I step out of the student secretary office into the sun and cross the street to the library in order to sit down and write my final thoughts on Tuebingen. I am leaving soon, spending the night at a friend’s flat before flying home tomorrow morning. As I pass across the street, I nearly stumble into The Naked Man.
The Naked Man stands in the park every day and has done so for the past few months, often half-naked. People say he’s crazy. He is a homeless man who dresses either in grass-streaked tidy-whities or a full suit. His favorite hobbies include snapping the branches off trees, assuming fighting stances, drinking beer, and laughing at strangers. He often walks toward strangers in order to laugh at them. That’s so strange, so unnverving.
When I bump into The Naked Man, he gives me a queer look, a cocktail mixture of anger and curiosity. And so I ask in German, “Hey, man, I’ve been watching you for some time now. Why do you do the things you do? I mean, it doesn’t make sense. You stand there and kick the air or talk with strangers? Why do you approach random groups of people to laugh at them?”
And that’s all I want to know, the underlying absurdity of his actions. A reason. A meaningful reason.
The Naked Man stares at me, his mouth breaking into a grin.
And he laughs. And laughs. And says nothing more.
I woke with a sickness and no access to the Internet. My head slick with sweat and my stomach cramped with pain, I climbed out of bed and zombie-crawled across the room to my laptop. A morning ritual in which I tell myself I will write and instead spend seven hours updating my Twitter. But the Wifi in the dormitory was on the fritz, web pages opening blank-white and browsers crashing. Instead, I clicked open a Word Document and waited for creation to begin. Even immured in the wasteland of Internet-less boredom, I could not write. A story, maybe. A poem, at least. Or edit something. I could write an essay, I didn’t care, but I needed to create. Over the past three weeks, however, I had stopped writing altogether. Each story began to feel insipid, each poem dull and contrived. It was the sickness, the strange sickness that would not allow me to write.
I could not create anything new. I was too tired or bored or sad or ill to pen anything that inspired me. Instead, I stared at the blank screen, a tiny line blinking on, off, on, off, hoping that some muse would consume me. That I would swell with pride at some fresh sentence, some poetic turn-of-phrase that scintillated in the glare of the sun. If you wait around long enough, I’ve heard, something will come; some storm of energy and imagination will burst through your windows and sweep you into new mental territory. But no such hurricane battered my windows.
In fact, it was a pleasant and warm day, the gentle sun seeping through my barely-open blinds. But I could not create. Like God on the seventh day. Perhaps he too was a writer weary of his mistakes. He rested on the Seventh day, and on the Eight Day when he returned to revise the manuscript, he convulsed with horror at the stitches of sin and ugliness he had accidentally included. An Earth riddled with typos and grammatical confusion. Perhaps he abandoned the project altogether.
That’s how I felt—how sick—that if I had skipped a stone across space and formed the solar system, I wouldn’t even want to take credit for the work.
With no access to Web MD, I decided to ride a bus into town, where I could peruse the library for a medical book. When I arrived at the library, however, I had trouble locating any such text. The young clerk at the front desk told me that they had some old medical books somewhere in the archives and lead me to a small, dusty room brimming with drawers. When the clerk left, I began pilfering each drawer for the books on medicine. I found only one, an odd, ancient tome with a simple title.
Ailments and Cures.
The book’s leather cover was stained the shade of human skin, its pages thin as those of a Bible. But not an illustrated Bible, the Gutenberg sort you might observe in awe at a museum; its pages were flimsy, like the copies of The New Testament missionaries hand out during county fairs. Alone in the room, I slumped against the wall and began reading. The book was filled with odd entries, describing a range of diseases and illnesses I did not recognize—the symptoms and the names of these seemed made-up. But fiction too offered me comfort; if these were bogus ailments, then I could more easily have one. If I were in the business of creation, then I too would suffer from a created ailment. I laughed at this thought and located eventually an antiqued condition known as Artist’s Ennui.
The name was righteously sardonic. I explored the first few pages of the book to see when it had been published, but there was no date. No name. Just a title. Strange. At this point, I felt the first pang of nausea, a startling vertigo shuddering through my body. But I dismissed the feeling immediately. The name of the ailment seemed like self-parody, the name a self-important artist would give to his writer’s block.
Under the entry in small font read the word cure, and under this word lay the book’s sole suggestion: go into the woods.
I read the entry again, affirming that I was indeed suffering from these side effects, and then pressed my finger against the section marked cure. This was a strange answer to a strange question, and a wave of whimsy undertook me. Of course I would follow the directions of a random book more than a hundred years old. It seemed like the perfect idea, stupid but beautiful in its simplicity. Just walk into the woods.
As a child, I often found solace in the woods. There was a natural park very close to where I lived, situated within the city limits; within minutes, I could delve into the pine barrens and get lost. Here in Germany, however, I had not yet sufficiently explored the sprawling forests surrounding the city. Here, if I breathed a bit of mountain air and pressed my hands to a few old trees, those righteous coffins of the Earth’s morose memories, the energy would return. Creation from creation, a cycle—I would gather up everything dead in the wilderness and make it come alive on the page.
I had already a backpack with me, and after leaving the library, I visited a grocery store. I bought a large bottle of water, a pre-made sandwich wrapped in cellophane, and a bunch of bananas. I stuffed the food and water into my backpack with a notebook and light rain jacket before setting out.
Behind one of the academic buildings in the city stood a hill—they called it here the Eastern Mountain, though it was undoubtedly just a hill. A green slope inclining up toward the sky, its peak ridged by a tangle of forest. I loved the view on the hill and decided to enter the forest there. Better there than anywhere else.
I rode the bus to the base of the hill and looked upwards. From this angle, the slope seemed steeper, the peak of the hill much higher than I remembered. Along the base of the hill ran a small path that borders a stream, and bikers zipped up and down its pavement. One woman rushed by me on roller skates, carrying a briefcase in her grip.
I tightened the straps of my knapsack and begin the long ascent. I scaled the first five hundred feet quickly before my legs began to strain. My jellified muscles pulsated and squirmed under the duress of fresh exercise after so many dormant days. I followed a simple dirt trail, which divided the hill in half, its path rugged with the weight of previous travelers. The night before, it rained, but now the clouds lightened. The mud dried, trapping there trampled shoeprints in limited posterity. On either side of the steep path, wildflowers stretched their spines toward the sun. The fields were brown as pancake syrup, singing with thousands of flying insects.
I continued up the hill until my legs could walk no more, then collapsed in a patch of grass. Below me, the city looked smaller, the way the world appears from an airplane window as the aircraft takes flight. After resting, I climbed back to my feet and jogged briskly to the top of the hill until my heart thumped against my chest and my breathing pained me. As I doubled over there, the hill conquered, I spotted a man in odd-colored clothing seated on a black bench.
The bench stood further up the slope, halfway between myself and the edge of the forest. Up close, the forest appeared more sinister. Below us stretched fields of yellow weeds. The man waved at me as I approached.
“Good morning,” he said. He spoke in a lilting British accent.
He wore a silk white shirt and a black morning coat, clothing too formal for this setting. His long, black hair flowed down his shoulders. He looked like someone who had just stepped out of a Romantic painting.
“Hey,” I said back to him. I paused on the trail and looked toward the trees.
“You must be on your way to the woods,” he said. Seeing my expression, he cracked a smile. “I’ve watched many young people venture into the forest. Long as I’ve been here, they’ve been passing me by. But I would not suggest it. Stay here. Stay with me.”
“Why can’t I go into the woods?” I asked. I wanted very deeply to visit the woods now, propelled by some absurd notion of destiny. The book told me to visit the woods, and now I had to do as the book said.
The man hunched forward and spread out his arms. He gestured to the expansive field, a landscape of sun-soaked gold. “I wouldn’t quite know why it’s a bad idea,” he said, “but I do know that it’s better to stay here. Those that wander into the woods don’t come back.”
“How so, don’t come back?”
“Don’t ask me. I’ve never made it so far as the edge. You know, that’s the real secret. Balance on the edge of the dark and the unknown, but don’t go inside.”
I shrugged. “Okay. I need to go anyways. I am not sure why I must go, but I can’t stay here.”
“If you insist on entering the woods,” he said, “at least sit with me first. Appreciate the world from my perspective.”
I conceded and sat beside the young man. He appeared boyish, his face peach-pink and shining. “What’s your name? Why are you wearing those funny clothes.”
“John,” he said, shaking my hand. “My name’s John Keats.”
“No way. Don’t mess with me.”
“Nothing. Uh, John, what’s in the forest?”
“I can’t say what’s there, but I will tell you what’s out here. Out here, you’ve got the sky. You’ve got the fields. You’ve got the expanse of nature. There’s too much beauty here to abandon the day to the forest. Imagine. There’s an infinite number of places you could travel instead. Here, you can see the sky, glimpse the perfection of Heaven. You can observe the possibilities of human existence.”
“It’s really nice up here, John. You’re right.” I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths. “But you know I can’t stay here.”
“Why not? I’ve been here a very long time,” he said. “It’s better to stop now, while you’re surrounded by beauty. Up ahead, who knows how dark it could be? You’ll never be so young as you are now. Those that stay here, in this eternal paradise, we’ll be happy forever.”
I cocked my head. “That’s the problem. I’m very unhappy now. I know I’m young and healthy. Intellectually I can rationalize why I should enjoy life. But I wouldn’t want to live in this moment forever. If there are so many possibilities in life, I don’t wish to only contemplate. I want to experience them as well.”
The fields around me appeared beautiful and the sky beckoned to me. Below lay the Earth’s fissure-wrinkled cheeks, warm and knowable. I wished to stay here with the young man, but I knew I had to reach the forest. After a few minutes appreciating the sun and warmth, I stood up and continued down the path.
“So long,” I told him. “You are a very odd man.” I paused. “Is your name really John Keats?”
“I don’t know. It’s just weird, that’s all. There’s someone famous, used to have the same named.
“Well, no one really knows me,” he said with a simple shrug. “Must be someone else.”
I felt as if I were in a dream. I walked toward the forest, the trees looming larger. Near the edge of the forest, the path split, one half wisp-ing deep into the gut of wilderness, the other slithering along the circumference of the field. I turned right, ferns pressing against my bare legs.
Once I passed into the forest, the scenery changed. Here, the air was colder, the sun filtered through the canopy of trees. The path narrowed. Thorns kissed my skin as I trudged into the dim maw of foliage. I walked for nearly five minutes, the path growing more faint as I continued on. Everything green and alive grasped at me as I walked further, the dirt path sloping dramatically. I must have reached the peak of the hill, the path winding back through a labyrinth of trees of wild shrubs.
After thirty minutes, I paused and sat down to drink from my water bottle. I didn’t feel any more enlightened. I certainly didn’t feel cured. But the forest awed me. I wasn’t sure where the trees ended or when I might come out on the other side of the forest. I knew that several villages laid in close proximity to the city, and I should have come upon one of them by now. Ignoring my anxiety, I climbed back to my feet and continued along the path. The dirt way split many times in the forest, and when I arrived at each fork, I chose my direction randomly. The book from the library was very unspecific about how I might cure my “ennui.”
The forest grew stranger. The mud here was still wet, a slick black sludge pregnant with last night’s rain. The canopy above consisted of tangled branches, tightening, blocking out the spaces where the sun might creep through. Flies, large as plums, whizzed past my head. I swatted at them, believing they might be bats, and then hurried deeper and deeper still.
I had been looking at my feet, bored and still unable to create, when I stepped into a beautiful clearing. Like the ones from a fantasy movie, the kind in which you might find Excalibur. Sunlight leaked silver upon lush, green grass. Around the edge of the clearing hung tie-dyed sheets. I found this very strange, but this meant that others might be in the forest. If I encountered a local, I could ask directions to the nearest bus stop or train station. I could go home. Already I had finished off half of my water bottle. When I looked behind me, it was difficult to discern the path, and if I ventured back alone, I was afraid I would become lost.
As I wandered into the clearing, brushing my fingers against the rainbow curtains, I noticed a man at the far end. He was ancient, his white beard Rip-Van-Winkle-long and spilling onto the grass in front of him. He sat cross-legged on a large, flat stone with his eyes closed. He wore a pair of circular glasses. I walked toward him and paused five steps away. He opened his eyes.
“Well?” he asked.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“God,” he said in a peaceful voice.
“No, of course not. You know who I am.” He seemed to be laughing, his shoulders bouncing, though he made no sound.
I stood for a moment, perplexed. He did look familiar, especially his circular glasses. “I’m sorry. I have no clue who you are. What are you even doing in the middle of the woods?”
“Why do I need reason? Why are you in the middle of the woods?” He stood up and crossed his arms. He wore a long, white robe like a Merlin-styled wizard. “Do you really not recognize me?”
“No, I wish I did.”
I observed the man again, squinting and un-squinting my eyes. I could see the resemblance, though I didn’t believe the man. “But Lennon’s dead.”
“No, no,” he said. “That was an actor. You know how it can be. The CIA replaces you, then offs you. No, I’m not dead. I escaped.”
“Well,” I said. “If you are John Lennon, it’s very nice to meet you. I’ve been a fan of your music my entire life.”
“Don’t try to flatter me, kid. You didn’t even know who I was a few minutes ago.” He exhaled deeply. “You know, I’m trying to let go of ego. Trying to let go. It really doesn’t matter. I apologize. I forget how little you humans actually know about life.”
“Humans? Are you something other than human?”
John Lennon laughed. “Of course I’m not a human. I’m an artist.”
“Oh, right. That makes sense. It’s strange, actually. I just met some guy claiming to be John Keats, maybe only an hour ago. And here, you’re supposed to be John Lennon.”
He rolled his eyes. “I guess I can’t blame you for not believing me. If so, fine, I won’t help you. Go on, find your own way.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, why exactly are you here?”
“A book told me to come here.”
He laughed. “That’s a laugh. What kind of book tells you to come to a place like this? Look, kid, it doesn’t matter.” He composed himself, standing taller and squaring his shoulders. “Let’s get this over. Sit down, right over here.” I sat down in grass as John Lennon crossed his legs again atop the flat rock. “So, tell me in truth, why are you here?”
I didn’t want to communicate with this strange John-Lennon-imposter, but I didn’t want to walk back into the woods either. I still had a sandwich to eat, but I figured that, if I befriend this crazy old man, he might give me food. I told him, “Well, I woke up today feeling really sick. Not like a fever or anything. Sick in a different way. I can’t seem to able to create. Writer’s block, you know?”
“Unable to create, huh? Well, what have you done about that?”
“I came here, into the woods.”
“Kind of drastic, don’t you think?” he asked. “Nobody comes to the woods for a no-good reason. You could have gone many places. Once upon a time, I had the same problem. I thought everything I was making, it was boring. You’ve heard of The Beatles, right? Course you have. We’re bigger than Jesus. You’ve heard that one before, huh? Figures. On the other hand, God’s got far better museums. You better believe it. Anyways, I was feeling lousy. Maybe like you. My love life was falling apart. Me and the boys, we were on a rise to fame. We had everything. But I still felt empty. So we traveled to India. And we discovered all these new instruments. And I thought, look, all my life I’ve been searching for new ways to make music, new sounds, when really the sound’s have been there all along. But I had not learned to listen yet.”
“How do I learn to listen then?”
“Well, start by shutting up and not interrupting me. That’s the problem with you young artists. You think you’ve actually got something to say that hasn’t been said before. What is it you do? Are you a musician?”
“I’m a writer,” I said.
“Poems? Novels? Plays?”
“Everything,” I said.
“A writer? Well, do what you want. But what have you ever written that’s actually meant anything? What have you ever said about the human condition that Shakespeare didn’t say first?” He paused for a response. “See, nothing. Absolutely nada. You’ve got to get out of your head, break free of your conventions. That’s the way.”
“But if I’ve got nothing new to say, why should I continue? I thought you were supposed to help me create again.”
John Lennon nodded. “Not exactly. I’m here to help you find the truth. I can’t do much more than tell you my opinion, though. I’m not God or anything. But there’s the real crux, kid. You want to write, but you’re not even sure what story you want to tell. You want to create, but you don’t understand where creation comes from. The whole world’s right in front of you, but you want to spend time dawdling in your head. It’s not my fault you’re stupid enough to become a writer. I mean, become anything else. Really.”
“I don’t believe John Lennon would actually say that,” I said.
“Well, I’m saying it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this forest, it’s this. You cannot let your ego get the best of you. Don’t worry about speaking about art. Don’t worry about the conversation about literature. And don’t think anyone owes you anything. That’s the mistake I made. I thought, the world needs my voice. I need to change my generation. But the truth is, my generation would have got on just fine without me. I’m no true messiah. You’re not either. No one is. The most you might ever accomplish is voicing the concerns of one person. Maybe helping one person fall in love or express joy or sorrow or fear or outrage. You’ve got to keep in mind, they’re just words.”
“Just words,” I repeated. “You know, you’re a bit crazy. But this was actually helpful.”
“Well, I am John Lennon. What did you expect?” He closed his eyes again. A moment later, he asked, “You read a book?”
“Yea, this book was a medical book. Told me to go into the woods. But now I’ve got to get out.”
“Get out? Don’t worry about that. If I were you, I’d stay right here with me. I’ve got loads to teach you, kid, but at the moment I’m a bit exhausted. I want to meditate. When I’m finished, we can talk about all sorts of things. Creativity and unbridled imagination. You’ve got to explore new lands with fresh eyes.”
I stood up. “I’m sorry, but I can’t stay here. That sounds really nice, Mr. Lennon, but I’ve got to get out of these woods. I don’t actually want to be here.”
Lennon nodded. “That’s the problem. People spend their lives contemplating, go into the woods or not. Go into the woods or stay safe in the sun. And no one understands, there’s no way back. There is no other side. But if you’re going to go further, you’ll want to bring something along.”
John Lennon stood up and retreated behind one of the tie-dyed sheets hanging at the edge of the clearing. When he returned, he clutched a pear-shaped instrument. “Here, takes this along. It’s a sitar. If you’re going to explore new places, you’ve got to explore their music as well. Then bring the music back into your own work. The whole point of art is to mix, mix, mix, mix everything possible until it’s only human.”
“Well, thanks,” I said, not knowing what else to say. Clutching the sitar, I waved farewell to John Lennon. “I meant what I said, Mr. Lennon. It’s a true honor. Sorry for not recognizing you before. You look a bit older than I imagined.”
“Art might not age, but the artist does. Just because someone remembers you, that doesn’t mean you live forever. Keep that in mind, Derek Berry. You can write every poem you want, blow up big as the planet Jupiter, and pretend to be God. But that won’t keep you from dying. In the meanwhile, you can’t left art stand in for life. It’s just a representation, just a hobby. Sure it might make life easier, but it’s not life itself. It’s not worth working if you’re not bothering to live.”
I nodded and then retreated into the forest. If this was a dream, it was a very strange and long dream. John Lennon even knew my name, which I found curious. I pushed back one of the tie-dyed sheets and continued following the path down, down, down. It seemed as if the path sloped downward always, in a slope much longer than the one I had previously ascended. When I looked back over my shoulder to spot the clearing, I saw only the thick, dark copse of trees.
After ten minutes of walking, I remembered my hunger. Though it must have been some time after noon, I could not be entirely sure. Through the thick branches above, I could not observe the location of the sun, and I never wore a watch. I sat down to eat, unwrapping my sandwich and stuffing the bread into my mouth. After I finished, I wiped the crumbs from my mouth and leaned back against the tree. I strummed a few strings from the sitar, though I felt extremely strange. I wasn’t even a musician. What was I supposed to do with a sitar?
Though I had heard others play the sitar before, I had never attempted to do so myself. As I did, I discovered how difficult it was to coax any sound from the instrument other than confusion. As I continued aimlessly plucking strings, I heard a distinct melody drift through the woods. I wasn’t makign that sound.
Someone was playing the electric guitar. Rock-and-roll spilled through the trees, growing louder and vibrating the ground. I must have stumbled upon some outside festival. Finally. I could find masses of people who could help me find my way back to the city.
As I sprinted toward the sound, I observed a large, wooden stage rising in the distance. When I reached the stage, though, I saw no people. There was only one black man standing on stage, dancing and playing a guitar by himself. Although the guitar was not hooked into any amplifiers, the instrument emitted a deafening sound. His pale-hued blues tumbled across the stage.
The man played guitar so loudly, I could hear hardly anything else. Then suddenly, when the man noticed my presence, he stopped playing rock-and-roll. Instead, he began to slap a beat against the guitar and began to rap. I could not quite understand what he was saying, but I recognized the words: he sang the verses of several famous rap songs, each remixed and conjoined. When he finally finished, he leapt from the stage and gave a slight bow.
I clapped for the man. He approached me. “Howdy there,” he said. “You must be lost.”
Up close, the man appeared very strange. He was in his forties, I guessed, and his skin seemed strange, almost too black. His hair was long and black as well, straight as a curtain. “Hello, could you maybe help me? I’m lost in these woods. And when I heard music, I thought there might be some people here.”
“Call me Smith,” he said. “Too bad you’re lost. I would help you, but I don’t know the way out the woods myself. That’s why I’m here. Biding my time until my next big gig. Practicing.”
He shook my hand, and when I pulled away, my palm was stained black.
“Is there shoe polish or something on your hand?” I asked.
“No, no, sorry, that’s just my stage make up.” He removed a small, white handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his face until he was no longer black. Underneath his black face was a white face. I recognized him immediately.
“Hey, you look just like Elvis.”
The man laughed. “In his own royal flesh.” Elvis flashed a grin. “Did you dig the song?”
I nodded. “I really enjoy hip hop, actually, but I thought you were supposed to be the King of Rock-and-Roll. Not rap.”
Elvis shrugged. “You’d be surprised. Some of the best songs are about black pain, and the way we express that changes over the years. So I’m trying to stay relevant, that’s all. That’s one of the reasons I want to look the part.” He gestured to his face and his still-black arms. “You know how good black grief can sound coming from a white tongue? Long as you’re speaking someone else’s words, white boy can wail just fine. Them others, they call it funeral music, but we call it rock-and-roll.”
I shrugged. “Okay, look, if you can’t help me—”
“What’s that?” He pointed at the sitar.
“It’s a sitar,” I said. “Do you know what that is?”
He shook his head.
“I’m unsure too. John Lennon gave it to me. It’s an instrument. From India, I think.”
“Looks a real beauty. Could I hold it?”
“Sure, just don’t break it.”
“No worries, Derek. I know all about India. I remember reading The Jungle Book in seventh grade, woohee, that place is wild. Talking snakes and dancing bears, wolf-cub-boys.” He began to play the sitar, strumming wildly. “Damn, that sounds like something new. That’s the secret, boy, did you hear? Go after what ain’t been done before. Explore new places. Bring it back to yourself. Mix it up. Don’t be afraid of the dark neither. Unknowing is our natural state.”
“Uh-huh, well, look, Elvis—it’s a pleasure to meet you and everything, but I’ve got to get going.”
“Man, you hear that? Ain’t no Indian sound. That’s a human sound. That’s the experience we’re swinging for—the human experience.”
“Sure, sure, Mr. Elvis, but I need to—”
His loud strumming drowned out my words, and I slowly backed away. When he stopped paying attention to my presence, immersed in the spell of the sitar, I wandered deeper into the forest.
As I passed further into the forest, crossing a stream by leaping from slippery rock to slippery rock, Elvis’ music faded. The slope became ever more treacherous, and I balanced on each stone with arms outstretched. I hopped over rot-tumor-ed roots and descended down, down, down. The slope grew ever stepper, and I grasped to overhanging branches to sustain balance. A cruel breeze sliced through the swath of trunks, massaging my bare skin, this frigid intimacy wrenching blood from my fingertips. A moment later, the slope evened out, and I stepped onto a dew-wet cliff.
Fifteen feet of emerald-green grass stretched from the edge of the trees and halted abruptly at a precipice. I approached the cliff’s ledge, wading through an ether of milk-foam fog, and peered down the length of the sheer cliff. From up high, I could not see the ocean. I closed my eyes and strained to listen, but beyond the fog I could hear only a haunted wind. I stepped away from the rim, looking over my shoulder at the arduously steep hill I had just descended. This did not make sense—the Earth could not continue dropping lower and lower, below the ocean, down, down, down until I slipped into the warm lakes of lava lurking beneath the crust.
“Not another one.”
I searched through the mist for the owner of the voice.
“Can’t he see I’m busy? Can’t he see I don’t have time for young artists or writers, whatever. If you’ve got your own problems, don’t come to me. Can’t you see I’m mourning?”
As I drew closer to the origin of the voice, I managed to discern a dark shape in the murky soup, a man wearing a black coat that draped down his back and splayed across the slick rocks. He wore his hair as a gentle wave, its black shape whipped into existence like chocolate mousse atop a cake. When he turned to face me, his gaunt face trembled—his eyes hollow as emptied whiskey bottles. A limp, brown moustache hung above his pallid lips.
“I’m sorry if I bothered you,” I told him. “I’ve been walking in this forest all day.” I gestured to the stretch of trees behind me. “It feels as if I have been here for hours, and I am unsure how to get out.”
“Hasn’t anyone explained yet? There’s no way out. Just down.”
I nodded. “I think I know who you are.”
He crossed his arms. “Let me guess. You want to sit beside me on this cliff and talk about your writing. Or painting. Whatever you’re doing. Which one are you?”
“Novelist and a poet.”
He rolled his eyes. “Well, if you insist on being both, you’ll be terrible at both. Like me.” He fixed his gaze on the sea. “So, what’s the problem with you, then? Call me Edgar, by the way.”
“Yea, I knew it. You’re Poe. Man, I love your stories. When I was a teenager, I remember reading the collection of your short stories. So dark.”
“What sort of story that centers on the human experience is not dark?”
“So, my problem is—I’m not sure what my problem is, to be honest. I just cannot write. For weeks, I have tried to write, but I always find myself bored or uninspired or sad.”
“Why are you sad?” he asked.
“Well, that seems more of a personal problem than a literary problem.”
Edgar shrugged. “You make the mistake of separating your personal life from your creative life. But they’re the same. You cannot address your problems as a writer without addressing your problems as a human being.”
“Well, I’m unsure. I mean, I don’t even know you. What, am I supposed to spill my guts to you?”
Edgar sighed and again. “You really are stupid and dull, aren’t you? Of course you know why you’re here. If you didn’t need to be here, you wouldn’t be here. You would not have come to this infernal forest. Everyone who comes to speak with me, they’ve got the same problems. Come on, use your head, Derek Berry. Where are we?”
“A cliff-side,” I said. And then, “A Kingdom by the Sea.”
Edgar nodded. “I like you young ones. You know my work and don’t mock it. Yes, the poem I wrote for my late wife Virginia.”
“Her name wasn’t Annabelle Lee?”
“Well, it’s called creative license, Derek. Now please, listen.” Edgar stood up, his black coat rippling in the breeze. “You were in love too?”
“Oh, is that how it works? Poof, one days love is gone.”
“No, I guess not.”
“At least she’s not dead.”
“How do you know that?”
Edgar smiled. “Where do you think you are, Derek? I know everything you know.”
“Yes, I suppose—that’s what it is. Lost love. But it’s got nothing to do with writing.”
“Did she read your writing?”
“Yea, she did.”
“And no one reads your writing anymore. You’re afraid that if one person cannot love you, then the world cannot love you.” Edgar sized me up. “Don’t look at me like that. I’ve been thinking these things for years. This is my punishment, to remain here. To remain obsessive. All my life, I kept drinking and sinking further into depression, and now I’m here. Now I’m damned.”
“Is this Hell? Is that what you mean by damned?”
Edgar did not answer. “Here’s my advice. I have thought long about this, so please do not interrupt, Derek Berry. You loved someone else more than you loved yourself. When she left, you forgot how to care for yourself. You could not imagine a future without her, and once forced to do so, you stopped. Stopped writing. Stopped living. You cannot center your future on one person. Otherwise you spend the present anxious over the past.”
I nodded. “Okay, but it’s not that easy, is it? I mean, sure I love myself. In the abstract. But still, it’s a difficult thing to even—to even live, you know?” I paused. “I guess you do. That’s why you’re here. Dead.”
“Dead is one word for it,” said Edgar. “Think on this. There are pieces of yourself you cannot give away. Some things leave you, the way in which you kissed the one you loved or the in-jokes you made under the sanctuary of blankets; other things stay, fragments that cannot be unstuck from you. Your love of inauthentic Mexican food. Your hands and the lines that labyrinth your palms. Your strange smile. Don’t be surprised, Derek, that I know what I’m talking about. I too spent years searching for everything I lost. The smell of your clothes change. The way you breathe might change. But you cannot keep holding onto what is lost, like the shriveled shell of a snake’s skin you must scrape from your new flesh. Do you understand me, Derek? Begin searching for the constants, the things that never change, the parts of you that make up you. Holding onto those fragments will help you accept the parts of you that you do not recognize.”
“So, are you saying that being a writer is a constant?”
“Well, I’m unsure,” said Edgar. “That entirely depends on whether or not you were writing for her or not. Me, I always had this dream—I was writing for the world. But the world thought me bitter and dark and strange. Children used to dog me in the streets, screaming, Nevermore. What sort of dull existence must a man endure when he can no longer love?”
“I am glad for the advice, but I’m unsure what love or romance have to do with romance.”
“If writing poems, or whatever it is you do, made her happy, do you still want to write poems? That’s what I mean. The crucial question. Why are you who you are? Are pieces of yourself still linked to her? That’s how it happens, or how it happened to me, at the very least. I had this concept that every good thing about me, every decent morsel of my being was linked to my love for Virginia, and when she died, so did every decent and beautiful portion of myself.”
We sat quietly for a long time. I wanted to ensure Mr. Poe that I did indeed love myself and that I did not want my life to be defined by heartbreak and depression as his had been, though I retained a glimmering anxiety about his warning. He was right, after all—I had spent the last weeks moping, feeling sorry for myself, lying in the grass most afternoons to escape work or thoughts or whatever. Even the small joys, like writing, had become a numb exercise in futility. I no longer believed I could write anything worthwhile without someone looking over my shoulder and telling me, Good job. I lacked any self-confidence in my work.
Contemplating these things, I stood up and thanked Poe before wandering along the edge of the cliff. I walked far left but found only that the rim of the crater below was endless. When I turned back around to begin trekking in the opposite direction, the distance that had taken thirty minutes to traverse suddenly became only two minutes. I encountered Poe again.
“Edgar, please, I appreciate your musings on writing and love. But I still am trapped in this damned forest or Hell or whatever, and I’m quite hungry. I’d love to go grab a Cuban sandwich, you know? Maybe not. But I need to leave this forest.”
“Were you even listening? I said, the only way out is down.”
“I thought that was a metaphor.”
He pointed into the sea of fog below. “No, it was not a metaphor.”
“So, what? I’m supposed to somehow climb down this cliff side?”
“Did I say climb, Derek Berry? I think it’s pretty obvious you need to jump.”
“But I will die.”
“I thought that’s what you wanted.”
“I mean, I am a bit bored. Sad, even. But I don’t want to die.”
“I told you already, Derek, that I know what you know. Don’t try to hide from me, not me. And here I thought we had become friends.” He gestured toward the fog. “You probably won’t die. Just jump.”
“But I don’t know what’s down there.”
Edgar threw up his hands. “Yes, neither do I. That’s why I am still on this cliff side. But everyone who has made it through, they have all jumped. That’s the secret. You don’t know what’s going to happen next, no, but you cannot stop moving.”
I backed away from the ledge, held my breath, and barreled forward. My feet left Earth, and for a moment, I felt light as a discarded newspaper in a snowstorm. Until I began falling. Swiftly. Air rushed up past my body, cutting against my face. Everything blistering and strange. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to fall.
When no longer could I stand the queasy feeling of descent, I heard a familiar melody snaking through the fog. I knew that music. The title of the song pricked at my subconscious. My descent slowed, as if I were being gently lowered, and finally I landed onto a dirty mattress. I stood up and squinted my eyes at the darkness surrounding me. I was at the mouth of same cave, I discerned. Above me stretched another cliff similar to the one behind me. The song continued to play, a strain of electric guitar dancing above my head.
I mulled over what Edgar Allen Poe had taught me about self-love, but I didn’t feel any different. Although I found the advice of John Keats, John Lennon, Elvis, and Poe compelling, I wasn’t sure if I could apply it. They made it sound so easy—be adventurous, respectful, loving, free, boundless, and human—it all sounded like a warped artistic manifesto, the same upchucked ideas artists had been cycling for centuries. Even with these thoughts now in my own mind, what could I do with them?
As I entered the cavern, the music grew louder. A young black man sat on a far-away rock, his head bobbing up and down. He wore a black, curly afro, which danced along to his erratic music-making; he wore a purple button-up unbuttoned and long white pants; a cigarette dangled from his lips. I approached him.
“Holy shit, Jimi Hendrix.”
“Sir, it is an honor—”
“Quiet. Give me a minute. Damn.”
He strummed his guitar with nimble fingers, his hand become an acrobatic spider traversing the strings’ web. The way Jimi played that guitar, it was if he could raise the dead with grit and husk alone.
“So, what kind of lesson do I learn here? I’m starting to get the gist of this place.
“Kid, I don’t go no advice for you,” Jimi said. “Can’t you see I’m praciticng?”
“Oh, I just thought—”
“Just thought what? I can say something and fix your problems? You don’t get anywhere blah-blah-blah-ing, kid. You wanna creating something, get to practicing.”
I said, “That’s the problem. I can’t seem to create anymore.”
“Is that your excuse? Cause you don’t feel like it? Or that you can’t? That’s so bullshit. You can’t be an artist and create no art. You want my advice? You go back home and create. Don’t mope around that no one’s ever heard of you or that no one cares. Make them care, damn it.” He continued to play. A minute later, he shouted, “That’s really all, kid. Best be moving along before I kick your ass.”
I bowed awkwardly to Jimi Hendrix and scurried deeper into the cavern.
I had visited caverns and caves before during family vacations, but these experiences seemed always more safe. We traveled with a guide who shined his blinding flashlight into all corners of cavern as we witnessed neatly-organized mining exhibits. Here, however, the floor was slick and uneven; although I did not carry a flashlight, an eerie blue-green light illuminated my path, though far ahead, I could only see darkness. The light grew dimmer as I pressed onward. This had to lead somewhere.
A moment later, I stepped into a large, well-lit room—one I had not noticed until I was inside. The room was circular and contained a single prison cell. On the far side of the room, a series of cruel black bars stretched from the floor to the ceiling of a crooked crevice. No door through which to enter and exit the cell. As I approached, peering through the gaps, I discerned that no one was inside. And then he stood up, huddled in blankets at the back of the cell.
“How did you get in here? You’ve got to get out,” he said.
“What are talking about?” I asked. “Who are you?”
He stepped into the light, and I saw him—his bandana wrapped carefully around his head, his long face still carrying the ghost of amusement, his eyes piercing. “You’ve got to leave before he finds you here. Before you end up like me, trapped.”
“Tupac Shakur,” I said softly. “I guess this means you’re actually dead.”
He crossed his arms. “See that door behind you? Go on through. Don’t stick around speaking to me. Been here damn ten years, after I tried to start an uprising.”
“Uprising? Ten years? Against who?”
“Who ya think? The Devil.”
“Wait, so this is actually Hell.”
“You ain’t figured that out by now? Haven’t you ever read Dante’s Inferno?”
“Well… I mean, I read the Spark Notes.”
“Kids sure don’t know nothing these days. Anyways, the Devil’s lurking somewhere round these parts. Deeper you go, the closer you get to the Big Boss. If I were you, homie, I’d go back the way you came.”
“I can’t. I’ve got to go through.”
“Fine. But I guess I got to tell you something first.”
“What’s that? I mean, I figured you’d give me some advice. That’s what everyone else has done.”
Tupac Shakur looked me in the eye, sizing me up. “It ain’t about you. It was never about you. You’ve got to do it for your mother. For your friends. For your community, everyone.”
“You mean… write poetry?”
He shook his head. “Naw. Live.”
I waited a moment. “That’s all?”
“Yea, that’s all. Don’t listen if you don’t wanna, ain’t my problem. I don’t even know who you are.”
Gesturing toward the door near his cell, I asked, “Do I go through here?”
“Only leads deeper,” he said. “I was trying to get to the Devil myself, but he found me and put me here first. You wanna know why?”
“We tried to leave. Those of us who could still leave, we tried to escape. But there ain’t no leaving this place.”
I nodded and pushed open the door.
As I stepped through the threshold, I started to tumble down into endless black. I reached out with both arms, grazing the sides of the cavern. Something cut my hand. I flailed my arms, trying to hit whatever stood with me in the dark. Nothing.
I was alone. Turning around to consider whether or not to return to Tupac’s prison cell, I could no longer locate the doorway. I squinted through the dark—a black complete and impermeable. Stumbling forward, I navigated the cavern. I dragged my feet slowly across the cavern’s floor, carefully placing each step. My hands explored the space in front of me.
Then I stepped suddenly into a blinding light. I covered my eyes as a voice cried out, “No, no, no, no. Fuck, no. Why the fuck are you here? Why the fuck do you keep coming here?”
Peeking between my splayed fingers, I examined the room into which I had stumbled. I could no longer discern the ceiling of the cavern, and it seemed as if I was again in the forest. Ugly, gnarled trees sprung up all around me, their branches curling above my head like sinister fingers. I heard a cracking sound, then the voice again.
“Fuck, no. You’re not supposed to be here. Just leave. Fucking leave.”
I finally identified the source of the voice. A handsome, young man sat at the base of one of the trees, his long blonde hair falling into his face. Except he didn’t seem to be sitting. He was climbing out of the tree, up from its tangled roots. He dug his fingers into the dirt and clambered finally onto the ground. As he stood up, he brushed the dirt off his trousers and blue t-shirt.
He sized me up. “Look, kid. I’m sorry. I’m sorry—I just, I guess I’m supposed to be your guide.”
“Like Dante’s Inferno. Like Virgil.”
“Yea, I guess, dude. I just wish—not another one. Fuck, not another one. This is so fucking stupid, mourning.”
He crossed his arms, then stretched them high above his head. He cracked his back. “Mourning what? You.” Then he began to size me up. “Wonder what you’ll be. A Sycamore, a willow, a fig?”
“What the hell are you talking about? Who even are you?”
“I’m Kurt,” he said, shaking my hand. “That’s not a descriptor. That’s my name.”
“Wait, Kurt? You mean, like Kurt Cobain? I’ve heard of you. You were in that band—”
“Right, exactly. Sorry I couldn’t remember. That’s pretty embarrassing.”
“Whatever. I just wish we never had to meet, okay?”
I remained in the same spot as before, watching Kurt Cobain pace back and forth. Finally, I asked, “Mr. Cobain?”
“Call me Kurt.”
“Alright, Kurt. What will you be teaching me about art?”
He sighed, his greasy, blond hair veiling his face. “Don’t you get it? You’re not here to learn about art or writing or poetry. That should be clear by now. This is about you.”
“Why were you— you were talking about trees?”
“I have to teach you about the trees, especially if you’re staying here.”
“Staying here? I don’t want to stay here. I want to keep going.”
“Keep going? You really don’t know what’s going on, kid, do you? It’s over. This is the end.”
“This can’t be the end. You’ve reached the Forest of Suicides.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s a forest, obviously,” he said, gesturing to the grotesque trees, “but it’s the suicides. Of artists, only. I know, exclusive club. You’re lucky to get in.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” I asked.
“Sorry. I shouldn’t have made a joke. Just trying to lighten the mood, and I don’t get out the tree too much. Only when there’s a new sapling. Usually Sylvia gets this job.”
“Oh shit, Sylvia Plath is here? Why couldn’t she be my spirit guide, no offense.”
“Hey, it’s not my fault that your spirit guides manifest as default male. Sounds like a personal problem.”
“Oh, okay. But—look, I’m not staying here. I’m going back.”
As I turn to re-enter the cavern, however, I find that I am rooted to the spot. When I look down at my feet, I see that they have been swallowed by dirt and that roots have begun creeping up my leg. “Whoa, Kurt, what the fuck is happening?”
“You’re being planted,” he said simply. “Sorry, man. It happens to all of us. You’re becoming a fucking tree, dude.”
He sighed. “Wait, have you not read Dante’s Inferno?”
“I—well—look, you need to help me out of this dirt.”
“I can’t do shit, Jack. I’m dead. You’re the only one who can pull yourself out the grave, don’t you know that?”
“How do I do that?”
“If I knew, I wouldn’t be here, living as a giant, mutant bonsai tree in Hell. I don’t have any advice for you. But if I were you, I would not fight it. Death comes for us all, so might as well jump in head-first. Just let it happen.”
“I don’t want this to happen. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to die.”
“You already made that choice, man.”
“What choice? I didn’t make any choice. I just walked into the woods.”
“And why didn’t you turn back when you had the chance?”
“I didn’t have the chance, fuck, fuck. Kurt, please, the roots.”
Leaves had begun to spring from the roots, curling up my leg and ensnaring me. I sank deeper into the dirt, everything below wet and alive and dark.
“There’s always a chance to turn back, Derek. There’s always that oppurtunity, you knew that when you entered the forest. You knew that when you wanted something new to write about.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“The story. The story about Hell, you’re the one writing it. You don’t have to keep writing. You can just make it stop.”
“But how? How am I supposed to just stop? I didn’t want to come here. I never wanted to come here. I just wanted a small, calm, peaceful walk in the woods. I just want to live.”
“Living is not a small, calm, peaceful walk in the woods, Derek. Let go of a happy ending.”
“No, I don’t want—I just want everything to stop. Please, make this stop. I don’t want to feel like this anymore. I don’t want to be here. In these woods. I just want to see the fucking sun again. I want to see my family. I want to live. I want to love again. I want to try all this bullshit again, and I know—I know it sucks. Maybe the story will suck. Maybe the story will be boring, but that’s okay. I don’t want an interesting story, if that means it’s going to be tragic. I don’t care about the narrative anymore. I don’t want some twist ending where I kill myself. I swear, I want to leave these woods.”
Branches began to grow, slithering up my torso and wrapping around my shoulders. Bark coated my legs and pelvis.
I continued, “How do I make it stop?”
“Being a tree is not so bad. You don’t feel anything but the wind and the water. You just grow the way you’re supposed to, and you don’t even need to worry about it. It’s not like being human.”
I struggled to speak as twigs began scratching at my face. From my stomach down, already a tree trunk had formed. I was transforming into something new, something wooden and dead.
“I just want to survive. I don’t want the story to end. I don’t want to live in this stupid story, anymore. It doesn’t make any sense. you’re not even Kurt fucking Cobain. You’re just—you’re just—I want to live. I want to live. Is that too much to ask, for another chance? I want to wake up in my own bed, and I want to live. Even if it’s shitty. Even if I spend the whole day moping and sobbing and feeling sorry for myself, I want to have a body again. I want to have a voice. I want to own lips and kiss everyone I love, and tell everyone I love that I love them. I don’t want to just feel nothing. I don’t care. I will feel everything. I’ll deal with it, I swear if just—Kurt? Kurt? Kurt? Are you there?”
Darkness again. I could breathe again. I pressed my hands against my chest and could no longer feel the branches or the bark. Not that they were gone. They were still there, a seed of death planted inside my ribcage and waiting to bloom some other day, waiting for some other era in which it might claim this body for the grave.
I heard a voice, and I knew this time who it was.
“Yes? Is that you?”
“Yes, it’s me.”
“I wondered when I would be seeing you, if I got to see you at all. I guess you’re an important guy.”
“No more important than you.”
“You’re an angel,” I said.
“Not anymore,” said the Devil.
“You’re Satan, I mean, you’re a big deal.”
“I actually prefer Lucifer. That’s the name He gave me.”
“He? Does He exist?”
“I exist. What about Him? Why not?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I just don’t believe in that stuff. Even if the Devil—Lucifer, sorry—exists, that doesn’t mean God exists. Could you at least explain why I’m here?”
“You know why you’re here, Derek. You know I can’t send you back. It’s against the rules.”
“Seriously? What is this place? Why am I here?”
It was still dark. I could only hear his disembodied voice. Perhaps I could have imagined him any way I wished, but he remained unseen.
“Come on, you’re not stupid. What have you learned so far?”
“Well, I kept meeting these people—these dead people. Like John Lennon and Tupac—who I think is dead, anyways—and Kurt Cobain. And, and, and they were all artists. Tupac said this was Hell, like in the Inferno.”
“I always hated that poem. Gave me a bad name. Dante never appreciated what I gave him.”
“What you gave him?”
“What I gave him and all the others,” said the Devil. “What I gave you as well. I made you like this, Derek.”
“You? What do you mean?”
“Well, surely you didn’t believe art was a gift from God? Why would He wish to contribute to human creation when his own creation is already perfect? Art is blasphemy. Anyone who dares imagine the world different than how God created it, is not he too a Devil? Does he not dare, like I, to question God’s perfection? That’s what art is—not a translation of the world, but rather, an observation of the world and the comment, this could be better.”
“Sometimes… sometimes, it’s not about getting anything better. Maybe I just want to understand.”
“And God works in mysterious ways,” said the Devil. “Haven’t you heard that before? God doesn’t want you to understand. God doesn’t want anything, that’s why He’s God. He doesn’t need to want anything. It’s you humans who want, want, want.”
“You want too.”
“Yes, I want too.”
“And what did you want? Why—why did you get kicked out of Heaven?”
“I—I just thought…” The Devil trailed off. “I created something. I was the first artist.”
“What did you create? Like a painting.”
“No, I—I tried to improve upon God’s work. That’s what he didn’t like.”
“Lucifer, what did you create?”
“Free will, Derek. I gave humans the freedom to choose.” The Devil paused. I waited in the darkness for a few moments, a few eternities, listening. I remembered what John Lennon told me about listening. “You know, it was all different before. God made humans, and they were perfect. Just like God. Like me. Like everything. But it was all pre-determined. You were set on a path, and you couldn’t leave. Imagination didn’t exist. Everything just… was. Then I decided that this was boring. Everyone in the world had a soul mate, everyone fell in love with the soul mate, mated—of course—and that was that. Everyone was so content and so incomplete. And no one cared. No one wanted to know what it was like to be with other people, to fuck new people, you know? No one wanted any job they weren’t born to do. No one cared to experience a life God had not pre-ordained for them. This went on for centuries, Derek.”
“What about Adam and Eve?”
“Oh, some propaganda piece,” said The Devil. “It wasn’t like that at all.” He paused again. “So I gave them free will. I gave them imagination, the ability to decide for themselves what was real. They could carve out their own lives. But it came at a price. Soul mates never found each other. People never discovered what they had to do, what their God-given purpose was. Everything was a mess. Because of me. God called it sin, you know. And it’s true—any time we strive against God, that’s sin. Any time we create a new possibility in our life, that’s sin. It’s unavoidable. It’s art. Art is the Original Sin.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Why did you let me leave? Why am I here? I mean, am I a tree now or—what is this?”
“You’re not a tree. You said, you didn’t want to be a tree. If you were a tree, we could not have this conversation. You said you wanted a body. Is that what you really want?”
“Flesh too is sin.”
“Okay, but—why did you let me leave?”
“I didn’t let you do anything. You didn’t ask Lucifer for permission, Derek. You left on your own. That’s called having free will. When in your miserable life have ever been an active agent? People say, do this. Do that. And you comply, folowing blindly becuase yu’re unsure what to do, who you are. So you’ve got to break free. No one can hold you in one place or dictate your destiny, not anyone you love, not your ex-lover, not your father, not even God. That’s the truth: those that end up in Heaven, they’re all bores who play by the rules. But to wind up in Hell, you’ve got to decide to remain here.”
“So I don’t have to die? I don’t have to stay here? In this strange Hell?”
“No, if you want to return, you can return.”
“I thought you were supposed to be the bad guy.”
The Devil took a long time before answering again. “I hate when people say that, that I’m some kind of monster. Just because I made one major fuck-up, I’m supposed to be this terrible guy. You humans really never stop demonizing me.”
“Lucifer? Was that a joke?”
“Ha, I know, right? Demonize.”
“So, you think I should live?”
“Why did you ever want to die?”
“Because I hit rock-bottom.”
“You think this is rock-bottom, Derek Berry, you’re still scratching in the dirt. Stay here if you like. At least you know you’re not headed to Heaven.”
“Thanks, Lucifer. Real supportive.”
“I’m the fucking Devil, what do you expect? But to answer your question about staying here: no, I cannot decide for you. That’s the whole point of this long, boring conversation we’ve been having, Derek. You’re a human being, not a tree. You get to choose how you grow. You get to choose where to plant your roots, and you get to choose who sits underneath your shade. I know, it’s not a perfect formula. I know, I messed up.”
“When I first got here, there was this dude. John Keats. He said, there’s infinite possibilities. He was the one who was right. All along.”
“Now you’ve been in the forest. You’ve known what’s it’s like to be a tree. And—maybe you can go enjoy the sun now. See the sky again for the first time. You want that?”
“Yeah, um… this is kind of awkward, but thanks for talking to me. You know, I needed this. All of this. I needed to come here. Even if life is absurd, I needed to talk it out, you know? Even with the Devil. I mean, whoever will listen, right? I have my whole life to worry about dying and not feeling anything else. Right now, I want to feel everything. I want to accept everything. I want to live.”
I woke up in the middle of the forest. As I climbed to my feet, I rubbed my eyes. Everything in my body hurt. Every ached. Even my heart beat so loud, I thought it would burst from the pressing pain. Every limb felt as if it had been torn apart and stitched anew.
It felt so wonderful to feel again.
I stumbled across the wet dirt, collapsing into the dry grass. The city stretched out below me, welcoming.
Have you ever stepped outside on a summer day and said, damn, how can everything be so beautiful? How could I have missed this? Is this what it means to be alive?
When I was in elementary school, I attended speech therapy; usually grouped with students from the Special Ed class, we played games which emphasized specific sounds. I had trouble pronouncing r’s and s’s and t’s and v’s and d‘s and nearly every other letter. In fourth grade, I recall entering the speech therapy office (located near the back of the school) to see computers waiting, their screens bright and displaying the start menu of some game which would help us. Already, I was quite familiar with computers; we used them twice a week in Computer class (I’m not sure what it was called then), completing online quizzes to test our mathematical and literary skills. At home, the situation was no different.
My parents purchased a bevy of computer-based games for our family monitor, and the ones I can recall most sharply were named The Clue Finders. Each iteration of the game was designed for a different grade level: in one game, The Clue Finders explores Ancient Egyptian temples and in the next underground grottos housing dangerous volcanoes, and so on. We also had access to the internet, the dial-up internet, which required a series of squawks and guttural churning, like someone preparing to hawk a lugie (name for a wad of snot and spit and mucous collected at the back of one’s throat and projected across a room).
Not long after, when I was in seventh or eighth grade, my parents purchased high-speed wifi, and gone were the days of discordant dialing-in. Gone were the days when one must log off line before your mother could use the telephone. Gone were the days of the Dewey Decimal System, which elementary school librarians attempted in vain to teach us. But by the time my generation came about, this system was dead. Dead as disco.
So we grew up on the Internet. Technology played an important role in our adolescence, shaping us in more ways than one.
This was the beginning of a new generation, and by the time we reached high school, we had mastered technology in such ways our parents could never understand. The generation of Four-Loko-fueled YOLO. The generation of secret Tumblr accounts, sharing messages with strangers.
In ninth grade, I recall a particularly interesting phenomenon known as Mystery Google. One typed in any phrase and were instead transported to another person’s search. This allowed us to share our social media profiles like the Bubonic Plague. At the time, I had just begun recording videos of myself to put on Youtube (a strange adolescent trend), and Mystery Google allowed me to accumulate views. More importantly, my life would be slowly translated to video and uploaded to Youtube. Two years later, I would begin writing blogs. We were hooked, plugged-in to the ether of the nether-webs like no generation before.
And now there will be another shift. The next generation will never play Spin the Bottle without the IPhone app; they will never discover pornographic magazines in their houses but rather delve into the sexual world via the Internet. I mean, imagine the simple consequences of something as strange as Chatroulette—what will we learn growing up in this world where smut and sin and secrets are merely the currency of the online world?
What I find most intriguing, however, about the generation of students both in university and in high school is the proliferation of memes. The word memes, of course, applies beyond its Internet meaning: a meme is a re-occurring idea or theme within culture. According to the All-Knower and Grab-Bag-Research-Tool-Of-Our-Times Wikipedia, a meme “conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”.
We have been able, then, to create a shorthand of memes: pictures with captions. When one sees Kermit The Frog Drinking Tea or Skeptical Willy Wonka or Grumpy Cat, we understand what sort of message will be depicted. We understand the context of the idea, allowing text to build upon this foundation of knowledge.
Memes, then, much in the same vein of art (films, books, philosophy) serve as a cultural shorthand. We have crafted a universal and complicated slang that might surpass the slangs of previous eras; no longer too may this slang, whether they be words or memes, remain regional. We understand each other, our generation, in ways that are intimate, encompassing, and really, really weird.
And we know what that sound means, you know the one, the sound of a train crashing through your house, that nuclear siren that announces the Internet’s imminent arrival. The sound of dial-up that might as well been our toddler lullaby. An idea we need not speak in order to understand.
Today I am practicing joy, allowed myself the grace and naivety of a child. I no longer want to feel self-conscious for child-like wonder; I seek to exorcise shame, to scrape clean my palette for awe where too long cynicism has calcified like plaque. Today I feel refreshed, the way characters in a Coca-Cola commercial appear. I am determined in the same way fictional athletes seem in inspiring sports films the morning of the big race or big fight or big race.
Recently, I have forgotten too simply the purpose of joy. Having allowed self-indulgent misery to conquer my mood, I have moped through my break, alone too often in the dingy dorm underground. For a week, I have been sequestered in my subterranean single room by torrential downpours. But today the rain stopped, and the sun peeked out its head. Emancipated from late May storms, I traveled with my mother and Oma across the state of Baden-Würtemburg to an ancient Danube-neighboring city. Ulm.
Standing under the neo-gothic spires and buttresses of the Ulm Munster, a sense of awe dawned. There exists perhaps a limit to one’s ability to experience wonder, and lately, I’ve felt as if I reached that limit. Small joys, luscious landscapes, and even stark coffee failed to inspired in my the unnamable intensity for which I craved. Instead, I have betrayed my curious adventurous nature in service of irrational fear. I have spent too many bright afternoons working, subsisting on cream cheese and jazz. I am afraid of something, though of what, I’m unsure.
So I must re-establish my purpose, an unknown direction, to experience each droplet of experience, to lick the dew of life from each blade of grass. Lately, I have been a man abandoned on an island housing the last block of ice, and I have watched the ice become a puddle.
But today I tasted joy. I balanced on the spine of the Ulm wall as we searched for food. The wall slithers beside the wide river, a twin artery, one red and the other a greenish-blue. The sun came out to massage our necks we stared across the Danube into Bayern. Swans soared above the water’s surface, wide wing flaps slapping the river. In that moment, I too recalled what it meant to feel wonder, to look upon something for the first time.
Moment arrive again and again when we must re-affirm our faith in the beauty of living. This is a religion with no holy book other than the days we inhale. We must be reminded often that life is worthy of our presence—our conscious presence—our sense of being in the now, now, now.
I do not wish to imply that I must be constantly astonished to escape doldrums, but rather that I search for meaning in the quiet moments. This may mean the boring-in-between, the train ride, the wait at the bus stop, the long afternoons eating and drinking, but, if we wish, we may reclaim these moments as grandiose. We may experience even the familiar as new. In the mind-frame of now, there exists no nostalgia for any time frame other than the present.
There is always time for joy, which stares refreshing like a sliver of ice on a sultry summer day. But joy is no feeling, like happiness; it is instead a practice, a habit that must each day be reinforced. So today I am practicing joy, even if I’m writing emails inside, even if I’m doing laundry, or even if I’m experiencing the myriad dull rituals of the day; I will look back to yesterday and recall wonder, and I must think, it’s that simple. It’s really that simple, to wait and appreciate, and know I will feel this awe again.
I’m not sure what they’re calling my generation now—Generation Me, The Facebook Generation, The Slacker Generation, Millennial Generation, whatever. The diagnosis, no matter the given title, is clear: self-obsessed, self-entitled, bratty, morally weak, and eternally cynical. That about sums it up, the portrait painted by the other generations about our generation—courtesy of Generation X and the Baby Boomers (which sounds, to be frank, like twin circus rocket-men stuck in the bodies of infants). When we hear the criticisms arraigned against us, we often retaliate—this was your fault, anyways; you’re generalizing; blah, blah, let me Tweet about this.
When it comes to the current generation of writers, however (let’s say 15-25 years old), perhaps these modifiers are correct. Perhaps too are these modifiers useful. We are a generation that passed through adolescence with access to Tumblr. We can talk incessantly about ourselves on Twitter, update each grueling low and ecstatic high of our relationships on Facebook, and upload videos of ourselves talking to ourselves on Youtube. We mastered the act of the confessional in the sixth grade, learned to craft personal narratives in under 140 characters. In other words, our tendency to be solipsistic, to express the world through our particular lenses, allows us also to be some of the greatest marketers in the writing world.
Even now, I am only writing this blog in hopes you might become curious about me as a person; so invested, perhaps you will read about my book and later buy my book, and so invested, you will buy every book I ever publish.
The strange phenomenon of being a “modern writer” is the new wave of marketing techniques, namely writing blogs and tweets and Facebook statuses. Did you know that some writers keep a schedule of the tweets they’re going to send out? I would also totally do that if I were more organized, though it’s a hubris we can pass off as generational, right? The days of locking yourself away in a log cabin to clack out a masterpiece on a rusty typewriter are long over—we’re the generation of Microsoft Word, the generation of the #amwriting hashtag, the generation of getting paid to muse about celebrities online and create lists for, seriously, literally anything.
The internet for the writer offers both an incredible resource and a black hole of time-wasting activities. On the one hand, we can access research materials faster than you can mutter Google, we can connect with other writers via Twitter and complain about all the work we’re not doing, we can save money on query letters with the advent of email, and we can read purchase almost any book with a few mouse clicks; on the other hand, we can waste oodles of time on social media sites and reading Lists of The Cutest Quokas.
But perhaps most significantly, we can blog. WordPress recently alerted me that I had been blogging on Word Salad for four years, and while I’ve experienced an extreme downtown in readership, I have continued to write about the writing life, about movies, about my travels, and at times about cats. There exists a special danger to blogging—over-sharing. At what point does the humorous confessional become the admittance to childish activities? I have been reading writers’ blogs for many years, especially those with whom I am contemporaries, and there exists a trend of sharing what could be potentially harmful to the writer or to the writer’s acquaintance.
Of course, some stories shared on the internet could be shared for the sake of hilarity. Sexual encounters, drug use, and petty theft have become a hot topic for blog-writers. But if one writes these essays, these articles, and these blogs with the hope of one day becoming a writer and then fails to become a writer, where does that place the context of what the writer has written? What will future employers think while reading about you at age seventeen, stealing cigarettes from the gas station?
Maybe there are actions the Internet should not know about, spurring articles like 10 Disgusting Habits I Formed While Living on My Own, The True Reason I Will Never Find Intimate Love Is That I’m Selfish, or Seventeen Slurs Not to Call Someone Interviewing You for a Job. Maybe file these under, things the world should never hear; or maybe file them under, The Internet Is a Great Therapist But Only Until Trolls Begin Berating You and Sending Death Threats.
To write about oneself is a balancing act. While we want audiences to believe we are relatable, that we are human, we wish also not to come across as unemployable.
The true question to pose: am I writing for an audience at all or only for myself? Am I writing to entertain or to create “buzz?” And if I take the focus away from myself, if I reject the paradigm of the Me Generation, if I abandon the internet in hopes of writing “pure prose” and “technologically-unadulterated poetry,” then why am I writing in the first place?
There must exist a love of self or at least an analysis of self (which is an important step toward love-of-self) before a writer may write about themselves. This isn’t a memoir. It’s a blog. This isn’t a bookstore or a job interview. It’s the Internet. The anarchic no-rules-ever, blog-with-aesthetic Internet. If you didn’t come to read about someone talking about themselves, why are you even here?
“Art is craft, not inspiration.” —Stephen Sondheim
“Sometimes you’re writing to learn how to write a book.” -Julia Fierro
Somewhere in the center of a dark forest stands a cauldron bubbling with black-tar potion. Magic-muse juice percolates within the cast-iron bucket, fumes of inspiration rising toward the night sky. Writers-become-pilgrims trek through this forest every year in search of creativity, the end-all-be-all-cure-all medicine for frustrating writer’s block.
Or perhaps we might imagine creativity in a lighter setting, a golden fluid imbibed by the gods of Olympia. The mind’s ambrosia. Perhaps a secret, clear formula hidden in the storage cache of Dr. Jekyll’s laboratory.
When writers converse about creativity, we tend to mythologize the trait as something almost-unattainable, as something holy—manna falling from Heaven. Words dangling like strings from the fingers of God, alighting like snow on the tongue of a poet or novelist. We tend to engage with hefty, lofty metaphors in order to ensure others that creativity is a sacred attribute.
But creativity is a myth, indeed, if we cannot discuss concretely what we mean when we utter the word. Where does one acquire this magic muse-juice? Give me coordinates, longitude, latitude.
Maybe creativity is not a secret at all.
Creativity is a muscle.
Creativity is a habit that must be cultivated, strengthened through continuous use.
Much like the formal tools of writing—syntax, spelling, grammar, word choice, etc.—one becomes better at using creativity the more one engages with its practice. Practice being the operative term here.
I mean not to malign certain would-be writers, but I have encountered again and again English majors (with creative writing minors) who proclaim their intentions to float into the hallowed halls of author-hood post-graduation without having ever truly written anything. Maybe a story or two, a half-finished manuscript, but nothing more. They harbor the belief that one day, with degree and good juju, they will emerge as writers like a butterfly from a cocoon. Except that they never built a cocoon in the first place.
One must practice a craft in order to learn the craft. Creativity works the same way. I should preface also that “being a writer” doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve published a book or will publish a book; publication is merely process validation for story-slingers, not the goal in and out itself. Writers write. If you write, then you are a writer.
When learning about writing—whether that means taking a creative writing course, interning at a publishing house, or reading blog posts like this one—one becomes aware only of the craft’s silhouette. This is akin to reading the autobiography of Michael Jordan in preparation to become a basketball player; a more playful analogy—a man reading the Kama Sutra so that he may become a master lover without ever having had sexual intercourse. Learning craft from a source outside yourself is merely supplementary education: writing will teach you to write better. Editing others’ stories, that’s even better.
Often, the first novel you will write is only going to be practice. Maybe you’ll get lucky and publish the novel, but this will be still practice for the next. I was about eleven or twelve when I decided I want to become a writer. On that day I sat down at a computer and wrote a book. Took about a year. A horrible, short, badly-plotted, cliché book, but hey, I was twelve! I forced my mother and fifth grade teacher to read said book, and looking back I can imagine their horror at the violence and pessimism of the story. A year later, I was bored with the manuscript, as children may be, so I wrote something longer, more complex. Still childish, but nevertheless, book-length. Ninety-thousand words or so. In about two years.
This trend of writing sloppy manuscripts continued throughout my adolescence. I was singularly determined to be published before the age of sixteen, and of course I’m overjoyed that I was not published. During that time, however, I learned about craft; I learned about characterization; I learned about the economy of words. I even learned to write query letters and write a decent synopsis. Although at the time my purpose was only to publish these stories, I realize now that these experiments informed my later writing. Even now, I recognize that I am still building up toward something better, a story more precise and beautiful than anything I could create now.
Around the age of sixteen, after having penned six or seven bad novels, I began The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County (which was, I should mention, my first foray into realistic fiction after a string of fantasy and super-transgressive noir-crime). This novel too was a sloppy mess, and I spent about two years editing and re-writing before I began sending it out to publishers.
Three years later, I finally got the “yes.”
The above anecdote is not designed to brag on my adolescent ambitions, but only to provide a point. One must write to learn to write. Of course I took a few classes and workshops during these teen years; I scribbled notes while listening to panels at book conventions. But the experiences of story-telling, the ritual of always working on something new, created a habit of writing: now I write almost every day, clocking in particular hours of writing or editing to get the work done. Since writing The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, I have written three other manuscripts (two of which are serviceable and that I’m currently whipping into shape). Through this, I mean to infer, I’m still writing. I’m doing work.
Naturally I still encounter “writer’s block” or a lack of inspiration, but that doesn’t stop me from getting my work done. Like a runner straining through the pain on his final lap, a writer can be creative without feeling any special inspiration. Therefore, the myth of creativity and the muse, of stories-come-God—I don’t buy it, not one bit.
Writing is hard work. Yes, it is an incredible fun, eye-opening, soul-searching experience, but at the same time, it’s work. The writer must first practice his free throws before he becomes Michael Jordan; for the record, I’m still trying. For the record, I’m still on the community court throwing free throws. Dear aspiring writer: you are too.
There is no secret to creativity, then. There is only sweat.
You want muse-juice? Drink some coffee, some green tea. Chew gum. Crack your knuckles. Then get to work.