Thursday, December 29, 2011

Out of the Canyon: An Essay

The following is an essay I wrote in the fall of 2010. I recently unearthed it, and it expresses so fully some of what's been on my mind recently regarding the West and creativity and all that--I just decided to post it. It's a bit of a long read, but I'd appreciate feedback.

Out of the Canyon
Black Canyon of the Gunnison, July 8, 2010

The Coleman lantern perches on the the bench of the picnic table beside me. The mantles, tiny suns the size of quarters, fling their incendiary glare into the darkest corners of the primitive mountain campsite in which I sit. I hold my book angled to catch the pale yellow rays. On an adjacent mountainpeak, a coyote sings the blues. I lift my head at the hollow howl, then return to my book.

--my book! It is a deep ocean of narrative. Currents of plot seize me, overpower me, enthrall me. Characters surface, as mysterious and foreign as the shark from Jaws, grip me, carry me away with them. And booming like the bass song of the surf, attacking then receding, are the waves of what I call the Glory. The Glory--everything in a book that touches me. Perhaps they are splashes of theme, or swirls of literary device. Symbolism. Parallelism. Point of view. Every stylistic brushstroke, every intoxicating emotion, all the elements that catch hold of my heart and will not let go. I have been dragged far, far below the surface of my novel. Not even the contemplative passage of a raccoon through the campsite can bring me to the surface. The raccoon continues on its amiable way towards the dumpsters, and I swim deeper into the ocean that is The Big Sleep.

The blunted roar of flammable gas from the Coleman--it catches, hesitates, and then resumes. Then it falters again, and apologetically expires. The not-darkness of a full-moon night dissolves onto me. I pull myself, dripping, out of the murky depths. I shake my mind's fist at Raymond Chandler, Creator of those depths, author of their intoxicating allure. I stretch, I yawn, I look around me.

and then


I feel the open-handed slap of that otherworldly something I cannot even begin to describe. Sometimes I feel the slap when I see the snow skirling into its drifts down by Lake Michigan. Sometimes I feel the slap when I sit in class and watch the world lurch on its axis--out of sheer boredom. Sometimes I feel the slap when I stand at the top of one of the dozens of old fire towers that dot Wisconsin's natural forests, and I see Autumn's chuckling match set to the green summery leaves, and they ignite.

When I feel the slap--when I see the world lurch and rearrange itself subtly--something happens to me. Perhaps I make a resolution to change my ways and be a better man. Perhaps I write a poem which I will never revise. Perhaps I only plan to write a poem...or a short story...or a novel...or a cycle of novels...

If I plan, though, and I do not do--if I only plan, I never do.

I feel that slap now, on the mountaintop in Colorado. I pull my cell phone from my pocket, grimace at the cracked screen, and peer at the display. No signal. It's shortly after midnight. I am here alone. The Big Sleep bends forgotten on my chair. I look out over the short scrub around the campsite, and suddenly I see my America, stretched out beneath me. The country, the whole country, in four dimensions, its history as real as its height, its width, its depth.

Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled detective (and why do we call Philip Marlowe hard-boiled? is he an egg? No, he is a piece of jerky, lean and tough and salty and unprepossessing and somehow very endearing) is my brother. He drives through torrential rains outside Los Angeles to right wrongs, a fedoraed white knight riding a mechanical steed. And I sit in the back seat of his car, 71 years later, breathless as his dramatic life continues to unfold so unassumingly and honestly.

Was Philip Marlowe a real man? Well, technically speaking, no. But speaking technically is speaking unimaginatively--and speaking emotionlessly. "So did Philip Marlowe exist?" I ask my conscience. And my conscience grudgingly admits, "Yes. For the last two hours he existed. For the last two hours you looked over his very real shoulder as he found the tacks in the road, uncovered psychosis and perversion, crossed and double-crossed and triple-crossed. You saw him win--you saw him lose. You shared his secret thoughts. You know him. You are his brother."

As I lean back, still stretching, and stare at the Jackson Pollock sky, I realize what the slap is telling me. The universe that Philip Marlowe inhabits: it is mine as well. I have partaken of his story, just for this evening, and we now share this plane of existence. The cast of characters in my universe grows with every book I read: Samwise Gamgee, Holden Caulfield, Ishmael and Queequeg, Sherlock Holmes, Anne Shirley, Randall Flagg, Jack Reacher, Laura Ingalls Wilder, David Webb (but everyone knows him as Jason Bourne), Sam Spade, Nicholas Nickleby, Jack Ryan, Hercule Poirot, Lady Macbeth, Lennie Small, Lord Peter Wimsey, the poor hapless Baudelaires: all of them wander somewhere in my universe.

I am what I read.

--and, like a puff of wind, my muse flees.

The sage palisading the campsite smells like untamed lavender.

That's it. What did you think?

Long live dredging!

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