Photograph

Here is my kindergarten photo . . .

 

It was taken decades ago–in a September that occurred long before the advent of the digital and smartphone era.  Certainly long enough ago that I cannot remember who took the picture, or what time of day it was, or even how I was feeling when the photographer asked me to smile.  In terms of pure, conscious memory, it’s as if the photo was never taken at all.  There is nothing I can latch on to, no anchor to grab hold of, no guiding light to serve as a beacon from across the chasm of years.

 

But then I step back, think about it some more, and I realize–that’s not entirely accurate.  While it’s true the day the picture was taken is an empty space upon the radar screen of my memory, there are things about the picture that are clear in my mind–bits and pieces that come into focus as if a pair of binoculars are scanning into the past, zeroing in on the visible landmarks of yesteryear.  My mother, for instance.  When she first saw the picture, she said it looked as though I’d just swallowed a mouthful of sour grapes and attempted to smile through the bitter aftertaste.  (It’s never been natural for me to smile for pictures, even from way back when.)  I guess she liked the picture well enough, though, because she had it enlarged and hung on the wall in the back hallway.  All through my teenage years, I gazed daily, though not necessarily fondly, at my kindergarten self. Even back then, though, much closer in proximity to the origin of the photo in question, I couldn’t have told you anything about the day I posed in front of a school camera when I was five years old.

 

Which begs the question.  What happens to our experiences when we forget them?  If you can’t remember what you did on, say, February 1, 1997, is the day essentially nonexistent, for all practical purposes?  If a day from your past is erased from your conscious mind, did that day truly and actually transpire, or was it somehow removed, like a vanishing rabbit in a magic trick?  The thing is–the majority of our days are like this, are they not?  Take today, for instance.  What are you doing?  Sipping coffee at a corner cafe?  Taking a stroll through the woods?  Driving home from work?  Stressing over your tax returns, wondering if you fudged too much, or too little?  Now, fast-forward a year.  Two years.  Three.  What will you remember of this moment?  Anything?  A small speck of the whole, perhaps?  Or will it be gone, like a breath, an exhalation, here one moment, dispersed into the ether the next.

 

In The Singularity Wheel (as in The Eye-Dancers), the protagonists experience this at an extreme level.  They are voyaging across dimensions, after all.  And so, when they return to our reality, our earth, the particulars from the alternate world they had journeyed to fog over and blur almost immediately.

 

Near the end of The Singularity Wheel, Marc Kuslanski reflects on this.  While in the alternate world of Colbyville–not to mention the netherworld connecting dimensions–he had been forced to confront his deepest and fiercest inner demons.  But would he remember, even as the details of that alternate world faded?

The text reads . . .

“He wondered if everything would be lost, if in a month’s time, it would be as though they had never journeyed anywhere, their minds swept clean of it all.  But he didn’t believe that.  Because they had done substantial things, too, momentous things that mattered and defined–and these would remain, however faint, like whispers from another time and place.

“Even if they forgot, they would remember.”

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

And so now I return, full circle, back to my kindergarten photo.  I look at it closely, trying to remember.  Maybe if I stare at my eyes from decades ago, little-boy eyes gazing out across the years, I can recall something, anything.  But I cannot . . .

So how do I hold onto it, then?  How do any of us?  On a certain level, it’s disconcerting, disturbing even, that so much of our lives, so many moments and feelings and words, become lost, victims of time and the limitations of the human brain.

 

But then I check myself.  Because . . . isn’t one of the themes of The Eye Dancers the idea, the truth, that our minds are in fact limitless?  That they can travel faster than the speed of light and bridge incomprehensible distances?  I cannot in good faith maintain the position that our memories–even when “forgotten”–are lost forever in some dark, deep Letheian well.  So I ask . . . what did Marc mean when he said, “Even if they forgot, they would remember”?  What did I mean as the author?

 

It seems to me that, even if our conscious minds forget so many events from our past, our inner selves, our subconscious, if you will, does not.  Like buried treasure (or ruins, I suppose, depending on the incident), the comings and goings of our days are stored away, as in a vault, behind a wall that separates the outer world of sensory and mental now-ness from the deeper world of soul and heart and intuition.  Maybe that morning from the fall of 2008 is gone from your surface memory.  Maybe you can’t recall even a single detail from the day.  But then you have a dream, experience a feeling of deja vu or an “aha” moment with a WIP you are struggling with.  Maybe you paint a picture that, somehow, has materialized in your mind, as if by sorcery.  Maybe one of your characters in a story you are writing says something that rings a bell, a familiar echo from somewhere, someplace, some time.  Maybe a poem emerges, unasked for, unplanned.  And when any of these creative rushes happen, these gifts from the artistic gods, who’s to say they do not stem from that morning in 2008, or from some other memory your subconscious self has grasped onto for you to incorporate in the here and now even as your conscious memory has nothing to refer back to?  The creative process is mysterious and inscrutable.  It has always been this way, and always will be.

 

But call me a believer.  A believer that nothing is wasted.  That all of our experiences remain within us, somewhere.

And that, even when we forget, we remember.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

“My God Is Better Than Your God!” (Or, Applying the Lessons Learned from a 20th-Century First-Grade Bickering Match to the World of 2018)

For the most part, Anita and I got along.  She lived just up the road from me, and we went to the same school.  In first grade, we were paired as deskmates in Mrs. Northrup’s class.  Mrs. Northrup was known to be an old-school, no-nonsense teacher, so on the first day of class, Anita and I resolved to work together and try to get through the grind with honors.

It went well for about a month.  Then, on a sparkling October morning, Mrs. Northrup came to class bearing gifts, and doling out treats.  Cookies!  Home-baked!  She told us she was pleased so far with the progress of the class, and this was a small way of showing her appreciation–though she did issue a warning, along with the sweets: “I expect each of you to keep up the good work,” she said, her thick-rimmed glasses low on her nose as she looked out over the room.  “Let’s not get sloppy and forget why we’re here—to learn.”  Anita looked at me and smiled, then rolled her eyes. Just give me my cookie, her eye roll said, loud and clear.

 

I wasn’t going to poke holes in that logic.  It sounded good to me.  And I indeed wolfed down three cookies, in rapid succession.  I ate so fast, I’d made something of a mess, so I licked the tip of my index finger and used it to pick up the rogue crumbs that had scattered over my half of the desk; then I licked the crumbs clear off my finger.  All done.

 

That’s when I realized Anita was staring at me.

“What?” I said.

“That’s not right,” she said.  She looked genuinely upset.  Meanwhile, all around us, our classmates chewed and laughed and talked, while Mrs. Northrup kept glancing at the clock high on the wall at the back of the room.  I kept expecting her to break in and say, “Cookies down, books open!”  But so far, she just stood there, waiting.  She didn’t eat any of the cookies herself.

 

Truth be told, I almost wished she would announce the cookie party was over.  That way, maybe, we could get back to work and Anita would stop glaring at me.

“What is it?” I asked her again.  “What isn’t right?”

“Your fingers,” she said, her voice dripping with disgust.  “You licked them!”

“So?”

“So,” she said, as if addressing a one-year-old, “you aren’t supposed to lick your fingers.  That’s what napkins are for.”  Here, she held up her napkin.  Indeed, I had one, too.  Mrs. Northrup had made sure each student had one.  “It’s just wrong using your fingers like that.  It’s a sin.”

 

A sin?  I knew Anita belonged to a different religion–Jehovah’s Witness.  She was the only Jehovah’s Witness in the class—and she never participated in holiday celebrations or birthdays.  I remembered feeling bad for her the previous year, during kindergarten, off by herself while the rest of us played and ate and had fun.  But I’d never talked to her about it.  Until now.

 

“Yes,” she said.  “It’s a sin to be sloppy and disgusting.  And that’s what you just were!  Is that what they teach you in your church?”

My church growing up was Catholic.  But I didn’t spend much time thinking about it, and surely never thought twice about licking my fingers!

 

“I always knew it,” she said.  “My God is better than your God.”

“What?” I said.  And then I told her she was wrong.  My God was better than hers; she had it backward.

We went at it for a couple of minutes, neither of us yielding or giving an inch.  We raised our voices.  Anita stuck her tongue out.  So did I.

Suddenly, there was the sound of someone clearing her throat. Mrs. Northrup.  She was standing beside our desk, a scowl on her face.

“If the two of you feel the need to yell and act like toddlers, I think you can do that just as well in the hall.”  And with that, she kicked us out of the classroom.

“Regular class resumes in five minutes,” she told us.  “You work out your differences in the hall, and then I’ll collect you when it’s time.  And when I do, you better behave.  Do you both understand?”

We did.  Mrs. Northrup was not to be trifled with.

Mrs. Northrup’s classroom was at the end of the hall, and there was a bay window there, below which sat an old radiator, a clunky monstrosity—presently not running—that appeared as though it had been installed decades prior.  But it was positioned directly under the bay window at the end of the hall—an inviting perch.  Anita and I hopped up, sat on the sill above it, the sunshine streaming through the window warming our backs.

 

We just sat there, swinging our feet.  Ahead of us, the hallway was empty, just a dull-gray floor lined with closed classroom doors.  Even the janitor, old Mr. Roberts, was nowhere to be seen.

 

I felt bad.  I think Anita did, too.  I felt stupid.  What a stupid fight!  And then I just said something—I can’t remember what, and we talked.  About small things, little things . . . and yet everything.  The animosity that had existed between us mere minutes ago was gone, evaporated like morning dew in the rising warmth.  And when Mrs. Northrup emerged from our classroom five minutes later, punctual as always, Anita and I quietly followed her in and went to our desk.

 

Throughout the rest of the day, and the weeks and months beyond, Anita and I had no more run-ins, no more shouting matches.  We never openly apologized to each other.  We didn’t have to.

But the next time we had cookies, I was sure to use my napkin.

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

In some ways, that experience I shared with Anita so many Octobers ago, before the advent of smartphones or digital tablets or Netflix, seems inconsequential—just a couple of little kids fighting about something neither of them understood.  But then, as I reexamine it, turn it over in my mind, suddenly there is a larger theme afoot.

 

When she brought up “her God,” and I rebutted with “my God,” the two of us were instantly polarized.  There was no middle ground to be found in those tense moments when we bickered, cookies on our breath.  She was in her corner.  I was in mine.  And we were determined to prove who was right and who was wrong.  This polarization, this us-against-them mind-set, also summarizes much of what we’re seeing in the world today.  Certainly, in the United States, fellow Americans are at each other’s throats.  Sure, there has always been division and discord, animosity and open, outright hostility.  This is not new.  But the extent of the division, the vitriol, the tribalism that has emerged and thrived in recent years is as widespread as it is alarming.

 

Who’s right, and who’s wrong?  I have strong views on the matter, and surely, so do you.  But a big part of the problem is the growing, yawning gap between us.  All you have to do to see the ugliness, the hate, the anger is log onto Twitter or Facebook, or watch a Senate hearing, or listen to a rally.  Longtime journalist and Watergate veteran Carl Bernstein has described what is presently going on in America as a “cold civil war,” and I believe he is right.

 

But how do we remedy this?  Is there a way to repair the damage, to bridge the gap, and to bring back a means for intelligent, respectful civil discourse? Perhaps a place to start is to realize we have much in common, whether we want to admit it or not, and to endeavor to see our “opponents” not so much as enemies as fellow human beings.  This is where first-graders seem to have more understanding than adults.  Yes, Anita and I, all those years ago, engaged in a childish, fact-free argument.  Again, tune in to the cable news or social media, and you will find we adults are often no better or wiser, and often far worse.  But what Anita and I were able to do was transcend the moment.  When we were ushered into the hall, we didn’t continue to debate.  We didn’t try to one-up each other.  We just sat there and talked; we remembered our friendship, the things that we shared as opposed to the things that divided us, and we moved on.  Perhaps it was easier because we were children.  Perhaps when you’re five or six years old, the essentials in life, the things that matter, are not always so hidden or locked away behind bars of prejudices or hatreds or grudges or polemical ideologies.

 

Perhaps the kids—both the kids of today, as well as the kids we ourselves used to be—have a lot they can teach us.

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

Anita and I continued on in school together straight through graduation.  She was my deskmate again, seven grades later, in our junior-high Earth Science class the day The Challenger space shuttle exploded.  And a few years ago, we met at a high school reunion.  It was the first time we’d caught up with each other since our senior year.  But the words flowed easily, as we talked and laughed and reminisced.

Not once did we discuss whose God was better than whose.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Tony-Time (Or, The Fine Art of Going Against the Grain . . . Naturally)

Have you ever encountered it?  You know . . . the tilted head, the accusatory look, the reprimand over approaching something in an unorthodox manner.

“You can’t do it like that,” they might say.  Or, “That’s just not the way it’s done.”  Or again, “Are you out of your mind?  Why would you even think of something so . . . so . . .”

Different?  Unusual?  Countercultural?  Weird?

 

Being different, going against the tried-and-true, can be hard to do, in large part because of the reactions of others.  Certainly, in most endeavors, advice tends to be centered around what has worked before, what methods have stood the test of time, what approaches and techniques have been replicated hundreds, thousands, or millions upon millions of times.

 

For writers, these “unwritten rules,” if you will, are numerous.  “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.”  (To which Churchill famously replied, “That is a rule up with which I will not put.”)  “Write about what you know.”  “Be sparing with adjectives, and especially adverbs.”  “Don’t split the infinitive!”  Not to mention following trends and generic marketing advice.  What’s hot?  What’s trending?  What are people reading right now?  I know, in the case of The Eye-Dancers, I was criticized at times for making the protagonists just twelve years old.  “Too young,” a friend of mine said.  “Make them older! And throw in at least one girl!” he added.  “I mean, four boys?  Seriously?”  But, in the end, I just went with the story I had–and it featured four twelve-year-old boys.  I wasn’t going to change that on a whim.

 

Anytime I am asked for advice on writing and publishing, I always say, “Write what you want.  Don’t just follow the patterns and trends.  Start your own trend.  Break new ground.  Write your story.”  But there is a caveat attached.  A writer shouldn’t start his or her own trend just for the sake of being different.  It’s not something that can be force-fed.  After all, if your story does naturally fit into an established niche, a “hot” genre or topic, more power to you.  If that’s the way the story came to you and if it’s the story you feel compelled to tell, and it’s honest, then it deserves to be shared with the world and enjoyed.  Altering a story for the sake of being different is just as disingenuous as altering it for the sake of fitting in.  Neither approach represents your true voice, the idea and perspective that are uniquely your own.

 

Being different, “other than,” cannot be an end unto itself.

Just ask Tony.

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

Tony was one of my best friends throughout junior high and high school.  He was that rare teenager who seemed to have an “in” with both the brainy crowd as well as the jock crowd.  Tony could do it all–a solid, well-rounded student and a muscular athlete who played football and ran track.  But, more than anything, Tony was . . . well, Tony.

 

He had a way about him, a mastery, a comfort in his own skin.  He wasn’t arrogant–he just kind of glided down the halls, eased his way into conversations, and never appeared to shy away from anything.  He wasn’t loud.  He wasn’t obnoxious.

He was confident.

He was different.

But he was different in a manner that suited him.  He didn’t make an effort to go left when everyone else went right.  He just did.

 

I’ll never forget sitting next to him in Lunch one fall day in 1987, an early October afternoon replete with sunshine and the last, lingering warmth of the season.  We were in junior high, and I had brown-bagged my lunch, as I usually did.  Tony got a tray from the cafeteria, as was his wont.  And the topic of the NFL came up–specifically, the players strike that was moving on to its second week.

 

It was a PR disaster for the NFL.  The players didn’t want to play under their current collective bargaining agreement, but the owners were determined to put a product on the field.  The result?  Teams found players “on the street”–guys who had been cut or released, or who were never good enough to try out in the first place.  They recruited accountants and construction workers and teachers–any able-bodied young men–and some not so young–who could contribute in a pinch.

 

The outcome was predictable.  For the three weeks the “replacement players” competed, the quality of the game suffered.  There were shanked extra points, fumbles and bumbles, fluttering passes that missed their target by the proverbial mile.  It was painful to watch.  No one liked it.

 

Except Tony.

“It’s good to see pro players making all these mistakes,” he said during lunch that day, taking a bite into the thin cafeteria hamburger.  “Usually, NFL players are perfect.  They make all the kicks, are good with their assignments.  But these guys.  I mean, it’s like watching a game at the playground.  It’s kind of cool.”

 

I couldn’t believe he preferred replacement players to the real thing.  And yet . . . when Tony said it, it somehow sounded reasonable.  He wasn’t pushing an agenda, saying something for shock value.  It was just the way he felt, his retrograde perspective on the world.

 

It got to the point where I eventually called his views “Tony-Time,” which essentially meant anything that goes in the opposite way you expect it to.  Are you hot?  Tony-Time says you put on an overcoat.  Feeling full?  Eat a pizza!  Are you tired, lacking sleep?  Pull an all-nighter!

 

I still use the term, to this day, even though I haven’t seen Tony since we graduated from high school.  I especially say it about our cat.  He has a habit of doing things you wouldn’t expect.  “Tony-Timer,” I’ll say to him when he refuses the refreshing breeze of an open window in favor of a stuffy corner at the back of the room.  And he’ll look at me, knowing it’s a compliment.

 

And it is.  Because Tony made it seem as easy as breathing, as natural as the sun rising every morning.  Effortlessly opposing the mainstream.  Like the time when our tenth-grade English teacher told us we could write an essay on anything we wanted, and Tony wrote his from the perspective of a piece of paper feeling the pain of a sharp pencil point grinding into its surface.  He read the essay aloud to the class, and I remember thinking, “It actually sounds like the voice of a sheet of paper!”  Or the time when he decided to play quarterback in gym class one period but only allowed himself to throw left-handed, even though he was a righty.  No one thought it odd that he would try that.  It was just Tony, Tony-Timing.

 

And today, all these years later, Tony is still with me.  Not on the phone or in person, or in emails or texts.  But in my mind, my heart, in a spirit that, despite the protests of others or the criticisms of the crowd, urges me to press forward, to swim upstream if the situation or the job, or the story, warrants it.

 

Even if it means enjoying a few missed field goals and botched extra points along the way.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Solving the Unsolvable Problem . . . in Secret

My eighth-grade algebra teacher, Mr. Edwards, a cheerful, enthusiastic guy with a mop of straight sandy-blond hair and a thick beefy mustache, was in his mid-fifties when he taught my class.  And Mr. Edwards loved numbers.  Now, being a math teacher, you would expect that.  But he really loved numbers.  He would spew out facts and figures like a flesh-and-blood computer, and he’d do it with gusto.  You never knew what mathematical morsel he would divulge on any given day.  One such tidbit that stuck with me was that, when you turn on a light, the room temperature increases by one-eighteenth of a degree Celsius.  So, later, whenever I’d turn on a light in summer and my brother or sister would complain about the heat, I’d fire back, “Yeah, but it only upped the temperature by one-eighteenth of a degree Celsius!”  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, indeed.

 

Mr. Edwards would also give us special, multi-layered problems to solve–not necessarily as required homework or on quizzes, but for fun.  Math fun.  He’d go to the blackboard and frantically write out formulas and numerical scenarios for us to iron out in our spare time.  Since these exercises weren’t required, few students made the effort to conquer them.  But some of us did, at least every now and then.  And I’ll never forget the day of the Unsolvable Problem.

 

It was at the end of class on a dreary, cloudy, raw early December afternoon–the kind of early-winter day in western New York State that makes you want to curl up in a ball and nestle beside the furnace, snug as a napping cat.  We’d gone over the lesson for the day, the homework was assigned, the quiz had been lethally administered.  And now, with a few spare minutes remaining in the period, Mr. Edwards smiled and made a grand announcement.

 

“Today,” he said, his smile widening, “we have the longest mathematical problem in junior-high history!”  And he wasn’t exaggerating.  Mr. Edwards proceeded to write a War and Peace-length equation on the blackboard.  And then came the challenge: “Solve this mystery, and you’ll be awarded high praise and class distinction!” he said, the exclamation point audible for all to hear.  “But fair warning.  It’ll take an hour, probably two, to get to the answer.  Anyone brave and motivated enough to solve the unsolvable can raise their hand tomorrow in class and share their genius with the rest of us!”

 

I glanced over at the student on my left, a girl named Tina.  She rolled her eyes.  Yeah, right, she seemed to be saying.  Like I’m gonna waste my time on math when I don’t have to.  And yet, for some reason, I decided I would take up the challenge.  I’m not sure why.  Perhaps I was just a glutton for algebraic punishment.  But that evening after supper, I sat at the table and tackled the problem, step by painstaking step.

I can’t tell you, all these years later, what that algebra problem entailed.  I honestly don’t remember any of the details–just that it was akin to wandering through a maze–only in this case, it wasn’t a maze of walls and tunnels, with a few funhouse mirrors thrown in for good measure; rather it was a maze of numbers and formulae and odd mathematical symbols, of figuring out what to multiply, what to divide, what to add, and what to ignore.  It took me well over two hours.  And when I finished, I felt like a balloon that had been popped with a jagged-edged saw.

 

Just as with the problem itself, I cannot remember my answer–not specifically, anyway.  But what I do remember is that it was large.  Very large–so large, in fact, that I needed to count the digits, one by one, to figure out the value of the number.  Suffice it to say, it was in the hundreds of billions.  I couldn’t believe it.  I had spent all that time, all that effort, only to arrive at such a ridiculous answer?  There was no way I had it right.  I had convinced myself, for some reason, that the answer would be a more manageable number:  6, maybe; or 3; or 45; or zero; or maybe even a negative number to throw us off.  But a number that required half the width of the page to write it out?  Not a chance.

I tried watching TV for a while after I had finished.  But I couldn’t get into it.  After channel-surfing for a few fruitless minutes, I went to bed.  It took a while before I managed to drift off.  I kept replaying the problem, over and over, in my mind’s eye.  I had gone through the equation slowly, methodically, had double-checked my work.  It all felt right.  But my answer was simply too absurd.  I saw mathematical equations, laughing at me with exposed fangs, in my dreams that night.

 

The next day, in algebra class, Mr. Edwards went through the lesson, not even acknowledging the unsolvable problem from yesterday.  Good.  Maybe he forgot. But then, near the end of the period, he closed the textbook with a flourish, smiled at us, and said, “Ah ha!  We’ve arrived at the big moment.  So who’s done it?  Who solved the equation, crossed the Rubicon, won the prize?”  No one ever accused Mr. Edwards of understatement.

 

I remember my heart rate, and how it accelerated then.  This was my chance.  After all the work I had put into the problem, shouldn’t I at least raise my hand and give my answer, just in case I was right?  A boy named Greg volunteered, reaching for the ceiling.  “The answer is zero!” he said when called upon.  Of course, I thought.  I knew it.  And he probably hadn’t even worked on it–he’d just called something out on a whim.

 

Mr. Edwards, however, shook his head.  “I’m sorry, Greg,” he said, maintaining his smile.  “That’s not the correct answer.  Anyone else?”

Sandy, a studious girl who always brought three thick spiral notebooks to class (these were the late 1980s, after all, long before the advent of smartphones and tablets), dared to raise her hand.

 

“Yes!” Mr. Edwards beamed.  “Sandy!  Share with us!”  But she, too, gave the wrong answer.

Hmm, I thought.  Maybe I was right.  Maybe I should . . .

But I didn’t.  Even as Mr. Edwards asked again if anyone else wanted to take a stab, I held back, afraid of being laughed at.  I mean, yeah, Greg had gotten it wrong, but no one laughed at his answer of zero.  And Sandy, too, had given a reasonable number as her answer–I can’t remember what it was, only that it consisted of far fewer than 18 digits!  I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.  My arm felt weighted down with dumbbells.  I would just let Mr. Edwards provide the class with the right answer, and that would be the end of it.

 

“Well, okay,” Mr. Edwards said, though he didn’t seem disappointed.  He maintained his smile.  “The answer is . . .”  And he wrote it on the blackboard.  The first few digits matched mine.  No, I told myself.  Then the next cluster of digits matched.  No way.  And then the next, until, finally, the correct answer was there, displayed for all to see.  And it was the same result I had arrived at the evening before, at the dining room table.  I had been right.

Wait a minute, I wanted to shout.  I got it!  I got it.  I worked on it for two hours, and . . . I had it nailed.  But of course I didn’t say anything.  Who would believe me now?  I felt sick.  It was a small thing, really, an inconsequential blip on the journey through junior high.  Who really cared?  And yet . . . it was a significant thing, too.  Something I regretted.  Even today, I can recall how I felt, sitting there, wishing, angry at myself for backing down.  I had it.  I had it!  Don’t you all see?  But no–they didn’t see.

 

They didn’t see at all.

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

We’ve all been there, at one time or another.  Ryan Swinton and Mitchell Brant experience similar hesitations in The Singularity Wheel.  Can they trust the outcome of what they desire to do?  Can they believe in themselves enough to do what must be done?  It’s a struggle, and it doesn’t end with the completion of junior high.  It follows us into adulthood like an inescapable shadow, a personal black hole that threatens to suck us in and snuff out our potential like a parasite.

 

Have you written a song, crafted a story, a poem, an essay?  A blog post?  But you’re not sure if it’s “good enough” or “right enough” or “brilliant enough”?  Is there a job opportunity you’ve worked years to apply for, but now, as you stand at the doorstep, you doubt your talent and abilities?  Do you have something to say or do or inspire or create, but you’re not sure if you should bring it forth into the light of day?

 

I am confident Mitchell and Ryan, and old Mr. Edwards, would join with me and encourage you to do it.  Write that poem.  Paint that picture.  Ask that question.  Make that speech.  Risk that rejection.  Sing that song.  Finish that story.

And then share it with the world.

No equations, once solved, should remain hidden in the dark.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

On Symmetry (Or, There’s Something about November)

“Hey, how about that?” I said when I received the schedule for my senior year in high school.  I had been waiting for it for a few days, eager to see who my teachers were and what order my classes would be in.  (Mind you, these were the days, in that long-ago 20th century, when class schedules were snail-mailed.)  For three days, I had been watching for the mailman, a rotund fellow by the name of Al, to deliver it.  Finally, the schedule had arrived.

 

The first thing I noticed was that one of my teachers would be someone I knew well, someone who had taught me in a different class as a freshman.  I will call him Mr. D.  And back in my freshman year, he taught English and unlocked for the class the treasures of great literature and the colors of the writing rainbow.  But now, in my senior year, he would be teaching a class called Current Events.  Great, I thought.  I always liked Mr. D.

 

On the first day of school, I lingered after class for a couple of minutes, talked with him about what might be in store for the semester, reminisced about ninth grade.  “Freshmen,” he said with a roll of his eyes.  He still taught freshman English, too.  In fact, even as we spoke, the first brave souls of his freshman English class began to trickle in to the room.

 

I told him about the impact his writing rainbow lesson had on me, how I still thought about it, still tried to live it, and always would.  That made him smile.  I asked him if he still talked about writing rainbows and creativity and reaching for your best to the current crop of freshmen.  “Indeed, I do,” he said.  I was glad to hear it, and hoped some of the wary underclassmen filtering into the room, eyeing me suspiciously as I conversed with the teacher at his desk, would be as motivated by the lesson as I had been.

 

“Well, it’s good being back in your class,” I said then, knowing I needed to go.  If I didn’t leave soon, I’d be late for my next period.  “I look forward to the semester.”

And I did.  I meant it.  And it didn’t disappoint.  Mr. D. didn’t disappoint.  Throughout the term, he assigned for us to read through issues of Time and Newsweek, and report on the news, every week.  (Again, this was early 1990s education!  No Googling.)  Frequently, my worldview clashed with his, and we’d have spirited debates.  He’d write in the margins of my handwritten essays that he disagreed with my interpretation of events but that he supported my right to hold views contrary to his own.  We argued, we clashed about politics, but I enjoyed the class.  And, I like to think old Mr. D. enjoyed having me as his student again.

 

One morning, a frosty, early November, hint-of-winter morning, I arrived in his class a few minutes early.  Since it was the first period of the day, there were no departing students from a previous class.  It was just Mr. D. seated at his desk.

 

I approached, and we started talking.  I mentioned again how it was good having the opportunity to take a class he taught.  “I never thought I’d be in your class again,” I said.  “Freshmen year and now senior year . . .”

“There’s a kind of symmetry to it,” Mr. D. said.  “You got stuck with me at the start, and at the end, of your high school career.”

 

A kind of symmetry, yes.  I liked the sound of that.

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

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost five years since I published the e-book version of The Eye-Dancers.  Time continues to speed along on rapidly fluttering wings.  I remember well the stops and starts that led up to publication day.  There were hiccups, hurdles, and unexpected delays.  But eventually, release day arrived–in November 2012.

 

So it seems fitting somehow that, five years later, there have been delays and hurdles and hiccups with the sequel, as well.  Editing has taken longer than expected.  The writing process has taken longer.  And of course sometimes things simply crop up, a week’s delay here, a month’s there.  The end result has been a later-than-originally-anticipated release date.  But The Singularity Wheel is getting close!  I am working through the final substantive edits this week and next.  Following that, a few heaven-sent beta readers will comb through the manuscript.  Once they are done reading and offer feedback, I will do a final, final round of edits followed by a thorough copy edit/proofread.  The cover will be completed.  The file readied for publication.  And . . .

 

A November release date is planned.  Five years, to the month, following the release of The Eye-Dancers.

There is something about November, indeed.

 

As Mr. D. might say, there’s a kind of symmetry to it.

Thanks so much to everyone for all your ongoing support.  It means the world.  And thanks so much, as always, for reading!

–Mike

 

The Most Dangerous Game–Of Gourds, Objects of Prepositions, and Serial Commas

When I was in the eighth grade, I read “The Most Dangerous Game,” the classic 1924 short story written by Richard Connell. My English teacher that year, Miss Goggin, a fun woman in her fifties who continually looked for ways to approach topics in an unconventional manner, decided that every student would read the story, and every student would then give a brief oral report on it.

mostdangerousgame

 

“Now, I’m hoping this will inspire each of you to look at the story in unique and different ways,” she said on the cold, gray November morning she issued the assignment. “The last thing any of us wants is to hear the same report, verbatim, over and over.”

Good intentions, perhaps, but on this occasion, Miss Goggin’s instincts backfired.  Of the twenty-five or so oral reports on “The Most Dangerous Game,” nearly all were, if not identical, then close to it.  Even Miss Goggin admitted defeat halfway through.  “This wasn’t one of my superlative ideas,” she said, and then:  “Next!  Kimberly, regale us with your synopsis of the story . . .”  No doubt, Kimberly groaned inwardly as she rose from her chair to give the same report we had already heard a dozen times over.

superidea

 

Thinking about all this now, it strikes me that another very dangerous game, for many people, revolves around English grammar.  Even the mention of the term “grammar” might give some the shivers.  During my eighth-grade English class, it seemed Miss Goggin made it her personal mission to instill in us an appreciation for grammar.  She didn’t want us avoiding it, or letting “the editor handle it.”  One day, she brought in a handful of gourds, using them as props to help diagram sentences.  I can’t remember the specifics of that lesson very well, but I’ll always remember the gourds.  They stayed in the classroom for weeks, and became an ongoing, running joke between Miss Goggin and our class.

gourds

 

One of her pet peeves was the misuse of objects of prepositions, especially when someone made the mistake deliberately in an attempt to speak or write in a “correct” or formal manner.  She hammered this home so many times, I doubt I’ve used a subject, rather than an object, of a preposition since!  “Don’t ever say, ‘Between you and I,’ she instructed on multiple occasions, often punctuating the proclamation with a firm shake of the head or even a shrill sound that wasn’t quite a scream, but awfully close.  “Or, ‘for you and I.’  Prepositions take objects, not subjects!  Take away the ‘you.’  Would you say, ‘For I‘?”  And then she would pause for dramatic effect.  Point taken.

objectpreposition

 

I remember her lessons fondly.  Her “Most Dangerous Game” fiasco notwithstanding, Miss Goggin’s ideas hit much more often than they missed.  Her class was always lively and interesting, and I discovered, even then, that I was the odd sort who enjoyed grammar.  Grammar is a building block, a collection of tools–a chisel here, a hammer there, perhaps a paintbrush and a socket wrench over there, a few inches to the left.  Used properly, the tools can polish and hone prose, cleaning it up and pruning it to maximum effect.

hammerchisel

 

But it is a “dangerous game,” indeed.  On Fridays, I tutor writing at a local college.  And when students come to me with their first drafts of essays and term papers, they invariably say, “Can you check it for grammar?  I don’t do grammar!”  I gladly go over the nuts and bolts with them, and hopefully the effort is worthwhile and helpful.  But I tend to believe most students aren’t absorbing the grammar lessons all that much.

nutsandbolts

 

“See, here, it looks like your professor is using the style that calls for serial commas,” I said to one student just last month.

“Serial commas?” she said.  “Is that, like, serial killers or something?”

serialcomma

 

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

There is no doubt about it.  Grammar is, for many, the dentist drill of the writing trade, the necessary evil that, if not mastered, at least needs to be understood and properly applied.  It isn’t as exciting as literary symbolism, alliteration, powerful imagery, or multi-layered characters who grab the reader’s attention and never let go.  And, it may be argued, it isn’t as important, either.  Certainly a raw talent can be honed; breathtaking prose that inspires and awes, yet is littered with technical errors, can be smoothed over and perfected–and surely will garner more praise and attention than a grammatically flawless but uninspired and wooden piece.

dentistdrill

 

Good grammar does not guarantee a good writer.  But it goes a long way toward making a good writer better.  Additionally, when is it okay to break the rules, as it were, and use sentence fragments, split infinitives, end sentences with prepositions, and so on?  The answer is, in my eyes, often!  Even so, knowing the rules helps us to see when it’s appropriate and advantageous to break them.

grammargorillas

 

It would be foolish to believe that many people will ever truly enjoy English grammar.  The endless rules, exceptions to rules, and various styles and usages are enough to make anyone’s head spin.  I suppose it helps when you can look back at an old teacher from your childhood who some way, somehow, made grammar fun.

So, thanks, Miss Goggin!

You made “the dangerous game” of grammar a gourd-filled and lifelong adventure.

lifelongadventureend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Lack of a Writing Calculus

I stood there, waiting, agonizing, worrying.  But he would not be rushed.  He would not speed-read through the story to satisfy my doubts and give me the answer he knew I wanted.

I couldn’t stand in place, so I started to pace his office, going round and round in front of his desk.  He had to like the story.  He had to.  Dr. Sutherland was my academic advisor, had been my professor in three classes over the past two years, and knew how much I wanted to be a writer.  When I’d asked him if he’d read a five-page story I’d recently completed, he agreed.  I appreciated his willingness to read something that had nothing to do with the syllabus or the program.  He was doing me a big favor.  But now, with me wearing out the beige carpet in his small corner office, perhaps he regretted his decision.

Finally, he flipped over the last page of the story and placed it, face-up, on his desk, strewn with ungraded essays, a half-eaten ham sandwich, and a mug of cold black coffee.

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I stopped pacing, waited for him to tell me what he thought.  Outside his door, all was quiet in the hall.  It was late afternoon on a chilly western New York November day, the trees beyond his window going bare for the coming winter.

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I could stand it no longer.  I coughed.  “Well?  Do you think it’s any good?”

He smiled, sat back in his swivel chair, put his hands behind his head.  He even glanced out the window for good measure.

“You know,” he said, “writing’s a funny thing, Mike.  A funny thing . . .”

I waited for him to continue.  He didn’t.  Was he trying to torture me?  Of course, I knew his idiosyncrasies and his mannerisms well.  I’d seen them on display in the classroom many times, and, generally, I liked them.  But not here.  Not now.  My heart rate increased, and I just looked at him.  I was a junior in college, but at that moment, I felt eight years old, a child seeking the approval of a respected and admired uncle.

idiosyncrasy

“I remember when I was your age,” he said.  There was a knowing look in his eyes.  “Long time ago . . . I wanted to be a writer.  Poet, really.  I’d write poems about nature, love, hate, war, peace–you name it.  I tried it all, experimented with form and language.  Sent some of my work off to journals.  Made my own chapbook.  And yeah, I’d share my poems with others, ask them what you asked me just now.  ‘Is it any good?’  ‘Do you like it?'”  He smiled again.  “Well.  In my case, I guess the answer was clear enough.  I’m here now, right?”  He spread his arms, looked around his office.  “I’m not out on Walden Pond writing prize-winning verse.  But then–maybe the answer wasn’t clear.  Not really.  I stopped submitting after just a few rejections, told myself I had no future in it.  I got my PhD, and here I am, teaching writing.  It’s the path I chose, that’s all.”

waldenpond

I nodded.  I appreciated the disclosure, but what was he saying?  Where was he going with this?  Was he trying to tell me, in a roundabout, oblique manner, that I wasn’t any good as a writer?

“Writing’s not like physics,” he said.  “There’s no writing calculus, Mike.  There are no formulas.  It’s not two plus two equals four.  It’s an art.  It’s not a science.  There is no piece of writing, in the history of the world, that is universally admired as perfect, or even great.  Shakespeare has his critics.  Hemingway.  Show me a perfect novel.  To Kill a Mockingbird?  Maybe.  I’d sign off on that one.  But I know colleagues–respected colleagues–who dismiss it as overrated.”

twoplustwo

He paused, as I reflected on his words.  Through the window, behind him, I saw a flock of geese, flying low, their honking audible even through the glass and the walls.  Flying south for the winter–if not today, then tomorrow or next week.  I felt a shiver, thinking of the long, unending stretch of cold that lay ahead, the gray months of snow and frost and winds whipping in off the lake.

flockofgeese

“Look,” Dr. Sutherland said, sitting upright in his chair now.  “My opinion of your story doesn’t mean very much.  Your opinion does.  Is this your best work?  Have you edited it two times over?  Three?  Four?  Have you chopped every extraneous word?  Did you write the story from a personal place?  Does it matter to you?  Those are the things that count.  Everything else is just an opinion.  Personal taste.  Some people like Faulker.  Others prefer Fitzgerald.  There’s not one right answer.”

soundandfuryfaulkner

He shook his head.  “That’s the beauty, and the torment, of creative writing.”

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

I like to think I’ve matured as a writer since my junior year in college.  I like to believe I’m not as reliant on the approval of others, not as much of a worrier over the work I produce.  But, truth be told, I often still struggle with the same things.  Sometimes when I write a blog post, or finish a new short story or chapter in a novel, I ask myself, “Yeah, but is it any good?  Does it work?  Will anyone really get it, or have I failed to bring out the drama, the themes, the motivations, and the meaning?  Is it flat?  Does it just sit there, lifeless, on the page?”

isitanygood

It’s something Marc Kuslanski would rail against.  Marc always seeks the right answer, the factual solution to the problem.  Without a formula in place to “prove” that a piece of writing is first-rate, that a scene works, that a character resonates, Marc would quickly grow frustrated.

scientifcformulause

I think, at times, all writers have a little Marc Kuslanski in them.  I know I do.  When writing a particular scene is akin to having a dental hygienist scrape the plaque from my teeth, when the words seem stuck and unwilling to come out, when the characters perform their own version of the literary silent treatment, I find myself wishing for a true, definable, and irrefutable writing calculus.

silenttreatment

In moments like this, when I can’t seem to overcome the inevitable insecurities and doubts of the writing trade, I  take a step back, force myself to remember the conversation I had with my academic advisor on that late fall day in the 1990s, as the twentieth century took its last, dying gasps before giving way to a new millennium.  I remember his words, his advice, and I try my best to apply them.

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

As I turned to leave his office, Dr. Sutherland held up his hand.

“I wanted to thank you for sharing your story with me, Mike,” he said.  “I know–believe me, I do–that it’s not easy.”

I didn’t know if he was finished, so I stood there a moment longer.

“Keep at it,” he said.  “Don’t give up.  Keep writing.”

“Thanks,” I said.  I smiled.  There was nothing else he might have said that would have meant as much.

Walking out into the fading November afternoon, the sun already sinking low to the west, I felt as though I were walking on air.

novembersunset

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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