Can’t Stay Here: Some Thoughts on Writing, Terrorism, and Leaving a Little Bit of Heaven by Seth Fischer

Today is my last full day at Ucross, an artist and writer residency in Wyoming. I still don’t feel like I deserve to be here. Everyone says to stop saying that, and I try to get thoughts like that out of my head, but it’s easier to tell yourself not to think something than it is to actually not think something.

I woke up inexplicably at 5am today and walked to my studio through a field usually full of sheep and bulls, but there were no bulls or sheep this morning. That’s okay. The bulls kind of scare me, even though they are tame. Instead, there was a moon setting over a sunrise.
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This was funny. Last time I was in Wyoming, a couple years ago, I got to see a similar thing.
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Yesterday, before the visual artists and composers showed their work, I made the mistake of checking the news. Another mass shooting. This time in San Bernadino. The perpetrators were from Redlands—where most of my mom’s extended family is from, and where many of them still live. My mind immediately jumped to a cousin of mine—it wasn’t logical, the chances were low, but one of the last times I saw him, yes almost fifteen years ago, he was surrounded by neo-Nazis and pulling a compound bow on a friend of his from high school for being black. Of course, it wasn’t him, thank God.

Just a few days earlier, there was a shooting at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, just a quick drive south from where my mom and stepdad live in Denver.

A few weeks before, we had heard about the attacks in Paris and Lebanon: two of the residents here have lived in Paris for a considerable amount of their lives, one currently lives in Brussels, which is still under semi-lockdown. One was Muslim. There are countless other connections, some I can’t talk about. It’s been an intense month.

The last time I was in Wyoming to write, at another residency down the street (I’ve been to three residencies in my life, I don’t do this every day, it’s just a weird coincidence), I was driving back to LA, out of cell phone range, when I hit Salt Lake City, and my phone came to life. I had twelve voicemails. Everyone is okay, they all said. Okay from what? I turned on NPR. Someone had exploded an IED at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I called my sister. My family had to stay away from the windows. No one could go outside. The bomber was pinned down walking distance from my house. There were tanks rolling down the streets. Tanks in the town where I won my first ever one-on-one champion basketball trophy, where I first read Great Expectations, where I found my first porn in a neighbor’s hedges.

Not my Dad’s House but might as well be.

Not my Dad’s House but might as well be.

The point is not to make all these tragedies about me. Intellectually, I know that there are billions of people around the world for whom stuff like this is a daily occurrence. I know that I am incredibly lucky, incredibly privileged. But I also know that it is not a pissing contest of suffering. I know that there is a connection among all of it. I know that experiencing these events have made it easier for me to empathize with people on the other side of the world, whose homes we blow apart every day. I am not supposed to say that. I should be able to empathize without directly experiencing something. If I say that, I’m told, that means the terrorists are winning. But what I’m trying to say is that this isn’t about winning. We aren’t going to get anywhere if we keep thinking like that.

My novel’s protagonist is an accidental sort-of domestic terrorist. He lives in Denver and his family is from Redlands. I am not a terrorist, but I gave a reading of my prologue the day before yesterday, the day before San Bernadino, and one of the visual artists said he’s a little frightened of me now. I will choose to take this as a compliment. But it’s hard not to have second thoughts about what I’m writing, now that my fiction book is looking very nonfiction.

Tonight, I’m going to a hootenanny. Last time I went to this event, I met very nice woman who told me she owned a ranch and that her husband had recently died. She was there alone, told me everything she could about Buffalo, Wyoming. We talked for awhile. She told me about how the family sitting in front of us went back five generations, about how that man dancing with his sister over there has a hook for a hand because of a farming accident. A man with a handlebar mustache played the hell out of a steel guitar. It is tempting to laugh at all this stuff. City slicker that I am, it seems out of a movie. But I’m pretty sure they were laughing at us, too. I mean, I was wearing Adidas to a hootenany. The woman was hoping I would hug her during the last song, which is always Amazing Grace. The tradition is you hug the person next to you. I didn’t know this, and I missed the hug. I’m sad about that.
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I did an Indiegogo to afford to be here. My friends and family and fans—that feels weird to say but I guess I have a few fans now—all came together and made it happen. I went to two residencies this year. I guess technically speaking I’m on the fourth draft of this book, and thanks to all this, I’m tantalizingly close to a working draft I might even show people. I am so grateful to all the people who have gotten me here. I want to give everyone a hug after Amazing Grace.

Last night, many of the residents sat around and had a sing-along. There are three ukulele players and a professional composer who can play anything. We sang Johnny Cash, Otis Redding, and The Beatles. Then we were singing Mad World and I was tearing up, and I wasn’t the only one. The fact is, I don’t want to go back to the world. Would you? We have lived a month in a wonderland where we’re treated very well for doing what we’re good at. Most of us aren’t used to this. And now we’re returning to a world that seems to have gone grim. Well, grimmer than usual, at least. What is the point of writing a novel when the world is going to shit?

I started for a moment to feel hopeless, but then I remembered that I’d been reading Marzena’s book. Marzena is a graphic memoirist here. The book hits every note in a perfect human way. How I’d just heard some phenomenal poetry and fiction. I remembered how I had just seen some beautiful art and composition from some of the most talented people I’ve ever met, including Nancy Lovendahl, who made a phenomenally moving sculpture out of tracing paper. How does one make a tracing paper sculpture? How does one make a tracing paper sculpture emotionally moving? I can’t understand it, but I know how I felt. It’s the kind of stuff that makes you feel more human instead of less human. It was the kind of stuff that made me feel the opposite of the way CNN makes me feel.

There’s a woman the locals call “Dirty Shirley” up the street, and Marzena wanted to go see her. Last time I was in Wyoming, I was warned to stay away from Shirley’s property at all costs. “Under no circumstances” I think is the phrase that was used. Shirley has a shotgun, legend has it, and it’s basically legal in Wyoming to shoot someone for stepping on your property. Her yard is trashed. Her kids were taken away from her. She hoards animals. This graphic novelist rode a shitty one-speed bike seven miles to go see her, because she didn’t believe that she was that bad, because she wanted to give this woman a chance. And what do you know? The woman invited her in for water. Gave her a pigs skull as a gift. Invited her to come by anytime.

Shirley

It struck me then that what we have been doing here the last month is the opposite of what these terrorists do. What we do is the opposite of what Wayne LaPierre does. The opposite of lobbyists. The opposite of what Donald Trump does. And yes, even the opposite of what Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders do. That doesn’t mean I believe there is no difference between Sanders and Trump. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that there is an evil that comes from those who believe wholeheartedly that they know the answers and will do anything to convince the world they’re right. Some politicians are better than others at listening, but they are all starting from the wrong point. They are all starting from the point of wanting to win. Art—well, the kind of art I love, at least—explores the world and tries to find something genuine and extraordinary in it. It is not about winning, it is about discovery. There is something evil in the heart of focus groups, talking heads, lobbyists, fundamentalists, and people who say “it is what it is.” In all these instances, people have already decided not to listen. Art is talking to your friends and actually listening to them. It’s talking to your enemies and listening to them, too. It’s listening to the spaces between when people are shouting at each other. On second thought, art is not the opposite of evil. It exists on another plane. It changes the subject. It helps people get unstuck. It helps you see more options. My Indiegogo was titled “Help Me Get Unstuck.” I think this morning I woke up at 5 am because I had gotten completely unstuck.

There’s a composer here named Eddie who uses found sounds to create his pieces. Not always, but sometimes. Truth be told, I am stealing this whole listening idea from him and running with it. He played a piece for us last night. He had thirty-something people from around the world sing the exact same three words at the exact same time. People from Boston and LA and Dublin and Mumbai, though I could be wrong about those specific places, but you get the point. He told them to go outside and sing the words and record them, letting whatever ambient sounds in that existed. I can’t even remember the words they were singing. That didn’t matter. They sent the recordings to him. What mattered was the beauty of the recording when he put it all together. What mattered was the silences between the words. What mattered was the train, the rain, the hum of the mountains behind each voice. What mattered was paying attention to that and feeling something different because you were really, really listening.

The other day, I decided to sit outside and listen to the river. A deer came right up to me, it was maybe five feet away, and it started talking. Have you heard a deer talk? It’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. It was friendlier than that recording And it talked back to me. I had no idea what it was saying, because I don’t speak deer, but I listened anyway. I have named that deer Gertie. Gertie says hello, and she wouldn’t mind if you lent her an ear.

The Talkative Deer

The Talkative Deer

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Seth Fischer’s work has also appeared PANK, Guernica, The Rumpus, Best Sex Writing, and other journals and anthologies. His essay “Notes from a Unicorn” was also selected as notable in The Best American Essays, and he has attended residencies at Ucross, Lambda Literary, Jentel, Woodstock Byrdcliffe, and elsewhere. He was the first Sunday editor at The Rumpus, and he is also a professional developmental editor of novels and memoirs for publishing houses and individual clients. He teaches at Antioch University Los Angeles and Writing Workshops Los Angeles.

Seth Fischer

Seth Fischer

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