The Experiences of Human Life A Chapbook by Justin Rieth
<ul><li>Introduction </li></ul><ul><li>I decided to challenge myself with this chapbook assignment. When I write creatively, my natural tendency is to always have a positive overall “ vibe ” to the work, with clean, bright scenes and a happy ending. More importantly, I enjoy making my readers think about humanity and the experiences that we all share. Unfortunately, I feel like I write in an idealistic fantasy world a little too often, making it hard for the reader to connect with the story because things may not be real enough . </li></ul>
<ul><li>In this collection, I still wanted to make my reader think about various aspects of human interaction. However, I wanted to do this using darker themes, images and tragedies in place of my more traditional, lighter feel. So, each piece in this chapbook has either a predominately dark feel to it or a disastrous ending, or both, hopefully leading the reader to thoughts about some aspect of human experience. </li></ul>
<ul><li>“ Gravity’s Truth” is a revisioning of a poem entitled “Jump,” which is based on my own personal experience. It depicts a skydiver’s experience in jumping out of a plane and returning safely to the earth. “Gravity’s Truth” is written from the perspective of the earth’s gravity, personifying this gravity to have a sinister, devious side. Originally, “Jump” was written as a narrative, but I wrote “Gravity’s Truth” in pantoum form in an attempt to depict the never-ending nature of gravity’s desire; each and every time the diver jumps from the plane, gravity longs for disaster to befall him. </li></ul>
<ul><li>The inspiration for “Snap” is a little complicated. Originally, I wrote a creative nonfiction piece based on an experience I had in my childhood. I had been climbing my favorite tree with my younger brother and stumbled upon a mouse’s nest hidden in a hole in the tree. They scared me, and I promptly fell out of the tree. In the original revision of this piece, I wrote the same story from the mouse’s perspective. Snap was a very proper mouse, with her own family of mice babies that she loved and protected. In the revision, Snap is very nasty and bitter, almost breathing darkness into the piece. </li></ul>
<ul><li>“ My Captain, My Blood” is a ghazal written from a ship’s perspective about her experience sailing with her captain. I chose this form of poetry because it was originally “used to write about… the mystical aspects of devotion and the pain and longing that comes from lost love.” (Sellers, 334). To more poignantly match the darkness of this chapbook, I chose to write about the moment in which the ship’s love, her captain, is lost to her. </li></ul>
<ul><li>“ International Maternity” was by far the most difficult piece for me to write because for some reason, I couldn’t think of a good way to do so without inventing some details of the story. It is a revision of a piece of creative nonfiction about my experience attempting to fly out of Mexico after having accidentally entered the country illegally. This revision is much shorter than the original, which was a challenge in and of itself; it was hard to decide which material to cut and which to keep because I loved it all. I also ramped up the darkness throughout the main body of the story, only lightening things up toward the end so as to bring the chapbook into line with my more natural style of writing at the end, as well as to more clearly highlight the point of the revision, as described below. </li></ul>
<ul><li>Each of these pieces is designed to make the reader think about a different aspect of human experience. In “Gravity’s Truth,” I wanted to leave the reader with the impression that there are patterns that repeat in life, though they may not repeat in the same way forever. In “Snap,” I wished to show the reader the value of human interaction by confronting them with the prospect of dying alone, unloved. In “My Captain, My Blood,” I hoped to accomplish something similar, though from the opposite end of the spectrum. How much more will we appreciate those close to us if we are forced to contemplate the thought of watching them get ripped away? In “International Maternity,” I showed how communities can span thousands of miles, strengthened by the bonds of shared experiences. We may not always understand each other completely, but we are all humans, sharing more with one another than we might think. </li></ul>
Gravity’s Truth Every time he jumps I long for a failure to slow his descent As I gaze upon such distance I long for a failure to breathe correctly As I gaze upon such distance while outer space surrounds him
To breathe correctly He stops his heartbeat While outer space surrounds him By jumping out to aim for dirt He stops his heartbeat With a lack of breath By jumping out to aim for dirt With his parachute for safety
With a lack of breath Dismayed, I watch him yet again With his parachute for safety As he drifts toward my embrace Dismayed, I watch him yet again Longing for his failure As he drifts toward my embrace Every time he jumps
Snap hated her name more than anything; her father said that it had originally been Nibbles, but when she was a baby, her temper had flared up at the slightest things. As she grew nastier and nastier, her family grew bitter and began to mock her, calling her Snap. Who knew what she would Snap at next? Besides, they said, who would call a terrifying monster of a mouse baby something as cute and cuddly as Nibbles? Perhaps they thought their scorn would make her be nicer, but she had shown them. She had left as soon as possible and never looked back. A solitary S makes an angrier Snap – that, she liked. Snap
She had no reason not to be as nasty as possible. What good would that do her? She loved no one, and wanted no one’s love. The thought of having babies made her cringe; how terribly inconvenient that would be! She would have to share the best hole in the entire tree with a bunch of whiney, hungry brats! No, thank you. Empty, just the way she liked, her hole was deliciously dark and musty. With an entrance facing South, Snap never had to worry about the sun peeking in to blind her with its hot glare. This was ideal, as she especially enjoyed lying on the ledge just inside the entrance, chattering angrily at any bird that dared to set foot on her branch.
Her hole was high up in Slime Tree. Snap reveled in this name, as she had come up with it herself. No one else used it; it was hers, and her feelings about it were the closest thing she knew to fondness . Its branches shone with a sickly layer of slimy mold of such a dark green that it was almost black. The surface was slippery enough that no one ever even tried to climb it. That suited her just fine, as she never had any need for visitors. She herself only left when absolutely necessary, mostly to lick dew from the Slime Tree’s leaves each morning. She bristled at the thought of someone else coming into her home, messing things up from the way that she liked. The very idea made her shoulders hunch forward, the small ruff behind her neck standing up stiffly. No, it was much better to remain as she was, alone and undisturbed in her welcome seclusion.
Just as she was settling down to a banquet of fat green and grey grubs, a whisper of movement came from above. Snap immediately hid her grubs, scuffling dirt on top of them and packing it down with hurried paws. She crouched there momentarily, feeling the burgeoning anger begin to press against her chest.
Someone was scuffling around outside, on her branch! Oh! She would tell them a thing or two! Such disrespect! Why couldn’t everyone leave her alone and stay on their own branches outside their own holes? Glaring up along the greasy walls of her pit, she saw something enormous squeeze through the opening to her nest. It looked like a turtle that had lost its shell, only instead of a head and legs it had five stiff, fleshy worms sticking out from its edges. A wide protuberance extended out back through her opening.
Without wasting another instant, she scrabbled up the slippery side to her familiar ledge, lunging from there to sink her razor-sharp teeth into the intruder’s squishy back. The reaction was immediate: red blood welled up around her mouth, soaking her face and arms as the enemy began to thrash about, smacking her ruthlessly into the walls. She held on, and suddenly the harsh light was surrounding her, making her squint as she was plucked up and held in midair by her furious ruff. There was a dizzying rush of air as she rose dramatically and found herself face-to-face with the most horrible monster imaginable. A terrible thunder erupted from its mouth.
“ HEY ROWLAND, THINK THIS’LL WORK FOR SHOW AN’ TELL?” The monster’s moist air washed over her, its deafening roar flattening her thin ears against her head. She twisted, trying to catch a paw on the two stiff worms pinching her painfully by the back of her neck. If only she could give them a good bite, she was sure they would let her go. They shifted, and Snap found herself dangling head first over a dizzying drop. Below her was another of the vicious demons, its mouth twisting upwards at the corners as it peered at her. More thunder rolled from its mouth as its head bounced up and down.
There! She hooked one of her claws into a ridge between the fleshy tip of one of the worms and a smooth hard layer on top. Using the new leverage to twist herself about, she sank her teeth as deeply as she could, feeling them scrape on something hard at the center of the worm. In a single, blinding instant of motion, the worm whipped her out towards empty space. Her teeth ripped free of the soft flesh and she began to tumble end over end, striking the branches of Slime Tree as she careened towards the ground.
As she saw the earth rush up to meet her, Snap cried out one last furious shriek before all remaining breath was driven from her lungs. Darkness enfolded her completely, and she was missed by none.
My Captain, My Blood My brave captain maps out my course, Carefully planning my crew’s daily grub, of course. I reach with my sails, catching wind to carve a wake; I pound the waves with my bow, clearing them from my course. When the storms sweep up, I drag my anchor low; My crew follows the bosun’s call through this obstacle course. My mast beneath my captain’s hand, crow’s nest plying the heavens, I feel the stroking of his weathered thumb, ridged and coarse. My carpenters fill my decks with their mournful madrigal’s tones Their songs are broken by the treacherous reef crossing my course. My captain is my blood, spilling over and drowning, From my deck to the sea, the end of my course.
“ Muy bien,” the customs official groaned drowsily, rubbing her tired eyes, still rimmed thickly with sleep. “Es mi gran placer poder ayudarte el día de hoy. ¿Qué puedo hacer para tí?” Dark purple circles gouged deep furrows in her cheeks beneath each puffy eye. Apparently, the forty-five minutes that I had waited for her to come to the desk was not enough time to wake up all the way. Despite the fatigue her words came so fast that I was still struggling to piece together their meaning when her thin, thickly veined hands darted out to take my documents. International Maternity
Hesitantly, I asked, “¿Habla ingles?” “No.” Sigh. As I began my frustrating and poorly pronounced explanation of the mess I had gotten myself into, her eyes began to wander from my documents, picking over my appearance as they peered over her coffee mug. My last lingering hopes crumbled as she said, “I’m sorry. You really do need a tourist card. Didn’t you get one when you flew in?”
“ No, I drove across the border with my friend,” I replied, gesturing to Oscar for support. Come on, Oscar! Help me! Tell her how they never even looked at my passport! Oscar just shrugged at me, mouth working soundlessly, silenced by the customs official’s icy gaze. Freezing tentacles climbed my spine as she explained that ultimately, it was my responsibility to have the correct documentation – not the border official’s. The nearest place to purchase a tourist card was two hours away by car.
We didn’t have a car. My plane would leave in forty-five minutes.
Man, arriving late to the airport is never a good thing, especially when you’re in another country, I berated myself silently. The customs official was rattling on in Spanish, picking up momentum as the coffee had its effect. Apparently, I had been in the country illegally for the past twenty days. My neck flushed hotly, stomach dropping like a rock as she explained how bad things truly were. If a police officer had stopped me and requested my documentation at any time, I would have been rightfully imprisoned for illegal immigration. My eyes darted to the two looming security guards standing stiffly at attention to either side of the customs booth. The hard, black steel of their pistols drank my stare as I struggled to collect my thoughts.
“ Ma’am, you have to understand. I don’t have enough money in the bank to buy another ticket, and I can’t return this one. Besides, the next flight out is a week from now and my classes start again on Tuesday!” “Poor boy. I am so very sorry; there is nothing I can do for you.” She shook her head, eyes downcast, sliding the window closed to slice through my frantic stammers. The streaked glass fogged at my breath, briefly obscuring her features in a fuzzy white cloud punctuated by greasy yellow fingerprints. Eyes brimming with tears, I thought desperately of the man who had confiscated my ticket at the airline desk.
He had a tip jar beside his computer. I had my last fifty dollars clenched in a sweaty fist inside the pocket of my jeans. Forty minutes left. Maybe if I just…
Jaw clenching, I held back the hot tears threatening to tumble down my cheeks. With an effort, I pushed away from the smooth dark marble of the counter. Turning my stumble into a stiff-legged stagger, I lurched toward the airline desk. By now, the sprawling line weaving among the dirty cement columns had dwindled to the size of a paltry worm. I clung to my last hope, holding it like an avalanche victim caressing his last match, praying it would light. A trembling tear settled silently onto my cheek, forming a cold smear as I wiped it away. This is insane, I could go to jail for this! There has to be some other way out.
“ Rieth! Hey, Rieth!” Oscar called frantically from the open customs window, waving me back. I jogged over, breath hollow in my ears. The official motioned me to follow her before quietly leading the way to a private room at the end of a long, inky-dark hallway. The guards following us positioned themselves beside the door as we entered, guns still glinting dangerously.
A lone wooden table and two opposing chairs beneath a single hooded light bulb stopped me in my tracks. Nervous thoughts jumped unbidden into my mind of tense TV crime show interrogations. I licked my lips uncertainly, glancing backwards as the door clicked shut. Is she going to call the police? Am I going to jail? Thirty minutes left…
“ Sit down, please. What is your mother’s maiden name?” The cracked cinderblock walls of the room extended beyond the reach of the light. There was no telling who else might be hiding in the shadows, waiting to take their turn in my interrogation. A breathy silence dragged on as I tried to force my choked mind into action. I didn’t know the word for ‘maiden name.’ Exasperated, she asked, “What was your mother’s last name before she got married?”
“ Oh! Her name was Kerr.” “No good,” she stated plainly, drilling into my eyes with her own. What on earth does she want? She continued to meet me stare-for-stare, silent and intense, obviously expecting something more. My chair rocked on uneven feet, dirt gritting beneath my shoes as they scuffed the floor. My eyebrows drew low as I considered what she might want.
“ There are some relatives of hers in Italy, named LaMotta?” I ventured, wincing even as I suggested it. Surely she would not care at all about this, yet it was all I had. Surprisingly, her face lit up, the bright smile that suddenly appeared on her lips seeming to mute the harsh tones of the circles under her eyes. She took a radiant yellow paper and a smooth, red-lacquered wooden pen from her briefcase. She began to write in crisp rows of script, explaining as she went.
“ If anyone asks, your name is Justin Rieth Mata. There was an error on your passport. Your mother was a Mexican citizen,” she said firmly, looking up frequently to make sure I was paying attention. “You have dual citizenship in Mexico and the United States. You just spent Christmas vacation in Mexico visiting her family, and you are now returning for university.” She signed. I signed. She stamped, folded and sealed that beautiful golden form while I sat back, dazed.
Holding out a pink, wafer-thin carbonless copy of my deliverance from Mexico, she made me repeat the entire story to her satisfaction. “Unless you repeat all of this just as I told you, I will lose my job and we will both go to jail. Do you understand?” I nodded yes, and the uneven chair lurched as I sat back hard, the faint, neatly flowing letters blurring in my grasp. Hope and Confusion bloomed in my mind, each fighting the other for my heart. Suspicion joined with Confusion and smothered Hope, tamping it firmly into the back of my mind where it continued to struggle, burning brightly.
“ Really, you’re going to let me go, just like that?” I asked, bewildered. “Why?” I tried to wrap my mind around what was happening. Why would someone risk so much for a complete stranger?
“ Why?” She folded her hands on the table and leaned across it toward me. “Because if my son was in another country and he was as stupid, lost and poor as you , I would want someone to help him. Say hello to your mother for me.” With a hint of a wink she was on her feet, ushering me through the door. The guards led us back down the long hallway, and I noticed that someone had turned the lights on. No longer a wash of blackness, the hall was now clearly illuminated by a bank of bright white light bulbs. The creeping cold had vanished from my spine, replaced by rich rush of overwhelming relief. As we walked, the guards laughed and joked with one another, the custom’s official occasionally joining in. I watched her out of the corner of my eye, wondering.
How must it feel to be a mother? To be able to instinctively connect with a woman whom you have never met, who thinks in a different language and lives in another culture, all because you have both born a child? This woman’s natural connection with my own mother was strong enough that she had put herself at great personal risk, and out of nothing more than empathy . On that day, I experienced a shocking glimpse into the international community created by the parent’s love for the child.
I repeated the lie to the appropriate officials, conscious of the repercussions in store for the custom’s official if I were to make a mistake. For once, I had no trouble with pronunciation; it was the most important lie I ever told. I got my ticket and sprinted through the door, right out onto the hot black tarmac. The ground crew was already wheeling away the portable stairs leading up to the plane’s open door. I held my ticket out to them, breathless in my haste. They laughed as the wheels were locked back into place, shaking their heads and rattling away to each other about silly Americans; they’re always in a hurry, yet they still manage to be late!
One layover in Dallas, and I touched down in O’Hare International Airport. My mother was there before me, waiting to bring me back to Michigan. Thoroughly exhausted, I walked toward her, smiling with relief. “Hello, Mom.”
Artist’s Statement At the beginning of June, 2010, I was a woefully inexperienced creative writer. Now, at the end of June, 2010, I still consider myself inexperienced. However, I now have a much better understanding of the type of creature that calls itself creative writing, as well as a solid idea of how to begin taming it.
To start with, I did not truly know what creative writing was when I started this class. I thought it was the same thing as telling a story, just on paper with some sort of added emphasis on using unusually creative words. I even wrote my first attempt at a creative writing assignment under that completely erroneous supposition. After being told that what I had done was, in fact, nothing more than an expository essay (and after ashamedly looking up the definition of “expository”), I set about the arduous task of changing myself into a creative writer.
The most important thing that I have learned is that writing creatively is all about writing for the reader; creating an experience for the reader, something that they fall into and only pull themselves out of with an effort, if at all. Creative writing is not simply about telling a story on paper, but rather creating a world that surrounds the reader, a world in which things happen that they can see happen in their mind’s eye. Hopefully, this will be a world in which the things that happen to the characters stick with the reader for years.
After learning this lesson, I could not approach the process of writing a story in the same way. When I would sit down to write, I was no longer asking myself questions like, “Okay, what could happen next to make this less boring?” There was no longer any need to ask myself questions at all! Rather, I was in the story as I wrote it. All I had to do to find out what came next was imagine it, then write down what I saw.
In order to do that, I needed another concept about which I had never heard. SENSORY IMAGES. It may sound like the simplest of concepts to a more experienced writer, but when you’re as new to the creative writing world as I was, this is as revolutionary an idea as fire would have been to the caveman. I was essentially living off of nuts, berries and the occasional raw rabbit until this came along, and then BAM: crispy yet tender, mouth-watering steaks that made my taste buds gush and golden apple pies whose aroma wafted right up my nose, making the sensitive hairs inside writhe and tingle!
The concept of using sensory images to show the scene to the reader has truly revolutionized my writing. So much is built on the use of sensory images! Without them, my writing would lack the energy and tension that are so necessary for keeping the reader’s attention. I could write all the flowery language I wanted to and would consistently feel that something was missing from my piece. There was never any true connection with the world in which my characters roamed. Everything sounded like a sad summary of events. For me, that “something missing” was sensory images.
Being part of a writing community was a simultaneously humbling and challenging experience. My first tendency with most things is to be defensive to critics with whom I am unfamiliar. Until this class, my writing had been something shared only with my closest family and a few select friends. Unfortunately, that resulted in two things. One, no one who actually knew what they were talking about ever read my work. Two, I was never given any constructive criticism, just compliments. Compliments do not make you a better writer, and they didn’t make me one either. More confident and cocky? Yes, to my chagrin.
Being able to have my best efforts reviewed by multiple people was humbling, but probably the most beneficial experience of this class. Part of this benefit was a direct result of taking the class online. Everyone was able to be as brutally honest as they could be, without the worry of direct confrontation. At the same time, I was forced to read comments without having the luxury of stubbornly arguing against my critics. I had to listen. Pause. Consider what it was that the other person was saying. This has had a lasting effect, and because of the Plusses, Potentials, Concerns (PPC) format of the workshops, I ended up feeling remarkably encouraged at the end of each workshop experience, regardless of how many mistakes had been pointed out to me.
One worry that I had going into this class was that I would not enjoy reading science fiction and fantasy as much after it was all over. I was afraid that some of the magic would be taken out of the works of my favorite authors. I likened it to being shown how a magician does his tricks. Sure, it still looks neat, but it’s just not as special after you know how it’s done. I am happy to say that quite the opposite has happened! Learning to read as a writer has allowed me to see what my favorite authors do in a whole new way. Just as a physicist is more in awe of Einstein’s work as a result of learning the mathematics and theory behind it, so too does a creative writer learn to appreciate the works of a favorite author after understanding what it takes to reach that point. Comprehension hasn’t cheapened my appreciation in the least.
In this way, this creative writing class has changed my perceptions and influenced my insights into both reading and writing. My writing no longer seems dull and two-dimensional; while I may not be a master, I now know enough of the basics to make realistic goals for improvement. As for reading, it was always a joy, but it is now more of a delight than ever. As a result of learning what it takes to be a successful creative writer, I can more truly appreciate the incredible art that exists in creative writing.