Untold Stories

Words by Jonas McDonell
Illustration by Martine Strøm

In the movie Adventureland (2009) directed by Greg Mottola, the character Joel asks the main character James Brennan, ‘What’s the point of being a writer or an artist anyway?’ He keeps on elaborating about Herman Melville’s miserable destiny as he died so poor and forgotten that they mistakenly wrote Henry Melville, in his obituary. So, what’s the point? 

Herman Melville shares his destiny with a number of artists far beyond the reach ofmy knowledge, though I know Vincent Van Gogh only sold one picture during his lifetime and A Confederacy of Dunces earned John Kennedy Toole a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction twelve years after his suicide. I’m perfectly aware of the fact that I’m painting a pitch-black picture of the mysterious fate of highly appreciated artists, but we’ve all been mesmerized by the success stories we’ve been fed since the rise of our consciousness, and we’re fully conscious of the notion that fame during our lifespans is a possibility, though we know the odds are most likely against us. 

It’s six years ago that I started writing a novel. I got the idea back in college, when I was in my early twenties, reading Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye; I had hardly touched a book before that. But after I flipped the last page, this strange feeling embraced me, a sense of an untold story that only I could tell. Six years and five drafts later, a hundred-thousand words are gathering dust, reminding me of a rollercoaster ride filled with blindfolded euphoria and voyages through dystopia. The thought of quitting has taunted me so many times that I’ve grown accustomed to the constant reminder of my previous rejections, but I’m still writing. I’ve actually just finished the first draft of a new novel, six months after I dedicatedweeks to pondering about giving it all up. 

Seeking inspiration and motivation, I often lead my focus towards the greats, and to be honest, I don’t have a clue what Vincent van Gogh was thinking. He must have been a mad genius lacking any social contract known to man, which is probably why his efforts led him to those unattainable heights. But John Kennedy Toole was a soul I grimly likened myself to during those two weeks of pondering, although I hate to admit that. Not that I thought I had a fraction of his immense talent, but because I felt misunderstood, while vaguely sensingnihilism taking its toll on me. Looking back, it just feels ridiculous. The people that rejected me might have been wrong and they might’ve been right. And if they were right andmy works were mediocre at best; well, which artist’s ambition is to make art that is doomed to attract dust? I’m only thirty-one, and Charles Bukowski was forty-nine when he got his major breakthrough. And let’s face it, self-pity is a bitch you don’t want to fool around with. 

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At the same time, it’s weird seeing most of my friends having a steady income, seemingly breezing through life, while I haven’t earned a single dollar the last year. And it’s funny, because how many times haven’t I been handed the unavoidable question by sceptics; why don’t you get a real job? Success always determines your right of passage in some eyes, which is fair to be honest. You can’t expect the holders of safety and comfort to understand the uncertain path of an artist, I can’t completely comprehend it myself, though it reminds me of a story about the Norwegian singer/songwriter John Olav Nilsen, who was confronted by his anxious mother before his success. She couldn’t understand why he wanted to become a musician, he who had so much talent. After all, he could become a taxi driver if he wanted. 

This brings to mind the deception that life has a recipe. According to my beliefs, we’re not chained to a certain destiny, but tied up to the actions we lead by our free will and the uncontrollable coincidences that crash into us. 

So to be frank, I may never make it, like millions of people have failed before me. But is fame my drive? It may be the ultimate culmination I dream about when I walk around town, soaring through my ego and playfully imagining myself staring back at the world from the limelight. But it all started out with the belief of an untold story, and no matter how hard I try to shake it off, that story in the company of several untold stories keeps grinding the back of my mind. 

But please, do not mistakenly think that I’m comparing myself to Vincent Van Gogh, John Kennedy Toole or Herman Melville, but let’s go back to where it all started. What’s the point? In the scene of Adventureland were Joel tells of Herman Melville’s misfortune, James Brennan replies that Joel’s story is bullshit, before he explains that Herman Melville wrote a seven-hundred-page allegorical novel about the whaling industry, concluding that he was a pretty passionate guy and that he hopes they call him Henry too when he dies. I may not even be that lucky, but if that is to be the case, then they can call me Henry too. 

First published in Volume Eleven