From the Micro to the Macro (Or, a Red Squirrel Tells a Story)

Imagine this situation.  A writer (let’s call her Jane) has a story idea–something that resonates, will not recede into the background, and something that, as if having a life of its own, continues to progress and grow and mature.  Jane is fired up, enthusiastic, and prepared to put in the long hours to craft a novel.

But she hesitates.  Despite wanting–needing–to write it, she pauses and thinks about it.  Her mind is all too ready to issue doubts and protestations, reasons to chuck the project and go back to reading others’ work instead of creating her own.

 

“Your idea’s too small,” her inner critic says.  “It’s so common, so run of the mill.  It’s just day-to-day family stuff, domestic life.  Who cares?”

Jane shoots back that she cares, and, as the author of the piece, doesn’t that count?  Doesn’t that matter?

But her inner critic is unrelenting.  “You have to come up with something bigger.  Bolder.  More exciting and universal.  Don’t waste your time on what you have now.”

Angered by the thoughts swirling in her own head, Jane feels an urge to punch . . . what?  Her own thoughts?  Her own doubts and fears?  But how can she do that?  And besides, maybe her inner doubts are right.  There is little violence in her story.  No international politics or major business deals.  No espionage.  The movers and shakers of the world do not appear.  It’s insular, isolated, just a mother, a daughter, a beloved cat.  A few friends.  Small-town settings, and small-town goings-on.  She’s writing about her memories.  Her loves and passions.  But they are small.  Who will care?  Who will be engaged with any of it?

 

She sleeps on it, tossing and turning through the night.

Early the next morning, Jane takes a walk through the woods that surround her home.  It is fall, there is a bite to the air, but it is invigorating, wakening, a tonic to her senses.  Fallen leaves crunch under feet.  Squirrels chatter nearby, scolding her for the intrusion.  Chipmunks dart to and fro, preparing for the winter ahead.  Songbirds twitter, mostly unseen, from the trees.  A particularly brazen red squirrel darts in front of her, on some mission that, evidently, cannot wait.

 

And that’s when she realizes.

To that rushing squirrel, at that moment, in this remote, out-of-the-way corner of the globe–no human voices to be heard, no car engines roaring in the distance, no city noises or excitement for miles around–this is the universe, the be-all and end-all.  It is everything.  Perhaps no one but Jane will ever know of this squirrel.  Perhaps her eyes are the only human eyes who will ever see it.  But that doesn’t matter.  This squirrel’s mission, this squirrel’s task, is the most important thing in the world, here and now, in this place.

 

And, she realizes, isn’t that the same for us?  For the lonely widow with no one to talk to you?  For the homeless person, down on his luck, trying to figure out a better way?  For the high-end executive, alone, at night, stressing over the details of the latest progress report?  For the little boy or girl, with two days before summer vacation, looking forward to two months without homework?  For the neighbor down the street who everyone disregards as “boring” and “dull” and doesn’t really talk to?

We all have stories.  Our lives are comprised of moments, thoughts, hopes, dreams, triumphs, sadness, and countless “mundane” things that make up the bulk of day-to-day living.  To us, as individuals, our “little problems” are the universe.  They are our stories.  And they are worth sharing.

 

Because what you are feeling today, countless others are, too.  What I am struggling with in my day-to-day, many others are, too.  Are there differences?  Of course.  We are each our own person, with our own unique set of experiences and thoughts and feelings.  But there is a thread, invisible perhaps, but as real as the air we breathe, that links us.  We are both unique and universal, individuals and a part of the whole.

There is no such thing as a story “too small,” a subject too “mundane.”  If someone is living it, feeling it, if someone is moved by it, then it can reach others, too.  It can serve as both a window and a mirror, a reminder that we are all different, but all inextricably connected.

 

So, if you have an idea about a “small” thing, a particular “mundane” situation, write it.  Share it.  Give it to the world.

We will all be better for it.  And, if we are looking, really looking, we will see the macro in the micro, and recognize ourselves in the story.  And maybe, even learn something new about ourselves (and those we know) along the way.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Appreciation in This Season of Thanksgiving

Late fall is a frigid time of the year in the hills of east-central Vermont, where I live.  Daytime highs rarely reach forty degrees Fahrenheit, and nighttime lows almost always are well below freezing.  The other day, the first measurable snow of the season blew in–three inches.  A long winter looms ahead.

 

But this is a good time of year to reflect.  Another year nears its inevitable and inexorable end.  The days are short; the nights long.  Often, there is a stillness in the air.  Outside, on the meadow, early in the morning, before the birds awaken, there are few sounds.  It is still and silent, my breath visible on the sharp, subfreezing air.  A time to reflect, indeed.  And to think of things for which I am thankful.

 

There are many–too many to list, both past and present.  And one of them is the success of my “freelance” business.  For nearly two years now, I have been working, well, for myself, copy editing books.  The workload is intense–this year alone, I will have worked on close to two hundred titles when the dust settles at the end of December.  Very thankful, indeed.  But the hectic schedule (which, even now, I am still adjusting to and learning how to include my own writing projects into the mix) makes it more difficult to blog than ever before.  As readers of this space surely are aware, the frequency of posts on this site has gradually decreased over the years–settling in to its current rhythm of one post per month.

 

But for those of you who still stop in, pull up a virtual chair, sip a virtual tea, and read these, well, virtual scribblings, I am enormously thankful.  In fact, you are the reason why I still blog at all.  You are what makes this so rewarding and enduring.

 

The Eye-Dancers website turns ten years old in 2022.  When I began this blog in the summer of 2012, I genuinely wondered if I could cobble together ten weeks’ worth of posts, never mind ten years.  It has been a wonderful journey.

And, as long as you want to keep visiting from time to time, and perusing these words and posts, it’s a journey that will continue.

 

Thank you for sticking around!  And thank you for reading.

–Mike

A Walk Down Memory Lane (Or, Where the Inspiration Comes From)

Recently, I took a short trip “back home” to visit my family in Rochester, New York, where I was born and spent the first two-and-a-half decades of my life.  Only . . . “Rochester” is too general.  I stayed at the old house, the house where my father still lives, where I grew up, where I spent a childhood and adolescence living and learning, and dreaming.

Rochester, New York - Wikipedia

 

Mostly dreaming.  I was an introvert growing up (and still am), and I spent a good portion of my time “elsewhere” in my mind.  I’d go out into the backyard and hit the Wiffle ball, pretending to be participating in the World Series.  I’d create lineups, do play-by-play, and even keep statistics.  Or I’d head out to the driveway and shoot baskets.  My parents had a hoop attached just above the garage.  The gutter that lined the garage bore the brunt of numerous misfired shots–by me, my friends, my brothers–you name it.  Even today, though the hoop is long gone, that gutter still wears its decades-old battle scars.  Other times, I’d go down into the basement and spend hours writing in the cool, dimly lit space, escaping the heat and humidity of summer days.  The common theme was–a lot of solitary activities, sequestering myself away from others, content to create an alternate universe, as it were, one as boundless as my imagination, with no limits and no restrictions.

The Wiffle Ball, Inc. - Official Site

 

That’s not to say I was always alone!  I often got together with my neighborhood friends, some of whom were the real-life inspirations behind the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers.  We’d do all manner of things throughout the year, but especially during summer.  We’d even have sleepovers, in my basement, that same space in which I spent so much time on my own.  I’d tell them of the ghosts and vampires that lurked in the shadows, under the stairs, in the crawlspace.  I was so convincing, I avoided going down there alone after sundown!  My solo basement adventures were exclusive to times when the sun was up and streaming through the cellar windows.  To be down there at night, I needed the company of my friends.

Soundbytes: Pop Music's 5 Best Vampire Songs | Wisconsin Public Radio

 

In the main, however, I was a loner.  Though often by myself, I never felt “lonely.”  There was always so much going on in my imagination, so many story plots being concocted, so many “out-there” scenarios playing across the movie screen of my overactive and fanciful mind.  And these flights of fancy did not occur only within the confines of the house.  No, indeed.

I would take walks through the neighborhood, sometimes for hours.  I’d go far afield at times, several miles out, walking, observing, saying hi to the cats and dogs that sometimes would follow me for a block or two.  I’d look at the houses, the architecture, especially examining the older abodes.  Two stories, with rotting shingles, mature oak trees and maple trees, and surely full of memories and experiences lurking within their walls, these houses never failed to capture my attention.  Sometimes I’d stand there on the sidewalk, just looking at the house, a corner of the yard, a specific tree or bush.  More likely than not, people inside probably watched me and wondered what the odd boy on the sidewalk was doing, and what he was staring at.  No one ever came out to interrogate, though.

Toronto seeks to save oak tree older than Canada | CTV News

 

Numerous story ideas were born on those walks.  Potentialities, possibilities, hauntings, evil, goodness, all manner of things would percolate in my mind, to the point where, often, when I arrived back home, I would whip out my old-school pencil and paper and jot down notes, or even dive right in to the story proper.

When I visited the old house, the old neighborhood, earlier this month, I took a long walk.  It was along the same route as some of my childhood walks.  Some things had changed.  Some of the houses–especially the ancient, haunted ones (or at least what I always told myself were haunted)–were gone, replaced by newer, more sterile homes.  Much of the neighborhood remained unchanged, however, and as I walked through the interlocking streets, it felt as though I were walking through time, my steps commingling with those of my younger self.  Memories swirled, regrets.  Joys.  And when I returned to the house, I whipped out a pencil and some old-school notebook paper, and jotted down a few new story ideas.

Meet the Andromeda galaxy, the closest large spiral | Astronomy Essentials | EarthSky

 

Works every time.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Literary Leap–Writing as an Act of Faith

Have you ever walked in the dark?  Seriously.  Say it’s the middle of the night, and, for some reason, you need to get up.  Maybe you need to head down the hall to the bathroom.  Maybe you failed to eat supper and now, your stomach is grumbling at 2:00 a.m., and you remember there’s a blueberry pie stashed in the back of the fridge.  Maybe you just can’t sleep and need to get up, stretch your limbs, unwind before lying down again.

 

It’s dark.  Pitch-dark, a moonless, starless night, a gentle rain falling from low-lying clouds, the sound of the drops pittering and pattering off the eaves and gutters and windows.  But your significant other is in bed with you, and you don’t want to disturb them.  So you don’t flick on any lights.  You just plant your feet onto the floor and stand up, stepping slowly across the room and out into the hall, where, also for the sake of discretion (maybe there’s a house guest snoring away on the living room coach), you keep the lights off.

 

Dark.  You know the house well, of course.  You live in it.  But you generally navigate it during the day, or with the lights on.  Now you feel your way through darkened corridors and Stygian rooms until you reach the kitchen.  Finally, opening the refrigerator door, some light!  And yes.  There’s the pie.  You secure two pieces, place them on a plate, grab a fork, and . . . close the refrigerator door.  Plunged into darkness again (the house guest is in the next room and you don’t want to disturb them), you push through the dark and sit down at the dining room table.  There, you eat your pie (without seeing it).

 

And when you finish, you have to walk through the dark again, empty the plate into the sink, navigate the pitch-dark hall, back to the bedroom.  You see nothing. Everything is done by memory, by feel, familiarity.

Faith.

Indeed.  Are you sure there is nothing in your path, some tripping hazard blocking your way?  The dog had been playing with his toys earlier.  Didn’t he leave one of them in the hall . . .  Hmm.  But you keep going, slowly, moving forward, trusting in your instincts, your senses apart from sight that will guide you through.  You are not crippled with fear.  You dare to proceed.

 

And eventually, of course, you safely reach your bed.  You have completed your mission, in the dark–and in the process shoveled in a thousand nighttime calories.  But who’s counting?

 

You had an awareness of where you were going–from your memory of the house and its layout, from feeling your way forward.  You couldn’t see.  You couldn’t be sure until you took the next step.  But you believed.

You jumped, as it were, and landed on your feet.

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It is much the same when we write–or do anything creative, really.  Think about it.  An idea hits you, unasked for, unplanned.  You feel inspired to write it, to unfurl the story wherever it leads.  To create characters that dream and fear and imagine and make mistakes and pursue redemption and say all manner of dialogue over hundreds of pages of manuscript.

Where do their words come from?  How do you know what they will say, exactly, to whom, and when?  As you sit down at your PC or laptop to begin, a blank screen staring back at you, do you know what page 76 will look like?  How about page 200?  Or page 6?

 

What will character X do in chapter 16?  In short, this idea you have, this general outline of a story–how will it develop once you begin keying in the words, once the sentences build on themselves, one upon another upon another?  The answer is–you don’t know.  You have no idea.   You have a general outline of the story, as a whole.  But–aside from maybe a scene here or there–the details are a mystery.  The plot developments are far off, concealed signposts in a mist.  The characters haven’t spoken a word yet.  Some characters will emerge in your story that you aren’t even aware of yet.  But when the magic of storytelling commences, when you dare to move from paragraph to paragraph and chapter to chapter, they will come upon the scene and make their presence known.

 

Writing, creating, is an act of faith.  There are no guarantees.  No promises.  While you may have the first chapter, the first scene, planned out, you most certainly do not have every word mapped out.  You key in the first sentence with a belief, a silent trust that the second sentence will come into existence, and then a third, and a fourth, and, ultimately, a thousandth and a ten thousandth.  But it’s all started in the dark.

Perhaps the story you’re beginning was always there, somewhere deep in your subconscious.  Or somewhere out there in the stars, floating amid the dark matter of space, unobserved, a literary Schrodinger’s Cat–until the moment when you observed it and breathed life into it and, now, are revealing it, syllable by syllable.

 

Yet, even as you reveal the story, you cannot know that it will be told in its entirety.  What if you get stuck in chapter 10?  What if you see two forks in the road, and, unlike Frost, cannot decide which to take?  What if you get fenced in somewhere along the middle of the story, unable to see any way out to a satisfying conclusion?  What if you can’t finish the thing?

 

The path ahead is murky, and it will only begin to clear and lighten as you walk along it, your destination never guaranteed.  It’s dark.  You cannot see where you’re going, not exactly.  You have only a general sense of direction.  You have to trust the process, have faith in the muse.  Believe in the story to reach you and talk to you as you continue placing one foot in front of the other, in the dark.

 

And keep going.

Something far better than a piece (or two) of blueberry pie will be waiting for you when you get there.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

Ode to November (and a Call-Out to Fellow Authors)

Anyone familiar with the northeastern United States in general, and Vermont in particular, may find the idea of an ode to November puzzling.  After all, November “up here” is one of the darkest months of the year.  The mercury consistently dips below freezing, and the foliage that lit the hillsides with red, gold, burnt-orange, and copper has long since fallen, shedding the hardwoods of their leaves and turning the woodlands into a stark and barren landscape.  And yet.  And yet . . . it is that very starkness, that very lack, that gives November its austere and minimalist charm.

 

The lush undergrowth of July, the tangles and brambles and the seemingly limitless expanse of all the green, growing things that, not so long ago, overcrowded the natural landscape, have vanished, crumbling to dried organic matter that will merge with the soil, slumber awhile, and spring forth in the new year to come.  For now, in this cold, quiet month of November, there are only the grays and the browns, the absence of, the empty spaces among the trees, the wind whispering through the gaps, the penetrating screech of a hoot owl under a dark and cloudy night sky.

 

And I love it.  I am here for it.  The deep frosts and snowdrifts of January have yet to overtake the land.  The natural world seems almost in a state of limbo, of waiting, of transitioning away from one season and meandering, slowly, shyly, perhaps reticently, toward another.  In this stripped-down landscape, I am reminded of some things.  Things that deal with the craft of writing.

 

When I was a college student, back in the last, gasping years of the twentieth century, I was drawn to the ornate, flowery language of the Victorians.  Bronte, Dickens, Hardy, Montgomery, and Eliot–I read them all.  No one will dispute the brilliance of these literary titans.  They rank among the best, without question.  But it can also be stated that Victorian authors, to put it delicately, were rather liberal with the amount of words they used to convey a message.  A modern-day editor very well might snip thousands of words from a Victorian-styled manuscript if said manuscript were submitted in 2019 by an aspiring author.

 

Don’t get me wrong.  I am still as big a fan as ever when it comes to the classics.  But over the years, I’ve learned the importance of snipping, cutting, pruning, and, as they say, killing your darlings.  While it would be fun to write four-hundred-word sentences and pepper dialogue attributions with adverbs, it would be over-the-top for a twenty-first-century audience.  Surely there is a middle ground for writers, like me, who enjoy compound-complex sentences, the occasional flowery turn of phrase, and who don’t always concern themselves with word count as they might!

 

This is why the month of November serves as a gentle reminder.  Looking into the woods, swept clean of leaves and berries and bushes, I think of William J. Strunk’s directive in his Elements of Style:  “Omit needless words.”  To be sure, what words are needless and what words are needed is a subject ripe for debate.  But the lesson is noted, nonetheless, and November serves as the natural world’s analogy.

 

All this to say . . . readers of this blog have probably observed that posts have been coming fewer and further between in recent months.  This is, in part, due to the amount of freelance work I have undertaken as an editor and proofreader.  What once was a “side gig” is rapidly becoming a full-time job!  Not that I’m complaining.  I enjoy the work, and relish the opportunity to provide a valuable service to fellow writers and content creators.

 

You will notice a new Page on this website: Freelance Editing and Proofreading Services.  Please consider this post (and the concomitant new Page) an invitation, a call.  If you would like a professional writer and editor, an old English major, and a proud grammar nerd to assist you with your work–be it a blog post, an article, a technical report, or a novel you are in the final stages of polishing for publication–I am here and eager to help.

 

Hopefully longtime readers of this site will know that I am uncomfortable soliciting work or sales of my novels.  Self-promotion does not come easily for me.  I thank you for your indulgence, and I do hope very much to work with many of you on your writing and publishing endeavors.  More than anything, thank you for your years of support of The Eye-Dancers blog.  I may not post as often as I once did, but I’m still here and intend to stick around for the long haul.

In this season of thanksgiving, I thank the month of November for its simple reminders.  And I thank each and every one of you for your support over the years.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

 

Photograph

Here is my kindergarten photo . . .

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The text reads . . .

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

“Even if they forgot, they would remember.”

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

And that, even when we forget, we remember.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Mud Season (Or, “Signs of a Literary Spring”)

Vermont is a land of seasons–hard seasons.  There is nothing subtle about them, from the rich green landscape of summer, to the reds and golds and oranges of autumn, to the icy, interminable wasteland of winter, and the riot of color that signals the rebirth of spring.  People in New England often say, “If you don’t like the weather, wait around five minutes.  It’ll change.”  Except . . . that’s not necessarily true, especially this time of the year.

 

March is, arguably, Vermont’s least attractive month.  Winter hangs on, stubborn, digging its frostbitten fingers into the earth.  Snowstorms still arise.  Freezing rain and melting snow that re-freezes overnight create conditions more suitable to ice skates than shoes or tires.  Trees remain bare, their trunks gray and brown against the rust and heaviness of the low-hanging clouds.  And as the month pushes on, the days inching inexorably forward toward a longed-for if mercurial April, there is enough snowmelt that the grass finally emerges after being buried and hidden since November.  But it’s not a green, healthful-looking grass.  No.  It’s yellow and flattened, bereft of vibrancy.  It will be weeks before it begins to turn.

 

Perhaps more than anything, though, March in Vermont is famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for its mud.  Rural Vermont is replete with dirt roads that wind along and through the hills and valleys of the state’s rugged terrain.  I myself live on a dirt road, and when Mud Season–as they refer to it here–arrives, well, let’s just say you need a good pair of boots and a tolerance for swerving while driving along the rutted, grooved surface of the road.  Some tire grooves are a foot deep or more–and many drivers have become stuck over the years during Vermont’s season of mud.

 

This all grates on the residents.  Cabin fever sets in.  After all, come March, Vermonters have endured nonstop Arctic conditions for months.  We long to see the tangible manifestations of spring.  The calendar, late in the month, tells us it’s spring–but it doesn’t look like it, and it sure doesn’t feel like it.  I always think about Groundhog Day, February 2nd.  If old Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow, we’ll still be cursed with six more weeks of winter, they say.  That’s supposed to be the bad news.  But, in Vermont, if, on February 2nd, you were told there would be just six weeks left of winter, you’d celebrate.  Six weeks?  Is that all?

 

And yet . . . and yet . . . for all of its bleakness and unwillingness to yield, a Vermont March offers hope.  There are shy, subtle hints that Old Man Winter is retreating, or, at least, about to retreat.  On the surface, these hints can be easily missed if one focuses exclusively on the sub-freezing temperatures, the snow, the ice underfoot.  But they are there.  Like the daylight–which increases.  The four-o’clock evenings of November and December have melted away to longer afternoons and later sunsets.  (Not taking into account Daylight Savings Time, which, of course, creates its own species of havoc!)  There are also the blackbirds and the grackles, who arrive by the middle of the month, returning from their winter migration.  And . . . what’s that?  A sneeze?  Runny eyes?  A scratchy throat?  It’s not a cold.  It’s the first manifestation of seasonal allergies, the pollen that is my lifelong scourge stirring somewhere, unseen, in the shadows.  No life, no renewal is evident.  All looks as stripped and cold as ever.  But something is happening.  A latent life-force is awakening.

 

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

It can be like that with creativity, too.  Much like the seasons of our natural world, there are seasons in our creative life, as well.  Sometimes we’re swept away in the lava flow of words, ideas, images, inspirations, epiphanies.  Other times, however (and far too frequently), we lie fallow and windswept, our stories, our paintings, our songs snowed under, cut off from the light.  It’s as if we’re lost in a maze, with no idea how to find our way out.  In the distance, around the corner, through the mountain pass, there is an other side abundant with flowing waterfalls and fields of flowers, basking in the midday sunshine.  We long to get back to that place, where the art seemingly creates itself.  And when we’re not there, we wonder if we’ll ever return.

 

The winter wilderness, when ideas seem perpetually blocked, can cause a sense of panic.  Will I ever get a good, workable idea again?  Has the well run dry?  Is that it?  Am I done as an artist?  Have I written my last story? Believe me, I have been there.  (I was there in the months after finishing The Singularity Wheel.)  And I’ve learned that, sometimes, when we’re particularly fortunate, we emerge from our unwanted creative sabbaticals with a flourish.  A new story comes, like a gift from the muse, and you feel as if you must write it immediately.  A picture forms in your mind, as if by magic–and you know you have a tour de force in the making.  Such unasked-for inspirations are the ultimate highs.

 

But other times, and probably far more often, the rebirth of your creative self is gentler, quieter, less flamboyant.  It doesn’t soar from 23 degrees to 84 degrees Fahrenheit in a single bound.  It takes time.  Maybe a new idea comes, but it needs work still.  The foundation is there.  Now you need to build up, create rooms for the characters in which to live and breathe, and dream. But you’re moving.  You are escaping the dark heart of literary winter.  You have discovered the way out of the maze.  Now, you just have to get there.

 

One step at a time.

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

It’s cold today–temperatures not even reaching 20 degrees.  But the sun is shining high in the sky, and the rays are soothing.  And above me, ahead of me . . . what’s that?

The distinct, watery sound of a red-winged blackbird.  The first time I’ve heard a blackbird this calendar year.

 

I look at him, perched on the bare limb of a sugar maple.  He returns my gaze, a knowing sparkle in his eye.

He understands.  Despite the frigid conditions today, he realizes.  And he’s returned.  He’s flown hundreds and hundreds of miles for this.

Spring is almost here.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Anatomy of an (Incomplete) Story Idea (Or, The Adventures of Ferdinand)

Imagine this scene . . .

A man is driving along a lonely country road as midnight approaches.  I don’t know how old the man is–perhaps 40, maybe 45.  For the time being, it’s not important.  Nor do I know his name.  Jeff?  Fred?  Ferdinand?  Pick a name, any name.  Just as with his age, it is irrelevant right now.

 

The man (okay, we’ll settle on Ferdinand!) glances in his rearview mirror.  A dark stretch of asphalt merges into the background, swallowed by the night.  He can’t help but inhale deeply, taking in the warm summer air through the open window of his car.  Above, in an oily canvas of night sky, hundreds of stars sparkle like diamonds.  He used to study astronomy as a kid, and, momentarily, he looks up, through the windshield, seeing if maybe, just maybe, he can identify some of those stars.  No such luck.  Like eighth-grade algebra, the knowledge is gone, captured by the wide gulf of years, of time and distance.

 

He hasn’t driven through a town of significant size for miles.  He’s “smack-dab in the middle of Nothingville,” as his mom used to say about the house and town he grew up in.  Where is he headed?  I’m not sure, and neither is he.  Doesn’t matter.  What matters is the drive, the stars, the gentle night breeze wafting in through the window, the fields and trees that come and go, come and go, as he drives on.  There are few houses.  But occasionally, there is a porch light in the distance, a beacon in the dark.  It makes him reminisce.  He grew up on a farm.  He couldn’t wait to get away, escape to the city.  Now he wonders if perhaps that had been a mistake.  His life isn’t what he thought it would be.  Maybe that’s why he’s on this long drive.  Maybe he’s running away, fleeing something from a long-ago, irretrievable past.

 

Ferdinand sighs, turns on the car’s radio.  He scans through the stations–not getting much, this far away from populated areas.  He comes across a sports-talk station with a caller screaming in a heavy Brooklyn accent about why the New York Jets need to move in a new direction.  The host cautions restraint, the caller yells again.  Ferdinand presses a button, and the angry Jets fan is gone.  For a moment, Ferdinand imagines the owner of that voice, that frustrated fan.  He’s shut him out, erased him from the confines of the car, but surely the man is still raging from somewhere in Brooklyn.  An apartment, perhaps?  Maybe the guy lives above a bakery or a pizza parlor, or a pawnshop.  Maybe he owns a brownstone on a busy corner, with cars honking and people talking on the streets and sidewalks outside.  Miles away from Ferdinand.  Worlds away.

 

He continues to drive, cruising along at 55.  Not a single car passes him. The road is his, and his alone.  He imagines driving through a vortex, through an intersection of space and time, plunging into a parallel world, as if a character in an old Twilight Zone episode. And all the while, he continues to scan through the radio dial.

 

There’s one station playing ’80s pop.  He pauses on this one.  Some of the songs he remembers well from his youth.  This makes him feel at once nostalgic, and old.  Could that really have been thirty years ago?  He glances in the rearview again, not to look out for traffic–he knows there isn’t any–but to check his thinning hair and the worry lines on his forehead.  Where has the time gone?

 

Muttering, Ferdinand fiddles with the dial again.  The scanner skips over stations and plays back static with others, interspersed with a few more songs that he doesn’t care for–there’s a heavy metal piece, a country song.  A grunge number from the ’90s.  Just as he’s about to switch the radio off entirely, he hears something odd.  A voice, talking to him.  But not just any voice.

 

His voice.

“Don’t do it,” the voice on the radio–his voice–says.  “Think twice, champ.  Don’t.  It will be the biggest mistake of your life–and that’s saying something, considering your track record.  Don’t go there.”

Ferdinand shakes his head, hits his forehead with the palm of one hand.  Don’t do what?  Don’t go where? And how can he be hearing himself on the radio?

“I need some sleep,” he says.  The next sign of life, the next town–he’ll pull over, get a room for the night.  Maybe order some takeout, watch a movie.  Relax.

 

He reaches to turn off the radio.

“Not that easy, you don’t,” his voice says back to him, tinny and crackling, as if losing reception.  “You’re not going to shut me out . . . or up.  Listen, for a change.  Don’t do it.  Don’t you dare.”

He takes a long, deep breath, looks out the window at the stars, at the empty, open vastness of the night.

 

Is he losing his mind?

And if he’s not . . . what does it mean?  How can it be?

Maybe he has driven into the Twilight Zone, after all.

 

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

This is an idea that hit me with the force of a hammer last week.  The scene unfolded in my mind as described above, formulated within seconds upon waking from an overnight sleep.  As I always do when an idea that energizes me comes, I immediately jotted down the gist of it, the essentials–so I wouldn’t forget anything important.  I did the same thing with the scene that came to me in a dream back when I was in high school–the dream that morphed into Mitchell Brant‘s dream in the opening chapter of The Eye-Dancers.  For two decades, I couldn’t seem to fit that episode into a story–until, at last, The Eye-Dancers was born.

 

Will this new idea, this new situation, also take weeks or months or years to grow and expand and flesh out into a story, or even a novel?  I hope not.  But I don’t have much control over it, either.  This is how ideas work for me, most of the time.  Every now and then, an idea arrives fully formed, beginning to end, a complete story that only needs to be written.  But that is the exception, not the rule.

 

The rule is both riveting and frustrating.  Exhilarating and tantalizing.  Because what normally happens is–I am given a piece, a small slice of the whole.  Just enough to hook me, pull me in, grasp onto to me like a feisty dog taking a firm hold and not letting go.  I am forced in, unable to discard, feeling the need to explore the path and see where it leads.  See what discoveries await on the other side.  Sometimes that process is sudden and immediate.  Other times it is slow and full of pitfalls, as I await the pleasure of a capricious and all too often stingy muse.

 

So, for right now, I reluctantly set Ferdinand aside.  Oh, I’ll think about him.  I’ll turn his predicament over in my mind a thousand times before Sunday.  But I know the full story cannot be forced.  Just as Ferdinand’s voice spoke to him from the radio, so it will to me–in its own way, at a time and place of its choosing.  I can coax and goad and ponder and cajole, but I cannot dictate.  The creative process must be allowed to work its magic in its own inscrutable way.

 

Then again, maybe tonight I will dream of this again, and, maybe, upon waking, the riddle will be solved, and the story will be written.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Capricious Muse Comes to Call (Or, A Walk Through the Neighborhood)

There are times when, antsy and frustrated at the lack of creative direction, I sit down and try to force the issue.  I’ll hold a brainstorming session . . . with myself.  It’s not like I don’t have any ideas.  On any given day, I generally have a handful of what I like to think of as decent possibilities.  None of them are fully formed, and all of them are as amorphous as a literary amoeba.  But they’re something.  They represent a start.

 

The thing is, these ideas have been lying around for a while, uninspired, limp and about as riveting as day-old baked potatoes.  Sure, they’re workable.  But only in the barest sense.  I don’t get excited about them.  I don’t really care.  The very thought of crafting a story around them feels like a chore.  And one thing I have learned the hard way from experience, after repeated sessions of banging my head against a granite wall, is that if I don’t feel revved up about a story idea, no motivational pep talk is going to imbue it with the necessary vigor.  Whenever I’ve attempted to begin a story in such a halfhearted manner, the result is a flat, anemic piece that never goes anywhere.  It is doomed to fail before the first word is written.

 

So what do I do, then, between stories, when I don’t have any new, inspired ideas to build upon?  Granted, in the days directly after completing a long writing project, this dilemma takes care of itself.  For a while, maybe a few weeks or even a few months, I may not want to undertake a new story.  Kind of a post-novel sabbatical, if you will.  But the literary malaise doesn’t last forever.  Eventually, as surely as fall follows summer, the need to write, to plot, to form, to create, returns, with the force of a pile driver.  And this is when the lack of a ready-made story can cause a sense of unease.  I need to write something!  But I don’t have any ideas worth writing about.

 

After a few weeks of this stalemate, this nowhere zone of literary quicksand, I begin to feel genuine panic.  Is that it?  Has the well run dry?  I can’t make ideas happen.  They either come, or they don’t.  And if they don’t, what will I do?  The questions continue in rapid-fire, machine-gun succession, taunting, accusing, pleading.  The creative path, far too often, is one laced with insecurity, and when searching for an idea to write about, the insecurity rises to a crescendo.

 

So, in response, all I can do is live my life.  If I had a magic formula, an “ideas button” I could press, I would.  Any writer would.  If I had a surefire way to send an SOS signal to the muse, the signal would be sent!  Alas.  The muse cannot be paged or prodded.  It comes when it comes, and the job of any writer is to remain open, watchful, observant, vigilant not to miss the cues.

 

Because the cues can arrive at any moment, and often when we least expect them.

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

For my “day job,” I work as a technical writer for a small-town New England software company.  The office sits at the edge of town, and there is a neighborhood directly behind it.  It’s an old neighborhood, with houses dating back to the 19th century, many of which are large colonials with covered front porches and crisp, black shutters that frame the windows.  Mature maple trees and sturdy oaks dot the lawns, in summer creating a green canopy filled with the chirping of songbirds.

 

I frequently take walks through this neighborhood.  On my lunch break, I’ll head out and weave through the side streets for the better part of an hour.  When I walk, my mind usually wanders, perhaps calculating my options for the fantasy football draft, reliving old memories, thinking about my WIP, if I’m in the middle of one.  Or, just as often, I simply observe my surroundings, taking it all in, enjoying the New England summer, which is all too fleeting.

 

And sometimes, every now and then, something will hit me.  It happened just last week.

As I neared an abandoned cape, at the back end of a dead-end street, I paused on my way.  Something about the place struck me–which was strange.  After all, I’d walked by here hundreds of times on previous lunchtime excursions.  What was so different on this day?  And yet, I was transfixed.  If a neighbor from across the way had been peering out the window just then, they may have wondered why I was just standing there, stock-still, in the middle of the road.

 

The house had seen better days.  The beige siding was peeling in places, the roof had a few shingles missing.  The lawn was uncut, the weeds spreading like a contagion, overtaking the porch.  In the driveway, parked in front of a dilapidated garage, there was a rusted-out car, its tires punctured and flattened, the out-of-control shrubbery from the side yard enveloping the vehicle in a greedy, green embrace.

 

The place looked easily a hundred years old, likely more.  Though abandoned now, no doubt much life had been lived within its walls in previous decades–children playing, laughing, people talking, planning, scheming.  Crying.  Especially that last one.  Maybe it was the angle of the sun that day, the quality of the light.  Maybe it was the cawing of a crow that flew overhead.  Or perhaps it was the silence on the street.  Not a soul stirred.  No one was outside.  The breeze picked up, and in it there were echoes.  Whisperings.  Secrets of past hauntings, past tragedies.

 

Of course, I don’t know if there were any tragedies in the old house.  Perhaps its history is as nondescript as a November Wednesday.  But something was calling out to me.  Something was resonating.  And that’s when I realized.  After a months-long hiatus, the muse was speaking to me . . .

Since finishing The Singularity Wheel. and publishing it in January, no new idea had energized me.  But now, at the back of this quiet dead-end street, gazing upon this decrepit, empty house, here it was.  Out of the ether, unplanned for, unscripted, completely of its own accord, it came.  It wasn’t complete–not even close.  The idea would need fleshing out, muscle and sinew attaching to bone; veins and arteries would require a still-absent heartbeat to manifest, to pump the blood that would drive and propel the story.  But that would come later–with hope.  At the moment, I was just riding the high that an “a-ha” creative moment always brings.  Where, seconds ago, there was nothing, now there was a firm foundation, a foothold upon which to build a literary structure.

 

I continued to look at the house.  A squirrel leaped onto a low tree branch and climbed to the top, shaking leaves as it went.  I wondered if the rodent was vying for a better view to peer in to the house, through an upper window.  Perhaps it, too, had caught wind of the muse.  And the secrets that upstairs room held . . .

 

In the story idea that had materialized, a boy, perhaps eleven or twelve years of age, with a bent toward science and inventiveness, a self-professed “nerd,” is arguing with his best friend.  Because, though they are best friends, there is jealousy, too, rivalry.  Anger.  And this boy, this nerd, has conspired with a handful of classmates–all present–to gang up on his friend, scare him . . . just a little.  Push him toward the window, make him worry that he might fall.

 

And then something goes terribly wrong.  A trip, falling backwards, toward the window, out the window, down.  He didn’t kill his friend, did he?  No–he’s not dead.  But somehow, in its own way, the result is even more horrific, even worse . . .

The nerd and his co-conspirators must live with what they’ve done.  We follow this nerd through high school and college into adulthood, as he wrestles with this catastrophic accident.  How can he erase the past, or even change it?  Is there a way?  And as he seeks and quests and pursues, how does his guilt and his obsession affect his relationships with his wife and kids, his family and friends?  And, even if he can alter the past, or twist reality itself, what would the ramifications be?  Would something unintended happen?  Is he risking too much?

 

I took one last look at the abandoned house at the back of the dead-end road.  The squirrel chattered from above.  Then I walked back to the office.

I didn’t have the answers to the story’s questions and possibilities–yet.  And I couldn’t even be sure the story would be written, or finished.  But it was good to be fired up, to have a story to start.

To have a literary path to follow.

I’ll just need to see where it leads.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Author Interview with Jessica Wren

When I began blogging three summers ago, little did I realize how much fun and rewarding it would be.  I was, to put it bluntly, clueless when it came to the blogosphere.  So many aspects of blogging are great, but if I had to choose the best of the best, that would be easy–the many virtual friendships I have formed with so many talented and wonderful people throughout the WordPress community.  I am continually humbled by all the support and goodwill that permeates this very special network.

One of those talented and wonderful wordsmiths is Jessica Wren.  Jessica took the time recently to interview me on her great website, and now I am returning the favor, chatting with Jessica about the art of writing and about her engrossing novella, Ice, which I very much enjoyed.

ice

 

It’s my pleasure introducing Jessica Wren.  I hope you enjoy the interview!

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

1. Have you always known that you wanted to be a writer? When did you first discover that writing was something you had a passion for?

I have been writing for as long as I can remember. When I was twelve, I wrote a novelette. My seventh-grade English teacher did a serious review, writing on a piece of paper the good and the bad (this was, of course, before the Internet). The fact that someone took me seriously at that time spurred my confidence as a writer. I still have that review; it is one of my most treasured possessions.

 

2. What, or who, are some of your inspirations as a writer? Do you have any favorite authors? Novels?

Stephen King. I think I have read just about every work written by him, and Ice has been compared to some of his works (most notably, The Shining). I have also drawn inspiration from some of the Latino writers, mainly Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In fact, Ice was loosely based on One Hundred Years of Solitude. I created Minterville as an American Macondo.

 

3. If you could offer an aspiring writer any single piece of advice, what would it be?

Don’t listen to negative people. Pay attention to constructive criticism, of course, but if someone is actively trying to work against you, get as far away from him/her as possible.

 

4. In your novel, Ice, it struck me right away that there is virtually no cell phone presence in the town of Minterville. Of course this is mostly due to the telepathic Minter ability of the residents (more on that in a moment), but I couldn’t help but wonder if, in presenting the town in this way, that you might be making a statement about the smartphone culture we live in? Do you feel that society has gone too far in its dependence on smartphones and digital technology in general?

I never thought about it, but now that you mention it, maybe I was, subconsciously, trying to make a statement about the importance of community and ties, and how technology addiction can be damaging to one’s social skills. Cell phone reception is poor in Minterville because of their location deep in the woods, but the residents there are used to it and have come to rely on the Minter and person-to-person communication.

 

5.Speaking of the Minter, and the ability of the town residents to communicate on a telepathic level, I was struck by your portrayal of small-town America. Are you from a small town originally? Do you live in a small town today? 

Today, I live in Brunswick, Georgia, which has grown a little too much for my taste. Minterville is modeled after Argyle, Texas (where I did live as a child). In Argyle (at least at that time), everyone knew everyone, there were many community events, and while we couldn’t communicate telepathically, we all knew each other’s phone numbers. It was also virtually crime-free.

 

6. Ice is written in several Parts, each Part narrated, in a first-person format, by a different resident of the town. That’s a very interesting literary technique, and one that presents the reader with different perspectives over the course of the novel. What inspired you to write the story in this manner, as opposed to a third-person narrative throughout or from the first-person point of view of just one character?

I chose to tell Parts 1 and 5 from Elliot’s point of view because he’s a mainly objective character. He was actually originally going to be my only narrator. However, my editor (who’s also my husband) pointed out that by doing that, I would miss out on the emotional depth that characters directly involved in the events, such as Andy (on the outside) and Carolyn (on the inside), could provide. I finally decided to keep Elliot as the narrator for the beginning and the end (before and after the main crisis) because of his objectivity and because as far as that particular town is concerned, he functions as an “everyman.” To be honest, I wish I had used the third-person.

 

7. One of the characters in Ice refers to the press as a “group of blood-sucking vultures.” Does this harsh critique of the press mirror your own views at all?

I do believe the media does “spin” stories to generate ratings, but my view is not nearly as harsh as Elliot’s. He is upset because he feels the media presence in Minterville is disruptive and that they are taking advantage of their tragedy to boost their own ratings (and once again, he is pretty much speaking for everyone).

 

8. There really isn’t a single main character in Ice. In effect, the entire town of Minterville is the main character. This brought to mind certain other works, such as Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson, a short story collection where the stories are not chapters in a single novel, but rather separate, individual stories that are connected through theme, characters, and location. Was it an intentional choice you made before writing the novel not to have one main character? Or did that evolve over the course of writing Ice?

It evolved over the course of the writing. It took me a lot of time and frustration to decide the best way to present this particular story. At one point, I was even planning to do it vignette-style (similar to Winesburg, Ohio). Out of everyone who reviewed Ice, I think you are the only person that got that Minterville itself was the main character. I made it a deliberate point of saying that the populace tends to be of one mind. One thing I deliberately avoided doing was presenting anything from Tom’s perspective, even though he is directly at the center of the action. As a “naturalized” resident, so to speak, he simply does not have the ability to think about things the same way everyone else does.

 

9. In a similar vein, did anything really surprise you as you wrote the novel? Did some things go in a completely different direction than you had at first envisioned?

Absolutely. For starters, the twist at the end involving Cierra was something I added in a week before publishing. I had to tone down a lot of the characters who were becoming too mean. Stephanie was originally a bully who verbally abused Elliot their whole lives, and Barbara was a lot nastier in the beginning. In one deleted scene, she told several of the other women involved that they deserved to die (for various reasons). Ice was a short story that I started writing for a contest that just kind of grew.

 

10. Ice is an emotional roller-coaster ride, with a lot of ups and downs as the characters navigate a terrifying situation. In the end, when it’s all said and done, what do you hope the readers of Ice will take away from the novel?

The main lesson is always trust your instincts. When your gut is telling you that something (or someone) is “off” it probably is. The other main things I am hoping readers will take away are compassion and empathy, and taking responsibility for one’s actions. The people of Minterville don’t for a single second blame the person whose long-ago misdeeds caused the whole incident, because when it was all said and done, he had done everything in his power (which included a plan to permanently get rid of the criminals at the expense of his own life) to avert the tragedy, and when he couldn’t, he alone accepted the consequences. I hope readers will notice that he never once blamed Manuela or anyone else for his decisions.

 

11. Will there be a sequel? What are you working on now?

I’m planning a whole Minterville series. Although it was the first published, Ice is going to be Book 7. Book 8, which I will write when I’m done with my current project (about that in a minute), will be called Chill and it will be a sequel in which Manuela gets a taste of her own medicine. Book 1 will be Blizzard (James Minter’s story), Book 2 is Freeze (Manuela’s story), Book 3 is Snow Storm (Tom Watson’s story), Book 4 is Shiver (Sebastian’s story), Book 5 is Frost (Barbara Jenkins’ story), Book 6 is Winter Winds (more about the events of 1993).

What I’m working on now is a four-part series called the Cadiz Beach Series. The titles will be Earth, Fire, Water, and Wind, which revolve around a criminal defense attorney named Vincent McPherson who tries to rid Cadiz Beach, Florida (another fictitious town), of the Irish Mob. I’m doing the rough draft for Earth now. Vinny (as he is called) defends two young people accused of killing the son of a notorious Irish mobster. This trial unleashes all the fury of the Mob on this small, beachfront community . . .

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

Jessica Wren is a writer who has published exactly one ebook. She has created this page to share her infinite wisdom with professionals such as herself. A high school teacher in a small Georgia city, she knows everything about being a cop, a lawyer, a drug dealer, a serial killer, a teenage boy, and every other known identity. She gives top-notch professional advice about writing by which she consistently fails to abide. Her other talents include boring teenagers to death, aggravating her husband, driving extra-slow when others are behind her, and dropping food on her blouse. Jessica’s ultimate dream is to retire to a one-room shack with 20 cats, where she will sit on the porch and shout “Get out of my yard!” while swinging a broom at anyone who happens to pass by.

jessicawren

 

You can connect with Jessica on her website, her Twitter page, and on Goodreads.

Thank you, Jessica, for a great interview, and thanks so much to everyone for reading!

–Mike

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