Aren’t You a Little Short For a Stormtrooper?

My first celebrity crush was Jodie Foster – Candleshoe and the original Freaky Friday. In my six year-old eyes she was a goddess. Is it possible to be in love with someone when you’re that young? Plus she was an older woman. Well, six years maybe, which, I guess, was twice my age.

But when Star Wars first hit and Princess Leia whisked through the Death Star corridors in those flowing white robes and fired a laser blaster at stormtroopers and took charge I was mesmerized. Jodie who? For sure I was in love now. Carrie Fisher was my first future wife. It wasn’t the character I was in love with because I knew the difference between that and the actress. Princess Leia was hardly my favorite character, and not because she was one of the only women. Come on. She’s competing against Han Solo and Darth Vader. But I was in love with the actress Carrie Fisher. Slender, beautiful face, and for most men over the age of six – boobs.

When I was ten I wrote letters to the leading actors of The Empire Strikes Back: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Billy Dee Williams. They were just fan letters, saying I liked them in the movie and could I get an autographed picture. The Official Star Wars Fan Club would forward these letters to the actors, who must’ve received hundreds. From Mark Hamill, Luke Skywalker himself, I got a form letter that summarized his career. He had a bit part once on General Hospital and actually did some work near the town in Japan where I was born around the time I was born.

But my letter to Carrie was kind of like a love letter. I used more adjectives to describe how I liked her as Princess Leia and told her how beautiful she was and I asked for a picture of her as Princess Leia. A few weeks later I received a large envelope in the mail marked Photo, Do Not Bend, and which some blue ink had soaked through. I tore it open and I swear my heart skipped. Inside was a black and white glossy head shot of Carrie as Leia in her Bespin prisoner outfit signed, “Galactically yours, Carrie Fisher.”

Immediately I had my mom buy me a picture frame. I didn’t tell her what for. This was my little secret. I slipped the picture in this silver-rimmed frame and stuck it on my desk.

In an interview in “Bantha Tracks,” the newsletter of the Fan Club, Number 16, May 1982, Carrie was asked about fan mail. She said that at first she got a lot of love letters from sweet nine year-old boys. My heart skipped again. She was talking about me, she had to have been. I mean I was ten when I wrote it and maybe I mentioned how old I was and maybe I didn’t but my future wife was talking about me in the newsletter that thousands of other fans were reading at the exact same time! That was just, like…wow! Right? Did she remember me specifically?

A few years later I read some devastating news. In an AP or some other type clip in the Kenosha News in the TV section, an article I have stashed somewhere, I read that Carrie Fisher had married singer/songwriter Paul Simon. I was crushed. I felt betrayed, sort of how like Lando Calrissian betrayed Han Solo. Paul Simon became my enemy. I mean, who in the world did he think he was?

But as the years went on, even though Leia spent a small portion in Return of the Jedi in a very skimpy metal bikini, my crush waned. During this time I had also learned quite a bit about her history, her famous parents – Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, and knew that Carrie had a drug problem. I was probably better off without her. But when she divorced Paul Simon years later, I remember thinking that maybe I had a chance. She had become a pretty well regarded script doctor and writer and when I saw her on talk shows she was very funny. She wasn’t as slim as she once was but was still beautiful in my eyes.

I wish I had saved the envelope she sent the photograph in. But I still have the picture on my writing desk. It’s not a muse at all but I like to think she’s kind of watching over me.



What Should I Write About?

Write what you know.

As a creative writing student I can’t tell you how many times I’d heard that phrase. Now, as a teacher of creative writing, I can’t tell you how many students I’ve had who heard the same phrase. It’s a pretty standard writing cliché. I call it a cliché, but I do partially believe in it.

When I was a beginning writer (I knew I wanted to write since the age of six) I thought I understood exactly what that meant. I knew action and adventure, galaxies far, far away, Middle-Earths, and superheroes. But when I tried writing those stories, I became disengaged pretty quickly, and I couldn’t understand why.

The blank page is daunting, and discovering material to write about is always a fantastic experience, especially when you are engaged. It took me many years to understand that when most writers take their ideas to the page, it doesn’t always turn out the way they thought it would. So they either plowed on or scrapped it and started something new. That’s kinda how it works. And practically every student I’ve had spoke of the same experience. And some have even said they got turned off of writing because of this.

Write what you know hasn’t always worked for me. But what I’ve discovered is that writing about things that interest me works a whole lot more.

Writing science fiction, fantasy, or action and adventure stories is not my strong suit, but by trying to write those kinds of stories I discovered my voice, and I knew I wanted to keep writing.

Now, I try to incorporate things I’m interested in – Star Wars, movies, music and concerts, football, and places I know a lot about – grocery stores, schools, and bowling alleys, and I try to find stories that happen around them. I keep journals about events I’ve seen around these things and places, whether I participated, witnessed, or heard about them. Sometimes these instances are only a few paragraphs, sometimes they are several pages. And sometimes I come up with fictional possibilities for them. Every now and then I come up with a potential story. Some work, some don’t.

Some stories are sparked by images that just pop into my head, and some come from ideas and concepts. And now that I’ve given myself the permission to understand that not everything works out the way I thought it would, I understand that another story or idea is waiting. I believe this permission is key.

One of the projects I’m currently in the middle of came from an image. After purchasing several CDs – Quiet Riot, Judas Priest, and Queensrÿche among them, I slid one after another into the car player. As the songs played I was reminded of a friend’s band I used to see. They covered a lot of the bands I liked and even played some original material.

Listening to these CDs in my car sparked some of those memories. I saw my friend’s band playing these songs in my mind, and for whatever reason the image of a woman singing appeared. This struck me because my friend’s band is all guys, and more guys listen to and play heavy metal than women. So why did this woman appear? I didn’t know at all, so I asked myself a number of “what if” questions. What if she was part of a female cover band? What if she was younger, like in high school? And what if it was her dad’s band? The possible answers intrigued me. Then the questions snowballed, like why would her dad let her sing in his band? What if her mom didn’t like it? What if she wanted to form her own band? Suddenly I had a story concept in my head.

When I got home I immediately went to my journal and jotted down scene ideas, some imagery, song titles, bars I’d seen my friend play at – a number of things. I had no idea what the story was, or anything that it might be about, but I was interested and engaged in the material.

After a few weeks of writing scenes and trying them out for my writers’ group, I realized I had a potential book about life and death, family secrets, and something that’s in practically every story – people making choices and the consequences. But as film critic Roger Ebert has said, it’s not what the story is about, it’s how it’s about it. That’s when I realized that a lot of things I was interested in – music, concerts, bar bands, high school sports, trains and travelling, Summer and Fall, TV hosts and more were things I could write about, and even if it was stuff I didn’t know everything about, I could easily research it later.

A very influential teacher I had as an undergrad in my twenties at Columbia College Chicago told me that based on some journals I wrote in his class I was going to someday write the ultimate roadie story. I thought he was nuts. I didn’t know the first thing about being a roadie. Years later I think I understand.

Another project I’m in the middle of came from an idea I had about setting my favorite television show, MASH, in a place I know all too well – a grocery store. I worked in them, the Produce Department specifically, for nearly twenty-five years. Plenty of characters work in and shop at grocery stores, and except for John Updike’s “A&P,” I’d never seen a story nail it the way I know it.

My final semester as an undergrad I decided to write that story, especially since I had what I thought was the beginning. I spent about a year and a half on it, and at some point I wasn’t interested in it anymore. I wrote it in first person and based it on some of my own experiences, but it didn’t make it to the page the way I thought it would. So I set it aside, figuring someday I might return to it. And if I didn’t, I had given myself permission to let it not work.

Years later, after working on the heavy metal story, which I was writing in third person from multiple points of view, I wondered about that grocery store story, and if it might benefit from a different point of view. On a break from the heavy metal story, because I feel breaks are important, I approached the grocery store material in third person, and I became engaged in it once again. The material was still there, and now I’m following multiple points of view, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s about life and death, family secrets, and characters making choices and the consequences. Wow. And now some of the same things I was interested in, and some very different ones, were finding their way into this story – high school sports, rock and roll, worst summer jobs, dysfunctional families, and much more.

Write what you are interested in is something I tell all writers – students, beginners, young, young at heart, and some of these things end up being things you know. I’m a huge fan of lists. When trying to come up with material, engaging material, I suggest developing lists of things you are interested in, or that you have experience with that you are interested in, like hobbies, sub-cultures, family experiences, and work situations. Those are good places to start, and they usually end up being things you know a lot about.

Then make a list of experiences from these concepts, specific moments, perhaps stories you’ve told a thousand times or stories you’ve heard a thousand times. You can write about these things. I’m always amazed when people tell me they didn’t think they could write about real life experiences. And experience isn’t defined by age. Everyone’s experience and knowledge counts.

Then just write these instances. Don’t worry about putting them in any sort of order. Most novelists don’t write stories from beginning to end anyways. And keep writing. Some will be longer, some shorter, but before you know it you will have a bunch of scenes, and that will be something to work with and develop.

There is no one way to do this, but this is a start. And even though these ideas are real-life based, that doesn’t mean that these concepts can’t be used in science fiction, fantasy, or action and adventure stories. All engaging and memorable stories have universal elements to them.

Give your stories permission to not always work. That’s okay. Sometimes what isn’t working or engaging now may work later, or in another story. Stories need to time to breathe, too. Give them that time. And trust your instincts. They’re usually right.


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Hokey Religions and Ancient Weapons

It’s hard being a Star Wars fan these days. That sounds kinda funny considering that Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens is now in theaters and setting all kinds of box office records. And for the record, I loved it.

But what I’m getting at is that everyone doesn’t share the optimistic appraisal I have for the franchise. And that’s okay. See, I love every second of it (of the movies and its spinoffs, not necessarily the Expanded Universe, which I know lots of people worship, and which is now no longer considered canon, which has millions of voices crying out in terror).

And this is where being the fan I am, since 1977, scares me. There are lots of people upset that the old EU is no longer canon. There are lots of people who have complete contempt for the prequels. And lots of these people are lying in wait to dump all over the new movie. And where are most of these people? Lurking on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) Message Boards, along with comment sections on tons of websites and pages, and posting spoilers. Internet message boards and comment sections are quite possibly the best, and by best I also mean the worst, part of the internet. Never have the words “wrong,” “idiot,” and “moron” ever been more eloquently (over)used. I may make a mistake from time to time, but I don’t consider myself an idiot or a moron, and I know lots of people that would probably concur that I am not an idiot or a moron. Probably.

As someone who’s grown up with the original movies, I’ve been labeled by these faceless internet bullies as not a true fan because I happen to like the prequels and this movie. And I don’t understand that. Maybe because I grew up without the internet. And for the record, far more folks on the internet seem to really like this new movie. But it has its haters.

Opinions are like brains, everyone has them. Just because we can tell the world all of our opinions, doesn’t mean we should. That said, I’m telling mine, so nyah, nyah, nuh nyah nyah.

With the birth of the motion picture came the birth of the motion picture critic. Many people have gone to fancy schmancy schools to learn how to put movies together, and others have gone to fancy schmancy (sometimes the same) schools to learn how to take them apart. The original three films are some of the biggest blockbusters of all time, and are generally regarded as creating a modern mythology. They also created some of the most ardent and passionate fans. The following three films are also some of the biggest blockbusters of all time, and are generally regarded as not the stories most fans would have made, which apparently makes them terrible movies. I’m not saying they are perfect. Even the original movies are not perfect.

But lots of people love the originals and more or less like the new ones. Some, like me, really like the new ones. And some, unlike me, don’t like to admit it, probably because they don’t like being told they are wrong, or called an idiot or a moron. Go figure. But who gets to tell me I’m not a real fan of Star Wars if I like the prequels? I’ve written a book about my Star Wars collection. For many years my living quarters were decked floor to ceiling, wall to wall Star Wars. I’ve devoted most of my life to surrounding myself with characters and stories of something that has meant a great deal to me since I was seven years old. But I enjoyed the prequels, so apparently I’m not a real fan. I don’t know how to respond to that other than writing about why that mystifies me. To the people who don’t know me but think they do because of what I like, you are entitled to your opinion, and I stress entitled, as that is as low as I will stoop in this name-calling message thread. But name calling is the oldest tactic in the world. Name calling leads to insulting, insulting leads to hurt feelings, and hurt feelings lead to internet bullying.

The Bible, a book, a book which I’ve not read entirely, probably has flaws and plot holes, and most certainly has been misinterpreted. As a writer of books myself, none published, I strive to avoid flaws and plot holes, but I don’t think I’d mind if some of it was misinterpreted. I’m not saying Star Wars is like The Bible, but maybe some people see it that way. And have misinterpreted it. To many people, Star Wars is religion.

Now nerds and geeks have come together to see Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens. Probably the most anticipated movie since, well, Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. “And we all know how that turned out,” is what many people have said and written. For me, it turned out pretty good, since I’ve never called anyone an idiot for liking something that may or not be perfect.

Be passionate. Don’t call people names. Just my opinion. But also in my opinion, how is Jaws not in the top ten IMDB movies? Morons. See, I’ve still never called anyone an idiot.

As intergalactic wise guy Ham Salad so eloquently put it, “Take it easy, kid. It’s only a movie.”


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From the Run to the Hills Department

“So who do you think’s the better singer? Dickinson or…?”

At first I didn’t think he was talking to me, but I looked at the guy and knew he couldn’t remember the name, so I said, “Paul Di’Anno.”

“Yeah. Him.”

He sounded kinda gruff, but a little friendly. My usual internal reaction when someone confronts me because of what I’m wearing is, “Why are you bothering me? Just leave me alone so I can go about my business.”

My girlfriend says I like that, though – people acknowledging what I’m wearing, usually a concert T-shirt, sports jerseys, or one of my many novelty ties. And maybe she’s right. I don’t necessarily mind talking to people. I mind being bothered by them, especially if I have some place to go. And on that Saturday night, about 6 pm at a KFC, I did have a place to go.

Ten minutes prior I overheard the guy, maybe in his fifties, facing me a few tables over, talking with his mom, her back to me, about bands from the 80’s. I hadn’t really been dropping eaves, but I specifically heard “bands” and “80’s.” Since I had on one of my many Iron Maiden T-shirts (I believe my updated “The Trooper” shirt, one of Maiden’s most popular songs, and from the early 80’s) part of me assumed he had noticed it.

So when he asked me which singer I liked better, I stopped on my way to the trash bin, partly unsure if he was talking to me, another part of me thinking, Please, God, don’t let him be talking to me. But I do like to acknowledge fellow metal heads, and since I like to think I’m a semi-expert on Iron Maiden, I filled in the name of the other singer.

“Yeah,” he answered, smiling. “He had that one album.”

“Two,” I corrected, because again, I know my Iron Maiden. “He did two albums.”


“Yeah. Iron Maiden and Killers.”

“Yeah. Killers. That album’s great.”

So now I was in a conversation that I partly didn’t mind being in, but I felt kinda awkward standing there with my tray of KFC garbage, so most of me just wanted to get out of there.

He continued with, “He had that great gravelly voice.”

“Yeah,” I answered, as his mom looked in my direction, smiling. She was about half his size, dressed nice. He was in a dirty winter jacket. It was pretty cold outside. “But I like Bruce Dickinson a bit more. He has that great air raid siren voice.”

He nodded and started rattling off some song titles or something. I was only half-listening. I wanted to talk about how Paul Di’Anno was fired from Maiden, how I loved other singers with that air raid siren voice, like Dio, Rob Halford, and that I was working on a book about guys in a heavy metal cover band that played all those songs. But I stopped and listened, noticing he had stopped, staring into nowhere, smiling, like he discovered an old memory, maybe about an album or concert.

“Love Iron Maiden,” he said.

“They’re working on another album, I think,” I said, not knowing if that was actually true. Last I heard they wanted to do another album, which would be their sixteenth studio album. I wanted them to be working on it.

“Mmm,” he said, pulling apart his biscuit before chewing on a chunk.

That’s when I felt the conversation had ended, so I gave the customary “dude nod” and emptied my garbage. I did have to hit the road, but part of me felt like sticking around. We probably could’ve shot the shit about Maiden and music for hours.

Before ducking out, I did turn and say, “Well, have a good one.”

“You, too,” said his mother, and he nodded, smiling at me and giving a jaunty salute.

In the dark, in the cold car, I hoped I didn’t come across as rude. I never want to be rude. Human interaction is good, I think, even in a quiet KFC early on a Saturday night. But I wondered if he would have said something if I was wearing a different band, or if I had on a Packer jersey. Maybe. Maybe I do like getting responses to what I wear. I’m not always comfortable getting into conversations that I don’t initiate, especially with strangers. Usually they just say, “Cool shirt,” we both nod, and then we move on. Maybe I’d be more comfortable if I was in control, or in a more controlled environment, like a classroom when I’m teaching. But it’s not like KFC is totally out of my element. Maybe it’s because if it’s not part of my agenda in the moment I’m slightly annoyed, and then I feel like I have to act a little to not appear annoyed.

But then maybe that’s just a human reaction.


Author’s note: Since this article was written awhile ago, Iron Maiden has since put out their latest album, Book of Souls.



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