Monday, March 21, 2011


I’ve written before about those transcendent moments when it becomes clear that I’m not really the author of my work; when I understand that I’m a channel, tuning in to another frequency, another dimension, and bringing that information down into the physical world until it takes shape as that astonishing creature called a Story.  Opening to that cosmic download, then transcribing, embellishing and editing the information, is a profound and magical event; but, for all my participation, I know it has very little to do with me.  I’m experiencing a kind of visitation:  a descent of story-angels, of narrative grace.  I’m not the initiator, I’m the vessel.  And grateful for it.

Storytelling is woven into my DNA; hell, it’s almost an addiction:  I couldn’t stop doing it if I tried (and there have been several occasions when I have tried—and, thank God, failed).  As blessed as I’ve been all these years, making my living doing something I genuinely love, there are times I find it insanely difficult (accent, as my wife will attest, on the insane); moments of frustration and despair—sometimes brought on by the intransigent story itself, sometimes by the economic realities of the freelance life—when I think I’ll never be able to create again.  Why, I wonder, can’t I just turn on the divine download at will?  I imagine a kind of channeling that goes beyond what I’ve experienced in the past, where I simply close my eyes and allow the Story to take complete control of me.  My conscious mind ascends into a warm, spiritual void while themes, plots, characters and endless words flow down from the astral heights, electrifying my fingertips, urging them to dance across the keyboard with lightning speed.  I emerge from the void, perhaps minutes later, perhaps hours, to find the finished story waiting for me.  No effort on my part:  it’s simply there.  

In another version of this fantasy, I’m not even at the keyboard.  I go to bed at night, only to discover—when I turn on my computer in the morning—that a new story has appeared on my desktop:  in need of minor editing, but essentially complete.  How has this happened?  Perhaps, in some ineffable altered state, I’ve staggered out of bed at three in the morning and written the piece in a hypnotic daze; or, better yet, perhaps entities from the Celestial Realms have sailed into my office while I’m fast asleep and written the entire story for me.  It’s the writer’s version of the classic fairy tale—one that’s fascinated me since I was a child—The Shoemaker and the Elves.  The cobbler sleeps, the elves work.  In the morning:  shoes!

It may come as no surprise to you that that this hasn’t happened yet (being a firm believer in the miraculous, I always hold out hope), but I’ve come close a few times—although not in an overtly mystical way.  What’s happened instead is that, going through old files, I’ve unearthed a story that was written years earlier:  a proposal, a detailed outline, a completed screenplay that was pitched for sale and then—when met with rejection—abandoned like a foreclosed house.  Sometimes, leafing through this forgotten work, I discover that there were excellent reasons for abandonment; but, more often than not, I find that the story was actually strong:  it was the timing that was wrong.  So I blow off the dust, make some minor changes, pop the tale in a boat and sail it back out into the world.

Now here’s where the magic emerges from the mundane:  because the outline was written so many years before, reading it is virtually a new experience.  Oh, I may have vague memories of working on the piece—but the time spent, the effort expended, has all the substance (or lack of substance) of a long-ago dream:  hazy, distant and profoundly unreal.  There are times, in fact, when it feels like I haven’t written the story at all.  It’s as if the work has manifested—in a blaze of light and a swirl of pixie dust—in my files:  a gift from the elves.

This happened to me recently when I was approached by the National Audio Theater Festivals about being a guest playwright at their yearly celebration.  If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, then you know how enthusiastic I am about what some people call “Old Time Radio”—from The Mercury Theater on the Air to The Jack Benny Show, Suspense to Dimension X.  Audio drama is one of the great art forms—with rare exceptions (BBC Radio, to name one), it’s a lost art form—and the opportunity to contribute an original script, to actually watch it performed and recorded, was too good to pass up.  (Too good?  It’s a dream-come-true.)  I proposed doing a thirty-minute, Rod Serling-like supernatural drama about the afterlife that had been rattling around in the back of my head for a few years.  NATF Vice President Lance Roger Axt, who’ll be directing my piece, loved the idea—and I was off.  At least I thought I was until the morning I woke up with a completely different tale of the afterlife flooding my brain, demanding to be resurrected for audio:  a story I’d written back in the 80’s called Knocking on Heaven’s Door.  I think I may have pitched KOHD to CBS’s revival of The Twilight Zone (my first television sale was to the 80’s Zone and you can watch the episode here) or maybe to a Zone clone called Tales From The Dark Side.  In any case, the story hadn't sold and I tucked the outline away.  The question was, did I still have it?

I rushed into my office, dropping to my knees beside a hulking file cabinet that’s been my companion for decades, hurling papers left and right as I ransacked the drawers.  Eventually I found it:  an ancient document, on parchment-crisp paper, produced not by a computer and printer, but by an actual typewriter.  (For years I worked on a massive IBM Selectric, an advanced-for-its-era behemoth that had a then-extraordinary feature:  it could “remember” and, if necessary, erase up to two entire lines of text.  And it only cost me $2,000.00!).  (A moment, while you fall out of your chair laughing.) 

I read the outline over and was amazed, delighted, not just by the fact that Knocking On Heaven’s Door was an excellent story, but by the simple fact that it was there at all, patiently waiting more than twenty years for me:  a complete tale, with a compelling plot and interesting characters.  An outline, perfectly suited to the audio format, that required absolutely no effort on my part.  Yes, once, in some previous incarnation, I’d written it—but I certainly had no recollection of the toil and thought that went into the piece.  In fact, as clearly as I recalled the story itself, I had no memory whatsoever of the process that went into its creation.  So wasn’t it, I wondered, just as likely that I hadn’t written Knocking On Heaven’s Door; that it had been secreted away in that cabinet by the elves:  a beautiful pair of story-shoes, crafted just for me? 

You can call this channeling or selective memory, happenstance or a small miracle; but whenever I’ve had this experience—whenever I’ve found a long-forgotten artifact locked away in my thirty-year pyramid of work—it’s felt like a gift from the universe.  

And, in that moment, I’m the happiest shoemaker on the planet.

© copyright 2011 J.M. DeMatteis


  1. I know what you mean, JMD. I find myself racking my brain and beating my head against the wall over one particular scene for days at a time, only to find a solution presenting itself in an instant: it's pure Grace.

    Congrats on finding new treasures in old storehouses, and please keep us updated.

    BTW, BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, SEASON 1, PART TWO came out this past week. I burned through both dics in two days; it's even better than the first.

    "HAIL THE TORNADO TYRANT!" is still the most emotional episode I've seen. And lots of other great stuff on that disc, including a team-up between Batman, Sherlock Holmes, and the Demon! I highly recommend it to all Creation Pointers.

    Here's to the elves!

  2. As I've said before, the stories you tell ABOUT the stories you tell are almost, if not more interesting, than the stories themselves. Nothing against your actual stories, I just really enjoy the way you relate your creative moments.

    As for radio drama, this seems like a good place to post this Orson Welles bit from Laugh-In that I was reminded of when reading this piece;

    Nice to read another great piece from you, JM. This presentation of KOHD will be filmed/recorded so the rest of us can watch/listen?

    Hope all goes well

  3. "Hail, The Tornado Tyrant" was a very emotional story, David. I remember being amazed when the producers presented me with the basic beats of the story. "It ends with a mercy killing?" Considering the lighthearted tone of the series, it was very heavy episode. And I think it turned out very well.

    Batman, Sherlock Holmes and the Demon? I must have missed that one. Demon's one of my favorite Kirby creations and I was lucky enough to write the character in two different B & B episodes. The second one, which also features the JLI, should be coming along soon. Unless I'm mistaken -- and I often am! -- the show returns this week.

  4. Thanks, Ken: I enjoy writing about the creative process. It's a way to bring what sometimes seem a very ethereal experience down to earth.

    The Welles clip was great! Thanks for sharing that.

    I believe NATF offers these productions for sale, as a way to raise money for the festival. The shows might even end up on radio somewhere. As I get more information, I'll post it here.

  5. The episode in question is titled "Trials of the Demon," and as one might expect when you throw all those guys together, it's a blast. It also features the origin of the Gentleman Ghost.

    As far as the tone of "Hail the Tornado Tyrant" goes, I think that's one of the best things about the BATB format: they can go virtually anywhere. I love the genre mash-ups, like Jonah Hex and Batman fighting Mongul on Warworld. Or Neil Patrick Harris of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER FAME "suiting up" as the Music Meister in a Broadway style adventure.

    I also liked how they introduced the villain Equinox in the "Mystery in Space!" teaser sequence, brought him back as a villain who's off to the side in "When OMAC Attacks!," and then revealed his master plan in "The Fate of Equinox!"

    Looking forward to the next volume!

    I haven't seen your first Demon episode yet, JMD--what was the title?

  6. The first Demon episode was "Day of the Dark Knight," David -- and it's included in the first
    B & B DVD set. It's an Arthurian adventure featuring Bats, Green Arrow, Merlin and Etrigan.

    After doing a little internet-snooping, I'm reasonably sure my Batman/Demon/JLI story, now titled "Shadow of the Bat," will be the second episode airing this season.

  7. My apologies for the brain freeze, then. I've seen "Day of the Dark Knight!"--two or three times, actually.

  8. Well, now you've got to watch it two or three MORE times, David! :)

  9. I accept the judgment of the court!:)

  10. Great sharing of another story behind a Story. For this particular tale, where I see the shoemaker's elves as time-traveling versions of the shoemaker himself, it makes me think of this 'we are all, and all is we' universal construct where criss-crossing time traveling versions of the same 'thing' keep working with 'itself' over and over. To see evidence of the phenomenon in a single life is a beautiful thing.

  11. We're in total agreement there, Tim. In my view, it's (ultimately) the Same One taking on all these roles, playing all these games, across the illusion of time and space...and everywhere in between.

  12. I gotta say this: I'm some kind of practical, rational, skeptic guy. I don't believe, and even despise, this rooted nonsense on the "magic writing" or, worse, the "magic writer". That said... coming this anecdote from you and its true meaning (mainly because I know you know the craft and respecti it), I find it adorable.

    You have that, you know? That ability to turn something, let's say, mundane into wonder. I've read Brooklyn Dreams when it came out and loved it, 'cause I found a lot of this sense of wonder in it.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    Francisco Espinosa.

  13. My pleasure, Francisco. Very glad you enjoyed it.

    Even if -- as a "practical, rational, skeptic guy" -- you don't buy into a more mystical POV of the wider universe, you have to admit (okay, you don't HAVE to) that the inner universe of our unconscious minds is a pretty amazing one. And not just where writing is concerned. We really do contain mysteries upon mysteries.

    Thanks for checking in here at Creation Point. Best -- JMD