About Christopher J Wesley

How Imagination Saved My Life

 The imaginative skills I once used as an abused child to cope are now the skills I use to create the immersive Storyworld for The Wilderness Saga.

My first true creative expression happened in the ninth grade and got me suspended from school for three days.

At home, I was made to feel like my mother missed an opportunity by not aborting me, but I figured at the time that if I was able to prove I had some value to my parents, maybe I could turn things around. During the summer after eight grade I discovered on accident that I had some talent as an illustrator so my ability to draw became a focus for me to show that I was good at something and then in time, maybe show I was good for something.

To get better at being an artist, I took an entry-level art class in the ninth grade.

What I received in that class however, was a string of low grades on projects that seemed only to reiterate that no adult found anything I did of value no matter how hard I tried.

Feeling helpless over the situation, I put my frustrations into a poem about the teacher and spent the entire day refining it line by line. By the time I showed up for my 6th period art class, I had a version I was happy with and scrawled the entire poem on my desk.

While I meant for the poem to be hurtful, I didn’t actually think he would ever read it, but he did. The desk was promptly locked in a room as evidence while I was summoned to the principal’s office.

Before calling for me, the principal had checked on my school history and took note that this was the first time I had been in this kind of trouble. Because of this, he listened to my grievances and allowed me to air them with my art teacher right there in the room. The suspension was mandatory because of the language I used, but even with that, the principal complimented my spelling and grammar while my teacher sat there mute.

My art teacher didn’t take the meeting with the principal well and continued to grade me poorly upon my return to class. On the surface, we were civil to each other, but a layer of mutual hatred boiled just beneath the surface of all our exchanges. Given the hostile home life I had already lived in my entire childhood, I merely went on about my business as usual continuing to get lower grades than I felt I deserved until…

…three-quarters of the way through the school year when I created my second piece of expressive art.

This time I was the subject of the art project rather than my teacher.

In it, I summed up how I saw my situation–I illustrated my first name and put the top of it in flames being palmed by a skeletal hand with a laughing Death’s head just to the right of it all to represent how I was already in the clutches of Death.

In the dark background, lightning was splitting the sky to represent that I even though I saw my situation, I wasn’t accepting it.

I was putting up a fight!

I told no one what the project meant to me and I didn’t care what grade I received. What I created was an important reminder for me, not my teacher.

There was supposed to be a final stage to the project, but we had to show the teacher what we had created before getting permission to begin that final step. When the teacher looked at my work, he wouldn’t let me take the last step. He said it was perfect as it was and along with one other student’s project, held up both our work for the entire class to see along with an explanation why he felt our projects didn’t require that last step.

There was a lesson there. But I didn’t learn it yet. I still had growing to do.

Over that next summer, I decided that music was my calling. That all the degradation I faced as a visual artist wouldn’t repeat itself if I were a music artist.

I was wrong.

I didn’t know that yet, so I spent three months harassing my mother to buy me a guitar, then for the next year, took music lessons and practiced roughly five hours a day every day after school and seven to ten hours a day on weekends and holidays. In that time, I not only studied the guitar itself, but lyric and songwriting as well. I kept my grades up between a ‘C’ and ‘B’ average as a defense against having the guitar taken away as a punishment. I wasn’t kidding about thinking this was my ticket out of the life I was living.

Then, when I thought that I had something to contribute to a musical group, none of the musicians in my orbit would so much as allow me to audition for them. After months of bewilderment, a friend finally told me that no one wanted to hear a Black person play Heavy Metal music, no matter how good they were.

Attempts to measure up and prove something to those around me continued for years and regardless of the muse I chose, I found some overwhelming obstacle standing in my way. The thing was, no matter how bad a beating I took, I felt compelled to keep going.

In that time, I acted on stage and in front of a camera, I was a poet, a music producer, mix and sound engineer and continued songwriting. All were pursuits that spoke to me in some way and over time, I discovered that I didn’t want to give any of them up.

Then, while writing a poem that didn’t seem to want to end, I realized I had the beginnings of a short story which became my award winning book Regret in Triptych. Midway through this process, I realized that the story fit into the Storyworld I had spent years carefully crafting and The Wilderness Saga began. The spirit of The Wilderness Saga concept was best captured by the Alan Alda quote:

You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself.

I had spent most of my writing career focused on how we connect with ourselves and each other and with the expansive Storyworld I created, I would be able to show characters that would evolve and have layers to them.

Using the various mediums of art that I loved, I would also be able to look at the characters and their world through a variety of lenses.

It took two years to find a tone I liked to begin the series proper with my novel The Gospel of Wolves, Episode One, and introduce the four main characters and the lives they were trying to contend with, but I finally found it and used a combination of my fine art and music to provide new insights for me to layer the story with.

Most telling about the book though, was that the tone of many parts of that book directly reflected the moments of despair, hope, love and disappointment I was living through while writing the book. The realization Andros comes into in his final chapter was exactly what I was feeling when I was writing that part of the book.

I don’t want to spoil that revelation, but let’s just say that it’s not just a story, it’s a kind of time capsule capturing the flux of my own emotional state as I wrote the book.

In their own way, each of the four main characters is a literary self-portrait of a time in my life, but each brings their own distinct voice and vibe to The Wilderness Saga revealing not just how we connect with each other, but how we first must connect with ourselves.

While researching book two, I created multiple fine art exhibitions taking a visual look into The Wilderness Saga world including The Pilgrimage Vignettes which deep dove into the head and heart of the character Andros Koresh and the exhibitions Silent Light and Surfacing which were both curated through the eyes of the character Lindsey Falco.

Christopher J Wesley at Alkebulan Cultural Center right after the setup of the “Surfacing” exhibition. (Photo by Reia Owens)
Chris Wesley at Alkebulan Cultural Center right after the setup of the “Surfacing” exhibition. (Photo by Reia Owens)

Like with The Gospel of Wolves, Episode One, each of the exhibitions were emotional responses to what was happening in my life.

I’m currently working on The Wilderness Saga Extended Storyworld online experience that will allow readers to dive even further into the world with exclusive flash fictions, poetry and fine art; stream and download the music from The Wilderness Saga, learn more about my processes for creation through podcasts and videos, and discover new characters that will play roles in the lives of the four main characters, Andros, Lindsey, Lucien and Aristotle in the novels to come.

It was going through this long and involved process where I finally learned what I hadn’t figured out back in high-school…

…No matter how ugly the seed, if you bury it in art, you have the opportunity to bring something beautiful into bloom. You just have to choose to do so.