A Walk Across Upstate New York (Or, The Rewards of a Step-by-Step Process)

I’d been looking forward to it for weeks.  We had been talking about it since the early spring, and now, at the height of summer in western New York, the time had come.

It was 1995, I was still in college, and the prospect of a new century, a new millennium, was still five years into the future.  Cell phones were still mostly a novelty, and the Internet was a newborn, slowly gaining traction, just beyond the outskirts of the mainstream.  No matter.  As summer approached that year, I was excited, eager to partake of the adventure.

 

It wasn’t hard to plan.  School was out, we had cleared our schedules.  We had a full week to do it.  I had hoped to corral the entire gang–Rick and Joe and Matt and Andy, the neighborhood friends I had known for years–and also the people who inspired the protagonists in both The Eye-Dancers and its soon-to-be-released sequel, The Singularity Wheel.  But some of the guys backed out, citing potential dangers, scheduling conflicts, previous commitments.  That was okay.  We still had three of us going.

 

So it was that on the warm, humid morning of July 10, 1995, precisely twenty-two years ago today, my neighbor Rick (on the right), my cousin “Moose” (left), and I (center) set out on our mini-journey.

 

We would spend the next week walking across a portion of upstate New York.  I had long romanticized about walking across America.  This bite-sized facsimile would have to do.  We’d trek west from Rochester, traveling through remote, rural towns, experiencing the pastoral heart of the Empire State on foot.  And while our experience would only last a few short days, I knew, even before we started, that I would never forget.

 

The first day was the hardest.  We weren’t used to walking so many miles.  Our feet ached, we drank copious amounts of water, and we rested every few miles.  But we had a blast.  Walking mostly on the shoulder of the road, we traveled along both main thoroughfares and sparsely used back roads.  With our packs and gear, it was obvious to passing motorists what we were up to.  Some cars honked at us.  A group of college students sped past at one point, calling us “nerdballs.”  That made our day.  A middle-aged man in a straw hat, doing yard work at the base of his lawn, stopped us and offered us water.  We politely declined, letting him know were well stocked.  He asked us where we were going.  I’d like to say we were honest–just a weeklong walking trip across western New York.  Alas, we embellished the details–substantially.  Something about Colorado to Cape Cod, and back again.  What’s worse, the guy believed us.

 

“I wonder if we should have told him the truth,” I said, a mile up the road.

“Well, we’re walking across most of the country in spirit,” Rick said.  “So, I mean, it’s kinda, sorta the truth, right?”  That was good enough for us.  I have no good excuse to offer now.  What can I say?  It was a heady moment.  We were young.

That first night, we stayed at the farmhouse of a family friend just outside the small college town of Brockport.  Well, we didn’t spend the night in the house.  We slept out in the yard, in sleeping bags, under a sky dotted with stars.  We were tired–we had walked twenty miles that day, and had run through the wheat field out back behind the farmhouse that evening.  It took us a while to get to sleep, though.  We lay down, listened to the cries of hoot owls, the rustlings in the plants and shrubs that flanked the yard, the whispers of the night breeze as it shared its sacred, eternal wisdom.

 

We talked.  We joked.  We savored.

And the next morning, bright and early, we set out west again.  The walking was already growing easier, our bodies acclimating to the journey, adjusting to the rhythm.  It rained, briefly, and then the sun came out, a hot, large July sun that tested our stamina.  More cars beeped at us.  More insults were hurled.  More strangers stopped us, took a moment to chat.  For every derogatory remark we received along the way, we got ten more that were kind.

 

We walked through tiny, speck-on-the-map towns, with names like Clarendon and Holley and Albion, dotted with old capes and town squares and corner stores.  Interspersed between the towns, acres and acres of cornfields and dairy farms spread across the land like a luxurious green carpet.  We slept in cheap motels and ate convenience store pizza.  And then, on the fourth morning, we turned around, headed east, back to Rochester.

 

Suddenly, it seemed, the miles grew longer, the movements more laborious.  We had lost some of the spring in our step.  It was easy to understand why.  While we had journeyed west, away from Rochester, we were exploring new ground, in full discovery mode.  Sure, we’d seen many of these same towns before, but it’s far different zipping by in a car than it is taking the time to really look and listen and experience while walking.  Not to mention, a few of the smallest towns were in fact new to us.  We had never visited them prior to the walk.

 

Now, though, we were going back, covering much of the same ground we had just days earlier.  We took a few different roads, tried to change it up a bit.  But the truth was undeniable.  The return trip back was a known quantity.  We were heading back to the point of origin, no longer breaking new ground, no longer heading away, deeper into the unexplored.  The sun felt hotter, the humidity more taxing, the water supply less plentiful.  Even the pizza lost some of its zing.

 

As I reflect back on the experience now, two decades later, I realize the entire episode was not unlike writing a novel.  The walk away from Rochester was akin to the twists and turns and highs of creating the first draft.  You know where you’re going in a broad, general sense, yet the specifics of how to get there are shrouded in mystery and intrigue.  There is always a bend up the road, and until you take it, you can’t be sure what lies beyond. The euphoria of discovery is in the air as you boldly journey into the unknown.

 

Likewise, the return trip back to Rochester, plodding through familiar territory, was like the editing process, hashing over material already on the page, pruning, crafting, reshaping.  There is nothing new here.  The story has already been written.  This is the time to sharpen the focus, tighten the prose, and make sure the plot developments and characters and events link seamlessly together from front to back.  If Character X does this in chapter two, the reverberations must be felt in chapter twenty-seven.  The editing process can be tedious and slow–but it is a crucial aspect to completing a finished project.

 

And that’s where I am currently, in the process of finishing The Singularity Wheel.  I’m walking back to Rochester, as it were, through towns and streets and along back roads I have traveled along before. And yes, it can feel like walking uphill sometimes.  But I have to hope that the extra time and effort will help to shape the final product into something worthwhile.

 

One thing I do know for sure.  When we did get back home to Rochester that hot July of 1995, we felt as though we had accomplished something.  Sure, it would have been easier to hitch a ride back, shorten the journey.  But it wouldn’t have been the same, wouldn’t have meant as much.

 

That first evening back, the sofa had never felt so good.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Five Years and Two Hundred Posts!

Two hundred years ago, on July 4, 1817, construction of the Erie Canal began.  It had been a long time in the making. First proposed in 1780 as a means to create a navigable water route between Buffalo and the Great Lakes to the west and New York City and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Erie Canal had its share of roadblocks, delays, and controversies.

 

Construction wasn’t completed until 1825, and along the way, there was plenty of public backlash and criticism.  Skeptics of the canal referred to it as “Clinton’s Folly” and DeWitt’s Ditch,” mocking one of the primary movers and shakers of the new waterway, New York State governor DeWitt Clinton.  But it was Clinton and other proponents who would ultimately have the last laugh. The canal fostered a population upsurge in upstate and western New York, including my hometown of Rochester.  And it also served the primary purpose for which it was built.  By 1855, 33,000 commercial shipments traveled up and down the Erie Canal.

 

That number would slowly and inexorably decrease as the decades ensued, as first the railway and, later, the automobile and the truck superseded the canal as avenues for shipments.  Nevertheless, the Erie Canal would live on.  It wouldn’t stagnate and succumb to neglect and decay.  As the canal’s primary function shifted from shipping goods to recreation, it would remain an enduring jewel of the Empire State.  Today, water enthusiasts still can boat along the canal, either in their own craft or on a cruise.  Bicyclists, joggers, and walkers (Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski among them!) enjoy the miles of trails that line the water’s edge.  Two hundred years after ground was broken for New York State’s grand man-made waterway, the Erie Canal continues to prosper.

 

The Eye-Dancers blog is no Erie Canal!  But this entry marks the site’s two-hundredth post.  If someone would have told me, back in the summer of 2012, that The Eye-Dancers website would last five years and two hundred posts, I would have smiled and asked them if they might like to buy a bridge I wanted to sell.  There was no way I could envision it.  I was just trying to craft a few coherent blog posts, not make a fool of myself in the process, and help to spread the word of the at-that-time soon-to-be-released novel The Eye-Dancers.  Along the way, though, I learned that there was nothing to worry about.  I learned that the WordPress community is made up of generous, kind, interesting, and wonderful people who welcome blogging neophytes with open arms.

 

And so, today, five years on, I pause, take stock, glance back, look forward, and thank you all so much.  You are the reason why I’m still here, still blogging, still enjoying every minute of it.  If it weren’t for you, there surely wouldn’t be a two-hundredth post.  You have all inspired me to keep going, keep writing, keep believing, even when doubt and uncertainty threatened to sabotage my efforts.

 

That’s true, too, of The Singularity Wheel, the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  The support I have received from you regarding the sequel has been a motivator, an elixir, encouraging me to press forward with optimism.  I am in the stretch run of editing The Singularity Wheel, and will look forward to releasing it just as the trees here in the Northeast begin to transform from a canopy of green to a color show of golds, reds, and oranges.

 

In the meantime, and long afterward, I will continue to post, and continue to appreciate everything I have learned and experienced in this worldwide community.  I hope you’ll stick around for the next two hundred posts!

 

Thanks so much for all the support these past five years, and thanks, as always, for reading.

–Mike

When the Lilacs Bloom

Spring, in my neck of the woods, is easily the most longed-for season of the year.

All too often, however, spring is like a bashful pixie, a reluctant, shy, embarrassed late-arrival to the all-season party where winter dominates the proceedings and monopolizes the conversation. Eventually, though, as the pages of the calendar flip forward, day by day, we reach the month of May, when spring finally unfurls its plumage, the self-consciousness gone, the reticence of March and April a forgotten thing.

pixie

 

Almost overnight, it seems, grasses that were yellow and brown turn a rich, verdant green.  Buds appear, as if by magic, on the trees.  Colorful grosbeaks and bobolinks return to the area, and the year-round songbirds sing louder and longer, as if basking in the long-awaited, nearly forgotten warmth.

grosbreak

 

And. perhaps most spectacular of all, May is when the lilacs bloom . . .

This weekend, I will take the seven-hour drive from Vermont, my adopted state for the past eleven years, “back home” to Rochester, New York.  I’ll visit my parents, my brothers and sister, extended family, and old friends.  I look forward to it.  It is always nice visiting my roots, inspirations, the people and places who have been there for me from the beginning.

rochester

 

And, time permitting, I will also make a point to see the lilacs.

Rochester has long been nicknamed the Flower City, and no time of the year embodies this more than the month of May, and no single piece of real estate more so than Highland Park.

highlandp

 

Situated on the city’s south side, Highland Park is home to the largest collection of lilac bushes in the United States, boasting more than 500 varieties of lilacs and 1,200 plants in all, bedecked on a green hillside that spans 22 acres.  Every May, for a span of ten days, the park hosts the Lilac Festival. It’s an enormous event, bringing in more than 500,000 visitors from around the world.

lilacfest

 

For me, though, I most enjoy the park early in the morning, before the food and craft stands open, before the crowds gather–when there is still dew on the grass and when you can listen, without interruption, to your thoughts and luxuriate in the heady fragrance of the lilacs.

lilacs1

 

lilacs2

 

I savor it, savor them, drinking them in because I know they will be gone within a fortnight, the delicate petals fallen, the purples and pinks and lavenders stripped away, the color show over and done until the same time next year.  It always seems sad that such a magnificent display should be so brief, such a bounty so fleeting.

highlandsummer

 

Perhaps it is.  But it also serves as a reminder.

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

Have you ever been struck by an idea, something so inspired, so riveting, so full of life and vitality that you instantly knew you had to let it out?  Maybe it was a concept for a short story, or a new focus for a novel.  Maybe it was a poem, gift-wrapped, arriving in total, the lines and rhythms dancing before your eyes like gemstones.  Maybe it was a landscape or a street scene for you to paint, the contours, shadows, and nuances perfectly clear in your mind’s eye.  Maybe it was a tactic, an approach, a way to sway your audience or win the approval of your coworkers on a long-debated and polarizing project.

gems

 

Moments like these are energizing, and often hit us without warning, a creative bolt from the blue, as it were.  They are as invigorating as they are rare.

boltfromblue

 

Sure, ideas strike every day.  But how many of them make you stop what you’re doing mid-thought, or distract to the point where you forget the supper in the oven or fail to see that red light switch over to green (the motorist behind you will certainly let you know should this happen–and yes, I speak from experience!)?  I know for me, such ideas only occur infrequently, and there is no way of guessing when they will come.

redgreen

 

I’ve tried to figure it all out.  Is there something specific I tend to do that might encourage the best ideas to strike?  Is there a certain TV show or movie I should watch?  Maybe a book I should read?  Or maybe a particular food . . . perhaps a “creativity diet” that exists, a certain combination of vegetables, starches, and nuts that assures at least one winning idea per day?

creativediet

 

But if there’s a secret magic formula, I’ve yet to discover it.  The muse strikes when it will, a capricious, fickle thing, as inscrutable as the undiscovered wonders at the bottom of the sea or the farthest reaches of space.

farthestreaches

 

The truth is, those earth-shattering ideas that rock my creative world and send paradigm shifts running through every page of a manuscript are as rare and transitory as the lilacs that grace Highland Park for a fortnight every spring.  And maybe that’s as it should be–for all of us.  If they struck every day, they would no longer be special, no longer demand our attention and make us take notice.  They’d become ordinary, just another check mark on the to-do lists of our lives.  “Brush teeth, check.  Make breakfast, check.  Pick up groceries, check.  Pay the bills, check.  Be inspired by fabulous, Pulitzer-Prize-worthy idea, check.”

pulitzer

 

As tempting as it sounds (especially in those seasons of writer’s block) to have an ideas-on-demand app that we could tap into anytime we want, I kind of like it the way it is now.  Not everything should be so convenient and easy.  Some things are meant to be special.

Like Highland Park in the month of May . . .

ilacsend1

 

. . . when the lilacs bloom.

lilacsend2

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Quiet Moments, Green Meadows

“Everything in life is writable about,” Sylvia Plath once said, “if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise.”

plath

 

Everything?

Sure, large events are worth writing about, both joyous as well as painful–perhaps a wedding, a graduation, a medal of honor; a death, an accident, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity lost.

graduation

 

Who among us hasn’t experienced life-changing moments, moments we want to record on paper or in song, on canvas or in film?  This is at the heart of what it means to create art . . . to take an experience, highly personal and unique to you, and then share it with the world, making it, as if by magic, accessible to everyone, a universal tribute to the human condition.

art

 

But what about the small moments, the quiet times, the everyday jobs?  What about that time you shared a lighthearted conversation with a friend, or had lunch with a coworker?  What about the special meal you prepared last Thursday or the audiobook you’re listening to as you commute to your job each morning?

smallmoments

 

Are these things writable too?

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

Every year, on a weekend in May, I take the seven-hour drive from the hills of east-central Vermont, where I live, to Rochester, New York, where I grew up.  This year, that weekend has arrived.  I’ll be heading out first thing tomorrow morning.

rochesterbetter

 

I always enjoy the drive.  May in the northeastern U.S. is a special time, a time made for driving across the countryside.  Lilacs bloom, showering the land with a riot of color–deep pink, lily white, warm purple.  Tall grasses, lush-green, sway in the breeze.  And the trees, bare and gray for so many months, are now bedecked with the leafy accoutrements of spring.

lilacs

 

The towns, too, are alive, as if awakening from a winter-long slumber.  Before merging onto the New York State Thruway, I travel through places with names like Hudson Falls, Schuylerville, Fort Ann, and Fonda.  Small towns, old towns, with local diners and rambling farmhouses and village squares that, very easily, I can imagine as cinematic set pieces for a Frank Capra classic.  It’s all very nostalgic, and it creates in me a stirring, a yearning, an appreciation.

hudsonfalls

 

Driving through the towns, I see children playing catch, a lemonade stand on the corner, a couple walking their dog.  And I realize–it’s good to be alive on this spring day, in the 21st century.  It’s good to be going home.

lemonadestand

 

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

I lived countless “little” moments in the house where I grew up, the house where my parents still live.  There were so many, in fact, they tend to merge in my mind, one upon another upon another, like an old home movie playing at triple speed.  But I remember.

homemovies

 

I will always remember  . . .

. . . all the times I played with my brother.  We’d re-create baseball and football seasons with our favorite game, Strat-O-Matic.  Or we’d go into the backyard, and he would play quarterback and I would run routes, pretending I was playing in front of a hundred thousand fans on a Sunday afternoon.  I was just a kid, of course, nine years old, eleven, twelve, and at the time I may not have appreciated the attention my brother gave me as much as I should have.  But I’d like to think that, deep down, I did.  He is nine years older than me.  He was a junior in high school, a senior, then a college student, and still he found the time, and the desire, to be there for me.

strato

 

Is that worth writing about?

Or what about my mother?  Some of my earliest memories are of her reading picture books to me.  I was three years old, and she play-acted the scenes and made the stories come alive, no doubt planting a seed, creating in me a love of reading and writing that would stay with me always.

beanstalk

 

Is that worth writing about?

Or what about my friends, who lived in the old neighborhood?  The same friends who inspired Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski in The Eye-Dancers, not to mention various supporting characters who pop up throughout the course of the novel.  I remember the games we invented, the trouble we got into, the things we would talk about on those clear summer nights when the stars, twinkling like precious diamonds, spread across the great dome of the sky.  We’d wonder–is there life up there, somewhere?  Are we really alone in the universe?  We didn’t think so.  Not then, and not now.

nightsky

 

Is that worth writing about?

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

These quiet moments, these small moments, these green May meadows of the soul–soft with morning dew, carpeted with dandelions and velvety to the touch–are the sorts of places that encourage us to stop and linger for a while, to ponder where we’ve come from, and where we’re going.

dandelionmeadow

 

To reflect on the ever-expanding, layered embroidery of our lives, the day-to-day happenings that comprise the bulk of who we are and what we do.  And what and who we love.

And that’s something worth writing about.

memoriesmoments

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Precious Jewels Hidden in Tattered Pages

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

cicadas

 

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

senioryear

 

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

me

 

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

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

overstreet1

 

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

avengers57

 

ff48

 

After a few minutes, I could no longer resist.

superman

 

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

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

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

Was it?

balloon

 

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

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

comiccollection

 

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

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

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

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

spinningrack

 

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

cliff

 

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

negativezone

 

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

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

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

sparklingjewels

 

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

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

I looked at him, smiled.

“Priceless,” I said.

sunsetpriceless

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Looking Out the Window . . . Or, the Cure for Writer’s Block?

It was difficult to feel motivated, and I don’t think I was the only person in the class who felt that way.  Fellow students yawned, fidgeted.  A couple of times, the professor, a tall, bespectacled brunette in her late forties, had to remind the class to focus on the discussion at hand.

tiredclass

 

The malaise was understandable, perhaps even unavoidable.  It was the first week of the spring semester, which in itself seemed a cruel joke.  Spring?  It was the end of January, and outside, a soft snow was falling from clouds the color of ash.  The temperature had been stuck several degrees below freezing for days, and the sun, a shy, long-lost acquaintance, seemed perpetually hidden.

Western New York State in midwinter . . .

nyjanuary

 

“So,” the professor said, her voice high, energetic.  No doubt she sensed that she needed to inject some much-needed enthusiasm into the classroom.  “Today I want to talk about writer’s block.  We’ve all been there before, am I right?”  Nods, faint murmerings from the class.  “Well . . . when you want to write something, and you just can’t seem to, what do you do?”

writersblock

 

One girl raised her hand and said she just waits it out.  Ideas come when they will come, she said.  I nodded.  I had tried to force-feed ideas in the past, but it never worked.  The creative process was a mystery.  It wasn’t something you could order around.  It was the one in charge.  Not me.

creativity

 

The professor didn’t agree.

“Look outside,” she said.  “Everyone.  Look out the window.”  Heads turned, slowly, and I overheard one student behind me whisper to herself that she needed another cup of coffee.  It was an early morning class on top of everything else.

coffee

 

“Now,” the professor continued.  “I want you all to describe what you see.”

Blank looks and an audible grunt from one guy who looked as if he’d literally stumbled out of bed two minutes before the start of class greeted her direction.

“In your notebooks, write what you see through the window,” she went on.  “Just a single paragraph.  But in that paragraph, I want you to paint a picture.  Create a mood.  Get those writer’s muscles working!  I’ll write something up, too.”

One girl asked if we’d all have to share our literary creations with the rest of the class.  The professor rolled her eyes behind the lenses of her glasses, and shook her head.  “Only if you want to.”  The girl breathed a sigh of relief.

I peered out the window, taking in the scene.  The classroom overlooked a snow-covered expanse interspersed with walkways and dotted with maple trees, stripped bare for the winter.  This section of campus was presently empty, the early hour and cold, snowy weather keeping students and faculty inside.

mapletree

 

One tree in particular caught my eye.  It stood perhaps twenty feet beyond the window, its limbs reaching up into the white, wintry haze.  The trunk was large, solid–I estimated it must have been there a hundred years, if not more, an ancient guardian, a sentry of the walkways and classrooms within its watch.  A crow, cawing as it flew (or so I imagined through the closed window), landed on a branch, its black feathers bold against the whites and grays of a Rochester January.

crow

 

I stared at the crow, thinking, imagining, and began to write . . .

“In the maple that has been here so long, no one alive can remember its absence, a crow perches.  Midnight black on slate gray.  What secrets does the tree know?  What hushed conversations has it overheard?  What conspiracies has it been privy to?  It stands and watches.  And listens, listens . . .  Not eternal, perhaps.  But enduring.  The bird flies away.  Perhaps, just perhaps, it had sensed something in the tree.  A knowledge, maybe.  A probing . . . as if its innermost being, its secrets tucked away in a quiet corner of its black heart were being exposed, one by wintry one . . .”

I never did share that paragraph with my classmates.  And, truth be told, I’m not sure it should see the light of day now!  But it illustrates the point the professor was trying to make that day.  If you observe the simplest thing and decide to write a paragraph, or a page, about it, you can escape the creative logjam you might be in and ride with the river’s current.  Sometimes the current is slow, winding, hesitant.  Sometimes it rushes headlong toward some unknown destination, full of promise and optimism.  Either way, however, you are moving, not stuck in the mire and muck of writer’s block.

river

 

While the scene you describe may not find its way into a short story or chapter (though it might!), it very well may kindle the flame of an idea, kick-start a story line, or help you to navigate the maze of the novel you’re working on.

maze

 

There were times while writing The Eye-Dancers that I did indeed feel stuck.  What should happen next?  Sometimes your characters act in the most unpredictable ways!  That’s generally a good thing, except for when they act so unpredictably they cause you, the author, to question the next scene, or peer ahead, bleary-eyed and overwhelmed, not sure where the story should journey next, or if it should even be completed at all.

writersblock2

 

And for me, these creative crisis points are the moments when I need to remind myself to step back, take a breath–and write.  Create something fresh and new, completely unrelated to the work-in-progress that has me bogged down and frustrated.

Because whether you live in upstate New York as I once did, or northern New England as I do now, where the January landscape is a black-and-white photograph, the snowdrifts deep, the wind a serrated knife, the growth and renewal of spring seemingly a lifetime away; whether you live by the sea in a sunny, mild climate, the sound of the waves an echo from some long-ago century; or whether you live on a farm or in a bustling downtown, or on the outskirts of a Norman Rockwell-esque village, there is always something to watch, to hear, to contemplate.

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All you have to do is look out the window . . .

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Silent Scream

It was just another in a long, monotonous line of bleak, nondescript November days in western New York, the clouds gray and low, like bruises in the sky.  The last sunny day had been well over a week ago. I was driving to my Creative Writing class, the twenty-mile commute to the college taking me through small towns and country farms and fields.  The bare trees, with their twisted, skeletal  limbs, appeared as if they were trying to reach up and puncture holes in the clouds, perhaps, like the rest of us, desperate to reveal the blue that lay beyond.

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I had been in a bit of a funk.  November in the Northeast can be a depressing time.  The days continue to grow shorter, as evening falls by 5:00 p.m.  The air has a bite to it, reminding you, every time you step out the door, that a long, snowy wintry season is just around the bend.  Spring seems a long ways off, a distant thing that floats around on the wind like some vague rumor, some hushed secret nobody quite dares to believe.

But it wasn’t just the season that was getting me down.  It was my creative life–or lack thereof.  Take the Creative Writing class I was driving to.  Just a fortnight ago, I had turned in a short story called “A Day at the Beach,” full of optimism, confidence, sure that the professor and the rest of the class, who would read it and critique it for the following week’s session, would appreciate the symbolism, thematic nuances, and structure of the story.

They hadn’t.  None of them really “got” what I was trying to say, and very few of them liked the story.  In the days that followed, I wondered about that.  I had tried so hard to create something literary, rich with similes and metaphors, and subthemes that tackled the key issues of life and our existence on this planet.  What had gone wrong?

I passed a dairy farm, the cows grazing languorously in the fading light of day.  They seemed so relaxed, content simply to be.  Everything I wasn’t, with my strivings and studying and worrying over GPA.  Beyond the dairy farm, a dead November corn field stretched for acres, the stalks yellowed, dessicated, like a battalion of corpses. And on the western edge of the field stood a weathered old barn.  I had passed it many times before, on the drive out to the college.  But today it looked different.

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Its door was open, revealing dark shadows that retreated further into the interior.  Coupled with the two upper window slots near the roof and the one slightly lower, the front of the barn resembled a giant face, the eyes gazing out at the corn field, at the flock of crows gathering, searching for a morsel.  But the door–the open door . . .

It looked like a mouth, open wide, screaming . . .  I shuddered, literally, as I drove past.  My imagination–always overactive–instantly imagined reasons why the barn would feel compelled to scream.  I visualized the terrible things that may have happened within its four wooden walls, its loft, its dusty, hidden corners full of cobwebs and rusted-out equipment, long since useless but lurking, lurking, like monsters in the dark.  What secrets did that barn have to tell?  What horrors did it have to scream about?

barnface

 

I drove on, still thinking, still haunted by the image of the screaming barn.  It screamed, but without a sound.  It had a story to tell, but it remained mute, like a creature without a tongue.  And suddenly, I realized that was exactly the way I had been operating in my Creative Writing class.  I had been writing with the art of writing foremost in my mind.  I had been pressing, the literary equivalent to the baseball batter who overswings, trying to hit every pitch over the fence.  I hadn’t been letting my stories tell themselves.  I hadn’t even been writing the stories I needed to write.  If some idea didn’t strike me as “literary,” I chose to toss it aside, ashamed of sharing it with the class.  Instead I stressed over the merit of ideas, the complexity, the themes and symbols.  This was a Graduate-level class, after all.  I couldn’t just write the things I wanted to write about.  I had to write literary stories.

drained

 

No wonder my stories were lacking, uninspired, flat and lifeless on the page.  Just like that barn I had passed, I had my own screams, the ideas that kicked and punched away inside of me, ideas that yelled to be let out, shared with others, not because they were necessarily complex or literary, but because they were mine.  They were the things I was passionate about, the things I cared about and thought about and feared and hated and loved, the things that kept me up at night, tugging away at the soul, not letting go, never relenting.  These were the stories I was meant to tell.  These were my screams, which, too often during that Writing class, I had stifled and ignored.

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

I have had a few people ask me why I wrote The Eye-Dancers.  Why sci-fi/fantasy?  Why young adult?  Why are four boys the protagonists?  Why not two boys and two girls?  Or three girls and a boy?  Or . . .?  And I’m sure I could try to come up with some layered answer, discussing the themes and story arcs and character traits represented in the novel.  I could probably break out some aspects of literary theory and point of view and symbolism.  But none of that would express anything real.  None of that would come close to sharing the real reason why I wrote the book . . .

. . . I had a story to tell.  It found me, I didn’t find it.  It came knocking, pounding, banging . . . and I had to answer.  Once I did, it set in motion an inexorable tide of ideas and characters that would not rest until their story had been told.

It is like that with anything, I think.  We each have things inside of us that need to be unleashed, that need to be heard.

letourcreativity

 

So go ahead.  Write.  Create.  Draw.  Paint.  Play.  Talk.  Dance.  Decorate.  Sing.    Share the things you care about, not because they are “literary” or “artistic” or “multi-layered” (even if they are).  Share them because they are yours.

Our screams should not be silent.

beach

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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