Sunday, June 3, 2012

I am a product of my past. My identity may or may not be built around some inherent, undetermined core of individuality or personality, but the raw materials of my identity are beyond my control. The people I've known, the education I've received, chance encounters, campfire stories, the pattern of light filtering through leaves on the wall of my childhood home: one doesn't need to be a determinist to agree that my past constitutes the experiential palette from which my present is painted. There are episodes in my history I may downplay, strive against, forget, or wish to forget. However, not only is it impossible to unexperience these episodes, my own desire to obliterate them is itself evidence of the shaping force they have exerted upon my character. This is true of all of us.

I identified this theme of determinism and the inescapability of the past in all of the texts I produced for my creative writing class this semester. In particular, I found that I was exploring the way that our lives are shaped and constrained by the decisions and behavior of other people. 

In keeping with this theme, I generated the final text of my semester protfolio in a (for me) novel way: I drafted a short story, and then deleted a number of key words and phrases. Then, I read the story aloud to my classmates, and invited them to choose words and phrases to replace those I had deleted. I committed both to my classmates and to myself that I would preserve their language in my final submitted draft. This writing process mirrors the way an individual's identity is formed: as the author, I can revise so that the language I received fits elegantly or grammatically into the story the same way that a person has a degree of control over how they interpret or react to their past experiences, but those words, like those experiences, can't be erased. 

Without exaggeration, I can say that as a writer, the prospect of relinquishing control over my text was frightening. As expected, the students chose language that I would not have, and as such the story is definitionally not up to my standards. The experience has had precisely the effect for which I had hoped: it has put into sharp focus the extent to which my life is out of my control, and reminded me just how scary that can be. It has also raised an interesting question: to what extent does this story actually differ from any other story I have written? I didn't invent each word that I use. The worlds I describe in my writing consist of components I have experienced elsewhere. The tiny subset of a universe of infinite possibility that is available to me to include in my writing has always been chosen for me, hasn't it? 

The story is after the jump. I have chosen not to highlight the students' additions -- I think it would be a cop-out.
I don't know how long I walked. Always upward the forest path climbed; certainly, my destination was near. Shadow enveloped me.

The path was steep. Occasionally, it seemed to me that I had followed the wrong fork, but to turn back was impossible. One backward step, and the loose, rocky surface would give, hurling me down into the forest's brambles and stones. When I would cast a longing glance behind at a path not taken, in the dim of the forest there were often no forks to be seen. Worse, at times there would seem many more paths whose branches had passed unnoticed: clear, bright, and easy strolls now lost to me, Tantalus-close but barred by the vicious path and dense thorns.

Having thus hiked to exhaustion, I swept my gaze about for a seat. The clastic blades of the stony track were shaky and unstable, but the underbrush of the forest cast jagged spears toward me. Broken mineral shards tumbled down the incline as I cautiously lowered myself to the ground. The stones beneath me shifted with my each panting breath; though my incremental retrograde slide lacked power, with each crunching displacement the gravel threatened to break free entirely and toss me backward down the slope.

As I clung barely resting to the loose ground, a clatter of rock and the snap of a branch penetrated the silence behind me. I stumbled to my feet and squinted into the deep growth on the left side of the path. I resumed my arduous climb, carefully traversing the hostile terrain while following as best I could the clatter and occasional glimpse of what I fiercely hoped was a fellow traveller. I called out, and though his words were muffled by the dense vines, he returned my call. My resolve firm, I thence struggled at every point to take the path that would bring me nearest him. I heightened my efforts, driven forward by a new, closer goal. Finally, my clothing torn and my flesh raked and bleeding, I had fought my way close enough to him to catch flashes of his face between the branches and to gaspingly exchange a few words.

We climbed this way for some time. Though his presence was reassuring, the brief distance between us was likewise frustrating. If I had a companion, it seemed to me, the labor of my journey would be reduced. As we hiked, I came to be convinced of it. I had to join him. He had to join me. It was an article of faith; it sustained my efforts. I was no longer dragging myself to my destination, I was dragging myself to the place where our paths would meet – dragging myself to him. 
Finally, I came upon an enormous tree. Standing between my path and his, its massive trunk reached far out of sight above the forest canopy. Though it was perhaps the oldest living thing in this forest, some force, nigh-unimaginably even greater than the persistence of this mighty behemoth, had split its trunk in two. Gazing through this cyclopean cleft, I could see him clearly. His face, soiled and carved by his labor, was beautiful to me, and the tears shimmering above his lower lid sprang from the same well as those that spilled over mine. I rushed forward and stretched my hand through the monstrous cleave toward him. We could each reach just far enough to intertwine our fingers. I strained to push my shoulder farther into the ancient tree, grinding heavy-smelling moss deep into my shirt and scraping the coarse, fibrous bark across my collarbone. The calluses on his fingers scraped my hand like the wood, but the webs between them were soft and warm. I closed my eyes and tried to push my entire consciousness into the sensation of that softness. I wept.

For hours we stayed there, laughing, crying, fingertips embracing one another. All we had to talk about was the path, the climb. Its rigor and trials. But ultimately, I was reminded of my situation when the loose soil gave under my feet, twisting my arm and throwing me painfully to my knees. I pulled back from the split tree for a moment and appraised the path ahead of me. It veered sharply to the right, away from my companion. I fruitlessly tore at the briars and vines on either side of the tree until my hands were bloody, my nails ripped and jagged. There was no way to him. Gagging on my own tears, I swore that I would find my way back to him, and he swore the same. Finally, I touched his hand for the last time and continued my journey.

I don't know how long I walked. Always upward the forest path climbed, and finally my destination gaped before me. Standing at the forest's edge, I stared down into the massive caldera. Wisps of burning smoke hooked a sharp smell into the delicate tissues of my sinuses, pulling me toward the rim of the seemingly bottomless gulf. On either side, the forest-fringed rim curved out away from me, the other paths all spilling into this massive void. I stood, finally able to rest, looking back down over the wood I had traversed and pretending that I could trace out my path. Then I turned back to the abyss and with a final hopeful glance to my left I gained my destination.

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