(The opening piece to my soon-to-be-finished book ‘Scraps of Madness: the Notes of a Wanderer’)
~ Toward the Keyboard ~
It was true. Oh god, oh god: it was true.
The opening years of adulthood had passed and my conclusion had been drawn: I was an alien – an outsider – an outcast. I had tried to a reasonable degree to slot myself into the paradigm of human society, but I gradually realised that there was just no place for me amongst those stern-eyed creatures of culture and convention. Each attempt to fit myself in had led to the usual bout of alien anxiety and staring up existentially into skies above. I stood still on those concrete sidewalks of life with my hands in my pockets knowing that I just simply wasn’t compatible with any of it: the jobs, the paperwork, the contracts, the football teams, the small talk, dating, mortgages, Ikea – Ant and Dec. Even simple everyday things like supermarket shopping somehow made me sad. Those aisles had a still emptiness which made my heart ache for something which couldn’t be purchased in any store, or made in any factory, or stored in any house.
People with good intentions encouraged me to mix myself in but I was hopelessly allergic to it all. A life of comfort and security was okay for a few months at the most, but after that my restless eyes lifted once again to that horizon of adventure and chaos. That possibly explained why I had spent three of the last five years on some sort of travelling expedition out somewhere in the world. Expedition makes it sound like I was climbing Mount Everest, although I did trek to the base camp twice, but too often I was bumming around, getting drunk in hostels and attempting to seem like a normal, functioning member of the human race so I could hook up with some young German girl who was about to become a lawyer and begin the peaceful middle-class existence in the suburbs.
People back home said that there was something wrong with me: that I was immature, that I was out of my mind – that I was running away from life and or something like that. Maybe they were right, but in my head, I wasn’t running away from life, but rather running toward it with wide arms, a heavy heart and a weathered backpack full of old clothes and a couple of books on esoteric philosophy to boot. It was just a different perspective and all that, you know? Truthfully, I guess I just saw no thrill in a life of bill-paying routine, in a steady career, in promotions, parking spaces, weddings, television sitcoms, shiny cars or that same old holiday once a year to somewhere in Spain. All I could do was wonder was that really what human existence was all about? Was that my destiny as a sentient organism in an infinite universe? Was that to be my fate whilst briefly incarnate in this transient cage of slowly decaying flesh and bone?
It was an interesting situation to say the least. I truly and genuinely wanted to understand their way of life, so I did the usual things. I watched TED talks. I listened to Jordan Peterson lectures. I spoke to career counselors, parents and work colleagues. I argued with strangers on the internet in YouTube comment sections. I tried and tried and tried, but in the end, I just didn’t understand how the vast majority could do it so easily. What they called ‘growing up’ and ‘the real world’ to me seemed like some weird bubble of unnatural behavior. After all, what was natural about sitting in an office in artificial light all day, only to drive home in a gas-guzzling car and eat processed foods while watching a blinking box life until you went to sleep? That wasn’t what the real world was. To me the real world was out there among the fields and trees – the rivers, the streams, the sunset beaches and mountain wildernesses. That’s where the life and adventure was at! Even better was what was out there in the cosmos with its shooting stars and endless galaxies. It felt so cruel to be able to see that infinite universe on a clear night above me. I wanted to go out and explore it all, but I had been subjected by gravity and government to instead exist in a world of monotony and mediocrity. Instead of sailing through the cosmos, we’d stutter through traffic jams; instead of exploring solar systems, we’d explore supermarket aisles. Why was it like this? Which cruel god had created this circus? This pantomime?
Okay, so I guess I was a little bit bitter of the others being content with what they had – at actually managing to make the journey from the maternity ward to the crematorium in some sort of steady and sane fashion. I envied their contentment about neatly fitting into system without any friction. They peacefully rode the cultural conveyor-belt through the education system, the jobs, the mortgages, the family life, the bank holidays and retirement before arriving safely into a wooden box to be duly buried six feet under the ground. It was a simple and smooth procedure. But me? I was a chaotic mess waiting to move perpetually on to the next adventure. I just couldn’t stay still in one spot. I had an itch that couldn’t be scratched; a madness that couldn’t be cured. I was just so excited to even exist at all that the 9-5 routine seemed impossible to do for more than a year at the very most. I needed frequent adventure but travelling all the time was tiring and most notably: expensive. It was true that I needed to find something else to help me fill the time in between the maternity ward and the crematorium like the others had done. There must have been something that fulfilled me other than travelling? Something that I could do while living in one place? Something? Anything?
There was: writing. Switching on some ambient music and letting myself lose my mind at a keyboard was a very fulfilling thing indeed. It reminded me of being a young kid again, picking and piecing those Lego bricks together, building structures and creating things, only with words and ideas instead of plastic bricks. It was an act of joyous play which never felt like a chore or a job. Hell, even the essays in school were somewhat enjoyable as long as there was some sort of agency and creativity involved. In a society of rigid rules, the act of writing allowed me to be the archetype of whatever alternative reality I wanted to momentarily migrate to. That pen was a portal and quite simply it took me to a different place. A separate place. A better place.
Yes, it was clear to me that being a writer would have been something to solve my existential problem. So naturally I looked at the realistic and sensible options available and decided to start studying journalism at university. I guess I thought that the role of a journalist would provide a way to make money while joyfully strumming away on those keyboard keys. However, about midway through that three-year course, I realised that sitting in an office and typing up a news story I had no interest in didn’t really interest me either. What I wanted to do was to WRITE – creatively and expressively that is. In a world where I was slowly suffocated by sanity and sensibility, creative writing was my opportunity to go insane – to explore the spaces down the rabbit hole and create my own wonderland of words and bizarre ideas.
So, after finishing my journalism course with gritted teeth and a damaged liver, I went on to study creative writing at master’s level. The thought of the situation made my heart pump with excitement. This was my chance to explore my passion with like-minded creatures. Finally, my tribe! My place with people who wanted to create with words, who wanted to explore their imagination – who were also driven to write out of their total and profound incompatibility with absolutely everything else in human society.
I was certain I had found my place of belonging but soon after starting I realised I was out of luck once again. I sat in a room of middle-aged marketing executives having a mid-life crisis, trying to write the next War and Peace or Wuthering Heights. One guy read out some story and I watched as about five different people from different demographics weighed in with their conflicting opinions, to which he then butchered the essence of his piece apart to make it sit in the middle of the road and please everyone. For some reason it made me sad and I decided there and then to quit. Maybe I wasn’t a writer, but these people weren’t definitely weren’t, so off I went again, quitting the course, flying one way to Mexico, travelling around, staring out into sunset skies – getting drunk and hitting on German girls who were about to qualify as lawyers and begin the peaceful middle-class existence in the suburbs. The usual.
The more I travelled the world, the more I started to appreciate and gravitate toward the wilderness of planet earth. The party and the girls and the foreign cultures: those sorts of things were definitely fun while travelling, but the best parts were always getting out of the cities and hostels. It was those little camping trips or hikes into the wild. The mountains, the forests, the fields – the sunset beaches and rugged plains devoid of any substantial human civilisation. From the volcanoes of Central America to the untouched, empty wilderness of Iceland, to the isolated Buddhist temples of the Himalayas – it was all a magical wonderland to me. Like writing, it was a beautiful escape from the world of clocks and calendars and concrete and contracts; a place where you could exist peacefully without being disturbed by a traffic jam or deadline or some boss belittling you over something meaningless and trivial.
Recalling being a little kid, I remembered that I always found a great joy in the time I spent in nature. Even if it was just a field or something, there was a sense of adventure in a simple stretch of grass which had more life than any buzzing city could ever hope to achieve. The average field mouse had more adventure in one day than many humans had in their entire lives. And it’s not just that the animals’ lives were more thrilling, it often seemed like they were smarter than us too. Take the birds for example: instead of bulldozing entire rainforests down so that they could use the materials for cosmetics and tabloid newspapers, they instead picked up and recycled fallen branches and used them to build homes integrated with the world around them. The animals understood that they were interconnected with nature and that, rather than trying to rape and destroy it, it was better to work with it. Dogs too. They didn’t chase the stick because they saw an advert on the television for it, or because they thought they would get some sort of promotion. They just did it for kicks. They knew existence was playful not political, and they knew not to stress and strain their lives away working for trivial things or the opinions of other dogs. And cats, well, they knew what life was about to the absolute core. Just look at them sitting there doing nothing. Total Zen masters. Godlike geniuses and gurus – every goddamn last one of them.
Okay, so I guess maybe I was a bit jealous and bitter again when it came to the animals. I felt sad that I was spawned on this planet as a human-being and not a squirrel or something. Since childhood I had often felt that I was born into the wrong species. I stared out into the eyes of the humans thinking that perhaps there had been a mix up back at the soul distribution warehouse. Perhaps mine had been wrongly delivered to the human department instead of the cats or dogs or birds? Probably that was it: some incompetent god not doing his job properly in the depot centre. For a while I tried to be like a cat – a total Zen master, meditating and sleeping and eating and staring into space with no excitement, just total acceptance of the here and now. But after a while I realised I was still actually human and needed things like money and companionship and hobbies and purpose. As usual I was out of luck: I was a human-being and nothing was going to change that. Sex changes had just about hit the market, but species’ changes must have been a few centuries away at the least.
And so, with a heavy heart and a broken bank account, I retreated back into human society. I flew home, got a job in a bar and tried to get back into writing. By now I had realised it was the one and only thing I enjoyed at home, so naturally I had to pursue it ferociously and uncompromisingly in an attempt to stay sane. I had been writing for a while, but I had never really had anything read by anyone else. I wanted to find my audience and so I started considering the possibilities. It was the 21st century I had realised, so maybe online was the way to go? Okay. Online I went into the virtual wilderness – to the lands of trolls, porn, junk mail and depressed people trying to make it look like they lived happy and exciting lives to strangers on the internet.
Firstly, I went onto Instagram to check out the hotshot authors: the ones with thousands of likes on every post; the ones who somehow managed to actually make some money off pounding some keys on a keyboard. As I read, I realised that there was some sort of mass trickery taking place. Everyone on Instagram seemed to post bland comments about life or love and then dress them up in pretty fonts and filters to try and make their words look more meaningful. Even worse was the way people had to like and spam comments on each other’s posts in an attempt to get more followers and views on their own pages. It was a strange situation; it was like watching those suited marketing executives in the city network with each other in swanky bars after work. Confused as ever, I decided to carry on my way.
Stumbling further through the virtual wilderness of the internet, I came across Facebook. At least on Facebook you could post lengthy pieces of texts, I thought. I logged in and started a blog called ‘The Thoughts From The Wild’ where I posted images of people walking in nature with some sort of internal dialogue about travel or life or society. It was a simple concept and it worked! My blog took off within a few weeks and people, real people, somewhere out there across the world were reading and interacting with my writings for the first time ever. I felt like Shakespeare or Hemingway back from the dead, armed with a grubby laptop, hopelessly and poetically alone with everybody on the internet. The pen had moved on and there I was: hiding my face behind a pseudonym online while being read and digested by a few hundred people sporadically scattered somewhere around the globe.
As I carried on sharing my words and thoughts, a quiet flame of joy began to flicker in my heart. I wasn’t even adventuring, yet I was still finding some fulfilment by just bleeding my brain dry at a keyboard. What a joy it was just to have your stuff read by others somewhere out there! One woman even messaged me saying she had quit a job and was about to drive around Australia because of something I had written. Another young painter told me something similar – that I had given her the courage to pursue her ambition to become an artist.
That feedback was like a class A drug to me and I sat back delusional at that keyboard like a man of importance, like a man of purpose. I was content knowing that I was helping to spread some colour and madness into this grey world. I looked out at the window with a smug sort of grin. Soon those streets outside would have mad men and women crawling down the sidewalks, eyes full of fire and saliva dripping from their mouth as they quit their desk jobs and chased their passions with a demonic sort of possession. The revolution was coming over the horizon, I knew it. I just needed to keep writing away and helping the side of the crazy and disturbed and demented.
Of course, I still needed money while I was toiling away in this heroic endeavour, so naturally I worked the monotonous jobs in the meanwhile. Jobs like bartending, factory work and customer service came and went in short bursts. They were always the easiest to get for an inexperienced and introverted creature like myself. Some were bad and some were awful, but they all helped pay the bills I guess, and I could even find inspiration for things to write about while daydreaming the hours away as I stared wistfully into time and space.
This state of existence went on for a while. It would be a day of menial work followed by an evening of losing my mind at the keyboard. Somewhere in there I would find time to eat a basic no-thrills meal, and maybe even treat myself to a bottle of red wine. Occasionally I would go out and walk the streets while listening to some Zen philosopher’s podcast through my headphones. With the sound of existential philosophy in my ears, I looked out and observed the human race like I was on some kind of safari. I wandered aimlessly through the city neighbourhoods and watched the way they all walked and talked while taking mental notes for my writings. Situations like standing in the crowd that momentarily formed at the traffic lights or waiting in the supermarket queue would turn out to be schools of ethnographic observation. Maybe it was a little strange I guess, but such an undertaking added to whatever it was I was striving for in a way I couldn’t totally explain to myself let alone others. There was some burning desire deep inside me that told me I needed to observe, to learn and understand the absurdity of the human condition. To what end? That wasn’t clear, but I just I needed to know what made them tick.
After doing this for a while, I realised I had substantially segregated and closed myself off from the rest of my species. As the months drifted by, I realised I was living dangerously in a world of extreme isolation and bad diet habits. I was somewhat used to keeping myself away from the masses out there on the streets. I liked it that way mostly, the situation of being content with your own company, but my hermit-levels had slowly reached castaway proportions. Every day I went to work and avoided any significant interaction with my co-workers before going home to sit in darkness and empty my brain at that keyboard to random strangers on the internet. It was an extreme situation and carrying on at this rate would almost certainly pave the road toward the madhouse. ‘Venture down the rabbit-hole just enough to find the magic; hold on to normality just enough to avoid the madhouse’ – something I had scribbled once into my diary. With that in mind, I decided that I would go out and have a drink with a friend.
By now my circle of friends and acquaintances had shrunk considerably, but luckily I had come across a few other misfits out on the road during my travels. I remembered one who also lived in my city and got speaking to her online. Her name was Emily – an anxious girl who didn’t have much of an idea how to fit herself into this society either. I recalled her telling me how she also listened to ambient music and painted abstract art to escape normal life. She seemed like the ideal person to befriend. We spoke for a while online and then arranged to meet up for a drink down the pub.
“So, your life sounds interesting,” she said, sipping a glass of wine across the table. “I do worry about you though.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Humans weren’t meant to exist in solitude all the time. Too much time alone sends you crazy. That’s what happened to my ex.”
“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “I’ve got it all figured out. I am just gonna write my books and start the revolution this world needs.” She looked at me like the madman I was.
“I’m glad you are enjoying writing now and not feeling like you have to run off to a foreign country every month. But what are you planning to do for work in the long term? Do you have any plans for the future? A career? It’s hard to make money from writing these days. Everybody with a laptop and internet connection wants to be a writer you know.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I just want to write and maybe have a few more adventures here and there. I guess I’ll work whatever job I have to along the way. I’m not sure. I stopped planning too much.”
“Come on. You know I love that about you, your adventurous attitude, but realistically you can’t just continue living like this forever. You need to spend some more time with people and learn to live with others. That’s what I did. Sure, I have to bite my tongue from time to time, but it beats being lonely and isolated and depressed. That’s what being alone all the time did to me.”
“I’m sorry Emily, but I like it this way. Maybe you do, but I just don’t understand this species. I am just here to observe and write about these creatures of conformity and convention before I return back to whatever place it was that I came from.” She rolled her eyes.
“Oh, please just stop. I hate when you speak like this. You say all these things, but I know you don’t mean them. I saw you were happy with those people when we were travelling. You do like people and you are human – just accept it! You have to face up to it and learn how to be happy in this society. You can’t just hide away on your own forever.”
“I can try.”
“No! No you can’t! You need some security, a way to make money – a place to call home! You need friends and you need family. We are all social creatures and you’ll go insane if you just keep secluding yourself in that apartment of yours. I know you are working hard on your writing but why don’t you go out and see some more of your friends some time? The ones from school you told me about?”
I sat back in thoughtful silence, pondering her words. Some of the things she had said did ring true. I couldn’t deny she was right in many regards. Human beings were social creatures and often the suicides and mental asylum patients were the people who had been subjected to years of isolation. Like I said, it was true that I felt pretty good in my own company, but maybe she was right with there being a limit to it all? Maybe I did need to regularly spend time with other people? Try and see things from their perspective? Enjoy the camaraderie and gregarious nature of my fellow man?
In the end I decided her fiery words were right. I had gone too far, been too audacious in my behaviour. I had wandered too long over the fences of normality and it was time to return to the farm of social sanity to rub shoulders with some more of the others.
The next week I decided to go to a birthday celebration night out of one of my friends from school. It had been an arranged date on the social calendar for a while. A large group of people were going and naturally I had planned to avoid it at all costs. A lot of people consequently meant a lot of small talk – a lot of small talk meant a lot of explanation about what you were actually doing with your life. Such a situation wasn’t really appealing but with gritted teeth and a determination to cling on the ledge of sanity a little longer, I booked my bus ticket to London and went and met everyone in a pub somewhere deep within the concrete jungle.
I arrived late into the bar where all my friends were sat around a table already on their second and third pints. The jolly laughs and banter-filled conversations were flowing in full steam already. That camaraderie of my fellow man on display right in front of me. I breathed in, composed myself and headed over to join the circus. As I approached, they looked up at me with their big eyes and smiles. “Here he is,” one of them said enthusiastically. “The stranger! He’s still alive then.”
I forced a polite smile and sat down among them. I got comfy and began getting through the formalities, reciting the socially approved script of small talk and making sure everyone felt I was happy to be there and see them. After a few shaky minutes, I went up to the bar and ordered myself a beer, along with a sneaky double whiskey coke to steady my nerves. I returned to the table and carried on mixing in with the crowd. The conversation flowed away and soon came the inevitable questions I so feared: the questions the normal people used to categorise everyone and everything; the questions that determined whether or not you were an accepted member of the human race.
“So, what are you doing now mate?” one of them said. “We haven’t heard from you in a while. Last I heard you started a master’s course in creative writing. You still doing that?” I sipped my beer slowly, mentally preparing my answer inside my skull.
“Nah I didn’t like the course, so I quit that after three weeks and flew one-way to Mexico to do some more travelling.” He looked at me with curious eyes.
“Fair enough… I guess it’s better to do that than to pay thousands of pounds on something you don’t enjoy. How was Mexico?”
“Great,” I said. “It’s a great country to travel.”
“That’s cool. I’d like to go there sometime.”
“Yeah you should.”
An awkward silence briefly lingered; I still hadn’t answered the original question.
“So, what is it that you’re up to now?”
The justification of my madness had begun. I sipped my beer slowly again before beginning to explain away. In all honesty I wasn’t even sure how to answer that question by this point. Often, I felt that I was simply too insane to justify myself anymore. My life was like being stuck in a car on fire speeding toward a cliff that dropped into the abyss of the unknown. It was seriously difficult to explain to myself let alone others, but I began bumbling away anyway, talking about my job, about my blog – about adventure and some vague writing goals for the future. I of course knew that vague goals for the future were a key thing when justifying what you were doing with your life; if you didn’t have some sort of plan and long-term targets, then the looks of concern were thrown your way in the bucket load.
Fortunately, this round of small talk went better than expected. I explained away my job and writing, and as I got more comfortable, I began opening up and speaking a bit more from the heart. I began talking about the things that actually interested me: about the universe and art and consciousness and philosophy. But I soon felt them dissecting me with their eyes. I was pushing the limit of social acceptability and naturally the conversation began to stall. I could see the sparks flying in their eyes; the buffering taking place in their heads. I realised I had gone too far and panicked. They were onto me. It wouldn’t be long until they figured out that I wasn’t one of them. That I was an imposter. That I was an intruder.
Naturally I responded to this problem by drinking faster and faster. Over the last few years I had discovered that alcohol could act as a temporary bubble of warmth in which to nestle oneself whenever human society was swarming too loud around you. This blur of drinking went on until the world faded away and I descended into the black void of nothingness I knew all too well. The next morning, I awoke in a friend’s living room before dragging myself back home on a two-hour bus with a hangover great enough to make the devil weep. I was still alive though and looking forward to returning to my lair of solitude where I belonged locked up alone with my own terrible madness.
After that occasion, I realised that there simply was just no way back to that farm of social normality. I had jumped the fence and got lost in the woods of madness with no chance of ever returning back. I was no longer one of the regular humans capable of being considered an upstanding, accepted member of society. With this in mind, I sat in silent solitude and decided that the only thing left to do was to abandon myself recklessly to the one thing that set my soul on fire: writing. Writing, writing, writing. If human society was the army of zombies closing in on me, then writing was my way of fighting them all off – my way of blasting away the darkness and keeping that flame of joy flickering bright in my heart. I opened up my laptop and stared at that familiar blank page. I lifted my hands and rode into war once more with words as weapons to fight my battles. My fingertips fought for freedom. For life. For sanity. For my own alien spirit.
In the meanwhile, life went on as it normally did. I worked those low-paying, menial jobs while staring into space and daydreaming about things to write down whenever I got home. As soon as I finished work each day, I marched through those concrete streets toward the keyboard to pour my thoughts onto the page. It had all become some sort of private religion of madness. Writing was the only thing I truly understood in my heart – it was the only time I felt at home when my fingertips hovered over those grubby keyboard keys. As human society buzzed on outside my window, I just sat alone in my room and wrote and wrote my way into oblivion. Other than that, I didn’t know where the hell I was going or what I was doing. I was at the point where I didn’t even care anymore. I was out of the farm of sanity, over the fences of normality, running with the wild horses barefoot and bewitched into the woods of madness. As planet earth continued rotating its way through an infinite universe, I just sat alone in my apartment incessantly hitting those keyboard keys, listening to ambient music, dreaming of exploring distant star systems, chained down to the earth by gravity and government – writing words and smiling to myself in the dark while sitting back and knowing that life was absurd.
Life was totally and beautifully: absurd.