On a (Cloudy) Day, You Can See Forever

There are places in the state of Vermont, high meadows, where, if you stand in them and look out over the land, you feel as though you’re on top of the world.  In winter, thick, crusty snow crunches underfoot; the air, cold and sharp, feels like it will draw blood when you inhale; and your breath rises with the wind before vanishing like smoke.

wintermeadow

 

In summer, tall grasses sway in the breeze, the distant hillsides are a palette of green, and, if the sky is clear, you feel like you can see beyond the asteroid belt, out into the far corners of the galaxy.

vermontmeadow

 

Sometimes in those moments, ideas come, whole, complete–like a lightning strike out of the blue.  It is as exhilarating as it is rare.  One moment, there is nothing.  In the next, you carry with you an idea that screams and kicks and demands release.  When this happens, I rush to my PC, open that new Word document, or WordPress Edit form (!), and let the sentences come . . .

ideas

 

But other times, most of the time, ideas do not arrive as gift-wrapped wholes.  Usually there is but a peek, a whisper, a shooting star that speeds across the canvas of the sky so fast, you barely have a chance to see it.  I can’t even count how many times I have experienced this–a germ of an idea, tantalizing, but far from workable.

shootingstar

 

In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King pens that he doesn’t believe stories come from within us.  Rather, he says, they are “found things, like fossils in the ground . . . relics, part of an undiscovered preexisting world.”  I agree.  I have always believed that ideas discover us, not the other way around, and how they discover us, and how much of themselves they share–is often out of our hands.

onwriting

 

One night, as the 1980s gasped their last, dying breath and while I was still in high school, I had a dream–a dream so vivid, it stayed with me for decades.  I dreamed of a girl, six, perhaps seven years old, with an airy, translucent quality to her.  She stood outside, beyond my bedroom window, the light of the streetlamp passing through her–as if she were only partly there.  As if she were a ghost.  She beckoned for me to come outside, her eyes, even from a distance, appearing so blue that I felt if I looked into them long enough, hard enough, I would see where the universe ended, and began.  There was a visceral feel of threat about her.  Who was she?  What was she?  And what did she want?

ghostunderlight

 

And then, I woke up.  The bedsheets were kicked away, crumpled in a heap at my feet.  I looked out the window, wondering if she would still be there.  She wasn’t.  Slowly, my breathing returned to normal, and I wrote down the aspects of the dream that stood out to me.  Even back then, decades ago, I knew I had an idea I needed to write about.

messybed

 

The thing was–I didn’t know how to incorporate this “ghost girl” into a story.  Should she be the protagonist?  Or the villain?  Should it be a twelve-page short story, or an epic novel?  A few days later, I attempted to write a short story about her, but it fizzled by the third page.  I had a scenario, a scene.  But I didn’t have a story.  If there was a story to be told here, it was still hidden from view, shyly concealing itself behind a thick, gray mass of clouds.  Several times, I tried to force it, inserting the scene into existing story lines–just to see if it would fit.  It never did.  As frustrating as it was, I realized I would have to remain patient.  The story would bloom and take shape only when, and if, it was ready.

throwawayideas

 

The wait lasted nearly twenty years, and then, on a late August night eight years into the twenty-first century, I dreamed of the “ghost girl” again.  But this time, upon waking, the mists and clouds had cleared, and I was able to see the story.  I took a deep breath, amazed, as I always am, at the capricious whims of the creative process.

capricious

 

And then I got to work on the first draft of The Eye-Dancers.

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

Just the other day, I had another scene strike me, another partial image, the rest of the story obscured, half-hidden in the shadows, tucked away behind a rocky, impenetrable promontory.  Will it ever materialize into something whole?  Time will tell.

promontory

 

But for now, I return to that high Vermont meadow.  The sky is sealed behind a sea of clouds, gray, thick like lead.

grayclouds

 

But the clouds will disperse, eventually, the lead will melt away, drip by drip, revealing the blue beyond.  And somewhere in that expanse, the entire story lives.  I just need to watch, and wait, and hope that it will fall to me, the words and images tumbling down like pieces of the sky.

cloudsdisperse

 

And maybe that’s the most exhilarating thing of all.  Knowing that somewhere up there, high above the clouds, a new creation awaits, something with your name on it, for you to tell and share with the world.

The possibilities are as endless as the sky itself, and limited only by the scope of our imagination.

milkyway

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Looking Out the Window . . . Or, the Cure for Writer’s Block?

It was difficult to feel motivated, and I don’t think I was the only person in the class who felt that way.  Fellow students yawned, fidgeted.  A couple of times, the professor, a tall, bespectacled brunette in her late forties, had to remind the class to focus on the discussion at hand.

tiredclass

 

The malaise was understandable, perhaps even unavoidable.  It was the first week of the spring semester, which in itself seemed a cruel joke.  Spring?  It was the end of January, and outside, a soft snow was falling from clouds the color of ash.  The temperature had been stuck several degrees below freezing for days, and the sun, a shy, long-lost acquaintance, seemed perpetually hidden.

Western New York State in midwinter . . .

nyjanuary

 

“So,” the professor said, her voice high, energetic.  No doubt she sensed that she needed to inject some much-needed enthusiasm into the classroom.  “Today I want to talk about writer’s block.  We’ve all been there before, am I right?”  Nods, faint murmerings from the class.  “Well . . . when you want to write something, and you just can’t seem to, what do you do?”

writersblock

 

One girl raised her hand and said she just waits it out.  Ideas come when they will come, she said.  I nodded.  I had tried to force-feed ideas in the past, but it never worked.  The creative process was a mystery.  It wasn’t something you could order around.  It was the one in charge.  Not me.

creativity

 

The professor didn’t agree.

“Look outside,” she said.  “Everyone.  Look out the window.”  Heads turned, slowly, and I overheard one student behind me whisper to herself that she needed another cup of coffee.  It was an early morning class on top of everything else.

coffee

 

“Now,” the professor continued.  “I want you all to describe what you see.”

Blank looks and an audible grunt from one guy who looked as if he’d literally stumbled out of bed two minutes before the start of class greeted her direction.

“In your notebooks, write what you see through the window,” she went on.  “Just a single paragraph.  But in that paragraph, I want you to paint a picture.  Create a mood.  Get those writer’s muscles working!  I’ll write something up, too.”

One girl asked if we’d all have to share our literary creations with the rest of the class.  The professor rolled her eyes behind the lenses of her glasses, and shook her head.  “Only if you want to.”  The girl breathed a sigh of relief.

I peered out the window, taking in the scene.  The classroom overlooked a snow-covered expanse interspersed with walkways and dotted with maple trees, stripped bare for the winter.  This section of campus was presently empty, the early hour and cold, snowy weather keeping students and faculty inside.

mapletree

 

One tree in particular caught my eye.  It stood perhaps twenty feet beyond the window, its limbs reaching up into the white, wintry haze.  The trunk was large, solid–I estimated it must have been there a hundred years, if not more, an ancient guardian, a sentry of the walkways and classrooms within its watch.  A crow, cawing as it flew (or so I imagined through the closed window), landed on a branch, its black feathers bold against the whites and grays of a Rochester January.

crow

 

I stared at the crow, thinking, imagining, and began to write . . .

“In the maple that has been here so long, no one alive can remember its absence, a crow perches.  Midnight black on slate gray.  What secrets does the tree know?  What hushed conversations has it overheard?  What conspiracies has it been privy to?  It stands and watches.  And listens, listens . . .  Not eternal, perhaps.  But enduring.  The bird flies away.  Perhaps, just perhaps, it had sensed something in the tree.  A knowledge, maybe.  A probing . . . as if its innermost being, its secrets tucked away in a quiet corner of its black heart were being exposed, one by wintry one . . .”

I never did share that paragraph with my classmates.  And, truth be told, I’m not sure it should see the light of day now!  But it illustrates the point the professor was trying to make that day.  If you observe the simplest thing and decide to write a paragraph, or a page, about it, you can escape the creative logjam you might be in and ride with the river’s current.  Sometimes the current is slow, winding, hesitant.  Sometimes it rushes headlong toward some unknown destination, full of promise and optimism.  Either way, however, you are moving, not stuck in the mire and muck of writer’s block.

river

 

While the scene you describe may not find its way into a short story or chapter (though it might!), it very well may kindle the flame of an idea, kick-start a story line, or help you to navigate the maze of the novel you’re working on.

maze

 

There were times while writing The Eye-Dancers that I did indeed feel stuck.  What should happen next?  Sometimes your characters act in the most unpredictable ways!  That’s generally a good thing, except for when they act so unpredictably they cause you, the author, to question the next scene, or peer ahead, bleary-eyed and overwhelmed, not sure where the story should journey next, or if it should even be completed at all.

writersblock2

 

And for me, these creative crisis points are the moments when I need to remind myself to step back, take a breath–and write.  Create something fresh and new, completely unrelated to the work-in-progress that has me bogged down and frustrated.

Because whether you live in upstate New York as I once did, or northern New England as I do now, where the January landscape is a black-and-white photograph, the snowdrifts deep, the wind a serrated knife, the growth and renewal of spring seemingly a lifetime away; whether you live by the sea in a sunny, mild climate, the sound of the waves an echo from some long-ago century; or whether you live on a farm or in a bustling downtown, or on the outskirts of a Norman Rockwell-esque village, there is always something to watch, to hear, to contemplate.

rockwell

 

All you have to do is look out the window . . .

window

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Cultivating a Left-Eye Point of View

Pause for a moment, and focus on an object–a telephone poll, a basketball hoop, a magnet on the refrigerator, the flickering flame of a candle.  It can be anything.  Look at it closely, line it up with your vision.  And point at it with your index finger.

telephone poll

 

candle

 

Now–close your left eye, while continuing to point at the object, looking at it only through your right eye.  If you are like approximately two-thirds of the population, your finger will still be pointed directly at the intended object.

Okay.  Let’s switch eyes.  Close your right eye, and open your left.  More than likely, your finger will now be pointing several inches to the right, no longer aimed at the object.  Nearly 70 percent of people are right-eye dominant–when viewing the world, their right eye is in the driver’s seat, directing the line of sight and what they focus on.  It is, in other words, a matter of perspective.

Perspective, sometimes, can become stodgy, routine, set in its ways.  Take Marc Kuslanski.  Of all the characters in The Eye-Dancers, he is the least willing to consider the universe in a new and different way.  For Marc, science and logic are the backbone of all progress, the methods for solving every problem, the vehicle by which we should view the world and consider its possibilities.  For a large portion of the novel, he is completely closed to any considerations of the supernatural, miracles, ghosts–anything that lies outside the purview of natural laws and science.  Any talk of a mysterious “ghost girl” he dismisses–he is the only one of the four main characters in the novel not to dream of her.  No matter how adamantly the others protest and claim the girl is real, Marc won’t hear of it.

His is a fixed, ironclad stance, one that he must somehow overcome before novel’s end.  Can he bend?  Can he open his mind, and look at the world through a different lens, from a different perspective?  His very survival will ultimately depend on it.

I find it’s much the same in writing–especially writing a long work such as a novel.  Before I begin, I have a direction in mind, a path I’d like to follow.  I don’t draft chapter-by-chapter outlines, but I have a fairly clear idea what I want to accomplish in a particular chapter before I sit down to write it.  At the same time, however, I always remind myself not to get too locked in, not to be so tunnel-visioned as to miss the hints and urgings of what the characters on the page are doing.

It is a remarkable and mysterious phenomenon the way characters–your own creations!–often talk to you, and tell you what to write.  In The Eye-Dancers, I never planned for Marc Kuslanski and Mitchell Brant to become friends.  When the book opens, they know each other as classmates, nothing more.  They share some of the same classes, pass each other in the halls–that’s the extent of their relationship.  Of course, I knew the events in the novel would force them to interact more.  They, along with Joe Marma and Ryan Swinton, are transported to the variant town of Colbyville and must find a way back home, after all.  They need to get past their differences and work together.  But I didn’t intend for Mitchell and Marc to have such a strong rapport.  The more they interacted, the more I realized–these two are becoming friends.  I had to listen to them.  I had to shift my perspective.  The characters demanded it.  If I had stuck rigidly to my initial plan–my right-eye-dominant point of view, if you will–a major development in The Eye-Dancers would have been lost.

It is the same with any creative endeavor.  We need to stay amenable to the unexpected, open to the accidental discovery.  Alexander Fleming did not clean up his workstation one day back in 1928.  When he later returned, he noticed that a fungus had grown on some of his cultures.  He also noticed that bacteria didn’t seem to thrive near these cultures.  From this mishap, penicillin was discovered.  But if Fleming had not been observant, if he’d been unwilling to take note of a vital clue provided in the aftermath of his own sloppiness, he may have missed the chance at medical history.

penicillin

 

Sometimes we need to actively choose to alter our perspective.  I experience this on a regular basis.  At the moment, in the uplands of central Vermont, where I live, the hills are still a patchwork of faded green and white.  The battered dirt roads are flanked on either side with mud-streaked March snow.

vtmud

And I find myself frustrated.  Will spring never arrive?  But then I pause, take a breath.  Of course it will.  In the meantime, there is still much beauty to be found in the bare simplicity of the landscape, the tang of the morning air, the song of a red-winged blackbird newly arrived from its winter migration.

vermontspring

 

redwing

 

Switching lenses, from my right eye to my left, I feel lucky to live in the Green Mountain State, even in March.  Looking at the hills and rolling meadows, the slumbering farm fields and the sap buckets hanging from bare maple trees, I wish I’d brought my camera along.

maple

 

Suddenly, as if by magic, it feels like I’ve stepped into a postcard.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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