People You Know, Characters You Create

Have you ever wanted to write–or actually written–a piece of fiction that featured characters based on actual people you know?  Now, granted–even when we create our characters “out of thin air,” there are elements of people we know in them.  Or, sometimes, a composite of several people’s characteristics rolled into one.  This may be on a subconscious level–you’re not necessarily trying to base your characters on anyone.  But it’s inevitable that traits from some people you know (or you. yourself, as the author) will find their way into some of your characters.

However, that’s not what we’re talking about here.  What we’re talking about is . . . you know Jane from across the hall in your apartment complex, and you want to create a character “based” on her.  Or perhaps someone from school–a bully, your best friend, a teacher, a nerd–whoever it is.  You want to feature them in your next novel (with a different name, of course).  Can you literally have at it, and re-create the real-life person in your fictional story?  Or do you need to add several layers of a literary buffer, effectively “disguising” them, perhaps even from themselves should they read your work?

 

The interesting thing about that is–whatever your intention, it likely doesn’t matter because as you write, as you go forward with your literary endeavor, creative elements will take over.

As I’ve posted about in the past, the main characters in The Eye-Dancers were based on friends I had growing up.  Specifically, Mitchell Brant was inspired by Matt B.; Ryan Swinton by Rick S.; Joe Marma by, well, Joe M.; and Marc Kuslanski by MattK.  The supporting character of Matt “Grronk” Giselmo was also inspired by a Matt–Matt G.  A lot of Matts!  As for last names, of course I changed them, though I matched the first letter of the fictional characters’ last names with their real-life inspirations.

 

And, honestly, when I set out to write the novel, my intent was to keep the characters relatively close to my real-life friends.  I wasn’t aiming to incorporate much “separation” at all.  Sure, I’d change details and respect their privacy.  Of course.  But as for their personalities, quirks, inside jokes, nicknames, and even physical tendencies, I was drawing form the real thing.

But then, as I continued to move forward with the story, a funny thing happened.  I began seeing the protagonists solely as who they were, and wasn’t even thinking of the real-life Matts or Rick or Joe.  Ryan Swinton was only Ryan Swinton.  Marc Kuslanski was only Marc Kuslanski.  At a certain point during the writing process, it was as if the characters weren’t inspired by anyone.  They had matured, grown, morphed, and become exclusively who they were.  Obviously, even with this development, the characters retained elements of their real-life inspirations.  How could they not?  That’s how they were “born.”  But they had fully and completely become their own entities.  As I wrote their scenes, I no longer even glimpsed the actual people they were based on.  I saw only the protagonists themselves.

 

It was a revelatory experience, one I honestly did not expect.  At the outset, I was “seeing” them so much as offshoots of the people I knew; I assumed it would remain that way throughout the process.  But as so often happens with creative endeavors, the process, the experience, the flow, the wonder takes on a life of its own and leads you where it will.  The writing is in charge.  Not the author.

So, if you are in a similar circumstance–about to begin a novel or a fictionalized work of some sort and are basing your characters on people you know (or knew), and you’re wondering how “close” to cut it . . . you probably have nothing to worry about.

Because as you begin, as you wade through the literary waters, as the bones of the story fill out with muscle and sinew and soul and emotion . . . the characters will become who they decide to become, and the initial inspirations will fade into the background.

So write.  Let your characters lead on.  It promises to be a journey as exciting as it is unpredictable.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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

The Swing Set in the Backyard (Or . . . So, You Want to Write a Novel?)

When I was eight years old, my parents bought a swing set for the backyard.  It was red and yellow, with two swings.  My father installed it at the extreme northern end of the yard, a few feet to the left of the brick fireplace he had built upon moving into the house, years before I was born.  I cannot say I remember whether or not I had asked for a swing set or if my parents decided it would be a good idea to get one.  Either way, that summer–the summer I was eight–I spent a lot of time on those swings.

 

Well, I mainly used the swing closer to the fireplace.  If anyone wanted to join me, they needed to use the other swing.  Sometimes, I’d swing for hours.  I used to love swinging on July evenings, the air warm, the yard fragrant with flowers and freshly cut grass, the scent of a late barbecue from next door wafting on the breeze.  I’d plop down on the swing, push my way into a swinging motion, and kick . . . and kick . . . and kick.  Higher.  Always trying to get as high as possible, so I could see.

 

Indeed.  Especially at twilight, when I reached the apex of my swinging journey, I would peer to the north, beyond the backyard, beyond the neighbor’s yard . . . above the rooftops.  And I would glimpse . . .

But then I bottomed out again, beginning another rotation.  When I returned to the top of the arc, though, there it was . . . a netherworld.  A distant, ghostlike village just beyond the horizon.  As dusk descended, the village would, counterintuitively, glow brighter, shining in contrast to the darkening landscape.  If I looked closely enough, I could see spectral shapes moving to and fro.  Every few seconds, as I reached the apex of my swinging arc, I would see them again, a moment or two removed from my last glimpse.  Glimpse after glimpse, for an hour or more each night . . . before it became full-on dark and my mother called me inside.  Snapshots into another world, another dimension.

 

Back then, immersed in the wonder of being eight years old, I believed–fully–that what I was seeing out in the twilit distance was real–an alternate dimension of sorts, with wraiths living their lives and doing whatever it was they did.  I’d think of them during the day, too, or when I was inside, or at night while I slept.  What were they doing when I couldn’t see them?  I began to write down ideas.  Stories.  A love of the creative process was born.

 

That’s probably how it starts for many writers and artists–early on, at some point during childhood, you realize that your mind tends to drift.  That, even more than most kids, you question and conjure and wonder, and ask, “What if?”  You get lost in story and have conversations with yourself when no one’s around . . . or sometimes even when they are.  And as you get a little older and master the language more, the nuances, the flow, the texture and taste of the words . . . you write.  Short stories.  Essays.  Plays. Novels.

 

Novels.  I would have to say the number one question I get from non-writers who are aware that I have written novels is: “Where did you get the idea?”  And that is often followed by: “I could never write a novel.  Way too long!”

Long it is.  And that’s the challenge.  That’s the price that must be paid if you want to turn your aha-light bulb idea into three hundred pages of story and forward motion.  Ideas are a dime a dozen (even good ones).  Be it fiction or nonfiction, writing a book is work.  A lot of work.

 

Do you outline?  If research is needed, how much do you do?  After writing seven chapters–riding the roller coaster of inspiration–what happens when you come to chapter eight and, suddenly, the shine wears off, the plot becomes murky, and you’re not sure which direction to take?  And–if you’re like 99.9 percent of writers in the world, you also have a day job.  You have bills to pay, responsibilities to attend to, tasks to complete, people to care for.  How on earth do you carve out the time to write a novel?  And even if you do, will you have any energy left over after all the responsibilities of the day are done?  Writing takes energy and creativity.  These may be in short supply after a full day.

 

Or maybe you set your alarm for 4:00 a.m. and try to get some writing in before anyone else is up.  But are you?  Or will you feel like a zombie author, staring half-asleep at your screen, unable to process thoughts?  Make no mistake about it–writing a book is difficult.  In many ways, the writing itself is the easiest part.  It’s everything else that can trip us up, even when we enter the project with the best of intentions.

 

And that’s the trick, really.  Does writing a novel take talent?  I suppose.  Some writers have an abundance of talent; others may not have quite as much, but they have enough–they can do it.  If they didn’t have the ability to write a book, they wouldn’t have arrived at this point–planning out a story line, falling in love with an idea so much, they are willing to spend the next year or more bringing it alive on the page.  Anyone who reaches this point in the journey has the ability to write a book.  It is hard–it requires creating something out of nothing and then spending countless hours editing and honing and slicing away at the result–polishing it, killing your darlings, and revising, revising, revising.

 

Which brings us to the key.  The secret ingredient, if you will, of not only starting, but finishing a novel.  Well, perhaps there are two ingredients.  The first is commitment.  Given all of the challenges already touched on here, it can feel impossible–literally–to find the time and energy to complete a novel.  How do you overcome the challenge?  You have to be committed to your work, your idea, and have the perseverance to see it through.  There is no other way.

 

The other ingredient?  Confidence.  Self-belief.  Have you shared your idea with others?  Quite likely, you have received some very encouraging and positive feedback.  “Great idea!  I’ll buy it when it’s available!  Wow!  I wish I’d have thought of that!  Sounds like a best seller!”  But, just as likely, you will have received some lukewarm or even negative feedback, too. “Really?  Sounds contrived to me.  I don’t think your idea is believable.  Who cares?  The market is full of stories like that.  Your novel will get lost in a sea of similar stories.”  Or–“There’s no market for that, though.  No one will buy it.”  The list of would-be criticisms can stretch on, as long as the Sahara Desert.  It is easy to become discouraged, assess the monumental task ahead, and then shrug your shoulders and say, “Maybe they’re right.  Who am I kidding?  Who would want to hear what I have to say?”

 

This is where belief must come in.  There is no one–no one–in the world with your unique perspective.  It is likely true that your story idea is not entirely original (in reality, at this point, there may not be a truly original idea in existence; everything, in one way or another, has already been done).  But it has not been done, and not been told, in your point of view.  Only you can bring your life experiences, your voice, your essence, to the subject.  In short, only you can tell the story you have inside you, the story you feel a need to share with the world.

 

And that matters.  That’s what it’s all about.  Something–some force, some pure and true element of your soul–has instilled in you a need to write a story.  If you don’t write it, it will nag you, always.  So, press on.  Don’t listen to the naysayers (including the ones inside your own head).  Find a way to complete the project, even if it takes years.

Because, when it comes right down to it, we all have that eight-year-old inside of us, full of inspiration and imagination and wonder–with a story to tell.

So tell it.  Share it.  The world will be a better place when you do.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Soft Side of Winter (Or, Sherlock Holmes and a Cup of Tea)

It’s no secret that Vermont can be a harsh place to live during the winter months, and this winter is no exception.  While we have not seen massive amounts of snow to date here in the hills of east-central Vermont (“only” 25 inches so far), the temperatures have been bone-chilling.  Of course, it’s always cold here in the Green Mountain State in January.  Thaw?  What thaw?  The earth is buried under a blanket of snow for months.  But for the past three weeks, multiple days have topped out in the single digits, and a good chunk of nights have dipped well below zero degrees.  And when the wind whips, on top of all that?  It is best to be remain indoors.

 

Given all of this, it is natural to wonder what can possibly be meant by a “soft side.”  A soft side to ten below zero?  But, in fact, there is one.

With such inhospitable conditions outside, and with evening still descending early (though it is slowly starting to get lighter)–this is a season for reflection.  For stillness.  For unwinding. The frenetic warmer months are looked forward to, of course.  Who wants it to be ten below zero for long?  But during this dark, cold season, there is the opportunity for long nights in front of a fire, hot chocolate on the desk beside me, getting lost in story and wonder.

 

And on these cold, cold nights, after finishing the day’s work, the call of an old movie beckons.  Or an old television show.  Or a good book.  Below-zero nights are made for The Honeymooners or It’s a Wonderful Life, or The Wizard of Oz.

 

Or maybe an old Hitchcock thriller, something slow and unrushed, like Rear Window.  Or perhaps Forrest Gump or a long, epic-length documentary.  It doesn’t so much matter what–just that it happens, that there is a chance to escape the blistering pace of the workaday world, at least for a while.  Sherlock Holmes and a cup of tea, enjoying the warmth inside, the quiet of a winter night enveloping the house like a soft, thick glove.

 

And maybe that’s the reminder we all need as we begin another year, a year with challenges and struggles and deadlines and political upheaval and setbacks and frustrations and joys and triumphs.  There is always so much to do.

But sometimes, even in the midst of it all, we just need to be.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

“Who’s That Tree?” (A Childhood Holiday Tradition)

Without question, Christmas was the most looked-forward-to day of the year for my family when I was growing up in Rochester, New York, in the 1980s.  I look back at those days now with a sense of nostalgia that would have mystified my child-self.  Back then, the 1980s were the alpha and the omega, the here and the when, the be-all and the end-all.  Little did I realize in that last decade before email and the internet that at some future point, decades hence, popular culture would “look back” at the decade in which I spent my childhood and use it as the backdrop for television shows and movies.  I wouldn’t have thought such a thing possible.  When you’re ten or twelve, you are eternally young, and the world where you grow up is young with you.  It feels like a forever state, a permanent condition of things.  But of course it is not.

 

It is fleeting.

I blinked and the 1990s came and went.  Then the 2000s.  Then the 2010s.  And here we are now, on the precipice of 2022.  So many years.  So many changes.  Yet the memories remain.  The traditions and stories and experiences of childhood linger, like woodsmoke on a winter wind.  Enduring.  Tangy.  And real.

 

And while there were many traditions my family shared when I was a kid, the most festive ones revolved around Christmas.

It started with my mother.  She had the most exuberant Christmas spirit in the neighborhood.  One of (many) holiday traditions she started was shopping for the family Christmas tree the first Sunday every December.  It was the same every year.  She’d round us up early that Sunday morning, and we’d drive the family station wagon the mile and a half through the neighborhood to Wambach Farms, an old country store/farmstand that, during the Christmas season, had an enormous variety of Christmas trees for sale out on the back lot. We’d park the car and head right back to the lot, wasting no time to examine the trees.

 

It was serious business.  We weren’t going to settle for just any tree.  It had to be the perfect one.  Not too tall, not too fat, not too thin.  Just right.  The process generally took twenty minutes to a half hour.  We’d fan out–me, my two brothers, my sister, my parents–and scan the merchandise.  Without fail, within a couple of minutes, someone would yell, “Hey!  Everyone!  Mom!  I found it!  This is our tree!”  And we’d all go over to whoever exclaimed it, and, also without fail, the consensus would be to keep looking.  “Nah, it’s too tall and skinny,” someone would say. “Who’s that tree?”  “It looks like Bigelow (a colleague of my father’s at work).  Or, “No way.  That tree is too short and squat, like Reggie!” (a neighborhood dog).  The hunt for the perfect tree went on.

 

Since we shopped for our tree when the store opened, early Sunday morning, there were usually very few other shoppers around.  It was quiet, still, the frosty December air surrounding us like an icy embrace, breath smoking in front of us.  And the excitement was palpable.  It was an honor to be the one to discover the perfect tree.

 

And eventually, of course, someone did.  It was one of those things, hard to define, difficult to establish a template or a set of exact parameters.  Our trees from year to year did have some similar characteristics, but they were also different, unique, individualized.  You just knew it when you saw it.

 

When we did, we’d check out–old Mr. Wambach making small talk with my parents at the register–and then we’d drive the tree home, my father tying it down in the trunk of the car.  It would take hours to decorate.  We’d spend the rest of Sunday morning on it.  And when it was done, the Christmas season in our house would officially begin.

 

Every year in the 1980s, we repeated this Christmas ritual.  And yes, at the time, it felt eternal.  Every year would be the same.  It would never change.  Ever.  The mind of a child, a kid growing up, lucky to be secure in his family and surroundings, living in the moment of his youth.

The thing is, those days are eternal.  They endure.  In my mind, and in my heart.  They will never grow old.

 

I hope you have memories like that, too, during this holiday season or during another one.  I hope you continue to make such memories.

A blessed and merry holiday season to all.

 

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

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.

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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?”

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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.”

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“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.

 

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

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