Sunday, June 25, 2017

When Storytelling is "a Matter of Death...and Life!"


"My characters are as real to me as any flesh-and-blood personage, and I am grateful to them for continuing to live out such fascinating lives and for continuing to compel me to tell their stories." 

When the first words of what would become my first novel surged out of me 23 years ago in a Toronto writing workshop that I was facilitating, I couldn't know how much my life was about to change.

Within seven months, I would sell everything I owned, buy my first car and move a thousand miles east to rural Nova Scotia. A few years after that, I would sell up again and find myself living in a new country, embarked on a journey that I could never have dreamed up in my wildest imaginings.

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises would be the one that continues to astound me: I became an award-winning author and optioned screenwriter.

The child I was would never have wanted to be a writer. The child I was didn't believe he was creative and wasn't interested in being proven wrong. The child I was didn't trust his imagination, wasn't even sure he had one.

Yet, as I chronicle in Acts of Surrender: A Writer's Memoir, my Muse had other ideas, fiendishly applying its tricksterish ways to bamboozle me onto the writerly path I have been following since the morning after that Toronto workshop, when I picked up those rough jottings, curious to see where they might lead. They led to The MoonQuest, which like all those Biblical "begats" have carried me forward to what is now my 15th book and sixth novel.

I shared a bit about the peculiar genesis of that novel, The Emmeline Papers, in my most recent newsletter. In short, it was neither a book I expected to write nor the book I thought it was going to be once I started writing it. Not for the first time, my characters had their own idea of the story they wanted from me.

6 Characters in Search of An Author posterIt's a situation that reminds me of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, a stage play where six strangers interrupt a theatrical rehearsal and introduce themselves as unfinished characters who are seeking an author to finish their story. Like Pirandello's, my characters are as real to me any flesh-and-blood personage and have no hesitation in hijacking my writing enterprise to demand that their story be told – their way.

I'm not complaining. Their way has consistently proven itself to be more entertaining, inspiring and captivating than mine could ever be. From a writer's perspective, their way has also been consistently more challenging.

The Emmeline Papers was no exception. Both in terms of craft and content, the story never stopped challenging me – pressing me not only to sharpen my storytelling skills but to dig deeper and deeper within myself for the not-always-comfortable emotional truths that it required and demanded. I should have expected no less from a story that, early on, gave itself the tagline "it's a matter of death...and life!"

Until now, my novels have revealed little of themselves to me in advance. I don't outline, and I generally discover the story I'm writing much the same way that you discover it as its reader: page by page and chapter by chapter. After Sara's Year, my fifth novel, was the first to divulge its ending to me early in the process.

With The Emmeline Papers, the story was considerably more forthcoming – once it had shanghaied my initial concept, that is, and replaced it with its own!

My original idea was to weave two interrelated threads: the story of the eccentric, singleminded Emmeline Mandeville and the story of how copies of her memoir happen to fall, independently, into various related characters' hands.

In The Emmeline Papers as it wrote itself through me, Emmeline spends the final months of her 93rd year reflecting on her iconoclastic past, never imagining  how profoundly her reminiscences will weave through the lives of the men and women who find themselves living in her house a decade and a half later.

If you have read my earlier Sara stories, you will recognize those men and women as Sara, Mac, Bernie, Erik and Sadie. However, you needn't have read Sara's Year or After Sara's Year to laugh and cry your way through the The Emmeline Papers. Nothing about Emmeline requires any prior knowledge of its characters or their previous exploits.

About those characters: I can't begin to tell you how grateful I am to them for continuing to live out such fascinating lives and for continuing to compel me to tell their stories – their way.

I foresee one final installment in these Sara Stories. In fact, if you promise not to tell anyone, I'll share a secret with you: I have already written the opening paragraphs of an opening chapter to this next novel. This time, I have neither title nor concept. This time, all I have is a character and a time frame. Who knows whether either will prove to be accurate!

But that's a story for another day. Today's is The Emmeline Papers, and I'm excited to be able to share it with you – especially as early reviewers have uniformly praised it as "brilliant"!

Although the book launches officially on July 9, the 20th anniversary of my arrival in the US, I am asking you to preorder your copy today. Why?
• All ebook preorders are counted as opening day sales, and it's those numbers that can propel a book to bestseller status on Amazon and other sites
• I have a limited number of paperback copies available for preorder, and I'd hate for you to miss out!

Here's what to do:
• Preorder The Emmeline Papers in ebook today from any Kindle, iBooks, Google Play or Kobo store, and get your copy delivered on July 9
• Preorder your paperback copy of The Emmeline Papers from my website and there's a good chance that you will be reading your signed copy before it's available for general release!

One final note: Just as I am fussy about my first name (it’s "Mark David," not "Mark" or "David"), Emmeline is particular about hers. Emmeline pronounces it so that it rhymes with mine not with mean.


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

My Muse: A Trickster Extraordinaire!

Bugs Bunny



"Your book is a trickster!"
– Book-Birthing Rule #9, Birthing Your Book…Even If You Don’t Know What It’s About




The “trickster” exists in many cultures. In myth, think leprechauns (Ireland), coyotes (U.S. Southwest), the Greek god Dionysus and the Hawaiian/Polynesian demigod Maui. In literature and popular culture, think A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Puck, King Lear’s Fool (along with every court jester ever conceived), Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Bart Simpson, the Pink Panther and Bugs Bunny.

In short the trickster is an archetypal figure that dupes its victims into doing its bidding. Mischievous by nature, it will lie unashamedly and break any rule to get its own way. 


Coyote Medicine CardTo date, I have written five books on writing and each includes some version of what I say in Birthing Your Book’s Rule #9: “As you craft the book you think you are writing, [your book and your muse] will often trick you into writing something you never expected to write, something you never thought you wanted to write, something, perhaps, that is uncomfortable to write.”

When the idea came to me for The Emmeline Papers, the third book in my award-winning Sara Stories, it was going to focus on one of the minor characters in After Sara’s Year: Mac's quirky, eccentric, single-minded Aunt Emmeline Mandeville. The idea for the story arrived nearly fully formed (or so I thought), along with the title. 


Had I been smart, I would have remembered not only my Book-Birthing Rule #9, I would have recalled how that same tricksterish rule played out in Sara’s Year, the first of my Sara novels.

When I sat down in a Santa Monica Starbucks to begin Sara’s Year, I also had a concept and a title. The title never changed, but my original idea vanished within minutes of launching into that first day’s writing.

Q in Star Trek: TNGBecause, like lightning, a trickster never strikes twice in precisely the same place or the same manner, my experience with The Emmeline Papers was entirely different, if with the same ultimate effect: The title has not changed but everything else about the book has!

Part of the impetus for that change came from a book that I was asked to not only edit and design but contribute to, an anthology titled Still Me…After All These Years: 24 Writers Reflect on Aging.

I began my first draft of Emmeline the same way I began my very first novel: in a writing workshop I was leading. This time, I was teaching at Unity Santa Fe, not in my long-ago Toronto living room. And this time, I assumed that I knew what I was doing. (Never assume anything!)

Twenty-three years earlier at that Toronto workshop, I had felt guided to participate in a writing exercise that I was facilitating. The result eventually became The MoonQuest, and that evening’s writing would become an integral part of the novel.

Still Me coverWith Emmeline, I set out to begin a novel whose plot I believed I knew. Within a few weeks, however, I had trashed that opening scene and begun again, from an entirely different premise.

(This time I didn’t dare fight the title, which insisted on remaining intact. With Sara’s Year I did fight it, only to discover in the final scene of the first draft why that title was perfect!)

What happened to me that changed the Emmeline story? Author Karen Helene Walker, who had conceived and was compiling the Still Me anthology, sent me the first of its essays to edit.

Those, along with the essays and poems that followed in the ensuing weeks, moved me, inspired me, made me laugh, made me think and, in a few instances, made me cry. As a 62-year-old, I also recognized myself and my experiences, joys and concerns in many of them.

But the Still Me essays did more than that. The more I read, the more I began to think about Emmeline and her “papers” in a whole new way. It didn’t take long before I realized that the book I thought I was writing was to be something else altogether — something more engaging for its readers and, for better or worse, more emotionally and creatively challenging for its author.

The Emmeline Papers coverIronically, The Emmeline Papers is not a book about aging. All tricksters move in strange and mysterious ways, and my trickster-muse is no different. Aging is a component of Emmeline, but the story is more about many of the things that we experience regardless of our age. It’s about hopes and dreams. It’s about mortality and death. It’s about fear and courage. It’s about loss. It’s about relationship. It’s about life. It’s about many of the themes addressed — both touchingly and humorously — in Still Me…After All These Years. (And for fans of Sara’s Year and After Sara’s Year, it’s about far more than Emmeline: All your favorite characters are back for this third installment of the series.)

It will be a couple of months before you can get your hands on The Emmeline Papers (I’m aiming for a late spring release, but you can preorder your copy now). However, Still Me…After All These Years is available today and well worth the read, regardless of your age. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a contributor!


The Pink PantherAnd what about my contribution? It also links back to The Sara Stories. It’s called “It’s Never Too Late to Follow Your Dreams” and it tells the story of how I came to write Sara’s Year. A series of age-related health scares forced me to ask myself the question many of us of a certain age find ourselves asking, even without medical prompting: “If I’m to die sooner rather than later, what is it that I want to make sure I do before I go?”

It won’t surprise you (though it did surprise me!) to discover that it’s a question that also pops up in The Emmeline Papers.


As I move forward with Emmeline, I continue to be struck by the creatively tricksterish wiles of my muse and I have to wonder whether the fourth and final book in The Sara Stories (as yet untitled) will bear any resemblance to my current notion of it!

Meanwhile, The Emmeline Papers continues to unfold, thanks in some measure to the gifted and engaging contributors to Still Me…After All These Years!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Larger Than Life

Barbra Streisand in concertSome years back when I was visiting Toronto, a friend treated me to a ticket to Barbra Streisand's first-ever concert performance in that city. Although we were sitting high in the rafters in a hockey arena that was anything but intimate, I was startled by how fully and personally her energy filled every corner of that venue.

"She's larger than life," I remember gushing to my friend at intermission.

I recalled the experience a few months later while listening to a recording of the concert. “That’s what I want,” I heard myself blurt out loud and was so startled by what seemed such an unspiritual, ego-driven thought that I was embarrassed. It would be a few months more before I was able to recognize the deeper meaning of both the Streisand experience and my response to it.

“Larger than life,” I realized, was not about having Barbra Streisand’s fame. It was about continuing to shed whatever self-imposed limitations I still carried within me in the mistaken belief that they could protect me from some undefined evil. Even if I couldn’t detail all the ways I was holding myself back, I knew that I was.

Return to Love book cover"Our deepest fear," writes Marianne Williamson in A Return to Love, "is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure." Perhaps even deeper than the fear she describes is the fear of experiencing and expressing our power out in the world, of being larger than life, of living beyond the self-imposed walls and barriers we create in the mistaken belief they will keep us safe.

They can't and they won't.

Our only safety resides in living our largest life to its fullest potential, in living our truth...in living our passion. In walking through life as though we are safe...as though nothing can stop, limit or restrict us.

As I write this, an old Cole Porter lyric keeps running through my head:

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above / Don't fence me in

At a literal level, the song is sung by a cowboy who longs for the endless space of the open range.

Yet it's also the song of every soul deprived of its fullest expression by the fences of a fearful mind, a soul that seeks only the limitlessness of its natural state.

Whatever you think of Barbra Streisand's talent or personality, when you are in her energy field, you touch that limitlessness and your soul cries out, "Me too! That's who I am, too!!"

Here in the Western world, where we have been taught to play small, we transfer all of our natural desire for the fenceless world of a life lived large to our movie stars and sports heroes.

If we can't play out our own passion and power, we play it out through a celebrity cult that's no healthier than any other cult, one we also find in countries with charismatic leaders/dictators, in religions with unapproachable gods and in all situations where we abdicate the expression of our infinite nature to someone or something outside of ourselves.

Q'ntana Trilogy book coversIn my novel, The MoonQuest, very much a metaphor for all our journeys, the main character is destined for a greatness he continues to resist. Yet destiny, as he is constantly reminded, is not cast in stone. There is always a choice.

"Every choice you have ever made, has led to this moment. Your moment. Still, the power to make a different choice remains yours."

The power to choose is always ours. In every moment and through every situation, we're offered the opportunity to choose our greatness, our passion, our light.

It's what we do with each moment and situation that governs our destiny, that decides whether we live in our greatness or in the shadow of someone else's, that determines whether we build fences or tear them down.

In this moment, what do you choose?

Adapted from Acts of Surrender: A Writer’s Memoir © 2012, 2013 Mark David Gerson


• Look for The MoonQuest and Acts of Surrender: A Writer's Memoir in paperback or ebook from your favorite online bookseller or signed by me to you from my website.