At the age of sixteen, and without full understanding of what was happening, the State Of California bestowed upon me the mantel of emancipated minor. After years of turmoil and microscopic examination of me and my family, it was decided I was better off, and safer, under my own care and guidance, but not my own financial resources. My family had to pay my bills, tuition, and provide a monthly amount for discretionary spending.
After choosing my university, apartment, and furnishing it with a bed and a pool table (you rack ’em, I’ll smack ’em), the first thing I did with my discretionary money was join Book Of The Month Club (yes, I’m that old). The first book I bought was a collection of Robert Frost’s poetry. For myself, to be read by myself, and interpreted on my own before classes began and my education got in the way of my learning (thank you, Mark Twain).
I read “The Road Not Taken” and found the meaning of the popular poem that was mine and mine alone. For me, the key line was:
“Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,”
To me, that meant traveling ones own path involved much wandering back and forth, taking two steps forward and three steps back, then one forward, followed by more wandering and pondering and trampling of leaves the many have taken on the other road. The path he didn’t take makes a curve in the distance he can’t see past and knows not where it ends. No statement is made about the path he chose, or what shape it takes further on in the distance. He faces the fork in the road in the light of day, but to me it seemed he was walking off into the dark.
That had a powerful impact on me; it was my fun house mirror and a comfort to know I was not entirely alone being on my own.
It was even more gratifying when I discovered that in private communication with a friend, Frost said: “I’ll bet not half a dozen people can tell who was hit and where he was hit by my Road Not Taken.” Right or wrong in my interpretation, I could mark the who and the where of that poem’s impact. It felt good.
Nobody has ever agreed with me on what I found at the crossroads of Frost’s poem, and that’s just fine. It was the first thing in my new life as an emancipated minor that belonged to me and earned by my own efforts. God bless the child who’s got his own, and all that.
There was more gratification to be found in that poem decades later in this article in the Paris Review. It seems the poem is the most misread poem in America. Oh, boy! More company on the journey.
And reassurance that we are not 100% in control of everything that happens in our lives or how we perceive it. I’ve said this so many times it’s become a mantra, but here it comes again.
The human brain takes in approximately 40 million bits of information per second, yet can only hold approximately 15-35 bits of information in consciousness at a time. We are all creating our own reality second by second, and the odds of two people creating the same reality at one time are wildly stacked against that ever happening.
It’s a miracle we can get along at all with so many “truths” running around and bumping into each other. I’m quite proud of we humans for doing such a good job of it, despite the daily news exposing our clashes. Obviously, we do connect on some points well enough to hold back apocalyptic disasters, at least on a global scale (currently I can’t shake the images coming from Syria out of my thoughts).
There are a few points where I connect with Stephen King and Julian Barnes. Like those two luminaries I’ve had the audacity to claim any connection with, I don’t keep a notebook of ideas. I believe, as they do, that what we forget is more important than what we consciously remember. We’re bombarded with thoughts and ideas. If any speak to us in a way we cannot shake, it will haunt us, poke at us, and move us to action after it’s fermented in our unknowing thoughts. It’s how King claims he wrote The Stand, and I’m going to take a wild guess and say it’s how Barnes cooked up Flaubert’s Parrott.
I’m going through a bit of the same fermentation blowing the top off my head right now. Earlier in the week, I thought I was working on a design project when I got the feeling if I didn’t start work immediately on that story idea I’d come up with two years ago, something terrible would happen.
I don’t mess around with feelings like that. The last time I was tortured by something that had to be done to chase disaster from my doorstep, this is what came from a manic night of painting.
I was minding my own business, writing a screenplay, when a 3′ x 5′ canvas in a corner would not leave me alone. To shut it up I glopped masses of paint on the damned thing and swirled them around and around in circles and thought I was done. No. Something else emerged during the four hours it took for those swirls to dry: an eye. Couldn’t hand a canvas that not only talked to me but looked at me. I’m not that tough. It was 36 hours before I was finished letting one stroke of the brush follow the other until it told its story and its name: “Against The Storm.” This is a poor photo of the painting that has the left side blown out, but it’s close enough for this story I’m telling.
Like that painting, the story idea started by swirling around a concept that took the shape of a theme that dictated it should be a Young Adult novel. I don’t write Young Adult. Tough luck, kiddo, the theme emerged from unthought thoughts fermenting in the background; the theme was one I wanted planted in the subconscious of all three young adults who might read the book. If I was lucky, five young adults were waiting for that seed. Time to get to work.
At 1:28 a.m. I cranked up my writing-only computer and did as I was told with the characters I’d already written about extensively to find the me in them, which is always the you in me. But as I wrote, it wasn’t developing as a theme wearing a story’s clothing, as Frost’s poem may be a sheep in wolf’s clothing or the other way around; it’s open to interpretation. It was unfolding as a horror story I had no idea was inside of me, yet I recognized it as one of the deepest fears I’d been hiding from myself. I have a dark side (actually, I’m rather round), but had no idea something this bloodless yet terrifying was part of who I am.
Writing Tip: Don’t start a horror story with a personal attachment at 1:28 a.m. It’s going to mess with your head something fierce and screw up your entire week. This thing has me so rattled I took a tumble down a cliff the other day. It just wouldn’t leave me alone, distracted me on my hike and threw me into a ditch and a mouthful of rocks.
And it gets worse. I took a fun craft class and ended up as the problem child the teacher was always running towards with paper towels and extra newspaper for the mess she was making, yelling, “Don’t worry. You’ll get the hang of it.” Hang of it? It was dumping liquid in a jar, swirling it and turning it upside down. I do that every morning with a protein shake. Get the hang of it?
OK, so maybe this hasn’t been the melodramatic picture of a story taking over my life that I’ve painted here, but it has been unnerving and shown me how little control I have over most creative tasks. I do have control, but it’s a different part of me that’s hidden and waiting to strike that takes over. It’s not me asking a story what it can do for my prosperity and recognition, but more like me asking a story what I can do for it to make it live, then enduring the demands. After all these years, I’m back scouring the internet and blogs on POV and experimenting until I find what compliments something foreign to me. And pacing. That’s got to be explored from different angles.
It’s been an experience that’s taught me to let go in all matters of creating; accept the process as one of a sheep in wolf’s clothing, or the other way around. It doesn’t matter. I have to let go in order to let myself fill with what the story requires.
I used to be a well-controlled pantser (I prefer organic) but have learned the value of outlining. There’s no doubt I’ll have to double back on this one and open my toolbox for an outline to whip it into final shape, but I’m enjoying this discovery of something within me I didn’t know existed.
We’re all emancipated minors with each new project we take on. We’re set free, for a price, and wondering how to handle that freedom. We’ve all got a pool table where a normal person would have a sofa and chair, and our job is to call the eight ball pocket and sink it. We’re all taking one road that is the same as the other, save for the fact that we’re walking into the dark.
When we give ourselves over, if that is what is asked of us, surrender. If we are masters of the story, that works as well, if it works for the reader. All four readers allotted to each of us these days.
I did stumble off a cliff, in more ways than one. The outcome has been surprising. My back still hurts a bit, but the stuck and painful hip joint I’ve dealt with for over 15 years is loose and tingling with blood it hasn’t known for a very long time. Not even a pinch of pain remains in that hip.
I’m itching with temptation to say at this point that creatives need to take risks, but that would be a false statement.
To be a creative is to be a living risk on the loose, emancipated and tumbling off cliffs.
My suggestion is that we stay loose and roll with it.