By Sasha Wolff
Taped above my desk is a treasure chest.
It’s nothing special. Just a silly, colorful, little hand-painted cartoon I tore out of a book I own on pirates. What I like about this treasure chest is its ridiculousness: strands of glittering necklaces thin as spaghetti, fat golden coins, a pile of shimmering, weighty goods, gems and diamonds, a crown, and other pretty sparkling things, all of it delicious as dinner…
Next to the treasure chest, I have a quote. This quote is not mine. It is someone else’s words, put there to help me not despair about my own words: “Whatever you think of just write it down. Any old nonsense—GREAT. Just write it anyway!!!”
I bring these two things up, treasure chest and writer’s block quote, because lately I have begun to wonder if I will ever find my treasure.
As a writer.
As a New Yorker.
As a lass in the 21st century.
As if I am searching for the “X” on some old, yellowed map I’m not sure exists anymore. As if here I am, ages after everyone else, a 32-year-old still scraping at the sand with her childhood shovel, scratching at the stars with her homemade net, just another semi-sad, modern-day fool digging her hands around in some musty old cave, rumor has it, twinkled once…
I am a treasure seeker, you see.
Which is to say, I am a Writer. In other words: a Failer.
How often do I fail? 1–2 hours a day (on a good day).
At the university library, solemn old white men hold court in their high, stately frames, figures of scholarly majesty, as if awaiting an answer: “Child, what do you offer us within these walls?”
“Sorry, not a real student…” I want to tell the all-mighty portrait men. Just another smelly Alum with no life and great library privileges. I walk quickly past. For how can I look these wise, grandfatherly founders in the eye, when my jeans are dirty, my hair is a grease-nest, and I owe you kind, bespectacled library folks oh-so-many books?
At my corner bodega, Mostafa, a 22-year-old, hoodied, sleepy-eyed Egyptian with quiet dreams curled into his long eyelashes says to me, “Hey, how’s it going? How is school?” I’ve told him I’m no longer a student several times but he forgets, and who can blame him when I look younger than he does? “It’s good,” I lie, smiling.
Nope, not a student, I think. Just that weird liminal ghost of a human…a Writer. Just a Student of Treasure.
Back home, I reach for my copy of Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It’s green and old and smells dusty, just the way I like it. On the cover are red printed parrots. Like the book itself, the cover is a lush green-red; dreamy-haunting. Romantic yet cool. I reread the scene at the very end when Jim Hawkins is counting the treasure and moving it into “bread-bags.”1 Why bread-bags? I love it.
What makes this treasure work? I think. Then it hits. “Nearly every variety of money in the world…”2 It’s the globe in your pocket. Treasure as World Validation.
I lie in bed, letting the rainy, blue-green evening wash over me. I am having trouble getting up, you see. This might be because my bed is half bed, half jungle. Biographies on Stevenson and crumpled papers litter the land. And of course, my funny bible, this strange dark book about a young boy sailing the seas with a ship of adult enemies. A Boy in a World of Men.
Before Treasure Island, Stevenson had twelve failed novel attempts. There were “Rathilet,” “The Baneful Potato,” and the melodrama, “Deacon Brodie.” There were “Pentland Rising,” “The King’s Pardon,” and “Edward Darren.” There was “A Country Dance.” There was “A Vendetta in the West,” which was to be a cowboy tale (yee-haw!).3
Of the 393 items catalogued from notebooks (novels, short stories, travelogues, essays, etc.), Stevenson only completed 27 works.4 Treasure Island was the first novel he successfully finished.5
After he finished his travelogue, The Amateur Emigrant, Louis’ father Thomas Stevenson insisted it be withdrawn from publication and told him, “I think it not only the worst thing you have done, but altogether unworthy of you.”6 When it came to Treasure Island, his son’s next work, Thomas was thoroughly delighted. He felt “it was his kind of picturesque.”7Can you believe it? Throw in an old English inn, dangerous pirates, and a watery map, and Thomas was giddy as a schoolboy. In fact, he came up with the apple-barrel incident, as well as a detailed list of the contents of Billy Bones’ sea-chest.8 What a giddy head-trip, I think: to have one’s father go from No. 1 Critic to No. 1 Collaborator.
Treasure is guarded by a skull. A skeleton points the way. It is also led to by a map. This map is ancient as sin, but quite user-friendly. Nothing as delicious and universal as that big fat “X.”
Treasure is following your star. Whether you are the three wise men trekking across a sea of desert to a tiny cradle, or a peg-legged Sea Cook with a bright green parrot squawking, “Pieces of eight!”
Treasure is feeling treasured.
Like perhaps quite a few 19th-century dads, Stevenson’s father once considered getting a portrait of his son painted. Thomas had seen one at the Royal Scottish Academy of a boy with a microscope, called “Portrait of Jamie,” that he liked. Thomas wrote the artist, inquiring if a similar painting could be made of his son. The artist replied, saying he’d take a look at his son. The artist was probably surprised when Thomas wrote back. After taking another look at “Portrait of Jamie,” Thomas had changed his mind. He felt that his son was “too stupid looking” to be painted.9
I wonder if Thomas Stevenson ever regretted not getting that portrait done.
His “stupid” son, as it turns out, would go on to write some serious bestsellers. He would change his name from Lewis to Louis. He would transform from a doubtful boy in a family of engineers into a self-declared slinger of ink,10 delighting, defying, writing as play,11 questing after “a thousand coloured pictures to the eye,”12 resisting 19th-century realism, deepening the adventure book in one inky swoop, sizzling up the old canon with three-named power: Robert Louis Stevenson.
I am sitting on a green vintage couch in a cozy Italian cafe on Amsterdam Avenue, nibbling on a fancy croissant and reading a book I wish I had written, when a song comes on and I freeze and I’m suddenly blinking like a broken fax machine to stop myself from crying.
The Goo Goo Dolls. “And I don’t want to the world to see me / ’Cause I don’t think that they’d understand / When everything’s made to be broken / I just want you to know who I am…” John Rzeznik sings with a sad strength I almost can’t handle. Breathe in, breathe out. I’m fine, I think. It’s just a dumb song. I turn the page. I try to numb out the strange pain.
One of Robert Louis Stevenson’s short stories, “The Story of a Lie,” is thought be semi-autobiographical in its father-son treatment. In the story, Dick, who is explaining his father to his beloved, Esther, says, “My father is the best man I know in all this world; he is worth a hundred of me, only he doesn’t understand me…”13
It isn’t until I’m back at my apartment that it hits me why the Goo Goo Dolls song hurts. I just want you to know who I am…Dad. Fatherly Validation. Wow, I think. How boringly cliché. But I want it, all right. The Approval. The Collaborator Dad. I want the best man in my world to tell me I’m doing okay. I want to know if I’m ever the treasure.
At my cousin’s wedding, I wear a blue dress that shows off my arms. It’s a casual wedding, and I get a lot of compliments. My dad, however, is not pleased with the colorful display of body art. He tells me it is too bad my tattoo is not “subtle.” He is right; it is not. It is a half-sleeve: aquatic-themed, purple-blue-green, with a merboy, and, you guessed it, a treasure chest. Inside: books.
Lewis Stevenson was pretty good at inky drawings. One smudgy work he labeled, “A steamer bound for Londonderry.” Then, below, in his father’s handwriting: “This steamer may be bound for Londonderry but I fear she will never reach it.”14
To that, I add: Have faith, little Lewis.
I am probably a weirdo. I am often an idiot. I am definitely not in the same galaxy as “subtle.” All the same, I trust in words—these words—right here, right now. I have to keep typing. I’ve got a treasure chest and a writing quote taped over my desk like a hope sandwich and the warm feeling that failure is the first step into Art; that if I keep putting words together, my dad and the world—that is to say, I—will glimpse the treasure inside me. Or whatever it is that shimmers.
1 Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (New York: Penguin, 1999), 186.
2 Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (New York: Penguin, 1999), 186.
3 Robert Louis Stevenson, “Appendix A: My First Book” in Treasure Island (New York: Penguin, 1999), 191.
4 Annette R. Federico, Thus I Lived with Words: Robert Louis Stevenson and the Writer’s Craft (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press 2017), 10.
5 Robert Louis Stevenson, “Appendix A: My First Book” in Treasure Island (New York: Penguin, 1999), 192.
6 Frank McLynn, Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1993), 196-197.
7 Robert Louis Stevenson, “Appendix A: My First Book” in Treasure Island (New York: Penguin, 1999), 195.
8 Claire Harman, Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006), 225.
9 Claire Harman, Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006), 35.
10 Annette R. Federico, Thus I Lived with Words: Robert Louis Stevenson and the Writer’s Craft (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press 2017), 5.
11 Robert Louis Stevenson, “Letter to a Young Gentleman Who Proposes to Embrace the Career of Art” in The Lantern-Bearers and Other Essays (Lanham: Cooper Square Press), 472.
12 Robert Louis Stevenson, “A Gossip on Romance” in Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson (Charleston: BiblioBazaar), 82.
13 Claire Harman, Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006), 174.
14 Claire Harman, Myself and the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006), 26.
Sasha Wolff is a speculative and non-fiction writer currently based in New York City. She received her MFA in Fiction from Columbia University, where she was nominated for the Henfield Prize. When she’s not scribbling away on bits of paper or getting lost in the park with her pup, she can be found on 42nd Street, seating folks in the enchanted city of Agrabah. “Treasure Girl” is an excerpt from a non-fiction book she is currently working on titled, “Sailing with Stevenson,” about rediscovering “adventure” in the modern day world. This is Sasha’s first publication in a literary journal.