What You Know by Josh Medsker
In the late summer of 1998, I had just graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Alaska, and had no job. I had made plans with my friend Jahnava to go on a mini-road trip in August to a theater conference down in Valdez. It was sort of a last ditch effort to squeeze some excitement out of the summer. Besides, her play had been accepted by the festival, and I wanted to go and support her. The stakes were high. The conference, named for Edward Albee, gives playwrights staged readings, in front of well-known playwrights, including Albee himself. I tried to write and submit a play of my own, autobiographical, of course. All of my writing was then. I don’t even remember now what it was about, but I can guess. A young, struggling writer broods in cafes and bars, trying to figure out the meaning of his life, in a constant quest to leave Alaska. I thought it was very meta. Turns out it was just boring and amateurish. I got about fifteen pages into it and stopped, then started over. Even I was bored. Not a good sign. This happened a few times. By the February deadline, I wasn’t even trying anymore. I had zero confidence in my voice. It was a little ironic, seeing as how Jahnava was a nursing student, and I was the supposed writer. She knocked hers out in about three weeks. Mine was like pulling teeth. I had resigned myself to being a reader instead. At least I’d get in for free. Next time, I told myself. It was always next time. We packed up some coffee, some Lightnin’ Hopkins, Johnny Cash, our friend Brendan, and began our mini-road trip. Now, I say mini-road trip, but it was still about ten hours from Anchorage to Valdez. We made our way down the winding highways, through the mountain passes, and drove past one particular valley I can’t remember the name of now. But it was so amazing that all three of us got out and hiked down on the lip of it a fair ways. It was foggy outside and desolate and beautiful. We yelled, yodeled, shouted dirty things, listening to the valley call our words back to us. We soldiered on, knowing we had about four hours of driving to go. The coffee was running out. We rolled into town at night and got drunk down on the waterfront, passing around a bottle of Jim Beam. I got a little too drunk, taking the lion’s share, and spent the next morning wishing I was dead. There were multiple reasons why I got that wasted, but the most important one took me a long time to fully understand. I sat, trying to smoke and drink a cup of coffee in peace on the steps of the Prince William Sound Community College gym—our home for the next week. Over the course of the week, we met some new friends from around the country, around Alaska, and August Wilson, the playwright, who was the guest of honor that year. He came out and sat with our little crew one afternoon on the patio, near where the play-labs were being held. He smoked his Benson and Hedges and chatted with us about growing up poor and black in Pittsburgh, and we got to ask him about his creative process. I wish I could remember some of the artistic wisdom he imparted to us, but all I remember are those brown smokes, and how eager he was to tell us how he wrote. I do remember that Edward Albee told Jahnava he really liked her play. The look on her face was incredible. She won the third place prize that year. I have to admit that I was a little jealous. I hadn’t finished my play because I didn’t think I had anything worth writing about. I’d always heard, “write what you know.” I started scribbling away in diners at age eighteen, I wrote story after story based on my personal life, which—I have to tell you—wasn’t that interesting. I didn’t have enough imagination to get beyond my immediate experience. I had a misguided notion that if I was passionate about writing my life, readers would too. I churned out War and Peace amounts of crap--and threw it away. Repeat. Jahnava’s play was about a prostitute and her friend on death row who have an encounter with a talking ham sandwich. It was over the top, and surreal, and she knew nothing about prostitution, prison, or talking ham sandwiches. But she obviously knew something I didn’t. So, after that week, I made my decision, finally, to leave Anchorage and set out for parts unknown. I Kerouac-ed around the U.S. on a greyhound for six months. I slept in hostels, laundromats, park benches, living on a little pocket money and the good graces of strangers. I dutifully recorded my experiences in my notebooks, and when I came back six months later, a funny thing had happened. I had found my own voice, while experiencing the America that most people take for granted. I realized that growing up in Alaska was not, in fact, a curse—that it was pretty unique. After my wanderings around the “Lower 48”, I was able to write about Alaska from a more worldly, less self-involved perspective. It clicked in me then, as I was shuttling back and forth across the country, sitting on the back of the Greyhound. There were many nights that I got homesick, and I longed to see it again, with my new eyes. I knew then it was time to go back, and that I was finally ready to write.
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