“Seven Tips to Enjoy Your Time in the Unreal Forest” is my most autobiographical story so far. Like my character Jordan Hudson, I grew up on Mercer Island, Washington, I went to North Mercer Junior High, and I waited for the school bus at a little clearing surrounded by a dense curtain of fog. My memories of that time and place inspired this tale, but just to be clear, all the characters in the story are made up. I never had a brother; my father is not the rat-bastard depicted here (sorry, Dad!); and if you happen to know a gorgeous woman named Traci who went to North Mercer in the late 70s, I never made out with her, much as I would have liked to.
Oddly enough, the key to getting this story to come together was the title. I outlined the whole piece and started writing, even though I feared the story was too episodic and missing something at the end to give the reader a sense of resolution. Also, I didn’t have a title.
Looking for something to seize on for a title, I researched fog and stumbled across this passage from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which I had read years ago and long since forgotten:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
I proceeded to rip off T.S. Eliot shamelessly. The opening line of my story is paraphrased from this passage, there are several other allusions to “The Waste Land,” and most importantly, Eliot gave me the idea that the unreal forest was a place the dead might reappear. I added that near the end, hoping it would create the feeling of resolution the story had been lacking.
Continuing to lean on Eliot, I made my working title “The Unreal Forest.” But somehow I wasn’t satisfied with that. I started thinking about how to embellish it, and hit upon the idea of adding to the title the concept of “tips,” pointers that the narrator is giving to someone else who encounters a similar “unreal” location. I liked the title better with that addition, and it prompted me to divide the story into seven specific tips, hopefully turning the episodic nature of the narrative into a strength. I’d love to hear what people think!
--Van Aaron Hughes