Once upon a time, there was a messy little crazy person living in the forest named Meichel. For fun, he wrote stories in the mud, ran around and played pretend, and sang made up songs in made up voices.
One day, he found a paper airplane stuck in the straw. He took up the water-warped thing into his child hands and unfolded it: there, printed out in ink, was a story, and he read the story. It told him of a boy walking the road to the city of Edgemere, a place where you can do what you love. It sounded wonderful, like a better kind of forest than he could ever dream of. And it would only take him no time at all, according to the story. He gathered up his favorite things—his lucky bandana, various things collected in his favorite color, and trinkets he’d found in the forest—and made his way down a road just behind the forest. As he walked, he was nervous, since he was leaving his forest, but he noticed soon that the forest followed him down the road, being just down a little ditch below him. He began his journey.
To pass the time, he scribbled a story onto some paper trash he found strewn on the side of the road. When he was done, he made it into an airplane and flew it. It took to the wind, almost on its own power, and disappeared from sight. Then one day, it came back. When he opened it it read, ‘No thank you. Thank you.’ This made him curious and confused. He didn’t ask for its opinion and yet he wanted to please it, whatever ‘it’ was. (It had something to do with Edgemere, he just knew it.) So he wrote another story, this time with a different ending. Same result. So the crazy boy kept writing stories and flew more paper airplanes.
A decade and a sixth came and went. He’d made more stories and more airplanes. One day, feeling particularly frustrated, he went to wipe the sweat off his forehead and found his bandana missing. Frantic, he searched every one of his pockets, but it wasn’t there. Then he noticed all his colors and trinkets were missing. He tried to remember why he took them off. Where had his trinkets and charms gone that he collected? He stopped walking, feeling bitter.
“Why did I leave the forest?!” He saw the forest there, right by the road, and attempted to throw off everything he’d have and run back to it, but stopped. The thought of suddenly writing in the mud again made him irritated with all its messiness. And the idea of singing songs you made up now felt childish and stupid and a waste of time.
He sat down and tried to write a story but found he could not even do this. Despair had filled the young crazy boy’s heart. Lost from him of what he’d always loved and cut off from what he’d been learning these twelve years, dark thoughts swirled him around, confusing him. Dark purple shadows and black grass showed before him. Visions of flying free and leaving what he’d seen around him swirled through his head. Nothing was making him happy. In a fit of despair, he grabbed a rock from the side of the road and swore that in one quick, painless blow, he would knock out his brains to end the torment of the mess he’d made of his quest. Nothing, it seemed, could save him.
And then, something did.
On the night after I graduated college, I dreamt of going insane in a forest. It was 2001. I’d just moved back home and I’d decided that I’d become a writer. Why not? I was madly in love with reading and writing. And so it began. I was an arrogant post-college punk, scribbling in notebooks and listening to System of a Down and Incubus, plotting the demise of contemporary American literature as I knew it, and not giving two shits about being published. I wrote to be rejected.
Then, four years later, when I moved to Chicago, I began to think a little bit about publishing. I wrote something I thought would be accepted and submitted it. I got rejected. I didn’t like the feeling. And so, I decided that I wouldn’t be rejected anymore. I began writing to get published.
Twelve years have gone by. I’ve made some pretty good stories, but I’ve made some very good airplanes. I gave them crisper, sharper folds, I colored them and made them pretty. I flew more and more of them. With none of them accepted, I simply continued down the road to Publication. Being rejected didn’t bother me, since I was not done with my studies. I wanted to be accepted, so I had this idea that it must be erased of all errors and flaws and be perfect. Perfectionism. This has a number of just plain bad side effects—applying an impossible standard to my work, muting my style and my voice (and my personality) for the sake of being ‘correct’, and curbing my idea of art for the sake of acceptance. As perfectionism does, it broke my spirit, and coming to this point in my journey, I was at a crossroads. What I was writing was what they wanted but not what I wanted. But what I wanted wasn’t what they would publish. I grew frustrated and upset. All I did was long for the days as a kid when I didn’t have to worry about acceptance. It got to a point where all I did was make paper airplanes just to send them out. I didn’t care anymore what the stories were or who they were about. I’d lost my crazy passion. I forgot about the forest. I was coming to two points—happy obscurity and unhappy recognition. I could not choose.
You see, we start down a road when we begin the task of making our stories better, and that path’s name is Editing. Editing makes a story great. Editing is art. But Creating is first process. It’s the lifeblood of your story, where the passion and mad love comes from. Being crazy in the forest, though: you can’t sell it. And Editing: it gets you sold but it lacks the passion of the crazy. What to do? Bash your head in with a rock! No no, that’s painful and foolish.
Then one day, I discovered another way. A third way.
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” — Pablo Picasso
It’s a balancing act (isn’t it always?). One is egotistical, the other is pandering. The answer is simple: use the best of the two. Use the passion of the first and the craft of the other. Out from this crucible comes alchemy: the artist. You must constantly balance and counter-balance what you are doing for yourself AND for your readers. It’ll take a lot of time and effort. ‘Balance is earned, it is never given,’ my old yoga teacher told me one day (and by yoga teacher, I mean a guy on YouTube). But it’s true. This is where passion marches arm-in-arm with mastery, this is where imagination do-si-doses with skill. Religion and science, heart and head. It’s the oldest lesson in existence.
And it’s completely inevitable, at least the beginning part is. Education pushes the child out of us. And this is only right, since society is run by the workers and not the artists. To tame the child, you learn to be obsequious. You become studious in the plan to make the best paper airplane. And in the beginning, just like for other people, this is a good thing. Every single artist must learn the rules before she breaks them. But at a certain point, your energy and passion have plateaued and you no longer are getting anything from it. It becomes drudge work. (Boo, work!) You do write better stories, but not your stories. They were never your stories but theirs.
I walked the road. But I kept finding I’d lost pieces of that crazy part of myself—the rebel, the punk, the rejected. The forest crazy. And there was a time when I fell down in despair.
That’s the third path.
Something papery and pointy hit Meichel’s head instead of a rock. It was a paper airplane. He put down the rock to pick up the plane and opened it. It read, Thank you. And another word, Write another. He looked around him. Then he noticed something. Right near the road, just down a little ditch and out a little by my forest, was another path. It wasn’t paved like the Road, it wasn’t really all that visible, but Meichel noticed that if he followed it with his eyes back where he’d come from, it was always there all along. It was dangerous, no doubt, since it wasn’t evenly paved like the road I was on. It looked familiar, this path. Then he knew: it was the one he’d tread long, long ago, when he first started running around in the woods. He took a few steps down to look at this other path but stopped.
“Can’t do that anymore,” he said to himself, and readjusted his pack to the other shoulder (a pack which was solid and heavy with the stuff of every young writer’s mind—intention, fame, fortune, expectations, models, rules, writers, writing, integrity, style, grammar, reading, love, sex, upbringing, genetic dispositions, nature vs nurture, etc etc).
Then he saw someone. Who? People on the path, yes. But, no, he saw ghosts. Figures made of silk or smoke. Confident in stature and stride, men and women. They were walking the path, the path that he found wound in and out of the forest. And they flew paper airplanes, made of the craziest material.
Meichel watched all this, his eyes as big as quarters. He noticed some airplanes flew off and then a figure disappeared. Off to Edgemere, he whispered to himself. For no reason, Meichel sang a song he made up right then, at first a little quietly, and then, as if to announce himself, louder and louder. The ghosts did not see him, but he felt they were listening. With his pack on his back, he stumbled down to the path, right to its edge. He wondered why it took so long to even visit the forest. He smelled familiar things, saw familiar sights. People did what he did long ago, but different, better. Their airplanes were all shapes and sizes, all different colors. And the ones that came, the figures barely noticed them. They didn’t sit there and study the airplane, like Meichel had been doing. Some threw them back just as quick. Some had other planes. Figures disappeared and then reappeared.
So he’d take the rocky path by the forest, the one split between the Road to Edgemere and the Forest of the Crazy. He didn’t know how dangerous it really was going to be. He’ll be safe and conservative at first, while also reminding himself to let the voices and songs of the forest guide him back to through the forest. He will use the tools that he’d made himself to build wilder, crazier, and more passionate stories and paper airplanes.
I’ll embrace rejection. I’ll take chances. I’ll be daring. In the heart of the forest. Where my passion waits. Where my dreams and thirsts and ideas sit like swollen dewdrops poised on the edges of grass blades. I will gather my courage. I will take a deep breath. I will keep walking. I create.
I won’t be scared all the time. I’ll be courageous and daring and confident sometimes too.
“March on!”, a young voice shouted behind me. I looked behind me and saw others treading the road, shouting and smiling, maybe sarcastically, maybe whole-heartedly.
But I can’t think about that now. I’ve got another path to tread.