Art Imitating Life

As a reader I often wonder how much of a story is from the writer’s life in some way. How much do they take from their own experience? Are characters based, however loosely, on people they’ve met or actually know. As I’ve mentioned here before, I often create my characters from real-life models. I take a basic feature of someone I know or have encountered and turn it over in my mind until I have a unique character for my story, but none of the characters I’ve created are true-to-form copies of actual people. It is fiction after all.

In terms of my life, I do take elements from it and infuse it into the story. Obviously, I change or enhance things to give them the fictional flair that make them more interesting. My latest novel, The Fire Within, is one of the most personal stories I’ve ever written because the main character, like myself, is a runner. The few moments in the story when he’s running is almost a direct quote from my life. The feelings and observations are not too far from how I feel when I’m running. In fact, many of the story lines were developed when I was on a long run and had plenty of uninterrupted time to think about the book.

While the book is about a runner, there are actually only a few scenes where he’s running in the story. After all, I want the story to have mass appeal, and as surprising at it is to me, only a small niche of folks would likely read a story dedicated completely to running. I wouldn’t even describe the book as being about a runner; I’d more likely describe it as a story about a boy striving for his dreams and overcoming some major obstacles to achieve them. I’d also describe it as a love story. Running is just on the periphery of the story – a common thread that connects all of the pieces in the 20 years covered by the novel.

Beyond the running parts, I also included parts of my own childhood and adolescence in the novel – changed to protect the innocent, of course. There’s a scene where the main character attends his eighth-grade dance, which is very similar to my own experience albeit eight years later than my time.

It’s impossible for an author to avoid leaving his DNA in a story. We all relate to the world based on our own experiences, so it’s only natural that we tell stories with these experiences in mind. In many ways, we get the opportunity to re-frame the story from a different perspective or change it in subtle ways that we wished it had played out in real life. It’s fun, and I think it’s what makes every story unique.

Nothing I write will escape the pull of my life experiences. Even the new project I started, which is science fiction, will have the imprint of the past four decades of my life. After all, art often imitates life.

Four Minutes

The plucky freshman toed the line in his lane next to the older boys. Bobby, tall and slender, looked undersized in his relatively bulky singlet that hung from his frame like a sheet billowing on a clothesline. He had the shirt tucked into his shorts, which were pulled up high. It looked ridiculous, but he preferred it that way. It made him feel intact, impenetrable. He shook his legs out and hopped up and down on the rubbery track tensing his calf muscles each time he sprung up into the air.

The other boys ignored him despite the fact that he had greeted them openly when he walked onto the track. Each of them had their own routines as they flexed muscles, stretched legs, twisted their arms back behind their heads, and jogged a few feet ahead and back all in the name of preparing themselves for the race. A physical and mental tension permeated the space around them like a fog engulfs a lone bridge in a valley.

Bobby could feel the sweat forming on his back. He could smell the odors of boys preparing to run. Some had over done it on the deodorant, while others had done without, producing a distinct mix of clean and musky scents that would otherwise be distasteful, but to Bobby, these were the smells of competition. A pit in his stomach ached, but a fire stoked there as well. It burned rapidly, fueling his desire to dig his toe into the track and propel himself forward, pumping his arms and legs like pistons in a fiery engine.

Finally, all of the boys settled into their positions. On the blocks, muscles tensed and legs shook ever so slightly in anticipation. One boy on the outer lane twitched as if he were starting the race, but his feet barely budged from the blocks. Nervousness and unsettled stomachs reigned over the runners.

Bobby held still like he was frozen in place by an irascible fairytale witch. He focused all of his energy on hearing the crack of the starting gun. His field of vision narrowed and all sound drained from his ears. He could see nothing but the lane before him and the bend to the left that awaited him. The rubbery track gave ever so slightly at the push of his toes. He could feel the compressed springs in his legs ready to uncoil the moment the gun fired.

CRACK!

The sound of the gun unleashed a fury of motion in him. He still couldn’t see the other boys next to him. He could only feel the pulsing muscles in his legs as he propelled himself forward on the track. He ran into the tunnel pumping his arms and legs in an efficient and furious motion. His breathing ratcheted higher and higher, but he contained it as if he were doling out precious oxygen in small allotments to the needy muscles in his legs. He didn’t want to overfeed the beast. It was like a hungry dog that would devour whatever he put in front of it. His heart thrummed loudly like the pistons in a race car.

Four turns later, Bobby blew through the starting point again. His arms and legs still pumped in a fluid motion that was a sight to behold. He floated. His eyes were narrowed and focused on the track ahead of him. He sucked in air and forced it out with each pounding step. Together, all of this motion moved in a beautiful orchestration of human strength and endurance.

The cheers of the crowd around the track fell on deaf ears. Bobby heard nothing but the pounding of his own heart and the hissing of his own breath. The rest of the world was a blur of silence. He ran in this trance for four laps unaware of where he was in relation to his competitors. He didn’t really care. He loved losing himself in the run. He loved the feeling of his legs burning, his heart thumping, and his lungs pumping. Like an airplane, he needed to get to a certain speed to take off, but when he did, it transported him to a different world, one of a strange euphoria that coddled him like an addict tripping on his drug of choice except his drug was the thrill of the race.

The moment he broke through the finish line, he came back down to earth. The tunnel faded and the crowd came back into view. He heard a roar that deafened him momentarily and he looked out of sorts like someone who had just woken up from a dream and struggled to discern the difference between the dream and reality. He put his hands on his head and sucked in air as he walked further down the track to catch his breath. He looked back and several runners were still crossing the finish line. His coach and teammates flogged him with congratulatory yelps and slaps on the back. The race clock read 4:03. He had come perilously close to a four-minute mile.

A Box of Chocolates

“Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” — Forrest Gump

In the iconic movie, Forrest Gump, the title character uses the box of chocolates quote to explain the whimsical nature of his life as he describes the many things that had happened to him. I love the movie and have actually watched it multiple times, which is something I usually do not do (I have a strange habit of only watching a movie once). This quote came to mind recently as I finished up my latest novel and started the first read-through of the long and arduous editing process.

Most of my writing ideas strike in a flash of fancy usually when I’m doing something that is not conducive to recording my thoughts (e.g. running, showering, driving, etc.), so I turn them over in my head and try to develop them further until I can record them in my notebook. This notebook has far more ideas than I will ever be able to write unless I retire from my day job right now and begin a life as a writing recluse like J.D. Salinger, so the ideas sit on the electronic page of my notebook until I select them for my next project.

Once they are selected, I usually put together a rough outline to guide the arc of the story, but I’m never truly beholden to the outline. As I’m writing, I change things as the mood takes me. A character may begin life as a grown man when the idea first pops into my head, but may hit the page as a little girl by the time I actually write the story. Scenes, settings, and characters are all fluid until I complete the first draft.

It takes me about six months to finish a first draft because I only write about five hours a week – an hour each weekday morning. I share that hour with other writing work such as short stories and posts for this blog, so there’s even less time devoted to the draft than the five hours per week. Occasionally, I find some extra time to write, but for the most part, it’s five hours max. A lot can change over six months. For example, my entire mood about the project can change. Sometimes, I lose momentum, start another project, or simply bog down with the story line.

The other factor that affects my novels is that I don’t write sequentially and I often move chapters around after I’ve written them. For my latest project, The Fire Within, which just entered the editing phase, I wrote the first and last chapters in the beginning and filled in the rest over the course of seven months. Even the middle chapters were written in a haphazard order. I had no idea what I was going to get when I finally finished the novel and read it from beginning to end. Would it flow properly? Would it convey the emotion I was trying to capture? Would readers like it? These questions still remain open as I’m doing my first read-through.

In the end, my novels are comparable to Gump’s box of chocolates. I never know what I’m going to get until I do that first reading in the editing process. I like the element of surprise. It makes writing all the more fun.

Birds on a Wire – Episode 10

I woke up in the bed that I had shared with Barbara for so many years. My head felt heavy, cloudy, and a wave of disappointment fluttered over me when I looked at the empty space beside me. The pillow sat unmolested, still round and puffy as if it had never once been used. I sat up and looked around the room rubbing the sleep from my eyes.

The blinds bowed under the intensity of the sun outside. The muted light seemed filtered and eerily fragile. Spots danced in my field of vision blocking a clear view of the room. Darkness hunched in the corners and I could barely discern if they were empty or if something lurked there. A chill ran down my spine as if I just realized someone or something watched me as I sat there on the side of my bed.,

“Hello,” I called out, my voice raspy and barely audible. My throat hurt and my mind spun in circles. I wanted to lay back down. No answer came to me. I sat there for moments longer, waiting.

I finally willed myself to stand up on my shaky legs. I wobbled like a strong wind had taken hold in my room, but I managed to stumble to the window. I braced myself on the window frame, stuck my thick fingers in between the blinds, and peered through the gap to the outside. A beautiful morning warmed my spirits, but the scene felt like one of those faded, old photographs that Barbara and I had in our photo albums we kept on the shelf in the living room. Something odd lurked beyond my window, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

I shook my head and looked outside again hoping that my imagination had gotten the best of me. Nothing changed. The sunlight sparkled in an unnatural way. It reminded me of when I used to run among the bed sheets hanging on the clothesline as a kid – I could only see the world through the thin, white sheets.

Agitated, I turned away from the window and left the room. All of the blinds in the house were closed tightly keeping the light at bay. I could smell the hot vinyl of the blinds even though it didn’t feel that warm outside. My sense of smell surged like I had suddenly become more aware of the odors around me. The air I breathed felt cool and soft. I reached for my nose to touch the cannulas, but they were gone. I didn’t remember having them removed.

My gait felt unfettered, light, but I paid no heed to the strangeness of it all. I had some subconscious goal in mind; I just didn’t know what. When I walked into my living room, the door to the patio stood ajar. At first, concern flooded my mind. I swiveled around to see if someone else had come into the house.

“Carla? Rudy?” I said to the room.

I repeated myself, but no one answered. My heart raced in my chest. I didn’t feel alone anymore. I couldn’t see anyone, but I could feel a presence. The sensation startled me. My breathing increased. An old man like myself couldn’t defend himself much against an intruder.

I stepped toward the door and peered out onto my patio. The old bench that Barbara and I often sat on in the mornings and evenings when she was around stood empty at the back of the patio. The sight of the bench calmed me down, and I decided to take a seat there. I needed to be some place close to Barbara. Nothing would make me feel better.

Once I sat down, I did feel better. Birds chirped in the bushes. A bee whizzed by making the rounds among the roses in my backyard. The grass seemed greener than I remembered, but maybe the odd, sparkling light made it appear that way.

I glanced up at the power line that swung between the poles at the back of my house. The clean black line sat empty barely swaying in the breeze. I exhaled and relaxed. I only momentarily looked at the patio door, still ajar, to see if anyone had decided to join me. I no longer felt fearful. I felt happy, content.

I heard an excited chirping and turned to find the bird that sang so forcefully. A lone cardinal sat on the wire now, looking and chirping at me. I smiled. “It’s just you and me, buddy,” I said under my breath. The bird continued to sing, and I closed my eyes concentrating on his melodic song. The sun bathed my face in warmth, and the sweet smell of the roses swirled around me like the intoxicating perfume that Barbara often wore.

I opened my eyes ever so slightly and peered at the cardinal. It had been joined by another cardinal and they sang together side-by-side. I laughed to myself. My laughter belied pangs of loneliness. I missed Barbara.

“Jim, I knew I’d find you out here,” a voice interrupted me.

Startled, I turned quickly toward the patio door and saw Barbara standing there smiling at me and looking many years younger than she did the last time I had seen her. “Barbara…,” I said. I sat there with my mouth agape unable to form more words or get up from the bench.

She walked over to me and sat down beside me. She took my hand in hers. “I’ve missed you, Jim.”

I stammered as if I had seen a ghost, “I…missed…you, too.”

Her gaze moved to the cardinals sitting above us. She smiled and looked back at me. “I see the birds are back.”

I shook my head and gripped her hand harder. Her hand felt solid, real. I put my other hand to her face and rubbed her soft cheek. “Where have you been?” I asked.

“I’ve been here the whole time. I’ve always been with you.”

“Why did you leave?”

“I didn’t really leave you.”

Confused, I stopped talking. My hand dropped to her shoulder, and I leaned in to kiss her. Her warm lips felt familiar and inviting. This couldn’t be a dream. Maybe I had dreamed that she was gone.

“We should call the kids. They’re worried. They think you’re gone. I need to tell them it was all a misunderstanding.”

She shook her head and pulled my hand to her heart. “Jim, the kids will be okay. They know we’re together now.”

“How?”

“They know. Just sit back and enjoy the moment.” She dropped my hand to her side but still held it firmly in her grasp.

“Carla will be upset.”

“She’ll be fine eventually.”

“How do you know?”

She laughed and smiled at me. “Mothers always know.”

I didn’t understand it at all, but I didn’t want to question it. Barbara was back. I squeezed her hand and sat back against the bench. She scooted close to me and I felt the warmth of her thigh against mine. So many beautiful memories with Barbara flooded my mind rollicking in succession like a movie reel. We sat in silence watching and listening to the cardinals sing. Somehow I knew she would never leave me again.

Birds on a Wire – Episode 9

In my dream, two bright, red cardinals sat on the power line outside my window at our house. I was back in my home sitting in the living room with the curtains pulled back looking out the big window on a beautiful, sunny day. The birds were cardinals because, other than blue jays, they were the only birds I could positively identify.

I looked to my left at the empty chair, Barbara’s chair. Even in my dreams, she was missing. Had she been there, the birds would have been something more extravagant. I sighed at the emptiness and stared at the birds as they sat there fluttering in the slight breeze. Their chirps sounded like a conversation. I tried to discern what they were saying to no avail.

Instead, I just watched them and enjoyed the beauty of the moment – blazing read feathers set against the deep blue sky. It had been so long since I’d seen such a gorgeous day so clearly and since I’d sat in my own living room. Too long, actually. I took another breath, which felt too easy for me of late. That’s how I knew it was a dream. Nothing was easy then.

The realization jolted me to consciousness. My head lolled to one side and I felt the irritating tug of the cannulas. My eyes felt like they were glued shut, but I forced them open slowly. My breath tasted antiseptic and sterile. I thought for a moment that I was back in the hospital. Only when I saw the glaring light next to my bed did I understand that I was in Carla’s room.

The light seemed brighter than usual. It hurt my eyes and I tried to cover them with my arms, but my hands dragged like anchors at my side. My fingers, swollen and useless, dragged across my chest and caught the oxygen tube pulling it from my nose.

“Mr. Dunn, you need the oxygen. Don’t pull it out,” Marty said quietly.

I opened my eyes into tiny slits and peered at his big, jovial face. He smiled at me as he placed the clip back onto my nose. I thought I smiled back, but it could have been a sneer. Every movement I made felt lethargic, weighted. I tried to speak, but only gasping, inaudible words came out.

“Don’t worry. Carla and Rudy are on their way,” Marty said as if responding to some request I had made. I didn’t remember asking for them. They had visited with me every night the past few days, and quite frankly, they were real downers – all sad and dreary. Both refused to tell me where Barbara was. I would have felt so much better if they would have forced her to come back. I needed her.

I closed my eyes and my eyelids scraped my corneas like they were made of sandpaper. I refused to open them for fear of more pain. I concentrated on breathing in the crisp oxygen. It felt cool to my nostrils. I could sense Marty moving adroitly around me. For such a big guy, he floated effortlessly around the room. I could barely hear him.

Time passed. I’m not sure how much, but I heard a commotion in my room. Whispers. Cries. I tried to open my eyes, but I couldn’t at first. I tried to shake my head to make my eyelids work, but stiffness froze my neck in place. I felt a cool cloth touch my forehead and wipe away the anxiety that overwhelmed me. I heard Barbara, no Carla, speak in hushed tones.

“Dad?” she said multiple times.

“Dad?” Rudy spoke.

I finally willed my eyes opened. My vision blurred and swirled for a moment before I saw their faces hanging in the space above me.

“Daddy!” Carla said as she buried her head into my shoulder. Her sobs shook my bed.

Tears streamed down my normally stoic son’s face. He said nothing. His words drowned in his stifled sobs.

The scene confused me. Carla and Rudy took seats next to my bed. Carla held onto my hand. I couldn’t remember where I was, but I remembered my dream about the cardinals. I remembered the birds on the wire. I remembered the empty chair next to me, and I wondered why Barbara still refused to see me. I looked for Marty. He lurked just behind my kids busy with things unseen, but he kept his eyes on me.

“Do you remember when we worked at the mill together? I asked him. My voice came out raspy and ragged. My throat burned.

“Yes, I do, Mr. Dunn,” he said cheerfully.

“Why are you calling me that? I whispered. Seconds passed between each word I uttered as if I were reciting some beatnik poem with a strange rhythm.

“Get some rest, sir,” he said as he leaned over and placed another cool cloth on my forehead.

“Do you remember Barbara?” I asked. Again, it took me forever to get the words out.

“I do, Mr. Dunn. I do. Beautiful lady.”

“Where is she?”

“You’ll see her soon, Mr. Dunn.”

Carla broke down again. Rudy grabbed my other hand. Marty stood over me, smiling.

“When?”

“Soon.”

“I can’t wait. I love her so much.”

I thought I saw tears in Marty’s eyes. I couldn’t be sure. I fell silent. Only Carla’s sobs filled the room. I tried to touch her, but my hands clung to my sides like heavy clubs. I took one hard breath and coughed. I tried to take another but I labored under the effort like a weight had been placed on my chest.

“Barbara…”