Man Out of the Woods

By Josh Tise

Justin Timberlake has returned from his hero’s journey and come back as a “Man of the Woods” – or so his latest album would have us believe. It is a storied process meant to incite some creative stroke of genius: the artist isolates themselves in the woods, and something or someone (maybe a friendly forest sprite) grants them breathtaking inspiration. Whitman, Auden, and Thoreau were sure of the method’s success. But while there’s no doubt that it has produced some fantastic work, it’s also produced some clunkers (sorry, Justin). I say, the isolated artist misses the many varied stories found in the hustle and bustle of humanity when they decide to take a one-person journey into solipsistic solitude. The most interesting writer is the writer who is interested in the world. Their task is to translate and interpret that world, with empathy, to the reader.

We live in the age of the internet, so it’s easy to access a myriad of raw human data. A short exercise of the finger muscles away, float countless examples of fascinating humanity, without leaving your chair. Of all the interesting stories and characters to be found in comment chains, news stories, and social media feeds, I think the coolest corner of the Internet may just be Craigslist. An updated version of newspaper wanted or personal ads, it is impossible not to find something unique each time you visit a Craigslist “missed connections” page. To prove it, I’ve included some particularly intriguing ad excerpts, featuring some seriously compelling (and fantastically real) features of literary craft.

Take this gem:

About me: when I was 13- I lived on a dive boat in the Caribbean learning to scuba dive. At 14 I studied Chinese in Shanghai and traveled around S.E. Asia by myself. In my 20s I went to Bosnia during the war to volunteer as medic in Mostar and Sarajevo. I’ve traveled and lived or worked in 48 countries, delivered babies, saved a few lives, lost others, learned to speak several languages, fly airplanes, do blacksmithing, and just finished a History/Philosophy degree. In my spare time, I’m translating the 17th century diary of a Russian ambassador to the Qing emprise, [and] write articles on law…

There’s enough content here to create a series of thrillers to put Dan Brown to shame. I would read a book about the person. In fact, I would read several. This is the sort of character that can’t be made up – and that’s exactly the sort of inspiration and excitement that Craigslist personal ads can provide. There’s something moving about opening a link and finding oneself face-to-face with a linguist-medic-pilot-scholar-blacksmith. And character isn’t the only literary element that these Craigslist ads can provide inspiration for.

Read this one:

Waffle House at 2am is awesome. Weird, very sketchy, but really an awesome place to have a coffee and shoot the bull/philosophize/play cards. I’m pretty good at least two of those things, btw.

Here’s a scene lifted straight out of a “Best American Short Stories”– only this time, it’s real. It’s local, specific, and already sketches out both the conflict and the reward the scene can offer. I want to read this in long-form, preferably sitting in a booth at Waffle House at 2 AM, with someone who is “good at least two of those things, btw.”

The old adage “truth is stranger than fiction” proves itself to be true. The truth is more empathetic too. For me, the point of combing through Craigslist personal ads is not to laugh at or mock them, but to wonder about the humans behind them. It is also to begin to care about someone I’ve never met, and find myself in situations I may never have experienced.

As a reader, I’m looking to be communicated with. More than that, I’m excited by things that are unknown and surprising. I don’t know how well self-imposed isolation achieves either of those things. Rather than retreat to the woods, writers should be rushing into the thicket of humanity. The world is too interesting, and empathy too important, for me to be in awe of the “Men of the Woods” anymore. If they fall in the forest, no one is around to hear them.


Josh Tise is a staff reader for Blue Mesa Review