Friday, September 9, 2011


Whenever I do book readings, or speak informally to other writers, I’m often asked where my inspiration comes from. My two published books—one a short story collection and the other a poetry chapbook—as well as my new unpublished ones (also in these genres) actually sprang from the same source of inspiration:  People.

The people around me: those dear to me, those only slightly known by me, and even strangers I read or hear about. People, everyday, ordinary people, are my major source of inspiration. How ordinary people navigate their lives—their losses and triumphs and everything in between—is a source of unending amazement and inspiration to me, especially when the lives being navigated are deeply challenging or downright tragic.

Starting with my own family, going back through generations of relatives and what they endured in a family history that is humble and disadvantaged, I reflect on how these folks survived and thrived, or survived and reinvented themselves to deal with what they faced daily. I reflect on my childhood, my evolution and lack thereof as old memories sometimes fail to metamorphose into new understandings. I think about friends and neighbors, about people I see lonely on bus benches, or lovers locked in embrace in a parked car.  I read about and see strangers on television and in local news and wonder why they’re currently entangled in whatever brought them to our attention.

What causes us to be as we are? What are motivations that may be so locked into our selves, that no one else has an inkling regarding who we really are? What goes on behind those wooden doors we pass, house by house, block by block in our daily rushing about or meandering about in our neighborhood and elsewhere? Why do people do what they do?

I’m not speaking about psychology here. I’m not a therapist. I’m speaking about what we might be able to decipher through our intuition and observation, coupled with what our imagination can fill in beyond that. For that is what separates a writer from a non-writer: the willingness and ability to take the known and transform it, expand it, embellish it with our imagination that takes us into the unknown...and creates something new.

This unknown territory, in the writer’s hands, becomes compelling, new territory, if the writing is good. And, if the writer is really good, he or she can imbue a story’s characters with motives and experiences, hidden from quick recognition perhaps, that the reader might not have anticipated. In real life, we often attribute reasons for others’ actions when we only know part of the story, when we have no clue as to what else moves that individual, what else hurts his or her heart, what else lifts that individual from the daily grind into the sublime. We never know an individual’s full story, do we? But in real life, we all readily make assumptions and even make judgments.

In another blog, I’ll tell more about this latter point. But for now, I’d like to touch upon another topic I’ll develop more fully in the future: telling true stories about people who deeply touch our hearts, who move us, inspire us to tell their stories with fidelity to the truth, rather than reliance on imagination, because the truth is, in these people’s cases, infinitely more compelling than fiction.

One such engaging case is the book Special  by Michael P. Raff.

Book Review:
by Michael P. Raff

The death of a young person is one of the greatest tragedies on earth. The death of a young person we deeply love is even more brutal a pain to bear. Michael P. Raff, a California author, convincingly and poignantly captures that pain in his biography, Special (Aventine Press, 2011), a tribute to the great love of his life, a radiant, beautiful young woman named Jill Adams, who died in a car accident at the age of 19.

This is not a spoiler alert. Michael’s book starts with this sentence: “Three weeks after her funeral, I woke up and saw Jill standing by my bedroom doorway.” Then, for the rest of his meticulously narrated book, he recreates the brief but glorious love he shared with Jill for the four years they knew one another. Their first meeting was inauspicious, she being a gawky, timid 15-year-old to his 19 years; but she quickly blossomed into a stunning woman whose overpowering beauty was as much internal as external: a devout Mormon who was virtuous, sensitive, compassionate, and insightful beyond her age.
The book takes the reader through the highs and lows of their chaste love affair. As much an autobiography as a biography, we witness Michael’s coming of age as he awkwardly but lovingly shepherds Jill into adulthood. Coming from a humble background, Michael faced rejection from some of Jill’s family and friends, who felt Jill “deserved better” than what Michael as a financially struggling young man could offer. But Michael, buoyed by Jill’s devotion to him and her faith in his devotion to her, persevered in his courtship of the only woman who had ever boosted him above his own relentless self-doubts. At the time of her death, they were engaged to be married a mere five months hence.
Special  is punctuated throughout with Michael Raff’s simple but deep ruminations on life. He writes, for example: “Isn’t it strange how we can measure the miles around the equator, or the miles to the moon, but we can’t measure something so simple as the pleasure of being kissed by the one we love?” There is a mystical quality to the book, as a Mormon elder had once prophesied to Jill that she would die an early death, and her belief of this runs like a knotty thread throughout the book. This prophecy haunts Jill and Michael, who hears the sad tale, and who, shortly before Jill’s death, has a vivid dream of her accident that turns out to be spot-on accurate.
Though we, the readers, know from the beginning that Jill died an untimely death, we still benefit from reading everything prior to and after this tragedy: learning about the graciousness and gentleness abiding in Jill, and of how her true love of Michael surmounted obstacles, and of how Michael learned to trust in his own worthiness. We can see ourselves in this story, because this couple’s trials and tribulations mirror those many of us suffer in this life.
In short, this book reminds us all of the fleetingness of things, the transiency of life itself, and the huge importance of loving deeply, of appreciating simple events in the company of our beloveds, of not taking life for granted. Yes, we’ve heard these admonitions before, but we often forget. We can be grateful to Michael for sharing his grief and love with us, and for reminding us to be mindful of all this.

Michael's book can be ordered from and . Contact the author at .

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