? SLAB | Sound & Literary Art Book

Issue 7

Creative Nonfiction

Scott Russell Morris

Of Complicated Themes

An Essay Eluding Notion I've Had, The Ideas of Others, and Interesting Facts About Squirrels

I dislike the request “Tell me a story.” Almost every girl I’ve dated has asked me this. I don’t know if this is indicative of all relationships, if it is just something people like asking the writ­ers in their life, or if I’ve just dated girls who like a good story, but I do not like the request. When they ask me for the story I freeze up, go blank; things get awkward quickly. I am not a storyteller. 
Art is not a patent office; it is a conversation. 
When tree squirrels are being pursued by predators, they will zigzag back and forth in an attempt to confuse the predator. If they are in a tree they will circle around the tree, changing directions several times, always on the opposite side of the trunk from the animal perusing them. These evasive maneu­vers work well with cats and better with dogs.

Stability isn’t always much to be desired. 
We live surrounded by ideas and objects infinitely more an­cient than we imagine; and yet at the same time everything is in motion. 
Consider the circumvolutions of the human mind, where no short or direct route exists. 
The more you look at anything, the more tangled it becomes. We explore in order to bind. 
At a lecture I attended, Brian Doyle looked me in the eyes, put his hand on my shoulder, and in his nasally voice said, “What­ever you’re sure of, don’t be.” 
The simplest answer is usually the correct one. 
Squirrels will sample every tree in their range. While it would make sense that they would just stick to the tree with the best or most abundant nuts, squirrels are not content to merely stick with one tasting. They will roam throughout their territory, trying every tree, eating more if they like what they find, but then they will move on again, never certain that they have the best. They return to each tree eventually, but throughout the season, as the nuts develop and change, so that each sam­pling brings a new taste and a new judgment. 
Please forgive me if I take an indirect route to answers, or perhaps, to more questions. 
We should make some concessions to the simple authority of the common laws of Nature but not allow ourselves to be swept tyrannously away by her: Reason alone must govern our inclinations. 
Opposition is true friendship. 
When the conversation is lively enough, I can talk endlessly, spouting story after story. If you tell a story about your dog, I will tell you how I once trained a dog to army crawl, or how my parents’ dog loves to chase Frank, the squirrel that lives near my grandparents’ cabin in the Uinta mountains, or maybe I’ll shift to cats and talk about how one of my cats will play fetch like a dog. If you get me going, there isn’t a story I can’t one-up. 
In stories, you tell what you know. In essays, you explore what you want to know. 
When I was young, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not. Now that I am getting older, I can only remember the latter.

Research shows that a squirrel’s selection of food is neither simple nor random. Every squirrel has many options of what to eat: acorns, pine cones, walnuts, mushrooms, etc. Each food gives a certain amount of energy, some more than oth­ers. Besides giving energy, each food also requires a certain amount of energy to find, open, and consume. A squirrel will find the food that provides the most energy for the least amount of energy spent, all while calculating the likely pres­ence of predators. A squirrel’s life can thus be summed up in an algorithm with innumerable variables. I’d starve too if I had to do all that math before every meal. 
A bad essay tells stories about people instead of elucidating the matter at hand. 
A girl in high school told me that she (and the rest of our friends, too, she assured me) hated talking with me because every time anyone said anything I would contradict them. She went so far as to give proof: “All of your sentences start with ‘Actually . . . ’ or ‘Yes, but . . .’ ” 
My object was to learn, not to preach. 
Montaigne is quoted to say “I do not understand. I pause. I examine.” The first part of his statement is not a complaint, or even a condition, but a declaration.

When a squirrel has found food, she examines it carefully. First, she examines the smell, making sure that the nut is still good, that the food hasn’t rotted. Then, she carefully scrapes her teeth over every crevice of the nut’s shell. If the nut is cracked, the squirrel will eat it. If the shell is still whole, the squirrel will bury it for later use. 
When all has been said, you never talk about yourself without loss: condemn yourself and you are always believed: praise yourself and you never are. 
We are nothing if we don’t have stories. 
We are double within ourselves. We do not believe what we believe. We are capable of being in uncertainties without reaching after fact and reason. 
An essay is always about something else. 
Recently, while telling a girlfriend how uncomfortable on-the-spot storytelling made me, I stumbled upon what to call my conversation style. “I don’t tell stories,” I said, “I complicate themes.” I’ve embraced a rambling style; I’ve learned to coun­ter even my own points, look at one issue from one point, then a different one, then undercut that all with something else entirely.

Contradictory judgments neither offend me nor irritate me: they merely wake me up and provide me with exercise. We avoid being corrected: we out to come forward and accept it, especially when it comes from conversation not a lecture. 
Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler. 
Essays are for me; stories are for others. 
I once saw a YouTube video of a squirrel navigating a Rube Goldberg machine. It was an intricately involved obstacle course—a tightrope section, several long jumps to other-wise-inaccessible platforms, a slide, a windmill, and narrow tubes—at the end of which were a couple of peanuts. 
Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object. Do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity. 
Yes, but, I just like looking at things from different point of view. I don’t believe my contradictions. 
I recently posted on Facebook how much I hated it when girl­friends asked me to tell them a story. One ex responded by telling me a story about the squirrel she chased in the metro, and how it ran back and forth through the station. Another ex responded by posting on her blog about how much she enjoyed reading stories and not having to hear anything about essays or squirrels now that she was single, and another re­sponded by asking me to tell her a story. So I told her: 
This one time I was driving, and a squirrel zig-zagged under my car. I wanted to swerve, but that would have meant death to the car, so instead I hit the squirrel. The surprising part was that I felt no guilt. 
There is nothing in life so simple that a human mind can’t make it more complex. 
When a squirrel buries nuts, she does so with a knowing dis­trust. She will bury a nut, then another, then return to the first to make sure that it is still there, but, having doubted the safe­ty of the hiding spot, she will rebury her treasure somewhere else. The squirrel will bury each nut three or four times before she is content. And even then, once the hoard is cached away, the squirrel rechecks each nut, repositioning as needed. 
The essay functions the way a metaphor functions, by nego­tiating the space between two items. 
Honesty is often artless. Lying is the highest form of art. 
Actually, all art is quite useless.

It seemed to me that the greatest favor I could do for my mind was to leave it in total idleness, caring for itself, concerned only with itself, calmly thinking of itself. But I find that on the contrary it bolted off like a runaway horse, taking far more trouble over itself than it ever did anyone else; it gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monstrosities, one after the other, without order or fitness, that, so as to contemplate at ease their oddness and their strangeness, I begin to make a record of them, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself. 
You cannot reason with an unreasonable being. 
The only art is the one that questions itself. 
The surprising number of car accidents resulting is squirrel fatalities is simply explained: the crisscrossing does nothing to dissuade a car. 
My current girlfriend saw the Facebook post about hating sto­rytelling just before our first date, and she has never asked me to tell her a story. Instead, she asks, “Will you read me an essay?” We are getting along just fine.