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Go Blue

A long long time ago, six year old boy sat down at the piano, and played some music. All his own.

That same boy liked to draw, too.

Now quite some time ago I graduated from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theater and Dance and the School of Art & Design, with two BFA degrees.

It wasn’t so long ago that I don’t remember the struggle of it all. The uncertainty of being surrounded by so many other talented musicians. I walked in as a piano performance major. I walked out something else.

I took creative writing and argumentative writing courses. I took drawing classes and learned how to program in C, LISP, Lingo, and Java. I hung theater lights, ran light boards and sound board, manned video cameras and microphones, created multimedia spaces and floating music boats, took piano lessons, ceramics, metalsmithing, sculpted a bust of my own head, and managed to survive music theory, art & music history, statistics, and all the critiques of five years of Graphic Design.

It’s been a long and convoluted path to the point, but it’s funny to see how it all somehow came together. I studied piano for 20 years. I did not become a concert pianist as I once thought, but I certainly got better for it and now I’ve come back to where I started – playing because I love it. All the art and design courses were the foundation of my illustrations and book design. The sound engineering gave me the means to record and design my audiobooks. Video courses were the foundation for making and animating book trailers…

It was exhausting at the time, though as I look back on it I’d do that part of it all over again. However confusing it all was, it all led to what I’m doing now.

All of that started with a six-year old boy, leaning over the keys of a piano, plinking out the tunes I heard in the Legend of Zelda.

My six-year-old self wouldn’t have known that so many years later, I’d be making a real book, and that it would be shown on the University’s site.

My six year old self wouldn’t have believed it. Really? I did that?

I think I get lost sometimes in the wrong ideas. Someone else’s dream. But there’s still that six year old inside, still fascinated with the world, who just wants to make something neat.

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The meaning of it all

As I sit here and contemplate my goals as a writer (something I do on a near daily basis), I come back to this thought: I could not have done it without your support. I’ve thought about pursuing traditional publication but every time it feels like the wrong path for me, one where I have to be far more prolific than I am, and perhaps compromise my ideals. I sometimes fret that maybe I’ll only write a handful of books because it takes me so long, but then I remember that I enjoy the whole process, and I’m not under any pressure to produce other than by the deadlines I set. I may not ever be known or remembered outside a limited sphere but but is that really the important bit?

I’ve spoken with enough writers who entered this even later in life than I have, ones that worked their entire careers only to retire and then approach it full force. I’ve spoken with writers than were fortunate enough to author dozens of books — but you probably don’t know who they are… writers that have written and taught for decades but still only self-publish.

The truth is, there isn’t just one end goal for writing and/or illustrating. It’s kind of amazing how easy it is to forget that. The pressure to be one of those writers who manages to do it for a living is omnipresent and insidious, and while there are definitely many who achieve that, it’s not the only way.

I constantly have to remind myself that it’s enough to simply write, draw and do it at my own pace. I’ve had to make many adjustments to my time in order to achieve that. I constantly have to remind myself to stop minimizing what I have accomplished; it’s frightening easy to forget that as well. Could I be more prolific? Maybe. Would that make me happier? I don’t necessarily think so. Like many things it’s not so simple. Merely having more books under my belt isn’t what I’m after. More likes, more followers… I get it and yet I don’t get it.

I’ll tell you what makes me keep going: Not the money, or widespread notoriety. All that would be grand, I suppose — easy to dismiss it when I don’t have it — but I’ve been just trying to get back to loving the process. I played piano for almost 20 years, and then suddenly realized I don’t want to perform. But that didn’t take away my desire to want to play like the six-year old that sat and got lost in the joy of figuring out music I heard or making up music of my own. The idea of making it a career of any destroyed that joy. I don’t regret any of those years of study and competition , however, because they made me the player that I am.

The good news is that I’ve sat down at the piano in recent months and felt a calmness that I vaguely remember. The fact that perhaps I could have made more out of it no longer really bothers me. I’m happy to sit and learn Beethoven Sonatas for no one but myself, playing them at whatever tempo makes music. I’ll play old corny jazz standards like Autumn leaves alone or with any group of players who just want to jam. There is no pressure to compete, or perform, or play at the tempo that the one playing in the next room is playing (which was, of course, really fast) The irony is, when that anxiety is gone, I find I can actually play better and faster than I think. It’s all that mental distraction that has gotten in my way, and I’ve begun to reclaim my serenity.

In this path of writing and illustrating, the temptation to turn it into a career or side hustle is palpable. I keep coming back to the thought that I don’t want any of that, I don’t want it to take away my joy again. I want to sit at the keyboard, or have my pen in hand and just enjoy what I’m doing, and really be internally proud of what I make — not seek out the mostly empty likes and follows.

In the end, when I’m don here on this earth, none of that is going to matter to me. What will matter is whether or not I laid down my pen or stopped playing the piano, or never wrote that book simply because I couldn’t deal with the external pressures. Whether I end up writing 2 books or 100, I’ll be happy that I simply did them all, not whether I sold a million copies.

Are those two things mutually exclusive? of course not. But I don’t pretend that the latter comes easy. And maybe it is as simple as I’m not willing to make the sacrifices or compromises necessary to achieve those kinds of goals. But what does happen as a result is that I enjoy what I’m doing, don’t have to worry about outside opinions too much, and produce something I’m truly proud of.

It is never lost on me that I couldn’t have done that without everyone who believed in what I was making.

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The hallways of the school had that bouquet of old varnished wood and the lingering scent of school lunches. If I closed my eyes, I could picture my own elementary school, closed now ten years ago. The ceilings were tall, unlike at my old school, where it felt like I had somehow tripled in size.

I found my way to the office and got my little name sticker announcing that my presence was validated, but I got the sense there was no high security here. I might have just been able to wander the halls if I knew where to go. I heard a basketball game being played and there was some young boy in the office who was explaining why he shouldn’t be there; it was all a misunderstanding, he said.

Student sprinkled the halls, some in between classes, others reading at a desk outside classrooms. Outside my designation classroom, I found both name plates but the door were shut. I was a little early, I guess. A student asked me if she could help and I told her who I was looking for. She confirmed I was in the right place.

I started to get my things out to maybe rehearse my little presentation one last time when the door opened and another student noticed me and announced to the classroom, ‘The guest is here.” So I hauled my box and backpack inside instead.

The classroom was humid and hot. There was no air moving inside, but all the students were engrossed in their chrome books working on something. A few looked up for a moment, wondering why I had wandered in.

I was early because I knew from experience that technical difficulties are expected. Myf first reading the video HDMI inputs just didn’t work and I had to improvise to show my slides. The second time needed a little rearrangement of cables. Here I just had to get the Apple TV up and running and switch an input on the projector and we were ready to go.

The fourth grade students gathered around on the carpet just like the Young Fives and Second graders did. I admit I was worried that fourth graders might be too jaded, find this too passé, but I was wrong; they were just as excited to hear what I had to say, and were eager to share. I was able to hear from just about everyone about what they liked to draw and what they liked to write.

Drawing #1.

This time I figured I had more of an attention span, as I was assured that second graders can’t sit still for more than 20 minutes so I planned my presentation accordingly. I had more planned for this one. After introducing myself and talking a bit about my first book, The Blob and having a few dad jokes fall somewhat flat, I had them do a little drawing. They all jumped at the opportunity.

This is what I remembered from doing art workshops in a previous life. The cynic might think that students just wanted something, anything, to distract from doing math problems on Chromebooks, but I think pretty much universally, all the students I ever worked with genuinely relished the opportunity to create something. These students were no different.

I had them think about and drawing a pebble, or a rock, or a bug, or anything they imagined in the grass. I skipped this part with the 5 and 8 year olds only because of time, but in retrospect I wish I would have tried it. The fourth graders mostly loved to share what they did, proud of what they dreamed up, from colorful flowers and spiders. I was so happy that they weren’t yet afraid of sharing.

After the drawing I went into my reading, and they all listened well. I didn’t get any giggles on my one silly voice, though they couldn’t stop snickering at the voice of The Three when I played that portion of the audiobook. I talked about revision, both in writing and drawing, and impressed upon them that it takes practice and persistence. One student asked me, “How long have you been doing this?”

What’s old is new

I’ve been drawing since I was probably 4 or 5. I wrote with freedom in Kindergarten and up through probably fifth grade. But after about seventh grade, I mostly stopped. I still wrote because I had to, but I didn’t write the kinds of stories like I did when I was younger.

I’ve only really been doing this with any real intent for the past 5 years. Between middle school and now, it’s felt like me constantly rediscovering this thing that I know I like to do, kind of like Hey, remember this? Yeah. you like to do this stuff. Maybe you could keep doing it now?

These fourth graders, like all the other students and my own two kids, remind me of the reasons why I do this. The way they dug into the drawing, the way they listened quietly to me read and picture what was going on as they listened to the audiobook. They way they all tried diligently to fold an origami elephant, and the amazement and wonder when they finally figured out how to fold it. They enjoyed the process, the doing.

I’ve figured out at least that I can’t not do this. It takes a while; I am not prolific. But what I do create I enjoy every sketch and revision, and in the I’m proud of what I create.

It’s sometimes difficult to remember that that’s what this has always been about for me. I have the kids to thank for the reminder.

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No time to waste.

My cousin passed away almost two years ago. We were writing buddies, even though he lived in a different state. We actually didn’t really know each other all that well, because he lived so far away the only memories I have of him prior to recent years was once in middle school and one other time in elementary school.

Part of the reason was that he had Cystic Fibrosis — a chronic illness he lived with his entire existence. NO one actually expected him to live longer than 13. But treatments improved, and he lived much longer than that.

I remember playing old D&D action games on a monochrome laptop. This was back in the 80s, mind, and the idea of a portable computer was absolutely mind-blowing. It was the first and only time I ever played Space War — but I never forgot how much fun that was.

In middle school he said he never forgot watching me play Rastan on my Sega Master System. In our online chats in his last years he would often refer to me as Iiyan the Barbarian — a reference to the game. Other times he called me a Ninja because of my Japanese heritage.

Starting in 2014 or so, three years before he died, we somehow got in contact again. I don’t really remember the circumstances anymore. Looked back through his writings that I later found, he had been through a lot starting around 2009. His health started failing noticeably. Both his brother and his father passed away. It was just my cousin and my Aunt.

He told me he was working on a trilogy, a Sci-fi Western mashup, set in a fictional alternative reality of the United States. There were Slyphs and Succubus, Elves and Ogres, Vampires and talking were-rats as heroes. Despite my brief involvement with traditional D&D, it was not a genre I was very familiar with.

We started supporting each other over Skype, mostly online chat. Later I discovered he was rather prolific online, a part of many chat rooms and MUX, and frequency online with AOL before it went defunct. He didn’t live to see it go away.

That was when I started hearing about his health more often. More than ever, he knew he was going to die, sooner than he wanted, and he had two major fears: that he would leave his mother all alone, and he might not finish his book.

Because of his lack of lung capacity brought on by years of cyst damage to his lungs, by 2015 he had very little energy. He had developed Type 2 diabetes on top of CF at some point. So if you imagine feeling like you had little time left in the first place, this was only made worse by the fact that he had to sleep a lot, manage his blood sugar, and maybe have 4-5 hours of being awake during a day.

It wasn’t always like that. Before 2014, I think he had a relatively fine life. He was able to get out and tend to horses. He traveled to Japan with his family in high school. But he couldn’t do any of that more.

And yet despite all this, he managed to write, draw relentlessly, and finish an art degree. Without any special treatment (besides perhaps a bit of understanding that things took him several times longer than other students). He finished drawings, paintings, and sculptures. His tenacity humbled me. Yes, I was tired because I had two young children under the age of 5, but I still managed to cave under my own procrastination and fear of failure far more than he did. But at the same time, he inspired me.

In 2015 he lamented he would have to condense his trilogy into a single book, and whatever remaining time he had left he would have to spend doing that. “Then maybe you can finish it for me,” he typed into the skype chat one day. I had never heard anyone else say something like that so plainly. I am going to die, and soon.I don’t think I promised out loud that I would finish it, but I thought it to myself.

I set him up with an editor, a friend of mine. I never really asked, but he never shared any part of the book with me. I knew she would be good for him, because I sensed he was hesitant to get any kind of feedback, that his confidence was already tenuous enough. He didn’t outwardly complain day to day, but I know he felt discouraged, as all writers are. And how could he not? I still ask myself this question. How do you write, day to day, knowing that you will die soon, not really knowing if anyone will ever care for what you wrote? Then I ask, How could you not write knowing your time was finite?

It turned out she was great for him. He submitted the entire manuscript and she helped him tweak some parts. He was open to the feedback. He managed to get through about two-thirds of the whole thing with her input. We didn’t chat that much for a while after I set him up.

And then in July, he signed on.

“Hey Iyan,” he said. It was just before noon.

“Was playing pokemon with Eliot,” I replied.

I didn’t hear anything until after 5pm. That wasn’t anything particularly out of the ordinary.

5:50 pm.

“I’m here in hospiece (sic). Still haven’t gotten him. Home. She’s giving me good benefit for the money so far, “ he said, in reference to my editor friend. “For my edits.”

I was eating dinner so I didn’t respond until an hour later.

“That’s good! How so, What’s she done do far?”

“…Given me some poitns about contradictions in my writing, which I guess I didn’t think about beforehand. Writing is hard work. I just wish I could write it, through it at someone, and let them finish it. If I weren’t so ill this wouldn’t be such a chore.”

Nod, I responded. “Remember where you started, and where you are now.” I hoped it might give him some perspective — he had written over 100,000 words, and that was culled from a larger trilogy. He didn’t respond.

Nearly a week passed. All throughout our correspondence, that wasn’t entirely unexpected. Sometimes he would go days without signing on.

“Hope you’re doing better today, buddy. Are you home now?”

No answer.

Three more days, I signed on. “I’ll be up tonight, doing something.” I said. Often we’d let each other know the other was listening. But there was no answer.

Three more days.

“Hope you’re doing okay and finding some time to write,” I told him.

Another week.

“I got some really good edits in this week… hope you are too,” I said.

That was at 8:59pm on July 22nd, a Saturday. I didn’t know it at the time, but according to the death certificate, he had passed away about an hour prior. I don’t know if he ever signed on in those days before, if he even saw my messages. My dad called me to tell me. We were up north, away from home.

The next day, I signed on again.

“Bye Vince,” I said.

Since then I have signed on to that chat a few times. The history is still there, from the time we switch from AOL to Skype, about two years of chat history. I signed on to tell him that I was working on his book, reassuring him that we would finish it.

It took nearly a year and a half, but I finished his book. My aunt printed 100 copies. It was nearly 400 pages, with an appendix of his artwork. I signed on to Skype to let him know.

“We did it buddy,” I told him.

I still get discouraged with my writing. I somehow get distracted from my personal goals. But then I remember Vince didn’t have time to waste fretting. I know he had his moments, but he kept it together enough to finish what he started. He wrote because it brought him purpose and joy, and because he knew he had no time to waste. Today he sparked that in me again, reminding me that you just gotta stick with it.

I signed onto Skype again today to let him know I heard him.

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Music Box

Long ago, I was enthralled with soundscapes on tape. They were stories I loved, read by actors, and they painted a lush picture in my mind every time I listened.

While writing Zōsan and Tamaishi, I always knew I would write music to go along with them.

For a few weeks, Eliot requested to listen to a particular piece every night, falling asleep with it playing on repeat. I sensed he had a connection to it that I wanted to preserve. It was a written for the character Tayoki, a sparse piece played on a Japanese koto, but played in such as way that it echoes both Asian and Celtic sensibilities.

I’ve come to realize that part of my vision is create a tangible legacy: artifacts Eliot and Marcel can hold and remember. So I set out to create hardbound books and boxes for them. I plan on burning the audiobooks to millennial discs, which is my best shot at data longevity.

But it occurred to me: we have music boxes forty years old that still play. One is from Christine’s childhood that plays Happy Birthday, with a small wooden train and a place for a small wooden number. Another music box plays a tune I can’t name but two little figures twirl and dance around as the box spins. And of course, we have the Fisher price record player, although this one takes AA batteries an no longer actually reads the plastic records like a music box should.

Happy Dance!

So while I can do what I can do preserve all these things while I’m still here, I couldn’t shake the idea of making a custom music box — because I want to make things that my great grandchildren read, hear and experience. A music box, though archaic is made of metal and is an artifact that would survive generations. But… how to do it?

This dream would lead me down a number of paths. I thought about doing it myself but I have little skill in metal, nor do I really have the time to pursue it. I contacted Sankyo in Japan since their site suggested they might make a music box with a new tune, but declined, saying they could not ship anything outside of Japan. A company out in Hollywood claimed to do so but never got back to me after the first email. There were digital options but these never were satisfying. Batteries wear out and might become unavailable, and it would defeat the purpose, which was to make this something that would be playable for generations.

Ultimately I found an artist in Vermont, Jonathan Herz, who is still creating these musical time capsules of old. His best work is astounding: mechanisms that can play for minutes, subtly shifting their oversized cylinders to a different section of the piece through meticulous and immaculate mechanical movement. They are never something I’ll be able to afford. But one thing he was able to do was modify an existing music box movement.

That seemed like it would make this possible.

I was able to find one at a woodworking store online. It was a genuine Sankyo 30-note movement that played Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers. I took it as a sign that this was meant to be, because that particular piece happens to be one of my favorites. So I jumped in.

The process took several months. I had to reduce the original piece that lasted over a minute and a half down to thirty seconds. I was able to piece together some of the best parts into one arrangement. I sent it as a MIDI file to Jonathan. He had a wonderful suggestion to add a bass line to the piece which really enhances the second half.

When it was complete and silently arrived at my door I was overjoyed. It had really happened: a piece of my music, carefully inscribed on this tiny metal cylinder, singing its twinkling song to me.

I hope this is something that Eliot and Marcel will keep to remember me. Eliot in particular will probably be whisked away to distant memories of his dad, falling asleep peacefully saying “I love you Daddy.”, as I am transported when I listen to my music box that plays Swan Lake, remembering a time from long ago. All from a little wind up box.

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Panster turned plotter…

I never thought of myself as a plotter (I thought of myself as more of a panster) . Today, however, I just re-re-re-wrote the outline to my next chapter book about Naio the feather, and finally — it feels solid.

It felt hopeless here and there, like I’d never figure out the details or be satisfied with the way everything weaved together. Instead, I just kept thinking, jotting down ideas, and letting it rest if I got stuck; this is one very big reason why I don’t want editors or contracts or deadlines breathing down my neck. It would have turned this into more of a dire exercise, rather than the satisfying thought process it turned out to be.

Now I know how Naio changes from beginning to end; I know how the story ends and what is the main conflict. I’ve woven in a few side stories and given some depth to the other characters and why they exist, as well as some other characters that remain slightly enigmatic and symbolic.

The rest of the work, of course, is in how the story gets written, but at least I have a clear outline of chapters and progression. Now I can sit down and carve out each interaction and dialogue, in whatever order, and refine refine refine until it’s done, all the while hopefully dreaming up ways to make the images in my head become drawings.

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Upcoming Events

April 14 — I’ll be at the Brighton Public Library from 2:00 – 4:00pm.

June 22 — I’m participating in a Local Author Bookfest in Novi, at the Hilton Garden Inn 10:00am – 6:00pm

Friday thru Sunday, July 12–14 — The Plymouth Art in the Park fair! Come see all the amazing booths and join us at our very own local author booth!