Monday, June 24, 2013

On Summer, THE NOVEL, Writing What I Want To, Writing What I AM

Well, it's summer, which means I'll be blogging a lot more. Probably two or three times a week, mostly about random things, whatever is sitting on top of my head.

First of all, it's time for my Second Annual Bradbury Marathon. I've already read Bradbury's biography The Bradbury Chronicles, From the Dust Returned, re-read Dandelion Wine and read it's sequel Farewell Summer, and now I'm reading one story a day from his collection Long Past Midnight. It promises to be another wonderful Bradbury summer.

The thing is, I find myself once again really thinking about what it is I want to write. Not necessarily genre - the weird and strange and supernatural is my home. It's those types of stories that get me out of bed at 2:30 in the morning. And Billy the Kid is still a go, because that's also the type of story I adore: an anti-hero slugging it out against impossible odds and his own personal demons and the world's demons to save the day, that doomed, cursed hero with scarring and damage but a bright, shining soul that won't let him quit. And it's also highly mythic, an epic Weird Western. As soon as this novella is done, the summer will be dedicated to finishing Billy the Kid.

But I've been reconsidering the tone and intent of my short stories. Things Slip Through, coming November 2013, represents what I consider to be the best of my early work, and also, for the first time, introduces my little haunted town, Clifton Heights, New York. It's my Castle Rock, Cedar Hill, and Green Town. And they're good stories I'm really proud of.

However, in reading Ray Bradbury's biography, I found what I think is going to be the turn-key in how I feel about my short fiction (note: I didn't say the turnkey for my SUCCESS. Just how I feel about the short work I produce).

Bradbury was a hopeless idealist. Someone once accused of him being over-nostalgic and a sentimentalist and his response was: "You're goddamn right I am!" He was able to take that magical view of the world and mine his personal experience to produce some of the best work we've ever seen.

I'm no Bradbury and never will be. But I'm a hopeless idealist and highly sentimental and nostalgic. I believe in a higher power, that our lives have purpose and meaning.  And lately, my eye has been turning ever toward my childhood as a source of material. I have a novella which I REALLY HOPE FINDS A HOME with a major publisher right now which, even though still set in Clifton Heights, is my first attempt at this personal type of writing. The second is the novella I'm about to finish up and send out.

The thing is...I'm not sure if all these stories will really be horror. I mean, the current novella I'm finishing up definitely is, but other one I've recently sent out isn't. It may or may not be supernatural, but it's not horror. And all the other short stories I've been thinking about lately aren't really horror either, though they delve in the realms of the fantastic.

And they're probably going to be hopelessly sentimental and idealistic. And, I've come to the point in which I just don't care.

Because that's me.

So I'm going to write these stories without a clear idea where I'll send them (more on that in another blog, because that's caused much fodder for thought also). But they'll be ME on the page, more than ever, and I'm excited about that. This whole thing started just a year ago, when Madi and I spent the night at my Dad's house. Sleeping in my childhood bedroom, on inspiration, I churned out the following and posted it to Facebook. This and Billy the Kid is what's really got me excited about writing this summer:


So, here it is. How much of this is true, and how much of it is made up? I'm not going to say, though I will admit to changing all last names and most first names. However, for those I went to high school with - if any of you read this - please keep the following in mind: it is, however "autobiographical", in the end, fiction. And if I've turned things that really happened on their head, the reason why is expressed perfectly in the following quotes, by authors Neil Gaiman and Tim O'Brien:

"Stories may well be lies, but they are good lies that say true things, and which can sometimes pay the rent.” ― Neil Gaiman

"Fiction is the lie that helps us understand the truth." - Tim O'Brien

Is this the novel I'm planning on self-publishing? Well, I'm not sure. But, it's a story I'm passionate about, the story I've always wanted to write, and I think that if I really want to see if self-publishing works, I have to try with something I really care about, something I consider to be my best work, ...and this, I think, will be it.



I wrote my first novel in this bed. Every night, hidden under the covers. Sweating in the stuffy air as my flashlight burned away the darkness, my Number Two pencil scratching out a story across the lined pages of a spiral-bound MEAD notebook with a turquoise-blue cover, an uncontrollable urge gripping my mind to get it all down, as fast as I could, every single night. What had started as an exercise in idle curiosity - a requested short story for a proposed school newspaper - had blossomed into a manic explosion of creativity the likes of which I'd never before experienced.

Of course, the newspaper never got printed. Either the students or the newspaper moderator or maybe even our computer teacher, Mrs. Trueax, lost interest, I can't remember which. But at that point, it didn't matter. I was a lost cause. Hooked, like a new junkie, I was main-lining the hard stuff, writing a "novel" about my life, every single night, under those bed covers by weak, jittery flashlight.

I had never felt anything like that before.

And, even with my modest list of publications now, I'm not sure I've felt that way since, felt that burning, consuming need to tell my story.

And it all began here.

In this bed, where I'm writing this, right now, in this room that's basically become a "catch-all,” where Dad stores stuff he hasn't got any other place for. But much of the original furniture is still here, and if I close my eyes, I can see in my head everything as it was, years ago.

A tall bureau stands directly to my left. Gone are all the assorted race car models I'd arranged on top as a kid, hours of cutting and trimming and gluing and painting and decaling long past, now. Not sure where those models are. Maybe long-since thrown away, or stored in a box up in the garage loft or down in the basement, somewhere.

My bed - which I'm lying in, right now - sits where it always has, headboard against the far wall, in the middle of the room. Against the opposite side of the room stands my very first bookshelf. Growing up, it had been crammed full of all kinds of books: the entire Hardy Boys collection, old westerns and pulp novels given to me by my late, great-grandmother, junior-grade and Young Adult titles long-lost to me, now; The Chronicles of Narnia, Choose Your Own Adventure novels, everything you can think of, and maybe more.

Eventually, my junior year of high school, and into my freshman and sophomore years of college (I attended the local community college, lived at home for those two years), I replaced those books with a heady collection of science fiction novels, most notably the Star Wars and Star Trek novels, movie tie-ins, and anything written by Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Peter Straub, Ray Bradbury and H. P. Lovecraft I discovered later, after I moved into my first apartment with my sister.

Now that bookshelf is full of Dad's books: war memoirs, old engineering and manufacturing handbooks, math and physics textbooks, his Boy Scout Handbook, and his only literary concession: James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, which he made me read the summer after my seventh grade year, (along with Pilgrim's Progress, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Cask of Amontillado), and which I remember fondly, good old Natty Bumpo and his trusty rifle Deerslayer, which never, ever let him down.

To my left, further down the wall, next to my dresser, still stands the desk I built all my model race cars on, its wooden top scored by countless flicks of all those silver XACTO knives cutting through plastic or balsa wood or cardboard. Little splotches of sliver or metallic blue or orange paint still linger. I'd labored there for endless hours, building race cars of every kind, size and shape, from kits, or from spare parts and scratch. During my childhood, works-in-progress had perpetually littered the desk, along with assorted little glass bottles of Testors' enamel, and Testors' squeeze bottles of plastic cement, as well as bottles of Elmer's Glue.

I remember being an avid, enthusiastic, productive but only average modeler, not nearly patient or meticulous enough to build the perfect, pristine model car I'd always wanted, but what I lacked in precision, I made up for in enthusiasm and effort and production...oddly enough, a lot like my writing career, so far.

In the far right corner - from my perspective, here in bed - is, of course, the closet. Where the monsters hid at night, very early in childhood. Left open after dark, it became a portal to unknown, alien worlds through which Stygian night beasts would lurch, eager to strip the flesh from my bones with gleaming, obsidian teeth (Believe it or not, this fear emerged long before I discovered Poe or Lovecraft).

Of course, when a little older - say, six or seven or eight years old - I often hid in that closet when in trouble and awaiting the wrath of my father, who, it had been promised, was going to teach me “a lesson when he gets home, young man!"

Once, in a desperate, hysterical, heart-pounding vigil that lasted maybe ten minutes until I got bored and slipped out my window to tramp around in the woods behind my house until Dad did arrive home and dispensed said lesson, I wrote on the closet's back wall in black crayon: "I hate you!" only to scribble it out immediately, convinced that if I happened to die in the next five minutes, I'd be committed to the fiery bowels of hell for such sinful graffiti.

Against the right wall stands another, shorter clothes dresser. Years ago, I kept my old toy record player on top, with its cheap, tinny-sounding speakers, which played Star Wars dramatizations (turn the page when R2-D2 beeps!), Tim and Tammy Bible Stories, (the Bakers in happier, simpler times, before fame and power and greed and Jessica Hahn and Playboy), and best of all, my collection of Disney movie records. To this day, I know most of the Jungle Book's songs by heart, thanks to that record player.

Later, of course, my aunt's old Hi Fi system - complete with tape deck and eight track player - replaced the toy record player atop that dresser. On it, I played the Queen records and AC DC eight tracks my aunt surreptitiously slipped me one weekend at my grandparents, and I also went through an amateur Hi Fi-dabbler stage, wiring together car radio speakers salvaged from the junk cars littering Grandpa Collins' hay fields, glueing them into a cardboard box with holes cut out, soldering or sometimes even just taping the wires together, creating my own, home-made, jury-rigged "sound system" that I then jacked into my stereo.

I'm a little surprised, in retrospect, that I didn't set anything on fire during that phase.
To my direct right, under the window, sits my homework (and later, writing) desk. Here, during high school, I reluctantly but dutifully labored over fractions, division, multiplication, Pythagorean Theorem, kinetic and potential energy, and, my junior year, summarizing each and every chapter of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, which I loathed then, but fell in love with later in graduate school.

By that time, of course, my bedtime was a thing of the past, so I no longer had to write under the covers by flashlight, rather I sat at that desk late into the night, and wrote some of my earliest - and awful - short stories, by hand and later on a Texas Instruments Word Processor, mostly lame attempts at space opera that never made it past Analog or Asimov's Science Fiction's slush readers, and several Star Wars pastiches, back when I labored under the delusion that I was destined to someday write a Star Wars novel (although, truth be known, I still labor under this delusion in secret, often sitting in my basement office, staring wistfully at my shelves of Star Wars novels, imagining my name on one of their spines).

And, after a tour of this room, we come back to this bed, inevitably. Because it was here where I first realized that putting words on paper, making a story, took me away to some far off, magical place, where my characters - people I'd made - lived and breathed as my pencil moved, and when I stopped writing, when my pencil fell still, they stopped living and breathing, stuck in limbo until I started writing again.

Right here, in this bed.

Like me, tonight.

Initially, Dad had invited Madison, my daughter, to sleep over alone. Dad loves both my kids dearly (my son Zack amuses him to no end; he gets quite the 'kick out of him', as they used to say), but I sometimes think he dotes especially on Madison. Whatever the occasion - feeding the chickens, milking the goats, walking in the woods, fishing in the beaver pond just down the road - he takes her in hand with remarkable ease. Could be he's bonding so well with her because she's at that fun age of perpetual wonder and discovery, when EVERYTHING is amazing and new, and he's just fulfilling the role of doting grandfather.

I often wonder, however, how much of me he sees in Madi (because, as Abby puts it, Madi is "you with a pony-tail"), and if he's especially drawn to her because of that. This may be a bit of self-flattery, but I'll take it, gladly.

However, despite Dad's easy way with Madi, Abby and I were a little concerned about how Madi would handle herself, thirty-minutes away in the deep, quiet country, on a sleep-over alone, with no Mom and Dad if, for some reason, she had a nightmare, or simply had a hard time sleeping in strange surroundings. For all her expressive vocabulary and sophistication and maturity, Madi is very much still a seven year old little girl, especially at night.

So, I decided it'd be best if Madi and I slept over at Mom and Dad's together; Madi sleeping in her aunt's old bedroom, and me on the couch in the living room because, as I've already said, over the years my old room had become a store room of sorts. However, much to my surprise, Mom had cleaned off the bed and cleared the floor prior to our arrival, and after a fine night roasting marshmallows and hot dogs around a fire, listening to crickets chirp and coyotes howl, watching for shooting stars, picking out the Big and Little Dipper, we retired for the night, Madi to her aunt's old room and bed, and me to my room.

To this bed.

Where it all started.

And as soon as I bedded down, a torrent of childhood memories bombarded me, so - in-between projects right now - I pulled out my notebook and began writing.

Because this summer, especially, I've been thinking often of my childhood. Maybe it's 
because of the wonderful summer we've just about finished: clear and hot every day, filled with adventures and excursions and milestones. Madi, catching her first garter snake, barehanded. Her and I building a fort and campsite in the woods, catching crayfish for lunch from the creek down the road, spending hours on the beach, where Madi passed the deep end swim test for the first time while I spent hours delightfully working my way through Karl Edward Wagner's Year's Best Horror short story collections and Charles Grant's Shadows anthology series.

Taking day trips to used book stores, discovery centers, the library, the zoo - Ross Park, the oldest zoo in the country, and the perfect setting for a ghost story I'm determined to write someday. Seeing the falls and visiting curiosity shops in nearby Ithaca, driving its brick streets and enjoying its beatniky Commons. Madi and I coming here once a week to pick blueberries and poke aimlessly around the "old homestead", as Dad likes to call it (he's added two buildings, a greenhouse, two chicken coops, another berry patch, and a small barn in the last twenty years), and walking in the woods where my sister and I and our friends camped and tramped, as well as visiting the railroad tracks running through the woods, right behind Mom and Dad's.

And also, on a more somber note, near the end of the summer, Madi biding farewell to her favorite of our two pets, Peanut, a thirteen year old tabby cat who'd suffered a stroke, bravely carrying Peanut in her lap, comforting her all the way to the veterinarian’s, and before Peanut was put to sleep, quietly, calmly - and so maturely for a seven year old - kissing Peanut on the head, whispering "Goodbye" before going out into the waiting room, where she prayed that Peanut have a special place in Cat Heaven.

A week later, we found a special rock in a creek at Dad's, and he engraved it with Peanut's name, and we placed it on her grave out back. And, showing the amazing resilience of youth, Madi - after waiting a respectable period of about a week - began eagerly inquiring into the recent batch of kittens her Aunt Mindy's cat had given birth to, wondering whether or not they were old enough yet to adopt.

And it was this, in particular, that REALLY unleashed the memories of my youth, opening the floodgates on one year, especially. Death has a way of doing that, of course, because from Death comes Life. It's simply the way pf things, probably one of the first, and most powerful lessons we ever learn.

And yes, it was only the death of a thirteen year old cat that had suffered a stroke and had to be put to sleep because of old age...

But still. The things that trigger our memories, setting our minds into motion, are often the smallest, most trivial things, and those small, trivial things turn like keys in our minds, unlocking gigantic doors to memories equal parts fantastic and terrible. Watching Madi so maturely and sensitively encounter death for the first time reminded me of when I first experienced death, when someone my age died on the railroad tracks behind my home, and when one of my closest friends and teammates drowned in the river behind the school, probably by accident, a tragic dare gone horribly wrong.

Probably. No one still knows for sure.

And those memories, sparked by Peanut's death, turned like a BIG key in an even bigger set of doors, warning me of what loomed ahead, that, after putting the final touches on my first collection of good and maybe entertaining and technically proficient but not astounding nor especially important short stories, and while the first draft of a Weird Western novel featuring Billy the Kid and demons was being ripped apart by beta readers, it was finally TIME. Time to turn my attention towards my "holy grail", my magnum opus, the ubiquitous "coming of age" novel, or the "author's-thinly-veiled-creative-rendering-of-his-childhood-as-he-wishes-it-actually-happened" novel. Or something like that, anyway.
For years, I had worried that, when it came time to write this novel, I wouldn't have much to say about my childhood, that it wasn't all that special, really. Abjectly normal, pedestrian, vanilla, rather boring, even - as I recalled - nothing all that exciting to write about.

But as it turns out, I was wrong.

Because I'd been thinking of my "coming of age novel" as a writer plotting his next project, considering my childhood through the filters of adulthood, my imagination bogged down by flat tires and ruined transmissions and rusted mufflers and broken timing belts and bad power steering, replacing water heaters and septic tanks, budgeting for bills we can't pay with money we don't have and the grind of my own studies and teaching career. Viewed through this lens, colored by these very grown-up things, my childhood seemed far away and depressingly average, indeed.

But everything this past summer - from our daily adventures, our annual family vacation in the Adirondacks, even the somber introduction of death into Madi's life - everything that's happened this past summer has unearthed a reservoir deep inside me, one I hadn't realized still existed. A cascade of memories has filled my head, making me realize how strange and wonderful and sad and joyous and spiritual and MAGICAL my childhood really was, and with that realization came another realization, shocking in its utter simplicity: it doesn't matter if things actually happened the way I remember them. It only matters that I remember.

And I remember how everything began, that one year, when Al Moreland died on the railroad tracks behind my house.