The trail stretched on ahead, between trees, around towering boulders, and alongside a crystalline river. It laced its way up a rock-laden hill where a clearing in the branches hinted at a rich view of the mountain range in the distance. Before making the short climb, I reached into my backpack and removed a folded piece of paper and a pencil. Gently opening the folds of the paper revealed the nearly-blank surface of a map staring back at me like a waiting child. I turned around and faced the direction I had come from, sketching the last few details of former surroundings into place and drawing the dotted-line of trail thus far. After a silent breath with closed eyes, as if to say “Thank you”, I turned once more to the hill ahead and slowly, deliberately made my way to the top. There, the trees parted to form a frame around the rich landscape of valleys, peaks, and mystery ahead. The mountains created a outline against the sea-blue sky that was proudly pointed here and softly sloping there. Drawing its outline had the effect of tracing a heart-rate monitor, the pulse of life itself. I jotted a few brief details and sketches onto the map, carefully folded it back into the bag, and cinched the straps around my shoulders. From where I stood, tracking the trail into the mountains proved a short task for it quickly dashed behind a legion of ancient trees, while a mass choir of leaves exhaled with the wind-whispered laughter of hide-and-seek. But it was there somewhere. I knew where I had come from and I was resolved to find that trail again. After all, I had a map.
In high school, I had a history teacher named Mr. Perry. Being a student of his was like watching Robin Williams teach history. Most classes were characterized by impersonations of historical figures (Winston Churchill was my favorite), stories about his dog, and students collectively trying to keep him off-topic. He even incentivized our in-class efforts with a Mick Jagger song and dance routine at the end of the school year. He made good on his promise and it was worth the wait.
My greatest take-away from his class has less to do with history and more to do with writing and living (more on that later). “You should make an outline of your essays before you write them”, he told us regarding an upcoming exam that would contain an essay question. The outline was a Roman-numeral and bullet-point list containing the bare essential thoughts the essay should communicate, like a map for constructing complete thoughts. It was a tool to help the writer create a meaningful essay by keeping the central theme in focus and prevent drifting into non-essential content. Each numeral represented a section of the essay and each bullet-point was a summary of the supporting details or paragraphs that would convey the idea for that section. For example:
– Should you become a career kazooist?
II. Basic Knowledge
– Practicing scales
– Playing melodies
III. Advanced Knowledge
– Improvised solos
– Getting gigs
– The creative-writing process (and other synonyms for “insanity”)
IV. Making the money!
– Don’t…just don’t…
“You won’t get any extra points for putting a summary on your exam, but I’ll just make a note that you did it”, Mr. Perry said as we moved on to the next lesson. My inner-punk must have been asleep that day because, rather than crumpling-up this seemingly reward-less concept and tossing it into the mental trash can labeled “THINGS TEACHERS SAY” in my all-knowing teenage mind, I decided to give it a try.
And it worked…
Test day arrived and as I came to the essay portion of the exam, the usual shoulder-slump, heavy-sigh routine began as my thoughts lumbered through whatever bits of history and A-list verbiage it could find that were even remotely related to the question. I had played this game before and knew it tended to be a losing one. Then I remembered the outline strategy as a dusty lightbulb sparked and coughed somewhere over my head. Angularly slumped into the back of my chair, I half-heartedly twiddled the pencil between my fingers and doodled “I. Intro” onto the top corner of my page. The lightbulb flickered again and a steady stream of light shone from its core.
“Hey,” said a small voice, “that’s good stuff!”
“Yeah,” I thought, feeling a tingle in my hand, “it’s genius.”
Another Roman numeral was etched onto my page with a short title. Bullet-points were soon to follow. Something strange began to happen: I could sense that my memories of what I had learned, previously disconnected, were now peeking their heads out of distant neurons like family of prairie dogs, calling out to each other, recognizing familiar voices, and scurrying to reunite at the part of my brain that controls my hand-writing. More succinct notes appeared on my page and they made sense. My eyelids and lips began to peel back, bearing my teeth as I wrote with increasing intensity. Soon the corner of my page began to resemble a Sparknotes legal document. In my head, I began to see a fully-formed essay rising from the fog and fanning it away in grand strokes as it stretched its limbs for the first time and pulled itself onto its own two feet, yearning to live, walk, and be.
As I neared the end of my outline, I became aware of how quickly I was writing and how heavily I was breathing. I tried to calm myself and savor the moment. Setting down my pencil, I closed my eyes and exhaled slowly, shaking my head slightly from side-to-side as though my tastebuds were gradually being awakened by a piece of perfectly seasoned filet mignon. After a moment, my eyelids glided open. I wiped a bead of sweat from my forehead, grabbed my pencil, and gently wrote, no, painted the following onto my paper “V. Conclusion.”
I sat staring at the authoritative edict etched into my page, absorbing the fullness of the moment. I looked straight ahead of me as the classroom began to fade and a burst of light shone directly upon me. The previously small voice in my head was overtaken by a thunderous, reverberating tone that began proclaiming the essay soon to rain down from Heaven upon my tattered test paper:
“BE IT HENCEFORTH KNOWN: THIS PARCHMENT, HITHERTO DEVOID OF MEANING AND LANGUAGE, SHALL FORTHWITH BE ENGRAVED MIGHTILY WITH THE SUBSTANTIVE FORM OF THE HISTORICAL SUMMARY THAT FOLLOWS THUSLY:
I. AN INTRODUCTORY SURVEY OF THE BURLY SIR LEWIS AND THE MULTIPLY BICEPPED SIR CLARK
II. THE JOURNEY OF AFOREMENTIONED SIRS AND THEIR CHEST-HAIR INDUCING ADVENTU–“
It took me a while to notice that Mr. Perry had been staring at me. He was frozen in a thin-lipped, ruffled-brow glare that suggested he could hear the faintly muffled voice of my internal monologue and its accompanying blasts of trumpet fanfare. Coming to the sudden realization that my experience had me fixedly gazing in his direction with parted, quivering lips and tears of awe pooling in my far-too-widely-opened eyes, I collided back into reality as though awakening from a falling dream. In doing so, I succeeded in breaking both our staring contest and my pencil as my fist hammered into my desk in an explosive convulsion.
After closing his eyes and rubbing his temples, Mr. Perry graciously returned his computer, though his brow was all the more ruffled. The glares of my classmates replaced his in a strangely elegant fashion, each pair of eyes turning slowly and in-sync, their collective aim coming to a direct fix on me like a parliament of owls watching a helpless mouse. For a moment, the only movement in the room was that of my eyeballs darting back and forth from one unintended audience member to another, the pencil shard still protruding from my clenched fist. Then, careful not to make anymore sudden movements, I carefully retrieved another pencil from my bag, muttering something about the Louisiana Purchase as I went. This seemed to pacify the class as they turned, just as slowly and synchronously as before, to their exams.
The embarrassment soon faded as I took one more look at my paper. The glow returned and I smiled, feeling accomplished, victory swimming freely through my veins as my outline gleamed like a polished trophy. Then I noticed all of the blank space underneath it: I still had an entire essay to write. But this time it was different. That blank void normally would have been a fog-capped mountain of slippery-sloped ideas, blind academic leaps, and pitfalls into endless ramblings. This time, it was a soaring range of peaks and valleys that I wanted to explore. I could do this. I had the tools. I had a map to guide me.
I cannot remember what I scored on that essay. I can’t even tell you much about Lewis and Clark. But that isn’t the point. Essays did become more manageable for me after that, but that’s not the point either. The point is this: Life’s little things, the Roman numerals and supporting details, make all the sense in the world when you take even a few moments to reflect on the bigger picture. Seriously. And that is why we are here. That’s why I’m writing and you are (hopefully) reading. And maybe you’re even doing some reflection of your own. Writing a story, a poem, or even a simple journal entry along the lines of “here’s what happened to me and what I learned from it” is a great way to prevent life from slipping through your fingers unnoticed. If life is the essay, then all the stories, characters, and details we encounter and experience compose its outline. If I never take the time to reflect on the various pieces of the puzzle and where and how they fit in, then life will seem uncoordinated and dull, like flipping through every TV channel without actually wanting to watch anything.
But life isn’t like that. The life we have been given is a big one, grand and rich with hidden meaning. This is not to say that everything we experience in life can be condensed and made sensible. No. No matter how thorough your outline is, no matter how accurate your map is drawn, you will still get lost at times. At the end of this life, you may still be grasping for words, images, feelings, anything to associate with certain chapters you’ve experienced. That is OK. We’re not expected to make sense of everything. My hope is that, when I come to the last chapter, I’ll have less guesswork to do about what I had just gone through. At this stage of the journey, this is the best way I know to save myself the hassle. There’s a great journey ahead and I’m still drawing the map. Won’t you join me?