The Most Bittersweet of Words

On the surface of it, the accomplishment should elicit nothing but joy.  So much work has been put in, so many hours spent, so many unexpected hurdles and twists and roundabouts have been navigated.  It should be a celebration on par with a holiday parade.

 

And yet . . .

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

Recently, after three-and-a-half years of working on the manuscript, I finally completed the first draft of The Singularity Wheel.  The Singularity Wheel (which didn’t name itself until I was three-quarters of the way through the story) is the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  It wasn’t necessarily planned.  When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, I expected it to be a one-off, not the start of a protracted story arc that would need to span multiple books.

 

But one day, while taking a walk, an image popped into my head–just like that.  Snap-your-fingers fast.  I hadn’t been thinking of The Eye-Dancers on that walk.  I hadn’t been thinking about any of the characters, or anything related to the novel.  But there it was, and it was strong enough that I had to stop moving.  I just stood there, seeing it.  I blinked, shook my head.  The mental painting did not recede or fade away.  If anything, it clarified, coalesced, the blurred edges straightening and sharpening, the smaller details coming in to focus, as if caught under a magnifying glass.

 

There they were in my mind’s eye–Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski–the main characters of The Eye-Dancers.  Only, in this image, they were devoid of color.  Everything was.  The road they were standing on, the field behind them, rich with tall grasses swaying in the breeze–all was a monochrome, a black-and-white world drained of greens and oranges and yellows.  There was only gray.

 

They stood before a monstrous structure, easily the width of a dozen football fields and as tall as a skyscraper.  Each floor of the building had an exterior walkway and countless doors, all closed.  And somewhere, several stories up, they saw a gray, colorless man frantically roaming from door to door, trying to open them, desperate, as if in search of something lifesaving.

 

High above them, above the structure and everything else, the sky was gunmetal gray.  But then it changed.  Two eyes formed in the clouds.  They expanded until they blotted out the sky, became the sky–a deep, penetrating blue.  The image shifted, the picture moved, and the eyes slanted and darkened.  They were angry.  The boys shrank back, but there was nowhere to hide, nowhere to run.  They knew, as well as I, that those weren’t just anyone’s eyes.  They belonged to Monica Tisdale, the “ghost girl” from The Eye-Dancers.  After five years, she had come back for them.

 

Nothing else came to me that day, but it didn’t matter.  Something within me was urging me forward, letting me know there was a new story that needed to be told.  In the days that followed, gaps filled in, motives crystallized, story lines emerged.  A fortnight later, I sat down in front of my PC, opened an empty Word file, and keyed in the first sentence.

 

At the time, I couldn’t have known how difficult, or how long, the journey would be.  If The Eye-Dancers was “out there,” The Singularity Wheel was a million light-years away, spinning its threads from some far-off corner of the universe, regularly making me pause, rub my eyes, and ask, “Is there any way I can pull all of this together?”  The characters’ problems this time around were more nuanced, more complex.  Five years had passed since the conclusion of The Eye-Dancers.  They were about to enter their senior year in high school.  They were saddled with girl problems, family issues, worries about their future.  Some of them felt as though a continent had fallen on their shoulders.

 

But perhaps the character who had changed the most in five years was the “ghost girl” herself.  Unlike in The Eye-Dancers, in The Singularity Wheel, Monica is now a point-of-view character.  In fact, the sequel begins with her, in her bedroom, about to undertake a (quite literally) infinity-spanning trip across the layers and undulations of time and space.  And it will be a trip that puts her life–along with those of Mitchell, Joe, Ryan, and Marc–in peril.

Throughout the creative process–through the surges of “aha” moments, the flourishes of frenzied writing sessions on the dark side of midnight, the inevitable blocks that at times seemed to render the entire project null and void, and the incessant, nagging self-criticisms–the ending often felt far away, a high meadow lying beyond a range of towering mountain peaks.  But I forced myself to persist.

 

The only way I could, I discovered, was to focus on the now.  Sure, I needed to have an overall goal in mind, a general direction I was working toward.  But if I thought too far ahead, I would become bogged down, overwhelmed with the vast distances I still needed to traverse to reach the destination.  “One chapter at a time,” I said to myself, over and over.  “One scene at a time.  One paragraph at a time.”  I felt like a walking, living cliche, the coach who spouts off “coach-speak” to overeager reporters desperate for a scoop they wouldn’t get.  But it was the only way I could keep moving forward.

 

And when I got there, when, just the other night, I keyed in the bold, decisive words “The End,” I felt elated–for perhaps a minute.  And then I realized–I had been living with these characters, thinking with and through them, struggling along with them and cheering them on for over three years (almost eight, in fact, if you go all the way back to the start of writing The Eye-Dancers).  And while I still need to flip back to page 1 and undertake a full-book edit, and while I will blog about the characters and the sequel quite a bit in the weeks and months to come, the actual process of writing the story itself is over.

 

Writing a novel, particularly when there are stops and starts to the writing process, and when you can’t devote uninterrupted time to writing the book, is a marathon, a grueling exercise that tests an author’s will just as much, and probably more, than it does his or her imagination and storytelling abilities.  To finally arrive at “The End” is a tremendous relief, an event to celebrate.  And celebrate I did.  I popped some popcorn, fired up a DVD of a favorite movie (I am old school with digital entertainment!), kicked back, and enjoyed.  (I know, I’m a wild one, aren’t I, with the way I celebrate?)

 

But, mixed with the relief and feeling of accomplishment, there is also a profound loss.  Writing about the characters that populate your novel is not the same as writing through and with and for them.  When you are in the middle of writing a novel, you not only are writing it when you’re sitting at your desk pecking away at the keyboard.  You are “writing” it 24/7.  At any point of the day–in the shower, half-asleep in bed, at work, driving down the interstate–an idea might arise, a new direction might become clear, a new approach to a scene or a chapter might manifest itself.  Those moments, once you have typed “The End,” are gone.  They cannot return–the book is finished, the race is over and run.

 

There will be future books, of course, future projects.  I will get back in the game.  But for now, it is on to editing, to blogging more (which I look forward to doing!), to transforming an imperfect first draft into a (hopefully) polished and presentable product.

 

So am I glad?  Happy?  Satisfied?  You bet.  A literary-sized albatross–the work-in-progress–has been lifted from my neck.  The sense of relief is tangible.

 

But will I miss it?  Will I miss the process, the Everest-like highs of inspiration, when the muse is generous?  I will.  I’ll even miss the struggles, the walls, the worries of what I’ll do ten chapters hence.  It’s exhausting, confounding, and at times all-consuming.  But I love it.  And its absence leaves an undeniable void.

 

Then again, maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow with a new idea, a new seed that demands to be planted and allowed to grow.

 

Can it be, then, that “The End” is only just the beginning?

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Quest for Archibald Leach

Cary Grant just wasn’t getting it.  He’d signed on to be the star of the film, was being paid handsomely for his efforts, and he was working with the legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, no less.  What could possibly go wrong?

North by Northwest seemed destined to be a box-office smash when it debuted in 1959.

northbynorthweststart

 

Indeed, prior to the start of shooting, screenwriter Ernest Lehman was quoted as saying he wanted to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” He held nothing back, and created a melange of suspense, lighthearted fun, intrigue, and nonstop action.  There’s even a fight-to-the-death sequence that takes place on the face of Mt. Rushmore, not to mention arguably the most famous scene in Hitchcock’s long, storied career–the crop-duster attack!

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And, of course, and above all else, the film features Cary Grant.

carygrantofcourse

 

During filming, though, Grant wasn’t thrilled with the direction North by Northwest was taking. One day, he pulled Hitchcock aside, and said, “It’s a terrible script.  We’ve already done a third of the picture and I still can’t make head or tail of it!”  Hitchcock assured his leading man that things were going well.  The film is designed to be confusing, with myriad twists and turns, so if his lead actor was finding the story line hard to follow, all the better!

grantconfused

 

All Hitchcock said to Grant was to be himself.  Don’t even worry about the acting.  Don’t worry about the script.  Just be Cary Grant.  The rest would take care of itself.

And it did.

Hitchcock understood a fundamental truth, and used it to his advantage–people just liked Cary Grant.  He’d been Hollywood’s most luminous star for decades, the epitome of charisma, debonair charm, and cool.  Indeed, Grant himself once famously said, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant.  Even I want to be Cary Grant.”

everyonewantstobecarygrant

 

Grant’s on-screen persona was larger-than-life.  If you wanted to see raw emotion, vulnerability, weakness, you weren’t going to find that here.  His roles were designed to match his never-let-them-see-you-sweat mystique.  He was made out to be more icon than actor, more romantic ideal than flesh-and-blood person.  Grant’s public image surely wouldn’t have been so spotless if he were acting today, but in Old Hollywood, he was lifted up to stratospheric heights, and for the duration of his career, he never came down from his perch.  Well on into his fifties and early sixties, Grant played the lead opposite actresses such as Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Audrey Hepburn, and Sophia Loren–all two or three decades his junior.

grantandkelly

grantandsaint

grantandhepburn

grantandloren

 

Then, abruptly, in the mid-1960s, at the age of sixty-two, Grant retired from the cinema.  Hollywood’s quintessential leading man would not go on to play the sage, grandfatherly roles that would surely have come his way if he’d pressed forward with his career.  He would simply walk away and preserve the image, the concept, the legend that was Cary Grant.

It hadn’t always been that way.  During his growing-up years in the suburbs of Bristol, in southwest England, Cary Grant wasn’t known as Cary Grant.  He was born Archibald Leach, and his hardscrabble childhood bore little resemblance to the fame and prestige that would materialize decades later.  His father struggled with alcoholism and his mother was clinically depressed, sent to a mental institution when Grant was just nine years old.  His father simply told him that his mother had gone on a “long holiday,” and later, when she failed to come home, said she had died.  Grant didn’t learn of the lie for over two decades, and at that time, arranged to meet his mother just as his movie career was taking off.  But in his childhood, Archibald Leach, the future hero of the Silver Screen, was antsy, on edge, uncomfortable around others, nervous and awkward in his interactions with girls.  Described by a classmate as a “scruffy little boy” and by his teacher as “the naughty little boy who was always making a noise in the back row and would never do his homework,” Leach was expelled from school when he was fourteen.

archieleachchildhoodphoto

 

Over a decade later, after honing his craft onstage and in vaudeville, and on the doorstep of Hollywood superstardom, Archibald Leach was advised to change his name to Cary Grant.

If you were to choose between “scruffy” Archie Leach and his later, more celebrated alter ego, and select the winner to serve as the main character for a novel you wanted to write, the choice would seem to be obvious.

leachorgrantchoosebeforebreak

 

And it is.

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

The four primary protagonists in The Eye-Dancers each struggle with their own personal hang-ups, outlooks, inner demons, and shaky self-esteem.  None of them are what anyone would call popular in school.  They don’t hang out with the “in” crowd, they’re not the trendsetters or movers-and-shakers of their peer group.  Mitchell Brant feels the need to fabricate and invent stories about himself, as he’s not confident that he’s “good enough” as he is.  Joe Marma lives in the shadow of his high-achieving older brother, and as the shortest boy in his grade, he has a king-sized chip on his shoulder.  Ryan Swinton doesn’t want to rock the boat; he likes to go along with the crowd and tell jokes to make people laugh.  Marc Kuslanski never met an equation he didn’t like; he closes his mind to the mysterious, the unexplained, the supernatural.  In his logical, rational worldview, everything, no matter how extraordinary, has a commonsense explanation.

marcspocklogic

 

As the novel progresses, each character is confronted with circumstances that challenge his perspective, threaten to erode his already fragile sense of self, and even sabotage his ability to survive.  The boys can either be swept away and swallowed up by their own insecurities and weaknesses, or they can rise to the occasion to learn, grow, and adapt.

It strikes me that any character, really, needs to have the motivation, ability, and impetus to change over the course of a story.  If Character X begins a novel one way and ends the novel exactly the same way, we as readers might pause and ask ourselves, “What was the point of it all?”  Then again, maybe “character” isn’t the best word to use.

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“When writing a novel, a writer should create living people,” Ernest Hemingway once said.  “People, not characters.  A character is a caricature.”

hemingway

 

Real people are flawed.  They have moles and in-grown toenails, regrets and long-held secrets, wistful memories and would-be dreams that, through lost opportunity and the inexorable march of time, are now irretrievably lost.  The Cary Grant that the world saw, and thought they knew, was, in the words of Hemingway, a caricature–a glittering creation of Hollywood and the movies.  Archibald Leach was in there somewhere.  We just couldn’t see him.

hollywoodhidingleach

 

If a literary character is Cary Grant-perfect right from the first page, there is no room for growth, no way for readers to relate.  The plot may wind through hills and valleys, wander through wooded ravines and turn sharply around sudden hairpin curves, but the protagonist will remain static.  The story will not engage.

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If I were a producer or a director in Hollywood sixty years ago, the choice would be a no-brainer.  I’d take Cary Grant in the proverbial heartbeat.  But as an author, looking for a character to build a novel around?

Give me Archibald Leach.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Finding Hope at Shawshank, the Swing Set in the Backyard, and the Transcendence of Story

There is a scene in the movie The Shawshank Redemption that has always moved me.  Granted, many scenes in this tour de force of a motion picture, based on Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, leave an impact.  But one in particular stands out . . .

shawshankbeginning

 

Andy Dufresne, an innocent man convicted to life in Shawshank State Penitentiary for a crime he did not commit, has just spent the past two weeks in solitary confinement.  His offense?  He played a duet from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro over the prison’s PA system.

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During the rendition, every prisoner at Shawshank stood, transfixed, listening to lyrics they couldn’t even understand.  As  Ellis “Red” Redding, Andy’s fellow inmate and friend, and the film’s voice-over narrator, describes:  “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about.  Truth is, I don’t want to know.  Some things are best left unsaid.  I’d like to think they were singing of something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it.  I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream.  It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

menlisteningtomozart

 

It didn’t matter.  The warden wasn’t amused.  And as Andy emerges from his solitary confinement and joins his friends in the prison cafeteria, he tells them his time in the hole was easy.  They scoff at this, but he tells them he had “Mr. Mozart to keep me company.”

“So they let you tote that record player with you into the hole?” one of the men at the table asks.

lunchatshawshank

 

Andy shakes his head, points to his head and his heart, explaining those are the places where Mozart played.  In response, he is greeted with blank, uncomprehending expressions.

“That’s the beauty of music,” he says. “They can’t get that from you.”  He pauses, glances around the table, then continues, “Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?”

Red replies, “I played a mean harmonica when I was a younger man.  Lost interest in it, though.  Didn’t make much sense in here.”

harmonica

 

Andy looks at him.  “In here’s where it makes the most sense.  You need it so you don’t forget.”

“Forget?” Red asks, not following.

“Forget that there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone, that . . . there’s something inside that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch . . . that’s yours.”

prisonplacesmadeofstone

 

“What you talkin’ about?” Red says.

To which Andy Dufresne replies, simply, “Hope.”

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

When I went to college, as an English major, I was surrounded by fellow students who loved literature, and many were aspiring writers.  Some, like me, focused more on fiction, and others more on nonfiction.  I took creative workshops in both.

englishmajorslovingliterature

 

When I took the nonfiction workshop, a classmate named Kim approached me one day after class.

“I liked your essay,” she said, regarding a piece I had just shared with the class about a memorable and impactful childhood experience.  “Did you ever think about switching over to nonfiction exclusively?”

It was a question I had fielded before, from others.  I knew that Kim wanted to be a journalist.  She was passionate about social justice and hoped for a career crafting flaming editorials that hit her readers hard and forced them to tackle issues head-on.  Likewise, she knew my bent was to write fiction, to come up with stories “out of the ether,” as it were; or, to put it as she did, “to make things up.”

outoftheether

 

“Don’t you think you could have more impact if you wrote about relevant topics in the news?” she went on.  “I mean, don’t you just want to have someone read something you write and think, ‘Yeah!  That is so true!  We need to change that, we need to make this world a better place.'”

makeworldbetterplace

 

I wasn’t sure how to respond.  I had to think about it for a moment.  Then I said, “Of course.  I think we both want the same things, and we both have the same goals with the things we write.  We just go about them in different ways.”

I’m not sure she was satisfied with that answer, and I sensed she felt I was somehow on the wrong path.  But that’s the way we left it.  That was the only answer I could give her.

In the years since, especially in the wake of mass shootings and political upheavals and deep cultural divisions, I’ve thought about it more.  After all, didn’t Kim have a point?  Shouldn’t we strive to make a difference, in whatever areas we are called?  And if we write, if we feel the desire, the need, to express ourselves via the written word, shouldn’t we aim to tackle the big issues our world faces?  Shouldn’t we deal with the here and now rather than inventing characters and situations and, in the case of The Eye-Dancers, parallel dimensions that may not even exist?

paralleldimensionthatmaynotexist

 

But then I realize the answer I gave Kim that day, in the last, waning years of the twentieth century, perhaps wasn’t so off-base, after all.  It’s true, there are editorials, histories, social commentaries that move me and make me see things in new and different ways.  There are journalistic pieces that hit home with such force, it can feel you’ve been bludgeoned with a sledgehammer.  But there are also novels and plays and short stories that do the same.

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A key word, that–“story.”  Even in journalism, or in speeches or long social or historical treatises, the major points are often illustrated through story.  We can read about the statistics of homicide or homelessness or student debt and shake our heads.  The numbers are staggering.  But then we can read about one situation, one individual, one person’s experiences, and we can be moved to tears.  The numbers are brought to life through the power of story.

No doubt from the dawn of humankind, from the first instance an individual mesmerized an audience with flair and creativity, story has always been this way, fleshing out and giving emotional meaning to the bare, bald skeleton of fact,  An engaging story can reel you in with a paragraph.  A strong opening sentence or two, and we are already there, transported, as if by magic, to a different place, seeing the world through another person’s eyes, living and breathing and experiencing with them, their joys and hopes, their losses and defeats.  And yet, simultaneously, through the eyes of the characters, whether they are from our culture or the other side of the world (or the universe!), our time period or some distant past or faraway and undreamed-of future, we can also see ourselves in them, and experience our own world more fully and richly.

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And, it is my earnest hope, that this ability, this transcendence of story even applies to ghost girls, hypnotic blue eyes, and journeys through the long and timeless void.

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

When I was six years old, my parents bought a swing set.  It allegedly was for the entire family, but seeing that my siblings were already teenagers and in high school at the time, it didn’t take much deductive reasoning to figure out who among us would use it the most.  My father put it together and positioned it at the northern edge of the backyard.  “Don’t worry,” I assured.  “I’ll use it a lot!”

swingset

 

And I did.  I’d spend entire afternoons on that swing.  I’d swing after school until suppertime.  I’d swing deep into the fall, sometimes all the way to Thanksgiving, before the snow and the ice shut things down.  And then I’d be forced to sit it out through the interminable western New York winter, waiting for the arrival of a shy and capricious spring.  When the snow finally retreated, stubbornly giving way to April sunshine, I’d scamper out into the muddy yard and reacquaint myself with the swing set.

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Perhaps the best times were on summer evenings, swinging in the warm dusk of July, the crickets chirping, the cicadas playing their synthetic instruments from their hidden, unseen perches in the trees.  I’d pump my legs and go higher, higher . . . and I’d look out beyond the yard, toward the distant horizon.  Sometimes, I was sure I could see a glimmering city in the clouds.  But I only saw it when I swung high.  The higher I swung, the clearer the sparkling buildings and shiny, golden streets came into view.  I remember wishing for a way I could reach that city, walk down those streets.  If I could only swing high enough, maybe, just maybe . . .

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It’s easy now, of course, looking back through the rational, commonsense lens of adulthood, to disregard my imaginings on that old swing set as the whims of a little boy, the flights of fancy and nonsensical musings of a child.  But I like to think it was more meaningful than that. More relevant.  Perhaps, in its own way, that shimmering city in the sky represented a hope–not unlike that of Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption–a yearning for something more, a striving for something pure and real and unifying, venturing beyond the boundaries of self and circumstance.

andyhopeend

 

I don’t swing anymore.  I write.  And, with luck, the stories I write offer that same hope, and dare to reach somewhere just beyond the stars.

beyondstarsend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The True Fortune in “The Fortune Cookie”

Recently, I came across some of my old stories, written when I was still in middle school and high school–not, as today, via a keyboard and word processing program, but with a yellow mechanical pencil, the lead on the pages now faded by the onslaught of years.  I’m not sure why I was rummaging about.  It was one of those quiet, gray, nondescript January days in New England, when the world seems to be slumbering, taking a long nap before reemerging, green, and flowery, in the spring.

vermontslumbering

 

I suppose it was just something to do.  I went through long-neglected boxes and plastic tubs, uncovering memorabilia, books I hadn’t flipped through in years, old school assignments, and, yes . . . old stories.  Looking at the sheets of paper, realizing my handwriting had improved not at all since high school, I sat down beside a window and began to read.

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The stories are decades old.  Honestly, I had forgotten some of them even existed, but now, with the pages in my hands, the words before my eyes, they came back to me.  Yes.  “The Penny.”  I hadn’t thought of that one in years!  A cliched clunker with a predictable climax–though when I originally wrote it, surely I’d thought it was a nail-biter.  “The Wager,” “The Martian Library,” “The Right One,” “Pea Soup on a Foggy Day” (don’t ask!).  I read them all.  I couldn’t put them down.  It was easy to cringe at the over-the-top writing, the lack of believable characters, the flawed motives, the well-worn plot devices.  Had I really liked these stories when I’d written them?  But then I began to view them with a more forgiving eye.  I’d just been starting out, after all.  They were my first forays into a craft that takes a lifetime to hone, and even then, there is always room for improvement.

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But there was more there than just words to read and critique.  There were memories, old feelings that came back to the surface after being submerged for decades, hopes and dreams and ways of looking at the world when I was twelve and fourteen and seventeen.

That’s when I pulled out “The Fortune Cookie.”  I remembered that one well.  I had written it as a senior in high school, and back then thought of it as my best work, easily my most accomplished story at the time.  I remember that summer, shortly after graduation, submitting it to a handful of magazines, hopeful, confident that one of them would accept it.  They didn’t.  It wasn’t the first time I’d received rejection slips–but it did hit me harder that summer.  Why didn’t they like the story?  Could I have been so wrong in my assessment of it?  Wasn’t it any good?

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Rereading it now, through the cold, hard light of two decades’ worth of perspective and experience, I am able to admit–it’s not a publishable story.  It’s not entirely flawed.  There are some good scenes, some taut dialogue, and the conclusion, unlike the other stories I had written as a teenager, actually does pack a punch.  But it’s still the work of a beginning writer, barely finding his voice, still with so much to learn.  Even today, as I write this post, there is a part of me that is tempted to revise the story, edit it, prune it, sharpen it, make it better.  But I don’t.  And I won’t.

beginnerwriting

 

“The Fortune Cookie,” for all its flaws, is irreplaceable–a piece front and center in my own personal literary time capsule.  It belongs to a different era, just before the dawn of the Internet and email, and years before smartphones and social media.  It was written, in that faded mechanical-pencil lead, by a teenage version of myself, approaching the story from a different angle, with a different skill set and a different point of view, than the way I’d approach it today.  As frustrating as it might be to read it now, with all of its warts and fallacies and portions of illogic, “The Fortune Cookie” will remain as it is, in its original format.

timecapsule

 

I’ve never been one to keep a journal.  I’m not sure why.  I tried a couple of times, but quickly grew bored with it.  I suppose I’ve always needed the added layer of taking my personal experiences and using them in stories that I make up, worlds that emerge from somewhere deep within my subconscious, perhaps mirroring our own, perhaps quite different.  For whatever reason, I’ve always felt a need to create something new, as opposed to reporting on and writing about true events.  But in doing so, I have often felt the lack of a journal as a loss.  There is no record of how I felt on September 6, 1992 or June 29, 2001, or October 5, 1987.  It’s hard not to lament sometimes and wish I had such things recorded, in a weathered and bound notebook that I could access anytime I wanted, that provided a peek, however brief, however terse, into the shadows of my past.

writingjournal

 

That’s when I stop myself, and come to understand the true value in the poorly written stories from my youth.  When I read “The Fortune Cookie” today, there are certain passages that take me back, completely, to my senior year in high school, to the day when I hunched over the same wrinkled pages I hold now.  I can remember the feelings that raced through me as I wrote the last scene, the way the pencil couldn’t move fast enough, unable to keep pace with the speed and direction of my thoughts.  I can remember sitting down to write the first word, feeling inspired, fired up, and realizing, then as now, that there is no high so dizzying as a new idea that needs to be let loose onto the page.  I can even remember the feelings I had as I wrote specific sentences, the onrush of adrenaline, the urging to press on.

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And so, in many ways, “The Fortune Cookie,” and stories like it, are my journals–and will continue to be.  I can imagine a time, thirty years hence, looking back at this very post and thinking, “Remember when?”  Or rereading portions of The Eye-Dancers and recalling exactly the way I felt as I wrote the scene.  It doesn’t end.  It doesn’t have to be confined to a different decade or a previous century.  It will go on as long as words are written, thoughts shared, and hearts and souls expressed onto the printed page.

sharingyourheartend

 

Do you have any old stories lying around, collecting dust, hidden in a dark corner of the attic or a forgotten folder on your hard drive?  When you come across them, your own “Fortune Cookies,” as it were–perhaps cringing at the words, perhaps smiling, perhaps a little of both–I hope you decide to keep them.

I know I will.

nostalgiaend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Inner/Outer Writing Paradox (Or, From an Old Oak Desk in New England)

Where is your special place, the place where you block out the clutter and noise and distractions, and let your creative energy flow?

Mine is an old oak desk that my father used to use when he was a student in school, decades ago.  It’s solid, heavy, and not designed for the accoutrements of 21st-century digital technology.  But it’s my little oasis to think and dream and create.

oasis

 

My father actually passed the desk on to me while I was still living with my parents, a high school student with my eyes peeled toward the future, the promise of ten thousand tomorrows, of horizons to be explored and aspirations realized.  We are old friends, my desk and I.  The oak is scarred in spots, dented in others, victim to the long passage of time and the elements.  But the imperfections merely serve to make it more approachable, more real, more mine.

imperfections

 

I’ve spent countless hours sitting at the old desk, pecking away at my keyboard, working through stories and ideas and inspirations–some of which took shape and became full-bodied manuscripts and novels; others that died a quiet, gray death, falling into the oblivion of the unfinished and uncompleted.

tossedoutmanuscripts

 

Through it all, one thing has remained constant–the desk, my sturdy oak friend, has always offered solitude and seclusion–it’s just me, tucked away in my den.  There are times, at night, the drapes drawn, the house dark and still, as if surrounded by a giant, soundproof glove, when I feel like the only person, the only creature, on earth.

aloneatnight

 

Writing is a lonely task–sometimes, it seems, the loneliest of all, especially when the words won’t come, the characters won’t cooperate, the sentences and paragraphs refuse to flow into anything resembling a coherent whole.

writersblockcharacterswontcooperate

 

And yet, and yet . . .

There is a paradox at work here.  From the solitude, a reaching out; from the stillness, a sharing of words and thoughts and ideas–sending them out, perhaps with confidence, perhaps with trepidation, to be read and contemplated and critiqued by others.  What was originally crafted in the quiet of a bedroom, the seclusion of a Thoreau-like woodland getaway, is now dispersed, as if by magic, away from the confines and isolation of self and out toward the vastness of an ocean of readers.

writersgetawayinwoods

 

And yet still, there is a paradox within the paradox. I, like many writers, am a lifelong introvert.  I recharge my batteries when I’m alone, lost in thought and wonder.  I suppose I’ve become a bit more skilled at social gatherings through the years (though perhaps my friends may disagree!), but mingling among partygoers or making small talk in a group setting has never, and will never, come naturally to me.  Much like Mitchell Brant or Marc Kuslanski, I tend to feel awkward and clumsy in such situations.  When I observe my extrovert friends or family members, the effortless way they break into, or begin, conversations, I cannot help but admire them for their skills and panache.  They make something I struggle with look easy.

partysocial

 

But the funny thing is–the majority of them would likely never dare to share the intense, personal accounts we writers do on a regular basis–often, to people we don’t even know.  A paradox, indeed, that an introverted writer feels the desire, the longing, the need, to become naked and vulnerable, sharing his feelings, fears, dreams, memories, foibles, passions, ideas, loves with anyone who chooses to read them.

passionsanddreams

 

It’s as if the solitary act of writing needs to shed its literary cocoon and fly out the window, looking for places to land.  There is value, of course, even in writing just for yourself.  Diaries and journals through the ages lend proof to this truth.  But within every writer’s heart, isn’t there a calling, as if a voice were whispering, to share the depth and breadth of her essence?  The ideas, expressed as words on a page, are disconnected from the whole, separate from the world, so long as they reside only in our computer hard drive or in a dusty corner of our dresser drawer.

writingflyingoutwindow

 

And the world, as it were, may contain only a handful of readers–perhaps family members and a few close friends–or it may include everyone, the reach as limitless as our imaginations.  The power of the Internet certainly offers such reach.  We write a blog post in New England, or Berlin, or San Francisco, or Prague, and we, through the simplest of clicks, instantly share it across the globe.  And we, more than likely, wish for our words to be read, and, hopefully, appreciated and digested and thought about, by as many people as possible.

earth

 

Perhaps writers, then, are, in actuality, closet extroverts?  Or, maybe more accurately, writers are people, and feel the same longing all people share–to be recognized, to be understood, to be heard.  We just go about it in our own way.

We try, “in utter loneliness,” as John Steinbeck once said, to “explain the inexplicable.”

steinbeck

 

So the next time you tuck yourself away in your room or your office or your secluded writer’s cabin in the wild, and you feel a pang of guilt that you’re not spending that time with your family or your friends (a feeling I’ve certainly experienced on numerous occasions), perhaps you can offer them (and yourself) a reminder.

cabininwoodsend

 

Tell them that you have something inside of you, insisting, unceasing, that must come out, something so personal, so inherently you, that no one else on earth can produce it.  And that it’s a wistful thing, ungraspable, really, like a phantom flower that materializes out of thin air, but when reached for, vanishes like mist.  All we can do, while sequestered in our little writing corner, the door shut, the phone off, is try to capture that feeling, that idea, that insistence within us and express it to the best of our abilities.

writersroom

 

And then, when we step back out into the light of day, share it with the world.

sunrisesharingveryend

 

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.

foodondesk

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.

novembertree

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

Writing What You Know (Or, Reading in Front of the Sixth-Graders)

“I think you’re ready, Michael,” she said.  “You’re reading very well, and I want the big kids to hear it.”

On the one hand, I was thrilled.  Of all the students in the class, I was the one Mrs. Northrup had chosen for the honor.  But on the other hand, I was scared silly.  I was six years old that fall, a first-grader who may have been reading well but who was also the shyest student in the class.  Looking back, I am sure Mrs. Northrup realized this, and she had decided the task assigned would do me good.

shy

 

Of course, being six, I didn’t share her professional and experienced perspective.  She’d been a teacher for decades.  I just knew that standing up in front of a classroom full of older kids and reading aloud to them seemed about as beneficial for my development as walking straight into the heart of an active volcano.

volcano

 

“Don’t worry,” she assured me.  “You’ll do just fine.”

When the time came, book in hand, I trudged through the old hallways of Abraham Lincoln Elementary School, up the flight of stairs to the floor where the “big kids” had their classes, and, moving slower and slower with every step, arrived outside the assigned door.  I wished Mrs. Northrup had accompanied me.  She could have introduced me to the class, or done or said something to make it easier.  But she had sent me up by myself.

I considered turning around and leaving, but realized Mrs. Northrup would get word of such a tactic before day’s end.  No.  I was stuck.

I knocked on the half-opened door, my heart beating faster, faster.  There were sixth-graders in there!  They seemed light-years ahead of me, and more intimidating than a pride of lions.  The teacher–whose name I have long since forgotten–smiled at me and motioned for me to come in.

lions

 

“You must be Michael,” she said. “Mrs. Northrup told me to expect you, and I was just telling the class that one of the top first-grade students would be coming up to read.”  Great, I thought.  More pressure.  “Come along in!” she beamed.

I stood in place a moment longer, my mind still clinging, stubbornly, to potential escape routes.  But when the teacher motioned for me to come in again, her smile widening, I did the only thing I could think of.

I turned my back to the class, took a deep breath, and sidled through the door.  I heard someone in the class chuckle, but I didn’t turn around, wouldn’t turn around.  In front of me, the blackboard still contained the teacher’s notes, in crisp, perfect chalk-script, from whatever lesson the class had been learning earlier that day.

blackboard

 

No one said a word.  I looked at nothing but the chalkboard–I didn’t dare glance back at the class, nor did I look at the teacher.  I had a job to do, a task to complete, and I didn’t want to be in any way distracted.

I opened the book to the assigned spot, and began to read.  The passage ran one entire page.  I wasn’t sure the class could hear me with my back turned to them, but I didn’t stress over it.  I just told myself to read the next line, the next sentence, the next paragraph, get through it, and then exit the room.

openbookreading

 

As soon as I read the last word, I began to side-walk toward the door.  I moved as quickly as I could, and I didn’t turn around and walk face-forward again until I was in the hallway, heading toward the stairs, which would take me away from the sixth-graders and their classrooms and their lessons.

hallway

 

Not once, during the entire experience, did I turn to face the class.

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

It’s something every writer has heard, often drilled into them with the force and repetition of an iron-clad commandment:  “Write what you know.”

writewhatyouknow

 

We hear this so many times, in so many different places, and from so many reputable sources, it seems nearly impossible to argue.  After all, who can argue against the truth?  Besides, the advice seems to hold a lot of weight.  When we write about experiences, situations, jobs, relationships we have experienced, don’t our words contain more validity?  Don’t they resonate more, sing louder and more confidently?

Yes.

And no.

Let’s take a step back.  What, exactly, does “write what you know” refer to?  Is it to be taken rigidly, literally, basically saying that if I have never been fired from a job, to use a simple for-instance, that I cannot then write about a character in a story who is fired from their job?

fired

 

Or is it more broad?  Maybe, though I haven’t ever been fired, I still can imagine what such an experience might feel like.  Perhaps I have been dropped from a sports team, turned down at an interview, caught doing something wrong at home that resulted in less-than-ideal consequences.  The feelings I may have experienced during those situations may not be identical, one-for-one matches to getting fired, but do they really need to be?

Or take my first-grade experience related above.  It’s a silly old story on the surface. (And that evening, after getting word of what happened, Mrs. Northrup called my mother on the phone to tell her all about it.  They both had a good laugh over it, and eventually I did, too.)  But the experience also contains a lot of very real, raw emotions:  the fear of public speaking; feeling awkward and shy; the fear of performing badly under pressure; the possibility of being laughed at, ridiculed, or rejected; the burden of carrying the expectations of my teacher to represent her class well; the isolating journey up to an unknown, Brobdingnagian portion of the school, inhabited by “big kids”; and so on.

brobdignagian

 

In other words, it is rich with emotional experience, feelings, internal memories that can be “borrowed,” so to speak, when writing about situations that, at first glance, seem radically different and unrelated, but, in actuality, when you probe deeper and drill down to the feeling level, are really quite similar.  After all, what do we remember from our experiences, the good ones as well as the bad ones?  The circumstances, obviously, but even more so, the feelings, the emotions, the pain or joy, the sadness or elation that resulted.

Writing what you know can be interpreted as only writing about things that are a one-for-one match with your own personal experience.  That is a valid interpretation.  But I would argue it is an unnecessarily constricting one.  A fiction writer uses his or her imagination to create worlds, events, characters that, hopefully, allow readers to enter into the story, become engaged in far-off places, other time periods, or even just the next town over.  If we as authors are reluctant to write things beyond the purview of our own literal experience, then we probably should not write fiction at all.  With such strict parameters in place, creating a straitjacket on our literary endeavors, speculative fiction would never exist.  There could be no time machines or werewolves, vampires or interdimensional voids that carry four seventh-graders to a faraway and alien world.  There could be no Yellow Brick Roads or dreams and powers that lift us high up, “over the rainbow.”  There could be no Morlocks or Superman or preternatural do-overs in Frank Capra Christmas classics.

itsawonderfullife

 

Anytime I feel disqualified from writing a certain scene or character because I “haven’t ever done that before” or “been there before,” I just take a moment and think back to that scared, shy, and overwhelmed first-grader.  If I just close my eyes and listen, really listen, I discover he has so much to share.

writelikeend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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