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Will Elliott's essay "Why I Write" won an award for nonfiction in the Eighteenth Annual University of Alaska-Anchorage Daily News 1999 Creative Writing Contest. Will was a student in Natalie Schoen's Crafting the Essay course. Will writes: "I enjoyed the course immensely and found it very helpful in improving my writing. Thanks a lot, I'm looking forward to future programs."
Congratulations Will, from all of us at CTY!
by William Elliott
When I was very little, walking up the trail with a pack on my back and the dog at my side, I would reach out and pull leaves from the bushes and trees. I would tear off corners, smooth the edges, and they would be turned into spaceships, flying across a lush alien world. Sometimes the trail, worn down into the ground over time by paws and hooves, would climb its way up onto the crests of ridges and meander across the moist, mossy fringes of muskegs. The rough, black and gnarled spruce branches that grew there were pirate spacecraft, pursued by the sleek birch branches from beyond the muskeg's soggy borders. As imaginary lasers and rockets exploded against the ships' hulls, I would rip off little pieces of bark and let them fall to the forest floor. The stricken ships would continue to blast each other to bits, until finally one was destroyed. After the momentous event of a ship's ruination, another branch from the foliage that surrounded us would take the fallen ship's place, and I would continue down the trail as the battle raged on around me.
The yearly journey to the rolling caribou hunting grounds on the high tundra was passed that way. Though weighted down by my wet clothes, rifle, and a backpack full of gear, I never failed to make the miles more easy as we traveled up the path blazed by moose and bear.
Years later, and some still before the present, after we had moved from the woods to the city to the country, some friends from school and I were enrolled in a video production class. It was nearly the end of the year, and we were all wondering what sort of large-scale final project we would be assigned. One morning, the teacher had us screen a tape of a local station's daily news program. We then discussed it, critiqued it and examined different cinematic techniques the production crew had used. Then the teacher cleared his throat and told us our last assignment: we would write, direct, star in and produce a single edition of a nightly news program, such as we had just watched.
We all hated the Nightly News.
Faced with the (imagined) terrible prospect of becoming, if only until the project was completed, like the overfed, overpaid, feeble-minded, superficial, insincere personalities that starred in the local Nightly News, we looked urgently for a way out. Of course our premonitions were unfounded; we had only to succeed in creating a professional, intelligent program to best the local newscast, but we were so caught up in our hysteria that it seemed any sort of competent reporting would make us 'just like them.' But after watching a particularly good 'News Hour with Jim Leher' on PBS that night, we came to the conclusion that news wasn't all that bad, and worthy of our efforts.
The next day we assembled around my kitchen table, eating pizza with our own added moose sausage, and scanning the newspaper in attempt to come up with some newsworthy material to report. After five minutes we were out of ideas, and once the pizza and Tang ran out, we gave up. We crumpled up the piece of butcher paper we were writing on and headed into the backyard. We plugged my CD player into an extension cord, called up all the girls we knew, stuck a battery in the camera, turned up the music as loud as it would go, and started messing around.
When the big screening day came, we sat through an hour or so of other students' programs before our much anticipated showing. A raucous, grating rendition of the NBC News Theme (with a friend on guitar, me on the drums and a turkey gobbling in the background) heralded the beginning of our program: a sarcastic mockery of TV 'news magazines' with a WWF-style cockfight pitting gangs of roosters against one another, crowds of bantams, hens, stuffed animals and a turkey, as its main feature. Other stories included a live interview with my dog; exclusive footage (rendered in amateur stop-motion) of a yeti attack; current weather inside different rooms of my house; plenty of loud music; skateboarding; yelling; and twenty minutes of credits. We got the highest score in the class.
Writing in response to an assignment is tiring work that half the time ends up embarrassing me, but writing with no preconceived intent or restraints is easy and rewarding. It allows me to ignore the monotonous day and sneak away into my colorful imagination.
At lunch, my friends and I fight for places at the false-wood tables in the cafeteria. The overcrowded conditions never allow us enough chairs, and so most of us stand and eat, trying to keep as close to the tables as we can so as to remain in the conversations. The people at the tables sit with their food in front of them and their garbage heaped in the middle, like people at a poker game, sliding their chips into the pot in the middle as the onlookers, quivering with anxiety over their inadequate proximity to the seated 'cool kids', stand behind them and comment sporadically. As we wait for classes to resume, trying to get extra food or swap homework, someone will start to tell a story. Others join, arguing, corroborating, antagonizing and laughing, and soon we're no longer shoveling food into our stomachs so we can stay awake and concentrate on the next three classes, but are caught up in whatever adventure is being told. The pressures of school are left behind for the day's most important forty-five minutes.
When my friends and I tell stories, send each other an email, or just tune out and daydream, we keep life exciting. Our words, whether entirely concocted or based upon an approximation of truth, rescue us from getting bogged down under all the things that fight for importance in our lives. We can retreat to the royal apartments, throw the shutters fast, and ignore the rabble clamoring at the gates. We can escape, implore, explore, and step back to see where we are in a new light, with the lessons of the past and with the ones imagined of the future.
When I'm at school and let my mind wander along, I can step back, step out of my body, as it seems, and take a look at myself. I can get my mind in order without being distracted by what's going on around me. Then I jump back in, and return to what I'm doing with my full attention. If something's bothering me at home, or I'm sick of the pressures of school, I can pick up a pen and start writing or drawing. I leave behind whatever's getting at me and kill time writing to someone about the chickens, or remembering my friends and I losing our snow machines in overflow, or being avalanched-in in the mountains. Writing lets me retreat to a quiet place, so I can get my strength and wits back to face the day. It's taking a vacation, and without being able to do that, I'd die of exhaustion. You can only run nonstop for so long.
I think that without our stories, most of us would be in big trouble. In Cat's Cradle, one of Kurt Vonnegut's characters announces that, "When a man becomes a writer, I think he takes on a sacred obligation to produce beauty and enlightenment and comfort at top speed." The man then asks a doctor, "Sir, how does a man die when he's deprived of the consolations of literature?"
To which the doctor replies, "In one of two ways... petrescence of the heart or atrophy of the nervous system."
Without writing, I'd be like a hamster condemned to run on his hamster wheel forever, perpetually absorbed in the running, the present, and never being able to step back and look at the big picture of his situation. Run run run run. I'd have no time to catch my breath or explore something new or even scrutinize why I'm running; I could never supplant the unhappy condition I might be in with good times I remember or imagine.
When I began this essay, I had no idea why I liked to write. I sat alone on the couch for hours, making half-hearted attempts at recording different stories, but mostly gazing out across the hay flats and watching the chickadees chase each other. There was a state of hysteria throughout my house that day, generated by the latent arrival of an exchange student, and the heap of homework I hadn't yet started on. I was absorbed entirely in cleaning the house and finishing all the work I had put off until then, and in my narrow-minded condition, I felt exhausted. When I withdrew for a few hours to my notebook, I left the sense of being harried and doomed behind, emerging happier into a clearer world.
So I guess I write for two main reasons: to understand life and to get through happily.
(A 'muskeg' is what we call a mossy bog in Alaska)
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