Growing up, I had a strange fascination with polar exploration. The school library and local public library’s holdings on Robert Peary, Richard E. Byrd, Roald Amundsen, Robert Scott, and Ernest Shackleton weren’t ample enough, but I did my best to learn all I could from wherever I could.
And reenact their missions in my front yard. Our neighbors in coastal Texas must have thought it strange to see a ten year-old clutching his windbreaker to his neck and battling against imaginary blizzards as he supplied the necessary swirling wind sounds himself. They can be excused for calling my parents when I later resorted to crawling toward the lamp post.
Surprisingly, no friends would agree to play polar explorer with me. My missions were solo. My pretend companions slipped into a crevasse or left the tent saying, “I am just going outside and may be some time.” I often came upon the marker for the pole and discovered some other explorer had left shortly before. Reading the note he left behind, I stomped the Bermuda grass in frustration.
You learn a lot from what you remember, chiefly habits of identity. The solitary heroic role I took as an explorer, the way I built futility and loss into my fantasies, and my recognition of the absurdity of my play all speak to how I see myself. How you select detail speaks louder than content.
I am, in many of my stories, ridiculous—ridiculous in what I expect, ridiculous in my devotions, ridiculous in my misunderstandings, ridiculous in my self-deception and my torturous self-recrimination and my doubt. I’m especially ridiculous in these lists I formulate, which sometimes seem boastful even as they catalog shortcomings.
But perhaps the story is more important as a metaphor for my present state of mind. Maybe I’m thinking about my days as the top 10 year-old make-believe polar explorer in Texas because I’m nearing completion of this book I’m writing, stepping snow-blind toward an unmarked goal through deep drifts. I’m seeking my bearings in a landscape where every square meter is empty, new, and relentlessly blank.
If you extend pretend polar exploration as a metaphor for writing a book, I’m locked in a life or death trial that only I recognize… because I invented it. No one told me to make the attempt. No one said I should writhe in the yard or rend my garments either. I just hope to overcome the rest of the fantasy. I don’t want to find a flag already planted and an all-for-naught outcome.
Doubt, however, might be an essential element of the process. What else could writing a book be besides a solitary journey? Like any polar explorer worth his sled, I have to accept unexpected challenges. Some company would be nice, but maybe I’m not meant to have any. The heading is my own, tracks into new territory distinguished only by a circling sun and unrelenting horizon.
The worst mistake would be panicking—polar regions are unforgiving, after all. Having expressed my woes by shouting them to the sky, I just have to keep plodding on, alone in my imaginary task.