Author Archives: Mike M

Blocked

I am, never have been, and probably never will be “…in search of a reason not to work on the book just now”. I don’t need a reason; my avoidance of pen, paper and computer seems to come naturally. When the muse does favor me, I love writing my thoughts and stories. But sometimes the muse is on strike, or out on the golf course or wherever it is that the muse goes when she’s not on my shoulder to whisper in my ear.

Life often provides the circumstances for writing avoidance. There are things that have to be done, such as lawn mowing, home repairs and family events. Notice I didn’t mention WORK. Retirement should have taken care of that time sucker. Strangely, though, retirement hasn’t provided more time to write, it has merely formed a vacuum that was filled with a large whoosh when I volunteered for my church, library and historical society.

Another interference with writing is the very thing that should push it right along: peer pressure. This blog is written by five of us who have been together in a writing group for years. We always offer support, even if we have to suppress our naturally kind tendencies and  mercilessly criticize each other’s work. Now, I can take criticism, but I guess that maybe my muse can’t and that’s why she doesn’t always show up for appointments. The idea that others depend on me to fill space on a regular basis is like a magnifying glass that focuses the sun’s rays on my imagination; it dries up and bursts into flames.

By the way, Scott Adams had some great observations about writer’s block in his Dilbert comic strip this past Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. See them at http://dilbert.com/. Also, don’t leave that site before you read Adams’ very interesting blog.

This is all I have for right now.  In the end, the only thing I understand about why I don’t write more is that … I don’t write more.

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Voice

After almost six years of meeting, the voices of my fellow Thursday Night Writers have become pretty familiar to me and easy to spot.  The vocabulary and cadence are like fingerprints that don’t seem to change.  However, it wasn’t until recently that I seriously considered what my own voice was.

About a month ago, we did a couple of writing exercises one night.  In one scenario, the instruction was to think of something we either liked or disliked, and then write a story as if we had the opposite feeling.  For the second exercise, the point was to think of a dozen details that could be used as description and then write two or three paragraphs using those details.  It was fun and I had no problem writing two short pieces.  Then we each read our work aloud and it was pointed out to me, and I immediately saw, that I had used exactly the same voice in response to two totally different scenarios.

My voice in both pieces was cynical, which actually seems normal to me because I am not a Pollyanna and believe that there are a lot of negative and malignant things in our world.  But, the more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that, if I’m cynical about the world then it is only fair that I should be cynical about myself, or at least about my writing.  I’m undertaking this appraisal of my writing with the idea that maybe I can somehow rub salve on my dark worldview and alleviate some of the aches and pains it gives to both me and my readers.

I hope this self-examination bears fruit.  When we did those exercises and then discussed them, it was an eye opener to realize that what had been so comfortable only minutes before suddenly felt foreign.  There it was, right in front of my face, challenging me to consider whether I like what I see and feel when I write.  Wish me luck.

Critiques and Darlings

After I finished my last blog posting, I felt unsettled.  I was okay with the piece at the time, but there were some doubts banging around in the back of my mind.  After sleeping on it, I looked again and saw several things that I would have liked to change, but it was already out there in the ether, so it let it go saying “it is what it is”.  It got me to thinking about both self-criticism and the comments made by my Thursday night writing group, family members and friends.  I wouldn’t say that I enjoy receiving criticism, even in the best sense of the word, after all I’m not a masochist or glutton for punishment, but I do see its importance because I want people to enjoy and value what I write.  I understand that critical reaction from others can be a valuable gauge of the quality of my writing.

Our Thursday night group has waded right into the minefield of critiques pretty much weekly over the years.  John, our leader and the most diplomatic person I know, sets the tone with observations based on his many years as an editor.  No matter how constructively offered, in many instances the response to a suggestion for removing or altering, say, a character, storyline, scene or even a snippet of description, is a protest that the writer really likes it the way it is.  John refers to elements that are favored only by the writer and that they can’t bear to surrender as their “darlings”.

All of us have “darlings” in our lives that we will defend.  People involved in romance, parenting and, apparently, writing have this in common: it’s not natural for them like it when their “darlings” are criticized.  Most of us have the good sense not to make uncomplimentary remarks about another’s love interest to their face.  Many of us are tempted to make a remark about the five-year-old running around the tables in a quiet restaurant but don’t want to tangle with the mother who becomes a cat with her tail on fire if anything negative is said about her little “darling”.  But people in writing groups seem to have very few reservations to point out flaws in the submissions of others.  Defensive reactions are understandable when someone or something that generates love within your bosom is under attack, but let’s look at what is really at stake.

Lovers and progenitors both have an organically occurring loyalty that will cause them to defend attacked sweethearts and offspring to the death.  If, in addition, if they consider their own self-preservation, they will irrationally defend the indefensible, mindful that their enamored will be alone with them in the middle of the night while they sleep or that their children will, some day, decide their nursing home placement.  Even when it doesn’t make sense, it is understandable to circle the wagons in defense of loved ones against outside aggression and maintain life as you know it.

On the flip side, a writer’s stalwart refusal to change one of their “darlings” ensures only one thing: the writer will be the only one satisfied with the work.  No, the writer will be the only one reading his work.  In that light, it seems that writers who want to be read have to be truly open to honest criticism of their work.  This sounds so easy to see, but I guess that after you have reached deep into your soul and psyche, you form an attachment to the thing to which you have given life.  I might suggest that if you, a writer feel that strongly about your creation, you should create your own little private library for your own edification, but listen and positively respond to the wider world’s reactions.

Hmmmm, I wonder how I’ll react when some megastar Hollywood director wants to make changes to my story when it’s brought to the big screen.

Words

I’m late.  I should have posted this yesterday, but now it is today and here I am a day late.  If I didn’t use the second sentence to explain the first two words of this paragraph, I wonder if you would know what I meant.  Maybe, if you’re a close follower of this blog and missed me yesterday; yeah right, I wish.  Otherwise, you might speculate about in what way I am late.  Without explanation, you might visualize a madman with a watch and top hat as he rushes about, or maybe a young woman as she broaches a difficult subject with her boyfriend.  From a darker palette, you could illustrate a poor soul who realizes they can’t move due to rigor mortis.  In the latter situation, the person is often described today as having “passed”.

“Passed”, I really question that portrayal of life cessation when it euphemizes an obviously much more dramatic event.  If you peacefully go to sleep and never wake up, then, OK, it’s reasonable to say your soul has “passed” from this life to the next.  However, it’s lame and in denial to apply it to someone who was dropkicked into the next world when obliterated by an eighteen wheeler, knifed seventy-two times or separated from their one and only head by … you get the picture.  I find it’s easy to digress when writing.

My wife suggested the title of this piece when she recalled a book, Wheels! by Annie Cobb and illustrated by Davy JonesWheels by Annie Cox (still widely available), that our children read as toddlers.  Our copy was packed away with our kids’ books and Barb was able to put her hands right on it.  Part of a Random House series called “Early Step into Reading Books”, it is true to its introductory note of being designed for “…preschoolers and kindergartners who are just getting ready to read.”  Self described as being “…packed with rhyme, rhythm, and repetition”, it beautifully bridges visual and verbal.

I showed it to my son, now in his early twenties, and he remembered immediately, “Yeah, it’s like my favorite book.”  He thumbed through it, saying “You can tell we liked it, look how ratty (he meant worn) it is.” and stopped at a two page spread showing cars and trucks, all sans wheels, stranded right where they were on an interstate interchange, and declared it was his favorite picture.  The words accompanying that scene are “What if there were NO wheels? How would people go?” which made me think of a simile “What if there were NO words? How would people write, read, speak or KNOW?”

Noir in a Familiar Place

Well, I didn’t make a movie or hobnob with other writers since I last wrote in this space, but I did go to Montreal.  Montreal is one of my most favorite places in the world, starting over forty years ago when my brother and I went there and we felt like daring men about town because we drove down notorious Ste. Catherine Street.  Really, we made one run and stopped once, at a depanneur, where I bought a pack of Player’s cigarettes.  The kicker is that I didn’t even smoke, but they seemed exotic in a pack so different that what was available in the states.  That pack and several coins and bills served as my souvenirs.

The city’s place in my heart and psyche was cemented though, when it was part of the itinerary on my honeymoon with Barb.  That situation has solidified as we have returned yearly on our anniversary ever since and our children have come along on every trip from the time they were born.  I’d be a poseur to pretend I was a ‘habitant’, although I do wear a Canadiens ball cap while there.  I figure it’s a lot safer than a B’s hat.  We usually park our car while there and travel about on foot or by bicycle or subway.  Ste. Catherine Street still figures prominently for its shopping and dining, with very little remaining of the “adult” entertainment for which it was once known.

The Crime on the Cote des NeigesLast year, llandrigan gave me a copy of The Crime on Cote des Neiges by David Montrose, a 1951 story set in Montreal.  This and several other old Montreal books have been reissued by Montreal’s Véhicule Press as one of their Ricochet series of vintage noir mysteries.  Looks hardboiled, doesn’t it?  The story line is standard cynical-private-dick-with-a-heart-of-gold clears an innocent girl of murder.  It is well written and highly enjoyable, but fascinates me even more with all its references to streets I have walked and place names I know.

During this last trip to Montreal, I made a point to go to La librairie Paragraphe, 2220, avenue McGill College (okay, for you Anglophiles, that’s Paragraphe Bookstore and I highly recommend a visit there) and look for other Ricochet issues.  I bought three and am Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Streetcurrently reading 1949’s Sugar-Puss on Dorchester Street by Al Palmer, a Montreal journalist who covered the police beat and wrote a column on city nightlife.  It has me thinking back to that trip in the early 70’s and the realization that Dorchester Street, which runs parallel two blocks over from Ste. Catherine, still existed then, although it depended on what part of it you were situated as it was called both a street and a boulevard even then.  That changed in 1977, when the city renamed the majority of it Boulevard René Lévesque.  And since that time it has undergone extreme urban renewal with huge residential swaths razed and replaced with high-rise corporate headquarters edifices. But still, I was there only slightly twenty years after Palmer wrote about a young farm girl who came to the city to escape the boredom of rural Quebec.  Who knows what I might have seen then if I had been more observant in my early twenties.  As it is, I have to satisfy myself with blurry memories of what the city looked like and the knowledge that at least I was there.

What to write about

These blogs have a wonderful way of forcing focus and at the same time make that focus harder to achieve.  I’m sure that all writers come up with visions that seem so real and then watch them evaporate in the presence of a notebook or computer.  It can get worse; the fuzzy mirage of a story becomes even more blurry when the heat of waiting to the last minute to finish it is applied.  Let’s see what I can come up with in the next hour before my deadline.

You, the reader, have no way of knowing that this is not the next paragraph I wrote.  I actually wrote and discarded two paragraphs using a metaphor of a chef using experience and imagination to put together a fine dinner and made the comparison of writing ideas to food ingredients and editing to cleaning, chopping and parboiling.  It was lame.

But, I’m still thinking along the lines of places where a writer can get ideas.  At the supermarket actually might be a good idea.  Any place other where people congregate can be fertile ground for observing the human condition.  Take Wal-Mart for example, it is probably one of the best people watching places there is.  I remember once, a long time ago, seeing this hairy old guy standing in the check-out line with just a giant bag of cosmetic puffs in his basket.  Although it piqued my naturally suspicious mind that odd things usually have a definite explanation, I didn’t confirm until later that drug users use cotton balls for purifying heroin before shooting up.  What at first seemed to be just an odd and almost funny scenario could almost certainly be made part of a story that juxtaposes the tragedy of drug abuse with the banality of its everyday trappings.  Or maybe there was no more to it than he was getting them at the request of his makeup laden wife.

You don’t have to leave home gather the ingredients of stories.  Just listen to the news and voila, there is the whole spectrum of the human condition laid out for the taking.  Think about a fictional character conjured from tidbits of observations made of the president, Tom Brady and George Stephanopoulos.  Bet that puts a picture in your head.  Maybe you could see a spectator make a face at a golf match and read whatever you want into it to make the next great story of the golf fiction genre.  By the way don’t even stop to wonder if there is such a thing as a golf fiction genre; if you write a great story, there will be one.

Writing From Experience

Like first time parents, new writers worry about things they never realized existed before.  For me, this became a reality when we started our writing group and the others chimed in about how I should write stories based on my twenty-eight years as a State Trooper, ten of which were as a homicide detective.  For the five years since retirement, my persistent objection to my Thursday Night cohorts has been that it would be improper or unseemly for me to write about some of my experiences.  It is a high honor and huge responsibility to be entrusted to investigate a murder and I felt somehow that to write about what I had witnessed would take unfair advantage of my position.  I have discussed this with my old detective partner and he pointed out that if people did not write about these things, then how would anyone find out about them?  Maybe I’ll soften and reevaluate my stand as I progress as a writer.  No guarantees, but I’ll work on it.

Joseph Wambaugh wrote “…what a sorrowful thing it is to be murdered” in his novel The Glitter Dome.  I read that long before I became a cop, but it stayed in my subconscious and reemerged when I saw my first dead body.  It is sorrowful.  It’s not dramatic and certainly not glamorous.  It’s not at all like Hollywood’s CSI with mood music and fuzzy, psychic flash-back visions of the crime.  It is coldly sobering to stand or kneel over the most personal physical legacy of a human, their body, a human being who only hours earlier would never in their wildest dreams imagine that before the day was over, they would be cold, gray objects of observation to be described in notebooks, photographed and measured for diagrams.  I doubt that many people stop to consider when they lace up their shoes or button their shirts in the morning that they won’t be the ones to undo them at the end of the day.

Sometimes bodies lay in some degree of repose like on TV, but often they are in the grotesque sprawl of their last attempt to retain life or in the ineffective comfort of a fetal position.  Injury levels range from a few bruises or a little hole that is hard to find to extensive, mangled trauma with copious spilled blood.  There is a stillness to death greater than sleep or unconsciousness.  Oh, there actually is real, every-day music sometimes; if a body is discovered with a radio playing in the room, that’s documented as part of the scene and left on until everything is processed and turned off with the lights only when the search warrant return is left on the premises and the doors closed and locked.  You can only guess at the weird and lousy associations I have with some popular songs from years past.  The whole thing was and is sorrowful.

Any writing inspired by actual cases will have to be done with a high regard for ethics and respect for those involved.  No person’s death should be grist for the mill of popular culture where everything is presented merely for entertainment and titillation.  Before writing about such things, I’m going to grapple with the concept of “socially redeeming value”.  I’m no Pollyanna, in fact I’m quite cynical, but I do believe in karma.

The Non-Existent Page, the Blank Page and the #$%^&*@! Page

Countless good stories are lost forever because of the non-existent page; they never get written.  If not reduced to words right away, budding tales often blow away like swirled flights of dried leaves in a November wind, never to form the same pattern again.  Without immediate attention, fleeting visions and vague concepts can recede beyond the reach of memory.  Once released from consciousness, they float back up to the heavens like a reverse rainfall and dissipate into the ether, where they may or may not coalesce and fall back into someone else’s imagination.  My “gravatar” is a blank notebook page because a recurring theme in my writing life is to lose great ideas if I don’t write them down while they are fresh in my mind.  That little notebook could have saved those stories and given them a firm toehold from which to advance.

Whether ideas are fresh or captured in a notebook, a writer celebrates a story by facing the blank page with the intention of turning it into the written page.  If a writer is the little engine that could, the result is a successful flow of words as stories grow into a rich creation.  There are no guarantees, though.  Even with notes, ideas that seemed so clever when jotted down can morph into nonsense during a second reading.  What originally appeared to be inspiration turns out to be a chimera which evaporates from the heat applied to transform it into an understandable whole.  Still, the writer sits down to face the blank page.

Sometimes words stall and headaches develop.  A blank page that is not blooming becomes an enervation to the writer who confronts the #$%^&*@! page.  Whether or not the writer merely feels stuck or is actually thinking blasphemy and crudeness, the reality is that the creative process has stopped.  Thursday Night Write’s llandrigan characterized this phenomenon as “…fear or inertia or mental disorganization…” and Karen Whalen commented that the writer “…would rather have a root canal than write…”  That’s where I am now, so I’m going to put this away for awhile.  When I get back, hopefully I’ll bring the muses with me.

Cross My Heart and Hope to Blog

Peer pressure isn’t a bad thing if you pick your peers wisely.  For the past five years, I’ve belonged to a writing group and if not for their encouragement, you wouldn’t be reading these words right now.  In fact, this piece was presented to the group just last night and they made some great suggestions for improvement.

Five of us shifted into high gear to form the Thursday Night Writes blog as a vehicle for our writing.  Like the teenager who listened to his friends’ pleas to prove how fast his father’s car would go, I succumbed and put the pedal to the metal.  Like all who venture out on the open road, we hope to end up somewhere good, and with this blog we invite you, our readers, to come along.  Let us know if we’re firing on all eight cylinders or we’re off in a ditch somewhere.  Don’t worry, with all the experience we have critiquing each other, we’re finely tuned to bang out dings and dents from crashes.

We regularly face the question of why we write.  Just because some unknown person out there can read it doesn’t mean that they will and if they do, it doesn’t mean they will like, understand, or profit by it.

Before anything can happen, we have to get over our fears and blocks of putting words to paper.  There are bumps, if not solid jersey barriers, at every turn in the road, made up of embarrassment, shyness, and self-consciousness (thank God for spell check on that last one), and some straight sections where ambition, hubris and maybe even arrogance, accelerate unchecked with no regard to speed limits.

If we were driving real cars on this trip, we could follow some cut and dried rules of the road like the ones found in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s guidance documents.  There are plenty of rules for writers too, but good luck making them work.  For example, books and magazines for writers, as well as certain leaders of writing groups, do advocate a rule of “Set aside a time every day and sit down and write.”  Yeah, well, sounds great unless you don’t have anything in mind to write.  “The ideas will flow once you try.”  Someone tell the Muses; they don’t always notice when a keyboard is under hand.  Sitting down to write without a writing goal is to ignore that huge orange diamond “Road Closed” sign and take the turn down that dirt road anyway.  A short time spinning wheels in soft sand and hot sun will leave the unprepared parched with a shriveled up creative-juice gland.

If there should be an idea knocking around in the garage between your ears …

Enough of the motorist metaphor.  Next time, I will address the concept of The Blank Page.  I’ve had a lot of great ideas on profound things to say about it, let’s see what happens.

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