A few years ago I took a creative writing course through UCLA Extension that stretched my writing muscles more than most things I’ve done in life. My teacher was a quirky poet who supplemented her course with fantastic works by writers like Chuck Pahlaniuk and Aimee Bender, and she gave us wonderfully intriguing assignments.
I can’t remember the specifics of this assignment below, but I remember we were each given a famous person to write about (living or dead, randomly selected from a pile of names that the entire class contributed) and I believe we were supposed to be traveling with this person. I’m sure there was more to it, and I could be totally wrong about the second part but it fits with my piece so I’m stickin’ to it.
Why am I posting a years-old writing assignment? Because I like it, and I want to prove to myself that I was good before and I can be good again. And I think this is the direction I want to go with my writing, toward the creative.
“I lived a good life!” I screamed. “I mean, I swore like crazy, but I worked hard to take care of my family, I donated to charity, I ate my vegetables…I just don’t understand!”
“When you think about it, really, who do you think actually makes it to heaven? The only people in that place are God and Richard Simmons, and can you really say that living an eternity with Richard Simmons won’t be just as terrible as going to Hell? It’d probably be much, much worse. Seriously. Don’t beat yourself up like this.”
“I can if I want to. How can you be so matter of fact about all this anyway!? We’re DEAD and we’re on our way to Hades. We don’t even know what this Hell place is about; all we know is that we’re supposed to be scared of it. SO, BE SCARED, DAMNIT!”
Cameron Crowe, world-renowned journalist, playwright, and movie director, stared at me from across our half-assed, rickety raft, his oar stopped mid-stroke. I started to writhe inwardly in discomfort after his staring passed the 30-second mark. Oops? Did I say something wrong?
This trip down the Styx was really eating at my little dead soul and I just wanted someone to commiserate with me. Was that such a bad thing?
“What good would it do for me to be scared? Hell, you know, is what it is. I don’t really have the choice to be anywhere else right now so I’m just gonna roll with this if you don’t mind, enjoy the scenery a bit. If I were you, Teresa, I wouldn’t dwell on how I ended up here but on the fact that my life on Earth has come to an end and I’ve just been tossed into a totally new adventure. I know it’s a little too ‘sunshine and puppies’ish for you, but just try it out. Oooo, look, a Hell serpent.”
Maybe Mr. Crowe was right. Maybe I just needed to mull over my future instead of dwelling on the past. Okay, fine.
“What do you think Hell will be like?” I asked over the muffled sloshing noises of our steady paddling.
“I mean, by all accounts, it should be really, really hot and really, really horrible, right? But I’m not sure I believe that’ll be the case,” Mr. Crowe replied.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because Hell was contrived. Everything written, everything spoken, all the things we ever learned about Hell were completely contrived. Like the Bible. Like my movies. And how could it not be? No one ever had solid proof of anything pertaining to the varying ideas of ‘the Afterlife’. All they could ever do was speculate.”
“Because we had finite life spans, it was so important for us to create these definite boundaries for our post-death experiences. Those boundaries were so clearly defined that I think most people have a hard time seeing the Afterlife differently, even if they don’t believe in it. If someone told you that Santa Claus was actually a Bengal tiger that wore a fedora, smoked Cuban cigars, and could talk, would you believe it? Would you be able to wrap your mind around that?” he said. “I have to admit, a big part of what’s left of me is awfully curious about our destination, specifically because it was always an unknown. Hell could be so many things that are so far beyond our realm of comprehension. It’s sort of exciting when you think about it.”
I contemplated this idea for quite a while, staring off into the depths of the Styx, letting my paddle drag through the water.
Mr. Crowe was on to something. It was apparent even in this river we were floating on. The water wasn’t ‘water’ as we’d known it during our lives on earth. It was the purest form of water I’d ever seen. If I were a baby and, like all babies, had no clear idea of anything in life I would’ve known instinctively that this substance was water. I would’ve known the word before I could speak. If I were born in the Afterlife, I would’ve had a full lexicon before my mouth could ever form even the most meaningless of sounds—that’s how pure and correct everything was here.
“There’s a distinct possibility that Hell could be the definition of love and beauty,” Mr. Crowe said into the mist. “Look around you. You were just gazing at the river like you’d never seen water before. How wonderful and foreign was that feeling, to be practically re-discovering everything all over again? It’s like we’re toddlers. It’s like our slate has been wiped clean.”
“I was just thinking that,” I mumbled. “I think Hell will be everything we’ve never known. I can’t even explain it.”
“I don’t think you’re supposed to be able to,” Mr. Crowe said.
Maybe this death thing wasn’t going to be so bad after all. We continued our paddling, so in synch as if we were a single being floating along on this unadulterated, absolute, perfect river.