Essay by J.p. Lawrence
Writing to Give Meaning to Random Moments
In the air, for whatever reason, I’ve found that people have a hard time believing things. The nine-year-old pipsqueak cannot believe he’s finally going, the heavy-jowled lady cannot believe she’s already leaving, and the old man with the baseball cap cannot believe the beer costs seven dollars—seven!
And me? I can’t believe how bad the cabin smells after a ten-hour flight. I can’t believe that once again, I’m stuck in a steel tube, miles above and away from home. And I can’t believe that once I loved traveling, that I once was that pipsqueak child, boarding pass in hand, looking eagerly out the window and waiting for the jolt that meant the plane had attained flight.
But then I got a job that required I travel for a living—and now, as I sit in coach, wedged in the middle of the middle row, I cannot find the words to capture what I have just gone through.
Words, words, words. As a journalist, they are my bricks and mortar. As a child, they brought me comfort and truth. But right now, I cannot find truth—I can only recite facts.
To whit: I went to Australia, covered some stories, traveled around, and left. Australian seasons are opposite ours, kangaroos are like a dog and a rabbit sewn together, and Vegemite looks like warm fudge but tastes like burned soy sauce.
But these facts don’t add up to anything resembling truth. They are as empty of meaning as a photo taken of the Sydney skyline from the window of a plane. They don’t represent me any more than a snapshot of me hugging a koala represents me.
It was so easy when I was a pipsqueak. When I first started traveling, everything was special and important and worthy, and words came gushing out, filling page after page.
Now, my laptop fades into sleep mode as I wait for that blank check of inspiration, for a cue that will congeal my thoughts into some worthwhile whole. Now that I’m older, I recognize that the fervor of my youth was just ignorance, a naïve rush. I so wanted to see the world and share it with everyone, but then I found better folks than me had already shared the world in brighter ways than I.
Three years of traveling to Georgia and Germany and New York and Kuwait and Iraq showed me this. Three years of writing on deadlines, of writing for target audiences, of compressing truth into an injection of facts, quick and to the point, to minimize the investment in reading it. Writing for grownups showed me that writing could be a chore, a job like many others. In the end, a building is a building is a building.
Idly, I flip my laptop back to life and sort through photos from the trip, photos of buildings and monuments and people I don’t really know too well. These, too, are photos I took as if by ritual, the kind that every single person on the plane has in varying forms. These are photos to prove I wasn’t actually in Akron the whole time. These are photos for others.
In my well-traveled backpack, I have my remedy: a small collection of photos that I love, photos from places where I felt most at home. On the front of these photos are images of the people who have meant something to me. On the back, I’ve written a note or an anecdote or a short story. These are the photos that are mine.
For the past few months, I’ve been writing to the people in these photos. Many of them don’t know I exist anymore. Some of them are my friends. But in little 4 x 6 photos, I have allowed them to be unburdened by the constraints of time and space.
In one photo, a lady in uniform sings into a mike during a vocal competition in dusty Iraq. I’d written on the back, in messy blackness periodically smudged in haste:
You were my first big story. I wrote that you sang like an angel, but that was a lie. I understated it.
In another, a ragged man with shaggy hair, dyed black and hanging limply, bares his eyes, flying on an acid trip, right at me:
We had the best conversations, you and I.
In yet another, there’s a girl with short brown hair and a smile she flashes shyly when she’s happy. On the back, there are quite a few black lines crossed out. I write:
I’m sorry. I messed up. But that’s because that’s who I am. I try, I fail, I move ahead, a sloppy, smudged-up mess. Please forgive my handwriting.
Through my words on the back of the photographs, I give significance to the people, places, and events that are pictured: something short, about their meaning to me, about their purpose in my life. I have no one to sell these words to. I have no facts to get right—I have only the truth, my truth.
I laugh sometimes at the idea that I can determine the meaning of someone’s life, based on a few glib moments. But I revel in the craft, in excavating the right word from my memories.
Since I lost my childhood wonder of flying, I’ve thought that an airplane is like getting stuck in an elevator with 300 other people, where everyone is just waiting to be somewhere else. In the end we are just statistical noise, a few DNA patterns away from the chicken in an in-flight meal.
Life, too, sometimes seems like being stuck in coach, sitting silently but politely, and knowing that no matter what you do, no matter who you are, everyone winds up in the same place in the end.
But when we write, we take symbols and facts and random events and give them meaning, however irrational they may seem. That’s when we are most human. And sometimes—oftentimes—we fail, and fail, and fail again. We wind up sloppy messes, with ink on our fingers and smudge marks all over. But then we continue.
As I put away my photos, I feel once again the desire to try.
All beliefs are conquerable in the air.
- “Tourist at the Sydney Opera House” and “Girl Happy at the County Fair” © J.p. Lawrence; used by permission
J.p. Lawrence is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He served in southern Iraq from 2009 to 2010 as a military journalist with the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division. His deployment consisted of traveling to a strange new place, meeting strange new people, and gaining an understanding. He wrote more than 100 pieces there. Currently, he continues his Army career in between studying creative writing and anthropology at Bard College.