Where Freedom Lies

Have you ever turned your attention heavenward on an overcast day? I think it’s safe to guess you probably have.  I know I have.

Maybe you’re feeling low, beaten down, hampered by circumstance and the unfortunate course of recent events. And when you look up, hoping, perhaps, for a kind of solace, a jolt of inspiration, instead you are confronted with a sky that is low and gray, appearing as if some celestial giant has dumped their dirty laundry into the dark slate of the clouds.  And sometimes it’s easy, and natural, to feel trapped.  Is there any way out?  Is there some unseen escape hatch that can be discovered and pulled?

 

We’ve all been there, at one time or another.

In The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel, the protagonists find themselves in an alternate reality, after having traveled through an interdimensional void.  Quite literally, during their adventure, their very survival depends on their point of view, their ability to transcend their predicament with perspective, insight.

 

And thoughts.

In The Eye-Dancers, as he ponders the manner in which Mitchell Brant, Ryan Swinton, and Joe Marma have been able to tap into the “ghost girl’s” otherworldly powers and navigate through time and space, Marc Kuslanski, as is his wont, attempts to drill everything down to the rational, the scientific, disregarding anything that is supernatural.  As he does this, however, he reflects on how quantum mechanics intersects with the limitless capacity of thoughts.

 

From chapter 22:

“If a person could alter reality simply by observing something, then how much more powerful were his thoughts?  Take Ryan and Joe and Mitchell.  They had convinced themselves that some ‘ghost girl’ was contacting them in their dreams.  They had no doubt that this was true.  And so . . . their thoughts created a new reality. . . . Their potent and shared belief had transported them from one world, one universe, to another.”

Indeed.  The realm of the physical is finite, limited, and restricted.  We can only walk so many miles, jump so high, meet so many deadlines.  But the internal space, the world of the mind . . . is as boundless as the universe itself, able to traverse infinity instantaneously, able to elevate and overcome and conquer.

 

Able to be free.

In the last stanza of his poem “To Althea, from Prison,” 17th-century British poet Richard Lovelace expounds on this liberation of the mind, this ability of thought . . . and love.

“Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage.
If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.”

 

I find that all of this is especially germane to the creative world.  The transformative quality of the story, the magic of the written word, is an elixir for the soul.  On the writing side, I can be having a long day at work, slogging through a pile of bills, cleaning out the attic–but the story, the idea–it lives on.  It just needs to be written; or, if a work in progress, continued, edited, polished.  I can lose myself in my characters, their struggles, triumphs, tragedies, and accomplishments.  I can be lifted high above the clouds during that “aha” moment when the plot clicks together, a jigsaw puzzle fitting in place after months of searching.

 

And as a reader?  The dynamic is similar.  Open a book.  Or scroll through a Kindle.  With no visual aid, you are transported, instantly, to the time and place the author has created from their imagination.  It’s a kind of magic, really, a form of telepathy.  You can find yourself in a drab, windowless room, a gray office cubicle (not that you should be reading on the job, mind you, *wink*, *wink*), or a crowded, stuffy waiting room.  It doesn’t matter.  The words on the page (or the screen) offer an almost out-of-body experience, where, regardless of what’s happening around you, you can live vicariously through characters born from the mind of someone who may live half a world away, or who may have died hundreds of years earlier and yet is able to speak to you across the chasm of centuries.

 

Magic, indeed.  The ability to soar high above, to travel through the depths of space and land on the far side of the universe.  Or right in your own hometown, able to see your world in a new and different way through the adventures of the characters you read about.  Or created yourself.

Freedom can be found anywhere, so long as you can dream, and think, and imagine.

“The stars are yours,” Ray Bradbury once wrote, “if you have the head, the hands, and the heart for them.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Inner/Outer Writing Paradox (Or, From an Old Oak Desk in New England)

Where is your special place, the place where you block out the clutter and noise and distractions, and let your creative energy flow?

Mine is an old oak desk that my father used to use when he was a student in school, decades ago.  It’s solid, heavy, and not designed for the accoutrements of 21st-century digital technology.  But it’s my little oasis to think and dream and create.

oasis

 

My father actually passed the desk on to me while I was still living with my parents, a high school student with my eyes peeled toward the future, the promise of ten thousand tomorrows, of horizons to be explored and aspirations realized.  We are old friends, my desk and I.  The oak is scarred in spots, dented in others, victim to the long passage of time and the elements.  But the imperfections merely serve to make it more approachable, more real, more mine.

imperfections

 

I’ve spent countless hours sitting at the old desk, pecking away at my keyboard, working through stories and ideas and inspirations–some of which took shape and became full-bodied manuscripts and novels; others that died a quiet, gray death, falling into the oblivion of the unfinished and uncompleted.

tossedoutmanuscripts

 

Through it all, one thing has remained constant–the desk, my sturdy oak friend, has always offered solitude and seclusion–it’s just me, tucked away in my den.  There are times, at night, the drapes drawn, the house dark and still, as if surrounded by a giant, soundproof glove, when I feel like the only person, the only creature, on earth.

aloneatnight

 

Writing is a lonely task–sometimes, it seems, the loneliest of all, especially when the words won’t come, the characters won’t cooperate, the sentences and paragraphs refuse to flow into anything resembling a coherent whole.

writersblockcharacterswontcooperate

 

And yet, and yet . . .

There is a paradox at work here.  From the solitude, a reaching out; from the stillness, a sharing of words and thoughts and ideas–sending them out, perhaps with confidence, perhaps with trepidation, to be read and contemplated and critiqued by others.  What was originally crafted in the quiet of a bedroom, the seclusion of a Thoreau-like woodland getaway, is now dispersed, as if by magic, away from the confines and isolation of self and out toward the vastness of an ocean of readers.

writersgetawayinwoods

 

And yet still, there is a paradox within the paradox. I, like many writers, am a lifelong introvert.  I recharge my batteries when I’m alone, lost in thought and wonder.  I suppose I’ve become a bit more skilled at social gatherings through the years (though perhaps my friends may disagree!), but mingling among partygoers or making small talk in a group setting has never, and will never, come naturally to me.  Much like Mitchell Brant or Marc Kuslanski, I tend to feel awkward and clumsy in such situations.  When I observe my extrovert friends or family members, the effortless way they break into, or begin, conversations, I cannot help but admire them for their skills and panache.  They make something I struggle with look easy.

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But the funny thing is–the majority of them would likely never dare to share the intense, personal accounts we writers do on a regular basis–often, to people we don’t even know.  A paradox, indeed, that an introverted writer feels the desire, the longing, the need, to become naked and vulnerable, sharing his feelings, fears, dreams, memories, foibles, passions, ideas, loves with anyone who chooses to read them.

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It’s as if the solitary act of writing needs to shed its literary cocoon and fly out the window, looking for places to land.  There is value, of course, even in writing just for yourself.  Diaries and journals through the ages lend proof to this truth.  But within every writer’s heart, isn’t there a calling, as if a voice were whispering, to share the depth and breadth of her essence?  The ideas, expressed as words on a page, are disconnected from the whole, separate from the world, so long as they reside only in our computer hard drive or in a dusty corner of our dresser drawer.

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And the world, as it were, may contain only a handful of readers–perhaps family members and a few close friends–or it may include everyone, the reach as limitless as our imaginations.  The power of the Internet certainly offers such reach.  We write a blog post in New England, or Berlin, or San Francisco, or Prague, and we, through the simplest of clicks, instantly share it across the globe.  And we, more than likely, wish for our words to be read, and, hopefully, appreciated and digested and thought about, by as many people as possible.

earth

 

Perhaps writers, then, are, in actuality, closet extroverts?  Or, maybe more accurately, writers are people, and feel the same longing all people share–to be recognized, to be understood, to be heard.  We just go about it in our own way.

We try, “in utter loneliness,” as John Steinbeck once said, to “explain the inexplicable.”

steinbeck

 

So the next time you tuck yourself away in your room or your office or your secluded writer’s cabin in the wild, and you feel a pang of guilt that you’re not spending that time with your family or your friends (a feeling I’ve certainly experienced on numerous occasions), perhaps you can offer them (and yourself) a reminder.

cabininwoodsend

 

Tell them that you have something inside of you, insisting, unceasing, that must come out, something so personal, so inherently you, that no one else on earth can produce it.  And that it’s a wistful thing, ungraspable, really, like a phantom flower that materializes out of thin air, but when reached for, vanishes like mist.  All we can do, while sequestered in our little writing corner, the door shut, the phone off, is try to capture that feeling, that idea, that insistence within us and express it to the best of our abilities.

writersroom

 

And then, when we step back out into the light of day, share it with the world.

sunrisesharingveryend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Author Interview with Nicholas Conley

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Pale Highway, a novel by Nicholas Conley.  Nicholas has been a longtime follower and supporter of The Eye-Dancers blog, and I am thrilled to feature him here.

In this season of thanksgiving, I am reminded of all the wonderful virtual friends I’ve made since launching this website over three years ago.  As I’ve said several times in previous posts, when I began The Eye-Dancers blog, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I’d never blogged before, and was a neophyte in ever sense of the word.

The great people of WordPress welcomed me right from the start, and it’s been a pure joy to be a part of this very special community.

Nicholas was one of my earliest followers, and it’s an honor to interview him today.

If you haven’t visited his blog, I highly recommend that you do so, and his latest novel, Pale Highway, is a fantastic read and an impeccably crafted work of literature.

palehighway

I hope you enjoy the interview!

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1. I’m always fascinated by titles. I know, for me, sometimes a title comes before I even write the first word of a story. Other times (as with the WIP I am writing now), titles are elusive, shy, hiding in the literary underbrush and daring you to find them. How was it with Pale Highway? It’s a wonderfully evocative title. Did it come to you early on in the process? Or did it come much later?

I know what you mean, I love titles. For me, I can’t even start writing a story until I know the title, because so much of my central narrative is always framed by whatever concept the title evokes. When I first started researching for Pale Highway, I spent a long time pondering possible titles, most of them relating to Gabriel’s dementia, but nothing felt like it quite captured it. Then, there was one night where I just got this lightning bolt to the head, and this title—Pale Highway—came to me out of nowhere. When it did, it was the first time I truly understood what the novel was about, and the message that Gabriel’s story had to say about the human condition.

 

2. In a similar vein, each individual chapter has its own title. Did that prove to be a challenge at all? Or did the chapter titles flow easily throughout the process? Did you name each chapter prior to writing it, or did some of the chapter titles come later?

Chapter titles I tend to play around more freely with, changing them as I go, and seeing what jumps out at me. Since I tend to use shorter chapters that are focused on a single idea or moment, the chapter titles will often pop out to me midway through writing the chapter.

 

3. It’s interesting to hear how writers tackle a long work of fiction. Before you started Pale Highway, did you have a detailed outline of each chapter? Or–did you have a more general outline, with major plot points and perhaps an ending in mind? Or did you have essentially very little idea where the story would take you, and just decided to enter into the project without any concrete or firmly predetermined plans?

I’m the sort of person who always has to-do-lists, reminders, alarms and all of that stuff, so I’m definitely a detailed outliner. I outline a long time before I even start writing, usually on a chapter by chapter basis. Once I start writing, I do give my characters and story room to break free from the outline and do what they want—which they often do—but having a basic road map helps me stay focused, and keep the narrative tight.

 

4. Sort of a follow-up to the previous question, but, during the writing process, were there things that occurred that greatly surprised you? For example, did a character say something or do something, almost out of his or her own volition, that you just didn’t see coming? Was there ever a twist in the plot that just “happened,” on its own as it were, and afterward, you thought to yourself, Where did that come from? In short, how many surprises did you experience during the writing of Pale Highway?

Oh yeah, those surprises are one of the best parts of writing! The plot itself stayed pretty on track all the way through, but Gabriel himself often surprised me with his cunning insights, his occasional sardonic cracks, and the decisions he made. Victor, the rather strange fellow resident who Gabriel befriends, surprised me many times as well.

 

5. The novel is wonderfully written and beautifully layered. It flows so well. How long did it take to write, from beginning (first-draft stage) to end (ready for publication)?

Thank you, it’s amazing to hear that. After putting so much work into it for such a long time, that sort of comment makes my day!

I started coming up with the story ideas that would lead to Pale Highway back in 2012, even before The Cage Legacy came out. These concepts went through a lot of transformation after that point, but as a whole, Pale Highway was something that I worked on for the better part of three years. I’ve been anticipating its entry into the world for a long, long time.

 

6. The novel explores scientific and medical ideas–they are integral to the story. How did you balance the need to provide sufficient scientific details but at the same time not inundate the reader with too much information? It would seem this is like walking a tightrope. You need enough to make the material resonate but not so much that readers’ eyes glaze over. Pale Highway accomplishes a perfect balance. Was this something you consciously “game-planned” for before writing the first draft?

You said it perfectly, about how it’s like walking a tightrope. In order to explain the scientific ideas that impact the story—and on a character level, to demonstrate what kind of person Gabriel Schist was before Alzheimer’s, as his ideas were the most defining aspect of his persona—it required that I put in just enough information about his theories to explain what they were, while also not doing a massive info dump that takes the reader out of the story. I hope that I struck a good balance.

 

7. The novel, through the point of view of its protagonist, Gabriel Schist, explores several fascinating theories about the immune system. Prior to writing Pale Highway, did you need to perform a lot of research on the immune system? Or was it a subject you already had studied and pursued previously?

The Alzheimer’s aspect of the novel was one that I had already researched with my own experience, working in the Alzheimer’s unit of a nursing home. Gabriel’s theories about the immune system, however, I needed to do an insane amount of new research about in order to understand. I can’t even begin to tell you how many books, essays and articles I read on the subject.

I saw it like this: if Gabriel was the kind of man who was defined by the world as a “mad genius,” then it was important that I had a good understanding of what his work was about. I also figured that in this sort of alternative reality that Gabriel lives in—a world in which he found an AIDS cure back in the 1990s—Gabriel’s theories were going to have to be unconventional, strange, something that isn’t usually explored by the establishment. Once I started reading about the work of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, something clicked, and I knew where to focus my studies on.

 

8. There are several flashback chapters expertly placed throughout the story that show different sides of Gabriel, and at different periods of his life. I found it interesting (and highly effective) that most of these flashback chapters were presented in points of view that were not Gabriel’s. The chapters, therefore, not only allow us to see Gabriel at various points in his life, but they also allow us to see him through the eyes of others, rounding out our perception of him. When did you make the decision to write these flashback chapters in different points of view? Was that something you knew you wanted to do right from the start? Or did that come about later in the process?

You got it. I knew early on that for the main story line—Gabriel being an Alzheimer’s patient in a nursing home—I wanted to keep it in Gabriel’s POV, to show that world through his eyes, to show what a nursing home looks like when one is a resident suffering from a neurodegenerative disease. But on the same token, I also knew that I wanted to tell the flashbacks from the perspective of others as much as possible, so that we could get to know Gabriel as a young man in the same way that others would encounter him—brilliant, quiet, introverted—while also having that slice into his older mind, so we’re able to understand him, form a full mental picture, and hopefully relate to a character somewhat outside the norm.

 

9. Pale Highway is a multi-layered novel, tying together medical themes, the plight and care of the elderly, not to mention various metaphysical and even theological ideas. It is also an in-depth character study. How did such a layered idea come to you? The novel is a mosaic of so many themes. Was this an idea that came to you all at once, or did it evolve, piece by piece, over a period of years?

I knew back in 2011 that I wanted to write a book about Alzheimer’s, and with that in mind, I started piecing together what kind of book I wanted to write. Once I knew who Gabriel Schist was, I knew that the central narrative had to be centered on his final attempt at redemption, a quest to do one more meaningful thing in his life. With him being an immunologist, this meant that the clear thing to do was have him try to cure a bizarre new disease, and so the book became science fiction.

The idea of writing this book as a literary novel, or even just a sci-fi novel, seemed limiting to me. It would have prevented me from delving into the more metaphysical aspects of what I wanted to express. Because while Pale Highway is about Alzheimer’s at its core, it’s also about death, life, and what it means to be a human being. Finally writing my way to the third act of this novel, and delving into these issues, was one of the most cathartic experiences of my life.

 

10. What did you find to be the most challenging aspect of writing Pale Highway?

The research was the hardest part to start with, but by the time I started writing I had a good handle on that. Writing about the traumatic experiences that Gabriel goes though, as more and more pieces of his brain fall away, was painful. By the time that Gabriel’s Alzheimer’s symptoms begins to worsen, I’d developed such a connection to him that it felt much like watching a friend with Alzheimer’s, and knowing that I couldn’t do anything to help him.

 

11. What did you find to be the easiest aspect?

Writing about the nursing home itself, with all of its flaws, problems, humorous moments, and overall this pervading sense of bittersweet tragedy. In all honesty, I could’ve written at least 30 books about Bright New Day, the residents there, how it all works. I never see nursing homes properly represented in the media, so it was great to put that out there.

 

12. Who are some of your favorite authors and literary inspirations?

So many. I always say Stephen King first, primarily because reading his Dark Tower books as a teenager was one of my most inspirational experiences, and I don’t think there’s ever been another book series I’ve been so enveloped in. I also love Richard Matheson, Kurt Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy, and Philip K. Dick.

 

13. If you could offer just one single piece of advice to an aspiring author, what would it be?

It’s all about perseverance. Inspiration is the electrical charge that powers your work, but perseverance is the cord that connects it to the wall.

 

14. What are your future writing plans? Are you currently working on a new project?

I have multiple works in progress, all in various different states of development. Part of my writing process, after finishing a first draft, is to put it aside for at least a month and then come back to it with fresh eyes, so I’ll often write another first draft between these two drafts. There’s one novel in particular that’s rising to the top right now, so I’m pretty sure that’s going to be my next book.

 

15. Where can readers find and download your work?

You can find me on www.NicholasConley.com, and my blog is linked to from there. You can also follow me on Twitter at @NicholasConley1. Always happy to meet new readers! I wish I could send complementary coffee cups over the net, but unfortunately technology has not yet advanced to that level. Someday, maybe…

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Nicholas Conley’s passion for storytelling began at an early age, prompted by a love of science fiction novels, comic books and horror movies. When not busy writing, Nicholas spends his time reading, traveling to new places, and indulging in a lifelong coffee habit. In order to better establish himself on the planet Earth, Nicholas has currently made his home in New Hampshire.

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To learn more about him, take a stroll over to www.NicholasConley.com.

 

Thank you, Nicholas, for a great interview, and thanks so much to everyone for reading!

–Mike

 

From Frost to Thor, with a Cup of Hot Cocoa (Or, the Literary Dualism of a New England Stick Season)

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to live year-round in balmy, gentle conditions, where palm trees sway in midwinter and heavy, insulated coats are strange accoutrements only seen on television.  I’ve never experienced anything like that–not even close.  I grew up in Rochester, in upstate New York, famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for its long winters and the lake-effect snow machine that produces blizzards and white-outs with alarming regularity.

blizzard

So, what did I ultimately do?  Move to Southern California, the South of France?  Tahiti?  Not quite.  I moved to Vermont, colder and harsher still than Rochester!  I have no regrets.  Vermont is a rural gem, a rugged little state tucked away in the far northwest corner of New England.  It’s one of the most beautiful places you will ever see.  It is also, to put it mildly, a land of extremes.  Few locales on earth experience such robust, exaggerated seasons–there is nothing subtle about the weather in New England.  The region, according to Henry Cabot Lodge so many years ago, yet still as appropriate today as when he proclaimed it, “has a harsh climate, a barren soil, [and] a rough and stormy coast.”

necoast

And yet . . . there is one time of year in New England that is more subdued, nondescript, and soft-spoken, almost shy in its fundamental drabness . . . The month of November, tucked away in hiding for so long, creeps up on the calendar, whisper-quiet, as if inching forward on its tiptoes.  And, once arrived, it has a personality, a starkness, all its own.

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The flowers and blooms of spring are a distant memory, as are the ripe fields, muggy nights, and poolside gatherings of high summer.  October, with its breathtaking, almost narcissistic display of reds, golds, and oranges, is still fresh in the mind’s eye, but it’s a brief performance, a limited run.  The hillsides, afire with splashes of color only a fortnight ago, now lay stripped, with row on row of gray tree trunks and skeletal limbs reaching for the cold, late-autumn sky.

stickseason

So, yes.  In many ways, November (what the locals sometimes refer to as “stick season” around here) is a somber, even depressive month.  The days grow successively shorter, colder, as the interminable New England winter approaches. There is a stillness to the land, a sharp crispness to the air, and all too often a succession of leaden-sky days with low-lying clouds hovering like bruises over the earth.

There is also, at least for me, a sense of slowing down, of stepping back, looking over the bare, windswept terrain and pausing for reflection.

It’s easy to see, walking along a Vermont country road littered with the desiccated harvest of fallen October leaves, or climbing a knoll and looking out at the ancient, rounded spine of the Green Mountains, how this area has served as an inspiration for some of the world’s great writers and poets.  Something in the rocky soil, the rugged, unyielding terrain, the windswept contours of a rolling New England field in the fall instills a serious quality to an author’s prose, or a poet’s verses.  Frost, Emerson, Thoreau, Plath, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Dickinson . . . the list goes on and on.  Surely, there is something special about this place.

plathariel

 

emersonessays

I feel it throughout the year, but at no point does it affect me more than the month of November.  November brings out the serious and the brooding in my writing, makes me want to try my hand at poetry (a proclivity I rarely feel over the course of the eleven other months) and pen an introspective novel, light on the action and saturated with layered themes, obscure symbols, and tortured, existential characters.  I want to reach, pursue, challenge myself to write about the subterranean undercurrents of life, raging beneath the surface, often hidden beneath a civilized and well-practiced facade.  I want to produce art, works that inspire and examine, question and illuminate.

existentialart

Worthy aspirations, all, but sometimes, when unchecked, they can become an albatross, long-winged and sharp-beaked, weighing me down, choking off my airflow.  I appreciate the masters of the craft and serious literature as much as anyone, and hope a small smattering of my own output can be labeled “literary,” but at the same time, at least for me, there is an element even more important than the profound, more essential than the sublime.

albatross

Thankfully, the month of November also speaks to this lighter aspect.

I find November, with its protracted evenings and roaring, crackling hearth fires and frost-covered windows, to be one of the coziest times of the year.  There are few treats I enjoy more on a cold fall night than preparing a mug of hot chocolate, maybe popping a generous portion of popcorn, and settling in to watch an old black-and-white classic–nothing extraordinary, not necessarily an Oscar- or Emmy-winning masterpiece, but rather something fun, silly even.  Perhaps I’ll binge-watch episodes of The Honeymooners, or tune in to a corny old sci-fi movie with bug-eyed monsters, mutated spiders, or ever-expanding gelatinous blobs from outer space.

theblob

Other times, I’ll dig into my vintage comic book collection, perhaps pulling out a science-fiction title from the 1950s like Strange Adventures or Mystery in Space.  If I’m feeling more superhero-minded, maybe I’ll flip through an old issue of Journey into Mystery with the Mighty Thor or, Mitchell Brant‘s favorite, The Fantastic Four.  Whichever choice I make, a classic sitcom; a cliched but riveting movie produced decades ago, short on character but high on smiles; or a vintage comic complete with nostalgic ads and the musty, old smell all comic book collectors know and love, I’m just glad that Old Man November, with all its grays and dark, wistful sighs, has its lighter side to help me keep things in balance.

strangeadv2

It’s a noble thing, a calling, really, for artists and writers and creative souls the world over to want to imbue their work with meaning and thoughts, words, and images that move their audience from tears to laughter and back again.  It’s something every serious artist should have, and cultivate.  But if our creative process isn’t also fun, if we don’t love what we do, that, too, will be reflected in the final output.

“Write only what you love,” Ray Bradbury once said, “and love what you write.  The key word is love.  You have to get up in the morning and write something you love.”

lovewhatyouwrite

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with some hot cocoa, freshly popped popcorn, and a legion of telepathic crab monsters.

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Thanks so much reading!

–Mike

To Entertain or to Illuminate, That Is (Not) the Question . . .

On September 22, 1959, on the eve of the premiere of the new television series The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling sat down for an interview with Mike Wallace.  Serling, by that time already considered one of television’s brightest writing stars, had amassed a formidable resume.  He was known throughout the industry as television’s “angry young man” due to his ardent and very vocal criticism of the censorship so rampant in the medium at that time.

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Determined to produce gritty, realistic scripts that dealt with injustice, inequality, and greed, Serling wrote for Kraft Television Theater, Playhouse 90, and other venues that featured live TV dramas of the day.  His breakthrough script, “Patterns,” which aired in February 1955, launched him into orbit, and by the time of the Wallace interview, Serling, already a winner of three Emmy awards, was an established industry heavyweight.

patterns

 

At the start of the interview, Wallace credits Serling as the accomplished writer he is; he discusses Serling’s rise within the industry, and his ongoing battles against sponsor-mandated censorship.  About midway through the conversation, the discussion takes a turn . . .

wallaceinterview

 

“You’ve got a new series coming up called The Twilight Zone,” Wallace says, and simply from his tone of voice, his delivery, one can sense Wallace’s disappointment.  After all, in the interview, Serling himself admits to be being “tired,” and that he doesn’t “want to fight anymore”–with corporate sponsors and their dictates on what can and cannot be included in his scripts.  The Twilight Zone, a short, half-hour sci-fi and fantasy excursion, was deemed by many, Wallace among them, as a sellout on the part of one of TV’s most serious and hard-hitting writers.

Wallace suggests the episodes will be “potboilers,” which Serling rejects, stating that he believes the shows will be “high-quality . . . extremely polished films.”

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Undeterred, Wallace then says, “For the time being and for the foreseeable future [since Serling would be so focused on The Twilight Zone going forward], you’ve given up on writing anything important for television, right?”

Even here, Wallace is not finished. He quotes TV producer Herbert Brodkin as saying, “Rod is either going to stay commercial or become a discerning artist, but not both.”

herbertbrodkin

 

To which Serling replies, “I presume Herb means that inherently you cannot be commercial and artistic.  You cannot be commercial and quality.  You cannot be commercial concurrent with having a preoccupation with the level of storytelling that you want to achieve.  And this I have to reject. . . . I don’t think calling something commercial tags it with a kind of an odious suggestion that it stinks, that it’s something raunchy to be ashamed of. . . . I think innate in what Herb says is the suggestion made by many people that you can’t have public acceptance and still be artistic.  And, as I said, I have to reject that.”

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

When I was an English major in college, there was a fellow student, named John, who shared several classes with me.  I’ve blogged about John before.  In addition to wanting to create something new, uniquely his own, John also wanted to create something artistic, arcane, even inaccessible.

“If just anyone can understand it,” he said once, “then I’ve failed.  I’m not writing for the layperson.  I’m writing for the select few.  If John Q. Public ‘gets’ my story, then what’s the point?  Anyone can write a story like that!”

hardtounderstand

 

I understood his sentiment–up to a point.  All writers, all artists want to say something, to have one of their stories or songs or paintings or performances move an audience to tears, open eyes, create dialogue, and promote new viewpoints.  We all want our work to matter.

artistic

 

But I strongly disagreed with his assertion that a work is somehow elevated if it’s nearly incomprehensible; that a story can only have merit if it needs a literature professor to explain its themes, ideas, and structure to a room full of confused and bored students.

Sure, I want my stories to make people to stop, think, perhaps question things they hadn’t even considered before, or, if they had, maybe the story enables them to see something familiar through a different lens, changing their perspective, granting them a peek on the other side of the mountain, as it were.  But to accomplish that, I don’t believe I, or any other writer, needs to create a piece that requires a literary road map through which to navigate.

literaryroadmap

 

Certainly it is my hope that The Eye-Dancers will prompt readers to step back and think about the very nature of what we term “reality”; to consider the mysterious, even seemingly otherworldly psychic connection two strangers can share; and to wonder at the possibility that we, each of us, are just one piece of an infinite puzzle that includes countless variants of ourselves scattered throughout worlds that parallel our own like invisible, silent shadows.

parallelworlds

 

But more than this, it is my hope that readers will relate to the characters, cheer them on, root for them, get swept up in the flow and momentum of the story, and have fun as they read.

When I explained this to John, when I told him I wanted a wide swath of people to enjoy my stories, not just a select few, he simply shook his head and gave me a look that I could only interpret as pure pity.

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

The Twilight Zone remained on the air for five unforgettable seasons; and those “potboiler” episodes, those flights of fancy that delved into the genres of science fiction and fantasy, those “commercial” attempts at expression have endured and prospered.  It can be argued, indeed, that The Twilight Zone is more appreciated, more loved, more respected now, on the precipice of 2015, than it was when it actually ran.

Serling himself expressed a possible reason for the show’s ongoing popularity.  “On The Twilight Zone,” he once said, “I knew that I could get away with Martians saying things that Republicans and Democrats couldn’t.”  He was able, in other words, to utilize imaginative storytelling, plots that took viewers by the hand and led them to strange, often frightening new worlds, to comment on and critique the social ills, prejudices, and personal crises occurring in our own, very real lives.

themasks

 

The Twilight Zone accomplished Serling’s vision and proved beyond a doubt that a story, a novel, a piece of art, does not need to choose between entertaining and illuminating its audience.

The great pieces, the truly memorable works that hold up through the dust and years and passing of decades and centuries are the ones that accomplish both.

doingboth

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The (Name’s) the Thing (Or, What Should I Call It?)

Has it ever happened to you?  An idea hits you, seemingly out of the blue, as the best ideas always do–unasked for, unplanned.

outofblue

 

You feel excited, energized, eager to get started.  You don’t have your story all figured out yet, but you don’t care.  Who needs an outline?  You have a situation.  You have a set of characters.  Most important of all, you have a need to get this boiling, rushing volcanic river of creativity down on paper (or on the computer screen, as the case may be).  You feel you’ll explode if you keep it locked away inside of you.

volcanicriver

 

You have a story to tell.  And you want to share it with the world.

There are few things more exhilarating than this in the life of a writer.  One moment, there is nothing, but then, in the next . . .

Maybe you’re between projects.  Maybe you’ve been in a slump.  Or maybe you’ve been on a roll, your creative powers at an all-time high.  It doesn’t matter either way, because when this new idea strikes, you feel as though you could spread your arms, catch an updraft, and soar for miles.

soaring

 

You begin the story, the keyboard humming along, the words pouring out of you so fast, your fingers are having trouble keeping up.  But at some point, perhaps a paragraph in, perhaps thousands of words in, it hits you.

You don’t have a title.  You are writing a story “Untitled.”

untitled

 

What to do?

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

When I began writing The Eye-Dancers, it wasn’t called The Eye-Dancers.  It wasn’t called anything.  It seemed as if I had the necessary ingredients in place to come up with an attention-grabbing title.  I had ghost girls and nightmares and endless blue voids, and worlds upon worlds, without end.  Why was the title so difficult to get right?

worldsuponworlds

 

I tried a few.  Pathways through Infinity.  Ugh.  Journey without End.  Double ugh!  Not to mention misleading.  There is, in fact, an end.  Through Time and Space.  Putrid!  It sounded like a B movie from the 1950s.  So I did the only thing I could.  I forgot about what to call the novel, and continued to write it.

bmovie

 

It wasn’t really a surprise that a title didn’t stick initially.  They rarely do for me.  Even with short stories, I often do not think of a title until after the story is written.  But with The Eye-Dancers, it grated on me.  A short story, after all, can be completed in a day or two.  It doesn’t compare with the months-long marathon of writing a novel.  And as I reached 30,000 words in my ever-growing manuscript, and then 40,000, and then 50,000 . . . I started to become concerned.  What if I never thought of a title?  How could I publish a book with no name?

booknoname

 

I tried force-feeding a few more would-be titles, but these were even worse than the first batch.  (Hard to believe, but true.)  So I plugged away and kept writing, and then . . . when I came to the final segment of the novel, Mitchell Brant, that weaver of tales and stories himself, helped me to solve the puzzle.

Earlier in the novel, when the boys are first transported through the void, via the swirling, hypnotic blue eyes of the “ghost girl,” Mitchell has the sense that they are dancing, or, more specifically, “eye-dancing.”  At the time, I never really considered that the makings of a book title were contained in those words.  (When you are tone deaf with titles, as I sometimes am, these things can take time!)

bluevoid

 

Thankfully, Mitchell bailed me out.  In the epilogue, Mitchell again uses the term “eye-dancing” to describe the dimension-busting adventure he and his friends have experienced.  This time, the lightbulb went off!  I had it.

The Eye-Dancers.

It was perfect.  It fit the story.  It had a catchy, mysterious sound to it–it was evocative . . . I liked it.

eyedancers

 

It just took a long time coming.

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

The more I think about it, the more I believe a title should come late in the game.

Writing a novel is like wandering through a maze, with lush, leafy ivy growing from the walls, ten feet high.  Just when you think you know the direction the story will travel, it does a sudden U-turn, then fakes right and goes left, taking you, the author, along for the wild, unpredictable ride.  This is why I don’t use chapter-by-chapter outlines.  I know the flux and flow of the narrative will change as I dive in.  The original conception will become a relic, a barnacle-covered shipwreck lying 3,000 fathoms beneath the sea.

shipwreck

 

Why, then, worry about a title at the beginning?  If you have a title, and you’re sure it will work, great.  That’s one less thing to concern yourself with.  But if you’re not sure, or completely in the dark, rest assured that your characters, your story, will ultimately provide the answer.

Some of my favorite novel titles include:  To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sound and the Fury, Far from the Madding Crowd, and The Grapes of Wrath.

maddingcrowd

 

Each one creates an instant mood and paints a word-picture and metaphor all its own.  Concerning the first three, I am unaware of how or at what point during the writing process they came to be (though I would be surprised if they materialized early on).  As for John Steinbeck, he struggled mightily to come up with a suitable title for his book, and only arrived at The Grapes of Wrath after his wife suggested it.

grapes

 

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

I am currently working on a sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  What will I call it?  At the moment, I haven’t a clue.  I’ll leave that to the roller-coaster ride of the story itself, with its ebbs and flows and sudden, unexpected turnabouts.  And its characters.

They will provide a title for me at some point.

I’m counting on it.

rollercoaster

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Show . . . and Tell

The great Russian author Anton Chekhov once said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

chekhov

 

In a single sentence, Chekhov illustrates one of the fundamental tenets of good writing, something so ingrained in writers as to be self-evident; a core principle so universally accepted, acknowledged as truth, it is generally regarded as beyond debate . . .

“Show.  Don’t tell.”

donttell

 

I can’t even count how many times I’ve encountered that piece of writer’s advice in my lifetime.  In nearly every essay or book or column on creative writing, “show, don’t tell” is right at the top of the list.  And rightfully so.  To be able to transport a reader, an author must be able to paint word-pictures that are crisp, clear, vivid–images that resonate and stick in the mind long after the page is turned.

showdonttell

 

Consider the following example from The Grass Harp.  Here, in the story’s second paragraph, master wordsmith Truman Capote’s descriptions are so vivid, you are immediately placed in the world of his imagination . . .

grassharp

 

“If on leaving town you take the church road you soon will pass a glaring hill of bonewhite slabs and brown burnt flowers: this is the Baptist cemetery.  Our people, Talbos, Fenwicks, are buried there; my mother lies next to my father, and the graves of kinfolk, twenty or more, are around them like the prone roots of a stony tree.  Below the hill lies a field of high Indian grass that changes color with the seasons: go to see it in the fall, late September, when it has gone red as sunset, when scarlet shadows like firelight breeze over it and the autumn winds strum on its dry leaves sighing human music, a harp of voices.”

Reading a paragraph like that, the words and images are not soon forgotten.  It is Capote’s tremendous gift of language and style, and his ability to “show and not just tell,” that turns the trick.  The imagery is so vivid, it is as if he has taken a photograph and placed it in the margins of the page.  Close your eyes and imagine the field of high grass, the blades swaying in the autumn wind . . .

indiangrass

 

And yet . . . for all its merit, “show, don’t tell,” is only half-true.

*********

At the end of chapter 8 in The Eye-Dancers, soon after arriving in the variant town of Colbyville, Mitchell Brant meets a girl by the name of Heather.  Red-faced and tongue-tied around girls, his speech impediment made worse than ever due to nerves, Mitchell is shocked when she calls him cute.  As the chapter ends, he watches her walk away, thinking about what has just transpired . . .

blushing

 

“He just stood there, gaping after her.  Thoughts of the ghost girl, of getting back home to his mom and dad and sister were ten billion miles away.

“‘Cutie.’ She had called him ‘cutie.’

“For a second, one beautiful moment in time, he felt like a hero, like the guys at school who all the pretty girls wanted.

“He wished the feeling would last, linger like a sweet aftertaste.  But he knew it wouldn’t.  Not for him.  Not for the dork who couldn’t talk right.

“Not for Mitchell Brant.”

If you were to analyze this passage through a strict lens of “show, don’t tell,” it would fail miserably.  There is a lot of telling going on here.  We are told that, for a brief moment, Mitchell feels like a hero and wishes the feeling will last–though, ultimately, he realizes that it won’t.  But I would argue it is precisely this quality that sets the printed page apart from the Silver Screen.

silverscreen

 

In a movie or a television episode, the creators are forced to show, all the time.  Unless there is a voice-over, there can be no “telling” in a movie.  In the excerpt above, if The Eye-Dancers were to be made into a film (I can dream, can’t I?), maybe we would see Mitchell reaching after Heather’s retreating figure, grabbing a fistful of air.  Maybe his expression, initially, would tell us that he is basking in her compliment.  But then, with a twitch of the mouth, a downturn of the face, a shake of the head, the actor playing Mitchell would convey his sense that nothing could ever come of it, that the pretty girl he’d just met would never really be interested in him.

Maybe.  But even if this happens, it wouldn’t be with the same depth that fiction can provide.  In a story, a novel, we often go inside the POV character’s head, living with their thoughts, their secrets, their forbidden longings and deep-rooted fears.  We get to know them intimately, and in ways we never could in a movie.

And how is this possible?

insidehead

 

Because we are told what they are thinking.

At the start of A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, one of my favorite novels, the main character returns to his old stomping grounds, The Devon School.  And he tells us what he is feeling . . .

separatepeace

 

“I didn’t entirely like this glossy new surface, because it made the school look like a museum, and that’s exactly what it was to me, and what I did not want it to be.  In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought, I had always felt that the Devon School had come into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left.”

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

“Show, don’t tell,” would be the appropriate mantra for a movie producer or a screenwriter.  But for a fiction writer?  There needs to be a blend, a happy medium of internal thoughts and outward displays, interior monologues and sequences where actions do all the speaking.

writingclass

 

“Show, don’t tell,” is only partially true.

When it comes to storytelling, perhaps we should say, instead . . .

“Show, and tell.”

showandtell

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Short Story — “Cemetery”

There are moments in The Eye-Dancers when the main characters, particularly Ryan Swinton, wrestle with the concept of growing up.  Ryan especially sometimes wishes things could be simpler again, the way they used to be when he was seven, his little brother Tyler’s age.  But now, on the cusp of being a teenager, he feels the pressure to fit in, to make people laugh at his jokes, to be liked.  He is all too aware that as we grow up, even as things are gained and learned, other things are lost.

“Cemetery” is a short story I wrote several years ago.  And while the point-of-view character is a grown man, the story does also deal with childhood, and the things we love, learn, and lose.

I hope you will enjoy “Cemetery” . . .

squirrel

 

maples

 

cemetery

 

sumac

 

“Cemetery”

Copyright 2013 by Michael S. Fedison

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

The squirrel was crushed, stuck to the pavement as if glued.  It had been run over so many times, it was now flat, looking like a two-dimensional cutout from a children’s coloring book.  In the distance, Jerry heard another car approaching.

 “C’mon, Bak,” he said.  “We better get out of the road for a minute.”

 He took his daughter by the hand and retreated to the base of their driveway.  The car sped past, leaving a plume of dry dust in its wake.  A truck carrying loose earth had come through a little while ago, dropping some of its load as it went.

 “He didn’t go over the squirrel, too, did he, Daddy?” Bak asked, peering through the dust.  Hot June sunshine struck her in the face.

 Jerry looked at her and smiled.  Bak.  Seven years old.  His pride and joy.  She was so sweet, she had to be Bak.  They had named her Jennifer, but that wouldn’t do.  She was too special for that.  Jerry had thought about the sweetest thing he knew, and, after spending more time on the subject than he would admit, came up with baklava, his favorite dessert.  Ever since, his little girl was Bak.

 “I don’t know, Bak,” he said.  “I think he might have missed it.”

 They went back into the road.  Bak bent down over the squirrel.

 “Did it hurt, Daddy?” she asked.  “Did getting flat hurt the squirrel?”

 “Probably not,” Jerry said.  “It would’ve been so fast, so instantaneous, probably not.”

 Bak squinted up at him.  “What’s insta-taneous mean?”

 He snapped his fingers.  “Like that,” he said, and snapped them again.

 Bak nodded and looked solemnly at the squirrel.

 “Can you take him out of the street, Daddy?” she asked.

 “Sure, honey, I guess so, but why?”

 “So we can bury him.  Like they did with Mommy.”

 Jerry nodded.  Yes, they could bury the squirrel.

 ♣

 Lisa had been twenty-eight.  They had just moved into a small apartment, with leaky faucets, too many cockroaches, and a heating system that was, to put it mildly, temperamental.  But they tried to focus on tomorrow.  He had recently been promoted at work.  They would live in this apartment for a while (it came cheap, if nothing else) and then they’d buy a home in the country, where they would grow a garden, play Frisbee, and sled down the hills made slippery and white with snow.  They’d have two more children, maybe three, and they’d have their cat, Mitsie, whom they had adopted from the Humane Society shortly after their wedding.  They would live well, they would watch their children mature, and they would grow old together.  Once the kids all left, it would be just the two of them again, their hair graying, their faces wrinkling, their eyesight clouding over with age.  They’d have each other, though, and they would be happy.

 But on a mild, overcast winter evening, when Bak was just two, Lisa died.  She was sitting at the table eating supper, listening to Jerry as he shared his day with her.  As he was talking about a difficult co-worker (“He never lets me get a word in!  He’s just looking for a fight, I know it, and, you know, I just might give it to him!”), she suddenly grabbed her head, gasped, and fell off her chair.

 “Lisa?” he asked, his voice so soft, so weak in his ears.  “Lisa?”  He couldn’t grasp what he had just seen.

 Time seemed to have stopped.  Everything was locked in place, as if the earth had fallen out of orbit and was floating in the cold depths of space, farther and farther away from the sun, a frozen shell of a world.

 He stood up on wobbly legs, looked at the floor.  She was lying there on her back, perfectly still, her mouth open, her eyes staring up at him.  They’re not blinking, he thought.  Her eyes.  Not blinking.  Time was no longer stopped; it moved mercilessly on—tick tock, tick tock, the clock over the sink mocked—and Jerry wished he could grab that clock, turn its hands back three minutes, and start over.

 He went to his wife, got on his knees, calling her name, over and over, louder and louder.  She didn’t answer, didn’t stir.  Swallowing, blinking, he checked her pulse.  There wasn’t one.  What was going on?  How could this be?  He was just talking to her about Chuck at work.  He had just complimented her on the lasagna she’d made.  They were going to stay up late after putting Bak to bed and watch Notorious, an old Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman movie.  She loved Cary Grant.  They were going to eat popcorn, drink hot chocolate, and wrap themselves in a crocheted blanket his mother had made for them as a wedding present.

 He shook her, gently at first, then more frantic, hoping it would revive her.  It didn’t.  He called 911, barely able to get the words out.  The ambulence arrived within minutes, waking up Bak.  She had played hard that day and was tired, taking a nap in her room.

 No.  It was the only word that came to mind, the only thing he could think.  No.

 Later, an autopsy revealed that Lisa had died of a ruptured brain aneurysm.  No one knew she had been living with an aneurysm, all those years.  She had never had any significant problems—a few migraines every now and again, but nothing that would have caused any alarm.  She died quickly, instantaneously, the doctor told him.  She probably didn’t even know it happened.  By the time she had hit the floor, she was gone.

 Jerry hadn’t eaten lasagna since.

 ♣

 During a break in the traffic, he scraped under the squirrel with an old putty knife.  He knew he needed to work fast, as they were on the main road, and hundreds of cars and trucks whipped past every day, going sixty, often seventy, miles per hour.  He and Bak had just moved here three days ago.  Lisa would have loved it, the traffic notwithstanding.  It was an old cape, and it needed a lot of work it was true, but the land!  Ten acres of meadow and woods, with hills and perennials, a fully-stocked fishing pond, an old barn that had been converted into a garage, a garden shed, and maple trees near the house that would turn red and gold in the fall.

 He finally pried the squirrel loose from the pavement.  For some reason, its crushed, flattened body brought to mind the pressed leaf collection Lisa used to keep.  Elm leaves, maple leaves, poplar leaves, every leaf she could get her hands on.  She would gather them in the fall, after they had turned color, press them, and place them in a photo album, where they would stay, preserved, like trinkets in a time capsule.

 He balanced the remains of the squirrel on the fat blade of the putty knife and walked to the driveway, where Bak waited.

 “You know where you want to bury him?” he asked her.

 She nodded.

 “Then lead the way, Bak,” he said.

 She led him to a shady corner of the yard, nestled between two maples and backing up against a stand of sumac and wild burdock, and the remnants of an old stone wall that had deteriorated into a state of disrepair.

 “Here,” she said.  “This’ll be our cemetery.”

 “Our cemetery?”

 “He won’t be the only one, will he?”  She pointed at the dead squirrel.

 “No,” Jerry said.  “No, Bak.  He won’t be.  A lot of animals will get hit in that road, I’m afraid.”

 “Then this is the place we’ll bury them,” Bak said.

 This was more than he had bargained for.  One squirrel, sure.  But every animal that got hit in front of their home?  That would add up, and all too quickly.  In the road, an eighteen-wheeler sped by, adding emphasis.  But Jerry figured it was okay.  They had ten acres, after all.  What was one small parcel tucked away in a corner?

 “Okay,” he said.  “We’ll need to prepare it then.  Let me dig all the grass up over here and make this a real plot.  Then, when I’m done with that, you can bury this squirrel.  How’s that sound, Bak?”

 “Will you make the cemetery big enough?” she asked skeptically.

 Smiling, Jerry said, “It’ll be the biggest one of its kind in all the county.”  Then, thinking it might be the only one of its kind anywhere, Jerry expanded that.  “It’ll be the biggest one in the whole state, Bak.”

 “I hope,” was all she said.

 Jerry placed the putty knife on the ground, went to the garden shed, and grabbed a spade that had been left behind by the previous owner.  He hurried back to the corner Bak had chosen for the cemetery, and, under her watchful eye, began to dig.

 When he was finished, he gave Bak a small potting shovel, which she used to dig a hole.  Jerry reached for the squirrel, but Bak stopped him.

 “Let me do it, Daddy,” she said.

 “Okay, Bak.”

 She gently picked up the squirrel and placed it in the hole.  Then she folded her hands and bowed her head.

 “Bak?”  Jerry said.

 “I’m praying for him, Daddy,” she said.  “You pray, too.”

 Feeling a little silly, Jerry knelt down and prayed with his daughter over the remains of the nameless squirrel.  But it didn’t remain nameless for long.

 “He’s Charlie,” Bak said.

 “Who?  The squirrel?”

 “Uh-huh.  His name is Charlie.”  As she spoke, she covered the squirrel with the soft earth she had dug, the calligraphy of her handprints like a personal signature of her work.  When she was finished, she stood up, examining the makeshift grave.

 “We need a marker now,” she said.

 Jerry hadn’t thought of that.  But there were small pieces of pine wood in the shed.  They could use one of those.

 “This’ll be okay, I guess,” she said once he’d returned with a piece of the wood.  It was short and wide, easy to write on.  And Bak wanted to write on it.

 “But it’ll wash off, honey,” he said.  “If the rain doesn’t do it, the snow sure will.”

 “Then cut letters in it,” she said.  “Can’t you cut them in it, Daddy, like they do at Mommy’s cemetery?”

 Jerry had a Bowie knife his father had given to him when he was fifteen.  It was the first time his dad had given him a grown-up present; he remembered it well.  The Bowie knife’s tip would do the trick.

 She wanted him to engrave the following:  “Here lies Charlie.  He was just a squirrel.  But a good one.”  He finished quickly, and the grave was complete.  They went to the edge of their new cemetery and looked at it.  Jerry thought the single wooden marker looked lonesome, but he knew it wouldn’t be for long.  The road would take care of that.

 “Why did you want to bury him, Bak?” he asked her.

 She squinted up at him.  Sunshine filtered through the maple trees, kissing her long red hair and making it look two shades lighter than it was.

 “Charlie musta had a family,” she said.  “He woulda had a mommy and a daddy, maybe even a wife.  They miss him now, I guess.  Like you miss Mommy.  And you go visit her in the cemetery, so maybe Charlie’s family will visit him here, too.  Maybe his friends will come.  Like Mommy’s.”

 She looked at the single grave again, using her hand to shield the sun from her eyes.

 Jerry wanted to say something, to respond to his daughter in some way, but she had rendered him speechless.

 ♣

 Early the next morning, they stood by Lisa’s grave.  The cemetery was gloomy, inhabited by hundreds of pine, oak, and maple trees, which stood over the tombstones like watchful sentries.  It was windy this morning, and cloudy, a chill in the air that would have seemed inconceivable in yesterday’s hot sunshine.  Bak had a hooded jacket on and Jerry a wool sweater that Lisa had bought for him as a birthday gift when they had been engaged.

 He watered the flowers next to her grave.  He had planted them years ago—purple and pink peonies—and he was pleased that they came back and bloomed every spring.

 “Those are pretty flowers,” Bak said.

 “Thanks.  Peonies were your mom’s favorite.”

 They were silent then, listening to the voices in the wind, the rustling of the leaves, the echoes of the good people laid to rest here.  Jerry got on his knees and touched the gravestone, gently, gently.  He picked off a piece of moss that had gathered at the base.

 “Daddy?”

 “Hmm?”

 “What color were Mommy’s eyes?”

 “Blue, like yours, like the clear sky in October when the humidity’s gone, and you can look up forever.”  He closed his eyes, fought back the tears.  Now wasn’t the time, not here, not in front of Bak.

 “Mommy musta been so nice,” Bak said.  “I wish I’da known her.”

 “Me, too, Bak.  You would’ve loved your mommy.”

 “Do you think you’ll get married again, Daddy?  And get a new mommy for me?  Like Chrissy Pitkin?  Her Daddy got married again, and she doesn’t like her new mommy much.”

 “No, Bak,” he said.  “I don’t think that’ll happen.  I could never marry anyone else.  Your mom was the only one for me.  I hope you haven’t been pining for a new mom.”

 “What’s pining?” she asked.

 “Wanting, wishing for.”

 “Oh.  No.  I guess not.  I was just wonderin’.  Chrissy Pitkin acts like having a second mom is the pits.”

 Jerry stood up and stroked his daughter’s hair.  “C’mon, Bak, let’s go.  We’ll stop at McDonalds on the way.”  He always stopped at McDonalds with Bak on the way back from the cemetery.  He figured she deserved a treat after visiting such a solemn place.

 “Egg McMuffin?”  she said.  “Hash brown?”

 “You bet,” he said, and a tear did fall then, but he wiped it away before she could see.

 ♣

 That evening, Jerry on the sofa, Bak on his lap, she said, “It makes you sad to go visit Mommy at the cemetery, doesn’t it?”

 “I guess,” he said.  “But not really any more than I already am, Bak.  I miss your mommy more than you can know.  Always.  When I’m at her grave, I guess it’s harder to block it out.  My missing her just hits me like a big wave in the ocean—it just swallows me up.  I try to think of other things a lot, ‘cause it hurts to think of your mom, but when I’m there, well . . .”

 Bak nodded and buried her face in his neck.  Jerry squeezed her tight, thankful he didn’t have an office job anymore, didn’t have a daily commute that would take him away from Bak ten hours a day.  His company let him work from home now.  That was one of the reasons he felt it was a good time to move out to the country.

 “You won’t die, Daddy, will you, and make me hafta visit you at the cemetery?”  she said, his neck muffling her words.

 “Not any time soon, Bak,” he said, grimacing.  That’s what Lisa would have said the day she died, too, if someone had asked her that question.

 “I . . .”  Her voice trailed off, and he knew she had fallen asleep.  Slowly, carefully, he got up and carried her to bed.  When he tucked her in, she woke up.

 “Daddy, did anyone visit Charlie today?”

 “I don’t know.  I haven’t seen anyone.”

 “I hope they do.  I hope they know where he is, that he’s here, in our cemetery.  So they can visit.”

 “I hope so, too,” he said, and kissed her forehead.  “Good night, Bak.”

 “G’night, Daddy.”

 He turned to leave the room.

 “Daddy?”

 “Yes, Bak?”

 “Why did Mommy hafta die?  Why do the animals get hit in the fast road?”

 “I don’t know,” he said.  He wished he could say something to help her understand, help her make sense of it all, but he couldn’t.  “Go to sleep, Bak.  Rest.”

 When he didn’t hear a reply, he left.

 ♣

 Later that week, they buried a chipmunk.  It was lying at the foot of their driveway, its body grotesquely bent and broken.  The day after that, another squirrel was flattened, welded to the road.  Jerry had a tougher time picking this squirrel’s remains off of the hot pavement than he had the first one.  Three days after that, another chipmunk.  It remained that way throughout the summer, and by the first week of September, twenty-five small wooden graves stood in their cemetery, the markers set in two straight lines and half of a third.  It was the day before school started, and Bak would be attending a different one this year.  She was scared, but excited, too.

 He watched as she dug the hole for the twenty-sixth grave.  Beside her lay a crushed rock dove, run over that morning by a pickup truck.  Jerry had seen it happen, had heard the sick thud on impact, and was grateful Bak had been in the house.  He wondered if the pickup driver even knew he had killed a bird.

 She lovingly placed the dove in the hole, then covered it with the loose dirt she had unearthed.

 “What’s his name, Bak?”  Jerry asked, Bowie knife and wooden grave marker in hand.

 “Johnny.  Johnny Dove.  ‘A good friend to all,’ that’s what you should cut into it.  ‘Cause he looks like a good friend, so I’m sure he was.”

 Jerry carved the words into the wood, then handed the marker to Bak.  She stuck it into the earth, just behind the spot where the bird lay.  This was easy for her because Jerry had sawed the bottom of the wood, shaping it into a sharp point.  He had been doing that to all of the markers since the middle of July.

 Bak knelt down to pray, and asked Jerry to join her.  He played the part, but he wasn’t praying.  He was observing, looking at his solemn daughter as she clasped her hands together, closed her eyes tightly shut, and mouthed a silent prayer for the dead rock dove.  He swallowed hard, and suddenly felt a terrible sense of loss.  He had been mourning Lisa for years, but now he was mourning his daughter, the little girl she was but wouldn’t remain.  He wondered how much longer she would dig miniature graves for animals killed in the road.  He wondered how much longer she would want him to carve the names she gave them into blocks of wood and memorialize them in this small corner plot, shaded by the maple trees just now showing a hint of the color show to come.  He wondered when the time might arrive when she would look at the wooden markers and shake her head, proclaiming what a silly fool she had been, what a dumb little kid.  He wondered how she might react to seeing a dead animal in the road when she was fifteen.  Would she walk by with some girlfriends, say “yuck,” and then without a second thought, go on talking about boys and clothes and the cute math teacher?  He hoped not, but it was a faint hope.

 Bak unclasped her hands, opened her eyes, and stood up.

 “I hope you get a visitor, Johnny Dove,” she said.  “I hope someone comes here, someone who knew you.”

 Jerry put a hand on her shoulder.  “C’mon, Bak,” he said.  “We should go in and get ready for supper.”

 She put her hand in his, and they walked to the house.

 “I hope you stay this way forever, Bak,” he said, as they went in through the back door.  “Like a little girl who thinks a dead rock dove deserves a grave.”

 “Johnny Dove,” she said.  “Not just any old dove.  Johnny Dove.”

 “Sure,” he said.  “Sorry, Bak.”

 He squeezed her hand, tightly but gently.

 “Whatcha makin’, Daddy?” she asked.

 “How about hot dogs and tater tots?”

 “Yum!”  She smacked her lips and smiled.  “Hurry!”

He hugged her, then got about to making the supper.  Later, as they ate, as Bak dunked her tater tots in ketchup and took bites from the hot dog that were too big for her, they talked–about graves and squirrels, speeding cars and rock doves.  And about the new school year that would start tomorrow, the students she would meet, the friends she would make, the new page that was about to be turned.

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

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike


If You Write It, They Will Come

In the novel It, by Stephen King, there is a scene I have always enjoyed.

it

 

It’s actually a flashback sequence, where Ben Hanscombe, one of the “Losers Club,” volunteers to stay after school on a cold January day–the first day back to class after Christmas vacation.  He is helping his teacher, Mrs. Douglas, count the books that had been turned in just before the holiday.  The task takes quite a while, and after they put the books away in the storage room, Ben realizes that the school has all but emptied out, the only sounds the clanking of the radiators and the whoosh-whoosh of old Mr. Fazio the janitor’s broom as he sweeps up and down the corridors.

Mrs. Douglas apologizes, saying she’s kept Ben too late.  Dusk is descending, the last flickers of daylight bleeding away into the rapidly approaching winter evening.  She tells him that, if she drove, she’d give him a ride home, but she doesn’t.  Her husband will stop by a bit later to pick her up.  If Ben were willing to wait . . .

But he tells her not to worry.  It’s still light enough, and he’ll walk right home.  And yet . . . and yet–there is something about the day, the faint, cold lighting of a winter dusk in northern New England.  Ben feels alone, as if something is about to happen.  Something bad.  The scene creates a mood, preparing the reader for what follows.

But King is not finished setting the tone.  Before Ben leaves the building, the janitor passes by again, sweeping the floors, gathering dust with his broom.  “Be careful of de fros’bite, boy,” he says, and walks on, completing his rounds.  And for me, as a reader, that one line really resonates.  It is the exclamation point that puts the finishing touches on the scene.  As he walks home in the darkening twilight, just before he spots the monster Pennywise the Clown along the way, the janitor’s words echo in his ears. “Be careful of de fros’bite, boy . . .”

Would the scene have worked even without Mr. Fazio and his broom and his dust?  Of course.  The tone had been set, the mood established.  But the janitor, even with just a single line of dialogue, enhances what is already there.  He is one of those bit characters, so minor he shuffles off the page after a moment, an eye-blink, but whose presence, no matter how brief, adds something worthwhile to the story.

minorchars

The thing is, characters like this–little strands of string and twine that add nuance and texture to a scene–often are not thought of ahead of time.  In this case, especially knowing that Stephen King (as he shares in his memoir, On Writing) does not generally plot his novels in advance, I certainly picture old Mr. Fazio suddenly appearing, unplanned, unasked, out of the periphery of King’s imagination.  I could be wrong about that.  Maybe before he sat down to write this scene, King knew the janitor would be a part of it.  But I suspect this is not the case.  I would venture to guess that, as he wrote the scene, as it unfolded on the page, Mr. Fazio simply decided to appear, as if through a will, a desire, of his own.

creative1

 

I guess this in part because it has happened to me countless times during the creative process.  I begin writing a short story, or a chapter in a novel, and, before I know it, someone, well . . . just shows up.  When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, this happened several times, perhaps best illustrated in chapter 4.  In this chapter, the four main characters are sitting alongside The Erie Canal, talking about the threat of the “ghost girl” in their shared dreams and what to do about her.

eriecanalpath

 

Before I tackled this sequence, the only thing I had to go on was just that–that the boys would be sitting there, pedestrians and bicyclists constantly passing by on the canalside recreational path behind them.  What I did not envision was what occurred on the very first page of the chapter.

As they talk, a little boy in a farmhouse across the canal comes outside, in his backyard, smiles at them, and begins to toss a baseball to himself.  He offers very little to the story in any substantive way, but he does attract the boys’ attention, and serves as a sort of catalyst to the conversation they are having, and to the scene as a whole.  Would chapter 4 be shorter without the nameless boy’s presence?  Probably.  Would it be better?  I suppose that can be debated either way.  But once the first draft of The Eye-Dancers was finished, and I went to work on the rewrite, examining the flurries and inspirations of the initial draft with a more objective and critical editorial eye, I thought the farm boy added to the canal scene–and so he stayed.

beopen

 

After all, he was the one who announced himself upon the scene, not me.  I didn’t even know he existed until he showed up.  I had no concept of him, no idea he would barge onto the stage, as it were, like a bold, uninvited actor determined to win a role.   Maybe when things like that happen, they represent our subconscious telling us that something is needed to flesh out a scene, something we never would have thought of in advance.  Or maybe they come from our muse, gifting us with a discovery, a missing piece to the fabric of our story.  Maybe they’re just blind chance.  Whatever they are, these unforeseen character appearances strike me as very intuitive, and very organic within the creative process.  As such, we as writers, as creators, need to listen very carefully when they come calling.

So the next time someone like old Mr. Fazio crashes the party created by your imagination as you type feverishly at your keyboard, perhaps you can pause, take a moment to enjoy the mystery and wonder of the creative process.

creative2bulb

 

Where did that character come from?  They just . . . appeared, on their own.

Or, to paraphrase one of the most memorable lines in motion picture history . . .

“If you write it, they will come . . .”

fieldofdreams

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

When to Leave a Comma in Its Place (Or, Stop Running into All Those Concrete Walls)

At one juncture in his autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last, legendary baseball player and manager Leo Durocher wrote the following:

“[He] might have been the best ballplayer I ever saw.”

High praise indeed from a man who saw, firsthand, many of the game’s all-time greats.  Who was he talking about?  Babe Ruth?  Willie Mays?  Ty Cobb?  Joe DiMaggio?

No.  He was talking about Pete Reiser.

petereiser

 

Pete who?

Durocher goes on to say about Reiser,

“He had more power than Willie [Mays]. . . . Mays was fast, but Reiser was faster.  Name whoever you want to, and Pete Reiser was faster.  Willie Mays had everything.  Pete Reiser had everything but luck.”

Call it what you will–luck, fate, poor decisions, destiny . . .  but Pete Reiser’s career is one of those classic “what-if” stories. What might have been if only . . . ?  Then again, what might have been is clear.  Because, from all accounts, Pete Reiser was the greatest natural talent ever to step foot on a baseball diamond.

In 1941, his first full season in the Majors with the old Brooklyn Dodgers, Reiser, then twenty-two, batted .343 with a league-leading 39 doubles, 17 triples, and 117 runs scored.

ebbetts

 

His .343 average was good enough to win the National League batting crown.  He was the swiftest player in the league, a brilliant outfielder with a powerful throwing arm.  He was such an accomplished outfielder, in fact, that opposing players would stop what they were doing to watch him catch fly balls and then fire them back into the infield during practice drills.  The future beckoned, surely rich with promise, World Series triumphs, awards, and, ultimately, an invitation to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

It was not to be.

When he played center field, Reiser would crouch into his defensive stance just before the pitch and think to himself, “Hit it to me.  Hit it to me.”  He wanted to make every catch, be in on every play.  He was the best athlete on the field, and he knew it.  Everyone did.

Not only did he play the game with grace, power, and supreme skill.  He played hard, and was known throughout the league for his diving, acrobatic catches.  This never-say-die attitude, however, became his undoing.

Pete Reiser was carted off the field eleven times in his too-short playing career.  Determined to get to every ball hit anywhere close to center field, he had a bad habit of racing into outfield walls.  He was even given his last rites once at the stadium.

The play that effectively ended Reiser’s career occurred in 1942.  Trying to flag down a line drive, Reiser slammed into the concrete center-field wall, head-first, at full speed.  Somehow, he managed to get up, retrieve the ball, and throw it back into the infield, before collapsing.  He suffered a severe concussion and a fractured skull.  Doctors told him not to play the remainder of the season.  But, four days later, upon his release from the hospital, Reiser suited up, and played.

He was never the same.  He played several more seasons, and had a couple of decent years, but he was a shell of his former self.  His career statistics are mediocre, easily ignored when flipping through the pages of baseball history.  What could have, and probably should have been the greatest player in the history of the game is now a forgotten anecdote, a small annotation in the bibliography of the twentieth century.

baseballenc

 

In many ways, it can be stated that Pete Reiser’s career was cut short because he tried too hard.  At first blush, such a statement seems ludicrous.  How can anyone try too hard?  Aren’t we supposed to try hard?

But Pete Reiser was reckless when he should have been wise.  An admirable trait, perhaps, but a self-defeating one nonetheless.

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

Oscar Wilde once famously stated:  “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma.  In the afternoon I put it back again.”

oscarwilde

 

I think any writer can relate to this.  I know when I wrote The Eye-Dancers, there were days when I would agonize over the flow  of one lone paragraph, or the wording of a single sentence.  I would sometimes obsess over a word choice, the beat and rhythm of a sentence, the way one paragraph led into another.

novelediting

 

This is not a bad thing, of course.  Proofreading and copy editing your work is essential.  But it can go too far.  At some point, somehow, you have to be able to turn the page, literally, and say, “This page is done.  This chapter is done.  This story is done.”

No piece of writing is perfect.  We often say, “Make your writing as perfect as it can be before submitting it for publication”–but sometimes we overlook those four crucial words–“as it can be.”  Not “perfect.”  But “as perfect as it can be.”  Granted, we can spend a day as Oscar Wilde did.  We can hem and haw over every verb, every exclamation point, every semicolon.  We can spend decades editing our work-in-progress.  But eventually, you reach a point of diminishing returns, and your work can then actually suffer due to overwork and fatigue.

editing

 

It is the hardest thing for any writer (we are usually our own worst critics) to state: “It’s finished!  My story is ready.”  But these are words we have to be able to say.  When you know, objectively, that you have put as much effort into a story as you reasonably can, it is finished.  Will there be flaws?  Absolutely.  Hamlet has flaws.  The Great Gatsby is imperfect.  Everything is.  But–will it be well crafted?  Will it resonate and engage readers?  Move them, make them want to keep reading, make them care?  These are the questions that matter.

Working hard is one thing.  Taking the time to edit and re-edit and re-edit again is essential.  Generally speaking, when a story seems finished, it isn’t.  There is still work to do, mistakes to clean up, inconsistencies in character and plot to correct.  Settling for anything less, looking for shortcuts and end-arounds will sabotage the story and rob it of its potential.  No arguments there.

But if you find yourself debating the merits of a comma all morning long . . .

comma

 

. . . or sprinting headlong toward a concrete wall, there really is only one thing left to do . . .

stop

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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