Embracing Your Inner Grogg, Zog, and Groot!

There are so many aspects, so many parts to the process.  An idea strikes, giving birth to a story–perhaps it’s a short story that can be crafted in a day; perhaps it’s a novel that will take months, even years to complete.  But here, now, at the outset, that’s not important.  All that matters is the desire, the need, to write.

idea

 

It doesn’t take long for that to change, and for the situation to become more complicated.  I know, for me, if I have written a short story, there is the initial euphoria of finishing it.  A job well done.  But now–where to submit it?  Will anyone want to publish it?  A dozen rejection slips later, a crisis of confidence hits.  Who was I fooling?  It isn’t any good.  Maybe it’s not as polished as I thought–so I go back, edit it some more, and then resubmit to a dozen more magazines.  Eventually, I have so many rejection slips and form letters, I can wallpaper my office with them.  But I keep submitting, keep believing.  It just takes one . . .

rejectionslips

 

And as for the novel . . . multiply the above by a thousand.  Whereas the short story is a sprint, a forty-yard dash, the novel is a marathon, a test of endurance.  At some point, I know, I will question the entire project.  There will come a low point, when energy reserves have been depleted, when ideas hide underneath rocks and behind thick, impenetrable walls, when I ask myself–“Is this story going anywhere?  Where do I take it?  What do I write next?”  Writer’s block, while in the middle of a novel, is a grim feeling.  All the work already put forth now appears for naught, stuck in the middle of a chapter that refuses to cooperate.

index

 

I had to confront this middle-of-the-story crossroads while writing The Eye-Dancers–the point where the novel will either take off and infuse me with a literary second wind, or die on the vine, withering under a sweltering summer sun, thirsting for ideas that never arrive.  For me, and for The Eye-Dancers, this defining moment occurred in chapter 18.

I was slightly more than halfway through the novel, and felt pretty good about what I had so far.  But chapter 18 was a quagmire.  It was a pivotal chapter, and one of the longest in the novel.  I couldn’t seem to get it right–everything I wrote came up flat, like soda left out on the porch all night long.  I wrote a first draft–ugh.  Lifeless and forced.  Reluctantly, bemoaning the wasted effort, I deleted every word of the chapter and began anew.  The second draft proved no better.  I threw my hands up, literally.  Was my concept wrong?  Should I take a step back and rethink the whole thing?  I remember taking a long walk, thinking, figuring, looking at the impasse from all angles.  But nothing came to me.  Nothing sounded right.

crossroads

 

It brought to mind something George Orwell once said:  “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

orwell

 

Later that day, at a total loss, I flipped through some of my old comic books, looking for something, anything.

I found it.

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

When I was in junior high school and began collecting comic books seriously, I never thought I would buy any issues that weren’t superhero-related.  The Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, and later Batman and Superman were my focus.  But as I learned more about the history of the medium, realizing how rich and layered old comics were, I decided to branch out.  One of the gems I later discovered was what collectors often refer to as “pre-hero Marvels.”

spiderman

 

Prior to The Fantastic Four number 1 (November 1961), Marvel Comics published a small line of adventure and sci-fi comics–certainly not unique in those days.  Even DC, creator of Superman and Batman, incorporated a quality line of non-hero comic books.  But what made the Marvels special were the monsters . . .

ff1

 

With names like Grogg, Groot, and Zog, just to name a few, these larger-than-life creatures jumped off the page.

st83grogg

 

tta13groot

 

I can easily imagine an exuberant ten-year-old in 1960, at the height of the phenomenon, spinning the comics rack at the local corner store, trying to decide which monster-book to plunk his dime on.

jim56zog

 

The stories, with titles such as  “I created Sporr, the Thing That Could Not Die,” were formulaic, silly, and, frankly, ridiculous.  But they were magic, too.

goliath

 

What’s more, they were fun.

tta34

 

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

That particular day, seeking something of an escape from the writing process, I opened Tales of Suspense number 29 (February 1962).  Tales of Suspense is the same title that, ten issues and just over one year later, would introduce the world to Iron Man–but I wasn’t thinking of the Golden Avenger as I flipped through the story, laughing and smiling all the way through “The Martian Who Stole a City.”

TOS29

 

The story was dated, predictable, and by no means a masterpiece.  But it was just the tonic I needed.  It made me feel twelve years old again.  It infused me with optimism, a sense of wonder, and it instilled in me a belief that anything was possible, and that any obstacle to creativity can be hurdled and left far behind in a sun-streaked rearview mirror.

Energized, invigorated, I went back to the book, dared to key in the first word of the revised and revised and revised again chapter 18, which expanded to the first sentence and then the first paragraph.  Two pages later, I paused, pumped a fist.  The logjam had broken.  The mind-block had lifted, disintegrated, like smoke on the wind.

smokeonwind

 

It was a necessary reminder that, no matter what our Amazon sales ranking, no matter what or how many reviews we have, no matter how hard it sometimes is to get our thoughts and visions onto the page, when it’s all said and done, we are doing something we were born to do.  Something we need to do.  Something we love.

Ray Bradbury once wrote, “Zest.  Gusto.  How rarely one hears these words used.  How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating by them.  Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto. . . . For the first thing a writer should be is–excited.  He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms.”

As I continued to type, the words now pouring out of me like lava, the classic issue of Tales of Suspense number 29 still lay there, in full view, on my desk.

enthusiasms

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Swimming with the Sea Monsters of My Mind

When I was six years old, I had a nightmare that would stay with me for the rest of my life.  Even now, all these years later, I can still recall the dream, and the way I felt when I woke up.  I can’t remember what I did that long-ago day, or what I was thinking when I went to bed.  But the dream, yes.  I remember the dream . . .

nightmare

 

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

Somewhere in that universe we call dreams, that alternate reality that seeps into our own, the edges where the two overlap often blurry and indistinct, I looked into the water of an indoor swimming pool.  My two older brothers had just dived in, and challenged me to jump in after them.  But I had hesitated.  I was just six, after all, and the water looked deep, impossibly deep . . . I couldn’t see the bottom.  And I couldn’t see my brothers.  Why weren’t they surfacing?

pool

 

A sense of dread descended on me.  I knew, on an instinctual level, somewhere beneath the rational refuge of conscious reasoning, that something was wrong.  I called out their names.  Nothing.  Another few seconds, and they might drown!  How long would they be able to last without air?

I tried to tell myself that maybe they were just playing a joke on me.  After all, how could they vanish in a swimming pool?  But the reassurance rang hollow.  This was no joke.  And the body of water that lay before me was far more than an ordinary indoor pool.

I looked around.  The room was empty.  When I called out my brothers’ names, the echo reverberated against the tiled floor and bare walls, a mocking, taunting jeer.  Steeling myself, I jumped in to the pool.

tiles

 

When I opened my eyes, I expected the harsh sting of chlorine.  There was no sting–and there were no boundaries, no poolside walls, no solid floor beneath my feet.  And no brothers.

There were only fish, and coral, and strange, undulating shapes that floated past me like the severed remains of a mysterious sea creature.  I felt a wave of panic.  How would I ever find my brothers down here?  And how could they even still be alive, if I did manage to find them?  Already I felt a pressure building in my lungs.  I had a minute, maybe two, at the most, before I would have to surface.

fishandcoral

 

Suddenly a tentacle reached for me, and I yanked myself away just in time.  A giant eye, unblinking, stared at me, and more tentacles reached.  I gasped, nearly swallowing water.  But then the monster swam away, as if bored.

tentacle

 

Before I could process what I had seen, a Great White Shark emerged from the shadows behind an underwater cave.  It raced toward me like a bullet.  I closed my eyes, waiting for the pain, the blood, the evisceration, praying for a miracle.  A moment passed.  Than another.  And another.  I dared to open my eyes.  The shark was gone.

shark

 

But not for long.  It returned, and so did another shark, and an octopus, and a stingray.  Other fish appeared, too, as if out of nowhere, strange, exotic-looking monstrosities that science had yet to discover.  I wanted to scream, but couldn’t.  I needed to escape.  I needed air.  I needed to breathe.

octopus

 

I swam toward the surface, the collection of man-eating sharks and squid and octopi following, just behind–predators circling their victim, waiting for the moment to kill.  I didn’t look at them anymore.  I was sure that if I did, my eye contact would be the impetus they needed to attack.  I focused my gaze toward the surface, imagined that I was inside a long tunnel, protected from the sea monsters that flanked me on all sides.

The trouble was, no matter how far I swam, I couldn’t make out the surface.  The sunlight that filtered through the water never grew brighter.  It remained a pinprick, a tantalizing slice, a pathway to nowhere.  I tried to swim faster, faster, as I felt a tentacle brush up against my knee.  The scales of it scraped away at the skin and stung.  I didn’t look down, but was sure the tentacle had drawn blood.

sunlight

 

It felt as though my lungs would burst, explode into bits of shrapnel that would float through the water in a million different directions.  The monsters closed in.  I could feel their eyes on me, their mouths opening . . . why couldn’t I reach the surface?  Why had my brothers done this?

I couldn’t stand it another moment, couldn’t hold my breath a second longer.  I opened my mouth and . . .

. . . screamed–in my bed.  The blankets were bunched up at my feet.  I was panting, gasping for air.  I blinked once. Twice.  Three times.  Taking in my surroundings.  I was not at the bottom of the sea, about to be ripped to shreds by a school of monsters.  No.  I was in my bedroom, the silence of the house at night surrounding me like a winter glove.

I got out of bed, my legs weak, nearly buckling.  I peeked into the room my brothers shared, just to make sure.  They were there, snoring away.  Finally, I allowed myself to take a deep, calming breath.

wakingupbaddream

 

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

The next night, I fully expected to experience the dream again.  I worried that it might haunt me for weeks on end, as I swam, kicking and flailing but going nowhere, the monsters following, always there, ready to bite and rip and sting.

But I never dreamed of the bottomless pool or the missing brothers or the flesh-eating sea creatures again.

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

I have always been fascinated by dreams, and The Eye-Dancers explores the world of dreams at some length.  The “ghost girl,” for instance, first appears in the nightmares of Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, and Ryan Swinton.  But as the boys soon learn, her visitations are much more than mere figments of their imagination, and she cannot be extinguished by the simple act of opening their eyes.  The line between the waking world and the dream world is not clear–not in The Eye-Dancers, and often not in our own lives.

ghostgirl

 

When I was six, when I dreamed of Great White Sharks and giant squid and multicolored surgeonfish whose sting would instantly prove lethal, I was trying to flee from them, put as much distance between myself and my pursuers.  With good reason, of course.  Who wants to be served up as a nighttime snack in their dreams?  But as the years came and went, as Time pushed on, turning the pages of life with its whisper-quiet fingers, I began to realize that the monsters in my mind were not things to run away from, but to confront.

handsoftime

 

And write about.

The monsters we write about are not necessarily killer sharks or giant creatures of the deep.  More likely they are feelings of regret and loneliness, rejection and guilt, anger and loss.  If we write poetry, these monsters are let loose in verse form.  If we paint, they take shape on the canvas.  If we write nonfiction, they manifest as memoirs and soul-baring truths.  And if we create fiction, they inhabit our characters, our plots, the very fabric that weaves together, a literary embroidery, in the stories we tell.

So now, today, I can look back on that childhood dream, and see it in a very different light.

I can jump in and swim with the sea monsters of my mind.

stingray

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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