaps because of) the logic gap that so angered Rob?

I believe the answer lies, as it so often does, in character.  Consider, for instance, the scene that precedes the Forrest Gump running sequence.  A constant theme throughout the movie is Forrest’s unwavering love for Jenny, his one and only girl.  From the time they were children, he and Jenny went together “like peas and carrots.”

forrestjennykids2

 

forrestjennykids

 

Except–Jenny grew up, a very troubled person, and wandered the country, searching for a meaning and peace she never seemed to find.  She would occasionally cross paths with Forrest over the years, but usually they were miles apart.  He loved her, wanted to be her boyfriend, as he openly admitted, but she never seriously considered his offer.  “Forrest, you don’t even know what love is,” she tells him, assuming his low IQ prevents him from understanding and knowing. . . .

But then, after years of separation, Jenny returns, spends some time with Forrest at his home.  He calls it “the happiest time” of his life.

forrestjennyreunite2

 

forrestandjennyreunited

 

At one point, he asks her to marry him.  “I’d make a good husband, Jenny,” he says.  She agrees that he would, but when he asks her why she doesn’t love him, she just shakes her head.

“I’m not a smart man,” he says.  “But I know what love is.”

jennyflowers

 

That night, for the first time, Jenny comes to him not just as a friend, but as a lover, telling him she does love him.  For Forrest Gump, this night is the one he has always dreamed of, the moment he has always longed for.  But then it all comes crashing down, a house of cards strewn and wrecked by a gust of wind.

In the morning, while he sleeps, Jenny leaves.  Without a word.  When we see Forrest next, there is no dialogue, no music, just a series of shots zooming in on him, silent.  We can feel his loneliness, his heartbreak.  From the crest of the highest, most exhilarating wave, he has fallen into the depths.  So what does he do?

In Forrest’s own words, during a voice-over that begins the memorable running-across-America sequence . . .

“That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run.  So I ran to the end of the road.  And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d run to the end of town.  And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d just run across Greenbow County.  And I figured, since I’d run this far, maybe I’d just run across the great state of Alabama.  And that’s what I did. . . . For no particular reason, I just kept on going.  I ran clear to the ocean.  And when I got there, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well turn around, just keep on going.  When I got to another ocean, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well just turn back, keep right on going. . . .”

And for several minutes, we watch Forrest, now with long, uncut hair and a beard that would make even Santa green with envy, run through pristine mountain hollows and along winding country lanes.

panoramarun

 

Many things happen during the scene, which has its share of zany humor and entertaining encounters.  But at its heart, it is about Forrest dealing with Jenny’s departure.  “I’d think a lot” (as he ran), he tells us in a voice-over.  He’d think about his mother, his friend Lieutenant Dan, but, “most of all, I’d think about Jenny.”

And when, after more than three years, he finally stops running, he says:  “My momma always said, ‘You got to put the past behind you before you can move on.’  And I think that’s what my running was all about.”

forreststopsrunning

 

Yes.  A three-year run across America is pretty far-fetched.  And yes, it would be near-impossible to do, on so many levels.  But we can overlook these things because the scene is, at its core, a response to something we can all relate to–hurt, rejection, a lifelong dream evaporating through your fingers like a hundred tiny pebbles scattering to the earth.  Needing to find a way to cope with loss.  Coming to terms with something that leaves a sour, bitter taste in your mouth every time you swallow.  It’s a fair assumption that none of us has ever run across a continent for three-plus years.  But we’ve all experienced the feelings that motivate this title character to journey on his fairy-tale marathon.

And that, I think, is the axle around which everything turns.  Certainly, when I wrote The Eye-Dancers, a story of parallel worlds and ghost girls that invade dreams, I was taking the risk every speculative fiction writer does–creating a story that might come across as too fantastic, too impossible, too “out there.”

parallelworlds

 

But for every quantum leap across the void, for every haunted dream sequence, for every step further into a mysterious and alien world, there is also a quiet, small moment when one of the main characters laughs at a joke, or shares a childhood memory, or tackles an insecurity that has been gnawing away at him for years.

Forrest Gump, I think, would agree.  If we can create characters readers will root for, care about, become invested in, we can then, boldly and imaginatively, fly them across the empty, black reaches of space, or transport them through endless blue voids, or have them go on a journey to another dimension entirely.

parallel2

 

So, all these years later, Rob, I still disagree with you.

Great fictional characters, characters we believe in, can take us anywhere.

galaxy

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Beyond the Next Traffic Light . . .

Imagine a road, any road–perhaps it winds its way through rolling countryside and charming villages, Capra-esque, with town squares and old brick storefronts that make you feel as if you’re traveling through a set piece for It’s A Wonderful Life.

itsawonderfullifetribute

 

Or maybe you’re downtown at rush hour, in a large city, frustrated by the snarl of traffic and the honking horns.

traffic

 

Perhaps you’re feeling stressed, burdened, so much still to do, and so little time in which to do it.

You look ahead.  The next intersection awaits, the next red light. . .

redlight

 

Or does it?

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

I have long enjoyed mainstream, literary stories, and much of the short fiction I write is in fact mainstream, with no supernatural or otherworldly element to it.  This stems from a long-standing appreciation of literature.  I love the classics, the works of writers like Truman Capote and Harper Lee, Willa Cather and John Steinbeck.  A good, dramatic story has the power to move us and touch us in very personal ways.

myantonia

 

But my first love, and the kind of storytelling that I come back to, time and again, is science fiction and fantasy.  And yes–I will combine the two genres beneath one imagination-stirring, speculative-fiction umbrella.  While some stories are clearly sci-fi and others clearly fantasy, often the two overlap, and, just as often, they do so within the same story.  Hard-core sci-fi fans may take issue with this, just as they did when Ray Bradbury famously put an atmosphere on Mars.  But I read his Martian stories and loved them, just the same.  Are they science fiction?  Fantasy?  “Who cares?” I said.  They were great.  That’s all that mattered to me.  They accomplished what all first-rate imaginative fiction does.

martianchron

 

When I read Ray Bradbury, or watch a post-apocalyptic thriller, or read an old Fantastic Four comic book (like Mitchell Brant in The Eye-Dancers, I am, and have always been, a fan of classic old comic books), or enter, through the enchantment of the dusty page (or touch-screen, as the case may be), into the heart of a city full of dragons and witches and hairy little elves who shuffle discreetly underfoot, I want the story to take me by the hand and transport me to a distant, faraway place, perhaps to a different time or a different universe or a different reality.

ff49

 

Maybe the story takes me there via a time machine, but it can just as easily be a dream sequence or a fantastical world that just is, always has been, and always will be, right from the opening scene of the book.  Or, just maybe, I am taken there through the swirling, hypnotic blue eyes of a “ghost girl”. . .

blueeye

 

It doesn’t really matter how it is done, as long as it’s done in such a way that I can believe it, that I am right there, along for the ride with the characters.  And once I am there, in this fantastic new world, I can then get absorbed in it, marooned like a sailor on some remote Pacific island but without any desire to leave.   And yes, it may test and stretch the limits of my imagination (with hope, that’s precisely what it will do); yet, simultaneously, and again, hopefully, it will cause  me to reflect and look at my own world in a different way, with a different perspective.

scifi2

 

That, to me, is the definition, and the essence, of speculative fiction.

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

Let’s return to our traffic light, then, shall we?  There you are, sitting there, the car idling, the list of to-dos spinning in your mind, over and over.  Groceries to buy.  Bills to pay.  A house to straighten up.  Dentist appointment next week, and that tooth has been really throbbing lately, too.  Ugh.  Another cavity?  The project at work is only half-finished, and the boss continues to harp about it, demanding it be completed yesterday.  And what’s that?  Does the car sound a little funny?  Does the engine sound as though it’s laboring?  But the mechanic just worked on it a month ago . . .

todolist

 

So many thoughts, stresses, tasks, worries . . .  And the traffic is moving so slowly!  There is a bend in the road.  You can’t see around it, but you know what lies ahead.  Another traffic light, another delay as you listen to the car’s sputtering engine, and think about everything you have to do, all over again.

tasklist

 

But wait.  Your mind begins to drift.  You think of the novel you’re reading.  You just finished chapter twenty-four last night, and are eager to return to it.  Every time you read it, the story carries you on fine, feathery wings, so silent, so effortless, you are hardly aware that you’re moving at all.  It lifts you up, higher, higher, to a dreamscape world, far away, immeasurably distant–and yet, you are there.  And now, here, stuck in traffic, suddenly your train of thought shifts.

imagination

 

You know, logically, that you will have to wait at another red light, and then another, and another.  You know your list of things to do seems to grow, organically, on its own, with each passing minute.  The burdens of day-to-day tasks, the unending grind, the perpetual treadmill are all still there.  But now there is something else, too.

An openness, perhaps–an acknowledgment that, despite the obstacles and the mind-numbing routines, all things are possible.  The novel you are reading–the magic of it, the scope of its plot and the vastness of its universe–makes you want to believe in the unbelievable, search for the unknowable.  It makes you want to reach . . . reach for the moon, throw a lasso around it like George Bailey said he would do for Mary Hatch in that Frank Capra classic sixty-seven years ago.

georgelasso

 

lasso!

 

But why stop there?

There is an entire galaxy to explore.  A universe.  And, perhaps, a parallel universe.  There is no end.

andromeda

 

The light turns green.  You drive through it, imagining the possibilities, embracing the adventure.

allthingspossible

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The First Time, Every Time

Do you remember the first time?  I bet you do.

Maybe it was the first time you sketched a picture, and the pencil seemed to have a will, a life, of its own as the lines multiplied, took shape, forming a likeness of something you never realized you could duplicate.

sketch

 

Maybe it was the first time you blended ingredients, without a recipe, experimenting, modifying, taste-testing, never having done anything quite like this before, but knowing, somehow, that the result would turn out delicious in the end.

cooking

 

Maybe it was the first time you aimed a camera, wanting desperately to capture the sunset or the butterfly resting, briefly, on the rough bark of your fencepost, or the city skyline on a clear, crisp autumn afternoon.  You snapped the photo, enjoying the moment, a hunger to reconstruct a sliver of reality at just the right angle, in just the right lighting.

camera

 

I happen to be a writer, and I remember my first time, too . . .

I was in the second grade.  It was fall in upstate New York, the trees showing off with their reds and golds and burnt pumpkin oranges.  “Like a bowl of fruit loops,” my grandfather liked to say.

fallcolor

 

And the teacher, a young woman named Mrs. Mueller, tasked us with an assignment.

“I want you to write about something,” she said, and I can still recall the enthusiasm in her voice.  “About anything you want.  It can be about your bicycle or your cat or your mom or your sister.  Anything!  The only requirement is that it needs to be at least a full page in length.”  At this news. a collective gasp rose from the throng of second-graders.  A whole page?  To the seven-year-olds in the room that October day, Mrs. Mueller might as well have asked us to write an epic poem on par with Paradise Lost.

paradiselost

 

But for some reason, the assignment didn’t intimidate me.  Perhaps I was spurred on by the dreamy fall landscape, the woods and fields caramelized after the long, hot summer.  But that night, in my room, I sat on my bed, using one of my father’s old hard-back books as a support for the sheets of loose paper I had ripped out of my notebook, and wrote my first short story.  The thing was?  It did not end up a single page in length.  When I finished, I had written a four-page story.

I called it “The Magic Key,” about a boy and his friend who discover, well, a magic key in an abandoned house on the edge of town.  The house, reputed to be haunted, is full of cobwebs and creaky, ancient doors that groan when opened.  The boys venture into the house on a dare, and when they find and take the key, they soon realize it can unlock portals to places they never knew existed–places where caterpillars talked and beagles soared on dark brown wings, and where, if you wanted something badly enough, if you wished with all your might, you would receive whatever you asked for.

magickey

 

Today, looking back at “The Magic Key,” I realize the story is laughable.  Events just happen, one after the other, as the plot careens wildly out of control.  Events and developments that would normally require entire chapters occur in a single paragraph.  But none of that mattered then, nor does it now.  “The Magic Key” will always hold a special place for me.  When I read it, I remember myself at seven years old having a ball, creating something out of nothing, letting the story tell itself.  I remember the high I felt as the ideas poured in so fast and so loud, my pencil could scarcely keep up.  I remember feeling like I could burst, the thoughts and feelings and words needing to come out, onto the page.  They were no good if they remained locked inside, faces without names, skeletons without muscle and tissue and skin.  And when I was finished, when I triumphantly scribbled, “The End,” in bold strokes on the bottom of page 4, I felt on top of the world.  On top of the universe.  There was a sense of accomplishment, of expressing myself in a form that just felt right.  From that day on, I was hooked.  I wanted to be a writer.

writer

 

I’m pretty sure Mrs. Mueller was surprised when I placed “The Magic Key” on her desk.  “Four pages!” she exclaimed, and I admit, I beamed with pride when she smiled.  The next week, when she returned our stories, she had given me an A, and a smiley face on the top of the first page.  She wrote a little note, saying the story showed imagination and that she enjoyed it.  At the time, seven years old and still in the afterglow of my first creative writing project, I just smiled again, digesting her words easily, lightly, like cotton candy at the fair.  But as I grew older, as I reached my teen years and beyond, I would sometimes wonder what Mrs. Mueller really had thought.  After all, she’d expected to read a short essay on my dog or my grandfather or what I had done the previous summer.  She had most assuredly not expected “The Magic Key.”

I remember one night, when I was in college, I dug out that old story and read it.  I winced.  It was awful.  Mrs. Mueller’s complimentary remarks now seemed a taunt, a mock, a cruel joke.  But then I read the story again, and this time I smiled, laughed even.  And I traveled back in my mind, to that day, years earlier, when the words came, unasked for, and the story wrote itself in a barrage of sentences and ideas that gushed out of me like a geyser.  I remembered how, as I wrote that old story, I wasn’t concerned with how good it was, or how it would be received, or how it might be critiqued.  I just created it.  Better yet, I let the story create itself, and I got out of the way.

creativity

 

It was a reminder of sorts, knee-deep as I was in critical essays on Dickens and Shakespeare and Hemingway, analyzing literature from the inside out, studying symbolism and point of view and theme and character.  Somehow, it seemed, the fun had been taken out of writing.

shakespeare

 

It’s still something I struggle with from time to time.  There are days when I try to write, and nothing comes because I’m being too analytical, too worried about the merits of what I’m creating instead of simply creating.

“Don’t think,” Ray Bradbury once said.  “Thinking is the enemy of creativity.  It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy.  You can’t try to do things.  You simply must do things.”

In The Eye-Dancers, Mitchell Brant certainly knows all about being self-conscious. Insecure, too often worrying that he doesn’t measure up, he invents stories about himself, trying to appear as “more” than he really is.  When he meets Heather, a girl who becomes his friend in the variant town of Colbyville, she tells him he should just be himself, that he doesn’t need to pretend.  He’s good enough the way he is.  He wants to believe this.  He tries to grasp on to it.  He longs to believe in the dream, in the possibility–that he can, ultimately, be anything he wants to be.

At the end of chapter 20, the text reads:

“He looked up, at the infinite black canvas of the sky, at the stars, which shimmered like precious jewels.  She had said that maybe our dreams lived up there, among those stars.  All we needed to do was believe.  And remember.

And reach.”

That’s the kind of feeling I had, all those years ago, when I wrote my first story in the second grade.  That’s the kind of feeling I believe we all share when we allow ourselves the freedom to do what we love without worrying about the end results.  Yes.  There is a time and a place to look at your results.  There is a time when the red editing pen must come out and the cold, analytical process of revision must trump the hot, volcanic flurry of creation.

editing

 

But when I approach the blank page, when I am about to begin a new story or a new scene or a new chapter, I try to remember that assignment from the second grade.

We all have, I think, our own personal “magic key,” if you will–something we can look back on and remind us where we started, what we love, and why we do what we do.

Or, put another way and again quoting Ray Bradbury, “The stars are yours, if you have the head, the hands, and the heart for them.”

stars

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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