Swimming with the Sea Monsters of My Mind

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

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

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

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

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

tiles

 

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

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

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

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

shark

 

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

octopus

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

wakingupbaddream

 

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

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

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

ghostgirl

 

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

handsoftime

 

And write about.

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

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

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

stingray

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Interlude of Silence

As the summer of 1975 approached, the world waited for Jaws.

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Of course today, Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece–based on the novel of the same name by Peter Benchley–is widely considered one of the greatest movies of all time.  The suspense, characters, and drama of Jaws definitely place it in cinema’s upper echelon.  The build-up to the premiere was intense, more than anything the world had seen before.  In many ways, with its advertising blitz and lead-up, Jaws set in motion the Hollywood phenomenon of the mega summer blockbuster that we still see today.  And it delivered in a big way, becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time up until that point.  But what made it so popular?  What aspect of Jaws riveted audiences worldwide?  What, in short, propelled it into an instant classic?

Clearly, there are many strengths to the film, not just one.  But one of the reasons  it works so well is, oddly enough, the absence of the shark during the first two-thirds of the movie.  There are attacks, of course.  Swimmers are torn apart more than once.  But we don’t actually see the shark until the climactic hunt. when Chief Brody, Quint, and Hooper head out and try to find it and kill it.  One explanation for this is purely practical–Spielberg and his crew struggled mightily with the mechanical shark they employed to play the part of the Great White.  It malfunctioned on a daily basis.  Therefore–the less screen time for the problematic shark, the better.  But it was more than that . . .

In the opening sequence of the film, one of the most famous scenes in movie history, a young woman, Chrissie Watkins, decides to take a swim in the ocean, shedding her clothes as she runs along the beach, a young drunk guy trying, and failing, to keep up with her.  When she plunges into the water, she is alone.  Her friend has all but passed out on the beach.

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At first, everything is tranquil, idyllic, even.  Chrissie Watkins swims out a few hundred feet, enjoying the water, the freedom, the lack of crowds.  It is late in the day, the sun sinking low in the sky, partially hidden behind thick, billowy clouds.  A beautiful evening for a swim . . .

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That’s when the camera submerges, and we see her legs kicking beneath the surface of the water.  And that’s when John Williams’ famous Jaws theme begins to play . . .

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As an audience, we know something is coming.  We even know it’s probably the shark.  But questions abound.  Is it the shark?  Or another one?  If it is Jaws, how large is the shark?  What does it look like, exactly?  When will it strike?

Years later, reflecting on the scene, Steven Spielberg said he deliberately withheld the shark from the audience here.  While he acknowledges showing the shark could have made for a great scene, he points out that by doing so, the opening sequence would have been relegated to just another monster attack.  And we have all witnessed monster scenes at the movies.  Spielberg wanted something different, more primal.  By not showing the Great White, the audience is left imagining it–or blocking it out entirely.  The absence of the “monster,” in effect, creates a much more terrifying, memorable, and powerful scene.

It’s hard for me not to relate this principle to The Eye-Dancers, in particular, and writing in general.   When I finished the first draft of The Eye-Dancers, the word count was a whopping 119,000.  After doing a round of edits, that dropped to 105,000.  But it still wasn’t completed.  More rounds of snipping and pruning followed, and the word count now stands at a shade over 95,000.  Still a good-sized novel, but nowhere near as long as it had been initially.

It’s true, there are fewer jokes told by Ryan Swinton in the final draft than there were in the initial one.  There might not be quite as many examples of Mitchell Brant‘s tall tales now than there were originally.  Maybe one or two of Marc Kuslanski‘s theories didn’t survive the editorial process, and maybe Joe Marma throws one less punch in the final draft.  But hopefully these deletions enhance what remains, and help to create a richer, better-told story.

So often, what’s not included on the printed (or digital, as the case may be!) page is just as essential, and sometimes more so, than what is actually there.  It is the empty gaps between words, the white space between scenes, the lines and paragraphs unspoken that add meaning, nuance, and texture to a story.  The silences speak volumes.

This is something Steven Spielberg knows very well.  Let us return to that opening scene of Jaws . . .

The musical score stops, abruptly, and we see Chrissie Watkins still enjoying her swim.  Then, she suddenly jerks, shutters, as something unseen grabs onto her from the murkiness below.  Her head disappears under the water.  When it appears again, she is gasping, screaming, her shrieks cutting through the darkening twilight as she is flung about by the force of whatever lurks beneath the surface.

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“It hurts,” she screams.  “It hurts!”  Temporarily she finds refuge at a buoy, holding on, hoping the attack is over.

jawsescape

 

It isn’t.  The unseen monster returns, pulls her away, and she screams again.  Perhaps she clings to a faint hope that her friend on the beach will overhear, and come to her rescue.  But he is oblivious.

She flails at the water, desperate, fighting to escape.

jawsscream

 

But she can’t.  And as she is pulled under, she is still screaming . . .

The next moment, the echoes of her screams fall away, muted by the depths of the sea.  All is quiet now, all is still.  The brutality of the attack stands in horrific counterpoint to the serenity of the ocean at sunset.  The buoy’s bell tinkles softly, softly.  We hear the gentle murmur of the waves as their long, restless journey finally ceases along the sandy shore of the beach.  That is all.  Nothing else can be heard.

And yet–everything can be heard . . .

In the interlude of silence.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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