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  • Alyssa Wees

When I think about the fact that the universe—not the world, the universe—will end, eventually, inevitably, I don’t feel much of anything beyond a nodding solemnity. Yes, yes, of course. That sounds exactly right. I suppose this is in part because it doesn’t matter for me personally. Whether the whole of the universe ends by a Big Crunch, a Big Rip, or vacuum decay, by all calculations it will happen so far in the future that the earth will already have been consumed by an exploded supernova sun. Humanity will already be gone (unless, of course, we find a way off this planet, a way to thrive somewhere far away from here when the sun dies). But the end of the universe will likely not affect me or you or even our grandchildren's grandchildren's grandchildren. In fact, humans are much more likely as a species to make the earth inhabitable long before the sun will, so even the sun exploding is not at all a concern compared to climate change.

Still. In the face of total and certain annihilation, it's tempting to ask whether this has all been for nothing. This being our blip-like lives on a little planet that will someday be consumed by our own sun, which will in turn be consumed by whatever doom is prescribed by some law of science that has been theorized but that we haven’t fully worked out yet (ie, Big Crunch, Big Rip, vacuum decay). So, what is our impact on the universe? As a civilization and as individuals? Does any of this matter if it’s not going to last? As long as the universe stays put, conceivably someone somewhere in billions of years could still be reading something that I wrote (or looking at a painting you painted, or listening to a song you sung. Or, simply, our descendants will still be alive and thriving). But if the universe collapses, if all trace of us vanishes—except maybe our scattered atoms—does anything we do matter in the very, very end?

I have to say yes. Yes, emphatically, because we are more than a purpose to be served. We are here to experience and to learn, to simply be, so if we’ve done that, then it doesn’t matter if the universe ends because we’ll already have done what we came to do. The idea of the end could easily fill us with dread, but is there possibly a strange sort of comfort to be found in the idea that nothing at all is permanent? This too shall pass, and it’s extremely possible that the universe is cyclical, so even the end will pass and the universe will begin again. I don't know—maybe there is some comfort in that.

But what I find sad, the thing that really scrapes close to the bone, is the possibility of the Heat Death of the universe. This is the most likely end-of-everything scenario, and it follows the Second Law of Thermodynamics, meaning it has to do with entropy, or decay (not, as the name kind of makes it sound, that the universe will end in a fiery explosion of heat , but that there will be a complete lack of heat, the universe eventually reaching the temperature of absolute zero). The universe is expanding, and someday the space between all objects with mass will be so large that there can be no interaction between them. No gas to fuel new stars; no dead stellar remnants to grow black holes. The skies will go dark, and every galaxy will die isolated and alone. The universe reaches maximum entropy, with absolutely no available energy to exchange, and…that’s it. It’s done. Nothing new can form.

Just the thought makes me feel cold and panicky. No new stars, no new planets, no new life. It will all just stall, game over forever. That's why, when I mourn for the universe, it is not because it must end. It is because there will someday be so much space between everything that nothing anymore can be reached.

But remember—that's a long way off. In the meantime, let's make art. Let's not drift apart.

 

We always talk about the beginning of the universe—the Big Bang—but what about the end of it? Recently I read the End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) by Katie Mack, a nonfiction book written by an astrophysicist about all the possible ways the universe could end. It’s full of humor and unabashed nerdy exuberance about science, and though some of it was a bit hard to follow (in general, outer space stuff is just hard to wrap the mind around sometimes), it was overall very accessible and a short, well-written read. I highly recommend this for anyone interested in the cosmos, and especially in the study of the end of everything.


  • Alyssa Wees

I was four years old when I decided I wanted to be a ballerina. My mom signed me up for lessons at a local studio, and I started in the fall of that year. Since I was so young when I began, I can’t say now exactly what about it seized me so thoroughly, though I’m almost certain it had to do with tutus. I desperately wanted to wear a tutu, the kind with crystals on the bodice and stiff tulle that sticks straight out from the hips (what's known as a pancake tutu, which is just about the cutest name for it). I wanted to move and to sparkle. I wanted to wear pointe shoes; to float and to spin on the tips of my toes as if I weighed less than a cloud, less than the wind. It was the closest, I believed (and still do), that anyone could ever come to flying.

Well, I’m very happy to report that I had the opportunity to wear many, many tutus—and tiaras! I love a good tiara—over the years, both pancake and Romantic, which is the kind with the long, full skirt. Many children take dance lessons at an early age, and I’d guess that most of them eventually stop and move on to other sports, other art forms. I, too, tried other things, like a disastrous summer of softball, a stint in baton twirling, and tennis. But through it all I never stopped dancing, never took a break. I kept going. And going. And going. I danced consistently, strenuously, to the exclusion of all other activities, from the age of four until I was twenty-two, including a four-week summer intensive with the American Ballet Theatre in Austin, Texas, when I was seventeen—a wonderful, if intense, experience. And it was not only ballet—I trained in character (folk dance), jazz, modern, and tap. I think I always knew I would never be a professional; I wasn’t quite at that level, and even if I were, the life of a professional ballerina is often a rough, uneven, and underpaid one. Still, ballet beat within me like a second heart; it taught me discipline, endurance, and how to express myself without words. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I had not danced ballet. And I certainly wouldn’t be the writer I am either.

For me, ballet and writing will always be intertwined. Sometimes in a literal way, as with my forthcoming adult fantasy debut Little Bird, a story about a young woman in Depression Era Chicago whose promotion to prima ballerina puts her on a much more magical—and sinister—path than she ever imagined. Not all my novels are—or will be—about ballet, but even when they aren’t, my connection to ballet still informs so much about my writing. My sense of rhythm and movement is tied to voice and tone; my musicality also lends itself to word choice and sentence structure. The grandiosity and heightened drama of ballet seeps into my imagery. And, of course, the magic and romance inherent in ballet inspire the stories themselves, my characters’ sensibilities, and, especially, their capacity for wonder.

And so, that’s why one of my favorite pieces of writing advice is not actually about writing—it’s about dance. It comes from the book Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham by Agnes de Mille. Both women, Martha Graham and Agnes de Mille, were dancers and choreographers born around the turn of the 19th century, pioneers of modern dance and musical theater, respectively. I have to confess, I haven’t read the book in full, though it’s on my ever-expanding to-read list. I stumbled across this passage on the internet a few years ago, and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since. It goes like this, as Agnes recounts a conversation she once had with Martha:


I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be. Martha said to me, very quietly: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have so far used about one-third of your talent.” “But,” I said, “when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.” “No artist is pleased.” “But then there is no satisfaction?” “No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

Wow. There is so much here. So much to chew on. From the simple phrase keep the channel open, to Martha’s insistence that there is no satisfaction whatever at any time. The assertion that you are the only one who can create what you create the way that you create it, to the idea that producing art is a blessed unrest, that makes us more alive than the others. Art is the universe expressing itself through the artist; each artist is a piece of the universe, made flesh. Made to sing, and to paint, and to dance, and to write. There can be no true satisfaction because to be satisfied is to be done, and the work of the artist is never done. The work of the artist is to build on what has come before, to bring the picture of the universe into sharper focus, to ask questions, to keep searching. And that work cannot be done if we cut ourselves off from it, if we give into despair.

I have plenty of bad writing days; there are days that looking at what I’ve written makes me feel actually ill. Not good enough, says the mean little whisper in the back of my brain, echoing through my body and shivering through my bones. It’s not good enough and it will never be good enough. Garbage, garbage, garbage. Sometimes, when that happens, I just need to step away. Breaks are necessary. But other times, I open my favorite notebook, to where I’ve written this passage in bright pink ink, and I stand up, throwing my shoulders back. I read this passage aloud, more than once, slowly and in as firm a voice as I can. Keep the channel open! I always yell that part. KEEP THE CHANNEL OPEN! Don’t cut yourself off from the universe—from yourself. There is no satisfaction to be found here, but that is not why we write (or sing, or paint, or dance). We write because it keeps our feet marching, our hearts beating, our lungs breathing. We write because we must.

The universe will not have it any other way.

  • Alyssa Wees


When I was in grad school several years ago, everyone in my Fiction Writing program was required to take a class on creative nonfiction, which basically boils down to writing about your own life. My professor was named Doug (we called all of our professors by their first name, because it was not like a regular school, it was a cool school), and the class began at 8am. Or maybe 8:30, I can’t remember. What I do remember is this: I absolutely hated it.

Generally I’ve always been a good student, quiet and punctual, turning in all my work on time and getting good grades. In fifth grade I was given an award for being a teacher’s pet, and in middle school I was student of the month. All through high school I was in National Honor Society, and I was also that quiet girl who literally never talks and who for some reason people were compelled to ask constantly, “Why don’t you talk?” I did fine in college, and in grad school I excelled—until I got to creative nonfiction. It wasn’t that I didn’t get a good grade (I think I ended up getting an A, or an A-), but I was a bit of an antagonist. Or, if that word is too strong a word to describe me, I was at least very difficult. I didn’t want to be there, and I made my displeasure known.

I guess you should know that I am not in any way a morning person. The only thing I like to do in the morning is sleep. I don’t drink coffee, because I just don’t like it, and I’m always tired before 10am no matter how early I went to bed or how well I slept. Some people, like my husband, rise with the sun as if attached to it by a string, but I’m more of a bask in the sun, powered by the moon kind of person. I’m okay with this. But our society was structured to favor morning people, and I’ll never not be bitter about it. Anyway, I could plausibly argue that it was merely the early hour of the class that instigated my ire, but that would be a lie. It certainly contributed to it, but that was not the reason. The reason was that I simply hate writing about myself and always have.

Doug tried, he really did. (If you’re reading this, Doug, I apologize for being difficult. It wasn’t you; it was the nature of the class itself.) He was very complimentary of my work, and I remember that in our one-on-one meeting the teachers were required to have with students at least once a semester, he told me that he read a portion of my assignment aloud to another teacher because he enjoyed it so much. My response to this was literally, “Hmph.” He would call on me in class (we didn’t raise our hands in grad school, we just started talking if we felt like it, which is my personal nightmare scenario, so unless I was called on I didn't talk much anyway, in any class), and ask if I’d like to read aloud from my work or do something that we called recall (basically sharing something from a piece read aloud by someone else, a line or an image, that we found particularly evocative). More than once, when he called on me, I crossed my arms over my chest and said, “No, thank you.”

No, thank you! You must understand, I hate confrontation, I am a rule-follower to a fault, I am a shy, good student, and this was totally unlike me. But I loathed this class and I wanted to do as little work as possible. The first time I refused, I believe Doug was amused. The next few times, I’m certain he was annoyed. I probably would have been too, in his shoes. This simply was not done. We were all expected to participate and contribute (we sat in a circle with no desks and no computers, it was all about participation and contribution, in every single class), and I can recall no one but me ever saying No, thank you when called upon. I did not want to share anything that I wrote; I did not want to write or talk about myself. And to an extent, I still don’t.

It’s not that I feel I don’t have anything meaningful to say, or nothing in my life worth sharing. My reluctance stems almost entirely from frustration. Frustration over that inevitable, unbridgeable gap between my description of a real person or event, and what the person or event was actually like. Consistently in that class I felt that I couldn’t quite capture the realness of whatever I was writing about. It always felt a little bit fake, a little bit off. I suppose that’s where the creative part comes in—creative nonfiction is not meant to be a truly accurate account, but a way of enhancing and tweaking so that it reads like fiction, while still remaining largely true. I get that, but I also can’t accept it. That sliver of unreality was like a splinter in my skin, digging deeper and bothering me to distraction. In the course of that class, I never found a way to write about my life in a way that satisfied me. It satisfied others, including Doug, ostensibly (I got an A, remember?), but I was frustrated from day one and it never got better. Maybe it was my own fault, though. I was getting in my own way.

At any rate, this is why I prefer fiction, and probably always will. There is no gap between what is real and what isn’t. (Operating here on the idea that real and realistic are two different things.) There are, of course, shades (huge shades) of myself and people I know in my fiction, and real places and events and pieces of dialogue. But when it comes right down to it, my fiction is one hundred percent make-believe. I am comfortable with make-believe. I thrive on make-believe. I would crawl into my imagination and live there forever if I could. In writing fiction, I am free. I can expand beyond the bounds of myself, beyond the rational, beyond the present. Maybe, in a way, creative nonfiction feels claustrophobic. It feels limiting. But I also acknowledge the benefits (processing your thoughts and feelings, connecting through shared experiences, making sense of trauma and joy and anger, etc.), and I enjoy reading creative nonfiction from other writers. I can’t say that I’ll never write creative nonfiction, because who knows, but this blog is a possible step in that direction. I’m hoping to write about writing, and books, and I guess a little bit about myself, because I can’t separate myself from my writing, or from the books I love.

So, again, I’m sorry, Doug—I know I’m a few years late, but I’m finally ready to say yes. Yes, I would like to share. Thank you.

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