Writing Exercise: Memorial Day tribute

I planned to delve into writing this weekend, mixing those responsibilities with other chores around the house. I needed to regain momentum on Project Two, which had stalled during the pandemic; ironically, I was also fighting the lingering effects of my own bout with Covid. I knew I would have plenty of optimism when I finally sat at the keyboard, even if I had no idea where to begin.

That’s when Serendipity paid a visit.

Goodnight, Saigon by Billy Joel came up on my playlist, and his lyrics drew me in like I was watching a movie. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but your mind’s eye takes over, even as your body goes through the motions of dressing and pouring coffee. I’m not even sure of the sequence of events: my mind connected the song to Memorial Day and a scene where Samor rejoins his companions after they’ve lost someone. There was nothing; then there was something.

I grabbed the computer, put the song on repeat, and 30 minutes later, I had this.

Samor greeted his companions as they gathered to him. Their welcome was genuine, their words warm. But he read something else on their faces that he hadn’t seen before. Or rather, he realized he hadn’t had the skills to interpret the tragedies that lay there. The worry that creased Hochness’s brow; the crow’s feet that used to merrily step away from the corners of Oafsson’s eyes. Even the betrayer Chork, addled as his mind remained, seemed more sedate against the bonds that held him to the litter. A weight drug at them all, anchoring them to the battle where they’d lost their friend and compatriot. The look of survivors, a mix of gratitude and guilt, made worse by each condemning beat of their living hearts.

His past naiveté angered him, but mostly it saddened him. No words seemed important enough, nor considerate or meaningful enough to break the silence of the moment. And so, he took his cue from his friends, yes, that is what they were now, and he embraced them silently and exchanged knowing looks that would have been inscrutable to the person he used to be. In the strength he gave, he felt more returned. They knew he knew. They accepted him and were grateful that he offered to share the burden.

Samor recognized this understanding wouldn’t have come from a lifetime of study. Simple words upon the page were shallow, going no deeper than the ink that sank into the paper – practically lies for their misinterpretation of the awful reality. The knowledge was horrible, and he wished he’d never acquired it. A small voice between his ears reminded him it was a necessary experience for the future leader of Empyrelia, a land destined for war, but he could derive no comfort from that. He hoped he never would.

I’ve never been in a war, nor lost someone in combat. I will never be able to fully replicate those experiences on the written page, but that is not my intent. Long ago, I realized there were things expressed by my father’s face that I would never be able to read; there was context in his words I would never comprehend. One of my jobs as a writer is to help others understand that they cannot understand, and that is the goal of a piece like this, with Samor being the conduit. On this Memorial Day weekend, it seemed an important thing to share.

Thanks for indulging me and for remembering those who have fallen in defense of America. If you’re interested in the writing stuff, read on.

Alright, let’s pause a second to breathe and let go of some of that weight. Warm up your coffee and we’ll take a look at the other purpose of this post: what are my observations or comments as a writer?

It’s a first pass, lightly edited after a rewritten sentence or two. The organization is largely unchanged, though what I expected to be a simple paragraph grew into three. I’m pretty happy with the language and variety of words. I’m going to review this for overuse of know/understand/comprehend, which is a habit I recognized during the editing of Project One. Additionally, I would argue that “important enough” and “meaningful enough” in the same sentence is redundant, though I’m keeping it for now because I like the rhythm and flow of the sentence and its place in the paragraph.

It’s heavy, yeah, one of the heaviest things I’ve written. I wonder about its inclusion in a YA fantasy novel that includes lighter fare, such as dragons, threadwolves, and ice demons. It’s too fresh for me to be objective, but I don’t think I’ll tone it down. One of my writing principles is to be truthful to my characters’ situations. In books and movies, I feel that the weight of the grief and survivor’s guilt is often glossed over so we can get to the celebration of life, the raising of goblets, if you will. This pain is important for Samor and The Reader to recognize on this journey together. There will be time later to toast to their companion’s memory, and that’s a fun scene I also look forward to sharing.

As I mentioned above, it took about 30 minutes to write those three paragraphs. The writing is tighter and more polished than it often is after that short a time, so I’m pleased. I’m also grateful to have written something with personal meeting; it’s been a few years since Only Some Came Back, which I wrote for Veterans’ Day.

Some writing days are like that – everything just comes together. You sit back and go, “Huh. I like how that came out, even if it’s different than I anticipated.” It’s funny, as easy as that was, this post took about two additional hours to write. That’s just how it goes. Good luck with your writing!

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, May 2022

Writing Exercise: Sometimes You Climb

A note to our son Sam, as he’s training to be a climbing instructor at Scout camp. I share it here because it was too long to text. Pfft, writers.

Sam,

I know you had your eyes set on the aquatics director role and how you were disappointed when circumstances beyond your control prevented it from happening this year. However, when I heard you were moving to the rock wall, I thought, ”Now THERE is a role that perfectly suits Sam.”

And so, if you’ve forgotten how much you loved climbing as a kid, I wanted to share three climbing-related moments from your life.

The first happened when you were three, which would have been the Summer of 2003. You were playing in the backyard, and me, still a relatively new parent, assumed you were safely contained by our six-foot stockade fence.

You weren’t. When I opened the front door in response to a tiny knock, you stood there, smiling and oblivious to any of the thousand perils my worried parent’s mind instantly conjured, not least of which were the dangers of traffic or falling onto the concrete pad. To your mind, an obstacle three times your height was a trifle. And a fun one.

Feel free to share that story at camp. 🙂

The second happened at a water park at the Wisconsin Dells. You weren’t so much climbing up, as climbing off a slippery waterslide. This time you did meet concrete, and painfully so. Alright, alright, this isn’t quite a climbing memory like the first one, but this is my post and I make the rules. However, I think you learned an important lesson about balance and I don’t think you’ve taken a spill like that since.

And that brings me to the third memory. You were a regular chimpanzee on playground equipment. It wasn’t unusual to find you scaling the frame of the swings, crawling across the top of the monkey bars (instead of swinging across from bar to bar), or sitting on the roof of the fort. It became clear that you were sure-footed enough that you wouldn’t fall. No amount of raised adult hands or sharp inhalations of breath was enough to stop you.

If there is one other reason for making three points, it’s this: in climbing, there is a rule called ‘three points of contact’ for which you always have two hands and a foot or two feet and a hand in contact with the climbing surface.

You have been climbing, always climbing, your entire life. It doesn’t matter if the thing was made for it. Oh no. It could happen so quickly, it was like magic, and no adult had enough eyes in their head to prevent it. More than once, I found myself thinking, “There’s a thing he won’t climb” only to find myself soon proven wrong.

Come full circle to your new role at Scout camp, I think of your lifelong connection. How you have climbed across rope courses, down into caves, and up onto mountains, and you have also scaled the ranks from Tiger Cub to Eagle Scout, earning achievements like Arrow of Light and Order of the Arrow along the way. Always forward, always up, always reaching the top.

Similarly in life, we are making forward progress, even when it feels like the opposite. Sometimes we sink or swim. Sometimes, we get knocked down, only to return to our feet.

Sometimes you climb.

And we’ll always be here to encourage you to climb higher. Love, Dad

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© Michael Wallevand, May 22, 2022

I’d been thinking about quitting

I didn’t want to write this post.

I’m sure some of that came from the societal stigma about showing vulnerability and my extreme reluctance to share personal aspects of my life. I think the greater issue, however, was the fear that such an admission would transform thought into reality if it reached the written page.

I wrote a draft of this post in mid-September after a rough couple weeks, when stressors and disappointments had piled upon another. I’d found myself angering easily or venting frustration in situations where it wasn’t warranted. My novel always appeared to be the catalyst: not having time, not being inspired, delivering garbage when I did sit down.

It wasn’t the first time I’d had similar feelings, but these were more acute and my defenses were down.

My writing time was precious and I was wasting it, and this realization was eating me alive.

There’s a betraying voice in your head that suggests the simplest solution: Quit doing the thing that’s causing pain. Just walk away.

Because writing is the primary way I express emotion, my head started drafting a post along those lines. The admission hurt, and that feeling intensified as I fleshed it out, because it reflected the abandonment of something I’ve wanted my whole life.

I sat at the computer that morning with little optimism and a negligibly more determination. I didn’t want to write this post…and I told myself over and again that I was pretty sure I wasn’t quitting.

Then I happened to read the following passage I’d copied from a book, and my perspective changed.

“You have to understand his motivation,” Michael said. “A writer can spend years working on a book he isn’t sure will ever sell. What makes him do it?”

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard

No joke, it was like a switch flipped. A flood of positive memories surged through my brain, washing away the dark thoughts that had taken root. I decided that, yes, I was going to write this post, but I wasn’t going to take the “woe is me, writing is hard” approach (if there’s one kind of writing I’m certain people don’t want to read – aside from advertising – it’s that).

And so, I used the Delete key many, many times to get the post you’re reading now.

Writing and telling compelling stories is hard, make no mistake about that, and with any difficult task, there are highs and lows. There will be a few black days, and sometimes you will feel crushed or trapped. There will be days where the lying voices are very convincing, but quitting does not bring the bliss they promise.

Writing this post was cathartic, though perhaps not at the intellectual level a person might assume. No – and apologies in advance – it was more analogous to vomiting up the thing that made you sick. You can wallow in misery, which I’d been doing for a couple weeks, or you can stick your finger in your throat and get it out. Our bodies are miraculous things. They know when something doesn’t belong, and it’s unnatural to fight that. Our heads are the same way. Intellectually, we recognize the blackest thoughts, even when there is little illumination for us to see that.

In closing, here’s another admission, though an easier one to share. I stopped writing this post at the last paragraph and set it aside for months. My purpose for writing it, a desire to lift my spirits, had been achieved. Rejuvenated, I immediately went back to writing and the following weeks were happier. I’ve completed it for your sake and mine. We might not need reassurance or a kick in the pants today, but on another day we will. And this post will be waiting for us.

Good luck with your writing!

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, March 2022

The Nonverbal Kid’s influence on my writing

My younger son, Benji, is nonverbal and autistic. I don’t share it much because one of my primary responsibilities is protecting his dignity and privacy. And it’s usually not relevant to this site. But like any person important to you, his influence is always there in my writing, nevertheless. In this post I’ll share one of the ways my craft has changed because of him.

Ben has a limited vocabulary, though his communication includes expressive gestures and sounds, not just words. In talking to us (people who clearly are too dim to understand), he’s practically speaking three languages, and often, more than one at a time. It’s not his problem when we can’t figure out the translation; it’s ours.

To an outsider, however, it might create an uncomfortable situation. Not because that person is a bigot who despises neurodiversity, but because they are walking in unfamiliar territory. I liken it to me meeting a Black man for the first time (in my memory, he looks like actor Brock Peters in his Star Trek days). I was just a little kid, terribly shy around strangers, and before me stood a person so completely unlike every person I’d known in my secluded little rural town. At least, that’s the lie your brain tells you. In every aspect that I could see except skin color, he was like my neighbors.

I hadn’t been taught to hate or even dislike Black people; I just had some unintended bias to push past because my world was filled with people who looked like me and had basically the same beliefs and ancestry.

It’s one thing to know there are a variety of people in the world. Seeing them is another. Further still, interacting with them changes your perspective in significant ways. Watching Black people on TV wasn’t the same as meeting them. And meeting one certainly wasn’t the same as having people like him in my daily life.

I choose to believe the same lack of experience is true for people who aren’t sure how to react around Ben. It could be uncomfortable at first, but the smallest effort by them can overcome that. I don’t think they can do it alone, however. As Ben’s father, I believe one of my responsibilities is to help people with this, which also helps him.

Now, I grew up as a Boy Scout and I’ve always cheered for the underdog. I’m predisposed to helping others and recognizing those who are disadvantaged. But there’s a distinction between that and being an advocate. Believe it or not (sarcasm), there’s a difference between adding a rainbow frame to my Facebook picture and standing up to LGBTQ bigotry when people post it. Advocacy requires deliberate action, and I can help by leading through example, by sharing posts like this, and by injecting it into my books.

Continue reading

Privilege in a time of chaos and injustice

I live in a Minneapolis suburb, though I am far enough away that I cannot see the smoke. I cannot hear the protests. My sleep is not disturbed by the sounds of gunfire and sirens. While the murder of George Floyd has angered me, I have been separated from the cacophony of a world aflame.

I have felt helpless and rooted in place, and it has forced some introspection. I know I do not truly understand the emotions or thoughts of the communities affected by this murder. So I have been listening. As I hear the anguish, the powerlessness, the frustration, and as I read what it’s like to fear a similar fate as George Floyd, I have been reminded that I have lived a privileged life compared to many people in my country.

A decision lay before me: to live within the comfort and protection of my privilege or to use it for something positive. I chose the latter.

I took what I heard and wrote this.

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

I am not black.

I am not of eastern Asian descent, nor Slavic or Middle Eastern, nor a member of most of the other wonderful ancestries that humans are blessed to have.

I am not Muslim, nor a member of any of the non-Christian religions that bring people comfort across the world.

I am not female, nor any of the other genders we are discovering in our DNA.

I am not gay, and I do not fit into any of the sexual orientations that close-minded people refuse to acknowledge.

I am not missing any of my five senses or four limbs. My brain doesn’t process the world in a way that requires additional interpretation.

I’ve never been impoverished or homeless.

I am a straight white male living in America and there are very few words that we use to modify that description. We live in a country that must label people to remind them they are different than a particular type of person – that they are other. That they do not have my privilege.

I recognize that in the United States, I have more privilege than all of these wonderfully different ways to be human.

Continue reading

Let’s get kids to love stuff

man dangling noodles into his mouthWe got a text from our neighbor this morning. His daughter loves to cook (she gets it from him) and was enthused that we were enjoying the things she made. They both like to share, and my wife often makes something in return. Here’s what the text said:

Her response to you using her frosting: “Yay! That makes me happy! Let’s make big fat noodles next, everyone likes noodles.”

As you might expect, my response was encouraging, and not just because I really do like big fat noodles. I saw that she loved cooking and I never want her to lose that passion. Simple as that.

As a parent, it’s not that hard to recognize the importance of helping your child find something they like, and then foster a love of that within them. It’s not just about developing a relationship with them, but it’s about helping them find things that bring them joy and might guide them their entire lives. This morning, I was reminded of the important role that adults – not just parents – play here. Continue reading

The book is done

…well, the first one.

Fingertip sketch - greenIt’s been four years – almost to the day – since I sat at my keyboard and began bringing Tildy to life.

Four years since my finger drew this simple sketch on my phone to imagine what it would be like to see a girl with wings.

I had few goals, and some quantitative ones were unmet. I more than doubled my target word count and it’s taken twice as long to complete as I wanted. But these are less relevant to me than Continue reading

Only Some Came Back – Writing Exercise

I find it easier to write when I’m speaking from the heart. As the son of a Vietnam veteran, I believe it’s important to acknowledge Veterans’ Day, so I always feel an obligation to say something meaningful.

This year, it started with a simple thought: “some came back”. It came to me while contemplating the difference between today and Memorial Day, but was also inspired by sentiments my father has shared.

As often happens, a simple idea blossomed into something greater, a working piece entitled, “Only Some Came Back”.


Some came back, wondering why they returned so all alone.
Some came back, their bodies hardly whole.
Some came back, prisoners lately freed.
Some came back, with so many healing needs.

Heroes all, whether wounded, captured, tortured, or flesh unscathed.
Heroes all, though they would never, ever think themselves as brave
Or worthy to have lived when so many others fell in foreign lands.
Or worthy to continue in a world that cannot understand.

Backs bent, carrying the weight of comrades lost, of life post-war.
Hearts pierced by steel, by loss, by unfathomable gore.
Minds burdened by nightmares, grief, and shattered innocence.
Souls broken upon the fields of demarked happenstance.

It’s not a day for politics
Or the whims of money’s end.
It’s a day for remembering veterans,
The women and the men.


 

This piece took about 30 minutes to write. While it’s a work-in-progress, I’ll let this one sit for a time. It’s more personal than it might seem, and there are current political things that cut deeper than I care to discuss.

I share it as an example of writing outside my manuscript. Sometimes the work can be a drag, and creating things that bring you joy can help you get past them. And sometimes, it’s cathartic, too.

Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, November 2019

Take Joy In Your Craft #1

I was recently re-familiarizing myself with the music of Velvet Underground, and “Run Run Run” on YouTube led me to “Run Boy Run” by Woodkid. I’d missed the song in 2013, which isn’t surprising since I was no longer in the music business and I don’t hear a lot of French artists on the radio.

From the tolling bell that opened the song, I knew I was going to like it. But after three-and-a-half minutes, I felt like I’d just watched a video of my childhood fantasies.

If there was any other kid, aside from Luke Skywalker, that I’d pretended to be, it was Max from Where The Wild Things Are. And so this video, showing a kid playing fantasy and running with monsters? Heck yeah – I’ve watched it ten times in the last week.

OK, that was mostly an aside, but the video is too fun not to share.

Anyway, my enjoyment led me to a live version of the song, and this brings me to the point of the post. Continue reading

Asking Your Customers Questions

This quick post is approximately 350 words, and I typed it with one hand whilst eating a tasty quesadilla.

Fridays are quesadilla days at the Eagan Thomson Reuters office. I dig ‘em. On Friday, the chef was out of green onions, which was fine. As he was serving up my food a few minutes later, he asked me a question. Would I be interested in sautéed onions or mixed peppers as an alternative ingredient? Some days when he’s out of onions, he’s thinking about other ways to serve his customers. I believe my response was a dignified, “Oooh! Onions!”

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These two crumbs are all that remain. I even ate the to-go box.

He graciously thanked me for my feedback and we both went about our workdays. With that simple question, he found a way to solve a problem, while also improving the service he could provide to customers. For me, I like that he cared enough to ask my opinion, but I also get the satisfaction of influencing the deliciousness of a future meal.

Writers should have a similar mindset. True, much of what we do is for ourselves, and we have the right to be as selfish as we want in our stories. However, we also need to keep a portion of our brains on our readers. Our customers. That is, unless you don’t intend to have anyone read your story, which sounds like zero funs.

Readers have myriad desires when it comes to reading a book. They want to enjoy it. They want new experiences. They want to be surprised, but they also like to figure things out before your protagonist. Perhaps they want their spirits lifted after a long day or feel the melancholy tugs of nostalgia.

You don’t need a person to read an entire chapter or even a passage. It’s terrifying: I know (here and here). But it’s not very scary to ask a friend or family member, “Hey, what do you think if I did ____________ in my story?”

I believe you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised by the experience. So will your trusted person.

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, December 2018