The summer after my freshman year in college, I emerged from Iowa and embarked immediately, along with the other Repole women, for the world’s epicenter of culture, Paris. A lifetime fan of that ill-fated Queen of France, Marie Antoinette (to my impressionable mind, there was something so glamorous about “Let them eat cake”), I found myself inside the halls of Versailles, unable to see around the crowd of other humans with selfie-sticks and fanny packs. So I looked up. As a result my iPhone is littered with photographs of the ornate ceilings and chandeliers of Versailles. In hindsight, my actions merit analysis: why did I look up? The easy answer is a romantic one. Laden with paintings by Le Brun and François Lemoyne, the ceilings of Versailles are undeniable works of art. Furthermore, they were unclouded. They were pure in a way that the chateau could never be due to the clutter of tourism. They were the only view that Marie herself would have seen, un-trespassed by the modern world and its inhabitants.
One year later, I was sitting cross-legged in a mountainside cave far past the city limits of Fes, Morocco. Perhaps, it was the water dripping down from tiny stalactites on the ceiling’s underbelly or the hunched stature of the Berber woman or the mint tea that steamed hot between my palms or the meticulously woven “blood carpets” beneath the soles of my dust-crusted sandals but everything was imbued with magic. It was one of those experiences fiction writers day-dream of whilst burrowed up in their studio (and later, when our translator informed me that the Berber woman had offered my mother 3 camels, 4 goats, a llama and a vehement promise not to meddle in exchange for my hand in marriage to her eldest son, I muttered a series of hushed expletives for not having the sagacity to bring my notebook with me).
Now think of your brain as an elaborate mosaic. Our experiences, the foods we eat, the people we love and hate, the music we listen to, the places we travel to, all become tesserae (one piece of a mosaic). Here is the point of what I am trying to tell you: everything is significant. From the Berber woman’s humble cave to Marie Antoinette’s gorgeously gaudy Versailles, I found myself in an age of living symbols all of which are colored by my perception of them and all of which, I am susceptible to. The historical and fictional connotations of both places influenced the narrative pieces that I used (and now use) to convey my experience.
Which led me to believe that these places, and in fact all things in life, can act as living brands or symbols of living truths. As the “Sun King,” around which the world revolved, King Louis XIV, wanted Versailles to dazzle and inspire envy in all who entered through its Baroque façade. Through a series of renovations, he transformed the Chateau into a symbol of his reign’s power and grandeur. Even today, hundreds of years after he strutted (they were all peacocks, back then) through its mirrored hall, it remains irrevocably tied to the narrative produced by its past author.
It is impossible to separate our stories from their historical roots or from their modern context. We are tethered to both and they pull us in opposite directions. However, in his book, Choose Yourself, James Altucher, American hedge fund manager, entrepreneur, bestselling author, podcaster and brainchild behind more than 20 companies, muses on the importance of being familiar with the past in order to create for the future, “Study every nuance…not only all of your contemporaries, but the influences of those contemporaries…the facets that resonate with time, even if it’s hundreds of years old will resonate with your work…it’s like the law of the universe.”
Similar thoughts are expressed in the March/ April 2015 issue of Communication Arts: “Designers must determine what’s significant, and then display essential information only.” As human beings in today’s highly visual world, we are constantly endeavoring to do this very thing with our bodies and the “origin stories” we create (and attempt to “sell” to others) as the mediums. We are a jumble of inheritances and potentials. It is our duty to determine what is valuable in ourselves and from there we have a responsibility to share what shines within us, to fuse our narratives, histories and contexts.
For six years, I’ve been regurgitating my “origin story” in response to the question, “Why Iowa?” I’d give an answer something like, “I’m a writer so I wanted to come to the only U.S. City of Literature, get into a Fiction MFA program and write the next great American novel and then live happily ever after.” However, as four of five rejection letters from various touted MFA programs have slowly drifted into my mailbox, I’ve had to reconsider my story. Perhaps, at twenty-two years old I haven’t lived enough or perhaps I haven’t read enough or perhaps (there are million other hypotheticals, I could launch into but alas, I will spare you).
To be frank, I’ve had to revaluate what the mosaic of my tesserae would look like. Would the 80 pages that composed my two short stories withstand the test of time and still resonate with an essential truth like King Louis’ Versailles? As a writer and as I person, was I as authentically branded as the Berber woman and her cave? If I were a designer looking at the layout of my life, what would I choose to keep? What would I regard as essential?
Thusly without any further rambling, I cordially invite you to consider this week’s (whit)ticisms.
- Don’t write the story you set out to write. Allow your characters to go rogue and get lost in a new land full of possibility, danger and wrong choices. Stories and people are the most interesting when problematic. Let them be human.
- Along the same vein, draw a plot-map of your life & then promptly tear it up. Planning is inevitable but also futile. As one of the wisest (and inherently problematic!) characters who ever graced a page once said, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”
- Imagine you are creating the mosaic of your life through each choice made, word spoken, compliment given, laugh uttered, book read, album listened to. Remember that you alone are the artist. It doesn’t have to be beautiful to anyone but you.
- Be courageous in the face of life’s uncertainties. We are not meant to be simple creatures with simple, pretty, neat lives. Give yourself the freedom to grow new roots, to sow new dreams. If you focus on the journey of your story, instead of the outcome, fulfillment will be as simple as turning on a light.