By Jordan McCrary
I can see it now. “He’s lost it,” they’re thinking. They’re probably all in some stuffy boardroom sitting around a huge table sporting their expensive suits with ridiculous I’m-rich-but-still-hip ties. At this very moment, Frank, my agent, is probably defending me with an arsenal of his finest bullshit. Sitting alone at my desk, I can practically hear him addressing a table surrounded by executives:
“I can personally assure each and every one of you that he will meet this deadline. Surely, every person in this room has been in this business long enough to recognize the enigmatic nature that often accompanies brilliance. Van Gogh cuts off his ear, Newton pokes a needle into his retina, Mozart composes a requiem at the demand of his father’s ghost, and Sands locks himself in a little cabin upstate. What we’re really dealing with here, people, is a failure to let genius flourish. Walter Sands can’t deliver with a hoard of executives constantly breathing down his neck. When Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, he didn’t do so with an assembly of authority figures threatening his livelihood with every brushstroke. Mr. Sand’s next book won’t be like Insides, he wants nothing to do with Insides, but I assure you that, from what I’ve heard of his new material, our man has something even bigger in store for the world…”
It’s funny trying to remember the romantic view I once had about writing. I used to envision myself saving the world one story at a time, reaching out to all the kids who grew-up feeling like me. I was going to let them know that they weren’t the only ones marching to a different beat. I was going to be a gracious celebrity: shaking hands, never refusing an autograph, constantly assuring my readers that they too could rearrange their deepest sorrows into something beautiful, something truly meaningful, but I never did.
At the time, I was clueless that my glorious notion of a writer’s life was a fantasy. It’s so strange. I felt incredible when I finished Insides. Better than I’ve ever felt. Then the public got a hold of it. Maybe that’s what I’ll write my second one about— the disillusionment one undergoes after realizing that— never mind, that’s an atrocious premise for a story.
Enough reminiscing. The fact of the matter is that I do have a deadline and, thus far, I’ve got nothing. Not a word. Any minute now, Frank will be calling to reiterate each of these points to me, but, today, he’ll be armed with a fresh series of threats from his meeting with the publisher. I can’t even piss in a public restroom and these bastards expect me to churn out another bestseller in weeks as my career’s fate hangs in the balance. The “sophomore slump” is much more intimidating in person. I wonder how it is that corporate America could possibly be involved in the “art business.” The notion of bringing accountants, advertising, company-heading yuppies, and bottom-lines into the creative process doesn’t strike me right. Mass production and art are fundamentally incompatible. Not to mention critics, who, despite having never met you, make a living by telling other people what your work means and whether it’s good or not. These realities had not been part of my fantasy of a writer’s life. Nor had writing some “incredible” novel nobody really understood but loved anyways. It was nicer when my stories were overlooked and/or despised because I could still have the fantasy. The emotions involved were much less confusing—my stories still belonged to me.
The phone’s ringing, must be Frank. “Frank, what’s the latest ultimatum?” There’s no answer. “Frank?”
“Hello sir, I’m conducting a poll and would like hearing your opinions on a couple of matters.”
I don’t know what to say. Just answer her questions, man, Jesus. “Um, sorry I-,” asthmatic stuttering ensues, “just-can’t-do-it-have-a-good-one.” I slam down the phone.
I’m not ready for people. It’s better I didn’t bother that woman. I might somehow throw her off. Sound weird. Besides, if I really did give her my opinions, she’d never accurately reduce them into a uniform box on a checklist, but I know she’d try her damnedest. They always do.
I’ve got to get some work done. Here I am, sitting in the same spot in the same chair facing the same window. It’s freezing this time of year; the outside looks empty. If there’s one good thing about this old little cabin, it’s that its walls are thick and it’s never too cold for me. I stare out at the bare white treetops and try to inspire myself, but it’s useless. They look trapped. It’s almost like the few leaves left blowing around are mocking them in some cruel way. It’s got to be this spot. I can’t possibly be creative in this desolate spot. I need something. I need to make thoughts flow, but first, I need an idea.
Enough of that. Thinking and pacing are out for today. I need to free myself. Maybe I should try writing naked. Why not?
I strip down and I’m standing naked in the middle of my cramped little cabin and inspiration is yet to come. Think about nudity. Think about the function of clothes, the act of undressing, the feeling of being exposed. Think about “private parts” and why, exactly, they’re considered so private. Think about concepts; conceptualize the concept of conceptualization. Wonder why God punished humanity with shame over their natural forms as retribution for Adam and Eve bucking Divine authority via a tasty snack. Why mix-up humanity in a petty dick-measuring contest with a snake? If God’s a “He,” is there a metaphysical, Divine penis perpetually ejaculating quantum physics into the multiverse? How can a temporal misdeed be punished eternally by a God who operates through mathematics? Is God an algorithm? Did God project his own body dysmorphia onto us? If God were a woman, and “He” sounds like one, would hell exist, or would it be even more ghastly? Think about judgment. Think about the last time you saw another person nude in real-life. How pathetic is it to be standing bare-assed in your tiny cabin straining to recall your last sexual encounter? How much time have you logged thinking about your penis? How different would you be if you didn’t have one? Would you be a better guy, that is, if you would still count as one? Am I a complete fucking idiot or just losing my mind? Is this creativity?
I catch my reflection in a mirror hanging from the wall. There I am: skinny, weak, disheveled, and so pale that my skin brightens the room. An artist would never sculpt me. I’m no magnificent specimen of the human race. I am, generally, unremarkable. I want to put my clothes back on now.
As I’m zipping my pants, the phone rings again. “Frank.”
“Walter, it’s not looking good,” Frank says, using his usual opening to our conversations.
“Let me guess, the publisher is pissed, we’re being threatened with a lawsuit for breach of contract, and absolutely no one in the boardroom thinks I can churn out another ‘good’ story.”
“Did you give them a speech?” I’m curious to find out how well I actually know Frank by getting as much out of him as possible concerning his speech to the publishing execs. It’ll be interesting to see how close my vision of the meeting was to the real thing.
“Of course I gave a speech. I threw in a little extra here and there but it was relative to things we’ve discussed.”
“Did you use Salinger?” I know he never would.
“Are you kidding me? I went with Newton and Mozart. Do you think I want some of the most important people in the industry drawing any sort of association between you and some reclusive literary one-hit wonder? Do me a favor, buddy, try not to model your career after his.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Lack of multiple bestsellers.”
“Jesus Christ, Frank! I’m going to have a fucking panic attack if you keep hinging everything on sales figures and talk about one-hit wonders. Obviously, I don’t deal well with this kind of stress.”
“I’m just trying to motivate you, Walter. Don’t get all worked-up. It’s paramount that you address the threat looming over our careers ASAP. I’ve got college-funds to worry about here!”
I can tell Frank is on the verge of panic himself, which is rare for him. To keep the conversation going, I foolishly ask the first question that comes to me, “and what, exactly, is this ‘massive threat?’” This is going to piss Frank off a little.
“The fucking book, Walter! I was just in a room full of suits promising that your latest novel was destined for greatness, fortune, notoriety, and a few other equally cheesy overstatements, and you’re yet to write a single line! You don’t even have a fucking concept to bounce off me! I don’t even want to know what you’re wasting your time doing up there.”
“No, Frank, you do not. Well, I had a weird dream the other night. May be worth something.”
“Just hear me out.”
“Okay, so this closet morphine junky goes in for a prostate exam and the proctologist almost immediately asks him what he’s been sticking in his ass. The junky tells the doctor that he injects dope that way because it makes the high easier to stomach. Of course, the doctor, in his infallible understanding of mankind, doesn’t believe him. So there’s this whole scene where the MD keeps insinuating that he deals with people sticking things up their asses all the time and that it’s okay to be who he is and all this other ‘coming out’ lingo as if the junky lacks some sort of confidence or awareness of himself that the doctor, in his ultimate wisdom, just happens to possess despite the fact he’s only spoken to the guy for about 10 minutes. I guess they’re teaching insight in med-school now.”
“Get on with it, Walter.”
“So, later that day, our sore comrade is smoking a cigarette in the car on his way home when he drops an ash on himself and blurts out ‘son of a bitch!’ Unfortunately, he doesn’t notice until he’s already verbalized it that his father’s best friend had been jogging towards his car and, in passing, noticed him mouth-out ‘son of a bitch.’ His father’s friend shoots him a stern, disappointed look, convinced the junky was provoked to call him ‘son of a bitch’ simply by the sight of him. After that, just when things can’t possibly get worse for our poor friend, he puts in some eye-drops at a stop sign, looks up, and notices a woman from his family’s church staring at him from inside her car with an unprompted look of sympathy. He’s naturally perplexed by the woman’s expression until he realizes that the lady thinks he’s crying. She’s staring at him out of pity. She feels sorry for him, and the junky can sense it. So, as a result of being constantly misconstrued, the protagonist kills himself. What do you think?”
Frank sighs, “I think you need to stop dream-journaling.”
“Really? I kind of like the ‘avalanche of faux-pas’ thing.”
“Yeah, that’s perfect, Walter. I’ll go to the publisher with some thinly-veiled, overextended metaphor about a guy who starts a chain-reaction of misinterpretation by literally screwing himself with his drug of choice who then dies from his self-inflicted wounds. We’ll call it The Strings on Mr. Sand’s Miniature Violin.”
I’m not even sure that’s what it meant but— damn that Frank.
“And, truthfully, Walter, as hard as I’m trying to contain my laughter right now, hearing your little ‘cabin narrative’ was the best I’ve felt all day today. As pathetic as it is, as you are right now, I can relate enough to your sad life to somehow feel accompanied for a second. But your words are mine to feel my way; that’s part of the deal. I know you have mixed feelings about the success of Insides, but it’s incredibly pretentious to loathe mass production while wanting the whole world to read your work, and it’s even more selfish to wallow in misery because people love your baby for all the wrong reasons. The story is theirs, too, thanks to you. Time to break free from those thin paper walls of yours, buddy.”
We sit quietly for a few seconds. I feel sick.
“I’ll talk to you tomorrow, Walter,” Frank says before leaving me alone on the line.
Hours pass before I can quiet Frank’s words enough to think. The cabin’s not as warm as before. I look outside and stare at the empty treetops. I think about trees. I wonder if some rot from the inside, dying from loving their leaves too much, knowing all-too-well that their creations grow only to live up to their names. I decide that isn’t it, though. Trees live through too many seasons. It’s more likely they know their place the same way the leaves know to find theirs.
The wind starts blowing, the last few leaves on the ground waltz by on a gust, floating willingly past me and the trees towards unforeseen destinations. Leaving. Something about the way they move reminds me that more will be back next year and that, underneath their bare white trunks, the trees that created them are still alive. They’ve been around a long time, through many seasons, and, on their insides, they have the rings to prove it. Before I know it, I’m standing in front of my window, forehead pressed hard against the glass, staring in awe at the suddenly beautiful scene outside that’s been sitting in front of me all this time.
After a few minutes, I turn around and catch my reflection in the mirror across the room. A large, red circle sits in the center of my forehead. It makes me smile for the first time in a long time. I’ve earned my first ring, and it tells me I’ve survived my first winter. I join the trees outside in growing for a new season, and the silence is broken by typing.