There should be a good reason for this urge to spend hours and days and months and years scribbling short stories and novels but I couldn't come up with anything until the other day when I was looking at a mask I bought from woman from Papua New Guinea. I was at the Pacific Arts Festival on the island of Palau a few years ago. Every major island group in the Pacific basin had a booth where they sold homemade art and served their local food while wearing their local, traditional dress. Papua New Guinea was the best. They won prizes for their costumes and their dancing and their masks were something else. This one was carved from big, thick, solid piece of some tropical hardwood. It has cowary shells for eyeballs, bird-of-paradise feathers for hair and eyebrows, and wild pig tusks curving up out of it nostrils. It represents, no doubt, some forest spirit, some demon of the jungle, some fear that is universal--bone deep in not just the people from New Guinea, but in all of us.
Here it is, hanging on the wall in my classroom at the school I teach at on the island of Guam. The kids love it. It's just scary enough, but hanging in a safe place, it generates exactly the kind of fear that kids and some adults crave: fear buffered by security. Call it roller coaster fear. We can surrender ourselves to the thrill of it confident that we are, after all, in no danger.
Writing offers the same buffer, usually. We can work our keyboards in the safe womb of our homes while we daydream stories about situations we would never actually want to be in. There are exceptions. Sometimes we write about situations we have been in that remain terrifying years later. The authentic adventure book comes from such experiences and such experiences--the experience of absolute terror or steady, low-grade fear--can generalized to stories that might not have anything to do with fear itself. Like a good recipe is not about the salt or cumin or pepper that is put into it, but about the complexities those spices add to a dish, good writing is not about any one emotion, but about many: fear, joy, satiation, exhaustion, boredom, confusion, passion--on and on, that, when blended together, add an irresistable element of tension to the story.
To me, and I'm projecting here, this mask represents fear and our attempts to deal with it, to accommodate it into our lives. In any culture the human experience includes all those emotions I listed above, yet different cultures have devised different ways of dealing with them. The way the people of Papua New Guinea deal with fear is different than the way the American suburban wife deals with it. Yet, deal with it we must. We need to protect ourselves with our religions, our rituals, our traditions--we each have our own masks.
So, this is why traveling is such a fine thing for a writer. It is not that you can't find all the human emotions by living life in Passaic, New Jersey or in Columbus, Ohio. They are all there. But learning how disparate cultures deal with the same emotions is fascinating as well as instructive as regards the connections of our humanity.
Douglas Arvidson is a past winner of the WICE/Paris Transcontinental International Short Story competition. His short fiction has been published in Paris, Prague, and in literary magazines in the United States and he was recently invited to be a staff writer for the Prague Revue, a cutting-edge, online literary journal (http://bit.ly/1mMT6ZC). The novels in his fantasy series, The Eye of the Eye of Stallion, include The Face in Amber, The Mirrors of Castaway Time, and A Drop of Wizard's Blood. His new novel, Brothers of the Fire Star, was selected as a finalist in the ForeWord Reviews 2012 Book of the Year national awards and as a finalist in three categories in the 2013 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards: Action Adventure Fiction, Historical Fiction, and Young Adult Fiction. It has become part of the pantheon of Pacific literature and is now included in school literature programs. Brothers of the Fire Star is an adventure story set in the Pacific during World War II and concerns two boys of different races and cultures who escape the island of Guam in a small sailboat when the Japanese army invades. They must then struggle to survive as they master the secrets of the ancient Pacific navigators. Appropriate for young adults as well as adult readers, Brothers of the Fire Star is available on Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com (http://amzn.to/1j3axVk) and Crossquarter.com. Visit the author's website: douglasarvidson.com