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Michael McCormack

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    Northern New England
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    Running, hiking, travel, reading, writing, nature, photography, art appreciation, painting and drawing, watching documentaries, progressive politics

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  1. Respite – Memoir by Michael McCormack (preface and first chapter).pdf Story Statement: An environmentally conscious, psychologically damaged photographer spends a quarter century capturing epic landscapes and iconic cities on film, while trying to escape the memory of a traumatic 1970’s summer and its closely guarded family secrets. Eloquent pictures gradually become a trail of thirty-five-millimeter breadcrumbs spread across each page, foreshadowing loss, betrayal and violence. Those same secrets force the photographer into making a devastating choice between madness or permanent estrangement from all he has known, in order to become a better man and retain his humanity by embracing nature instead of conflict. Antagonist: The principal antagonist is gradually revealed to be the protagonist’s brother (J.P.), while chronic untreated depression serves as a formidable co-antagonist throughout. The biblical story of Cain and Abel (though never referred to in the narrative) will be brought to mind, as two emotionally crippled young men struggle to overcome a highly dysfunctional, Irish Roman Catholic upbringing by finding solace in their respective creative talents. As the men age, the bonds that once intimately bound them, are slowly undone by the suicide of a cousin and the crucifying death of the family patriarch from dementia. The photographer’s guilt over not having saved his younger brother from the family’s neurotic grip when he once had the chance, poignantly echoes throughout the story. The reader will come to see this failure as the source of J.P.’s eventual betrayal of his brother, as well as the senselessly violent confrontation near the book’s conclusion that nearly destroys them both. Breakout Title: Respite – A photographic memoir of madness and resurrection Magic Hours of the Loon – A memoir of madness, love, and pictures Shutter – One man’s journey from madness to mercy through a camera’s lens The Crying Manifesto - A man's photographic journey through mental illness to redemption Comparable Books: Molly Crabapple – Drawing Blood Sally Mann – Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs (Both of these well received books are comparable to my manuscript because they are beautifully written by professional artists who overcame personal adversity through creativity, and found larger truths about family, society, and themselves within their art) Hook line/Core wound & primary conflict: A. Hook line – An eccentric male nature photographer passionately attempts to emulate his artistic hero’s life by embracing his own untreated mental illness as a creative muse, with eventual tragic consequences (imagine Vincent Van Gogh with a camera instead of a paint brush, transplanted from 19th century France to contemporary New England). B. Core wound – At age twelve the protagonist witnessed his mother’s infidelity, keeping the secret to protect her, and save his parent’s marriage. With a thirty-five-year vow of silence came the betrayal of his father, and a lifetime of guilt. The experience undermined his trust in women, a belief in the concept of family, and fostered years of self-reproach. As an adult man, disappearing into the creation of a photograph becomes his drug of choice (the way in which he deals with the wound), as the photographer forgoes intimate relationships in favor of beautiful images that cannot cause pain. But emotional dissatisfaction and loneliness only intensifies his chronic depression, for which he refuses treatment. C. Primary conflict – This story’s principal dilemma can be summed up with a sardonic line from its ninth chapter: “Untreated depression is the logical extension of my citizenship – like so many men walking amongst us, I have a concealed carry permit for madness.” The photographer wrongly believes American men cannot speak of their emotional pain without losing their dignity and stature as men. The conflict in this narrative comes from the photographer’s growing self-awareness, understanding that his despair will ultimately lead to self-destruction of one form or another, yet depression fuels his desire to create pictures – his work with a camera providing the only meaning or joy in his life. Great care is taken to show – through metaphor and physical descriptions – how rapidly a depressive’s mind can turn against them, even under the most benign of circumstances. The protagonist struggles (and ultimately fails) to keep a darker nature hidden within, with near disastrous results as the story progresses to its redemptive conclusion. Other matters of conflict: A. Inner conflict – The great inner conflict of this narrative comes from the photographer’s gradual understanding that the better part of his adult life has been spent hiding behind the protective bubble of a camera lens. He can only view life as an artistic observer, but doesn’t yet possess the psychological tools needed to actually live it fully. By the middle of the book, while photographing the Eiffel Tower at night from the Seine the photographer realizes a camera can no longer shield him from the great flood of human longings. There is a growing, dramatic awareness within this man’s soul, of beautiful places and passing moments seized on film only being appreciated for their value as a potential work of art. Yet the distraught photographer can only shut the cacophony of voices in his head off for any appreciable length of time when he is actively taking pictures – the source of his inner conflict. B. Secondary conflict – The secondary conflict within this story is slowly revealed to the reader with clues plainly spread out across the page, as in a novel. Throughout the story, vital information about family dynamics, the protagonist’s mental state, human nature, and society are rather seamlessly blended into evocative interpretations of individual photographs – photos symbolic of grief, and portents of dramatic change. This secondary conflict is between the photographer and the story’s antagonist, his younger brother J.P. In the last part of this proposed book, the author makes the prescient observation “Most American men are only one humiliation away from having this distinction of being a man rendered utterly meaningless. One job loss, one catastrophic illness without health insurance, one failure to respond in a situation that demanded immediate action, and you are Sisyphus rolling that same stone up the hill again and again.” Those two sentences encapsulate how even brothers can come to blows in the worst of times. When their father is committed to a psychiatric ward against his will after a mysterious violent altercation, the story becomes a reckoning with ancient family secrets, long simmering resentments, and the evolving nature of American male identity. Setting: One of the many strengths of this 75,000+ word literary memoir is that its setting is in a constant state of flux (a larger reflection of both the photographers growing creative ambitions and raging psychological states). Locales and environments (both interior and natural) shift dramatically to great effect, keeping the reader on edge and heightening curiosity about where the next page might take them. A first chapter humiliating confrontation in a jail cellblock awakens the young would-be photographer to America’s social inequalities, before cinematically merging with the abandoned winter streets of a northern New England mill town; here, he aspires to create meaningful art as social commentary for the first time, where “sidewalks were covered in garnishes of broken glass, grimy alleyways displayed forsaken pieces of decapitated furniture, strewn about like dead fish after a hurricane. The detritus of an America where twelve years of neoliberal, supply-side economics had failed to trickle down to the lives of its working poor.” Gritty factory floors with “sweat extracting furnace ovens and cool chambers of poisoned air” eventually become stunning high mountain ridges where the protagonist begins the long process of teaching himself a new trade as a landscape photographer. The visceral presentation of the White Mountains to the narrative presents them as an antidote to dysthymia (his specific depression diagnosis). *The reader may begin to sense by the end of the memoir, that mountains have been a metaphor for depression all along, and he has been climbing them since the summer of 1995 to be on equal terms with the hardships they exact – something he has never been able to accomplish with depression Much attention is paid to the aesthetic details of how a landscape photographer selects a subject (often a symbol of unfulfilled longings), and the subject then becomes a portal on the page that bridges nature with concealed emotions or disturbing past events. For example, A lyrical rumination on an idyllic childhood of the early 1970’s living beside a wooded Connecticut riverbank is then contrasted with more details from the summer of 1977; A specific date (July 27, 1977) is noted for disturbing revelations hinting of danger to the family (children sleep in closets less susceptible to bullets). The imagery from this span of time is revealed in fragments throughout the memoir (deliberately throwing the reader off balance) as the photographer ages, coming to terms with an unsettling childhood as he moves deeper into middle age alone. The photographic shoots written about are geographically diverse, and no less revealing for their emotional, philosophical, or technical insights. A photographic capture of birch trees becomes the fulcrum for the memoir’s strong environmentalist ethos. The photographing of a Vermont pasture in fading summer light four days after 9/11, is linked to much larger themes, such as environmental degradation and Americans denial of their own history. In this way, the photographer’s mental illness (and unwillingness to treat it properly) is subtly merged in the text with the untreated neuroses of his own country. There is a jarring contrast between this man’s deeply conflicted psyche, and the utter guilelessness of the beautiful landscapes he obsessively photographs, in the same way Van Gogh once painted Provence. Evocative sentences such as “Sun burnished the scenery with an impressionistic confetti of autumn light that fell through the leaves onto a riot of earthen colors,” are followed by blunt declarations like “Empty beds and ring-less fingers are the cost for becoming a half-mad artist.” These literary contrasts foster an understated tension within the storyline. The author is drawing a parallel between toxic masculinity and the human race’s destruction of the Earth’s fragile ecosystems in favor of an economic system bent on unlimited consumption of finite resources. By now, the photographer’s political awakening has aligned his work with the antiwar and environmental movements. The author provocatively asserts that America’s mentally ill continue to be stigmatized as weak in the same way that those who question the necessity of its endless wars are. In this way, he begins to tie the circumstances of his own life (and photography) to a growing awareness of America’s more corrosive myths about itself. *One of this proposed book’s unique narrative devices is that the author has combined the highly descriptive prose of a well-traveled journalist with the literary sensibilities of poetry to firmly establish setting, and bring to life for the reader the imagery of photographs and how they came into being. On the page these photographs serve a dual purpose: Illustrate the photographer’s creative growth over a long span of time, while providing a set of clues as to the psychological chaos that lies beneath the surface. Great cities like New York and Paris are then explored in detail by the now professional photographer, as he seeks out more challenging motifs beyond the natural world. Photography is now being examined, not just as an artform, but as a philosophical plea for greater understanding. The contrasts between rural landscapes and city are dramatic and intentional, but no less emotional. The city settings are where the reader will begin to interpret echoes of pending tragedy on these pages of elegiac prose lit by Paris twilight and New York skyscrapers. The unique dynamics of a New England Irish catholic family are showcased for the reader with flashbacks – an “ancient heritage of suffering” that only ensured “we were doomed to piss blood together in heaven or link arms across hell.” He reimagines his father and himself again in early-1970’s Manhattan, “disappearing into a gauzy haze of cigarette smoke, suede suits, and soft pretzels lying on steaming charcoal grills.” Iconic New England locations are then featured, such as Cape Cod’s National Seashore, Down East Maine, Boston’s Italian North End, Gloucester, rural Vermont in autumn, the White Mountains, Cape Elizabeth, and ultimately, Death Valley for the memoir’s surprising epilogue. These settings are all constructed around descriptions of a psychiatric ward where the photographer’s father spends his final days. The ward is a precursor to a final confrontation between brothers. The author uses the confrontation to posit the idea that men are prone to violence because of an outdated belief that it’s the only way the world will acknowledge their pain without reducing their masculinity in the process. By the epilogue set in the transcendent California desert, the author concludes after surviving four decades of depression, that the neuroses of modern life are inextricably linked to mortality and man’s omnipresent fear of death – a belief nature photography has only reinforced. The memoir concludes that it is in nature where human beings are most likely to overcome their worst characteristics, like conflict, resentment, and selfishness. He has finally found the courage to stop hiding behind a camera, live fully in the moment, and embrace a life of meaning through his travels and relationships.
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