“Suddenly Seymour” Moments (Or, On Epiphanies)

Before the start of fifth-grade, I was afraid.  Granted, I never wanted summer vacation to end, but that year, I was filled with an unusual dread.  My teacher that year would be Mr. Bansbach.  He’d been teaching the fifth grade since the time of Confucius, or so it seemed to my ten-year-old sensibilities.  He was old-school, even when old-school was still in vogue–this was the 1980s.  He was tough.  He was no-nonsense.  But, more than anything, he was strict.

 

Not that I was a troublemaker.  Shy to the core, I said little at school and was a good student.  But I still worried.  Stories about Mr. Bansbach circulated through the school.  He was as feared as any teacher I ever had.  I dreaded that first day.

When it arrived, Mr. Bansbach introduced himself and, standing at the front of the class in his suit and tie, his thick glasses reflecting the fluorescent overhead lights, his thinning, dyed-black hair combed back on his head, he called us “preteens.”  “You’re not ‘kids,'” he said.  “A ‘kid’ is a baby goat.  You are preadolescents, you are growing up, and you will take responsibility in my class.”  Great, i thought.  The rumors were true.  This guy was going to be a nightmare.

 

One day, about a week into the new school year, I finished an in-class assignment early.  Not sure what to do, I just sat there, hands folded, waiting for the other students to finish.

Mr. Bansbach was not impressed.

“Class,” he said.  “I want to direct your attention to this young man.” He pointed at me.  “He finished his assignment early.”  That was good, wasn’t it?  I was on the ball!  Evidently not.  “Don’t do what he just did.  Ever.  When he finished, he sat there, blankly, wasting time.  Next time, young man”–he stared right at me–“take out a book and read.  Make use of your time.  Understand?”

 

I did.

And I didn’t like Mr. Bansbach.

A few weeks later, before class, Mr. Bansbach pulled me aside in the hallway, just outside his classroom.  I stiffened.  What had I done now?  Finished my homework too early the night before?  Did he have some way to monitor me at home?

“That was an impressive victory last night,” he said.  “Maybe your Steelers will win a fifth Super Bowl this season.”

And he patted me on the shoulder and winked.  Then he went into the classroom and I followed.

What had just happened?  And how did he know I was a Pittsburgh Steelers fan?  And why did he care?  Was he a sports fan, too?

 

He was.  Throughout that fall, he would talk to me about the Steelers games.  Win or lose, he always took a few minutes early in the week to go over their previous game with me.  I didn’t say much.  I was still nervous around him.  But it impressed me that he was so in tune with his students.

As the year rolled on, I genuinely learned to like Mr. Bansbach.  And he seemed to like me.  He congratulated me on several homework assignments, when I went above and beyond the parameters of the assignment.  The following year, when I entered sixth grade and had a new teacher, Mr. Bansbach would still seek me out in the hallways on Monday mornings and talk about the most recent Steelers game.

And while I learned to like him more and more as my fifth-grade year progressed, it was that first kind gesture, that initial time he talked to me about my favorite football team, that stuck with me.  I can still remember it–the way he stood there, outside his classroom, waiting for me.  His way of letting me know we were okay.  That I was okay.

 

You might call it a moment of epiphany, a realization, that the rumors were false, and that Mr. Bansbach was different from his reputation.  Oh, he was strict.  You definitely did not want to slack off in his class.  That part was true.  But no one ever said he was nice, that he cared.  That he would take the time to learn about his students and show them he was on their side.  I had to learn that for myself.

There are moments like that throughout literature and film–moments of awakening, when a character learns something about him- or herself, or someone else.  Indeed, The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel are chock-full of such moments–Joe Marma learning that he doesn’t even like football, a sport he pursues with reckless abandon, but only plays it to best his brother; Mitchell Brant finding out that his long-distance (a multiverse away!) relationship with Heather doesn’t mean what he’s thought the past five years; or Marc Kuslanski coming to grips with his guilt over the accident he feels responsible for with his little brother.  The characters realize these things in a moment of revelation, a tipping point in the symphony of their lives.  Epiphanies are real.  But they are also hard to pull off in literature or on film.

 

You want to say so much without, well, saying so much.  You want the scene to speak for itself.  You want the reader or the viewer to feel it right along with the character.

Like the performance of “Suddenly Seymour” in the 1986 remake of the musical Little Shop of Horrors.  Throughout the film, Seymour (Rick Moranis) and Audrey (Ellen Greene) work together at a florist shop.  Seymour is shy and awkward, but clearly carries a torch for his coworker.  She, however, is in a relationship with someone she, herself, describes as a “semi-sadist” (an outrageous dentist played by Steve Martin).  Audrey thinks lowly of herself, and she gets involved with abusive men like the dentist.  Throughout the movie, she speaks in a squeaky, mousy voice, almost as if she doesn’t even feel she is worthy to say anything.

 

But then this scene happens.  Seymour encourages her, praises her, and expresses his true feelings for her.  He stands, and sings “Suddenly Seymour.”

Audrey is touched, listening to him.  Then she joins in the song.  At first, her singing voice matches her speaking voice–timid, lacking in confidence, unsure.  But then, when she hits her own “Suddenly Seymour” note, there is a transformation, an awakening.  An epiphany.  Audrey finds her voice, literally, and she belts out the rest of the song in an astonishingly strong, beautiful, and full-throated rendition.  Before our eyes, without any speeches, without any blaring announcement, she and Seymour have changed.  They have awakened.  It is a cinematic performance for the ages.

 

And that’s how epiphanies work–in life, and in story.  They hit you with the force of a tidal wave, but, counterintuitively, they also do so quickly, quietly, in a moment, without any narrator making a bold, big proclamation.  There is no need to tell or exclaim or pontificate.  There is only a moment, the moment, when everything becomes clear.

Even just a moment in a song, or a moment when your fifth-grade teacher shows you–rather than tells you–that he’s had your back all along.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

In Praise of Clark Kent

Among the pantheon of comic book superheroes, Superman is the greatest and the first.  Indeed, prior to Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster’s super creation in the spring of 1938 (in Action Comics number 1, DC Comics), comic books were decidedly ordinary with characters like private detective Slam Bradley and Scribbly the boy cartoonist.  Nothing wrong with old Scribbly!  But those early titles lacked the pizzazz and punch of the hero age.

 

Superman changed all that.  The world had never seen anything like him, and his popularity took off like a runaway locomotive.  The character’s popularity quickly led to the emergence of a star-studded lineup of other DC universe heroes:  Batman, the Flash, and Wonder Woman, among them.  Not to mention a collection of villains such as Lex Luthor, The Prankster, and Mr. Mxyzptlk.  The Man of Steel’s superhuman power and abilities, coupled with his otherworldly adventures, mesmerized readers every month, providing needed entertainment and relief as the 1930s bled into the war-ravaged 1940s.

 

But what truly made Superman so memorable?  What enabled him to transcend time and place?  How did he remain so popular decade after decade, despite changing styles, new generations, new worldviews?  I would argue that his alter ego, Clark Kent, had a lot to do with it.

 

Clark is the complete opposite of Superman.  Where Superman is brave, bold, daring, strong, Clark presents himself as hesitant, soft-spoken, bookish, and gentle.  Obviously, he does this as a guise, to conceal his identity as Superman.  (Incidentally, I have always thought it hilarious that Clark’s only “disguise,” when out of costume, is a pair of thick glasses.  As if observers wouldn’t be able to discern that Clark and Superman are one and the same merely on account of a pair of spectacles.  But, this, too, is part of Clark’s enduring charm.)

 

Clark, of course, is a reporter for the newspaper the Daily Planet, where he consistently acquires the best stories and photos–obviously because he is Superman and therefore is right in the middle of the action.  But no one ever figures this out.  Clark has his super intelligence, of course, and he is always one step ahead of those who would discover his legendary secret.

 

Clark Kent is a study in quiet, in calm introspection, in everyday blandness, in hominess.  He is the antithesis of the action hero.  He is milk and cookies at 8:00 p.m. while settling in to watch PBS.  He is a quiet evening in front of the fire reading Dickens or Austen or Montgomery or Hardy.  He is a weekend at home, writing in his journal, making a homemade meal, sipping hot chocolate, tending to his garden, walking to the mailbox, and heading to bed early.  He represents our home self, our quiet self, relaxed, in contemplation, at rest, still, taking a step back and allowing the world and its noise to slip on by.

 

And we need that.  Action stories need pauses.  Novels need moments of introspection, where characters reflect and where we get to know them better, settling in beside them as they sit back, recline, and let their guard down.  If Superman were only, well, Superman, all action and fighting and saving the world, it would be too nonstop, too frenetic, too loud.

We need Clark Kent to hit the pause button, ground us, make us smile, and charm us with his quiet, steady presence.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’ll always be a Superman fan.  The Man of Steel’s adventures never disappoint.

 

But if it weren’t for Clark Kent coming onto the scene from time to time, those adventures would surely be less enjoyable.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

After All These Years (Or, You Can Go Home Again)

This Friday, I’ll be taking a little trip.  I’ll be hopping in the car, driving west through the state of Vermont, then crossing into New York State, where I’ll head south for fifty miles and then travel west, across much of the Empire State, until I reach the Rochester area, where I’ll spend the Labor Day weekend with my family.  It’s a tradition that goes back decades.  Every year, for Labor Day, I head back home, to the town, to the house where I grew up.

 

I’ve lived in Vermont for two decades now, but I grew up in Rochester.  I never moved growing up–my parents bought their house before I was born, and kept it through the decades.  When I go back now, the house feels both different and the same.  My mother is no longer there, passing in 2018, and the absence is palpable when I’m there.  But the memories are alive and close in the old house, swirling around like pixie dust.

 

One thing I enjoy tremendously about the trip back home is, well, the trip.  Late summer is my favorite time of the year in the northeastern US, and the landscape in Vermont and upstate New York is especially beautiful this time of the year.  Summer crops are ripe and lush, the corn taller than me.  Trees are still mostly summer green, though a few hints of fall can be observed, some of the leaves getting a jump-start on the autumn color show to come.  Fields are green and vibrant.  Late-summer flowers dot the roadsides–goldenrod bobbing and dancing in the breeze.  If I stop in a Vermont town early on the drive, I might smell woodsmoke in the distance, lingering in the mountain air, the scent musky and invigorating.

 

Then, into New York State, I drive, listening to an audio recording of The Illustrated Man, Bradbury’s words taking me back, back, the poetry of the phrasing sublime in the late summer sun.  The towns I pass through in eastern upstate New York, in the foothills of the Adirondacks and then, farther west, the green, lush Mohawk Valley, are old, at times run-down, but magical–at least to me.  Storefronts a century and a half old line the main streets.  Stately old mansions, weather-beaten and often in need of repair, stand stoically and proudly along the way, like thoughtful old philosophers pondering the meaning of life, repositories of countless memories in their ancient walls.

 

And as I draw closer to Rochester, the hours melting away as I continue west, as the terrain flattens out into the farm country of western New York, my own memories beckon.  Heading home.  The same house.  Family.  Friends that date back to a different century.  Indeed, a few of the inspirations for The Eye-Dancers will be there, and we’ll get together for a while, and we’ll remember.  We are grown men now, from the perspective of our childhood selves in the 1980s impossibly old, and yet . . . when we get together, it feels like 1988 again.  The vibes are the same.  The laughter is the same.  It is good, even if it’s only for just a single weekend.  Maybe that’s as it should be.  Special things, by their very nature, must remain rare.

 

Of course, when I return to Vermont after the trip, I’ll need to dig back in to work and responsibilities and the rhythms of everyday life.  But for a couple of days this weekend, I’ll be entering the past, as if starring in a Twilight Zone episode.  Revisiting.  Going back.  Remembering.  Reliving.

 

It is good.  I look forward to it.  And maybe, while I’m there, I’ll create a new memory to look back on in future years.  To blend and merge with the old.

Going home again won’t always be possible.  There will come a day when the old house belongs to a different family, when no familiar face is left in the neighborhood I grew up in.  But that day is not yet here.

And for that I am grateful.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

She Called Me “Decade” (Or, Ten Years! Thank You for Still Being Here!)

When I turned ten years old, back in the 1980s, my older brother’s girlfriend at the time called me “Decade” to commemorate the milestone.  Little did I dream at that time that, many years hence, there would be an internet and a blogging universe and a way to publish posts for anyone, anywhere in the world, to see in real time.  I also never would have dreamed that I’d be doing such a thing for, well, a decade.

 

Indeed.  When I began The Eye-Dancers blog, I did so without much of a plan–except I knew I had just finished a novel of the same name and wanted to “get the word out” to would-be readers.  I had never blogged before, had no idea what I was doing, but decided to take the plunge.  At the time, I figured I’d write a few promotional posts–maybe for a few weeks or months–and that would pretty much be it.

 

That was in the summer of 2012.

And now, here we are, ten years older.  In the summer of 2022.  Never at the outset of this blog did I think I’d still be here a decade on.  I suppose something I wasn’t counting on when I began this cyber-adventure was the friendships and online connections I would make.  I didn’t realize how special and loyal and stellar the WordPress community was, and is.  But I found out in a hurry.

 

This blog turns ten years old this summer, and you all are the reason I am still here.  I don’t post as often as I used to–not even close.  A quick check of the archives would tell the tale.  Back in 2013, at the height of this blog’s output, I would publish multiple posts per week.  As time went on, that dipped to two per week, then one per week, then one every two weeks, and now it is one per month.  But I’m still here, still enjoying this wonderful online literary adventure, and still trying my best to come up with posts that are interesting and, hopefully, sometimes encouraging.

 

I cannot thank each and every one of you enough for welcoming an online neophyte a decade ago and, through your ongoing support, keeping me writing and blogging all these years.  Whether or not I am working on a novel or short stories–whether I am in a literary whirlwind of ideas or a dry, barren desert without a story to be seen or discovered for miles, one constant has been posting on this blog.  And you are the reason for that.

 

So, again, my deepest appreciation to all of you.  If you’ll keep reading, I will certainly keep posting.

 

Thanks so much for reading these past ten years!  And now, on to the next ten . . .

–Mike

 

The Adventure of the Beagle and the Pilfered French Bread

It’s funny, the things we remember.  There are the big things, of course–weddings, funerals, graduations, disappointments, loves, rejections, triumphs.  But there are little things, too, small details that live on in our consciousness like echoes reverberating through the decades.  Sometimes it’s hard to figure out why we remember the things we do.  At some level, some things–even what, on the surface, appear to be minor things–affect us in such a way that our minds hold onto them, tightly, as if grasping a precious jewel.

 

And these memories are not buried, hidden beneath the surface, like trinkets in a dusty attic chest.  They whisper into our ears, make subtle suggestions when we least expect it, and, for those who create stories, they sometimes weave their way into our narratives–not always exactly as they happened, but close enough to inspire a scene or a chapter.

 

One such memory for me involves our dog when I was eight years old and a loaf of French bread.  I don’t believe it’s ever worked its way into one of my stories–but it likely will.  And it is the focus of this post.

 

First, allow me to back up.  For years, going back to before I was born, my mother always named the family dog “Poopsie.”  Don’t ask me why–I don’t know.  And I never asked.  But “Poopsie” was a given in our family.  If we got a dog, male or female–didn’t matter–we didn’t have to wonder what the dog’s name would be.  The first two Poopsies were before my time. But when I was eight years old, we adopted a beagle and named her Poopsie III.

 

Now, Poopsie III was athletic!  And naughty!  She spent much of her time in our backyard, which was fenced.  We figured this would keep her safe and prevent her from running away and exploring the neighborhood.  We were wrong.  Almost every day, it seemed, Poopsie would hop the fence, spend a couple of hours doing we could only guess what–and then come racing back down the street, usually cresting the big hill in the distance and sprinting down its slope, eventually reaching our driveway and hopping the fence again to head to the rear corner of the yard, where her doghouse was situated.  She sometimes dug under the fence, too, and crawled underneath–just to mix things up.  A lot of times, we’d keep her on a leash so she couldn’t get out of the yard.  But Poopsie was a dog built for running.  So my mother was adamant that she shouldn’t always be constricted to a ten-foot-by-ten-foot circle of yard.  That didn’t stop my mother from scolding Poopsie, though, every time she came back home from one of her adventures through the neighborhood.

One such adventure stands out above all the rest.  It was a pleasant summer afternoon back in the 1980s, and, looking out the back window, I stated, “Poopsie’s gone.”  Indeed.  Her doghouse was abandoned, and she was nowhere to be seen.  Evidently, she had hopped the fence and was out in the neighborhood, somewhere, doing something.

 

About an hour later, we learned what she’d been up to.  My parents, my siblings, and I were all out front–I’m not sure what we were doing.  Maybe peering down the street, wondering when Poopsie would be back.

And then, sure enough, there she was, cresting the hilltop up the road.  She then raced down the hill, heading straight for us.  But . . . was there something in her mouth?  There was!  Though she was still too far away to discern exactly what it was.

Seconds later, as she raced closer, closer, we all saw it.  A large, long, full loaf of French bread.  She carried it dead-center, the loaf sticking out half a foot on each side of her mouth.  And as she neared us, running the whole way, she was undoubtedly smiling.

 

“What did you do?” my mother yelled at her.  And then, as she often did when Poopsie came back from a neighborhood run, she pointed to the backyard and commanded that she “get in [her] house.”  Poopsie didn’t hesitate.  She raced to the backyard fence, and like Superdog, bolted over it in a single bound.

 

We were all shocked.  How had she gotten hold of an entire loaf of French bread?  There were no grocery stores in the direction from which she’d come–not close enough, anyway.  But there was a small, family-owned bakery up that way.  Had she entered the bakery and pilfered a loaf of their bread?  Or had she taken the bread out of the hand of a pedestrian walking home from the bakery?  We never found out.  Certainly no one was chasing Poopsie, attempting to reclaim the bread.  It was a mystery.

 

We all had a good laugh about it, right there in the front yard.  My mother, even while yelling at Poopsie, was laughing.  We decided to go inside and see what the dog was up to.  Looking out the back window, we saw Poopsie trying to enter her doghouse, but she couldn’t.  She still carried her loaf of bread in her mouth, and as she tried to enter through the small opening in front, the bread would ram up against the front of her doghouse, pinning her in place.

Eventually, she dropped the treasured bread directly in front of her doghouse and then went inside.  But she’d left the bread close enough to the open doorway where she could lean out and take large, gluttonous bites of it.  In just a couple of minutes, she ate the entire loaf.  She had a good nap after that.

 

And still to this day, all these years later, I can recall the smile on her face as she ran down the street, bread in mouth.  It will stay with me as long as I live, the memory like an old friend ready and waiting to cheer me up whenever needed.

“Thanks for the memories, Poopsie.  You will not be forgotten.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

 

The Sibling’s the Thing (Or, Broken Bones and Unpaid Bets)

In The Eye-Dancers novels, siblings play a sizable role–and a dominant one in Joe Marma‘s case.  This naturally evolved during the writing of the stories, but also it is a reflection of the siblings in my own life.  As the youngest of four children, I know firsthand what it’s like to share a household with multiple siblings growing up.

 

In my case, I am more than seven years younger than my next-oldest sibling, so there is an age gap–nothing that matters now that we’re adults, but back when I was a little kid, my siblings were already in high school.  They seemed like full-fledged grown-ups to me.  And sometimes, they were tasked with watching me–especially when we visited the neighbors’ pool across the street.

My family used to have a pool when I was too little to swim.  But by the time I could actually use a pool, it was long gone.  And so we’d use the pool in the backyard of the neighbors’ house–kitty-corner and across the street. (In fact, these neighbors were the same family the Marmas were inspired by in The Eye-Dancers!)

 

I remember especially the summer I was eight years old, I would go over to their pool every day.  Joe and his brother did not use the pool much, and so it was usually just me–and sometimes my brothers.  My mother would often be there, too, to supervise.

But one time she tasked my brother Dave to watch me.  He was outside the pool.  I was the only one in the water.  “Don’t throw anything into the pool!” my mother had warned us before we crossed the street and I jumped into the pool.  She knew I liked to play “diving catches” in the pool, where someone would throw a ball several feet away from me and I would dive to try to catch it before it hit the surface of the water.  As luck would have it, that day, there was a volleyball in the neighbors’ backyard, not ten feet from the pool.  How could we resist?

 

“Dive!” Dave said, and whipped the ball just out of reach.  I dived, reached for the volleyball.

Crack!  My left pinky snapped back, the force of the ball rivaling a Nolan Ryan fastball.

Houston Astros Nolan Ryan pitching

 

“Ow!”  I grabbed my finger, the pain immediate and sharp.  The game ended as fast as it had begun.

I wound up with a broken pinky for the summer.  My mother was not pleased.

Another time, later that same summer, once my pinky had healed enough for the cast to be removed, my other older brother, John, made a wager with me.  He was in the pool with me. He knew I liked to submerge and swim underwater from one end of the pool to the other multiple times, seeing how many laps I could complete before needing to come up for air.

“I bet you ten bucks you can’t make it across the pool underwater six times,” he challenged.  My record was four.  Six was a stretch.  But I accepted the challenge.

“Ten bucks?”

 

“Ten bucks,” he reiterated.  In the 1980s, to an eight-year-old, ten dollars was a fortune!  I was all in.

“You’re gonna owe me,” I said, and dove under.  I made the first two laps easily.  The third was a little harder–I was starting to feel the lack of oxygen.  The fourth lap–my old record–was harder still.  Then the fifth–I was venturing into uncharted waters, never having stayed under this long before.  But I made it, tapping the far end of the pool.

Can I make this last lap? I wondered.  I seriously considered coming up for air, losing the bet.  But I wouldn’t give my brother the satisfaction.  I kicked off the side, determined to complete the final lap.

My lungs felt like they would rupture; I was getting woozy.  But I made it, tapping the side of the opposite end and surfacing.  I gulped in the air, letting it slide down into my lungs like a healing balm.  I couldn’t talk for several seconds, gasping, regaining my wind.

 

Finally, I said, “I want my ten bucks!”

My brother swam up to me.  “I can’t believe you did it!” he said.  “I didn’t think you had a chance.”

“Fork it over,” I said.  “When we get home.”

“What?  The ten bucks?”  He smiled.  I didn’t like the looks of that smile.  “Here.  Ten bucks.”

And he proceeded to hit me on my upper arm.  Ten times.

“There!” he said.  “There’s your ten bucks!”

I laid into him, told him it wasn’t fair.  But all he did was laugh.

Now, decades later, I look back at both of these scenarios and smile. I sure wasn’t smiling when they happened!  But now they are treasured memories.  It is memories such as these–little things, anecdotes, small events really, but monumental in their own way–that inspire me to write.  To capture something of the spirit of youth, of my past, of life in a previous century.

 

I am grateful and blessed for the memories.

And yes.  My brother still owes me ten bucks.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

People You Know, Characters You Create

Have you ever wanted to write–or actually written–a piece of fiction that featured characters based on actual people you know?  Now, granted–even when we create our characters “out of thin air,” there are elements of people we know in them.  Or, sometimes, a composite of several people’s characteristics rolled into one.  This may be on a subconscious level–you’re not necessarily trying to base your characters on anyone.  But it’s inevitable that traits from some people you know (or you. yourself, as the author) will find their way into some of your characters.

However, that’s not what we’re talking about here.  What we’re talking about is . . . you know Jane from across the hall in your apartment complex, and you want to create a character “based” on her.  Or perhaps someone from school–a bully, your best friend, a teacher, a nerd–whoever it is.  You want to feature them in your next novel (with a different name, of course).  Can you literally have at it, and re-create the real-life person in your fictional story?  Or do you need to add several layers of a literary buffer, effectively “disguising” them, perhaps even from themselves should they read your work?

 

The interesting thing about that is–whatever your intention, it likely doesn’t matter because as you write, as you go forward with your literary endeavor, creative elements will take over.

As I’ve posted about in the past, the main characters in The Eye-Dancers were based on friends I had growing up.  Specifically, Mitchell Brant was inspired by Matt B.; Ryan Swinton by Rick S.; Joe Marma by, well, Joe M.; and Marc Kuslanski by MattK.  The supporting character of Matt “Grronk” Giselmo was also inspired by a Matt–Matt G.  A lot of Matts!  As for last names, of course I changed them, though I matched the first letter of the fictional characters’ last names with their real-life inspirations.

 

And, honestly, when I set out to write the novel, my intent was to keep the characters relatively close to my real-life friends.  I wasn’t aiming to incorporate much “separation” at all.  Sure, I’d change details and respect their privacy.  Of course.  But as for their personalities, quirks, inside jokes, nicknames, and even physical tendencies, I was drawing form the real thing.

But then, as I continued to move forward with the story, a funny thing happened.  I began seeing the protagonists solely as who they were, and wasn’t even thinking of the real-life Matts or Rick or Joe.  Ryan Swinton was only Ryan Swinton.  Marc Kuslanski was only Marc Kuslanski.  At a certain point during the writing process, it was as if the characters weren’t inspired by anyone.  They had matured, grown, morphed, and become exclusively who they were.  Obviously, even with this development, the characters retained elements of their real-life inspirations.  How could they not?  That’s how they were “born.”  But they had fully and completely become their own entities.  As I wrote their scenes, I no longer even glimpsed the actual people they were based on.  I saw only the protagonists themselves.

 

It was a revelatory experience, one I honestly did not expect.  At the outset, I was “seeing” them so much as offshoots of the people I knew; I assumed it would remain that way throughout the process.  But as so often happens with creative endeavors, the process, the experience, the flow, the wonder takes on a life of its own and leads you where it will.  The writing is in charge.  Not the author.

So, if you are in a similar circumstance–about to begin a novel or a fictionalized work of some sort and are basing your characters on people you know (or knew), and you’re wondering how “close” to cut it . . . you probably have nothing to worry about.

Because as you begin, as you wade through the literary waters, as the bones of the story fill out with muscle and sinew and soul and emotion . . . the characters will become who they decide to become, and the initial inspirations will fade into the background.

So write.  Let your characters lead on.  It promises to be a journey as exciting as it is unpredictable.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

From the Micro to the Macro (Or, a Red Squirrel Tells a Story)

Imagine this situation.  A writer (let’s call her Jane) has a story idea–something that resonates, will not recede into the background, and something that, as if having a life of its own, continues to progress and grow and mature.  Jane is fired up, enthusiastic, and prepared to put in the long hours to craft a novel.

But she hesitates.  Despite wanting–needing–to write it, she pauses and thinks about it.  Her mind is all too ready to issue doubts and protestations, reasons to chuck the project and go back to reading others’ work instead of creating her own.

 

“Your idea’s too small,” her inner critic says.  “It’s so common, so run of the mill.  It’s just day-to-day family stuff, domestic life.  Who cares?”

Jane shoots back that she cares, and, as the author of the piece, doesn’t that count?  Doesn’t that matter?

But her inner critic is unrelenting.  “You have to come up with something bigger.  Bolder.  More exciting and universal.  Don’t waste your time on what you have now.”

Angered by the thoughts swirling in her own head, Jane feels an urge to punch . . . what?  Her own thoughts?  Her own doubts and fears?  But how can she do that?  And besides, maybe her inner doubts are right.  There is little violence in her story.  No international politics or major business deals.  No espionage.  The movers and shakers of the world do not appear.  It’s insular, isolated, just a mother, a daughter, a beloved cat.  A few friends.  Small-town settings, and small-town goings-on.  She’s writing about her memories.  Her loves and passions.  But they are small.  Who will care?  Who will be engaged with any of it?

 

She sleeps on it, tossing and turning through the night.

Early the next morning, Jane takes a walk through the woods that surround her home.  It is fall, there is a bite to the air, but it is invigorating, wakening, a tonic to her senses.  Fallen leaves crunch under feet.  Squirrels chatter nearby, scolding her for the intrusion.  Chipmunks dart to and fro, preparing for the winter ahead.  Songbirds twitter, mostly unseen, from the trees.  A particularly brazen red squirrel darts in front of her, on some mission that, evidently, cannot wait.

 

And that’s when she realizes.

To that rushing squirrel, at that moment, in this remote, out-of-the-way corner of the globe–no human voices to be heard, no car engines roaring in the distance, no city noises or excitement for miles around–this is the universe, the be-all and end-all.  It is everything.  Perhaps no one but Jane will ever know of this squirrel.  Perhaps her eyes are the only human eyes who will ever see it.  But that doesn’t matter.  This squirrel’s mission, this squirrel’s task, is the most important thing in the world, here and now, in this place.

 

And, she realizes, isn’t that the same for us?  For the lonely widow with no one to talk to you?  For the homeless person, down on his luck, trying to figure out a better way?  For the high-end executive, alone, at night, stressing over the details of the latest progress report?  For the little boy or girl, with two days before summer vacation, looking forward to two months without homework?  For the neighbor down the street who everyone disregards as “boring” and “dull” and doesn’t really talk to?

We all have stories.  Our lives are comprised of moments, thoughts, hopes, dreams, triumphs, sadness, and countless “mundane” things that make up the bulk of day-to-day living.  To us, as individuals, our “little problems” are the universe.  They are our stories.  And they are worth sharing.

 

Because what you are feeling today, countless others are, too.  What I am struggling with in my day-to-day, many others are, too.  Are there differences?  Of course.  We are each our own person, with our own unique set of experiences and thoughts and feelings.  But there is a thread, invisible perhaps, but as real as the air we breathe, that links us.  We are both unique and universal, individuals and a part of the whole.

There is no such thing as a story “too small,” a subject too “mundane.”  If someone is living it, feeling it, if someone is moved by it, then it can reach others, too.  It can serve as both a window and a mirror, a reminder that we are all different, but all inextricably connected.

 

So, if you have an idea about a “small” thing, a particular “mundane” situation, write it.  Share it.  Give it to the world.

We will all be better for it.  And, if we are looking, really looking, we will see the macro in the micro, and recognize ourselves in the story.  And maybe, even learn something new about ourselves (and those we know) along the way.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Swing Set in the Backyard (Or . . . So, You Want to Write a Novel?)

When I was eight years old, my parents bought a swing set for the backyard.  It was red and yellow, with two swings.  My father installed it at the extreme northern end of the yard, a few feet to the left of the brick fireplace he had built upon moving into the house, years before I was born.  I cannot say I remember whether or not I had asked for a swing set or if my parents decided it would be a good idea to get one.  Either way, that summer–the summer I was eight–I spent a lot of time on those swings.

 

Well, I mainly used the swing closer to the fireplace.  If anyone wanted to join me, they needed to use the other swing.  Sometimes, I’d swing for hours.  I used to love swinging on July evenings, the air warm, the yard fragrant with flowers and freshly cut grass, the scent of a late barbecue from next door wafting on the breeze.  I’d plop down on the swing, push my way into a swinging motion, and kick . . . and kick . . . and kick.  Higher.  Always trying to get as high as possible, so I could see.

 

Indeed.  Especially at twilight, when I reached the apex of my swinging journey, I would peer to the north, beyond the backyard, beyond the neighbor’s yard . . . above the rooftops.  And I would glimpse . . .

But then I bottomed out again, beginning another rotation.  When I returned to the top of the arc, though, there it was . . . a netherworld.  A distant, ghostlike village just beyond the horizon.  As dusk descended, the village would, counterintuitively, glow brighter, shining in contrast to the darkening landscape.  If I looked closely enough, I could see spectral shapes moving to and fro.  Every few seconds, as I reached the apex of my swinging arc, I would see them again, a moment or two removed from my last glimpse.  Glimpse after glimpse, for an hour or more each night . . . before it became full-on dark and my mother called me inside.  Snapshots into another world, another dimension.

 

Back then, immersed in the wonder of being eight years old, I believed–fully–that what I was seeing out in the twilit distance was real–an alternate dimension of sorts, with wraiths living their lives and doing whatever it was they did.  I’d think of them during the day, too, or when I was inside, or at night while I slept.  What were they doing when I couldn’t see them?  I began to write down ideas.  Stories.  A love of the creative process was born.

 

That’s probably how it starts for many writers and artists–early on, at some point during childhood, you realize that your mind tends to drift.  That, even more than most kids, you question and conjure and wonder, and ask, “What if?”  You get lost in story and have conversations with yourself when no one’s around . . . or sometimes even when they are.  And as you get a little older and master the language more, the nuances, the flow, the texture and taste of the words . . . you write.  Short stories.  Essays.  Plays. Novels.

 

Novels.  I would have to say the number one question I get from non-writers who are aware that I have written novels is: “Where did you get the idea?”  And that is often followed by: “I could never write a novel.  Way too long!”

Long it is.  And that’s the challenge.  That’s the price that must be paid if you want to turn your aha-light bulb idea into three hundred pages of story and forward motion.  Ideas are a dime a dozen (even good ones).  Be it fiction or nonfiction, writing a book is work.  A lot of work.

 

Do you outline?  If research is needed, how much do you do?  After writing seven chapters–riding the roller coaster of inspiration–what happens when you come to chapter eight and, suddenly, the shine wears off, the plot becomes murky, and you’re not sure which direction to take?  And–if you’re like 99.9 percent of writers in the world, you also have a day job.  You have bills to pay, responsibilities to attend to, tasks to complete, people to care for.  How on earth do you carve out the time to write a novel?  And even if you do, will you have any energy left over after all the responsibilities of the day are done?  Writing takes energy and creativity.  These may be in short supply after a full day.

 

Or maybe you set your alarm for 4:00 a.m. and try to get some writing in before anyone else is up.  But are you?  Or will you feel like a zombie author, staring half-asleep at your screen, unable to process thoughts?  Make no mistake about it–writing a book is difficult.  In many ways, the writing itself is the easiest part.  It’s everything else that can trip us up, even when we enter the project with the best of intentions.

 

And that’s the trick, really.  Does writing a novel take talent?  I suppose.  Some writers have an abundance of talent; others may not have quite as much, but they have enough–they can do it.  If they didn’t have the ability to write a book, they wouldn’t have arrived at this point–planning out a story line, falling in love with an idea so much, they are willing to spend the next year or more bringing it alive on the page.  Anyone who reaches this point in the journey has the ability to write a book.  It is hard–it requires creating something out of nothing and then spending countless hours editing and honing and slicing away at the result–polishing it, killing your darlings, and revising, revising, revising.

 

Which brings us to the key.  The secret ingredient, if you will, of not only starting, but finishing a novel.  Well, perhaps there are two ingredients.  The first is commitment.  Given all of the challenges already touched on here, it can feel impossible–literally–to find the time and energy to complete a novel.  How do you overcome the challenge?  You have to be committed to your work, your idea, and have the perseverance to see it through.  There is no other way.

 

The other ingredient?  Confidence.  Self-belief.  Have you shared your idea with others?  Quite likely, you have received some very encouraging and positive feedback.  “Great idea!  I’ll buy it when it’s available!  Wow!  I wish I’d have thought of that!  Sounds like a best seller!”  But, just as likely, you will have received some lukewarm or even negative feedback, too. “Really?  Sounds contrived to me.  I don’t think your idea is believable.  Who cares?  The market is full of stories like that.  Your novel will get lost in a sea of similar stories.”  Or–“There’s no market for that, though.  No one will buy it.”  The list of would-be criticisms can stretch on, as long as the Sahara Desert.  It is easy to become discouraged, assess the monumental task ahead, and then shrug your shoulders and say, “Maybe they’re right.  Who am I kidding?  Who would want to hear what I have to say?”

 

This is where belief must come in.  There is no one–no one–in the world with your unique perspective.  It is likely true that your story idea is not entirely original (in reality, at this point, there may not be a truly original idea in existence; everything, in one way or another, has already been done).  But it has not been done, and not been told, in your point of view.  Only you can bring your life experiences, your voice, your essence, to the subject.  In short, only you can tell the story you have inside you, the story you feel a need to share with the world.

 

And that matters.  That’s what it’s all about.  Something–some force, some pure and true element of your soul–has instilled in you a need to write a story.  If you don’t write it, it will nag you, always.  So, press on.  Don’t listen to the naysayers (including the ones inside your own head).  Find a way to complete the project, even if it takes years.

Because, when it comes right down to it, we all have that eight-year-old inside of us, full of inspiration and imagination and wonder–with a story to tell.

So tell it.  Share it.  The world will be a better place when you do.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Soft Side of Winter (Or, Sherlock Holmes and a Cup of Tea)

It’s no secret that Vermont can be a harsh place to live during the winter months, and this winter is no exception.  While we have not seen massive amounts of snow to date here in the hills of east-central Vermont (“only” 25 inches so far), the temperatures have been bone-chilling.  Of course, it’s always cold here in the Green Mountain State in January.  Thaw?  What thaw?  The earth is buried under a blanket of snow for months.  But for the past three weeks, multiple days have topped out in the single digits, and a good chunk of nights have dipped well below zero degrees.  And when the wind whips, on top of all that?  It is best to be remain indoors.

 

Given all of this, it is natural to wonder what can possibly be meant by a “soft side.”  A soft side to ten below zero?  But, in fact, there is one.

With such inhospitable conditions outside, and with evening still descending early (though it is slowly starting to get lighter)–this is a season for reflection.  For stillness.  For unwinding. The frenetic warmer months are looked forward to, of course.  Who wants it to be ten below zero for long?  But during this dark, cold season, there is the opportunity for long nights in front of a fire, hot chocolate on the desk beside me, getting lost in story and wonder.

 

And on these cold, cold nights, after finishing the day’s work, the call of an old movie beckons.  Or an old television show.  Or a good book.  Below-zero nights are made for The Honeymooners or It’s a Wonderful Life, or The Wizard of Oz.

 

Or maybe an old Hitchcock thriller, something slow and unrushed, like Rear Window.  Or perhaps Forrest Gump or a long, epic-length documentary.  It doesn’t so much matter what–just that it happens, that there is a chance to escape the blistering pace of the workaday world, at least for a while.  Sherlock Holmes and a cup of tea, enjoying the warmth inside, the quiet of a winter night enveloping the house like a soft, thick glove.

 

And maybe that’s the reminder we all need as we begin another year, a year with challenges and struggles and deadlines and political upheaval and setbacks and frustrations and joys and triumphs.  There is always so much to do.

But sometimes, even in the midst of it all, we just need to be.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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