The most important question: “What is it for?”

There’s a scene in one the books I’d written where one character, Ty, questions the motivation of another character, Aries, to do something dangerous. Ty asks her why she wants to go through with something that seems impossible, against forces that are much more advanced than her. He isn’t satisfied with her answers. He asks the same question again and again and in doing so he breaks through her defenses of the more obvious reasons to the true reason why she wants to do it – the fuel that will eventually propel her to move forward.

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We need to ask this question. It’s the only question that gets us a real and true answer. We need to ask this question with regard to our life.

Why am I here? What is my purpose?

There is a phase in every child’s life when it asks this question a million times, it seems. You remember? The kids are on to something at that stage. As if they have access to the sense of something bigger, vaguely perhaps, but almost within reach. What is our life for? What are we doing here?

Seriously, what are we doing here?

The saddest question of all is the one that is being asked at the end of one’s life: “What was this all about?” Too many ask this question too late. It’s sad because without purpose there is nothing. Without purpose, this life will have been nothing but the blink of an eye, too short to have meaning of any kind.

We might not know what the answer is for a while. But we need to ask the question. Like a four-year-old. Why am I here? What the fuck? So that I can work a little? Live a little? Go to the beach once a year? See my children grow up? Retire and die? Really?

We need to ask the question.

Fervently.

With everything we got.

We can’t be satisfied with surface answers. We can’t stop until we know, with every fiber of our being, why we’re here. Purpose is everything. What do we want from life? What is it for? What the hell is it all for?

Have you ever met someone who was certain of his or her purpose in life? Their lives aren’t perfect. Nothing here is. But there is a burning in each one of them – a burning that grabs you, if only for a brief moment, and lifts you up to a place where you can soar freely for a while.

What is your purpose? Ask the question. Don’t stop asking. Don’t be satisfied. Until you find it. You owe it to yourself. You owe it to everyone you encounter.

Why are you here?

Don’t be afraid of the first answer, the very first time you ask the question. The answer will most likely be: “I don’t know.”

Don’t stay there. This is a devastating place. It’s a place where dreams die and a deep depression takes hold. Ask again: “Why am I here?” Ask again: “Why am I here?” Write down the answers. Sit with them. Don’t be satisfied. Ask again. And again. This is a painful process but it’s much less painful than answering “I don’t know” and stopping there. Don’t give up. Once you’re past the first answer, the path is set and you’re on your way. Stay on it. Stay with it.

At the end of the path, someone is waiting for you, stretching out their hand toward you. Remember why you came and you will know where to go.

 

 

The Light Shaper's Apprentice (Chapter One)

Chaper One

The howling never drowned out my mother’s screams. It was as if the storm had taken on the purpose of shielding me from her cries. The single candle light cast shadows on the tent walls as they flapped violently in the wind. My father had left five days ago. To get help. He never returned.

I buried her the next day under a clear, cold sky. From her grave, the Tundra extended as far as I could see. The horizon, now void of comfort, gave no glimpse of a home that called me to return. My home had never been a place. It had always been my mother’s comforting arms and my father’s strength.

My cries fled from me into the vast landscape. The Tundra took them, swallowed them unheard. I stood at the grave leaning into the wind as if to push it back, command it to carry my mother’s soft whispers back to me; the memory of her tucking me in at night; her sleeping next to me when it was coldest.

I packed up the tent and what I could carry. She had given me a figure carved from wood for my eleventh birthday. It was still new and shiny in my hand. Except for the deep pain I felt in my gut, it was all that was left of her.

The low sun never reached the zenith, always came from the left as I walked west. Seven days I spent in terror of the nights that followed. When the sky darkened, so did my thoughts. I could keep them at bay during the day but at night they came clawing and cutting, reaching with bloodless hands for my heart to squeeze it and tug at it until I wanted it to stop beating altogether. The sounds of the Steppe became harbingers of death. I did not know what to live for other than the thought that my mother would not have wanted me to die.

“Follow the sun to the west,” she told me before she passed. “You will find a gentler land and kinder people, not the harsh Tundra folk. Go to a town named Corniglia where the land meets the salty sea.”

She was already so weak that I could barely understand what she said.

“Repeat it back to me,” were her final words.

She died while I muttered the only promise I had ever made – a promise I could not break even if I wanted to, even as the dark thoughts told me to end it now. Even when I had no hope left other than the last and final spark I had seen in her eyes when she described the far away land with its rich soil and fertile ground; its markets filled with people and small abodes made of stone to sleep in; with the sound of a vast ocean breaking onto the sandy beach as a gentle companion at night.

I don’t know how much I slept during those first weeks. The pain at times held me to the ground with such force, I could not move a limb. Yet my mind raced in search of my mother. She was nowhere to be found. I thought I would catch some small part of her spirit somewhere. Maybe it would brush against me or lead my glance toward a sign that she was still around. But the emptiness in me was witness to the slowly growing belief that she had been nothing more than a figment of my imagination. Only the small wooden figure in my hand, now darkened from sand and soil and grief, told me that she had been real.

I should have waited for my father. Maybe a few more days. Maybe a few more hours. I looked around me constantly searching the endless landscape for a sign of him. Each night, the orange sun set straight ahead, a glimmering disk melting into the horizon.

I edged a large marsh land of dying trees that stood like spikes of war out of the dark water. The smell of death and decay were my constant companion. I hunted small animals and cooked them over a low fire at night. I found no joy in killing the only living things I encountered.

Beyond the marsh land, I followed a path that went steadily uphill and into the mountains. Soon, I walked next to a small creeks carrying ice cold water and the promise of more food. One night I slept on a rock, listening, imagining my mother’s lullabies in the sounds of the water. But it soon mocked me with her absence and a deep cold settled in from which I could not escape.

The next morning I caught a few fish and smoked them over the fire. I traveled ever upward leaving the trees and lush grassy fields behind. As I walked, rock formations rose ever taller into the sky. They stood dark against the sun during the day and appeared like shimmering gold in the evening hours. But their majestic presence could not bring me peace. I was haunted by my mother’s cries at night and slowly but surely I began to believe that I could have possibly prevented her death. I should have been better, wiser, more grown up. She had taught me the healing touch and I knew enough of herbs and plants to recognize which ones are used to lower a fever or to cure an infectious wound.

In truth, I had thought my mother was invincible.

*  *  *

The path made a sharp turn to the left following along a narrow ledge in the rock to a small plateau. From there and across the valley, a towering pillar of stone rose up before me. The sun sat behind it, keeping what faced me in the shadows. The pillar was attached to the mountain only by a narrow ridge.

I set up camp. When night pulled away the curtain of light, it revealed a sea of stars in the sky. As I watched, I could feel the longing inside me – a pull from somewhere out there, as if one of the million star lights called me home. But the easterly winds soon pushed clouds high across the sky and all lights but one dimmed in the darkened firmament. After a while I noticed that the single light that was left was not that of a star.

I looked down to the ground so to let my eyes get used to complete darkness. From there my gaze slowly went upward until I saw the light again. It wasn’t a star. It was a window. High up, at the top of the pillar, I could make out the shimmering silhouette of what I thought must have been a man made structure.

I soon drifted to sleep but whenever I woke up, the light was there, suspended in the sky. When the sun rose in the morning, illuminating the face of the pillar and casting its golden light onto the black granite, I could see, far above me, a stronghold of stone. There were two square towers connected by two roof lines, curved like waves. I could not take my eyes of it. I knew I had to find a way to climb up there.

This was easier said than done. Before me a large field of fallen rocks spanned the distance between the plateau I stood on and a sheer cliff side. From here it didn’t seem possible to even attempt a climb to the top. But I didn’t see another way so I began to make my way across the rubble. The rock cut into my hands and bare feet like glass. It was as if I left a trail of blood across the field of stone. When I reached the other side, I was exhausted and thirsty beyond what I thought possible.

A small trickle of water ran down the side of the mountain only to disappear into a narrow crevice below. I pressed my mouth against the stone, soaked up what I could. It was not enough.

I did not dare think about what I would do if I were to get stuck half way up the face of the mountain. And yet I climbed, gaining height quickly at first but when the strength in my hands slowly gave out, when my legs began to shake uncontrollably, I knew I was in trouble. At the same time, while climbing I had watched, out of the corner of my eye, a bird circle around me. I didn’t recognize it at first but when it once flew close – its massive wings stretched out side to side while it hovered effortlessly in the upward winds – I remembered my father’s stories of a large rare bird he had encountered on his travels. Aquilus he had called it.

The bird was dark, almost black, with white wing tips and a light brown chest. Its cries were haunting and yet, in more ways than one, felt strangely reassuring. At one point it sat thirty feet above on a ledge looking down. I could not gage its intentions. Was it waiting for me to slip and fall, crashing onto the rocks far below? Or was it curious as to this strange creature clumsily working its way up toward the top. Or maybe it was protecting a nest from an unwanted predator.

The ledge was much bigger than I thought. I could comfortable lay on my back stretched out. There was a puddle of water fed by the same trickle I had encountered below. I drank until a full belly prevented me from taking another sip. This was the place the bird had sat on. It must have come here to drink, I thought. I couldn’t imagine any other reason, especially not one where it would show me a place to take rest. Birds don’t do that.

I lay on my back for a while, my arms stretched to the side. By now, I was three quarters up the cliff. The sun had disappeared behind one of the peaks in the distance. I didn’t want to risk climbing in darkness and decided to stay here for the night. I had two more small fish in my pack. They would have to do.

Before darkness swallowed the land below, I saw the shadow of the large bird again as it circled overhead, sometimes so close I could see its yellow beak; at others so far up, all I saw was a dark spec against a darkening sky.

Its cries followed me into my dreams. I met it again there, in a golden hall with white polished stone for floors and perfectly round pillars reaching up to the painted ceiling. I was one among ten thousand people filling the hall to the rim.

Aquilus, now a statue of gold and black marble, sat on a pedestal, wings outstretched, and beak open in a cry. It was as if a living bird had been dipped in liquid gold and just before its death, a scream had escaped its beak. Its eyes were closed. The bird’s expression was that of utter terror. I could hear its cries as if it urged me to reach into the dream and save it from its fate.

When I opened my eyes, the bird was gone. A new day dawned upon the world. Fog lay below me, diffusing everything in a milky light, as if the dream had spilled into my world, unwilling to let go.

I quenched my thirst with more of the fresh water and began the final climb. When I reached the top at mid day, I could barely move my hands. My legs were numb and my head pounded from exhaustion. But I did not rest. I walked along the ridge toward the two stone towers of which only the top parts were visible.

After a few hours I came to a crevice. It reached all the way down with no way to cross it. On the other side, the walls of the stronghold were built into the rock, flush with the sheer cliff. A wooden, raised draw bridge doubled for a gate. I noticed that I stood on a platform made of smooth sun bleached wood. Two oil lamps stood on either side. They were lit. A pillow in the center invited me to sit. The pillow was of deepest blue. I couldn’t remember ever touching anything so soft.

A crest of golden feathers was embroidered in a circle around its edge. Last night’s dream had already faded and all that was left was the vanishing fragment of a distant memory. It was a feeling more than an image. Like the pull a faraway land has on a traveler, the crest stirred something in me. I felt a sting of yearning, an aching of the heart, as if my mother died in my arms all over again. Tears filled my eyes as I sat down on the pillow. For a moment, it seemed as if I was in two places at once. Here on the mountain top, alone, and at the same time standing in the great golden hall, across a girl, about my age, who wore a tunic with the very same embroidered crest in its center. The girl looked straight at me, her eyes bright blue, her hair falling in black curls around her face. She didn’t smile. She simply looked at me, not as if I was a stranger but someone she knew and welcomed.

The tears continued to come as I waited long into the night. The oil lamps went out. I thought about leaving. But where would I go? Somebody had gone through the trouble of lighting the lamps and bringing out a pillow. I didn’t think the pillow was simply lying here as a permanent fixture of this place. No. Someone had deliberately put it there. For me. Someone must have seen me, watched me from high up in one of the towers. Someone must have decided to welcome me.

But why, now that I was here, would nobody open the draw bridge? As I pondered the question, shifting on my pillow to relax my back, the bridge moved. There was a sound first. A clicking, deep and heavy, followed by the clonk, clonk, clonk of a chain sliding over stone. I had heard this sound once, a few years back, in a settlement north of here. Two elephants had pulled a large piece of roughly cut rock. The chain was tied around the boulder and tightened to a steel and leather harness both elephants shared. As the animals pulled the rock, the chain slid across the rocky ground. Clonk, clonk.

I held my breath as the bridge moved downward, eventually connecting seamlessly with the plateau a few feet away from me. The bridge had left an arched opening. A hooded figure stood in its center holding a lantern in one hand and a wooden staff in another. I wasn’t sure if the staff was there to assist the figure in standing upright or if it was simply a means to hold balance on uneven ground. I myself had used many a stick for walking through rough terrain. The figure was slender, tall, clothed in a robe of deep red. I did not see a face.

There was neither a gesture for me to follow, nor a word to let me know I should come closer. So I got up, took my pack and walked across the bridge. For a short moment, I could feel the depth of the crevice below me. It was as if I crossed a threshold, like the invisible barrier that exists when walking from the cold shadows into the sunlight.

The figure turned and wordlessly walked into a tunnel of stone.

End of Chapter One

Selling a Movie Option

It was the summer of 1973. I was eight and spent most of my school vacation at my grandmother’s house that year. What I remember from that summer was one thing: the movie The Time Machine. I must have watched it a dozen times at least. I was fascinated by how the passing of time was depicted through the glass ceiling in the traveler’s workshop. I loved the Eloi. I was scared of the Morlocks. To this day it still is (maybe because I’ve seen it as a kid) one of my all-time favorite movies.

Fast forward 40+ years to 2014. I had been writing for a while and had the distinct pleasure of being included in Sam Peralta’s The Time Travel Chronicles with a short story called The Traveler. It was meant, in part, as a homage to A.G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine, the basis for the movie. As it so often happens, the story took on a life of its own and I found myself bawling while writing the ending. It doesn’t happen often that something of your own writing grabs you so deeply. I could only wish that readers would have the same reaction.

The Time Travel Chronicles came out in November of 2015. At roughly the same time I began to write the screenplay for it. I’ve been studying screen writing for a while and felt that it would make an awesome little indie movie one day. Knowing how impossible it is to actually sell and/or option a script (out of 40,000 registered scripts, only 400 get optioned each year), I didn’t have high hopes that it would go anywhere. In March of 2016, when the contract with Sam Peralta was up, I published The Traveler on its own as a short. The e-book and paperback went on Amazon. I also published a pocket edition that I handed out to people in the hope they would pass it on to the next person once they had read it.

 

One of the people I gave a copy to was Jillian Fisher. I had first met her at one of my very early readings of The Three Feathers at a local farmer’s market a few years back. We had stayed in touch and when the paperback came out, I gave her a copy. I didn’t hear anything for a few months and had forgotten all about it. I knew she was connected to the movie business but didn’t know exactly what she did. A few months later, I think it was September of 2016, I got a message from Jillian on Facebook. It looked like this:

I was happy that Jillian liked it but thought that she already had a copy of the book. I wasn’t sure what she meant with “I want it.” We talked back and forth until I finally got it. She wanted to option the story. She had been working in location scouting for two decades and had made many great connections in the movie business over the years. Now wanting to branch out on her own and become a producer herself, her first movie, she felt, should be The Traveler.

Cool, right?

Fast forward a few more months to April 2017. Today. I signed the option for The Traveler. I can’t imagine a better home for it. Jillian and myself have a similar vision for the movie (which is basically to make people bawl their eyes out during the ending and then come back for seconds :-).

As it so happens, Jillian, together with her producing partner Anjul Nigam (Growing Up Smith and others), is optioning both the short story and the screenplay. The latter has been a very long time coming as I started screen writing in the early 2000s and have tried for one of my scripts to be optioned since then.

This is Jillian and myself after the signing of the option agreement.

The kid watching The Time Machine a dozen times during that summer of ’73 is dancing around the room right now. Throughout life, some circles stay open, others close and return to the beginning. This is one of them. Nobody knows where it’ll go from here but I have a feeling this isn’t the end of the story. Only the beginning. As Samuel Peralta always says, “The best is yet to come.”

I will post updates here on how things are going. Please sign up for my newsletter if you wish to stay informed on the progress.

 

Cheers,

Stefan

 

World Building – Landscapes

Can a novel be inspired by landscapes? Usually, a story is derived from either plot or character. Locations mostly come into play when the story is specifically about them. Climbing Mount Everest or the siege of the Alamo, to name just a few, have specific locales as their driving force.

If you look at the picture below, can’t you just taste and smell and see the possibilities for a story? Who are the people who live there? What is a day like in this world? How deep do those buildings go into the ground? How did those cracks appear?

In my early twenties, I was introduced to a German painter named Hans Werner Sahm (if you google his name and click on “Images,” you can see most of his paintings.) His landscapes spoke to me on a very deep and personal level. It was as if the scenes stirred some ancient memory within me.

When I started my first novel, a fable called The Three Feathers, I had not thought about the paintings for a few years. But the subconscious is a fascinating thing and when I began drawing a map of the world that opened up before me, the images came back. Thanks to the internet, I suddenly had all of them at my fingertips.

From that point on, roughly around chapter 6 in the book, the plot was mostly motivated by the landscapes in the paintings. And because they somehow stir up stuff from the subconscious, the story that appeared also felt as if it rose from deep down somewhere. I was soon swept away in it.

Take the above image, for example. It became the inspiration for the Porte Des Lioness, an ancient gate into the mountain, the heroes had to find. From that scene a character appeared. His name is Broga, he’s a peeper frog who, despite his size, was the mighty guardian of the gate – the only one who could open it. This is a major plot point in the story and one that, without that image, would not have been there.

Once inside the mountain, another image served as the foundation for a good third of the story all the way to its fantastical climax: An ancient abandoned mining town deep underground. The light source never changed; the pillars were, as the legend states, carved by dragons.

I believe that for every writer there are triggers fueling the stories from a well beyond the rational mind. We all have different means to fuel our imagination. Landscapes is just one of them.  For me images like this one open the door to those hidden chambers inside – the ones where the stories come from.

 

Cheers,

Stefan

Through Darkness to Light – Writing the Hero's Journey

I see a massive pendulum suspended high above an ancient, vast landscape. One side of the image is bathed in light, the other lies in darkness. The pendulum swings from the darkness to the light and back in the opposite direction.

When we meet our hero, a young warrior, she is about to step onto the pendulum. At that moment it has swung from the light toward the darkness and is now half way across and closest to the ground, in the place where light and darkness meet in eternal twilight.

She looks back briefly, toward the light, and then turns to face the darkness ahead.

The pendulum will bring her into the depth of it and to a place where no light can ever enter. She must pass through this and reach the tipping point, the moment of suspended stillness where, for one single instant, it hovers in the place where there is nothing but the dark. From there her head turns and she can see, far in the distance, the light as it increases, slowly but with absolute certainty.

A lot of stories, I believe, entail that very same journey.

We meet the hero in the twilight, the space between darkness and light that is neither here nor there, where there is no real happiness but also only a relatively small amount of pain. From that point, we accompany her into the darkness and through it to the light at the end. And we don’t do that just once. We don’t just read one story. We read dozens, hundreds, thousands even.

Why is that?

I think it is ultimately our own story we are reading each time we open a book. We are not completely filled with joy (a.k.a. the light side), neither are we so depressed that we can’t even pick up a book (the darkness). We are, usually and in general, somewhere in between. The reason we jump onto the pendulum is that this state of twilight is no longer able to sustain us. We spend most of our lives in a no-mans-land. We know we need to change something but we also know that, in order to get to the light, we must first conquer the darkness.

In the metaphor of the pendulum, there is, for me, a moment where we could step off, where we realize we don’t need to be on this journey anymore. But the only place where we can do this is at the tipping point of the light side. That is the place where we are the closest to our true identity. At any other spot on the long journey, we are strangers in a strange land. We cannot stand the darkness and are, at the same time, fully accustomed to the twilight. And yet, something seems to call us home and into the light. That voice is small but persistent, like a steady feeling of dread, a longing we cannot explain, that pushes us to do something, anything,

to get back to where we came from.

We know we ultimately can’t stay in the twilight. We have to step onto the pendulum one day. That will be the day when our own hero’s journey begins.

 

Cheers,

Stefan

 

Stefan is an author living and working in New Paltz, New York. Check out his work here.

 

 

 

 

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