Beyond the Next Traffic Light . . .

Imagine a road, any road–perhaps it winds its way through rolling countryside and charming villages, Capra-esque, with town squares and old brick storefronts that make you feel as if you’re traveling through a set piece for It’s A Wonderful Life.

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Or maybe you’re downtown at rush hour, in a large city, frustrated by the snarl of traffic and the honking horns.

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Perhaps you’re feeling stressed, burdened, so much still to do, and so little time in which to do it.

You look ahead.  The next intersection awaits, the next red light. . .

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Or does it?

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I have long enjoyed mainstream, literary stories, and much of the short fiction I write is in fact mainstream, with no supernatural or otherworldly element to it.  This stems from a long-standing appreciation of literature.  I love the classics, the works of writers like Truman Capote and Harper Lee, Willa Cather and John Steinbeck.  A good, dramatic story has the power to move us and touch us in very personal ways.

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But my first love, and the kind of storytelling that I come back to, time and again, is science fiction and fantasy.  And yes–I will combine the two genres beneath one imagination-stirring, speculative-fiction umbrella.  While some stories are clearly sci-fi and others clearly fantasy, often the two overlap, and, just as often, they do so within the same story.  Hard-core sci-fi fans may take issue with this, just as they did when Ray Bradbury famously put an atmosphere on Mars.  But I read his Martian stories and loved them, just the same.  Are they science fiction?  Fantasy?  “Who cares?” I said.  They were great.  That’s all that mattered to me.  They accomplished what all first-rate imaginative fiction does.

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When I read Ray Bradbury, or watch a post-apocalyptic thriller, or read an old Fantastic Four comic book (like Mitchell Brant in The Eye-Dancers, I am, and have always been, a fan of classic old comic books), or enter, through the enchantment of the dusty page (or touch-screen, as the case may be), into the heart of a city full of dragons and witches and hairy little elves who shuffle discreetly underfoot, I want the story to take me by the hand and transport me to a distant, faraway place, perhaps to a different time or a different universe or a different reality.

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Maybe the story takes me there via a time machine, but it can just as easily be a dream sequence or a fantastical world that just is, always has been, and always will be, right from the opening scene of the book.  Or, just maybe, I am taken there through the swirling, hypnotic blue eyes of a “ghost girl”. . .

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It doesn’t really matter how it is done, as long as it’s done in such a way that I can believe it, that I am right there, along for the ride with the characters.  And once I am there, in this fantastic new world, I can then get absorbed in it, marooned like a sailor on some remote Pacific island but without any desire to leave.   And yes, it may test and stretch the limits of my imagination (with hope, that’s precisely what it will do); yet, simultaneously, and again, hopefully, it will cause  me to reflect and look at my own world in a different way, with a different perspective.

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That, to me, is the definition, and the essence, of speculative fiction.

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Let’s return to our traffic light, then, shall we?  There you are, sitting there, the car idling, the list of to-dos spinning in your mind, over and over.  Groceries to buy.  Bills to pay.  A house to straighten up.  Dentist appointment next week, and that tooth has been really throbbing lately, too.  Ugh.  Another cavity?  The project at work is only half-finished, and the boss continues to harp about it, demanding it be completed yesterday.  And what’s that?  Does the car sound a little funny?  Does the engine sound as though it’s laboring?  But the mechanic just worked on it a month ago . . .

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So many thoughts, stresses, tasks, worries . . .  And the traffic is moving so slowly!  There is a bend in the road.  You can’t see around it, but you know what lies ahead.  Another traffic light, another delay as you listen to the car’s sputtering engine, and think about everything you have to do, all over again.

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But wait.  Your mind begins to drift.  You think of the novel you’re reading.  You just finished chapter twenty-four last night, and are eager to return to it.  Every time you read it, the story carries you on fine, feathery wings, so silent, so effortless, you are hardly aware that you’re moving at all.  It lifts you up, higher, higher, to a dreamscape world, far away, immeasurably distant–and yet, you are there.  And now, here, stuck in traffic, suddenly your train of thought shifts.

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You know, logically, that you will have to wait at another red light, and then another, and another.  You know your list of things to do seems to grow, organically, on its own, with each passing minute.  The burdens of day-to-day tasks, the unending grind, the perpetual treadmill are all still there.  But now there is something else, too.

An openness, perhaps–an acknowledgment that, despite the obstacles and the mind-numbing routines, all things are possible.  The novel you are reading–the magic of it, the scope of its plot and the vastness of its universe–makes you want to believe in the unbelievable, search for the unknowable.  It makes you want to reach . . . reach for the moon, throw a lasso around it like George Bailey said he would do for Mary Hatch in that Frank Capra classic sixty-seven years ago.

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But why stop there?

There is an entire galaxy to explore.  A universe.  And, perhaps, a parallel universe.  There is no end.

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The light turns green.  You drive through it, imagining the possibilities, embracing the adventure.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Ghost at My Shoulder

Do you believe in ghosts?  I do.

Allow me to elaborate . . .

One aspect of the writing life, at some point or another, is insecurity.  If you keep at it, and write for any length of time at all, insecurity is inevitable, unavoidable.  You worry that the novel you’re working on isn’t any good, and if it is, then you worry you’ll get stuck halfway through, and won’t know how to end the story.  You worry that you peaked ten years ago, and anything you write from this moment forward will signal a steady and depressing descent.  You worry that the ideas will just dry up, evaporating like steam rising from a woodland pond on a crisp October morning.  You fret that, maybe, you’ll become burned out and lose the passion that has fueled your writing for years.

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You worry, in short, that every lyrical sentence is fleeting, every well-written short story a momentary triumph soon to be replaced by a long line of duds.  You worry that writing itself, the birth of ideas, the sculpting of sentences and paragraphs, the creation of well-rounded characters, is transitory.  There seems to be an impermanence to the thing, as if, at any moment, the light will dim, the flow of creativity dammed up like a lost and forgotten river.

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And for me, that’s when I need to trust my ghost.  It’s not a ghost that creeps in the shadows of the night and haunts my dreams–though I believe in those, too.

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This ghost, this lifetime companion, if you will, views me from afar and plays hard-to-get.  But just when I feel frustration building to red-line levels, when the urge to give up on a story is disturbingly close, the ghost returns.

Some people call the ghost a muse.  That’s a fine term, muse.

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But for me, he is my ghost.  He’s a ghost because I can never anticipate his arrival–I can only hope for it when needed.  I can’t force him to come.  He visits and leaves when he will, capricious, like the New England weather.  And when I’m stuck, when the dreaded writer’s block has me in its grip, my ghost is the only way out, the only pathway to creative freedom.  I can try to force ideas all day long, I can craft a meticulous, detailed chapter-by-chapter outline, but those methods have never worked for me.  I have always needed to keep the faith in my ghost.

When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, there were portions of the novel that flowed smoothly and easily, like a cool and welcome summer breeze after a torrid hot spell.  These sections were a joy, when the words poured out of me and the story completely took on a life of its own.  I felt like a vessel, a conduit, tapping into a current of energy that poured through me and onto the page.

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This is a beautiful and heady feeling,  the apogee of the creative process. Perhaps in these “in-the-zone” moments, my ghost is standing right there beside me, at my shoulder, though I am unaware of his presence.  I think the ghost works best that way–when I’m aware of his nearness, the subconscious loses its hold, and the conscious self threatens to short-circuit the process.  My ghost works best in the background.

But then there are moments when I distinctly feel his absence, when the words and thoughts seem to be spiked with barbed wire, slicing and cutting and going nowhere.  These are the times when I know I’m alone, when my ghostly ally is nowhere to be found.  Some chapters in The Eye-Dancers were like this–daunting Himalayan peaks that needed to be scaled.  I would write the chapter, but I knew it wasn’t close to what it needed to be.  I would rewrite it, reread it, still shaking my head.  I would start to doubt myself, doubt the story, and when no answers came, I felt an urge to fling the keyboard across the room.  I would struggle and wrestle, but nothing seemed right.  I needed my spectral friend in the worst way.

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And then, when I felt completely unraveled, after taking a dozen long walks trying to work out the tangles of the plot, the ghost would finally come, tiptoeing along as if daring me to miss his arrival.  “Sssh,” he seemed to whisper.  “Stop trying so hard.  It will come when it will come.”  And it did.

He comes with a feather-light step, my ghost does.  He comes when he’s needed, and he always has–a lifelong helper, a friend of the writer.  He is a constant reminder to allow the story to be the story, to let it unfold as it will, at its own pace and in its own time.  When I worry over the direction of the plot, when I doubt that I have a single worthwhile word left in me to write, he reassures, softly, and he leads me along the path I need to travel.

So, you see, when I am asked if I believe in ghosts, I answer, without hesitation, “Yes.”

Because if I doubted, if I didn’t believe, my creative well would have gone dry long, long ago . . .

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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