WHERE I WRITE #21: On the Edge of Sky and Sea


In the dark streets of Lhasa two summers ago, I bought a bracelet stringed with smooth skulls and wear it now habitually. When people ask its origin, I tell them it’s carved from yak bone. I tell them it reminds me I could die at any moment (thinking of Lorca, thinking of great arsenic lobsters falling on my head). Often they recoil, appalled at my memento mori. Astonished eyes scan me up and down for signs of mental imbalance.

But I suppose I look normal enough. When I walk city streets I swagger, leaving blisters like flower petals beneath my feet. When I get lost, I wander with unfounded hope and I don’t ask for directions until I have to. Not because I am too proud, like a man, but because I am too in love with the idea of conquering cities all on my own. I am independent to a fault.

Sometimes I think I have given out my love to too many ideas and places and books and films, and have not saved enough for people.

When I view a beautiful sunset, I imagine dark eyes, a trailing kiss, the warmth of another body…but then, usually I am alone.

I love the freedom that comes with being alone. I love having time to savor. Life can be such a big rush, and I have such a slow heartbeat. When I am alone I move as slowly as I want to. I guess it’s no wonder that sometimes I feel like there’s no one else on this earth but me. No wonder that sometimes I feel so lonely I have to shut my eyes like a door to which I’ve lost the key.

In my dreams, I am a better version of myself.

I don’t keep a journal, but I’ve started to keep sporadic records of my travels. I am always packing and unpacking. I am always meeting people and parting with them too soon. During an awful heat wave this past summer, I met my professor for dinner in New York. He asked me if I had been writing. I hemmed and hawed, searching for a justification I knew I would not find.

In that enormous heat my professor struck me down without meaning to—or perhaps very much meaning to. He said that years later, when I had bills to pay and too many obligations, I would regret not taking advantage of a rare carefree summer to write, and write a lot. In a question that more resembled a statement, he asked if I would only write when someone forced me to write. Words like the hot blast of dead air that accompanies a subway train in August, scalding me with the incidental violence of its truth.

I claim to love reading, I claim to love writing—I don’t do either as much as I should. I leave books unfinished, poems unwritten, the ideas that I have perfected in my mind as intangible as the thickening of air before a storm. In my mind I am writing constantly, conceiving immaculate lines that I must someday transplant from nothingness to this bright burning world. In my mind all thrones are mine to inherit. In my mind exists a drive to create that would bury me, incandescent, next to the path of all souls.

Would, should, could. Words that twist hope into something more sinister. I am always imagining things that could be, things that should be, but I cannot seem to change the things that are. More than anything, I lack discipline. I lack willpower. I lack strength. The characters I admire have all of those qualities, in spades. I am not a character I admire.

Do I rise to the occasion of my own life, my own talents, my own secret despairs? Not often— but still, I wish. I hope. I dream. The pre-dawn call to prayer lulls me to sleep, and I wake with the setting of the sun. Days run into nights, nights run into days, and time will never stand still.

Mythologies coil in and out of me like smoke. Just as animals have diminished, so has humankind—but I like to believe that our decline into triviality is still redeemable. That we have not lost our capacity for greatness. That there is still magic in this world.

I look to Tolkien. I look to mountains of unspeakable height. I look to oceans of unfathomable depth. I only care to write about such things that change the rhythm of my breath—inhalations transmuted into words.

When I think of writing, I think of moleskin notebooks. I think of typewriters. I think of sitting down without distractions and just—doing it, no half-assery, no procrastination, only creation in its purest form.

I don’t write like that. I write in crevices of earth. I write in loops like vultures manifesting fear in the sky. I write when I have nothing else to do, when all other avenues of entertainment have been sucked dry. I write infrequently, in tiny bursts of inspiration, like the spaces between breaths. I can’t seem to write without a computer anymore. My thoughts scribble themselves out on the page, and I am left only with ink stains on my hands.

Another professor once told me that you should look like you’re doing what you’re doing. I think I hold myself too close. I truly know no one, and no one truly knows me. I find it too easy to lie to myself.

I have such a slow heartbeat. If I could, I would sleep half my days away and wake up groggy and bloated with dreams. Sometimes I think I could wait for anything. I like to take my time. Go slow. I hate traveling with tour groups because I always feel rushed. I could spend an entire lifetime among the ruins of Angkor, but I only ever get a few days. On buses, I sit by a window to watch the sun starburst through passing trees.

In New York, I walk as fast as anyone. I can’t stand tourists and the way they clog up traffic. But who am I to judge them for wanting to savor a city I love so much? I myself often get lost when I travel. Looking up at the sky, at the people and buildings around me, in awe of how new everything seems, I lose track of where I am. But I don’t mind. Even if I don’t know where I am, at least I know—for a short while at least—why I am. When I was in Spain this past summer, I wrote in a notepad that I should live as if I were always traveling— as if I were experiencing everything for the first time.

I don’t want to die. I don’t think I could ever see everything there is to see, feel everything there is to feel, not even if I had a million lifetimes to try. But I only have this one lifetime, and I have such a slow heartbeat.

I write slowly, in a state of constant revision, instead of in drafts. I write what I write because I like to write it. I am not fond of papers, or school in general— though there are few things I love more than learning. Deadlines are a huge pain in the ass.

Where is my motivation? Am I too easygoing about my career? Should I be more concerned with getting ahead, making connections, planning for the future? All I want is to live my life as it comes.

Yet, what do they say about being a writer? The routine of it. Write every day, keep a journal, record your dreams, be diligent, carve out time, any chance you get—write, write, write. But I use my chances on other things.

The director of the career development center at my university recently told me that travel is personally gratifying, but professionally useless. But that is where I write: At my multiple desks. On my multiple beds. On napkins, in cafés, on the sides of buildings, in dark rooms. In Abu Dhabi, in New York, in China. In strange countries where no one knows how to pronounce my name. I write wherever I can, in fragments of thought like tiny bodies waiting to be given life.

Ray Bradbury, in an interview with The Paris Review, said it best:

When I left the carnival that day I stood by the carousel and I watched the horses running around and around to the music of “Beautiful Ohio,” and I cried. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I knew something important had happened to me that day because of Mr. Electrico. I felt changed. He gave me importance, immortality, a mystical gift. My life was turned around completely. It makes me cold all over to think about it, but I went home and within days I started to write. I’ve never stopped.

Seventy-seven years ago, and I’ve remembered it perfectly. I went back and saw him that night. He sat in the chair with his sword, they pulled the switch, and his hair stood up. He reached out with his sword and touched everyone in the front row, boys and girls, men and women, with the electricity that sizzled from the sword. When he came to me, he touched me on the brow, and on the nose, and on the chin, and he said to me, in a whisper, “Live forever.” And I decided to.

Not long ago, driving home with my family after a trip to the Poconos for Christmas, I gazed out the window at a star-filled sky. A car from three lanes over to the right veered into ours, cutting us off, before stopping dead in the middle of the highway. Luckily, there were no cars immediately behind us, and we weren’t going too fast. My father brought us to a sudden halt just inches away from the other car’s rear bumper. I vaguely remember exclaiming in shock at the near collision.

But then—I had the urge to laugh—and I thought to myself, exhilarated: Wow. That was crazy. We could have died!

But we didn’t. And with every day that passes, I am more and more grateful to be alive—alive, and I’m going to make the most of it, to write, write, write. This day, every day, for as long as I live.

April Xiong is a film/creative writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi. She can often be seen strolling aimlessly, reading, eating more than she should, dancing bizarrely, watching films, sleeping on planes, writing surreptitiously, taking photographs, playing the piano, avoiding cheese, and performing other mundane but verisimilitudinous activities. She lives perilously far from the edge. More from this author →