Suspend Your Disbelief

Lost in the Woods: the Transformative Possibilities of Disorientation
Essays |

Lost in the Woods: the Transformative Possibilities of Disorientation

Scott Nadelson on disorientation as a craft technique in the work of writers like Jamel Brinkley, Mansoura Ez-Eldin, and Eduardo Halfon.

Turned Around, Upside Down, and Backward

When I was in graduate school in my mid-twenties, overwhelmed by the demands of classes and bewildered by teaching for the first time, I would often distract myself by getting lost in the McDonald Forest, a three-thousand acre stretch of wooded hills owned by Oregon State University. I don’t mean “getting lost” metaphorically; on these walks, I would intentionally try to lose track of where I was, taking trails without looking at any maps ahead of time, turning onto old logging roads, meandering deeper into the trees until the trunks were dense enough to block my view of the horizon.

While walking I paid little attention to where I was going or what I was passing, instead brooding over my writing and teaching, wondering if I’d ever be any good at these things I cared about so deeply. There was little danger in doing so; the woods covered a narrow ridge, and if I stuck with one direction, I knew I’d eventually come out at a road. At worst, I’d have an extra few miles to cover to get back to my car, blissfully exhausting myself so I’d have no energy left to grade composition essays in the evening.

Still, the moment of realizing that I had in fact lost my bearings, when I couldn’t tell which direction would lead me back to the parking lot, always jolted me with a charge of adrenaline. No matter that this was exactly what I’d intended; the fear was immediate and instinctive, and it emptied my head of any thoughts other than finding my way out. I could no longer worry about all the work I had to do or my ability to do it well. Instead, I focused intensely on my immediate surroundings, taking note of every tree I passed, every shrub, every fork in the worn-out gravel road. And because I was now alert, I noticed other things, too: the patterns shadows made on the ground, the sound of a woodpecker hammering an old snag, the smell of moss and sap. I’d spot exotic-looking mushrooms, a lady slipper orchid at the base of an enormous Douglas fir. I was awake, in other words, in a way I hadn’t been when I knew where I stood in the landscape, and I stayed that way until I returned to familiar ground.


A decade after those walks in the McDonald Forest, I happened upon an exhibit of artist Paul McCarthy’s work in New York’s Whitney Museum. McCarthy had been a major figure for decades, and I’d seen some of his video pieces before then, but they hadn’t made much of an impact; campy and violent, their primary effect on me was inducing queasiness and discomfort, and though I knew that was likely the intention, I wasn’t particularly drawn to see more of them. But this exhibit, titled Central Symmetrical Rotation Movement, centered around three large-scale architectural installations, a form in which I hadn’t realized McCarthy worked, and I was intrigued even before stepping out of the elevator.

This was in 2008, when the Whitney was still located in its old building on Madison and East 75th, with its stacked Brutalist squares and upside down windows. Unlike the new space downtown, which highlights the views outside its enormous windows as much as what’s in its galleries, the old museum was all about the art, offering nothing to look at other than the work inside the walls. It had an immersive quality I miss, an ability to make you lose yourself, forget the rest of your life, the moment you walk inside.

On this occasion, the immersion was instantaneous and overwhelming. The three installations were intentionally conceived to overload the senses, to make you abandon any thoughts you carried with you into the space. One piece, called Bang Bang Room, featured what looked like part of a house under construction, except that the walls of the house moved as you stood inside of it, and the doors kept opening and slamming shut on their own. In another, Mad House, a freestanding room had been placed on a mechanical axis attached to a motor that made it spin maniacally. The third installation, Spinning Room, used a rotating live-feed of viewers projected onto mirrored walls to create a space that both encloses the viewer and extends infinitely in reflection upon reflection.

The effect of all three pieces was disorientation—of a sensory kind, even more immediate than getting lost in the woods—and with it an inevitable letting go into the experience of not knowing quite where you stand. You might step away from one of the pieces and try to re-orient yourself, but until you’ve left the gallery altogether, you’re in a swirl, unable to find firm footing. I remember struggling to discover the exit, even though the room was a big square with only one way in and out.

I found the three installations mesmerizing, but I still didn’t fully grasp what McCarthy was up to until I watched one of the two early film pieces included in the exhibition. In it, McCarthy appropriates the 1965 film version of The Sound of Music, except that he runs it backwards and upside down, without any sound. Sitting in a dark theater watching the Von Trapps walk backwards over the Alps, then hanging upside down from the ceiling of the abbey’s crypt before hurrying backwards toward the soldiers pursuing them, was one of the strangest visual experiences I’ve ever had. The film I’d seen dozens of times as a child—it was one of the few things my parents would let me stay up late to watch, in part, I’m sure, so I could witness Nazis being outwitted—that had seduced me into its drama, made me believe in its characters as real people in the actual world, even when they spontaneously broke into song, suddenly looked as sophisticated as a middle-school play. Every gesture was overdone and absurd. The indoor sets looked as if they were made of foam rubber. By altering our perspective, McCarthy exposes the artifice I may have been aware of but was willing to ignore. Now artifice was all I could see. And when I watched the original version of the film with my daughter a few years later, it was no different; McCarthy’s manipulation of the musical had ripped away the lulling narrative façade, and now I was permanently awakened to what I was actually viewing. It didn’t ruin The Sound of Music for me, just made me see it more clearly, as the stagey construction it had always been.

That’s when I really began to understand: the point of McCarthy’s disorienting work is to wake us up, break us out of our numb acceptance of what we see and force us to look harder at the world around us. It isn’t disorientation on its own that matters; it’s the re-orienting with a new, heightened sense of perception that makes the work transformative.

When the Freaks Come Out

Getting purposely lost in the woods is a useful metaphor for the writing process, if perhaps a predictable one: while writing, we want to leave behind the familiar, enter the unknown, awaken ourselves to surprise. Running The Sound of Music upside down and backwards is also an apt metaphor: we upend what we know well, look at it with fresh eyes, from a new perspective, in order to understand it more complexly.

But here I’m thinking less about process than about results, about the experience we create not just for ourselves but for those who enter the forests we generate. As writers, especially writers of narrative, we often work hard to orient our readers, placing them squarely in the landscape of our stories, keeping them on a clear path, however tortuous and full of obstacles, as they move through conflict, drama, and crisis. And it’s true that our readers often need guideposts as they enter the world of a story, need to feel as if they’re on firm ground, that they’ll eventually come to a clearing and see their way back to the world they know. But on the way there, it’s good to remember that it’s okay for them to lose their bearings; in fact, those moments of disorientation, of realizing they don’t quite know where they are or how exactly they got there, are often the most intense, immersive, and revelatory. When we’re lost, our whole body responds; our pulse speeds up, our perceptions are heightened, and our minds are alert. At these moments, the story is no longer a passive experience but one in which we actively participate. We are trying to get around the trees in order to glimpse the horizon.

What I’m advocating, then—for myself as much as for anyone else—is for narrative that at times seems to spin out of the writer’s control, when the reader might ask, “Where am I?” or “What the hell is going on here?” It’s a hard thing for the writer to do—at least for this writer—and it requires a certain amount of trust, not only in one’s own ability to eventually re-orient readers after disorienting them, but trusting that readers will stick with you even if they don’t always know where they stand or what exactly is happening around them.

So let me turn to the question as a reader and start by examining one of those disorienting moments in a recent story I love, “J’ouvert, 1996,” by Jamel Brinkley, from his remarkable collection A Lucky Man. The story is narrated by Ty, a central Brooklyn boy struggling between family troubles and the pressures of adolescent desire. Ty’s father, a charming but problematic model of masculinity, is incarcerated for drug possession. His disabled brother Omari wears a rubber bird mask all day and talks to an imaginary friend named Angela. His mother and her new boyfriend, Mike, want the kids out of the apartment so they can be alone together. All Ty wants, meanwhile, is to get a real barber haircut. It’s West Indian Day, and this is the first time he’ll be allowed to go to the parade without his mother; he hopes to look his best to impress other kids, to be more like his father, to begin to cross the threshold away from boyhood. But his mother says they don’t have the money for a haircut, gives him a terrible one herself, and sends him and his brother off to roam the streets for the day.

The rest of the story is Ty’s journey away from the familiar into the unknown and dangerous territory of burgeoning manhood. At a nearby park, he encounters a classmate, Trip, who makes fun of his haircut, harasses his brother, taunts him about his father’s incarceration, and tells him that the West Indian Day Parade is just bullshit for kids, but that J’ouvert, the all-night Caribbean Carnival celebration is “where all the shit happens … when the freaks come out.” Ty has heard of J’ouvert and suspects that his father used to attend but doesn’t know for sure. Rather than invite him, however, Trip only steals his hat and leaves the hair that shames him exposed. Ty finds some comfort with a group of men playing chess in the park, trading banter and a bottle in a paper bag, a substitute for the community he hoped to find at the barbershop. They pass him the bottle and give him a replacement hat, and after he’s drunk he leads Omari on an adventure into parts of Brooklyn where they’ve never been before, until they come to Grand Army Plaza and the start of J’ouvert.

Until now, Brinkley has been careful to orient us at every step. Even when Ty is drunk, we maintain a clear view of where he and Omari are and what’s taking place around them. Only when he tells Omari where they are going and describes J’ouvert to him—his imagined version of it—does the solidity of Brinkley’s world begin to melt. Ty details:

a fantastical version of the West Indian Day Parade, with floats that moved like clouds down the street, and music that caused you to dance as soon as you heard it. I said that there was food everywhere, any food you could think of, and that there were people like him, bird-people who had feathers and could fly. The feeling of being there, I said, was the best in the world. Someone would always look out for you and take care of you and let you know you could do anything.

In this first unfettering from the known, we get a glimpse of what Ty hopes to find in it, what he really needs—not the independence of manhood, but what is missing from his childhood, a sense that he and Omari are being looked after, taken care of, given a chance to be who they want to be. But when he finds himself in the actual event, among the “crowd spilling from the steps of the Central Library,” he quickly finds that his vision is far off. Almost immediately, what he experiences instead of the blissful feeling he described to Omari is sensory overload and confusion:

Then came the sound of a horn, several horns. On the street, raised pitchforks prodded and tickled the air. A cluster of people wielded them, yelling joyfully. They were blue—blue people.

At this point, Ty still knows where he is: “ambling down Flatbush Avenue.” He tells us, “we walked on the outside edge of the street alongside Prospect Park.” But soon enough, he is lost in the forest of J’ouvert, a forest of chaotic sound and color:

They proceeded in a kind of squat dancing, a slow gallop, a low roving strut matched to their risen rhythms of steel drums and cowbells and the flourishes of horns. Groups rolled and surged within the mass, people wearing T-shirts in the same bright color, or gyrating women in mere strips of cloth, or men with bells around their waists and rhinestones patterned on their slacks, faces raised, questioning and answering in song.

What distinguishes this passage is the heightened, almost hallucinatory, attention to detail. Because Ty is now lost and doesn’t know what markers are most important for him to find his way, he pays attention to everything. And we, too, are wide awake now, keeping tabs on the increasing strangeness of our surroundings. Because nothing is familiar, every sight and sound and smell gains significance. But rather than speed up and quickly move us through our disorientation, Brinkley slows down, makes us feel Ty’s confusion:

The circle broke for a shirtless muscular man pulling a chain with a second man on all fours at the end of it. They looked like twins, but the man on the ground had painted his face to look like a hound. He went right up to the big-bellied woman and put his nose in her crotch. She turned around and bent over and he stuck his hound’s nose up there, too.

And though we know we are still in Brooklyn, surrounded by people celebrating their heritage, through Ty’s eyes we enter into a ceremony that’s erotic, occult, otherworldly:

More figures with pitchforks, devils oiled slickly black, rushed at us and began to fling paint or grease or powder or dye … they whipped us blue and white and orange and black, and as breathing felt like drowning in color, they seemed to be saying, There are no observers here.

Ty soon takes this instruction to heart, getting so caught up in the revelry that he loses control of his own body; he’s bumped along with the crowd, gets knocked down and picked back up, until he finally gives in to it all, gives up trying to figure out where he is and what’s going on:

I laughed and danced under the sky’s slowly paling light, squatting and rubbing and strutting past the impressive eyes of watching policemen … I didn’t care that my haircut was bad, or that my feet hurt and thighs burned and empty stomach growled.

Here, when fully immersed in the disorientation and unfamiliarity of J’ouvert, he finally lets go of all his surface-level concerns.

Only then does he realize that in the confusion, he has lost sight of what he should be paying attention to: his brother. He hears Omari’s shouts and catches sight of his mask and struggles through the crowd, fighting against the confusion of bodies, “the hysterical eyes and cackling mouths.” As he does so, the ecstatic, animalistic, otherworldly appearance of the revelers becomes human again, as does his understanding of them: “They were enjoying themselves. They didn’t mean to be scaring him but they were.”

In this moment, he spots Omari again, chasing after him where he’s fled from the crowd, and soon enough he’s back on familiar ground, over a fence and into Prospect Park. As he re-orients himself, Ty sees things with further fresh eyes; in this case, his memory of his father, coming home the night after J’ouvert, smelling of sweat, but not covered in paint—meaning, he realizes, that the man hadn’t been at J’ouvert at all, but most likely with another woman. His father, he comes to understand, has been the cause of his family’s dissolution rather than a victim of it.

It is only by possessing this new, clear vision—which he could have found only by getting lost and re-discovering his way—that Ty is able to focus on the most important thing in his life. He finds his brother in the park, dancing with the imaginary Angela. He lets go of his own desire to be seen and taken care of and recognizes his brother’s more pressing need. He watches Omari laughing “without making a sound, still spinning, arms out, hands folded as though grasping onto something,” and waits “to see if she would let him go.” Once again on solid footing, Ty returns to the world he knows with a new understanding of the role he should play in his brother’s life. We, too, return, awakened perhaps to our own responsibilities, and the ways in which we have abdicated them in favor of selfish desires.

The Man in the Black Coat

Other stories take disorientation to greater extremes, getting us lost for longer and more deeply. And even if we don’t necessarily want to take it so far in our own work, I think it’s worth examining what techniques they use to do so—not only heightened attention to sensory detail, which Brinkley employs to such powerful effect, but also syntax, structure, and point of view.

In her surreal story “Gothic Night” (which can be found in The Uncanny Reader, edited by Marjorie Sandor), the Egyptian writer Mansoura Ez-Eldin uses perspective and narrative distance to disorient us, and in this case she does so in order to blur the lines between the teller of a tale and its audience. She begins with a declarative statement about a male character: “His departure came without explanation.” In the second sentence, we hear this character’s voice: “His destination was remote, he said, uttering a series of ominous sounds.” And only in the second half of the sentence do we learn that he is speaking to a first-person narrator who interprets these ominous sounds as “the name of a city I had never heard of before.” Soon the narrator begins receiving letters about this city, which might lead us to expect a classic frame tale, in which our first-person narrator tells us the story of the “he” telling her a story about his adventures in this unknown city.

And to some extent, we do get such a story within a story, though the source of the tale about the city becomes increasingly complicated. As soon as the narrator’s friend leaves, even before she acknowledges receiving a letter, she begins to imagine the place for herself:

In an instant I could see the city he set out for, with its ashen streets. There are no colours save for the grey that cloaks much of the place, alongside surreptitious strokes of black and white. Throngs of people walk slowly in the faded streets, wearing grim expressions and staring at a still point ahead. A leaden silence bears down on everything.

Part of what disorients us here is the tense shift from past to present. Immediately after imagining the city, the narrator inhabits it, in real time. She’s there in its streets and watching its citizens, as if walking beside her friend. In the next paragraph, however, she pulls one step back: “I, outside the scene, peer at him worriedly.” Where is she exactly? Her imagination brings her to the city but keeps her an observer. She watches her friend in this unfamiliar landscape, unable to interact with him, but she also seems to know more about it than he does, “sensing the arrival of a giant with a black coat, sullen face, and heavy footsteps.” She becomes a kind of omniscient narrator here, aware of events before her characters, but soon enough the distance again collapses, and she becomes a participant, experiencing what those in the city experience, knowing what they know:

I feel the earth shake under the footfalls of the man in the black coat. I know he appears on the streets from time to time, stepping powerfully with the aid of his ebony cane. His sightless eyes shift over the faces ahead, until they fall on one that will restore his vision. He points his finger at the face, and its owner vanishes from existence.

For the rest of the story, Ez-Eldin keeps us off-balance by modulating the narrative distance. At times, the narrator describes her friend’s impersonal letters; at times, she’s in the city, running from the giant; and elsewhere she even inhabits the giant’s point of view, imagining how he lost his sight and how he searches for a way to restore it, experiencing his despondency when his efforts fail.

How much of her understanding comes from her friend’s letters and how much from her imagination she never makes entirely clear, but after a time, she tells us, “the city with its Gothic soul takes root in my mind.” And when she recounts dreaming about the  gargoyles on the buildings’ façade, she describes how “the giant moves in my mind, his expression transformed once again from sullenness to seduction, as though inviting me to follow him.” Eventually, she begins writing letters of her own, about a city perched “on the precipice that sweeps down from the mountains to the raging sea.” At first she sends them in response to her friend’s letters, but when it becomes clear he hasn’t read them, she simply allows them to accumulate, continuing to write, describing the process as she does so:

ignoring my aching fingers and the pain in my hunched back, blurring the lines between my city and his, between the Gothic architecture with its squares and screaming faces and the perilous precipice with its houses resisting eternal freefall; between his giant with the black coat and blind eyes and the people I see when I open my window, walking cautiously up and down.

By the story’s end, the two letter writers have merged completely; the narrator’s handwriting has become identical to the friend’s, and when she emerges from her house, she comes out into the gray city described in the letters. And then she hears, “loud in my ears, the thud of heavy footsteps.” In the story’s last line, she wonders if those footsteps that cause people to run in all directions are actually coming from her.

All of this disorientation around speaker and perspective makes us pay close attention to where we are getting our information from, how the story is being filtered for us, and finally, which has the most power to sway us in a narrative: the observations of a first-hand witness or the imagination of a compassionate listener who can imagine herself in the shoes of a destroyer and understand his actions. Ez-Eldin leaves us to fight our way through that thicket of questions, not allowing us to take any single perspective for granted.

Invisible Circus, Invisible History

There’s one other type of narrative disorientation I’d like to examine here, which arises out of the connotations of the word itself. The verb “to orient” comes from the Latin word for “rise,” which for the Romans also became associated with “sunrise.” To orient oneself is to position oneself in the landscape according to where the sun rises. Along the way, of course, the word also came to mean those places beyond the sunrise, the lands that lie to the east, and to the people who live there; it became a line between an “us” and a “them” based on geography and culture, with implied hierarchies and prejudices.

So another way for us to think of disorientation is as a blurring of this imaginary line that separates one group of people from another, an erasure of cultural dominance or perceptions of superiority. This, I’d argue, is what the best of Paul Bowles’s fiction attempts, when his arrogant Westerners—European and American artists and linguists and journalists—come to Morocco looking for adventure among what they perceive as the uncivilized and primitive natives only to find themselves submerged in a rich and disorienting and sometimes horrifically violent culture that has survived centuries of colonization and undermines all attempts to suppress it. His characters lose themselves in unfamiliar surroundings, and even when terrifying things happen to them—more than one of his characters gets kidnapped and tortured—they choose to stay immersed in their new realities rather than return to their previous ways of viewing themselves and others.

But while Bowles’ vision does challenge the colonial world view, it is still a product of it and exoticizes Moroccan culture through an American expatriate’s eyes. A more complex version of cultural disorientation appears in the work of the Guatemalan writer Eduardo Halfon, whose novels follow a Guatemalan writer named Eduardo Halfon through a series of journeys and encounters that explore and complicate his sense of identity. Halfon has been compared to both the German writer W.G. Sebald and the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, which in itself suggests the melding of different cultural sensibilities: born and raised in Guatemala City, Halfon is the grandson of Lebanese and Polish Jews, one of whom was an Auschwitz survivor; he spent a portion of his adolescence in Florida and has recently lived in Nebraska; he is a Central American who often travels to Europe but also to indigenous villages where his students live; he has been shaped by the oppressive politics of two continents.

What makes Halfon’s work so fascinating, aside from its disarmingly casual and mesmerizing prose, is how it confuses the lines between cultural identities, subverts assumptions about what kinds of landscapes are easy to navigate and which difficult (i.e., “first-world” vs. “third-world” countries) and sets the costs of historical horrors (Nazi concentration camps and Guatemalan death squads) side by side so that we consider them in parallel. In the three of his nine books translated into English so far, the fictional Halfon often finds himself disoriented, in Central American villages, in European cities, at Israeli weddings, and even at a Mark Twain conference in Durham, North Carolina, where, he writes:

like some Gulliver, like Alice in an exotic wonderland, or even better, like Snow White in the cottage of the Seven Dwarfs—that’s how I felt. Everything was lower down than usual. The bed, the desk, the TV, the nightstand, even the peephole you looked through to see who was at the door was at waist level. There were rails everywhere and a ramp in the shower. I’m in an invisible circus, I thought.

Everywhere Halfon goes, he’s in an invisible circus or a funhouse, where nothing quite makes sense, but where every detail is also connected, a piece of a mosaic the whole of which he can never see. In his novel The Polish Boxer, he travels to Belgrade to search for a friend, a talented Roma musician who has disappeared, and even before he arrives he feels as if he “was floating in a dream dreamed by someone else who was surprised to see me but also found it pitiable and let me just carry on floating.” Every encounter he has makes him recall another; he cannot separate what he sees in front of him from what he has seen elsewhere. Here in Belgrade, he notes, “the inside of the police station was dirty and crumbling. It stank. Just like a Latin American police station.” While dealing with the Serbian bureaucracy, he feels as if he’s in a Tarkovsky or a Fellini film. “Not the Fellini of tangos and flaming tridents,” he clarifies, “but the Fellini of every man for himself, gentlemen, galloping off on a sea horse.”

In Halfon’s work, disorientation arises above all out of the convergence of past and present, or rather, the ever-presence of past horrors. There are ghosts of history everywhere as he walks through Belgrade, along with their echoes: “bombed out buildings,” “a row of dead animals hung from a clothesline,” a “truck groaning … like someone in pain, like someone being tortured.” He doesn’t find his friend, but he does come upon a Roma community, drawn by their music. During the encounter, he feels as if he is seeing things in “a faded dream or in a faded dream sequence from an old film.” Elsewhere he feels “hypnotized. Comatose, even.” And as a teenage girl dances to him, then on him, reaching into his pockets for his money, he feels “dizzy, feverish,” and thinks that “sometimes what reigns is confusion, and sometimes confusion holds the reigns.” He hears a voice that might be calling him “in Romany or maybe in Hebrew” and then believes he hears “far off, as though subliminally, as though tangled up, as though it came from inside me, as though threaded through the rest of that music and all the music of the universe, one of the syncopated melodies” of Thelonious Monk, whom he and his friend had discussed years ago in Guatemala City.

For Halfon, confusion reigns, because his heritage is confusion, because our history is confusion. All our words and all our music are tangled together, a cacophony, though if you close your eyes and listen carefully enough, you can hear strains of beauty playing through it.

Postscript for an Upside Down Present

As I imagine they have been for most people reading this, the last six months have been some of the most disorienting of my life. From day to day I swing from shock to outrage to terror, with surprising moments of hope and inspiration. I read case numbers and death rates, watch the astounding stupidity and cynicism coming from those meant to keep us safe, write long emails to university administrators about the folly of their fall re-opening plans, march with courageous young people demanding racial justice while my mask fogs up my glasses so I can hardly see two steps in front of me. I find myself frequently asking no one in particular, “What the hell is going on?”

And yet, as excruciating as these times have been, all the confusion and anxiety they generate have also put me on high alert. I’m paying close attention to everything, and I take less for granted. And, of course, I’m not the only one. People around the country have awakened, or re-awakened to realities we might otherwise prefer to ignore: the vulnerability of the human body; the fragility of our institutions in the face of incompetence and malice; the deep-seated and systemic racism that perpetuates inequities and injustice. Millions of us are saying, “What the hell is going on?” and then, seeing clearly, determine to do what we can to transform our communities small and large.

A few months before starting this essay—which I’d been thinking about for a long time, without knowing how to begin—back in the naïve days before experiencing how a tiny, invisible organism could bring life to such a dizzying halt, I revisited the McDonald Forest for the first time in more than twenty years. Some things hadn’t changed at all. There were trees I recognized, huge ones so old that twenty years’ growth didn’t make much noticeable difference in their girth; stands of hemlock and ponderosa pine with signs noting that they’d been planted by research students in the 1980s; a clear-cut that hadn’t recovered, still looking like a blight in the otherwise magical landscape.

But one thing was very different. At the trailhead was a detailed map, and at every intersection along the way were signs pointing out various options to get you where you wanted to go. The place had clearly come up in twenty years, as had Oregon State and Corvallis more generally—downtown were wine bars and sushi restaurants where before there had only been a pair of taverns, one for bikers, one for hippies—and the forest now clearly got heavy use. Where I once wandered alone for hours, I now passed dozens of other hikers and mountain bikers, and no matter which way I turned, I always knew where I was. I spent a pleasant afternoon wandering among the trees, experiencing some nostalgia, but never quite losing myself in memory or in the landscape. I didn’t love the woods any less than before, but I came out of them the same person I was going in. Perfectly fine for a hike, which doesn’t always need to be a transformative experience.

But it made me think: if someone were to wander through a story I’d written in this way, always on track, enjoying the walk and then strolling out untouched and unchanged, would I be satisfied? Would I believe it had accomplished anything?


Scott Nadelson

Scott Nadelson is the author of a novel, a memoir, and five story collections, most recently The Fourth Corner of the World, which was named a Jewish Fiction Prize Honor Book by the Association of Jewish Libraries, and One of Us, winner of the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize in Short Fiction. He teaches at Willamette University and in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.

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