So I’m a big fan of John Green, not necessarily as an author but as a person. I don’t consider him a great writer but as a good man, which is arguably better. I like his youtube videos on Vlogbrothers and his Crash course series’ on World History and Literature and these various other projects.
In one particular video he was talking about a medium term he uses; “I’m in Cheyenne Wyoming” in the video he notes that he’s a fan of the film Rushmore and in this movie there’s a play set during the Vietnam War and there’s a scene where an officer asks this random character “How long have you been in country?” and the man replies “I ain’t even here Sergeant, I’m in Cheyenne Wyoming”
John Green later goes on to explain how he appropriated this phrase to explain his thought process, in which he’s so heavily enveloped in this project that whenever he’s pursuing it or whenever he’s resting he’s not exactly in this world, but in another world- the world in which he’s working; Cheyenne, Wyoming.
He visits Cheyenne, Wyoming whenever he thinks of new videos and writing new books- it’s his imaginary world in which he escapes. He often spends a few months or even a year there at a time, just thinking- barely spending time in his own very real life.
It’s possibly one of the best analogies for the writing process I’ve ever heard. The best of course being Hemingway’s; “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed,” it’s an apt description because writing, although it involves little to no exercise, physically exhausts you and you’re left confused- as if half the blood in your brain had been drained out.
Bad writing or perhaps writers block emerges from an inability to bleed. The blood doesn’t flow naturally so you got to suck and squeeze it out, which is equally exhausting and far too frustrating- and in a way it hurts you more than bleeding.
Hemingway was fixated on the truth, and he was right to be. All good writing is a form of truth. myths were an attempt of early man trying to explain the way the earth is, a truth they could wrap their minds around- like the reason if you go into a cave and hear an echo is because Hera cursed a nymph for distracting her as zeus committed adultery, cursing her to forever repeat what others have said- Echo.
In a way fiction is possibly the best way at telling the truth than non-fiction. Because a person can reject an auto biography or a biopic as being too biased or too political, but a good fiction scratches out the possibility for alienation. it paves the way for presenting a truth that people would other wise ignore, expressing nuance and humanity in the same light- a truth that may be up to interpretation, but it’s a truth none the less.
There’s a saying I’m fond of “A Truth told Badly is a Lie” and I think that explains Bad Writing. When you make a story you’re asking for the viewer to believe it, so you structure it to make sense and to trigger emotions with grand reveals and realistic/relatable characters or themes- you’re asking them to accept this truth, that this narrative is believable. But if the story is told badly, if the characters are too obscene to believe and the structure has gone to shit then it is not a truth- it is a lie. And people hate being lied to, that’s why people hate bad writing.
So I’m glad John has this process and I’m happy that he recognises the variable risks of spending too much time in this fantasy world, to put it bluntly there’s only so much blood you can spill before you die. But the phrase that John has appropriated wasn’t destined to be used as a writing method- or an escape for a socially awkward teenager with few friends. It was made for something much worse than that, it was made for Vietnam.
Now I think the majority of the human race can agree that the Vietnam War was a travesty that we should avoid repeating at all costs, mostly for the severe loss of life but also because how much a conflict that brutal fucks people up.
Did you know that 15% of American Soldiers serving in Vietnam were doing heroin during the war? The people back home were terrified that they’d have a junkie epidemic once the vets returned, but they didn’t. Most of these veterans never did heroin again once they left Vietnam. The reason being is because they needed a coping mechanism for a stressful situation, but once you don’t have a stressful situation then you don’t need that coping mechanism.
Addiction arises from stress, a loss of control- chaos. People who have control of their lives don’t need to take the edge off. Picture it, you’re in a humid forrest, the stench of death and shit ever present, surrounded by people who hate you- who wouldn’t want to escape that? who wouldn’t want to go to Cheyenne, Wyoming?
You see, Cheyenne Wyoming is not a turn of phrase for a writing process- it’s a coping mechanism for a person who has seen too much shit that he has to imagine that he is literally in another place.
I’m not in Vietnam- I’m in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I’m not watching a man burn to death, I’m in Cheyenne Wyoming. I’m not watching a woman wail in the street as she’s dragged away from her burning house, I’m in Cheyenne Wyoming. I’m not looking at my best friends intestines snare on a booby trap, I’m in Cheyenne Wyoming. I didn’t look on and watch as a baby got trampled to death, I’m in Cheyenne Wyoming.
I’ve been thinking about that turn of phrase a lot now. I know each generation is a little arrogant in believing that this time, this time, the world is going to collapse in on itself. while in reality all of Human history it appears that the world had been collapsing in on itself, and yet here it is.
But perhaps this is the time in which the world collapses in on itself. Perhaps this scramble over Syria does turn into a World war and perhaps a lot, if not all, of us will die. Perhaps this whole things isn’t a phase, but a lingering moment- a whimper that turns into a scream. And perhaps many will try to block out this scream, thinking “I am not on this earth, I am in Cheyenne, Wyoming“.
And that process is fine for that situation, for Vietnam. But what happens when you get back to Cheyenne, Wyoming? What happens when you discover that this town you remembered has changed, that the people have changed- that it falls short of everything you had imagined. What do you do then?
When you sit in your living room on one still night, where do you go? do you go to Cheyenne, Wyoming? …Or do you go to Vietnam?