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” . . .

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“Cemetery”

Copyright 2013 by Michael S. Fedison

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 . . .”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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

The Golden Mean

In the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society, John Keating, the English teacher played by Robin Williams, has one of his students read aloud from the Introduction to their poetry textbook.  The author of the Introduction, a Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, provides, in dry detail, the method by which we should measure and grade poetry.  As the student reads, Keating begins illustrating these concepts on the blackboard, depicting a bar graph.  This Introduction, in other words, is attempting to break poetry down, almost as if it were a mathematical equation.

After the Introduction has been read aloud in its entirety, and after illustrating its principles on the blackboard, Keating turns to his class and says, simply, “Excrement.  That’s what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard.”

deadpoetsalt

And then, in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, he tells his class to rip out the Introduction from their poetry textbooks.  They pause, wondering if he’s serious.  He assures them he is.  Then, one by one, the class rips out the pages, discarding the views of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard.

“Words and ideas can change the world!” Keating thunders a moment later.  He is appalled that anyone would try to measure poetry in a methodical, systematic way.  He exclaims such an endeavor rips the life out of the words, turns the beautiful into something mundane, something to be dissected and probed, and poked.

Surely, an intuitive, creative soul like Mitchell Brant would agree with Mr. Keating.  And so would the impulsive Joe Marma, who prefers to act first and think and plan second.  Marc Kuslanski, on the other hand, logic-driven to the core, would probably side with J. Evans Pritchard.

How do we measure great poetry, or great writing, in general?  Furthermore, when we have an idea, a situation, a character we simply must write about–how do we know when we’re ready?  Take a novel, for instance.  When do you begin page 1?  After you’ve come up with a protagonist, and perhaps a villain, and a situation to put said protagonist in?  What if you have a distinct image in mind? Long before I wrote The Eye-Dancers, I had a dream about the “ghost girl” who appears in chapter one, and throughout the novel.  In my dream, I experienced what Mitchell does in that first chapter.  Seeing this wraith-like girl with the blue, blue eyes, calling, beckoning, like an apparition.  That was over twenty years ago.  When I woke from that dream, I wanted desperately to write a story around it.  But I didn’t have one.  I just had that image, that opening scene, if you will.  What to do with it?  Where to go?  It wasn’t until nearly two decades later, when I had the same dream, a second time, and then woke up with a workable idea in place, that I actually began writing The Eye-Dancers.

I wonder what John Keating in Dead Poets Society would say about that.  Perhaps he’d say I am too analytical, need too much to be “in place” before I begin.  I know that’s what Stephen King would probably say.  In his memoir, On Writing, King says, straight out, “Plot is . . . the good writer’s last resort  and the dullard’s first choice.  The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.”  King explains that he begins with a situation first, and then the characters, and then he begins to narrate.  While he has an outcome in mind, he’s not locked in to it.  His characters, he says, often do and say things he never expects.

For me, I believe the answer lies somewhere in the middle–“the golden mean.”  For some writers (and who am I to argue with Stephen King?), just having a situation and some characters in mind is enough.  Without much of a plot yet, they can steam forward and begin.  I need more.  Before I begin a long work, like a novel, I need to have some idea where I want to go, how the book will likely end (at least in a general way), and I often have a broad story line in place.  I don’t do chapter-by-chapter outlines, since I find those too constricting, and, as King points out, characters often do the oddest things.  You may think something will turn out some way, and then it turns out another way.  Some flexibility is necessary, or else you’ll stifle the creative process.  But to begin without a fairly concrete direction already in place?  Without at least some measure of a plot in place?  That is something I can’t seem to do.

Certainly, there is no “right” or “wrong” answer here.  It really is a case of, “Whatever works for you”–as long as, throughout the process, the magic of spontaneous creativity is not stifled or ignored.

So for some, diving right in, without much information to go on, will work great.  Call this the Mitchell Brant or Joe Marma approach.  For others, in-depth planning is essential–the Marc Kuslanski Theory of Storytelling.

For me, it’s a combination of the two.  And if opposites like Joe Marma and Marc Kuslanski can learn to tolerate each other (albeit barely!) in The Eye-Dancers, then, hopefully, I’m on the right path.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

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