Archive | April, 2012

Why Write? In Defense of Discontentment

25 Apr

“Why do you write?”

This question was posed to me recently for a class assignment, and harmless as it might seem, it immediately sent my mind into a spiral of abstract and tangential questions, like “What is art?”  “What is beauty?”  “What is meaning?”  “What makes it meaningful?”  “Why do we search for it?”  “Why do we do anything?”

It was a long night, I’ll tell ya.

Well, people are weird.  That much I know.  For as long as we’ve been banging rocks together and looking at the stars, we’ve channeled our weirdness into amazing displays of creativity and thought.  We’ve painted cave walls and church ceilings, built towers and tanks and toilet bowls, blasted our brethren into outer-space.  But why?  What makes humans so uniquely obsessed with all this constant mucking about and manipulation?  When it comes to simply being animals on planet Earth, why are we so weird?

Goya's Sleep of Reason

Goya's "Sleep of Reason"

When people talk about the “human condition”, what immediately comes to my mind is our perpetual discontentment.  This might sound like a negative thing at first, but actually it’s what makes everything move forward; culturally, scientifically, politically, artistically.  With our tremendous capacity for conceptualization, we can’t help but analyze and reinvent everything around us – tearing down and building up.  It drives our achievements, and the fulfillment of that urge, the attainment of satisfaction, means a slow, mediocre death for progress.  The constant restlessness of humanity is both essential and inescapable – the bane and the boon of our existence.

Now, a question like “Why do you write” can certainly be a fun intellectual and creative exercise, and no doubt I could muster up some sort of profound bullshit to make it all seem very inspiring and inevitable.  But really, there is no easy answer for me, and I won’t pretend there is.  Me, I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer.  When I was a kid, I wanted to be a paleontologist.  And then I wanted to be a cartoonist.  And then I wanted to be an architect.  But throughout all that, the one thing I’ve always been, and always hope to be, is an explorer.  Explorers are impelled by insatiable curiosity and unrest, and I see every artist as an explorer, in league with Jacque Cousteau or Ernest Shackleton.

Exploring is how we grow, personally and as a civilization.  And one of my favorite ways to explore has always been writing.  I was the kid in class who loved essay assignments while everyone else around me groaned.  Still am, actually.  Later on, as an angsty teen, I began to write terrible poetry (who didn’t?).  I was exploring my identity, trying to understand who I was and where I fit.  Then as I got older, and the pressure was on for me to choose a direction in life, people began pushing me to pursue a writing career.  And when my first college made me the “Featured Writer” of their journal, I considered it for a minute. But discontentment soon reared its head.

I was a good student, but I wasn’t satisfied with where I was or where I was heading. For better or worse, a stronger force began working within me.  It was what my grandmother would call “that old gypsy blood”, the restless seduction of the new and uncharted.  I was feeling directionless and powerless, unimpressed with the options on the table and drawn to the Siren song of new adventure.  Thus, in true explorer fashion, and without very much thought for the future, I abandoned the predictable and turned my back on school, home and economic viability.  I quit my job, broke my lease, sold my stuff, and hit the road.

Frontispiece from the book - South: Shackleton's Last Expedition

I traveled about for years, settling momentarily here and there, but never long enough for roots to touch ground.  I was thirsty for life and drunk with freedom, an American pioneer.  But I was also running away, Peter-panning, breaking through the atmosphere of a prescribed world that simultaneously bored and terrified me.  I didn’t want to carve out a career, or start a family, or improve my credit score.  I just wanted to explore.  I guess I figured life would figure itself out, and all I had to do was drift, let the eddies do the work.  Then I blinked, and I was twenty-eight years old, and I realized I’d become stuck somehow.  I hadn’t actually escaped anything; I’d simply let myself sink, let the world wash over me.  I hadn’t outsmarted the system, or created anything new, or even found any meaningful answers, at least not any that, deep down, I hadn’t already known.

And that’s when I really began to write.  Poetry, short stories, essays.  Once I stopped running, and faced my discontentment head on, I discovered that the real “uncharted realm” wasn’t out there on the highways and train-tracks – it was something broader and deeper than physical space.  I wanted to be a vagabond on the sphere of ideas, a pilgrim of imagination.  I realized how much I love to think and research and learn and argue.  How much I love words, and lyricism and well-crafted language.  I realized that story-telling, whatever form it takes, is probably the greatest achievement that us weirdo humans ever came up with.  Right up there with hammocks, beer and bicycles.

The more I wrote, the happier it made me, so of course I did it some more – an animalistic pleasure response.  I discovered the beauty and acuity of poetry, the sheer joy of fiction – a thrill of omnipotence and creative surrender that made me feel like a kid again.  I had found a way to hold on to my fascination and creativity, a way to focus my restless, discontented energy in a way that might actually matter.  I had found my Neverland.

View from Pi'ilani Highway in Maui, HI

View from Pi'ilani Highway in Maui, HI

So that’s why I do it.  I definitely don’t write under any illusions of fame and fortune waiting on the horizon.  I don’t know whether my words will mean anything to anyone but myself.  I just write, because I want to share, and understand, and create, and expand.  I write because if I didn’t get at least some of these synapses down on paper (or computer screen), I’d be just a little less happy and a little more nuts.  There’s no easy answer to why we feel this compulsion to create, to push boundaries and be heard.  Perhaps, like George Mallory climbing Everest, we do it because “it’s there”, a crucible standing before us, waiting to see if we have what it takes to go just a little further.  Maybe there is an intangible divinity of human spirit pushing us to become the best versions of ourselves.  Maybe we’re dissatisfied, over-thinking apes, screaming defiantly into the void.  Or, maybe we’re just weird.

Personally, my money’s on that last one.

~

Forgotten Places

9 Apr

Whenever I come across abandoned space, I’m drawn in.  I want to rummage in the shells of the past, imagine the stories left inside of forgotten walls.  The above picture doesn’t seem like anything very special, just a closed-down pool supply store on a busy highway outside of Philadelphia.  Yet, as I drove past it, I had to pull over, poke around, take a picture.  It wasn’t specifically amazing, and I’d bet I was the only person on that highway all day to give the building a second glance.  But there was something beautiful about it, and I spent the rest of the day dreaming of that building’s past and of its future, wondering about the people who invested themselves into it, and the happiness or despair it may have witnessed.  I imagined the space in a hundred years, wondered if the building would still stand; would it be converted into a store selling Tang and personal jet-packs?  Or would it be devoured by the surrounding woods, covered in creeping vines, with young trees growing straight through the roof?

I’ve always loved to explore abandoned places.  As a kid I would poke around boarded-up houses in the neighborhood, wander empty lots, even walk into big drainage pipes, feet sloshing through rain water.  I was fascinated by anything discarded or unacknowledged.  I’d peek into dumpsters (when my mother wasn’t watching, of course) and wonder what kind of strange treasures might lie therein.  When I got older, this impulse did not leave me as I started traveling the country.  Abandoned buildings became not just a fascination but also my temporary homes.  I’ve inhabited some odd places: neglected school houses, empty office building rooftops, condemned ghetto high-rises, the iron ruins of old factories.  There was a thrill in exploring these places, climbing and crawling around, bedding down among the artifacts of a forgotten life.

And, I discovered that those mysterious dumpsters of my youth really did have treasure in them.  It’s true!  The sheer glut of American excess would astound you.  One could find all kinds of working electronics, surplus clothing still wrapped in plastic, books, appliances, even whole cases of still-packaged, unexpired, completely salable and edible food.  And there was a simple, child-like joy in it, like being on an Easter egg hunt, the wide-eyed pursuit of unknown fortune.  It also brought to light the heart-breaking waste of the first-world, waste which certainly still happens.  Except now, the dumpsters have been replaced by unapproachable trash-compactors, much to the dismay of scavengers of all species.

A friend sits writing in the hall of a squatted high-rise

 

The crazy thing about a life on the road – and I mean really on the road, no hotel rooms, no rental cars, no brunching at the vineyard – is that you never actually know what is going to happen on a day to day basis.  This sounds like a simple enough thing, but think about how controlled our lives are.  How often do you wake up without knowing, at least generally, what lies in store for the day?  And whenever we are shaken out of this security, it is unwillingly, unpleasant, often due to some kind of tragedy, making us long for the comfort of our routine.  But what if you made the choice to nurture the possibilities of the unknown?  What if you consciously discarded the predictable, and let “fortune”, whatever name you want to give it, write your story for a while?  I don’t mean to romanticize things; I’ve slept in dumpsters and alleys too, battled frost-bite, rain and angry property owners.  It isn’t all carefree vagabondage: sometimes it’s getting mugged by random crackheads for your beer, or diarrhea in a remote span of woodland, with nary a toilet for miles.  But sometimes… sometimes it is a beautiful, indescribably liberating, utterly joyful and peaceful thing.  Sometimes you sit on a cliff-side and eat sandwiches in the early morning, as the sun is just inching over the horizon, and look down on the world and smile.  Because that world is yours, and you are it, and you are fully your own self yet part of everything else, too.  In our anxious and disconnected times, it’s a feeling that can really approach holiness.  I would not say it’s a path for everyone.  But I would say that however you do it, it’s good to sometimes find ways to step out of your insulation, to let go of our conditioned control over life, and let life happen to you.