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

Let Your Voice Be Heard

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

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

writerworkshopstart

 

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

backpackeurope

 

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

chocoloatechipcookies

 

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

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

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

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

mteverest

 

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

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

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

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

writersquestionsanddoubts

 

It can be crippling if we let it.

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

insignificantoneamongbillions

 

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

oped

 

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

thisclosesequeltoosmall

 

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

themeslove

 

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

voicesjoiningexponentially

 

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

ripplesinpond

 

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

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Value of the Junk Pile (Or, Discovering the Right Service Stance)

I was riveted, glued to the television set, watching a sport I had never paid any attention to, and realizing, even though I was just a kid, that sports history was being made.

To put it mildly, it was a surprise I was watching the 1985 Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final. Though I was a big sports fan, at the time my tastes were limited to football, baseball, basketball, and a little bit of ice hockey sprinkled in.  Tennis?  I didn’t know a break point from a deuce point; a baseline from a service line.  But when my older brother John came into the family room on that hot July morning, he turned on “Breakfast at Wimbledon.”

breakfastwimbledon

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I heard this guy has a huge serve,” he said.  “I wanna watch it.”  This was a surprise, too.  John had recently graduated from high school, and I’d always looked up to him.  Nearly a decade my senior, he was patient with me and rarely told me to get lost when I’d hang around with him and his friends.  He’d been a star athlete in school, but, like me, had never really been a fan of the game of tennis.

Even so, he followed the world of sports enough to know that a significant story was being written on the lawns of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.  Kevin Curren, a veteran of the professional tennis circuit, was making major waves, beating John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors in succession to reach his first Grand Slam final.  Curren wasn’t regarded as a top player–but he had one of the game’s strongest serves.  This my brother wanted to see.

kevincurren

Curren’s opponent that day was a seventeen-year-old prodigy named Boris Becker.  Few people knew who he was at that time, apart from tennis aficionados.  I certainly had never heard of him.  But that was about to change.  He shocked the tennis world, instantly becoming a worldwide star, by defeating Curren to become the youngest Wimbledon champion in history.

becker

I was struck by Becker immediately.  With his daring, net-rushing, athletic style, his charisma and hustle, he was a joy to watch.  And, as it turned out, it was Becker, not Curren, who had the truly dominating serve.

beckerdive

I was hooked.  I loved the one-on-one aspect of the sport, the geometry of the court, the strategy and tactics, the way the crowd would grow whisper-quiet between points and then erupt when a brilliant stroke was made.

hookedwimbledon

The very next day, I went to the local public courts, borrowed one of my parents’ old wooden rackets (!), and worked on my serve.  I hadn’t ever served a tennis ball before, so it took some getting used to.  But, first and foremost, I adjusted my service stance to mimic Boris Becker’s.  It was natural enough–he was a right-hander, and so was I, after all.  So, I opened up my stance, just as Boris did, facing the corner of the court where I aimed to hit the ball.

Try as I might, it just didn’t feel right.  I attributed it to my being a beginner.  But as the days moved forward, as summer break rushed toward the inevitable and unwelcome start of another school year, I realized I wasn’t making much progress.  My serve was still not working.

summerbreak

That’s when I understood.  It wasn’t my serve I was practicing.  It was Boris Becker’s.  The stance that worked so well for him felt awkward and uncomfortable for me.  It just took me some time to figure it out.

So I changed my stance, closing it up, with my front foot now to the right of my back one.  I felt the difference right away.  This position felt easy, natural, and fluid.  My serve improved literally overnight.  And to this day, I still serve with a closed stance.

At first, I bemoaned the fact that it took me so long to make the switch.  Couldn’t I have become a better player, a better server, if I had just started in a closed stance to begin with?  But then I saw the truth.  I had to go through the awkwardness in order to pave the way for the finished product.

learningfrommistakesendtennis

By learning what didn’t work for me, it made it easier and clearer to see what did.

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

Have you ever written a scene, or even an entire chapter, only to discover, after the fact, that it’s all wrong?  It doesn’t need a little tweaking, or a few minor edits.  It is just . . . wrong.  Awful.  A complete and unequivocal flop.

awfulfirstdraft

I’ve certainly written such chapters.  In The Eye-Dancers, for example, I remember vividly the quagmire that was chapter eighteen.  It was one of the longer chapters in the novel, and, after writing the first draft of it–all twenty or so pages–I reread it, and said, “What was I thinking?  Seriously?  This is horrible!”  I was shocked that I hadn’t noticed this earlier, when I was in the process of writing the chapter.  Admittedly, during the writing of the chapter, I was aware that the words were not flowing, the dialogue not coming smoothly.  But I had no idea just how bad it was until I went back and read the entire thing.

My first reaction was predictable.  I bemoaned the fact that I had just wasted so much time writing such drivel.  I took a breath, shut off the PC, and resolved to keep away from the manuscript for at least a day.  I needed a break.

backsoonneedbreak

When I returned to it two days later, I reread the chapter, this time with more patient and much fresher eyes.  While I still thought the output was atrocious, I was able to focus more clearly and spot where it was I’d gone wrong.  The germ of the idea was fine.  It was the execution that was lacking.  The chapter needed more energy, more gusto, more forward momentum.  By rereading the first draft, the second draft came clear.  The fog lifted, and I felt invigorated.

liftingfog

I rewrote the entire chapter, and this time the words came more easily, the dialogue popped, and the POV character (a tip of the cap to you, Marc Kuslanski!) came into sharper focus.  When I read through it upon completion, I knew it was right–not perfect maybe–no chapter ever is.  But right.  I scrolled to the bottom of the screen, inserted a page break, and keyed the words, “Chapter Nineteen,” into the yawning mouth of the white space.  I was ready to press on.

No doubt, it had been a frustrating and time-consuming experience, but I was thankful for the first draft of chapter eighteen.  It was a necessary part of the process, a sharpening of the pen, so to speak, a way to clear the creative cobwebs and allow the real story, the true story, to come through.

sharpeningpenhoning

I have no doubt I’ll have more “chapter-eighteen experiences” in the future.  I’ve had a few already while writing the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  And, while I may never fully embrace these authorial detours, these mazes through the junk pile to sift out the trash and unearth the jewels, I will always appreciate and acknowledge, however grudgingly, their value.

junkpile

gems

Because, when it comes right down to it, sometimes you just have to serve a few double faults with the wrong stance before you can hit those perfectly struck aces with the right one.

aceend

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Passage for Trumpet

We’ve all been there, at one time or another.  Everything seems to be going wrong, the world, gray, dark, and bare, as if by some perverse design, conspiring against us and keeping us down.

grayday

 

The main characters in The Eye-Dancers all struggle with this as well, feeling that life, in one way or another, has dealt them a bad hand, that they have too many obstacles to overcome, too many pitfalls littered along their path.  Over the course of the novel, however, they must learn to view things differently.  Their very survival depends on it.

self-esteem

 

So does Joey Crown’s.  In a first-season Twilight Zone episode titled “A Passage for Trumpet,” Crown, a down-on-his-luck trumpet player, is at the very end of his frayed and thinning rope.

joeycrown

 

As the story begins, we see Crown in an alley behind a club, listening to the performers inside, wishing he could join them.

“Joey Crown, musician with an odd, intense face,” Rod Serling tells us in a voice-over, “whose life is a quest for impossible things like flowers in concrete or like trying to pluck a note of music out of the air and put it under glass to treasure.”

Indeed, this is a man with a keen sense of beauty, of the delicate, silk-like strands that hold life together, but who has been battered and shaken by circumstance and a string of bad choices.

joeyjukebox

 

As he loiters in the alley, the club manager steps outside and sees him.  It is clear the men know each other.  Crown has played at the club before.

“I brought along my baby,” Crown says, flashing his trumpet.  “I thought you might need somebody with a horn.”

“Not tonight,” the manager says.  “Last time you played trumpet for me, you loused it up.  I had to share you with a bottle.”

Crown assures him he’s sober now, that he’s “forgotten what the stuff tastes like.”  But when he picks up his case, he knocks over a hidden bottle of whiskey.  It falls to the ground and shatters.

“Why, Joey, why?” the club manager asks.  “You had it!”  Why has he thrown it all away–the talent, the career–with alcohol?  Why did he always have to get drunk?

joeyandmanager

 

Looking the manager in the eye, Crown says, “Because I’m sad.  Because I’m nothin’.  Because I’ll live and die in a crumby one-roomer with dirty walls and cracked pipes . . . I don’t even have a girl. . . . But when I’m drunk–oh, when I’m drunk, boy, I don’t see the dirty walls or the cracked pipes.  I don’t know the clock’s goin’, that the hours are goin’ by . . . ’cause then I’m Gabriel.  I’m Gabriel with the golden horn.  And when I put it to my lips, it comes out jewels.  It comes out a symphony.  It comes out the smell of fresh flowers in summer.  It comes out beauty.  Beauty.”

He turns, ready to leave.  “When I’m drunk,” he says.  “Only when I’m drunk.”  He walks off, tosses his case aside in disgust.

“Man, I’m tired of hangin’ around,” he says  to nobody in particular.

The next morning, Crown sells his trumpet at a pawnshop.  Reluctantly, he accepts the proprietor’s offer of $8.50.  Later, he returns, half-drunk, and sees the proprietor placing his trumpet in the window with a price tag of $25.  Crown mashes his face against the glass and taps.

“Don’t worry, I ain’t gonna get that price,” the pawnshop owner shouts through the window.  “I got an overhead, too, you know.  Guys like you, you don’t understand that.  What kind of responsibilities someone like you got, huh?  Nothin’.  Nothin’ at all!”

Crown turns away from the window.  “Yeah,” says.  “Nothin’.  Nothin’ at all.  No responsibilities.  No nothin‘.”

joeyc

 

Without hesitating, Crown steps off the sidewalk, in front of a passing truck.  A woman nearby shrieks, Crown falls to the pavement, not moving, not breathing.

The screen fades to black.

Night has fallen, and Crown stirs, gets up.  As he soon discovers, though, things are not as they were.  He talks to a policeman, who ignores him.  He asks a man for a light, but he ignores him.  He approaches a woman working at a ticket booth, asks her for a light, and she ignores him, too.  It is as if he doesn’t exist.

joeyinlimbo

 

“Look at me!” he screams at her.  But she doesn’t.

Finally, he concludes that he’s dead, his suicide attempt a success.  That’s why no one can see or hear him.

joeyconfusedlimbo

 

He returns to the alley he visited the previous night, behind the club.  From somewhere further up the alley, he hears someone playing the trumpet.  He seeks out the source, intrigued.

“Don’t stop,” he says, when the trumpet player looks at him.  “It’s comin’ out beautiful.”

“Thanks,” the man with the trumpet replies.

gabeplayingtrumpet

 

Crown is shocked he can hear him, see him, when nobody else has been able to.  “You’re a ghost, too, huh?” he says, explaining that he stepped in front of a truck earlier and must be dead.

The man offers Crown his trumpet.  “Wanna blow on this awhile, Joey?” he asks.

Again Crown is taken aback.  How does this stranger know his name?

The man smiles.  “I know who you are.  You play a nice trumpet.  I know.  I’m an expert on trumpets.”

gabriel

 

After Crown plays a short tune, the man tells him he isn’t dead.  Crown protests.  What about all those people who didn’t see or hear him?

The stranger tells Crown it is they who are dead.  “They’re the ghosts, Joey, they just don’t know it yet, that’s all. . . . You’re the one that’s alive.”  He explains that Crown is in a kind of limbo, “neither here nor there.”  He is “in the middle, between the two.  The real and the shadow.  Which do you prefer, Joey?”

Crown says maybe he just forgot how much there was for him, about the music in his horn and how nice it sounded.  “Yeah,” he says.  “Somewhere along the line, I just forgot all the good things.  That’s what happened, you know.  I just forgot.”

The mysterious stranger tells Crown there is still time.  He still has a choice . . .

Crown, animated, without a shred of doubt, says if there’s a choice, then,  “I wanna go back!”

joeyandgabe2

 

The man pats Crown on the shoulder.  “All right,” he says.  “You go back.  But, Joey, no more stepping off curves.  You take what you get and you live with it.  Sometimes it’s sweet frosting, nice gravy.  Sometimes it’s sour and goes down hard, but you live with it, Joey.  It’s a nice talent you got.  To make music.  Move people.  Make ’em wanna laugh.  Make ’em wanna cry.  Make ’em tap their feet.  Make ’em wanna dance.  That’s an exceptional talent, Joey.  Don’t waste it.”

He walks away, but Crown shouts after him.  “I never got your name!”

“Call me Gabe,” the stranger says.  “Short for Gabriel.”  He smiles again, disappears into the night.

gabeunderlight

 

Suddenly, Crown is returned to that morning, stepping in front of the truck.  The same woman screams.  Crown falls to the pavement, but he immediately gets up, only grazed.  The driver of the truck, worried, jumps out of the vehicle and hands Crown a handful of bills, hoping that will persuade him to keep the doctors and insurance companies out of it.  “Be a nice guy, huh, pal?” he says.

Crown immediately puts the money to use, buying his old horn back from the pawnshop.

That night, as Crown plays the trumpet while relaxing on the roof of his apartment building, a young woman approaches.  She tells him he plays beautifully, and introduces herself.  She is new to the city, just moved in.  “I’ve never even been to New York before,” she says.

joeyandnan

 

“It’s not such a bad town,” Crown says.  “You’ll like it here.”

The woman smiles, asks him if he might be willing to show her some of the sights.

joeyandnan2

 

Crown smiles in wonderment.  “Me?” he says.  And then, his confidence boosted, his spirits lifted as high as they’ve been in ages, he excitedly tells her all the places they can visit.

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

When we are adrift, lost at sea, a thousand miles from the nearest coastline, even then, there is still a song to be sung, lyrics to compose, and a life to live.

Perhaps Rod Serling says it best, in the episode’s closing narration . . .

“Joey Crown, who makes music, and who discovered something about life; that it can be rich and rewarding and full of beauty, just like the music he played, if a person would only pause to look and to listen . . .”

pei

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Sense of Wonder

When I was a teenager, one of my favorite pastimes was playing Trivial Pursuit.  One Saturday night each month, my parents invited our neighbors to come over and play.  We would usually play two games, eat impossible amounts of food, laugh a lot, and compete.  Though the games were fun, each team wanted to win.

trivialpursuit

 

Some of the questions were easy, others remarkably obscure.  I tried to remember as much of the trivia as I could from game to game–I have always had a knack for holding on to useless information!

Many of the questions were run-of-the-mill.  Who won the Cy Young Award for the National League in 1984? (Rick Sutcliffe.)  Who was the 23rd president of the United States? (Benjamin Harrison.)  Who won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1956? (Ingrid Bergman.)

ingridbergman

 

But others were mind-bending.  I recall one such question that asked what object weighed approximately 6.5 sextillion tons.  (The earth.)  What was the heaviest known substance in the universe, so heavy, in fact, that a teaspoon-full would weigh more than every person on the globe put together? ( A neutron star.)  Where did the lowest-ever recorded temperature on earth, -128.6 degrees Fahrenheit, occur in 1983?  (Vostok Station, Antarctica.)

antartica

 

Somewhere along the line, though, something struck me.  Here we were, playing a game, testing our knowledge on everything from baseball to cooking, from television history to astronomy and the mysteries of the universe.  And I realized–I was much more concerned with getting the questions answered correctly than I was absorbing the information and thinking about it.  Some of the facts I learned playing Trivial Pursuit were astonishing.  Didn’t they merit at least some pondering and reflection?

catthinking

 

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

In The Eye-Dancers, when we first meet Marc Kuslanski, he is a know-it-all, the class science wiz, the one Mitchell Brant, Ryan Swinton, and Joe Marma turn to when they are haunted by the “ghost girl” in their dreams.  Marc likes to figure things out.  He reduces complex puzzles to their simplest form, and logically and meticulously solves them.  His view of the universe has no room in it for the unexplained.

equations

 

In chapter 6 of the novel, the narrative describes Marc’s views . . .

“Few things irritated him more than mindless adherence to false beliefs, or unsubstantiated assertions of ‘magic’ or ‘miracles.’  Or ghosts.  There was no magic.  There were no miracles, and there were certainly no spirits who stalked you in dreams.  There was only truth, and fact.  Everything had a valid, natural explanation, a reason grounded within the existing laws of the universe.  Today’s mysteries were nothing more than tomorrow’s ongoing catalog of scientific advancement and discovery.”

scientificdiscovery

 

Over the course of The Eye-Dancers, Marc’s perspective will be tested, challenged, and, ultimately, ambushed.

Maybe we are not as rigid with our views as Marc Kuslanski is with his, but certainly we live in an age of scientific marvels, technology that, a generation ago, would have been relegated to the world of science fiction.  No matter how hard we try to guard against it, sometimes the sense of wonder escapes us.

technology

 

A century ago, very few people would have conceived of commercial jet aircraft that can transport you around the world in the span of hours.  If they had observed such a machine, they would have gaped, wonder-struck, perhaps terrified.  Today, we are so accustomed to jets, we may yawn as they fly overhead.

We are saturated with technological marvels, advancements that have shaped and altered society.  Just twenty years ago, the idea of a smartphone, and all the accoutrements that go along with it, would have seemed a fiction, something to be found in the pages of a novel or in the mind of a movie producer or screenwriter.

smartphones

 

Even in this age of computer chips and digital communication and information overload, however, there are still many phenomena that boggle the senses and stretch the limits of the mind.

For instance . . . nearly everyone has stepped outside on a crisp, clear night and looked up at the stars.  They dot the sky, one by one; there are so many it becomes dizzying to count them all.  And yet . . . what we see is only the slightest fraction of the whole, a microscopic drop, a solitary snowflake in a winter storm.

starsinsky

 

There are more estimated stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on all of the earth’s beaches put together.  And when you look up at those stars, when you make an errant wish, a resolution, a promise to the vastness that surrounds you, you are observing, in effect, the equivalent of a mere handful of sand.

grainsofsand

 

At times, the stars appear so close, close enough to reach up and touch.  But their distance is nearly impossible to fathom.  They are so far away, in fact, that the light you are seeing, striking your eye from the depths of space, may have taken millions of years to reach you.  You are, in effect, looking into the distant past. . . .

lookinpast

 

Or consider the sun.  We see it every day (well, not quite in Vermont in winter!).  It is constant, our own personal star, the one thing we can count on through all the changes and winding pathways of life.  It is so there, so present–it’s easy to forget the power and energy it emits.

thesun

 

Imagine for a moment that a pinhead-sized piece of the sun were to be brought down to the surface of the earth.  A speck, a mote of sun-dust.  Yet powerful enough to kill you if you were to approach to within even ninety miles.

pinhead

 

I fear that, at the beginning of The Eye-Dancers, Marc Kuslanski would have simply shrugged at these facts.  He is so concerned with the inner workings of the wonders of the universe, the reasons behind them, the ratios and equations that prove or disprove them, he cannot appreciate the wonders themselves.

logic

 

I would like to think that, by novel’s end, he would be more ready to pause and look and ponder.  And more ready to admit that not everything can be explained by a mathematical formula or a cold, logical theory.  Some things, by their very nature, must remain a mystery, beyond the purview of a textbook definition.

mystery

 

Some things must be experienced, not explained.  Marveled at, not dissected.

Loved, and not taken apart and analyzed.

Several decades ago, astronomer Carl Sagan may have said it best . . .

“Our Sun is a second- or third-generation star.  All of the rocky or metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star.

“We are made of star stuff.”

starstuff

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Where Fantasy Reigns . . .

Maybe for you it’s a particular song, perhaps some hard-rock favorite from yesteryear or a classical masterpiece that never fails to bring you to tears.

classical

 

Maybe it’s poetry, an old, dog-eared book of favorites, verses that inspire you to see the beauty of the world when you need a lift.

poetry

 

Maybe it’s cooking a traditional family recipe on a cold winter night, the aroma of the food taking you back, back, to simpler days and more innocent times.

cooking

 

It can be anything, really, as long as it contains your own personal magic, that special blend of nostalgia and joy that has the power to transport you to a different place, a temporary refuge, an escape from the everyday routines and stresses that are so often present.

stars

 

For me, the magic has always been found in comic books.  But not just any comic books–no.  Old comics, dusty and weathered with age, read and handled by children from a bygone era, with advertisements for sea monkeys and baseball gloves and old transistor radios.  And, perhaps most of all, with the musty smell of decades-old paper and ink.  I have always thought of this as the “magic smell,” one that stirs the senses and fires up the imagination, a scent that, if I allow myself to get lost in it, truly, makes me believe that all things are possible, and that the greatest stories in the world are still out there to be told.

superman100

 

spidey22

 

In The Eye-Dancers, Mitchell Brant shares this love of collectible comics.  And in chapter one, the narrative describes what the old comic book smell means to him . . .

“He loved the smell of old comic books.  It was musty, but in a special way, like the smell of his grandfather’s attic littered with knickknacks and family mementoes.  A treasure-house smell.”

sa149

 

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

When I was growing up, in Rochester, New York, one of my favorite activities was browsing through some of the city’s comic book shops.  One shop in particular had a slogan I will never forget.

Boldly emblazoned on the front door were the words: “Where Fantasy Reigns But You Never Get Wet.”  It worked for me!  I still remember the first time I read those words.  I chuckled, shook my head, but also anticipated the wonder that waited within.  When I opened the door, a silver bell chimed, announcing my entrance.

The shop owner, Dan, lived in an old apartment behind the store.  His living space and his shop were separated by a door with chipped paint and a knob rusted with age.  At that time, in the late 1980s, Dan was probably in his midforties, a self-proclaimed hippie with a beard, a mane of thick blond hair that fell halfway behind his back, and a handful of silver chains around his neck, which jangled every time he moved.  He reminded me of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, and, from that day forward, I thought of him as The Lion Man.

cowardlylion

 

And whenever I left his store, sometimes with a bag of newly purchased comics, sometimes with just a memory, I would always look forward to the next visit.  The Lion Man was like a stage performer, his comic book shop a house of magic full of gems from a different age, stories just waiting to be devoured.  Sometimes I would think of The Lion Man standing guard in front of some imaginary rainbow-colored bridge, which led to a vibrant world inhabited by green elves and talking forest animals, a world where dreams and wishes, the most daring wishes you ever hoped for, merged together into perfect actualities.

ozyellowbrick

 

Certainly his comic shop seemed like just such a world.  I’d glance through the inventory, pausing at the high-end issues I knew I’d never be able to afford, pointing at other issues I wanted Dan to open up and show me before deciding whether or not to make the purchase.

One quirk of his shop was that he never priced his inventory.  “I’ll look up the issue in the Price Guide, and we’ll decide on the cost that way,” he said when I asked him where the price tags were.  It was a unique method–I’ve never run across it in any other comics shop, before or since.  Certainly, this wasn’t the place to shop if you were in a rush.  But that didn’t bother me.  I was never in a hurry to leave.

The Lion Man would flip through the issue I wanted to buy, noting its condition, and then he’d look it up in his trusty Overstreet Price Guide, still the industry standard when determining a comic’s value.  Sometimes I would debate the condition with him–a collectible comic’s condition tremendously impacts its sale price.  But eventually we’d hash out our differences and come to a price we both felt good about.  And when we did, The Lion Man would wink at me, place the just-purchased issue back in its protective Mylar sleeve, and we’d go on to the next one.

ff29

 

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

Several years later, the day came when there would be no next sale at Dan’s store.  When the Internet came along, with its myriad options of online buying and selling, Dan decided to close his shop. “I’m not gonna sell comics on a computer,” he said.  “Too impersonal.”  My knee-jerk reaction was to argue with him.  He could adjust!  He could put his inventory online, and do just fine.  But then I thought about it.

The Lion Man preferred to talk with his customers, bicker over the issue’s condition, haggle back and forth over the price.  While he may have been able to simulate some of that online, it wouldn’t be the same.  A customer wouldn’t be there with him, face-to-face, smelling that old comic book smell in his shop of magic and memories.  They wouldn’t hear the jingle of his silver chains as he shifted his position while flipping through the Price Guide.  They wouldn’t see him wink when a deal was reached.  No.  For Dan, for The Lion Man, it was the start of a new and alien age, and the end of a familiar one.

hos92

 

Sometimes, even today, I wonder how The Lion Man is doing.  It’s been years since his shop closed.  I haven’t spoken with him or had any contact with him this century.  But when I am feeling nostalgic, when a particular week is too hectic or a day too long, I sometimes think of that old comics shop, and I smile.

You may not have a Lion Man in your past, but I am betting that you do have something similar.

Something that, if you remember it, imagine it, go back to it, has the magic to take you away, on a gust of wind, flying high over the land and spreading your wings.

To a place where “fantasy reigns but you never get wet.”

unicornflying

 

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

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 World at Your Doorstep

It often happens this way . . .

An idea strikes.  How it strikes, why it strikes, you do not know.  It just does–a gift from the universe, the birth of a new story you feel meant to write.  You want to celebrate.  There is nothing like the euphoria of a new idea that grabs you, demands to be written, kicks and yells and screams to be let loose onto the page.

idea!

 

But then . . . you realize the idea is layered, rich, complex.  It’s not a short story.  It’s a novel.  Uh-oh.  A novel needs a plot, and a subplot, and, maybe, a sub-sub-plot!  It needs direction, organization, planning.  Suddenly the inspired idea doesn’t seem so inspired anymore.  How can such a gigantic project be tackled?  Where to begin?

toomanychoices

 

At this point, you may be tempted to borrow from Stephen King, who, in his memoir On Writing, explained that when he begins a novel, he often does not know where he’s heading.  He gets an idea, an image, a scene–and that’s all he needs.  From that kernel, he begins to write, hoping, trusting, that said kernel will sprout and duplicate, creating a garden of seeds, which will then flower and bloom.  So, perhaps, you do indeed begin your story, not knowing where it will lead . . .

wingit

 

As author William Saroyan once said, “I don’t have a name and I don’t have a plot.  I have the typewriter and I have white paper and I have me, and that should add up to a novel.”

Or, perhaps you’re a dedicated planner and outliner, and you set out to craft detailed chapter-by-chapter outlines.  You think of the main characters, the supporting characters, the bit characters.  You form a clear picture of the setting, down to the last, intricate detail.  Is the post office on Main Street, Elm Street, or Walnut Way?  You map it out.  “Writing a novel is like traveling the universe on foot,” writer Dennis R. Miller has said.  You want to be prepared for anything.   There are always some surprises, of course, anytime you write creatively.  But with this intense level of planning, you try to minimize these surprises.  You want to know exactly where you are going.

map

 

Or maybe you fall somewhere in between–you plan a general strategy, with a few major plot points as guideposts.  And you may even have a broad idea how the story will end.  But many of the details are left out–you want the comfort of a firm foundation but the freedom to create during the process.  This tends to be my approach.  I cannot seem to begin a novel without some sense of direction in my mind.  Even if I don’t yet know all the twists and turns along the back roads, I at least want to know what state I’m traveling through.

When I started The Eye-Dancers, I knew the first scene would be Mitchell Brant seeing the “ghost girl” again, for the third consecutive night.  I knew the next several chapters would introduce the other main characters of the book and move the plot along at the same time.  I knew the setting where the bulk of the story would take place, and thought I had a reasonable sense of how it would all end (though the ending I initially envisioned turned out a little differently when I actually wrote it).

The thing is, this approach still brings with it a great deal of uncertainty.  Much like the Stephen King method, this requires an abundance of faith.  If you don’t have every detail planned out ahead of time, then the possibility exists that you will get stuck at some point.  In The Eye-Dancers, it was certainly possible that I would have brought Mitchell and Joe and Ryan and Marc through the void and into the variant town of Colbyville, but then, devoid of any further ideas, I would leave them stranded there like astronauts that have crash-landed onto some dim, lifeless asteroid, with no means of repairing their ship and getting back home.  The story may have ground to a complete halt.

asteroids

 

Indeed, what happens, for instance, if you write 207 riveting pages, full of tight narrative description, crackling dialogue, and a well-paced and interesting plot, but then, suddenly, on page 208, you just stare, wide-eyed and horrified, at the blinking cursor on your screen?  You’ve created a top-notch first half–but now what?  The middle section of a novel is often the most daunting aspect to get through.  The lines of the story reach out in all directions, a maze of tangled branches and labyrinths needing, somehow, to be navigated.  You have a good idea how you want the story to end.  But how do you get there from here?

divergingroads

 

Your mind may lock up, holding your creativity hostage.  You may feel panic, regret, frustration.  It took months to write those first 207 pages!  How can it all dry up now?  All that work (and good work, too) going to waste?  You might feel like deleting the file and tossing any printed-out pages into the fireplace.   You might curse the day you ever thought you had a complete story idea.  You might be tempted to give up writing altogether.

But then, then!  An idea comes.  Ah–yes.  That’s how it should go . . . and you begin to peck away again, the clinky, rhythmic noise of your keyboard the sweetest music you’ve heard in days.  You get the flow back, and the crisis is averted.  Of course, the same trouble may arise again two chapters hence, but you dare to take the risk, your dark, bitter musings only minutes ago now awash in your own personal River of Lethe.

worldsbeforeyou

 

You realize that, despite the inherent insecurities, there is nothing that can compare to the art of creating, of letting the words and sentences pour through you, of feeling the sense of accomplishment as the bones of your story take on flesh and cartilage and sinew.  A wide chasm still separates you from story’s end–but you don’t look down into the dark, bottomless abyss.  You choose to look ahead, thinking of the possibilities, the wonders, the discoveries yet to be made.

The world is out there, just beyond your doorstep.

strange95

 

You just need to make the leap.

jump

 

“Jump,” Ray Bradbury once said, “and you will find out how to unfold your wings as you fall.”

wings

 

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

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