A man in dun winter camouflage coveralls and a bright orange baseball cap is waving a big American flag over the interstate as if he is trying to land a plane, the silk trailing over him in pretty waves of red and white like he is defending this gateway to the Rocky Mountains. As I watch, he looks up at the flag as he swings it enthusiastically back and forth, back and forth, on his long wooden pole, as if he expects something spectacular to happen.
My first thought, upon seeing him unfurl the flag, is that he is going to jump, because that is the only thing I can imagine a person doing from an overpass on a gray day just weeks from a Trump inauguration. It is only as we pass under him that I understand what he is doing; and that becomes a bigger puzzle for me to unpack as I continue to watch him through the rearview mirror, following him until the turn of the road devours the overpass, then the flag, and finally the man, the pine expanse of Mount Sniktau finally ensuring that we will never know one another.
I drive for the next two hours and cannot shake the image of this man, alone, lonesome maybe, isolated surely, futilely waving a flag at perplexed motorists; some heartened by his sacrifice in the cold, some embittered, some confused, some unmoved, some perhaps waving their own little multi-colored flag in response. And it occurs to me that writing is like this—one man standing alone, desperate enough to brave the weather in order to be heard. Sure, we all know that writing can be isolating, and we know it is lonely, and we know that it can even be unfulfilling at times, or even as wrong-headed as a man freezing his nuts off with a flag at the end of a December cold wave.
But it is also wonderfully selfish.
The man with the flag needed to go out there, to communicate something he felt was important, maybe even accept the criticism that would come even as he secretly hoped a Channel 9 news crew would drive by and recognize his special brand of narcissism and insanity for a couple of short moments. It comes from a selfishness borne of belief, and I can support it even if I don’t understand the message. Writers are like that, and we all have similar goals when we sit down to write anything, even a little blog post like this. This need to be recognized and heeded. This selfish courage; we put something out there that will more than likely piss some people off, maybe alienate us from family and friends, maybe even make us infamous in some awful newfound way. And maybe some of us are lucky enough to even get a book deal or a spot on NPR. We all want the latter, but are willing to stake our claim in this little world just to take the chance that someone will read what we have written, perhaps even reach out the window with a flag of their own in response.
Even this metaphor is arrogant; my constant search for figurative representations of worlds and ideas is the deepest part of my identity as a writer, and is perhaps the thing that only just separates me from the man on the bridge—his world is literal enough for him to need to exercise his will on it. On the other hand, my world is less physical, less sure; filled with my need to constantly measure and compare in figurative expression, my experiences converted into metaphor, little questions of ethical syllogisms formed into tight little balls of words, nearly every moment of every day obsessed with the next sentence, or with the sentence just formed.
So I write about what I have witnessed. Some writers driving under the overpass might think the flag is the poem. Some might think the flag waving is the complication of the backstory for this person that will drive the narrative. For me, the man is the poem. The man is the complication that will make the momentum of the story flow back over itself in a satisfactory way, I hope. In the end, the writer who crafts it best will be proven correct. I believe that—the best writing in the best form will always win out—and that is when the arrogant selfishness becomes a devoted service, this labor of love we all ascribe to when we begin to revise. The work and the craft will always be the thing that saves us. But that man—he will haunt a writer. Like a wondrous gift of jewelry that one can never imagine wearing.
Lighthouse instructor Seth Brady Tucker is a poet and fiction writer. His work has appeared in Pleiades, Shenandoah, Verse Daily, Iowa Review, Southern Humanities Review, Indiana Review, and Poetry Northwest, among many others. His fiction workshop, Poetic Foundations for Vibrant Prose, starts January 9.