Carpe Diem (Or, Pursue an Idea When It Hits)

There is a scene, early in the 1989 drama Dead Poets Society, where the new English teacher at the Welton Academy prep school, John Keating, has one of his students read aloud from a 17th-century Robert Herrick poem.  The stanza reads:

Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to day,
To morrow will be dying.

Keating and his class are standing in a hallway, beside the school’s trophy case.  Old team photographs of long-ago academy sports teams are hung inside the case, the students from a different time staring out at the onlookers, their expressions locked in place across the chasm of decades.

 

Keating asks his class what the verse means.  What was Herrick getting at?  “Carpe diem,” he tells them.  “Seize the day.”  But why?  Why “seize the day”?

“Because we are food for worms, lads,” Keating goes on.  “Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room, will, one day, stop breathing.  We’ll die.”

Here, Keating asks the students to step forward to look at the photographs of the old sports teams.

“They’re not that different from you, are they?” Keating says to his class.  “Same haircuts. . . . Invincible, just like you feel.  The world is their oyster.  They believe they are destined for great things, just like many of you do. . . . But you see . . . these boys are now fertilizing daffodils.”

 

Keating then has them lean in close, tells them to listen, listen to the voices, the murmurs of the ghosts before them.  Do they hear it?  Keating whispers in a voice meant to sound like the grave:  “Carpe . . . diem.  Seize the day, boys.  Make your lives extraordinary.”

This scene is memorable for many reasons, not the least of which is the remarkable performance of Robin Williams, who plays Keating.  But what of the message?  What of carpe diem?  Is it wise counsel?

As with anything, if misunderstood or taken to the extreme, it can harm more than help.  After all, I may want to “seize the day” by climbing Mount Everest, even though I have no training and no preparation.  Or I may want to drop everything and experience life to the full by walking across America, leaving all my responsibilities and cares behind me.  That might feel good in the moment, but doubtful it would lead anywhere beneficial.

 

What, then, is carpe diem, and how should we apply it?  How about with writing or creativity?  Is there a literary version of carpe diem?  And if so, what does it look like?

I don’t know about you, but when it comes to anything creative–a story idea, a scene from a novel, an inspiration–I cannot force things.  If I say, “I want to write a short story today,” but have no workable idea to write about, try as I may, I won’t produce anything of value.

On the other hand, my best ideas always come unasked for, unplanned.  I can be doing anything–mowing the lawn, taking a walk, lying in bed–and boom!  It hits.  Where does it come from?  We may never know.  But it comes.  And it comes in its time and its choosing.  What to do then?

 

Carpe diem, of course!  It’s not every day an inspired idea strikes.  Whether it’s a novel idea, a short story, a poem, a song . . . it doesn’t matter.  When that idea strikes, in the white-hot fire of the creative epiphany, that is the time to act.

 

If it’s a poem, write it.  Right then and there, if possible.  Same with a song.  If it’s a short story, maybe jot a few notes if you can’t write it immediately.  Capture the details lest you forget them, and then, at the first opportunity, write the story.  If it’s a novel, again, jot down plot points, character traits, perhaps even make an outline.  However you work, whatever preparations you need to do before undertaking a long-form creative endeavor . . . do what you must.  And then begin writing the actual novel as soon as you can.

Because . . . why wait?  Why wait and allow apathy or indifference to seep into the picture?  Carpe diem.  Seize the literary day!  Take advantage of that gift–that new idea–while it’s fresh and you are fired up.

Write.  Create.  Make your words sing.

And make your (literary) life extraordinary.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

An Easy Memory in Stressful Times (Or, a Long-Ago Conversation about Nothing . . . and Everything)

It’s no secret that the main characters of The Eye-Dancers are based on some of my neighborhood friends growing up in the 1980s in a suburb of Rochester, New York.  From the novel, Mitchell, Joe, Ryan, and Marc are inspired by flesh-and-blood comrades from my youth.  The real-life versions were Matt B, Joe, Rick, and Matt K.  (Yes, two Matts, and three if you include the person who inspired the supporting character of Grronk.)  Back then, more than anything, we were summer friends–out-of-school-on-vacation friends who would hang out in those days before the internet and smartphones and enjoy all manner of adventures . . . and conversations.

Amazon.com: The Eye-Dancers (9780692262788): Fedison, Michael S., Gaston, Matt: Books

 

And I have to say, in the turbulent and tempest-tossed years of the 2020s, as we toil through a pandemic, remembering those long-ago days of childhood is an elixir for the soul.  Writing The Eye-Dancers was a labor of love, drawing on the old memories . . . but the memories persist, endure, and still provide comfort and diversion.

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

Scene: The house where I grew up, standing on the driveway, bouncing the basketball, summer evening, sometime in the late 1980s.

Yes, bouncing the basketball.  (And taking a few shots at the hoop that was attached just above the gutter over the garage.  In my memory, I never missed.)  Rick was my neighbor, and Joe lived across the street.  More often than not, on summer evenings, if I wanted to “call” them, I’d simply head outside and start shooting baskets.  They’d hear the dribble-dribble-dribble of the ball, and, almost without fail, there would come the slam-click of their screen door snapping shut behind them as they darted outside.  They’d walk over to me, shoot a few baskets themselves.

Amazon.com : Hathaway 7-Inch Mini Basketball, Orange : Electronic Basketball Games : Sports & Outdoors

 

Sometimes, one of them would go back in their house to call Matt, or Matt, or Matt (remember, no smartphones).  And sometimes they’d come, and sometimes they wouldn’t.  (All three Matts lived on different streets, but all within a mile of the house I grew up in.)  Either way, we’d spend the evening shooting at the hoop and talking.  About nothing at all.  About life itself.

“You think anything’s up there?” Joe might say, pointing at the heavens as late afternoon slowly bled into evening, the sky darkening, random stars appearing, as if by magic, glittering like celestial diamonds.  “I mean, you know, for real?”

Milky Way vs. Andromeda: Study Settles Which Is More Massive | Space

 

And I’d nod.  “Absolutely.  The odds that there isn’t anyone else out there” (and I’d point to the sky myself) “are astronomically remote.”  Then I’d smile.  “‘Astronomically.’  See what I did there?”  They’d roll their eyes.  “There’s almost no chance we’re alone in the universe.”

Rick nodded again.  “Yeah,” he said.  “Wonder what they’re like?’

Joe shrugged.  “Prob’ly not so different from us.”  In the gloaming, he shot at the basket.  Missed.  Swore.  “I mean, people are people, right?  Everywhere.”

“Who says they’re people, though?” I’d counter, and shoot at the hoop myself.  Nothing but net.  “Maybe they’re scorpions or one-celled organisms, or giants with twenty-seven heads and brains the size of peas.”

Tales to Astonish (1959) #10 | Comic Issues | Marvel

 

“Brains the size of peas,” Rick said.  “Like my brother.”  His brother was Bill, “Tyler” in The Eye-Dancers, four years Rick’s junior.  Bill would sometimes emerge from their house, too.  But not tonight.

“Is Matt coming?” I asked.

“Which one?” Joe said.

“Any of them.”

“Maybe Grronk,” Joe said.  “But you know Grronk.  Maybe, maybe not.”

Rick shot at the hoop.  Missed.  Swore.  “You guys hungry?”

“I’m always hungry,” Joe said, taking another shot.  He missed.  Swore.

“What?  You want to order a pizza?” I said.  They shrugged.  Maybe later.

 

Pizza -pizza Png Tumblr - Large Cheese Pizza Slice, Transparent Png , Transparent Png Image - PNGitem

 

“Damn.  Can’t believe school starts in three weeks already,” Joe said.

I took a shot.  Swish.

“We gotta have fun till then,” Rick said.  “Why is it that summer seems to go by in a week, and the school year seems to take ten years?”

“Yeah,” Joe said.  “That’s true.  I wonder what I’m gonna do.”

“What do you mean?”

He shrugged.  “I don’t know.  When I grow up.  I don’t think about it much.  But sometimes . . . it’s like . . . what will I do?”

Rick and I shrugged back.  Why talk about adulthood and earning a living now?  It was summer.  We were young.  Now wasn’t the time.  Or . . . maybe it was.  Nothing lasts forever.

“I don’t know what I’ll be,” Rick said.  “Just so long as I make money, I guess.”

Free Money Stock Photos - Stockvault.net

 

We agreed with that.  But even back then, I knew I wanted to write.  To have an audience.  To reach people.  Inspire them, even.  So I said it.

Neither Joe nor Rick replied, but they seemed to understand.  The silence was comfortable, warm, like a snug glove you put on your hand in winter.

Joe took a shot.  Swish!  He cheered.

We moved on to discussing superheroes.  Who was better?  Batman or Superman? (Superman.)  Spider-Man or Wolverine? (Give me Spidey any day of the week.)  We argued, laughed, took a few more shots.  We didn’t order pizza, and Grronk never showed.  We talked about subjects so ridiculous, any outside observer would surely laugh and shake their head.

Amazing Spider-Man #28 (1965) Value - GoCollect

 

But we didn’t stop talking until close to midnight.  And even then, we just hung out for a few more minutes, looking up again, the stars having multiplied.

I remember feeling very young and very strong and very free, with a future as limitless as the night sky above.

And today, especially today, during this challenging year of 2021, those old conversations and feelings and vistas are needed. They represent the musings and beliefs of a child–long ago.  From a different time, a different century.

I’ll always remember them.  And hopefully have the wisdom to keep them alive.

Andromeda Galaxy Swallowed Many Dwarf Galaxies During Its Lifetime | Astronomy | Sci-News.com

 

Thanks so much 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

Dalkowski vs. Koufax (Or, the Importance of Sharpening Your Tools)

There is likely something you take to–something that, for as long as you can remember, has always come naturally to you.  As a child, when others around you struggled, you enjoyed doing it; it flowed like water down a mountain slope, easy, fast, and free.  The something in question can be anything: tennis, a foreign language, algebra, memorization, dancing, singing, juggling, writing.   But whatever it is, you always knew you had a natural bent toward it, a tilt, as if the skill in question were a star and you were a planet kept in orbit through its gravitational pull.

How to Understand Algebra (with Pictures) - wikiHow

 

For Steve Dalkowski and Sandy Koufax, the talent in question was throwing a baseball.  Indeed, it’s possible that someone could be a bodybuilder, the world’s strongest human, and still not be able to throw a ball inordinately hard.  And then you get someone like Dalkowksi, an unremarkable five foot eleven and 175 pounds but who could, reportedly, throw a baseball as fast as 110 miles per hour.  Koufax wasn’t quite as fast, but he was a contemporary of Dalkowski’s, and he threw plenty hard enough.

the long, hard journey of steve dalkowski, possibly the fastest pitcher ever!

 

Both men were lefthanders, and, at least early in their careers, despite their obvious inborn natural gifts, they were not overly successful.  Dalkowski, in fact, never was.  He never made it to the Major Leagues.  Blessed with that golden arm though he was (every batter who faced him maintained no one ever threw harder), he was fragile mentally, heaping enormous pressure onto himself before he took the mound.  He also, how shall we say, enjoyed a good time and did not train with the vigor he might have.  During his minor-league heyday, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dalkowski would essentially strike out, or walk, every batter he faced.  In 1960, for instance, he both walked and struck out 262 batters in a single season.  Statistics that would be unthinkable for anyone else.

Dalkowski never made it out of the minor leagues.  He toiled away for nine seasons before flaming out, a footnote in baseball history despite being the fastest pitcher who ever lived.  He had all the natural talent in the world.  But talent, alone, wasn’t enough.

Meanwhile, Sandy Koufax began his career in much the same manner.  Admittedly, Koufax was never as wild as Dalkowski–no one was.  And he did make it to the Major Leagues at a young age and stuck around.  But for the first handful of years of his career, Koufax was a mediocre pitcher–full of potential but not coming close to realizing it.  Like Dalkowski, Koufax was a lefthanded flamethrower, but he was also blessed with an off-the-table curveball that, coupled with his fastball, made batters look silly.  He had one major problem, though–he did not have pinpoint control.  He would walk too many hitters and didn’t hit his spots consistently in the strike zone.  As a result, for the first five years of his big-league career (1955-1960), Koufax was a forgettable player–just “a guy” as they say.

Sandy Koufax Gallery | Trading Card Database

 

But he worked at it.  He was determined to get it right, smooth out his form, take away the hitches in his delivery, and overcome his control issues.  The hard work really started to pay off in 1961, when he won eighteen games and posted a 3.52 ERA.  Not earth-shattering numbers, but he was on the right track.  Then 1962 came along, and the countless hours he’d put in, perfecting his craft, would manifest in the best five-year stretch of any pitcher in baseball history.  From 1962 until his forced early retirement in 1966 (Koufax had suffered massive arm injuries during his career), the lefthander was virtually untouchable, posting ERAs as low as 1.93 and 1.85, winning twenty-five or more games in three of those magical seasons, and striking out 382 overmatched hitters in 1965.  “Trying to hit Sandy Koufax,” Pittsburgh Pirates great Willie Stargell once said at the peak of Koufax’s career, “is like trying to drink coffee with a fork.”

From Oakland to Pittsburgh, Willie Stargell - African American Registry

 

Two pitchers–both blessed with almost freakish talent–but only one of them “made it.”  The difference?  One honed his craft, worked endless hours, refused to accept mediocrity, and never relied on just his talent alone.  If you are a writer, for example, maybe you have an innate sense of pacing, of language, of turning a phrase just so.  Maybe people have said things to you like, “Wow.  You are such a poet!  The way you put words together.  You make them sing.”

 

All may be true.  But if you don’t take that gift and work with it, if you don’t master grammar and punctuation; if you don’t study story structure and learn how to “kill your darlings”: if you don’t strive to prune and pare down and remove pesky adjectives and adverbs and redundancies from the text, you will be the equivalent of the 100-mph pitcher who couldn’t throw strikes.  Your talent will shine through, but it will be buried underneath too-wordy and sloppy prose.  It will not be maximized, and your potential will not be reached.

Off to the Red Pen! – Heidi Eliason

 

So, whether you write or sing or play basketball, or pitch a baseball–put in the hours necessary to master your skill.  Sweat the small stuff.

It can make all the difference.

Just ask Steve Dalkowski and Sandy Koufax–and the batters they faced.

PRACTICE CHART - Callirgos Music

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

Gutenberg–An Opinion and a Question

I must begin this post with an admission: I, generally, am not the first person in line to try out a technological advancement. In fact, if I’m being honest, I tend to stick with the tried-and-true, technology-wise. If something works for me, and always has, I see no reason to “upgrade.” The thing is, in the 2020s, often, upgrades are forced on you. At times slowly, gradually, with some advance notice, but, nevertheless, forced on you, just the same. And so it is with WordPress.

Web Upgrades: Is it time to upgrade? | News

A couple of years ago, I began to notice a new editor in WordPress. “Gutenberg,” it was called. I didn’t pay it much attention, as the Classic Editor, which I had been using since joining the blogosphere in 2012, was easy and convenient to work with. I had never had any issues with it, and I enjoyed its clean, crisp document-creation functionality.

How to keep using the classic editor as the default option in WordPress 5

Then, about a year ago, when I would create a new post, a new editor would pop up by default–Gutenberg. For me, honestly, it was hate at first site. Where the Classic Editor struck me as easy to navigate, efficient, and user-friendly, Gutenberg was an eyesore, confusing, and needlessly “busy.” (For those who like the Gutenberg Editor, I am glad! I wish I did!) Alas! There was an option right there on the screen to revert back to the trusty Classic Editor. Which I most certainly did. Problem solved.

Stop the Presses! What You Need to Know About Upgrading to Gutenberg Editor  in WordPress

Until about a month ago. When I created my last post at the end of March (and now this one here), the option to use the Classic Editor had vanished. Gutenberg was now being forced upon WordPress wordsmiths. Or was it? Surely there must be a way to go back to the Classic Editor. Right?

Sort of. Plug-ins! I researched the issue online, and it appeared as though the Classic Editor was now an easy-to-access plug-in you could add to your WordPress toolbox. But when I looked for it, it wasn’t there. Evidently, it used to be–it had been a free plug-in, easy to find and employ. But now? When I selected it, WordPress informed me that if I wanted to have access to the old (and much-preferred) Classic Editor, it would cost me close to $300 per year. That was the apparent cost for adding the Classic Editor plug-in to my customized WordPress menu.

The Best WordPress Plugins for 2021 - aThemes

I doubt I’ll fork over $300 a year for a plug-in that should be free. So, I am creating this post with Gutenberg. Will I get more used to Gutenberg over time? Surely. Will I ever like it as much, and find it as user-friendly, as the Classic Editor? Not a chance.

But I wanted to take this opportunity to ask the WordPress community: What do you think of Gutenberg? (The WordPress content creator, not the inventor of the printing press.) Do you like it better than Classic?

Security | WordPress.org

Also–does anyone know if I am missing something? Is there a way to be able to work in Classic Editor mode anymore without paying $300 a year for the privilege?

I am not one to complain in a post, nor do I usually write about WordPress nuts-and-bolts issues like this. But I genuinely wanted to hear from the wonderful WordPress community on this. Please share your thoughts!

And tonight? Tonight, I feel motivated to open an old-school book–the kind you hold in your hands. The original Gutenberg, from the fifteenth century, surely would approve.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Nine-Year Thank-You

I have always been a believer in the old saying “time flies.”  And I wouldn’t qualify it with the often-added “when you’re having fun.”  Time simply flies.  Period.  Always, fun or no fun.  One day, you wake up, and it’s spring, a golden May morning with blooms and fragrances and new beginnings.  Then, you blink, and it’s February, snow falling, the world a monochrome of grays and whites, the sky the color of lead.  Where did the months go?  Where do the years go?

Vermont Snow Wallpapers - Top Free Vermont Snow Backgrounds -  WallpaperAccess

 

I think of all this presently because, it occurred to me just this week that I have been blogging for nine years now.  Nine years!  Indeed.  Where does the time go?  And, indeed, in this case of interacting with the WordPress community, it has been nine years of fun.

The thing is, my schedule has changed over the years.  During the first few years of The Eye-Dancers blog, I was able to post regularly–as often as two or three times per week.  As time went on, that dropped to once a week, then twice a month, and now, nine years in, I generally publish one solitary post per month.  I also have far less time to read the blogs of others–which I deeply regret.  I still do sometimes–I enjoy it!  But not nearly as often as I used to.

The Once-A-Month Pay Option | Military.com

 

All this to say, my presence in this wonderful blogging community has been lacking in recent months.  Honestly, I’m not sure that will change.  I likely will only be able to post once per month going forward, and I won’t be able to visit others’ blogs as much as I might want to.  (But I will pop in from time to time, and that’s a promise.)

The reason for sharing all of this now, on the last day of February?  (And yes, it is gray and monochrome here in Vermont.)  Just a thank-you to all of you for sticking with this little corner of the internet all these years.  Even as the posts have dwindled to one per month, you still take the time to read my digital scribbles, and for that I am eternally thankful.  I genuinely enjoy sharing my thoughts with you, and I hope some of those thoughts are worthwhile.

How much longer until the snow is gone in Vermont?

 

So, no.  I am not going anywhere.  I intend to stay and keep blogging–even if only once per month.  I’m sure I’ll blink and it will be summer.  That’s how time works.  But I hope you’ll still be here then, too, and that you’ll enjoy the once-monthly posts and stories and memories shared on here.

Thank you for reading these past nine years!

–Mike

What’s Old Is New Again (Or, Tapping into Your Own Personal Literary Slush Pile)

One way or another, fiction or nonfiction, seeking publication or simply scribbling away for my own enrichment and edification, I have been a writer for a long time now.  Not all of my literary endeavors have been successful, that’s for sure.  And some will never be seen, even fleetingly, by any eyes not belonging to me.  But the point is, good or bad, published or unpublished, I’ve been at this for a while.  And so–there is quite a “slush pile,” as it were, on my hard drive.

Infographic: Publicist Slush Pile | Real Pants

 

But before delving into the slush . . . of course, I am wanting to create something new, to explore an idea that is swimming around, like a rogue fish, in the fluids and nooks and crannies of my brain.  Do I have such ideas?  I do.  All writers do.  Ideas are our stock-in-trade, after all.  The thing is, not all of these ideas are good, or even workable.  In fact, the majority are not.  Or–maybe an idea has potential, but, in its current state, it is too unformed, too skeletal to work with.  So, though enthused by the germ of it and intrigued to pursue it, you temporarily set it aside, allowing it the space and quiet it needs to form sinews and cartilage and nerve endings, to pulse with the literary blood flow of a living, breathing story.  I know, for me, such idea-germs need to work themselves out on their own.  I can never force them.  I must be patient and wait for them to tell me when it’s time to put them down on paper.

Swim bladder disease--is your fish swimming sideways?

 

The question naturally arises, then.  What to do in the meantime?  What to write, what to create, while awaiting the muse’s unannounced and capricious call?  For me, I sometimes simply write a scene–even if it has no chance of developing into something more.  Working out the narrative muscles, keeping dialogue top of mind, describing the situation, letting it all play out.  It’s the literary equivalent to practice.  And sometimes–rarely, but sometimes–such a writing exercise can bloom into a full and fleshed-out story.  It does happen.

Exercising your Literary Muscle – Limelight Publishing

 

But what if even that amounts to nothing more than a dozen unrelated scenes, scattered around your hard drive like unreadable hieroglyphics from an ancient civilization, unable to be deciphered or turned into anything more?  Where do you go when the fully formed ideas are few and far between, or even nonexistent?

Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics Alphabet

 

Perhaps . . . to your own work?  If you have any sort of track record of writing projects, surely you have some old stories lying around.  Some of them may be so old, and so forgotten, they read as if another person created them.  (An odd, almost disembodied sensation, but recommended!)  Now, it’s true–some, or even most–of these stories may strike you as second-rate–especially if they’re more than ten years old.  After all, we move forward as writers, as artists.  We accrue more life experiences, hone our craft, enrich our voice.  Our old work really shouldn’t be as polished as our more recent efforts.

Top 5 Creepiest Disembodied Voices Ever Recorded

 

But sometimes, every now and again, they are–or, if not, they contain enough depth, imagination, and spark to revisit them.  So, if the well is running dry–maybe dig into that old slush pile.  And if you see a short story, or even a novel that has been collecting dust for years–perhaps sit with it for a while, and then . . . if you’re encouraged by what you’re reading–begin to rework it.  Editing an old piece of writing to make it new again.  Superimposing your in-the-now abilities over your abilities from ten or twenty years ago.  Making the old new.

Dry Wells

 

Of course, such a project is only applicable if you are, in fact, short on new ideas, and if you find the old work in question worthy enough to edit.  But it’s an often overlooked source of material–your own stories!  (Sometimes, too, your old stories can ignite an entirely new idea, and off to the races you go on a brand-new novel.)  There are plenty of possibilities.

Either way, though, it is a good idea to check out your old stuff–whether you want to rework it or not–if, for nothing else, to see how far you’ve come as a writer, how you’ve matured and grown.  And to see a snapshot into what the younger version of you thought was important enough to write about.  In some ways, it’s almost like reading old journal entries.

The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives | The Morgan Library & Museum

 

And, right now?  I think I’ve convinced myself.  I have an entire thumb drive of old stories I wrote, years ago.  Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to revisit them.

After all, our younger selves have much to say to our current selves.  There has to be a story in there, somewhere.

Daily Devotional – 12/1/16 “Letter to my younger self!” – Lakisha, the  Author

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

Holiday Inspiration (Or, From Seneca Falls to Bedford Falls)

I’ve lived in the remote east-central hills of rural Vermont for quite a while now.  It’s a beautiful land with four distinct seasons, replete with dense woodlands and interspersed with dairy farms and the rare but intrepid vegetable farm, as growers do their best to cultivate crops from the hardscrabble and stony soil.  But for the first half of my life, I grew up and lived in Rochester, New York.  The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel are both set in western New York, in the Rochester area.  It is a region I will always carry with me and write about.  So it was with a sense of pride that I learned, years ago, while I still lived there, that the legendary film director Frank Capra sought inspiration from upstate New York.

Photos From Western NY Amish Country

 

In 1945, as the Second World War came to an end after six interminable and deadly years, Capra was looking for just the right model for his next movie.  The world had been through hell and back, and he wanted to make a film that would uplift, inspire, and celebrate the best in humanity.  He was preparing to make It’s a Wonderful Life–still my all-time favorite movie.  The movie would be based on Philip Van Doren’s story “The Greatest Gift,” and set in the fictional town of Bedford Falls, New York.

It's a Wonderful Life: George and Mary Bailey's House in Bedford Falls | It's a wonderful life, Wonderful life movie, Bedford falls

 

Capra intended to keep the small-town New York State setting, but he didn’t want to create a fictional town without first seeing the real thing with his own eyes.  His search brought him to the town of Seneca Falls, a small, pastoral town about an hour east of Rochester and already famous for its Women’s Rights Convention from the summer of 1848.  While strolling through the town, Capra knew he had his model.  Bedford Falls would be based on Seneca Falls.

Seneca Falls, New York - Alchetron, The Free Social Encyclopedia

 

Indeed, many aspects of the fictional town were, in actuality, replicas of the real-life Seneca Falls–from the grassy median along Main Street, to the Victorian architecture, to the distinct upstate New York feel, complete with a row of old shops located in the center of town.  Seneca Falls at the time even had a real-life version of Old Man Potter, the crusty, wealthy villain in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Old Man Potter: The Real Hero of 'It's a Wonderful Life' | Intellectual Takeout

 

And now, during the holiday season, when millions watch It’s a Wonderful Life each year, I am, well, inspired by Capra’s inspiration.  Much as things were in 1945, we, today, are at the end of a deadly and treacherous year.  No doubt, 2020 is one for the ages, and not in a good way.  We can all use some inspiration this yuletide.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be It’s a Wonderful Life (though it will be for me).  It can be anything.  Maybe you have another holiday film favorite, or a particular TV episode that you love this time of year.  Watch it.  Enjoy it.  Laugh and cry along with it.  Or perhaps there’s a favorite book, or a tradition you keep.  Or a song you sing.  Maybe you want to take a long walk along a quiet country road or drive through town, just observing the sights and sounds of late December.  Perhaps the night will be clear, and, bundled up against the cold, you head outside, look up, contemplate the cosmos, the vastness, and count the stars, which glitter like diamonds across the canvas of the sky.

Andromeda Galaxy | Description, Location, Distance, & Facts | Britannica

 

Whatever it is, hopefully we can all find our inspiration at the end of this challenging year.  And then look ahead to what has to be, what must be, a far better year in 2021.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, and, like Frank Capra all those decades ago, may we all discover something “wonderful.”

It's A Wonderful Life' Live Stream: How To Watch 'It's A Wonderful Life' For Free | Decider

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Thankful (for the Memories, and the Inspiration)

Late November, the northeastern United States, the hill country of east-central Vermont.  No snow whitens the landscape yet this year, as the fields and meadows remain a stripped, subdued green dotted with dead, scattered leaves.  Cows and sheep enjoy the cool, bug-less weather.  There is a stillness, a quietness in the air.  It is a season of thanksgiving, even amid the calamitous year of 2020.

Post-Thanksgiving R&R AND Putney Craft Tour! Nov 27-29 | Vermont Gay Male  Rock River B&B Resort near Brattleboro

 

And for me, today, this year–and always–one thing I am eternally thankful for is my childhood.  I was lucky.  I was raised in a stable and loving family.  My father still lives in the same house where I grew up.  I never had to move as a kid.  And, with that stability, I acquired neighborhood friends who stood the test of time, season after season, year after year.  Fixtures of my youth.

Indeed, as I’ve mentioned previously over the years on this blog, the protagonists from The Eye-Dancers were inspired by the friends I grew up with, the kids from the old neighborhood.  And I think, even back then, in those long-ago summers of the 1980s, navigating a childhood without the Internet, without smartphones and tablets and smart speakers and Wi-Fi, I knew that what we shared was something special.  Something enduring.  To this day, when I hit a dry patch in my creativity, I pause, think back, and remember.  Because I know that the essence of creativity–my creativity, anyway–streams forth from those adventures decades ago–the inquisitiveness of childhood, the explorations, the stories, the inventions.  The wonder.

1980s retrospective - National Library of Scotland

 

I am thankful for that.

Rick and his brother, Bill (Ryan and Tyler from The Eye-Dancers), lived next door, and Joe (well, Joe, from The Eye-Dancers) lived kitty-corner across the street.  Grronk (well, Grronk from The Eye-Dancers), Matt K. (Marc from The Eye-Dancers), and Matt B. (Mitchell from The Eye-Dancers) lived a few streets away.  If I felt bored or had nothing to do on a weekend or a summer day, I’d head outside, grab the basketball, and start shooting at the hoop my parents had in place above the garage.  And–like clockwork–snap!  Screen door opening and shutting.  Rick next door, coming over, responding to the bouncing basketball.  And, moments later: slam!  Joe’s screen door across the way banging shut, as he waddled over. And we’d shoot at the hoop.  Talk.  And plan something for when Matt, Matt, and Grronk would come.

93,032 Basketball Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images - iStock

 

There were sleepovers, too.  We’d head down into the basement, where we’d play games I had invented.  Sometimes I’d read aloud from stories I’d written, and it would be well past midnight before we turned in in our sleeping bags.  The basement was old, creepy, with mysterious noises and strange clicking and hissing sounds that would come unbidden, in the dark.  As we drifted off to sleep, I’d be sure to tell them of the ghosts, the goblins, and the vampires that hid, silently, underneath the stairs.  Invariably, a flashlight would flick on, cutting through the gloom.

A guide to ghosts by Jonathan Stroud | Children's books | The Guardian

 

Mostly, though, I just remember the camaraderie.  The walks we’d take.  On some of those summer sleepovers, we’d take a walk around the neighborhood, after midnight.  Was it safe?  We thought so.  Safe enough, anyway.  Besides, there was strength in numbers, and there were half a dozen of us.  As we walked, we’d look at the houses.  Most were dark.  A few still had lights on.  We’d guess who lived there (if we walked far enough afield and no longer knew), what they might be doing on the other side of the walls and windows.  We’d look up at the sky, and if the stars were out, we’d talk about space travel, time travel, and how the light from those stars took millions and millions of years to reach us, and how, seeing them now, we were, in effect, gazing into the past.

What's Your North Star? A Short Guide In Defining Your Purpose | The  Minimalist Vegan

 

“Is it possible that some of those stars aren’t even there anymore?” Matt B.  (Mitchell) would ask.

“What kinda stupid question is that?” Joe shot back.  “‘Course they’re there!”

“Well, I don’t know,” Matt K. (Marc) would chime in.  “Theoretically, they could be gone.  The light we’re seeing is from millions of years ago.  We have no way of knowing what’s happened in the intervening years.”  (Hey, Marc Kuslanski didn’t materialize out of thin air!  Matt K. was a grade-A inspiration for the character.)

We’d keep walking, talking, wondering, arguing.  We felt very young, and very strong.  Full of potential, the years ahead of us yawning wide, decade upon decade.

ᐈ Vortex stock pictures, Royalty Free vortex images | download on  Depositphotos®

 

That’s what I remember the most.  The feeling of possibilities.  Ambitions.  Dreams.  The sense that we had all the time in the world, and nothing was going to stop us.  The full-throated expression of creativity and what-ifs.  Daring to imagine.  To wonder.  To consider.  Nothing was off-limits.

Which brings me back to today, 2020, decades removed from those days of my childhood.  Back then, the year 2020 would have seemed like a century away, some distant, inconceivable future on the other side of tomorrow.  Yet here I am.  Here we are.

The City of the Future: Closer than We Imagined? | IndustryWeek

 

But those memories live on.  And the energy and enthusiasm of those long-ago days, and the friends with whom I shared them–spur me to press on, to continue dreaming and writing and creating.  To continue looking up at the night sky and asking questions.

And to never, ever forget.

What's the matter with the Universe? Scientists have the answer | Deccan  Herald

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

An Ode to Fluff (in a Sober Season)

It is indisputable.  We live in historically stressful times.  While a worldwide pandemic rages on, growing worse by the day, while crises arise in both far-flung places and close to home, and while perhaps the most consequential election in American history approaches, people everywhere feel a sense of anxiety, a tightening of the chest, a species of fear.  When will the pandemic end?  How will we get out of this?  When will we feel safe again?  When can we return to a sense of normalcy?  Stressful times, indeed.

Great whites found to contain very high amounts of mercury and arsenic -  Insider

 

And while it is important to engage, to tackle the issues and problems of our time head-on, to speak out for truth and common sense–there is also something else that is important: our well-being, our state of mind.  Our sanity itself.  One thing is certain–too much stress and anxiety, especially over a protracted period of time, can have a deleterious effect on our health.

So, what to do?  Well, there is much we can do.  Go out for a jog, get the heart pumping.  Write a poem, or a novel.  Or a song.  Read a book.  Do Pilates or Tai chi.  Volunteer in the community.  Mow the lawn.  Meditate.  Take a night and go to bed early–regardless of what you have to do.  But one thing I try to do when the pressures of life seem too great, when the vice pinches tighter, when the clouds darken and multiply in a bruised sky the color of gunmetal is–to seek out something fun.

Dreary and cool day ahead

 

I am a proponent of the serious, the studious, the deep, and multilayered as much as anybody.  But in times like these, when the world is collectively holding its breath, there is also much to be said about lighthearted, airy entertainment.  Do you have a “guilty pleasure”?  Perhaps a silly movie or absurd TV show that you love?  Does a certain sitcom make you laugh, even as you realize how ridiculous it is?  What do you enjoy that is fluff, light on substance but high on laughs?  There must be something.

Sugar Free Marshmallow Fluff - Step Away From The Carbs

 

Seek it out.  Take an evening and stream some episodes or, to go old school, break out a DVD and pop it in.  But give yourself permission to enjoy something frivolous.  Are you a Seinfeld fan?  The GolbergsModern Family?  What about The Big Bang Theory?  Or maybe it’s a movie.  Maybe it’s an old movie–perhaps a golden oldie like Caddyshack or Trading Places or The Seven-Year Itch.  Maybe it’s all of them and more.

Episode 44: THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH with Grae Drake — CLARKE WOLFE

 

For me, when I’m in need of something to make me laugh and forget about the strains and the struggles for a while, I turn to Cheers, The Honeymooners, and–though not exactly a comedy, and certainly not altogether lighthearted–Forrest Gump.  Or maybe I’ll seek out a classic 1970s sitcom like Sanford and Son or Happy Days.  Or something really old like The Philadelphia Story, or, my all-time favorite, It’s a Wonderful Life.  Again, not all of these are pure fluff.  The point is, they take me away on a pleasant journey.  They allow me to disengage for a time.  They make me laugh.  They sometimes make me cry (but in a good way; the climax of It’s a Wonderful Life gets me every time).  They enable me to step away from the insanity and the craziness and the deadlines and the worries and the anxieties and the strife, and they provide a moment of respite, a safe space, an oasis overflowing with elixirs for the soul.

The Odd Places It's A Wonderful Life Has Turned Up | Den of Geek

 

Your places of fun-filled and lighthearted refuge may be different from mine.  But you have them.  You have your go-to sources for comfort.  We all do.  So, on this Halloween weekend, I hope you have the chance to dip your toe in, if only for a while, to settle in and relax and laugh.  Laugh at something silly.  Laugh at some corny, dated sitcom produced in the years before you were born or a contemporary comedy that never fails to amuse.

Stressors are all around us.  And real problems need to be tackled and overcome.  But we can all benefit from taking a brief detour in a friendly neighborhood bar where “everybody knows your name” or a lively and song-filled jaunt down the Yellow Brick Road.  I know I can.

There's no place like home: The Wizard of Oz, 80 years on

 

And, maybe, just maybe, this weekend I will.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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