A Commedia in Five Acts
ACT I: THE IDIOT
“What idiot updates a website while the world is ending?" I'm sitting at a wooden table across from brother Jo. Jo, recognizing a characteristic Chapman rant, just listens. "Of all the dumb things to do!”
We're holed up in a little coffee shop, coffee cups are drained and so am I. It's my last cold January day in Port Townsend, Washington. I'd spent two weeks living on a bike, out of a bag, bashing my brain with this question.
Weeks earlier, Günther Beyer of Opoloo had sent me an innocent looking short story asking for input. I read it quickly, loved its potential and told Günther I'd work on some feedback during my trip.
Weeks later I had nothing. Jo had been patiently waiting for me to get him a few decent bits of writing to start illustrating, but all the coffee, tea, chai-tea, chai-tea latte, yes-please-I-would-like-three-shots-in-that-dirty-chai got me nothing more than a few piss-poor paragraphs of piss-poor ideas, and a piss-poor attitude to suit. And whole lot of aromatic, organic, locally roasted, fair-trade piss.
Worse, I had threads of my life competing for attention: I wasn't in Port Townsend on vacation. I was here to find work and a home for my little family and two weeks later I had no answers for anyone.
Worse still, I had become obsessed with the aforementioned question at the expense of the others.
"I can't do it. I can't fuckin' do it."
(A different essay is required to confess the quantity and variety of "f"-words that went into the making of The Last Website.)
I closed my laptop and my piss-poor paragraphs with it. "Don't worry about trying to draw anything for this, I'll let Günther know I can't get anywhere."
I spend the rest of the morning watching the drizzle in Port Townsend Bay.
To say the least: I was pissed.
ACT II: THE SUSPENSION OF BELIEF
To be clear, I wasn't frustrated with the question: Who would update the final website amidst the collapse of humanity and life-as-we-know-it? I was frustrated I couldn't find a good enough answer.
To understand exactly what was frustrating, it helps to know a particular writing technique: The Suspension of Disbelief (originally Coleridge’s concept).
You're familiar with the feeling, if not the name. It's the moment when consuming fiction (or propaganda) that you stop questioning the plausibility of the setting or circumstances of the story and just enjoy the story. In effect your belief is suspended like a bridge between actual and imagined.
Any writer worth salt has a few techniques to help this process: world building, sub-plots, variety of characters and interactions, motivations, rich backstory, and on…
But early on I had set myself a strong constraint: The reading time of the story couldn't be longer than 10 or 15 minutes. Günther's original had power in the speed of delivery and that would get lost in a longer piece.
This meant I couldn't introduce the standard white noise that helps fill the gaps left by pure narrative. I had no leisure of dawdling in a drawing room, sipping tea and describing the intricacy of the drapes down to its dust motes; no meandering down memory lane, no stroll in slow-poke park. I had to cut to the center of the story… yet make it believable.
Every day I'd make my way to the coffee shop and attack my keyboard, every approach felt contrived or cliché.
The question became a specter of unfinished business lurking just below the surface of the dark coffee and mudpuddled bike paths of PT Washington. My mood souring; seriously, what idiot updates a website…?
I left the coffee shop a last time. The tail end of rainstorm — boarding a bus away from Port Townsend and toward the ferry to Seattle. From there it would be a quick flight back to Utah the next day.
Getting on the bus I thought I had left the question to lurk unanswered in Port Townsend.
ACT III: BUS-BUS, FERRY, BUS-BUS, VALVE, BUS and AN OLD STORY
Boarding the bus I was faced with immediate concerns: finding my way around Seattle, a place to stay, and a way to the airport early the next morning.
Turns out I had a cousin in Seattle. One I hadn't seen in around fifteen years, but we had recently reconnected with on a social network. Yes, you can stay at my place in upper Seattle.
It took the entire day on two busses + a ferry + two more buses to make it to upper Seattle with me running from one to the next. This, in addition to the walking/biking and mental/emotional drain, proved exhausting.
In the moments of rest during the rush of transportation I had much to reflect on. One layer of me was invigorated and exhausted from an amazing trip; two weeks of raw living is paradigm-shifting.
Another layer of me was homesick for my best friend and companion and our four-month old son who grew so much in those fourteen days.
Yet, another layer of me dreaded delivering unhappy news to hopeful people. I had to tell my companion I had no idea if our dreams of a simpler, healthier life in PT were possible; I had to tell Günther he'd posed a challenge beyond the storytelling abilities of The Brothers Chapman. As people that live and die by our word, this feels nothing short of failure.
All this made for a bittersweet parallax of emotions.
I meet my cousin. Odd sidenote: turns out she works at Valve. Turns out I got an impromptu tour of Valve, complete with a glimpse of Gabe's office plaque. We take a bus to her home and for the first time I hear her family's side of an old story. A story that happened around fifteen years ago.
ACT IV: SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE
3 a.m. – I'm almost asleep.
I was placed on the floor of my cousin's son's room, he has glowing toys everywhere and I am in that funky spelunky space between awake, asleep and dead.
And it happens.
I realize I'd been asking the wrong question.
It wasn't What or Who, it was Why.
Why would someone place such a high importance on updating a website in the midst of human collapse?
And I knew my answer.
Write it down.
No. No. No.
Not now dammit not now.
I just want to sleep. Need sleep.
It's now or never.
One truth I've learned in years of writing hundreds-of-thousands of words, one lesson I can share with writers: it doesn't matter when you find your answer, you write it down in that moment or risk losing it forever.
Oh, I just want to sleep goddamit.
Dots connect; my experience-addled, sleep-deprived brain draws imaginary lines connecting all the glowy things into a constellation.
Fuck. I roll over, flip open my laptop, and the story of The Last Website spills out of me in it's entirety. I can't tell you how. I don't know how. I shouldn't have been able to handle a keyboard, let alone a sequence of thought.
I can only say I was there, I was ready.
With less than a couple hours of sleep I board my plane.
And the solution? The simple, elegant solution I had been chasing through all of Port Townsend finally arriving when I had truly given up. What do I call it? What do I call her?
ACT V: EPILOGUE
Five months later
The Last Website launched a few weeks ago to much positive review. We couldn't ask for more supportive and excited fans.
The journey from my initial draft to the magical portrayal of LastWebsite.io is it's own story, filled with epic rants, bouts and bursts of inspiration between The Brothers Chapman and Opoloo. One I won't be telling here.
The bulk of writing is fundamentally unchanged from my sleepless Seattle spillage. Though it has trappings of major themes like love, life, humanism, death and meaning I wouldn't say it's a story about any of these themes. It's an exploration of why we do what we do.
The end result is a story of resolve and reflection told at a restless pace, making for a beautiful parallax.
And what about that old story of my cousin’s family?
It's a small, but significant telling of my uncle and his children being ostracized from friends and family for being open about his homosexuality. The blind embrace of dogma led to an unnecessary division of over fifteen years; my parents were paranoid. As kids, I and my siblings didn’t understand why we couldn’t go see our cousins and close friends. As for influencing in my writing, read into that what you will.
The rain in May is splashing in Port Townsend Bay. I put final lines to this essay, watching through the same coffee shop panes. Here to stay.
I’ve many new chapters beginning in life. If you’ve yet to read The Last Website, it’s worth a read, and now you know why.