Poor Traits of an Artist as a Young Man: enter [sic]
Despite mixed results from my work between Jimwamba and Frightened Boy, there was never any thought of quitting. Frightened Boy was gaining traction online, and I landed a new agent. She gave me the hint that young adult was blowing up right now, and that I may have an easier time targeting a concept like Jimwamba to teenagers.
She might be onto something.
[sic] was a new novel that copied the central premise of Jimwamba. The game remained – tag someone on the back, and they have fifteen minutes to change their lives. Except now it was a story about teenagers, and written much more competently. I pulled in many elements from my personal life, but it was in no way autobiographical. There’s a big difference between a diary like Jimwamba and a novel inspired by my childhood. [sic] felt real.
For the first time, I pulled a book together the way I’d always dreamed. Motifs, themes, recurring elements, a direct attack on our assumptions about life. I became much more critical of my own work, refusing to write the next chapter until I knew exactly where the story was moving. My career was stalling, and it was because of my material. Enough wild creativity; I needed control, direction, something to temper my outlandish surrealist tendencies.
It was time to evolve. If I had any doubt about a scene, it was replaced or deleted entirely. Brutal self-reflection. The book may have wound up at sixty-thousand words, but I cycled through well over a hundred-thousand words of material that didn’t make the cut or was reworked entirely. This has been my process ever since.
I first released [sic] on a webpage called WeBook, as part of an audience-voted contest. [sic] won the whole thing; suddenly I had offers of representation from three different literary agents. The tables were completely flipped from just a year before.
So I chose one. Over the course of a year, I was in serious talks with Simon & Schuster over publication of the book. A new editor on their youth fiction imprint was smitten with my novel, and said it was the sort of book he got into the industry to publish.
But the larger editorial board disagreed. I received a very lengthy and polite email from the chief editor at Simon & Schuster’s young adult imprint, Pulse. [sic] wasn’t being published. It was too different – people didn’t want to be challenged like this, it didn’t fit their mold. The market wasn’t proven.
I was crushed, I’ll admit. The process of choosing an agent and having them shop your book around takes about a year, and at the end of the long road I found defeat.Still wasn’t about to be done writing, though. I write because I love it – when I wrote Kid, Dark Scary Monster, and Steam, virtually no one read them. But I still wrote them, because I have to write. If I’ve got forty novels written by the time I die and no one has read them, so be it.
So I put [sic] on a new type of website, a sort of Facebook for authors and readers. It’s called Wattpad, and it turned [sic] into a huge hit.
It’s been viewed over a million times, with fifteen thousand individual votes and hundreds of comments. I started getting emails from people who really tried to play my hypothetical game of changing your life in fifteen minutes. I still get those emails today. Just a month ago, I got a letter from a teenager who said he’d read [sic] over ten times in the past two years, that it helped him through a crisis. Students started convincing their school libraries to order copies, and I still get a spike of paperback sales around Christmastime as parents order copies of the novel for kids who fell in love with it on Wattpad.
A group of student filmmakers from Bosnia turned their favorite scene from my book into a short film and entered it into a contest. You can view it here.
Christopher Pike, the guy whose books I devoured when I was thirteen, read it. He messaged me out of nowhere saying he really enjoyed it. We exchanged messages for a few weeks; he offered me some industry advice. This was a first from me – mutual respect from an author who I was a fan of.
One thing I became aware of, is I started to feel like I’d passed that 10,000 hours mark. You know, the hypothetical amount of practice required to “master” a craft. From Kid up until this point, I’d written seven novels. And not first drafts or outlines – completed, rewritten, best-of-my-ability books. I’d received guidance from a wide audience, as well as from professional editors, authors, and agents. My voice was developed, my style coming easy and natural when I sat down to compose.
[sic] taught me I was on the right path, even if mainstream presses weren’t willing to roll the dice on me. I stood in a park and sold printed and stapled copies of my books before, and I’d do it again if that’s what it took. Luckily, self-publishing and the world of e-books has developed around my career, and now I’ve got the ability to grow fans directly.
And that’s where you come in.
For the next entry in the Poor Traits series, click here.
Poor Traits of an Artist as a Young Man: the books roam
Jimwamba didn’t sell. There are plenty of reasons why, like that indie presses often aren’t equipped for commercial success or that a twenty-year-old doesn’t know a lot about marketing. Let’s not linger.
I wrote a sequel called Liq, which never saw the light of day. Still stored away on a hard drive somewhere.
But I wasn’t even close to being finished as a novelist. Instead, I took to abusing my university’s printing privileges and mass-producing my own printed/folded copies of Jimwamba. I sold them at festivals and coffee shops for $3 a pop.
I once sold thirty-five copies at Eeyore’s Birthday, an annual event in Austin. And yes, those are yard signs I stole and spray painted over. I’m hoping the statute of limitations on whatever crime that is has run its course.
At the same time, I was developing as a writer. I got my Bachelor’s in English Literature, and started paying more attention to my own approach to writing a novel. If you manage to find a copy of Jimwamba, you’ll see a fundamentally different approach to the basics of scene craft than I use now.
I started to strip exposition away whenever possible, instead relying on obscure details and reactions to supply the reader with evidence of my backstory. There was also a shift to seeing the book as a series of a scenes, a bit like a movie, with each scene having a definite beginning, middle, and end.
But my focus slipped. My early twenties were… wild. I wrote two more books in this period – one was a fully-illustrated novella with its own soundtrack called IDa. It was extremely surreal and very experimental, largely a reflection of what a mess my life was at the time. It was also my first (and last, really) attempt at collaborative art. A supremely talented artist by the name of Chad Stoermer supplied all of the illustrations for IDa, and it’s really my writing that let the project down in the end. Here are some examples from the story:
It’s still around here somewhere. I tried something very experimental, basically writing a cartoon, and I am just not confident in the end result.
After IDa came Frightened Boy. This was another experiment in writing as creatively as possible, with no boundaries. I think there are some good threads in Frightened Boy, and some interesting imagery. It’s a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel that may or may not take place inside a gun-toting terrorist’s mind. And that terrorist is the artist MC Escher, convinced he’s in a bad dream.
The end doesn’t really hold together, and it’s not as good as the books that came later. Nevertheless, it’s been clicked about a million times on Wattpad and has quite a few fans. I never plan to sell it, and would probably delete it if not for the loss of followers, votes and readers. I do plan on revisiting the central theme – solipsism – in a future novel. It is something that intrigues me.
Sorry, Frightened Boy. Still, I learned a lot from these experiments. By this time I was about twenty-five, and my writing was about to get serious.
It’s also around this time that I met Greg Poszywak, the brilliant artist behind all of my covers from Frightened Boy to the present. He’s had a huge impact on my career by distilling the essence of my writing into a series of eye-catching covers, and I wouldn’t have made it this far without him.
For the next entry in the Poor Traits series, click here.
Poor Traits of an Artist as a Young Man: Jimwamba.
I was looking for a followup to Steam. I wanted to ground the story in my life, take a more Kerouac approach to it. I was about to be a freshmen in college and all, and it was my time to write that pseudo-biographical coming of age story that all serious authors seemed doomed to commit to at some point.
So I came up with an idea. I knew it was a good one, because it scared the hell out of me.
A group of people agree to play a game – if one of them is tagged on the back, they must change their life in a direct, irrevocable way in the next twenty minutes. Afterward, they can tag whichever unsuspecting player they corner.
People fear change. I fear change, at times. And yet, we’re also very aware that we’re at the whim of change. You can work your whole life to build a stable and secure home only to have a natural disaster or personal tragedy demolish it all.
So what happens if we embrace that? If we revel in that?
This was Jimwamba. Written in a first person, past-tense confessional style. It was published by a small (now defunct) independent press in the UK called Flame Books. Not a vanity press, not some situation where I’m paying – it’s the other way around. When I was nineteen, I signed my first publishing deal.
For the next entry in the Poor Traits series, click here.
Poor Traits of an Artist as a Young Man: My first three novels.
I never wanted to write “normal” books. I wasn’t interested in writing what I would call “simple” thrillers, or fantasy, or sci-fi. Books that fall directly into a genre category and bring little else to the table – for instance, a sci-fi book that plans to attract an audience by including space ships, laser guns, and little else.
My goal has always been to give my readers that same sense of the rug being pulled from under me that I got when I first read Catch-22. And it had to be uniquely mine.
And it was uniquely bad, because a fifteen year old wrote it. However, from the plot hook you can already see where my mind was going in terms of literary goals. Kid is basically the story of a modern day Jesus and his apostles, except the Jesus figure in this allegory steals the girlfriend of the main character. My envisioned tagline: What would be it be like if Jesus stole your lady? It was around 50,000 words, and I did wind up writing it three different times. A lot of this was spent just figuring out the basics.
After a few re-writes, I moved on to this:
Also pretty bad. About a clandestine organization that travels the world faking miracles and otherwise creating false evidence for religious phenomena in the country.
And then, Steam. Here, I was starting to mature a bit. I actually may revisit this theme at some point.
I thoroughly wrecked it, because I still hadn’t quite hit my stride, but the premise was this: Steam was a woman who has seen everyone’s last breath. She knew how everyone would die, and when, but nothing else about them. She was the only supernatural element in the story, and a trio of men sought her for their own purposes.
I wrote and rewrote these three books up until I was about 18 years old. And then, while mowing a lawn one day, an idea struck me that would wind up escalating my career to new heights.
For the next entries in the Poor Traits series, click here.
Poor Traits of an Artist as a Young Man: How I got to be Scott
This is the first in a short series I’ve written to satisfy some readers’ curiosity on the history of my writing career. You can find the full table of contents for this series here.
I blame it all on the glasses.
I’ve had them since I was five. And on the Gulf Coast of Texas in 1989, if you were a pasty kid with glasses, you were a nerd.
So, I was a nerd.
My parents, wonderful people that they are, encouraged me to read. And so I did – voraciously. My first true loves were fantasy epics. I must have been ten when I finished David Eddings’ five-novel “The Belgariad,” and that took me over to Terry Brooks with the Sword of Shanara series.
At the same time, I am cursed with being the sort of nerd who isn’t particularly good at school, and my grades have always been pretty average. However, I could read. Port Lavaca had an accelerated reader program and that put me in touch with a lot of fantastic novels that planted the seeds of awareness of just what novels are capable of doing.
Real books. But mostly, fantasy and sci-fi.
Middle-school was my rebellious years. I remained mostly a social outcast, spending my time with my nose in books. I remember a phase where I was reading a Christopher Pike book every single day – which was handy, since he had about 70 at the time. As a side note, Christopher Pike later messaged me out of nowhere saying he loved my novel [sic], sparking up a series of conversations… but more on that in a later post.
As all teens seem cursed to do, I started writing poetry. Basically our elementary take on Nine Inch Nails lyrics, if we’re all going to be honest.
But by high school, I was starting to fit in and mature a bit more. I still wrote poetry, but English classes at Calhoun High School rekindled that spark I’d built in my early years of consuming literature.
Some great people in my life (like my older brother, Mark) opened me up to some more complex art across a lot of different mediums, breaking me out of the pop I’d rather thoughtlessly consumed before.
A new world of artistic appreciation opened up for me through the complexities of Radiohead’s OK Computer and Kid A albums, or the depth of tragic films like Requiem for a Dream. Fight Club hit us all like a bat to the face; Palahniuk made literature something aggressive and challenging and cool.
But where it really took hold was in literature class. I found books that expressed all this and more, and went so much deeper than lyrics or film ever could.
Catch-22 was the first book to pull the ground out from under me. This was postmodern fiction at its most challenging and I was in love. From there, I found Slaughterhouse-V, which began a ten book love affair with Vonnegut. Then Hemingway, Gardner, Hesse. I was insatiable.
And then, when I was fifteen, I decided to do it: I was going to write a novel. Even though I looked like this:
And they weren’t going to be just any novels. They were going to be novels that mattered, books like the ones that had just changed my life. Books that shake your hold on reality.
Join me for the next post, the first three novels.
Deep Mexico. Not the border, not within running distance of an airport. The real meat of the country, right in the center – Guadalajara, and then Tequila.
I grew up within about six hours of the Mexican border, and have always lived within twelve hours of it, so I have some familiarity with Mexican culture. And, as seems to be the case wherever I travel, the US culture has permeated this country as well – so travelling this far into Mexico felt a bit like someone turned my “culture slider” from 30% Mexican to 85% Mexican. Yeah, there are McDonalds and Chilis, but that’s not the norm in Jalisco. And I didn’t spend long enough in the country to tell you what the norm is, but it definitely involves tortas and pastel paint.
Erin and I took the trip on invitation – my good friend (and boss at my day job) Michael Sias and his lovely bride Carmina planned their wedding in a small town near her family’s home base, deep in Jalisco. The city is called Tequila… I have no idea why. Something about the amazing vodka they produce.
No, there was tequila. A lot of it. The streets are literally paved with the byproduct of the tequila manufacturing process, as the cactus pulp fills in the (many abyssal) holes in the old-world cobblestone streets.
We only ran into a few service staff/tour guides who spoke English, but it was really a rarity. Luckily for me, Erin is pretty fluent in Spanish, so I would generally pick her up and place her between me and whoever was speaking at me. She did a great job figuring out exactly (…sort of) what was going on.
We left Thursday morning, flying out of San Antonio directly to Guadalajara airport. Much searching, much showing of passports. It’s only a two hour flight, though we spent two hours getting to the airport and another two hours in a taxi getting from Guadalajara to Tequila.
Heavy traffic getting out of Guadalajara. Weird fact: Drivers all use their hazards when they hit heavy traffic, but no one uses their blinkers to change lanes.
Graffiti covered everything.
I took quite a few short videos on this trip. Here’s a couple cataloging our journey to Tequila…
The highways in Mexico are baffling. You’ll be driving down a road (or in our case, death-gripping your spouses’ hand in the back of a taxi) going somewhere between sixty and eight-five MPH, and you’ll spot, if you’re lucky, a few white lines painted in the pavement. And just past that? A violent speed bump. A wheel-breaking, axle-scraping, tumor-riddled speed bump grown to kill. A speed bump planted decades ago that’s grown well and tall.
I don’t get it – I can only guess how many sleepy/drunk/foreign drivers fly into one of these going full clip, only to have their wheels and tires destroyed as they are sent hurtling catastrophically into the town the hump was meant to protect. They are the “I HALP!” of road safety.
We actually came across a serious wreck on the way to Tequila, and the road was shut down entirely. But our taxi driver was determined and/or bitter about giving a two-hour ride to the middle of nowhere, and veered off down a dirt road in an attempt to get around the block. It did offer me a up-close view of an agave farm, as seen below…
But soon we were clear, and the roads got quieter as we veered off toward Tequila. They also got much, much prettier:
Mountains getting closer…
Then, a drive down a canyon pass into the city of Tequila.
In this video you get a glimpse of Tequila, nestled in a valley between the mountains:
And we arrived! Beautiful town. We didn’t have a lot of time to snap pictures on arrival, as Mike and company were waiting on us to go out and eat… which we didn’t actually wind up doing, and instead visited the four-star restaurant in the hotel.
Well, I did have time for one picture. The town square is dominated by this church, the Parish of Saint James (okay, the Parroquia Santiago Apostol) which was built by the Spanish in 1530.
The hotel was pretty much perfect. Modern, built within the past few years. It’s apparently the most expensive place in the region by a big margin, but I would have paid twice as much per night if this place were in Austin.
It was getting dark, so we went back to the hotel instead of trying to find Mike and company. We didn’t think wandering around the streets at night was a good first move for obvious tourists. However, after a few days in Tequila, I… well, I still wouldn’t wander around the streets alone at night.
This is one of many hotel bars.
I really like these next two pictures because of the contrast they show between the hotel and the rest of the city. The first is a view from our room of our courtyard and the pool. The second is a picture of what’s just over that big salmon colored wall.
Day two – time to go exploring.
One thing I failed to capture here, but which was a constant everywhere I went, were the dogs. Mexico apparently has quite a wild dog problem. In Guadalajara I noticed people walking with dogs and assumed these were well-trained animals following their master without a leash, but… no. They’re just stray dogs following people around. And they were everywhere – literally ten in the town square alone, chasing pigeons or sleeping outside shops. Over the trip I probably saw over a hundred, from well-bred golden retrievers, to toy poodles, to what might have been a coyote who infiltrated their ranks. They all seemed pretty domesticated, actually, in that they were comfortable around people and are pros at city life. I did not try to pet any of them, though.
Erin wanted to take some tours. We were honestly trying to stay away from the Jose Cuervo related stuff (note, this wound up being unavoidable. They even owned our hotel, apparently) because it’s such a massive global brand that it seemed it would be less authentic. So we met up with a Gran Orendain tour, a smaller tequila distillery. In what became a trend on our trip, we were the only English speakers interested in the tour and so got a tour guide to ourselves.
This is a 500 year old city, meaning some conquistador designed this place with horses in mind. Because of this, traffic was insane. In many places, the roads were only wide enough for a single car to travel at a time – even though they were two-way roads. Our bus regularly got in scrapes where traffic would gridlock as multiple cars tried to enter an intersection at the same time, with the only solution being for one set of drivers to chicken out, and for four or five cars to reverse at the same time and let opposing traffic pass.
I took this next set of photos from the tour bus window. This is how close the enormous novelty-shaped van was to hitting other cars as we passed.
One thing not accurately captured here is that this area stank pretty awful. A constant stream of bubbling tequila-manufacturing waste water runs across here, and smells like rancid agave. Despite that, it was very pretty…
I’m confident these hard-working guys were thrilled to have me standing around pointing a cell phone at them.
A bit of tequila nerdery: I’m a scotch guy, but I am generally interested in liquor and the way different regions of the world have created products so unique to their culture. Scotland has scotch, the USA has bourbon, Russia has vodka, etc. – all beverages really specific to their country of origin and steeped in history.
So, it turns out blanco tequila – the cheaper, clear variety – is a lot closer to being “the real deal.” They all start as clear/blanco tequila, but brown tequilas, categorized as “reposado” or “anejo” are aged between six months and three years in oak barrels. Except, no one tried to do that until the 1960’s, basically borrowing the technique used by everyone who makes whisky. To me, this kinda turns the brown tequilas into “tequila whisky” and blanco has the purist and most unique flavor. We got to do a taste test/interview with a tequila tester for Jose Cuervo who agreed.
Because we had multiple dinner/parties, we didn’t really get to try much food. But I’m a big fan of Anthony Bourdain’s approach to travel, and wanted to try something local. I should say that Erin and I took a cavalier attitude to Montezuma’s Revenge. We ate ceviche, brushed our teeth with tap water, had ice in drinks, etc. We did try and stick to bottled water for drinking. And… neither of us got sick at all, so there.
That night, we went out to a western-themed wedding party hosted by Mike and Carmina. I was too busy talking with my boss’s dad to remember to take photographs, though I did manage a few. The bar was seriously impressive, and massive.
We spent day three exploring, shopping, and doing another tequila tour, this one ending in a private tasting lesson where we paired different types of tequila with different foods to bring out flavors. After that, we had three or four hours before the wedding but wanted to relax. We swam in the big hotel pool – totally empty, except for the staff – and then moved the party to the sky bar. Also empty. This was one of the more serene and “if this isn’t good, what is?” moments of my life.
I filmed a video of the thirty second walk from my room to this view to try and give a better sense of it.
Time to get fancy! Erin bought me this suit as a Christmas gift a few months ago.
See, Mom? I told you burgundy shoes could look good.
Off to the church! I’ll spare you more shots of the outside. Here’s the interior, though.
Before the show really got rolling, one of the ancient kneeling-board things slipped from its hold and brought all it’s considerable weight down on my shin. I may have said something very unholy in response, so apologies to Mike and Carmina if I brought some sort of curse on their family.
I didn’t take any shots of the actual ceremony as it seemed like poor taste to wave my cell phone around this solemn event. I also couldn’t really understand anything, as it was primarily in Spanish. But the bride was radiant, the groom stoic, the space sanctified. All in a good day’s wedding.
So that was the end of the ceremony, officially. And now I’m thinking – okay, head to the reception hall. Eat food, meet the groom’s friends, try not to get smashed at the open bar, leave with some dignity. Maybe dance a bit, pay respects to the newlyweds, eat some cake.
But, no. At this point, things took a turn for the extravagant. First, a march through the streets with our mariachi band.
It doesn’t end at a reception hall. Oh no, it ends with us being handed margaritas at the gated entrance to a compound. Just inside the gates? Sweet modern art.
So we walk past that, a bit hesitant and not knowing what to expect. And we were right to feel that way, because we did not expect this. Yeah, it’s a gladiator-style sand pit.
A lifetime of playing videogames tells me that black statue is going to come alive, and one of us is going to have to fight it before we can advance to the next area.
But, no! Tribal ceremony re-enactments!
And then… dancing horse! Because of course there’s a dancing horse:
What a party! That wrapped up, and we were led further into the compound, and greeted by more abstract sculpture.
We ate, we got to know the lovely people at our table, and I drank a bit of tequila. The fathers gave speeches, and the dancing started – slowly at first, the father/daughter dance and Mike and Carmina’s first. But the floor wasn’t filling fast enough, so Carmina decided to kick it up a notch and aggressively recruit for the dance floor. I wasn’t going to say no.
So we danced. A lot. And then, we were force-fed tequila with a stick. I failed to get any video evidence of this mostly to protect the guilty. The organizers had a limbo stick with a shot-glass mounted on the center. Limbo under, pause, and have a shot of tequila deposited in your face. I think the party cleared an entire bottle in about five minutes; not even Erin was spared. It was a good time.
All told, this was a ridiculously fun wedding. Got to be the most impressive private party I’ve ever attended in my life.
We had to get up at seven, so we left around midnight. Things weren’t even close to winding down, but we knew we had a good eight hours of travel ahead of us, including our most daunting task: figuring out the Guadalajara airport. So we said our farewells and stumbled back to the hotel.
The next morning we woke up early to meet our taxi out Tequila. A bit dried out, I did snap a few parting shots of Mexico. A stark contrast from the night before, but a striking one as well. I liked the dichotomy of it all – most extravagant party of my life up against the realities of a country that, at least in places, is a bit down on its luck.
We loved the trip. I’d do it again tomorrow if I could. Everyone we met was extremely polite and helpful – or so I assume, since I couldn’t understand what they were saying. No one tried to scam us, we never felt threatened, and the only time someone ran up to me in the street was to return a hotel room key I dropped. I’ve done a lot of vacations in the United States, but this was our first real attempt at international travel. Flying kinda sucks and is expensive, yet the end result was something much more memorable and enchanting than even my recent trip to Colorado. That was a zen-like romp in my own personal bubble, while this was vibrant and noisy and alive with nothing to separate me from a very colorful land I knew almost nothing about.
Go to Mexico.
Thanks for reading.
I am the author of several novels. They are short and sharp mysteries, thrillers, and dramas that make you think. I try to put the same level of craft and detail into my stories that I find when I analyze literature the way you’ve seen above. You can get all my works as either paperbacks or e-books at a very reasonable price from Amazon.com. Click here to see them all.
The Missippi River. A source of inspiration for artists like Elvis, Johnny Cash, Otis Redding and B.B. King. The waterway and its many divergents interlace the city, driving culture and commerce into an otherwise flat, hot, not-particularly-large city in Tennessee until it’s overflowing with talent and culture.
Because of that, Memphis has character. If New Orleans has jazz and Austin has “indie” country/rock, then Memphis has rock and roll. And blues. And soul… and gospel. It’s a city where Johnny Cash got his first break opening for Elvis a year after the city made Elvis into a megastar. A city where rock and roll was invented, where B.B. King might bump into Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding at the Sun Records Studio. Eventually it just devolves into a list of American music legends: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Isaac Hayes. All of them got their start in Memphis, and the city doesn’t plan on letting you forget that. It’s a wild city; a party town and a cultural landmark.
Erin and I wanted one last vacation for the summer – she tasked me with surprising her with a location. I’d driven through Memphis once before on my (tragically non-cataloged) road trip to Nashville, and was struck by the look and feel of the place. I needed to know more about it.
I’ve got to hand it to my wife: she’s capable of getting into a car and driving to an airport with no idea where she’s actually going to wind up when she gets off the plane. I mean, she prefers it that way. My anxiety would be in overdrive, but that’s why I do all the planning.
We flew out of Austin and arrived at the Memphis airport around one in the afternoon. Flight was on time, luggage arrived, and being part of the civilized world means Memphis actually has Uber. We arrived at our hotel, The Madison, an hour early. No problem, because Yelp armed me with a list of places I had to eat at. I made reservations for each night we were there, but one place I had to hit didn’t take them: Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken.
They’re not kidding around about the ‘famous’ part. It’s a little one-room establishment that seats maybe 40 people, but even at 2:30 there was a half-hour wait to be seated. It’s one of those unique places that is enormously popular exactly because it’s small, unchanging and unassuming.
But maybe my amateur-foodiesm has me spoiled. The fried chicken tastes like, well, above-average fried chicken. Basically the same thing you get at KFC, just a bit better in every way – a bit more spice and flavor to the batter paired with very juicy cuts of chicken. The price is right, though, and it’s not the restaurant’s fault you need to stand on the sidewalk in the Memphis sun for a half-hour before you can eat.
By the time we finished, we could check into The Madison. I picked this place over the obvious choice (the Peabody) because I dug the style. Lobby was fantastic, rooms were pretty good. The hotel’s restaurant was better than most, but still tragically condemned to hotel restaurant status. They’re just never as good as actual restaurants in the area.
A big bonus for the hotel is the Twilight, a rooftop bar exclusive to hotel guests that oozed class.
That night we hit a restaurant called McEwens. Pretty good place, a little foodie joint, though there was one misstep.
Our waiter recommended a lobster risotto, claiming it had won some critic’s award for “the best risotto in Memphis.” Sure bet, right? But no. Gritty, undercooked rice. Sad.
Boo, hiss. The dinner was slightly redeemed by a grilled peach stuffed with gorgonzola and arugula, which I ate too quick to remember to photograph.
The next morning, we decided to go for a walk and see what we could see.
This is the Memphis City Hall. Sadly not captured is the fact we were drawn into a Feed the Homeless fundraising event as we walked by – we grabbed some barbecue and bought a few raffle tickets for good measure.
I never actually saw a trolley in service my entire time here. I did see lots of city buses, but they all had normal wheels. I’m sure the cyclists of the city appreciate the deep, pointless grooves cut into the roads downtown.
Each of these little tourist-information boxes was painted by a different artist; I loved it. Really added to the sense of art appreciation, and also they just looked great.
There was also quite a bit of non-commissioned artwork. Keep on blowing those bubbles, little guy.
The humbly named “Mud Island” is a little piece of land in the middle of Mississippi River, apparently the site of a rather short and tragic naval battle during the Civil War in which the Confederates’ strategy of using cotton bales as bullet shields on the decks of barges ended (quite predictably) in massive fires. At any rate, the city has done an amazing job with the island. This massive walkway leads you there, and a monorail runs underneath it. You can feel the bridge quake as the monorail passes underneath.
One of the weirdest, coolest features of Mud Island was scale replica of the entire Mississippi River carved into the ground. It was extremely detailed – it looked like every single depth-change and tributary was carved in. Water ran through it and people were encouraged to run around and play in the three-inch deep pools.
MY WIFE IS A GIANT.
This thing was massive; the designers really committed. The entire sculpture was several hundred yards long and ends at the picture below, in this pool (no swimming allowed, for some reason…)
We chilled out the rest of the day, then that night hit up a restaurant called Flight.
The concept of the place was clever. Everything could be ordered three ways: either as an individual small plate, an entire entre, or as a “flight” in a three-course meal of small plates designed by the chefs. And the flights didn’t end there, either. There were desert flights, bourbon flights, scotch flights, wine flights – you get the idea.
Everything is a flight!
Soup flight! Flight flight!
Chicken and waffles, sure, everyone does it. But do they cover it with this mushroom reduction?
Flight did not disappoint. One of the better meals I’ve ever eaten, and we had an awesome waitress that managed a 30% tip after giving us great advice about the city. She also had her own business card, which… I’ve never seen before. That’s some serious waitressing.
The next day, we had a tour scheduled with Backbeat Tours. Great fun – an hour and a half on an air conditioned bus with a tour guide who was also a local musician. He’d take us to musical landmarks, like the site of Elvis’ first gig or the recording studio where the laundry list of famous 50’s and 60’s artists recorded their albums. On the way, he’d play guitar/sing samples of the tunes.The tour ended, and we wound up downtown again.
So we walked some more, and then things took a turn for the serious. I had completely forgotten that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. He came to take part in a protest against the death of two black sanitation workers who were mysteriously (see: suspiciously) crushed (see: murdered) in garbage trucks, resulting in the “I am a man” protest chant commemorated below.
This brought us to the Lorraine Hotel – now a civil rights museum, but quite cleverly, most of the hotel is preserved in its original form… including the room MLK rented and the balcony from which he was assassinated.
That wreath marks the spot where Dr. King was shot down.
Hard to see here, but this museum is built onto the original hotel. The tour ends in MLK’s room. It was a beautiful museum, very crowded and very solemn. No pictures of the inside (sorry, I didn’t want to be “that guy.”)
We closed out our trip that night with visit to Itta Bena. It’s a little Italian place literally hidden above the B.B. King bar on Beale Street. Beale Street, for the uninitiated, is very similar to Bourbon Street in New Orleans or 6th Street in Austin – it’s blocked off from traffic and you can carry alcohol around, live bands in every bar, that sort of thing.
There are only two ways into Itta Bena. One is up a discrete staircase in the B.B. King club, and the other is up the fire escape.
I love “hidden” restaurants and bars. It’s the anti-advertisement that appeals to me – most places beg you to come inside, but this one dares you to find it.We actually have ten bars in Austin that are literally “secret” and can only be found by researching them; maybe a good topic for a future blog.
The windows are covered in blue film, giving the place a strange, dark vibe. Some talented jazz guitarist was noodling in the corner.
The food was good, but not great – the same sort of thing you’d find at any upscale Italian restaurant. Still, it definitely won on atmosphere.
On the way out, I snapped a shot of Beale Street in full swing.
Sadly, I could not take part. No, our flight departed at 8:30 the following morning – it turns out that only Allegiant has direct flights from Austin to Memphis, and you had to take whatever time slot was available as there was only one flight per day.
That’s our trip to Memphis. I had a great time; I flew to this city on a hunch, basically, and was not disappointed. It’s hard to think of a city more packed with culture and heritage in the South, and yet it really doesn’t come up on the usual list of cities you need to visit. But yes, you do need to visit it. Thanks for reading.
I am the author of several novels. They are short and sharp mysteries, thrillers, and dramas that make you think. I try to put the same level of craft and detail into my stories that I find when I analyze literature the way you’ve seen above. You can get all my works as either paperbacks or e-books at a very reasonable price from Amazon.com. Click here to see them al
It gets strange in West Texas. Five nights, and none of them normal.
And I’m no stranger to Texas. I’ve been here all 32 years of my life, in fact. And I think I have a good idea of how outsiders view my state – cowboys, conservatives, football, and tinges of Mexico.
This is not that Texas. After 32 years, this isn’t even my Texas. Not yet.
This is a slow dance with a cactus. This is a Texas-satire that somehow means more than the object of its humor. Yeah, this is fierce independence. This is deserts and guns and horses and saddles. But it’s also self-aware. It’s not basic, it isn’t something you nod at condescendingly from your train window (“oh, how quaint!”)
It’s challenging. It’s threatening. It’s intelligent, it’s raw. This is West Texas.
So, I’m Scott Kelly. I write existentialist fiction novels, and I have a dad who has a lot to do with those books. I somehow failed to take a single good picture of him this entire trip, but rest assured he planned it all. He drove half of it, and we undertook the journey in his car. Many of the photos you’re about to see came from his camera.
Talbot Kelly has been out here multiple times for work and play, and set the agenda for the road trip. But he knows me – of course he knows me – and if you know me as well, you should enjoy this as much as he knew I would.
The first leg of the journey was basic: the escape from civilization. We drove down out of Austin and into San Antonio, the space now a battleground between the two competing metropolitan’s suburbs. From San Antonio, we aimed west – into the countryside. Here, things started to look considerably more rural. More western.
Then, a neon yellow sunrise on the horizon. Could it be? I’ve been eating these chips since college, and we found genesis. Yes, it’s the actual Julios store/restaurant. For the uninitiated, they’re a popular Texan chip that tastes somewhere between a Nacho Cheese Dorito and a real corn chip.
Then it all started to get more No Country for Old Men. Which is fitting, because they actually filmed a chunk of that movie here. Adding to that sense of far-west lawlessness was the fact that every third car we saw was a border patrol agent. We went through a checkpoint, though no one seemed too interested in the two of us.
This was the outskirts, and we ended the first day on the border into desert madness.
Marathon isn’t really a town – it’s a stretch of highway, basically, with some dirt roads behind it. However, it does host an incredible hotel. The Gage. It oozes Southern charm, and actually brings along a four-star restaurant and pretty well-known Austin chef. I’ll forgive the restaurant its cringeworthy name (the Twelve Gage…) because it wound up being some of the best food we ate on this trip. Granted, later in this trip we were satisfied scooping cold potato hashmush and paper-thin origami turkey-bacon out of stale rewarming trays. There’s not much to eat in this part of the country, and the concept of paying more money for smaller servings of higher quality food hasn’t really caught on. You can get single slop, or pay 10% more for a double serving of slop, but that’s where your options end.
But, not at the Gage.
Each morning on this trip, I tried to do a little three or four mile run around whatever town we woke up in. Today marked my first run, and I was rewarded for stumbling over dirt roads with this. I present, the ugliest building I’ve ever seen:
It turns out you can drive straight from Marathon, through Big Bend, and come out at Terlingua (our second stop.) Dad didn’t know this, and I didn’t either, but it wound up a happy accident that we drove about fifty miles across the center of the iconic National park.
It’s a different world out here. It’s been uncharacteristically rainy, but despite the green you’ll see here, it’s very much a desert. A desert with mountains, but not the climbing sort. These mostly seem to be made of great piles of brittle shale.
As we broke free from Big Bend and its vacuous serenity, we stopped for a quick lunch on the way to Lajitas.
We didn’t stay the night in Lajitas, but we did stop long enough to take some shots of this guy. Check it out – goat mayor!
That goat mayor is weird as hell. I get that. But it’s a tourist attraction; I’m sure they have some system in place where they won’t need the mayor to sign off on important decisions. It’s a joke to get people like me to take pictures. He is finally elected, and it’s all to get laughs. Same reason I got into the National Honors Society in eighth grade. I feel you, goat.
But then we left the tourist attraction of Lajitas, and went to Terlingua. Terlingua is strange. We went to many strange places on this trip, but none as outlandish or outrageous as Terlingua. There is no method to this madness; it’s not put together to be a “ha-ha.” It’s not guided by visionary artists or bitter libertarians. It’s just insane.
This is a real desert community – this is a place for people who went for a hike through Big Bend, stopped, and decided “I live here now.” Population of maybe a hundred people, and about fifty of those sleep in tents around the skeletal remains of hundred-year-old mining camp. Then there’s this guy:
We ate dinner that night at
one of Terlingua’s [only] restaurant s. That’s okay though, because it was awesome. Locals and their five dogs (a piece) out front, and live music inside. Food was decent, but the crowd was awesome. We wound up getting to know both couples eating on either side of us. One of them was even from Port Lavaca, like me – and he admitted it, too!
I woke up that morning for another jog and snapped my favorite shot of the trip.
This is TX FM 170. Consistently ranked one of the top twenty roads in the entire United States. It winds, it weaves, it dodges and banks – and to your left is the Rio Grande. Just past that? That’s Mexico. I would have killed to have been in my car for this stretch, but the Merc held its own. Its got twenty different ‘modes’, and luckily one is called “Sport+.”
So, we went straight through Marfa and into Valentine. Valentine is a nothing town, a ghost of a bone. We saw a lot of economic despair in this part of Texas, and Valentine was ground zero for the wrath. Maybe that’s why an artist commissioned this $80k installation on the completely flat, straight, barren highway (laden with crows, by the way). It’s a Prada store, designed to be a reasonable facsimile of a Paris boutique. Except behind it there are cows, to the left there is roadkill, and to the right there is a floundering town that can’t muster a single gas station. The idea is that this place will erode into the ground, destined to thoroughly confuse anthropologists and archaeologists for thousands of years to come. Kind of a time capsule filled with trick snakes… or, a poignant message about consumerism in a place that mostly sees that word as excuse to ask for their first Wal-Mart.
I love this sort of art. Seriously. It is something that no one would notice in a strip mall in Venice or even downtown Austin. Cut that store out, paste it here, and suddenly it’s a striking introspection on Texan life. The setting becomes a piece of the canvas on which this thing is painted.
Marfa is minimalist. Sort of. It’s a boom-town all out of gas, taken over by minimalist artists in the 1950’s. It’s one of the best looking small towns in Texas – by a very large margin – and I think I’ve seen a good portion of them.
This is a natural spring up in the mountains of West Texas. You know it’s not a swimming pool, because there are fish in it.
On my walk, I came across another elected dignitary. Could tell by his swagger that he held the collective weight of his town’s votes. Maybe not a mayor, but still…
Fort Davis is home to a cutting-edge observatory. And “cutting-edge” means a lot more when it’s surrounded by a raw countryside. Observatories tend to be built in remote parts of the world, because the light and radio pollution is low, so they operate optimally. They also really feel like science fiction when you’ve just left a miserable faux-50’s diner with unfathomably bad turkey bacon and driven straight up a mountain to be greeted by a glowing dodecahedral dome built by multiple world-class universities to uncover the true nature of dark energy.
Alpine was the last stop on our trip, and also the largest city. While it was beautiful, and interesting, it wasn’t quite as mad as the last few stops (particularly Marathon, Terlingua, and Marfa). However, no other town left my knees knocking quite the same. You’ll see why.
If you know me very well, you probably know I like cars. I like the way they sound; I like the way they look. I like driving them down twisty back-roads and lonely highways. I like how brilliant engineers from all over the world compete to try and solve the same set of universal problems. So when I saw this sports car museum in Alpine (“The Stable Performance Cars“), I had to go in.
It was $2 to get inside, and we were the only people there. It turns out Carroll Shelby – the car designer/legend best known for a long line of special Ford Mustangs – had a racing team down here. Inside were a series of cars he had a hand in designing: about ten different Shelby Mustangs…
So the owner watched us (okay, me) gleefully skipping around his museum, gushing over the badass muscle cars. Then he asks, “Hey, do you want to sit in the GT?”
Yes, yes I do want to sit in the Ford GT. I’m fascinated with cars, how can I pass up the opportunity to sit in one of the most expensive cars I’ve ever seen? The last time I saw this model of car, it was behind velvet rope in a museum.
So he lets me sit inside. I’m happy; it feels awesome. Sitting on the cement. Everything is ludicrously complicated, like Jackson Pollack splattered out a bunch of knobs and switches. I mean, the door has its own roof, for some reason… I suppose to lobotomize you in the event you slam the door too quick after getting inside.
Then he drops this on me: “We haven’t started it up today, why don’t you revv it up and give it some gas?”
Now you have to understand, I literally cannot say no to this. Even if it meant smashing this priceless supercar into ten slightly less priceless muscle cars inside a tiny museum. And this guy is insanely generous to let me do so. If I owned this car, I’d be standing on top of it in camo pants while clutching my assault rifle: don’t look at it too hard, you’ll wear down the paint.
But I’m not going to question the generosity of the owner. So I say yes; I start the car (after some fiddling.) And I revv it.
And I sort of, on a conceptual level, know how to drive a standard – I’ve driven them around for a few miles recently. But I’ve never owned one, and I’ve never driven anything like this before. So, it’s not until I release the clutch to turn the car off, that I realize it’s been in first gear the whole time. It lurches forward a few inches, then stalls; my heart crashes then reboots.
No pressure. Just nearly destroyed this kind man’s prized possession. Still, no harm done, and I got a taste of a supercar legend.
My dad and I get along tremendously. This is the first, and likely only, blog you’ll see from me that I didn’t plan. But I couldn’t have planned a trip half this well, either. He doesn’t have this particular method of promoting his adventures, but he has his own circle of admirers, of which I’m one. He’s a hell of a guy in a hell of a place that outsiders would describe as hell, and I’m just happy he let me come along for the journey.
From here, it was the usual: survive a seven hour slog through boring Texas highways in an effort to get home at a reasonable hour. We did see a small hill that looked exactly like a woman’s breast, but I’ll spare you the indecency of that bit of geography.
Texas has the unique responsibility of being five or six worlds under one set of map lines. These treasures remain unassailed because they’re mostly uninhabited and ignored, but they’re the responsibility of this state. Given my experience with our governance, my only hope is that they remain under the radar – something granted to the people willing to seek it out. Or in my case, people drug along by those who know best.
Thanks for reading.
A brilliant poem is reduced to Hallmark tripe – but is that wrong? In fact, can anything a reader says about literature really be considered ‘wrong?’
To examine this, we’ll need to understand some fundamentals of the study of literature. How do guys with doctorate degrees critique books? It’s done through different modes of thinking, called styles of literary criticism. As a test study, today we’ll be using Robert Frost’s iconic poem, “The Road Not Taken.” It’s very short, and I recommend you refresh your memory by reading it here.
There are many distinct styles of literary criticism. The one that feels most natural to me is the biographical style of criticism. Biographical criticism pretty much does what it says on the can, and you will be using details of the author’s personal life to explain their work. Let’s say Robert Frost did an interview in which he explained that The Road Not Taken is a literal poem about one of his rambling walks through the forest, and about specific paths he did not walk down. “It has no broader significance,” Frost says. “It’s just a pretty poem about a walk in the woods. I took the less popular path, and at the end I saw a rad woodpecker.”
He didn’t say that, thank God. But if he had, then our biographical criticism of The Road Not Taken would be to call it a poem about a specific walk in the woods and nothing else. Or if some letter or news piece revealed the exact location of the walk in the woods, we would use that biographical information to influence our critique. “Of course Frost wrote about this path, he walked down it every day.” And if we knew that, we could go get a look at that woodpecker.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, we find formalist criticism. Formalism throws away any information about the author, and instead examines the different techniques and styles of the artwork. It takes into account the popularized forms of literature – for instance, The Road Not Taken is an English poem written by an American in the early twentieth century in iambic tetrameter but with nine syllables per line instead of the normal eight and… you get the idea. Formalists look at literature like Darwin looked at a finch: what are the features, how does it relate to others, what distinguishes it.
But is either the formalist or biographical interpretation more correct? Well, that’s not necessarily the point. There are many different styles of literary criticism – postmodern, psychoanalytic, deconstructionist, Jungian, feminist, etc. Each of these is simply a filter you can lay over a work of art and attempt to find connections. Sometimes they fit very well and seem plausible. Other times, you find no connections and move on. You can’t do biographical criticism of the Iliad, for instance, because no biographical information about Homer exists. He’s probably not even a real guy.
Yet there is one style of criticism to end all others. It’s relatively recent (1970’s) and scares the crap out of me. I also can’t deny its validity. I’m talking about reader response criticism.
Here, we remove both the author and the text as objects completely. The book itself happens when a reader is consuming a text, and not a moment before. The book doesn’t even exist on its own; all that exists is the reader’s relationship to the book.
This is a heady concept, so let’s try an analogy.
Take a computer. The Road Not Taken is the install file for a program sitting on a hard drive. The install file is not really the program itself; it is just the potential for a program. You wouldn’t point at the install file for Word and say “that’s Microsoft Word.” You’d say, “that’s the install file for Microsoft Word.” They are two distinct entities, like a seed is distinct from a tree.
It is not until we install the program and run it that it truly exists. The same with the poem – when it’s on a shelf, it is only the potential for literature. It’s not until a reader installs the poem into their mind that it exists. The written text is just the recipe, and the final product only exists in your mind.
It’s your personal poem, and that’s the distinguishing feature of reader response criticism. There is no such thing as the poem itself – there are only the millions of different responses that exist in the minds of everyone who has read it.
You could print the text of The Road Not Taken, weigh it, and say it has X for its mass. But that’s missing the point; that’s just paper. The poem is not paper, and it is not a collection of letters on a page. The poem is what happens in your mind when you read it.
Imagine, for instance, you are holding The Road Not Taken and standing next to a person of your age and intelligence who does not know the English language. When you look at the page, you read it and experience the poem. Your foreign friend is looking at the same object, yet only sees a page full of random symbols in black ink. Because two people are having entirely different experiences looking at the same object, we can safely assume that the important stuff is happening inside the viewers. The object is just a trigger, both artwork and not. Quantum poetry.
What bothers me is that reader response criticism could be seen as permission to never look beyond the surface of a work. If anyone knows what secrets lay inside a work, it’s the author – and we should listen. And yeah, look, I know. I’m an author, I’m telling people to listen to authors, maybe this is all my ego talking. I’m going to deflect from that by talking about Frost.
Why did I pick this poem as an example of something deep being boiled down to a sugary residue? Partly because it’s so common. I’m sure you’ve seen something like this in your life:
Or maybe you’ve bought one of these (good lord, seriously) 74 different Etsy products containing the iconic last lines?
Everyone remembers the last three lines of the poem, shown on the graphic above. Frost’s message is apparently urging us to get off the beaten path and become trailblazers. Firebrands. Venture some capital. Kick a homeless guy.
But is that what Frost is really saying? I would contend that it is not. What Frost is saying is much deeper, something that speaks to a fundamental depressing truth about the nature of reality itself. Frost – and good poetry in general – is way more complex than comes across on the first read. Our initial reader response is typically lacking.
It’s probably unintentional, but very misleading that in the hundreds of examples I’ve seen of these lines being used, the way it’s attributed to Frost leaves out the fact it’s from a poem. It looks like it’s just a thing he said once, in response to a question. This is not how the poem should be read – we can’t assume the narrator in a poem is the actual author of the poem. That’s an easy mistake to make, but in poetry we need consider the possibility that the narrator of the poem is a tragic or flawed character. Think Humbert from Lolita, featured in one of my previous blogs.
Let me walk you through what I consider the key text. In stanza one:
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood”
Notice that phrase “be one traveler.” He is pointing out that he is a single person only. Seems obvious, but it becomes important. Frost establishes each fact he will deal with, a bit like a philosophical treatise.
In the second stanza, Frost is looking down each path in the woods, comparing them.
“Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,”
The two paths are pretty equal to each other; he can’t tell the difference between them, but he’s worried he will miss out on something great by taking the ‘wrong’ path. This is the sort of person who stops in the woods and frets about which way to take, despite the lack of any evidence that one is better than the other. He’s a bit insecure.
Now the key, in the third stanza.
“Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.”
The narrator is deciding which of the two paths to take, and admitting he’ll never be able to double back. My favorite phrase in the entire poem is “how way leads on to way.” Each decision leads logically to the next decision. It is the nature of time that you can’t go back and re-make a decision. Even if he comes back to the same path tomorrow, he may have already missed whatever would occur today (it’s that badass woodpecker). We only move forward; we will never come back to the exact same decision again.
Now let’s return to the last lines of the final stanza:
“I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Okay. I think that people are reading the wrong message into “and that has made all the difference,” assuming Frost is saying that choosing the lesser-traveled path improved his life for the better. In fact, I think Frost’s narrator is just expressing the same human doubt we all express when making decisions on a daily basis.
Look at the title of the poem. It’s not a celebration of the path he took – it’s “the road not taken” that has earned the title spot.
The first line of this stanza is “I shall be telling this with a sigh,” meaning our slightly anxious narrator will be admitting that he’s made a decision, for better or worse. But did he know it would be important before he made it? It doesn’t seem so, because when the narrator looked at the paths in stanza two, they looked about the same. It’s only in retrospect that we look back and realize a decision was important, and this admission is why he’s sighing.
Spending ten minutes finding your car keys seems unimportant, but if burglars break into your home during that ninth minute, suddenly the car keys are life-changing. Critically, you can’t know losing the car keys are important until after the burglars arrive.
The specific paths are not the point of this poem. You are one traveler. You will never know what is down the other path – every time you do literally anything, the millions of potential outcomes that could have occurred had you acted differently die. If you had toast for breakfast this morning, that means you’ll never have had waffles or corn flakes or vodka.
That’s what Frost is saying. He’s describing the nature by which we move linearly through time. Time only moves in one direction, and our lives only make sense in retrospect. We’re all basically blind.
Or is my entire theory just this reader’s response to the poem? Well, many scholars agree with something close to this interpretation, so I can’t take full credit. In fact, Frost is a modernist poet and his body of work is filled with exactly this sort of message. Behind the friendly veneer of his poetry lies a brooding traveler disheartened by the very nature of reality itself.
As for reader response criticism, I think the appropriate reaction lies somewhere in the middle. It’s a valid school of thought with seemingly indisputable premises. However, that can’t be all that matters, or we’re only taking away surface impressions of artist’s work.
It is worth engaging with an artist to gain a full appreciation of what they’ve created. How do you engage? Read about their lives, read about their influences. Read what contemporaries and important critics said about their work. Figure out what they liked or didn’t like about the art that came before them so you can understand what your artist was trying to change or preserve.
If you’re interested, I actually wove the meaning of Frost’s poem into a scene in my novel [sic] – specifically the bonus chapter, titled (appropriately) “One Traveler.”
Thanks for reading.
I am the author of several novels. They are short and sharp mysteries, thrillers, and dramas that make you think. I try to put the same level of craft and detail into my stories that I find when I analyze literature the way you’ve seen above. You can get all my works as either paperbacks or e-books at a very reasonable price from Amazon.com. Click here to see them all.
Great works of art are not so much created as uncovered. That is, the themes which resonate most strongly with people already exist, and an artist only hopes to find those themes. It is when the audience recognizes the work as being true – that is, validating the art within themselves by agreeing with it – that “great art” happens.
So, if what an artist does is stumble around in the dark for truth, we must have been stumbling across the same truths from the start.They can’t change, after all, or they wouldn’t have been true to begin with.
To test this hypothesis, let’s go back to the beginning: the birth of the written story.
Storytelling is likely as old as language. It is a way for humans to communicate hypothetical situations to each other, a useful survival tool. Our memories are much more adept at storing information encoded in a narrative, and the story often serves to establish rules, customs, or general survival advice.
However, the refined and written story is relatively recent in comparison – around five-thousand years old, at least that we’ve been lucky enough to find. What is generally considered the world’s oldest written story is called “The Epic of Gilgamesh.”
Gilgamesh is ancient. It is a Sumerian text that was first compiled in the form we know it in 1800 BC. Let me put that into perspective: The Greeks didn’t even exist yet, not the way we think of them. The Iliad and the Odyssey would not be scratched into tablets for another twelve-hundred years. It would be fourteen-hundred more years before the first versions of what we would recognize as the Old Testament were put into writing. When you notice similarities between the Book of Genesis and this story, it’s worth recognizing that available evidence suggests this is much older than Genesis.
The Sumerians who wrote the Epic of Gilgamesh date back to 5000 BC, and theirs was one of the first three civilizations we have evidence of. But I’ve read the Epic of Gilgamesh (as an English translation), and what struck me wasn’t a view into our ancient past. What surprised me was how familiar it all seemed.
The story opens to introduce the titular Gilgamesh – a Sumerian king who is two-parts god, one-part man. He is young and hot-headed, powerful and energetic but cruel and oppressive. Specifically, he is a serial rapist who enslaves people and works them to death. His subjects are terrified of their irresponsible tyrant, and pray to the gods for help.
The gods respond by sending an equal and opposite force into the world… which is probably not what the terrified subjects had in mind. But they get the wild-man Enkidu, who shares demigod status with Gilgamesh and is his only equal in beauty and strength.
But Enkidu is spiritually the opposite of Gilgamesh. Where Gilgamesh is a cruel man who lives a life of luxury, Enkidu is a kind man who lives a primal life with beasts.
We’re introduced to an Enkidu who suckles from wild animals and grazes in meadows. Hunters marvel at the wild god-man, and send some prostitutes to seduce the guy.
Okay, so this part isn’t familiar. Let’s look into it – it’s a theme in Sumerian culture that sex is used to introduce wild men to civilization, perhaps as a lure to draw them in. The Sumerians exist in a time when they are literally *the* civilization, mankind’s sole outpost against a savage earth. This fact is very much on their minds. Sex that you don’t have to kill or risk dying for is probably one of the most attractive features of city life, and so comes to represent the allure of this whole project to a patriarchal society.
Freud would also have a field day with this. Enkidu is seduced by one of the prostitutes sent his way, and accepts the offer of civilization. With his virginity lost, the beasts of the wild reject him, and he’s banished from his old life. Bit of a Garden of Eden predecessor.
Enkidu enters civilization and becomes a decent guy – he is Gilgamesh’s opposite, after all. He learns about the tyrant king and is outraged, then sets out to challenge Gilgamesh.
He arrives just in time to witness Gilgamesh committing some more tyranny, and the two demigods clash. Gilgamesh wins, but only after the first serious struggle of his entire divine existence. Recognizing each other as two sides of the same coin, the duo become inseparable friends. The friendly rivalry with Enkidu gives Gilgamesh an outlet for his destructive tendencies.
The tyrant king and the civilized wildman go on adventures together – think Hercules with a sidekick – that culminate with the two of them killing both a demon and a god. The other gods don’t take kindly to this, and so decide to punish the two friends by killing one of them. Enkidu is chosen to die (what did you expect? It’s not “The Epic of Enkidu”.)
Up until now, it’s all standard ancient myth stuff. Here’s where the story gets interesting from my perspective.
The gods knew that killing one of the two friends would be harder on the survivor than the deceased. Gilgamesh is devastated by Enkidu’s death. Not just because his best friend has died, but because he’s seen his opposite and equal be slain. Now, Gilgamesh cannot stop thinking about his own mortality. If Enkidu can die, then Gilgamesh will die as well.
I want to provide some background on Gilgamesh’s fear of death, as it’s one of my favorite recent realizations. The perception of the afterlife held by the Sumerians is very similar to that of the Greeks (up to a certain period), and one that I think needs to be understood. For both cultures, concepts of heaven or hell did not exist. There was an afterlife, but it is described as a gloomy place where ghosts roam around in a confused and lethargic state. There is no better place you go if you’re great, or worse place if you’re bad. Everyone winds up a ghost in this bland netherworld. So for both the Sumerians and the Greeks, life was really all you had. For the Sumerians, the concept of a pleasant afterlife had not even been seriously suggested yet. They saw death like an atheist sees death – as the end of the road.
Our bold tyrant is afraid for the first time in his life. But he’s still a fool, and so rather than facing his fear, he sets off on a quest to figure out how to cheat death. He’s got a decent idea where to start – a mythical figure called “Utnapishtim.”
Utnapishtim is worth his own paragraph, because he’s basically who we would recognize as Noah. That is, in Sumerian myth, Utnapishtim is the guy who put all the animals on a big boat before an enormous flood wiped out the world, thus saving life as we know it. In this flood story, the gods wiped out the earth in a fit of rage, but later regretted it and were very happy to find Utnapushtim had filled his ark. For his trouble, the Sumerian gods granted Utnapishtim the secret to eternal life.
Which is why Gilgamesh wants to find him – he wants to avoid death altogether.
The tyrant king goes through an epic series of adventures in search of Utnapishtim – greater than any of his struggles so far. He eventually meets a ferryman and is taken across the Waters of Death in a sort of proto-Hades setting where he finds the proto-Noah.
Gilgamesh insists on being taught the secret to eternal life. Utnapishtim agrees, but only on the condition the king undertakes a relatively simple challenge – staying awake for a week. Gilgamesh accepts the challenge, but promptly fails it.
I believe what’s happening here is a demonstration of Gilgamesh’s failings. He is impulsive and brash, and a boring test which requires constant vigilance is beyond him. Utnapishtim realizes this, and defeats the protagonist of our story with a few sentences.
So Utnapishtim sends Gilgamesh packing. But on his way out, he’s granted information about a miraculous plant that restores youth and is the true secret to immortality. Our protagonist grabs the plant and leaves, thinking that despite having lost the challenge, he’s all set.
But after he’s taken the ferry back across the Waters of Death, a snake steals the plant, then sheds its skin to become young again. It was all a trick, and Utnapishtim made a fool of Gilgamesh.
Eternal life escapes Gilgamesh. All of this trickery with the challenge, the plant, and the snake are to demonstrate the sort of folly you’ll get into by chasing immortality rather than valuing life. Utnapishtim, the guardian of eternal life, humiliates the world’s most powerful demigod. Before that, he proved he had more foresight than the gods by saving creation from the petty rage of their flood. We don’t stand a chance.
The king’s quest and subsequent failure bring him to face the abyss. Death is inevitable, and trying to escape this only wastes what time you have. In this moment, Gilgamesh finds wisdom and patience, and is forever transformed into a great and fair king. Gilgamesh realizes that while he will personally die, civilization and mankind will live on. He devotes the rest of his long life to building up the cities of his kingdom.
The name Gilgamesh translates to “he who saw the deep.”
A literary analysis of the Epic of Gilgamesh uncovers the same themes you’ll find in Nietzsche and Kierkegaard 5000 years later. Life is meaningless, death is inescapable, so make the world a little better by contributing as best you can. Accepting your own mortality leads to wisdom and humility, necessary attributes for greatness. And a true mortality, not a life spent expecting an afterlife – rather, the full acceptance that a person’s time is truly limited.
And it’s all in the first story we ever wrote down.
Scott Kelly is the author of four existentialist novels. You can find his works here.