This particular trail is actually an offshoot of the Appalachian Trail, that 2,100 mile beast of a trail that runs from Georgia to Maine. When I was younger, I had actually thought of taking a summer off and hiking the whole distance, an idea that didn’t go far when I balanced it against my callow desire for comfort. That, plus the stories you occasionally hear about incredible acts of wonton violence on the Trail, convinced me that I wasn’t cut-out to be a through-hiker.
Wandering into the woods, we discovered the leafy cool paradise we sought. The children scampered into the creek, giggling and splashing. They talked of finding crayfish and spotting brook trout in the racing waters. Being spring, the waters were cool, almost cold, but children must have a different sense of temperatures—when I waded halfway into the stream, I couldn’t bear the cold water running around my calves for more than a few minutes. So I walked back on dry ground and kicked some pebbles into the water, the pebbles landing a safe distance from my children.
Then I heard a man call out to me. I became frightened, for I had thought my children and I were alone in the woods. I turned around. A man was sitting on a log, a huge nylon backpack and a pair of titanium trekking poles at his side.
“Those are nice sandals,” he said.
I was wearing a pair of Tevas that I originally bought to take with me to a writing conference eight years ago. Though not quite fraying, the sandals had seen better days. They had indeed once been nice sandals, but “nice” was no longer the adjective I’d use to describe them.
The scruffy man who had misidentified them as being “nice” grinned at me. Though I realize now this might be an unfair characterization, I read into that grin the peculiar kind of bug-eyed craziness that one associates with drifters who’ve spent too much time alone. Instinctively, I sized him up for the threat he might pose to my children. His legs were huge, like muscularly-developed tree trunks, but his thin arms and upper body seemed almost frail. If it came to it, there was a fair chance I could take him in a fistfight. These were the calculations one made when encountering strangers in the woods, especially when one’s concern is of children’s safety.
But then guilt racked through me. My train of thought was ridiculous—me, a whimp for god’s sake, thinking I might have to mix it up with a nature-loving long distance hiker.
“I’ve been hiking a long time,” he said.
Over the next several minutes, as I shooed my children back into the creek (i.e., away from this man), he proceeded to tell me exactly how long he’d been hiking: very long.
“Some days I hike fifteen or twenty miles. And then there’ll be a storm, maybe hail pelting on my head all day, and I’ll barely make a mile.”
Last week, I read Sven Birkerts’s “Envy, or, The Last Infirmity,” an essay appearing in Los Angeles Review of Books. The essay is about how writers envy the outward success of their colleagues. The envy bubbles barely below the surface, but it is always present.
As Birkerts says, “Find me an artist who is without artistic envy. If you do, you will have found a genius who has never doubted himself.”
Anyone who writes, and even those who just hang around writers, knows that self-doubt is omni-present in the writing profession.
But what, exactly, are writers jealous or envious of? As Birkerts admits, rarely are writers envious of the work itself.
Instead, it boils down to platform.
“A well-placed publication equals exposure, and insofar as we believe in what we do, we all hope to have it set before the best possible audience… And when I see that someone has achieved just such placement, I feel the pang of wanting it for myself. If that someone is a writer I know, I feel an extra pang, one that is only rarely pleasurable, is far more commonly tinged with darker hues. Would I want to publish there? Yes! Am I being published there? No. And even if I have in the past had that good luck, or may in the future, it’s not happening now. It can’t be, because it’s happening to someone else.”
When I read this, I thought immediately of the hiker I met in the woods. He had been without human interaction for several weeks. No doubt he had thought dazzling thoughts as he internalized what it meant to be a long-distance hiker. He had insights! Yet each night he listened to the hiss of his campfire coals, unable to express to another living creature his impressions of the wonders he had seen.
And yes, it was his choice to set off on his long sojourn alone—and therefore, it was his choice to be unable to communicate his thoughts and experiences—but at some core human level, it must have been crushing.
What he sought was an audience for his thoughts and experiences.
A blog post has been making the rounds of my Facebook friends, a sizeable portion of whom are people like me: writers and poets who have recently completed their MFAs.
In the blog post, Bryan Furuness asks, “What’s the point?”
“Somewhere between 2-4 years out of the [MFA] program, you realize that no one is reading your work, even if it is landing in lit mags… Maybe you thought there would be more by now. Maybe you thought, by this time, you would have ‘arrived’—whatever that means to you.”
To this, I would add that maybe you thought you’d be relevant by this time.
Envy for audience equates to a desire not to be irrelevant. There is the assumption that if our creative lives to have worth, or relevancy, we must be read, seen, and talked about.
Of course, the question of how one gauges “relevancy” is troublesome. As Birkerts asks,
“How do we measure? Is it being on reading lists and syllabi? Having one’s name recognized when it comes up in conversation? Having it even come up in conversation? Having one’s books in print? Having them in print and selling? Selling more than such-and-such a number? I don’t know which of these things matter, but somehow the idea of the work not disappearing—the idea that is the very root of ambition—does.”
I keep thinking of that hiker who politely accosted me in the woods.
Context is everything.
If I encountered him, say, in a coffee shop, his tales of the Appalachian Trail would have captivated me. Alone in the woods though, I was wary. A brown slime filmed over his teeth. And he smelled bad—which, given that he’d been out in the woods for the last month, was understandable. Plus there was that bug-eyed spacey-ness to contend with. And there was the way he gazed slightly over my shoulder, at where (not incidentally) my children played.
But more worrisome was the way he tried to glom onto me. It had been so long since he encountered meaningful conversation. He seemed desperate to talk to someone—anyone!— yet his desperation gave me the creeps.
I was not a good audience for him.
Within minutes, I gathered the kids and tramped back through the woods, away from him. The kids were dumbfounded. When we reached the car, they hurled questions at me--why do we have to leave now? We were just starting to have fun! Why can’t we go back and play in the water?—yet I could not explain in rational terms why I wanted to get away from that hiker.
And now I wonder what that hiker must have thought.
His target audience had rejected him. He was in the midst of a long, arduous journey, yet no one wanted to hear about it. At that moment, he must have doubted whether what he was doing had any fundamental worth or merit. Were his experiences irrelevant?
When I turned my back on him and stomped away, he may have thought (falsely) that his love of nature had no place in among the things that I valued. Were his sensibilities and values so out-of-step with those of his fellow countrymen that he would be denied an audience?