Where Fantasy Reigns . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The First Time, Every Time

Do you remember the first time?  I bet you do.

Maybe it was the first time you sketched a picture, and the pencil seemed to have a will, a life, of its own as the lines multiplied, took shape, forming a likeness of something you never realized you could duplicate.

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Maybe it was the first time you blended ingredients, without a recipe, experimenting, modifying, taste-testing, never having done anything quite like this before, but knowing, somehow, that the result would turn out delicious in the end.

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Maybe it was the first time you aimed a camera, wanting desperately to capture the sunset or the butterfly resting, briefly, on the rough bark of your fencepost, or the city skyline on a clear, crisp autumn afternoon.  You snapped the photo, enjoying the moment, a hunger to reconstruct a sliver of reality at just the right angle, in just the right lighting.

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I happen to be a writer, and I remember my first time, too . . .

I was in the second grade.  It was fall in upstate New York, the trees showing off with their reds and golds and burnt pumpkin oranges.  “Like a bowl of fruit loops,” my grandfather liked to say.

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And the teacher, a young woman named Mrs. Mueller, tasked us with an assignment.

“I want you to write about something,” she said, and I can still recall the enthusiasm in her voice.  “About anything you want.  It can be about your bicycle or your cat or your mom or your sister.  Anything!  The only requirement is that it needs to be at least a full page in length.”  At this news. a collective gasp rose from the throng of second-graders.  A whole page?  To the seven-year-olds in the room that October day, Mrs. Mueller might as well have asked us to write an epic poem on par with Paradise Lost.

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But for some reason, the assignment didn’t intimidate me.  Perhaps I was spurred on by the dreamy fall landscape, the woods and fields caramelized after the long, hot summer.  But that night, in my room, I sat on my bed, using one of my father’s old hard-back books as a support for the sheets of loose paper I had ripped out of my notebook, and wrote my first short story.  The thing was?  It did not end up a single page in length.  When I finished, I had written a four-page story.

I called it “The Magic Key,” about a boy and his friend who discover, well, a magic key in an abandoned house on the edge of town.  The house, reputed to be haunted, is full of cobwebs and creaky, ancient doors that groan when opened.  The boys venture into the house on a dare, and when they find and take the key, they soon realize it can unlock portals to places they never knew existed–places where caterpillars talked and beagles soared on dark brown wings, and where, if you wanted something badly enough, if you wished with all your might, you would receive whatever you asked for.

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Today, looking back at “The Magic Key,” I realize the story is laughable.  Events just happen, one after the other, as the plot careens wildly out of control.  Events and developments that would normally require entire chapters occur in a single paragraph.  But none of that mattered then, nor does it now.  “The Magic Key” will always hold a special place for me.  When I read it, I remember myself at seven years old having a ball, creating something out of nothing, letting the story tell itself.  I remember the high I felt as the ideas poured in so fast and so loud, my pencil could scarcely keep up.  I remember feeling like I could burst, the thoughts and feelings and words needing to come out, onto the page.  They were no good if they remained locked inside, faces without names, skeletons without muscle and tissue and skin.  And when I was finished, when I triumphantly scribbled, “The End,” in bold strokes on the bottom of page 4, I felt on top of the world.  On top of the universe.  There was a sense of accomplishment, of expressing myself in a form that just felt right.  From that day on, I was hooked.  I wanted to be a writer.

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I’m pretty sure Mrs. Mueller was surprised when I placed “The Magic Key” on her desk.  “Four pages!” she exclaimed, and I admit, I beamed with pride when she smiled.  The next week, when she returned our stories, she had given me an A, and a smiley face on the top of the first page.  She wrote a little note, saying the story showed imagination and that she enjoyed it.  At the time, seven years old and still in the afterglow of my first creative writing project, I just smiled again, digesting her words easily, lightly, like cotton candy at the fair.  But as I grew older, as I reached my teen years and beyond, I would sometimes wonder what Mrs. Mueller really had thought.  After all, she’d expected to read a short essay on my dog or my grandfather or what I had done the previous summer.  She had most assuredly not expected “The Magic Key.”

I remember one night, when I was in college, I dug out that old story and read it.  I winced.  It was awful.  Mrs. Mueller’s complimentary remarks now seemed a taunt, a mock, a cruel joke.  But then I read the story again, and this time I smiled, laughed even.  And I traveled back in my mind, to that day, years earlier, when the words came, unasked for, and the story wrote itself in a barrage of sentences and ideas that gushed out of me like a geyser.  I remembered how, as I wrote that old story, I wasn’t concerned with how good it was, or how it would be received, or how it might be critiqued.  I just created it.  Better yet, I let the story create itself, and I got out of the way.

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It was a reminder of sorts, knee-deep as I was in critical essays on Dickens and Shakespeare and Hemingway, analyzing literature from the inside out, studying symbolism and point of view and theme and character.  Somehow, it seemed, the fun had been taken out of writing.

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It’s still something I struggle with from time to time.  There are days when I try to write, and nothing comes because I’m being too analytical, too worried about the merits of what I’m creating instead of simply creating.

“Don’t think,” Ray Bradbury once said.  “Thinking is the enemy of creativity.  It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy.  You can’t try to do things.  You simply must do things.”

In The Eye-Dancers, Mitchell Brant certainly knows all about being self-conscious. Insecure, too often worrying that he doesn’t measure up, he invents stories about himself, trying to appear as “more” than he really is.  When he meets Heather, a girl who becomes his friend in the variant town of Colbyville, she tells him he should just be himself, that he doesn’t need to pretend.  He’s good enough the way he is.  He wants to believe this.  He tries to grasp on to it.  He longs to believe in the dream, in the possibility–that he can, ultimately, be anything he wants to be.

At the end of chapter 20, the text reads:

“He looked up, at the infinite black canvas of the sky, at the stars, which shimmered like precious jewels.  She had said that maybe our dreams lived up there, among those stars.  All we needed to do was believe.  And remember.

And reach.”

That’s the kind of feeling I had, all those years ago, when I wrote my first story in the second grade.  That’s the kind of feeling I believe we all share when we allow ourselves the freedom to do what we love without worrying about the end results.  Yes.  There is a time and a place to look at your results.  There is a time when the red editing pen must come out and the cold, analytical process of revision must trump the hot, volcanic flurry of creation.

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But when I approach the blank page, when I am about to begin a new story or a new scene or a new chapter, I try to remember that assignment from the second grade.

We all have, I think, our own personal “magic key,” if you will–something we can look back on and remind us where we started, what we love, and why we do what we do.

Or, put another way and again quoting Ray Bradbury, “The stars are yours, if you have the head, the hands, and the heart for them.”

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Simple (and Complex) Question, A Complex (and Simple) Answer

It was just one of those questions that sometimes pop up during the course of a conversation–unplanned, spur-of-the-moment.

“Why do you write?”

I was having lunch with a friend, an accountant who had just confessed to me that he’d never so much as attempted to write a short story in his entire life, let alone a novel.  What motivated me to create fiction, to invent stories and situations and then share them with others, he wanted to know.

I opened my mouth, then closed it.  It was such a straightforward question.  And yet–no one had ever actually asked it of me so plainly, so baldly.  Why did I write?  On the surface, it seemed, I should have had an answer ready.  After all, writing was my passion, and always had been.  I could remember writing stories as far back as the second grade.

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But I wasn’t sure how to respond.  Did I write because it was fun?  Sometimes.  When a story flowed, when the words spilled out of me so fast I couldn’t type quickly enough, when characters spoke lines that seemingly came directly from them, supposed figments of my imagination, and not from me at all, it was a rapturous experience, a high like no other.  But other times, it was brutal, as I dissected, edited, and picked apart my work.  Was it rewarding?  Yes, of course.  But that, in and of itself, didn’t capture the essence of why I write.

My friend’s straightforward question suddenly seemed more complex.

Drawing a blank, not certain how I could adequately answer it, all I could think to say was, “You know, I’m not sure.  It’s just something in me, that’s all.  Writing is  something I have to do.”

My friend had a thoughtful look on his face, and I expected he’d follow up with more questions.  But then he just nodded, and changed the topic of conversation.

That night, I lie awake, thinking about it, and the exchange bothered me.  My answer seemed too pat, too simple.  My need to write, and to share my writing with others, went deeper than that.  I just wasn’t sure how to express it.  It was like trying to lasso a passing summer cloud, high overhead, force it down to ground level, and then jump inside, hoping it would float away again, taking me along for the ride.  How was I supposed to put something like that into words?

That conversation happened twelve years ago. . . .

**********

The question of why I write is not unrelated to another question I get often:  “Where do your story ideas come from?”  On the surface, the two questions are different–but in actuality they are linked, two sides of the proverbial coin.  Ideas, I have found, cannot be “forced.”  I cannot wake up one morning and state, boldly, “Today I will think of a new short story and write it.”  It doesn’t work that way–at least not for me.

In my experience, ideas come when I least expect them–while I’m out mowing the lawn, running an errand at the store, taking a walk along a quiet country road.  Sometimes ideas come when I’m at a large gathering, even while in the midst of a conversation.

And sometimes they come in my dreams.

The genesis for The Eye-Dancers came to me over twenty years ago when I dreamed of the same “ghost girl” Mitchell Brant dreams of in the first chapter of the novel.  But when I woke up, I didn’t know what to do with this strange, haunting girl.  I knew I wanted to write about her–but I had no story in which to place her.

It took two decades until I did, when, once again, I dreamed of her.  But this time, upon waking, I had the basic concept of the story in place.  And despite the fact that it all began with the ghost girl, the story would really be about four boys who ultimately go on a dimension-busting journey, where they not only have to overcome the otherworldly dangers they are confronted with, but also the insecurities and hang-ups that plague them.  I knew right away, as soon as I woke up that morning–this was a story I had to write.

It was an exhilarating feeling–it always is when an idea strikes, takes hold of me and won’t let go–not until it forms into a living thing, with flesh and bones and cartilage, heart and mind and soul, right there on the page.  Whenever it happens, I am reminded of a quote from Ray Bradbury:

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

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For me, there is no other way.  I can have–and have had–grand ideas, rich concepts, fantastic plotlines that never will see the light of day.  The reason?  I don’t care deeply enough about them.  The idea, in and of itself, might be interesting, but it doesn’t grab me by the throat and demand a life and vitality of its own.  It just sits there, like a Victorian gentleman sipping his afternoon tea, pondering the benefits of a nap.  If I tried to write about it, it would come out dull and drab–and it would, indeed, inspire a nap!

With a novel, in particular, you have to love your characters, love what you’re trying to create.  It is too long, too formidable of a project to accomplish otherwise.  There were days while writing The Eye-Dancers that I honestly didn’t know if I could continue.  The task seemed too large, too hard, too daunting.  But then, when apathy threatened to take over, I would think of the themes the story delves into–themes I care deeply about:  the essence of childhood, the art of discovery, the struggles and joys of growing up, the curiosity to wonder, the daring to believe in magic, the exploration of the universe, and of what we term “reality” itself.  And perhaps most important of all, I would think of Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski–four characters inspired by friends I knew growing up.  The Eye-Dancers is their story, and I wanted, needed, to tell it.

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And maybe that’s the best way I know to explain why it is I write fiction, and why I desire others to read what I have to say.  I write to explore and further awaken pieces of me, and I want nothing more than to share those pieces, those memories and truths, those fears and loves, with you.  It is my hope that The Eye-Dancers accomplishes all of that, and more.

When it’s all said and done, I look back at this and smile.  Because maybe, just maybe, the answer I gave my friend all those years ago is, ultimately, the best answer of all.

Why do we do what we do?  Why do we follow our passions?  What makes us driven to write and sing and dance and act and garden and play and cook and paint and love, and do those things we were put on this earth to do?

Why do I write?

It’s just something in me, that’s all.  It’s something I have to do.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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