How to begin?

I come to this place every month or two to pour my thoughts and words into an otherwise empty cup. Usually I have a kernel of an idea, but mostly I whirl around in the darkness, thinking of and playing with the infinite possibilities of what could be written. Words, premises, manifestos, those are the things that feed my inner fire. Some come here to simply write a review or to express an opinion, however vague, and then evaporate into the mist. That’s absolutely fine, but for some reason I cannot do that. I think about the people who, when they write, stick close to the shore. “Stay with what you know, kid. Keep your guard up and your poker hand close.” We’ve been taught – maybe not in words, but taught all the same – to not journey out into the deep. No one knows what dwells beneath those murky waters, and the current is exceedingly strong. It will pull you out to sea and you’ll never make it back. Think of any James Patterson novel you’ve ever read. Sure, he may churn out a captivating yarn, but how much do we learn about Patterson himself from his writing? His thoughts, his feelings, his philosophies on life… In actuality, more is revealed about the man by his drive to perpetually flood the market with books than by any word he’s ever written.

But I digress. I wonder why so many people cling to the railing, afraid to venture forth into the unknown.  And I wonder why I feel so compelled to plunge headfirst into the deep, swim as far out as I can go, fight the clutches of the swirling currents and all the beasts and demons that dwell underneath, and come back to tell the tale. The shore is so safe, yet time and time again I come here and feel challenged to push my limits. I mean, it’s just a blog. Who cares? Still, I look out over the waves and think of how I could rage and rail and scream into the wind against all of life’s injustices until my lungs collapse and my words bleed red. Or I could break out my shovel and dig deep into my personal reminiscences, uncovering long-lost memories of stories so absurd and bizarre and wild and rich that no one would ever believe them. Or perhaps, in a moment of uncertainty, I could hold my lips together tightly and write something much more hushed. And quiet. The paths through the wilderness are endless. With the wind at my back I want to get lost in the trees, race through the briers, wrestle with the overgrowth, and I never want to come out. Is something wrong with me?

Beginning is the hardest part.

I took a career aptitude test in my junior year of high school. It was on one of those Scantron sheets where you fill in the bubbles with a number two pencil. I’m almost certain the sheet was then sent off to some nondescript industrial facility in the Northeast, where it was fed into a massive mainframe computer. Buttons were pushed, wheels turned, the mainframe’s innards were gritting and grinding, and then, finally, it spit out a result. A gloved man in a sterile, white lab coat quickly grabbed and stuffed the result into an envelope and mailed it back to my school, along with the results of all my classmates. With all the warmth of a polygraph or an ATM, my future had been predicted in a cold, exacting laboratory setting. And as my hands fumbled with the envelope over the anticipation of what might be inside, the words I discovered on the page cut as deeply as, and with all the precision of, a surgical laser. Only if the mainframe had experienced a paper jam could the result have been more apt. I was, it said, best suited for laying gravel on roads. At the time, reading that burned. No, it seared. I don’t know why anyone would tell a kid such a thing. Why was it even an approved outcome? Learning that crushes you flat and sucks away your soul. After getting such news, why even carry on? But there’s just no arguing with hard science. Apparently I had no future, and that was that. Today, however, with the hindsight of so many years, I can better appreciate what that paper was probably trying to tell me. I’m a quiet person. I appreciate silence, and the laying of gravel, despite its laborious and repetitious nature, has a certain Zen-like quality. And most importantly, I would have been working with rocks rather than people. Maybe that was my true calling. It could have been the opportunity of a lifetime. I’ll never know because I went to college instead.

In college, I immersed myself in courses on history, literature, and art. For some people those are merely 100 and 200 level classes meant to fill a requirement on the way to an MBA or an engineering degree. I went deeper, and I took a lot of it to heart. I started voraciously reading, and it wasn’t just about the stories or the philosophies or the symbolism inherent within those books (yes, those were important, too), it was also about the words and the form. I became fascinated with the malleability of words. I loved how they could be arranged and sculpted and presented in different ways. This in no way helped me gain employment after I graduated, but, to me, it was fundamentally so much more important.

The year following graduation was equally vital to my development. In a way it forged and set my thinking about life. That whole year, I was still working for the grocery store I worked at through most of college. I made more trips to Northern Virginia and DC for job interviews than I care to remember, and every one of them was a fail. My despair was such that I wanted to decoupage the walls of my room with all the rejection letters I’d received as a statement, a constant reminder, of my worthlessness. In college I’d naively believed that things would somehow work out, everything would fall into place, and my life’s track would be cemented. Instead I found myself in a place of very dark despair. I started to realize that the world at large is governed by the law of the jungle. Nothing is promised. At any given moment, we are all just a step or two away from a complete and utter wipeout. As Hurstwood, one of the central characters in Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie said (after he’d finally quit his attitude and accepted his fate), “What’s the use?” Maybe they were right about that gravel road. I was ready to check out.

It’s interesting to note that humans are the only creatures that commit suicide. I often think they were right about the Garden of Eden and the apple. Sentience is a genetic aberration. Consciousness is toxic. Think of the incredible number of people who fall victim to alcoholism or drug abuse, or any other number of dangerous addictions, all to escape the harshness of reality. Even at a less extreme level, people usually seek distractions – employment, hobbies, television – rather than sitting quietly and pondering their own lives and inner thoughts. As humans we seek meaning. We build monuments and we apply significance to those monuments. We find ways to frame our lives and make random occurrences seem of consequence. We look for patterns. It’s instinctually how our minds work; we simply can’t help it. But as Pete Shelley once sang, “Everything happens/Don’t look for patterns.” Our world, our societies, and all of our structures are nothing but human artifice, created to organize and give meaning to a chaotic, unaware universe. We each deal with it in our own way, but the underlying reality is that when you strip away everything else, existence is empty and meaningless. It’s a painful realization that very few people are able to confront, let alone accept. For many, escape is the only way to cope.

The realization of this probably saved me, but it unhinged me in a way, too. When nothing matters, what is it that binds us? It gave me a certain freedom to act and take chances in ways that many others won’t, and don’t. After life’s pummeling, I could never be simply another corporate cog moving down the assembly line of life. Just as they could jail Thoreau’s body but they could never jail his soul, I would always be free. Yes, freedom is frightening. It means making choices, sometimes blind choices, with consequences. Many people would prefer to remain in the safety of their self-constructed worlds because the emptiness, or openness, that lurks outside those walls is terrifying. I, however, can do, or not do, anything I want, so long as I am willing to accept the possible outcomes.  The choice is up to me.  Slowly this philosophy began to work its way into my writing and my art, and also into the way I viewed existence.

In the midst of my underemployment, I started seeking my own meaning through creative avenues. Unbeknownst to me at the time, but something I would come to appreciate later, is an idea I’ll call “the space in between.” In a way, I’d known it all my life. I was the one who always fell through the cracks, who was forgotten, who ended up in some predicament where someone would inevitably tell me, “I’ve never seen this happen before.” It’s an open space between the constructs of life where everything is open, chaotic, and without rules. I dwelled and continue to dwell in this space. And if you look closely, this space is everywhere. In juxtapositional art, for instance, the power of combining images comes from that same area. Two unrelated images, even if meshed together, will always have some unspoken gap. It’s in the space where they meet, where their differences collide, that a new perspective arises. To explain this on a more concrete level, years later I discovered this space on road trips. I could be listening to a certain radio station, and after a time I would reach a place where, as I left boundaries of that station’s broadcast zone, its signal would weaken and begin to fade in and out. At the same time, new stations, still far enough off in the distance that their own signals had not yet strengthened, would begin to bleed in over the top of the old. This phenomenon created a magic all its own. For example, you might hear a serious newscast punctuated by the bombastic stomp of marching music, or backed by an angelic gospel choir. New ideas and viewpoints were created. The concrete tenets we normally expect of everyday reality were loosened, and fresh ways of looking at things appeared. In this unique space anything could happen, and it usually did.

This space exists in language as well. We think a lot about words and how to arrange those words. We think about punctuation and the perfect presentation. We create sentences, paragraphs, and entire books. But does anyone give much thought to the open space? There are spaces between the sentences, the words, and even between the individual letters that we write. Not much consideration is given to this space, these pauses. Yes, in a sense they help us arrange and punctuate what we write, but there’s a deeper level to it that isn’t often examined. Do you realize how much open space exists within a book? Do you realize how much silence exists within a conversation? When counted individually and added together, the amount of space and silence is mind-blowingly significant. Is this space punctuating the words, or are the words (another human artifice) punctuating the space? And above and beyond these words, what does all this nothingness mean? What happens within the space? Is it simply a vacuum? If we could inhabit that space, if we could navigate it, the freedom of movement we gained would be incredible.

When I look at a blank page, or a white canvas, I feel that same sense of freedom. I understand how some can feel overwhelmed, and beginning, looking within for the right words to get started, can be difficult. “What do I put there?” That experience is no less valid, but my experience is different. I plunge in and look for the words. I look for the stories. I look at the possibilities, take what I need, and arrange these things in a way that makes sense to me. The space allows me that movement. The avenues I can follow are endless, and the ability to build this edifice of words is what brings me a sense of adventure, fulfillment, and, ultimately, meaning. Many would say this is merely writing, that I’m exaggerating all of this well beyond its actual worth, but there is nothing mere or unexceptional about it. A word, or an object, may mean nothing on its own, but through careful placement or accidental juxtaposition, I find I can shift the entire meaning of the universe. The ancients, the followers of more primitive religions, long believed that the precise arrangement of objects and symbols would bring about a desired result, and this is no different. Even in other mediums I’ve discovered the magic of fusing two (or more) unrelated images in such a way that I create my own new – and often unhinged – reality. In this way I function as a puppeteer or an alchemist of old. My appreciation for such possibility had always been there, but now I can conjure it up on demand. I may not be able to move massive boulders or snow-capped mountains with the wave of a hand, but it’s still a very powerful feeling.

I come to this place every month or two to pour my thoughts and words into an otherwise empty cup. In a way it closes an open-ended gap that has existed since the last writer arrived to contribute a piece. Whether I return again or walk away is not of any import. Someone will inevitably come behind me and position the next block into place. And the next.  Even with all these blocks, though, there will always be, however small, a space lying in between.

 

 

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