By Mark Stay
I like to keep my windows open.
Especially when I sleep. Luckily, my roommate has an even higher tolerance for chilliness than I do. I will push the weather of the room to its very limits in order to experience it. It’s a passion. I lust for those nights when my breaths are delighted with virgin air, untouched by all but God himself. The nights come sweetly, and the full beauty of the departed unconsciousness is continually felt long after I wake.
I don’t think, however, that I fully realized, nor embraced, the roots of my passion for the open window until one particular night that lies immortalized in my mind.
Apparently, my muse is nocturnal and prefers to ride upon the breeze. She came in that night upon the breeze and reached inward to the very depths of my soul. She went about her task quietly, softly, but with extraordinary power, reopening the link between my heart and my mind in a way that only a writer can understand. I lay there silently, driven away from the sleepiness of my otherwise tired body.
I was more alive that night than I feel during many of my days. Ideas, connections, images, sights, sounds, symbols flashed before my being like a frantic slideshow swirled into a blurry conglomeration. Then she left, leaving me to fall asleep, filled to the brim with the blood of what beings define as existence.
I realize now that it’s happened before, that she comes to me as long as I keep my windows open. Like the last time I experienced the ocean—in the frigid waters of Canon Beach. It fell on Valentine’s Day a while back—a perfect setting to celebrate the love affair I have with my muse. The winter waves breaking out a hundred meters or so beckoned to us as soon as we set our eyes on them. The cyclic crashing of sea water, dashing upon itself, met our ears then our souls, and sent an evanescence reverberating between us. We obeyed its call and came, communing with the icy tides until my mortal body went numb.
See, the writer recognizes, with the help of his muse, that the ocean has its own innate rhythm and meter, more natural than iambic pentameter and more liberating than free verse. An assonance sits constant in the whispers of the wave’s ebb, and a persevering AAAA rhyme resides in its flow. Even so, each wave concurrently holds something new, something fresh, like the breezes which it gives to the coasts. It has accomplished something to which no other writer has even come close. Its poetry is everything toward which the writer directs himself.
I may consider myself to be a romantic, but I don’t consider myself to be ignorant. I have not discounted mortality like the Bohemians, who cast aside the daily needs of bread on the table to immerse themselves completely in their art.
Rejecting the role of a starving artist, I’ve held a part time job while being a full time student. While this job has taken away time from my writing, it has also made my writing better. I have been inspired and have learned valuable lessons from the nature with which I work, pruning shrubs on a college campus. At the beginning of my hire, my boss taught me one of these lessons. I don’t think he did it intentionally, because he was talking about the plants, but I came away with a personal application anyway. “We want people to walk by these bushes and get the eehhh hhhuuuhhh feeling,” he told me, demonstrating the sound with a deep sigh, akin to the one made when returning home from a long day. “You know what I mean?”
A brief, dense shake of my head begged for further explanation. He went on to clarify that there was to be a sort of comforting balance in the bush—that it should look natural, even to the most untrained eye. He told me that we don’t hedge trim our bushes, but prune them in order to sustain their natural patterns. In the end, they should be consistent in general shape and density. “This produces the eehhh hhhuuuhhh feeling in people, even though they may not know why.”
I have long since mastered that standard in pruning and feel confident that I can create the natural-looking balance that my boss and the oblivious passersby are looking for. I am still working on this balance in my life, though, especially as a writer. I feel I understand Icarus, oftentimes drifting too close to either the sun or the ocean, both of which spell out danger. So far I feel I’ve been temperate enough in my course, but I’m sure that’s what Icarus said at the beginning of his journey.
From my experience, there seem to be two extremes that the writer has to worry about drifting too close to—the world of real life experience and the world of books, whether his own or others. I feel like the muse asks me to keep a balance of the two, and I have strived my hardest to do so. During the past two years, I have read and written dozens of poems, short stories, and essays, but I have also taken the time to approach a degree, work a job, make friends, go on road trips, visit family, work out (at least occasionally), succeed in pursuing and breaking off two different relationships (and fail in numerous others), strengthen friendships, taste the sun, bathe in the ocean, conquer mountains, and experience a new world of unprecedented experiences.
The fanatic for the world of books may say, “Mark, all of these are great, but you would not have been limited to these things if you would have simply spent all your time reading and writing. There are limits to the reaches of real experience; there are no limits to the reaches of books.”
To them, I would reply, “Maybe, but I can taste these experiences.”
Then they might counter, “Wouldn’t you have rather not tasted the bitterness of that muscle soreness, those thorn scars on your arms, or the emotional trauma of those break-ups?” At that moment, I would simply smile, pat them on the shoulder, and hope that one day they would understand that cuts and bruises and heartache and illness and freezing and burning and crying are all part of the grand conflict that drives the plot of our lives, not to mention the beautiful inspiration I draw from in my writing.
For when everything is empirically subdivided, a great portion of the words of the writer come out to be an extrapolation of these bitter and sweet tastes. Take these away from the author, and he has no solid foundation upon which to build. His tower to heaven crumbles. True, it may stand for a while, supported by the integrity of literary structures already built, but the winds of time and criticism will ultimately come and send its walls crashing to the ground. It will lie, moldering in a heap of rubble, until it is cleared away to make room for others—an end in which no writer, as fanatical toward the literary world as he may be, desires to find his creations.
The simple fact that one is an English major with an emphasis in creative writing inspires greater creativity in the person. This principle manifests itself every day. For example, when I first meet people on campus, I am assaulted with the usual I-feel-like-I-need-to-make-light-conversation-with-you-and-have-no-talent-in-doing-so question: “So, what’s your major?”
This is where I sigh. I know what is coming, yet, out of common courtesy to sate this person’s flailing interactive interrogation, I continue to drive my car off the cliff. “English,” I state with deflation, not out of shame, but instead out of dread of what most assuredly comes next.
“So what do you want to do with that after you graduate?”
This is where the creative conditioning comes into play. I have gotten so sick of the question that I have resorted to sarcasm. “Probably rule the world or something,” “Be a beach bum,” and “Work fast food” highlight some of my remarks, and I’m sure I’ll come up with many more in the future. The truth is, I have no idea what else I can say that will satisfy them.
The switch I made to English did not even stem from me. I was all set on becoming a mechanical engineer and going into aeronautics. The choice made sense: my math and science scores had soared in high school, and the job would pay the bills. Life in general was set for me. But I was soon given commission that such a set life was not to be my destiny. I still remember the day. I was sitting in a physics class in a sort of half stupor when a little voice (which happened to be my muse, though at the time, I did not recognize her), sat down next to me and whispered in my ear.
She told me, “Look at these machines. You’re not one of them. You never were. Switch to English and write. Don’t worry about your future. It’ll be taken care of.”
I cannot remember if I laughed then, but I should have because I am still laughing now.
It is an expression of a unique nature, for although it bleeds of anxiety for an uncertain future, it also holds an air of pure satisfaction toward what I am now gleaning out of life. There may be mobs of Benthamites out there searching for writers like me to lynch, but the rope that they twist up into a noose and jam my head through will be the one that I hand to them.
The switch in majors was a switch from a world of strict rules and laws—a maze through which mice are to navigate to reach a solution—to a world of journeys. In the past few years, my mind has been taken all over the earth. I have seen the world of ideas through the experiences of the ghosts of the past. I have learned that there are no bounds for the writer. He is one of the only people left on this blue sphere free to wander the grand spectrum of free thought. There are no mazes of rules and laws. There only exist the confines of the edge of the universe, where everything becomes unexplainable chaos.
I’ll tell you what I really want to do with my English major. I want to do graduate work in the field of life, eventually get a doctorate in it.
I want to open up a school where the mountains fall into the sea. The mission would be for the students to experience everything within the limitations of mortality: the city and the country; the hills and the beaches; hiking and surfing; meditation and exhilaration; love and heartbreak; estrangement and brotherhood with nature, God, and man. The mode of education would lie in field trips, and the homework would consist of daily journal writing. Their research would call for discovering how many colors really belong in a full set of crayons, for describing just how salt tastes or what wet feels like, and for determining why we all care about aesthetics in the first place.
The students would be of an elite group—those who Thoreau would describe as “pleased with [their] own passions and volitions, and who [rejoice] more than other men in the spirit of life that is in [them].” There would be boys and girls. Pairing off would be encouraged so the students could taste of all the joy and pain that comes along with relationships. Slowly, as time went on, memories would be created, stories would materialize, and those stories would inspire other stories. I would teach the students to write those stories down, not according to the standards of some old or dead scholar or media label, but according to the standards of the freedom of their souls. They would become the future of literature, for they would be the experts of everything under the sun.
If that is to happen, though, it won’t be for a while. I have a feeling I have a long road to travel to get there, but that is fine with me. There is plenty of life to taste along the way, whether I work at McDonald’s, prune plants, or find some other work in which to involve myself after graduation. I have a feeling that, despite what those Benthamites, those obsessive readers, or those oblivious passersby say, it really doesn’t matter. My muse will take my activities and send me out on my journey from there. All she asks is that I keep my windows open.