“I can’t believe it’s been twenty-five years since I bought my first Super Powers figure!” said the salt-and-pepper haired hipster working the floor at St. Mark’s Comics while pointing out a few figures behind a glass case in the back room. We both took a well-deserved moment and stared off in awe, he at the issues of The Flash and American Vampire I was holding, and me at his Rebel Alliance T-shirt.
It was at that moment one of my earliest memories bolted across my mind: I must’ve been six or seven years old when my Uncle Chris took me to a toy store and bought me my very first Super Powers action figure. I was convinced that he picked one without a cape because he thought it might cost less or something (or perhaps I just never took the blue cloth cape out of the box due to the excitement of owning my first ever Batman figure.) And who would have thought that one figure would catapult me onto a life-long journey as a writer seeking out great stories of my own to tell?
Like every kid at that impressionable young age, I had a vivid imagination. I would outline very rudimentary tales using my action figures as characters. I wasn’t one of those smash ‘em up rug rats that only wanted to slam toys together in an epic battle between good and evil, the victor pecked with minor scratches, the loser missing an arm or leg. Not me. I was interested in the details in between the fisticuffs. I wanted to know why a mental melee was no match for a battle of brawn in order to set the bad guys straight.
Prior to owning my Batman and Superman Super Powers figures, I also owned a handful of Secret Wars figures, namely Spider-Man, Daredevil, Dr. Doom and Kang (why Kang I’ve no idea!) At the time, I didn’t know much about these costumed heroes except from what I’d seen on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. As for Batman, I’d only gotten a slight glimpse into the Caped Crusader’s backstory through the 1960’s series rerunning every morning. In fact, my very first comic book was Marvel Tales Starring Spider-Man #210, which cost 75¢. I remember I only had a quarter on me. Then a kind mother gave me the additional 50¢ to buy the comic. I was so grateful. I must’ve read it at least a hundred times, even after the cover had torn off; and I even read the cheesy Spider-Ham story that took up the last six pages of the comic. From that day on, I started saving up my quarters and dimes and bought more comics, enthralled by the stories. Eventually, I got the crazy notion that maybe I could tell stories in my own words, since it seemed natural enough, inbred in everyone, I thought at the time.
Years later, when I’d moved onto collecting other action figure lines like Batman: The Animated Series (which initially got the St. Mark’s hipster and I trading stories) and X-Men, I would cook up stories long after my dad had gone to sleep at night. But instead of Bruce Wayne in the starring role as Batman, it was me, or rather John Enders––I used my brother and sister’s last name from their father because, as a kid of fourteen years old, you tend not to appreciate the hard to pronounce surnames like “Trigonis,” especially when you’re the “quiet kid” living in a primarily Spanish-speaking neighborhood.) Beneath the mask of my Batman Returns Catwoman figure was any girl at school whom I liked but was too shy to talk to. My Secret Wars Spidey was a friend of mine who’d moved away; but in my unwritten narratives he was only a brief flight away in my die-cast Batwing, and we would join forces and outwit the sinister middle school bullies who assumed supervillain emblems and hatched plots to take over the world. Y’see, back then, my action figures were pens, but there was no ink, only a story that would exist each night for a few hours as I played, then dissolve as soon as my eyes tired and I’d close away my alter egos to the Reebok shoebox where they slept while I was at school reading Dickens or Fitzgerald.
Eventually when I started high school and made friends, I advanced beyond the oral tradition of my Homeric ancestors and started writing down my stories. At first, they were based on video game characters like Trevor Belmont from Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse and King Arthur in Super Ghouls and Ghosts, but those short fictions further evolved in the form of Dungeon Master’s logs––yes, I was a Dungeons & Dragons kid rolling for initiative, a Bic in one hand, Funyuns in the other, and a Monstrous Compendium before me opened wide to some wicked beast I hoped would thwart my fellow dice-rolling rogues along their heroic journey. The bulk of these quests, chronicled in six or eight marble Mead notebooks, found their way into my first full-length play The Legend of Jonathan Gracco, Part One: Ordeal of Love, which I would revise years later as a college sophomore because of Shakespeare and make further revisions in an independent study in playwriting during my senior year.
Flash forward to now: Through all of these experiences with story in its various inceptions, I had built up the confidence necessary for this once timid tale-spinner to tell distinctive stories without borrowing from what’s already been told. I believe in the age-old creed: Write what you know. It’s got to come from my heart; that’s the only way I can churn out a tender parable like Cerise or a poem that touches someone thousands of miles away in a pub in London, or perform a spoken word piece that washes over an audience at an open mic. Nowadays, however, I find that stories are too thought out, too erudite. Book smarts is one thing––if you want to learn how to format a script, for instance, consult The Hollywood Standard or search online––but real writing comes from within, from the heart. A writer can’t be made paging his or her hours away in between the countless hardbacks out there about story structure and character arc. To learn how to write novels with literary merit, read Hemingway or Fitzgerald; to write bestsellers, read Dan Brown; to craft beautiful poetry, read beautiful poetry. And if you want to tell stories, all you have to do is pay attention––really pay attention––to the world around you and the world you’ve created within you. It’s all there, waiting.
The truth is that not everyone is a writer. But as storytellers, if we want to tell stories that are naturally compelling and original, we shouldn’t spend so much time with all those secondary “How To” manuals out there, but instead learn from the primaries. If you want to write a movie, read the script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Inception instead of immersing yourself in the dogma of Story or Screenplay. (Don’t get me wrong, though, those books, like vitamins, are great supplements; treated as gospel, however, they can often inhibit the natural flow of a writer, and at times even nullify a story if the writer becomes overly concerned about plot points and page counts.)
When I attended Brooklyn College for my MFA in poetry, none of my three professors ever assigned anything for us to read other than poetry, and all from one textbook, Poems for the Millennium, Volume I. We read the book cover to cover. My mind transmogrified, and I’m only using this sexy $25 word because there was something magical about it that made it more than just a transformation. Only then was I able to I write my entire master’s thesis on the red line from Times Square to Flatbush Avenue and back every Monday and Wednesday for two years.
A writer’s mind should remain closely connected to his or her heart, like a child’s. Everything in our childhood, all those stories in the backs of our minds, whether it’s the Nancy Drew mysteries that enthralled you as a little boy or girl or, as in the case of the St. Mark’s Comics clerk, the Sunday night premiere of Batman: The Animated Series which sparked something in us that made us want to follow a series to the end of the season, or made us want to write our own, is practice. Maybe, like me, you just played with your toys a little differently than other kids, plotting out intricate stories with your Star Wars figures or a twenty-sided die, stories which would never blacken the immortal white plane of a sheet of paper. And if there is something like that for us to tap into, then we must tap into it because story comes easy when you set the derrick in the right spot. Then all you’ll have to do is dig and your story will undoubtedly flow.
From where do YOU draw your ideas and inspiration for the stories you create? Tell me an interesting tale in the Comments section; I’d love to read it!