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Writing from the Inside: My Parallel Storytelling Journey with Bo Burnham

The Branches display by T. C. Anderson

By T. C. Anderson

When I began developing my work The Forest as an art installation a few months prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, its culmination as a poetry collection was a distant idea, its methods of construction a mere exercise in writing to incite the inspirational juices and fumble my way into something akin to poetic verse. Then the door closed, suddenly time was a commodity, and past wishes for myself and my future made themselves known again. So, I pulled the tempting threads to see how it all unraveled.

Fast forward to the summer of 2021. One public art exhibit and one published book under my belt and the familiarity of an open world slowly returning again, I happened upon Bo Burnham’s Inside after a social media chain reaction (hearing “All Eyes on Me” on TikTok led to Spotify, then Netflix). As I watched his meta piece of comedic social commentary, I felt the memories and emotions of a life behind walls returning. I felt like I was there with him, amid the chaos of every tool that could tell a story, trying to find some sense in the nonsense.

You say the whole world’s ending, honey, it already did
You’re not gonna slow it, Heaven knows you tried
Got it? Good, now get inside

from “All Eyes on Me” in Inside by Bo Burnham

No one saw this coming.

Bo was likely planning to resurface in front of an audience awaiting his return to the stage in early 2020. I was working day to day as I normally do, counting down the days until a restful spring break of no work and no obligations.

The week before spring break, my boss saw the headline before I did: “First case of COVID-19 reported in Houston.” He told me and my colleagues to hit the stores, stock up on necessities, and fill up on gas—this was going to be a bumpy ride for a few weeks. My high-functioning anxiety ringing like Pavlov’s bell, I took his word to heart and worked with my husband in getting our usual load of caffeine and pallets of water bottles, which we commonly did anyway as preemptive preparation for any hurricanes that decided to peek their little heads up in the Gulf of Mexico.

Bo didn’t see this coming either. His first song of Inside, “Content,” even says it:

If you had told me a year ago
That I’d be locked inside of my home
I would have told you, a year ago,
“Interesting, now leave me alone.”

from “Content” in Inside by Bo Burnham

A spring break on edge, refreshing news feeds and watching the numbers go up, turned into an “extended” spring break, then, well . . . we didn’t go back.

“Getting up, sitting down, going back to work / Might not help, but still, it couldn’t hurt” sums up the confusion that encompassed the following weeks. Most places hadn’t or couldn’t adapt to working remotely—my workplace had already refined it through no motivation of our own because we had faced the watery wrath of Hurricane Harvey three years prior. With everything I needed on a hard drive and a computer at home that could take pretty much anything I threw at it, I was clocking in hours from my home office, making content, staying on call, being there when I was needed. I was living some people’s dream work scenario.

And waiting. To hear anything, see anything, feel anything less than​​ . . . scared. Scared of this boogeyman lurking outside, hidden in the fresh air, the wind in the trees, on every surface, in every person. Unsure of everything, knowing nothing.

So, I stayed inside. I had time to think, something I hadn’t done for myself in a while. High-functioning anxiety can run on cycles of work, work, work so you don’t have to confront what you’re really feeling. You swarm your mind with tasks and to-dos to avoid the ultimate task you desperately need to cross off your list: think, feel, and understand.

I was fortunate enough to have my husband with me from the get-go, the one person who has helped me dissect my emotional state by playing devil’s advocate, forcing me to question myself in times of distress. Clarity has always been on the other side of his gauntlet, and it was no different this time around, even though we were both in the same boat of knowing nothing and questioning everything. The clarity was what I needed.

I had time. I had goals I had put aside for years—decades, even—in favor of career, marriage, and the mountain climb of figuring my life out. So, I decided: for however long this upending of the world would last (and by that point, it looked like it was going to be a while), I was going to prioritize myself. One life to live, right? So, I lived it. I went back to school online to get my bachelor’s degree (which I finished at the end of August) and started writing my first poetry collection.

Don’t overthink this, look in my eye
Don’t be scared, don’t be shy
Come on in, the water’s fine

from “All Eyes on Me” in Inside by Bo Burnham

By this point, The Forest had already manifested in the form of art. In fact, one part of the installation, The Branches—a collaborative work with artist Mari Omori comprised of a long swath of stained netting with cardstock paper slips bearing my written poetic verses secured to the netting with pins—was exhibiting at a local college when the pandemic hit. But the idea of The Forest as a poetry collection—some fate-driven proof-of-concept narrative piece that gave readers and viewers a dual visual and narrative experience that they could take home with them, find meaning in, and imprint their experiences on—was just that: an idea. It was something I might have time for if summer was slow and being enrolled as a full-time online student allowed me a little room to breathe.

But I needed to do something, create something, make sense of what was going on. My mind was in a frenzy with random sayings, words, and phrases I wrote on paper slips, folded in half, and threw in a bowl to be used like a poetry lottery later. It felt good to get these bursts of thoughts on paper, but they were in no coherent or digestible form. I needed to make sense of it all, make sense of what The Forest was, and make sense of what was going on inside and outside.

As Bo was setting up every tripod, configuring every microphone, and testing lights and projections, he was trying to make sense of it all too, and it shows in Inside. The special is a calculated journey, every detail and edit intending to show you a side of him you wouldn’t normally get to see in a regular hour-long stand-up show constructed by a well-tailored setlist of jokes, an audience ready to laugh, and a one-note stage set that typically has little to do with the story being told. This time, the blank, white walls of Bo’s isolation were his stage, and he was wearing the hats of an entire film crew, meticulously considering each detail to show you exactly what he wants you to see and to make you feel exactly what he wants you to feel.

In much the same way, I had my own set of walls, my own stage upon which to paint, in the form of a dining table scattered with puzzle pieces of a narrative I had not yet placed together and little more than time in which to do it. Though neither Bo nor I were alone behind our walls and in our journeys—he with his girlfriend, I with my husband—these were paths we had to walk by ourselves, stories that only our words could tell. And whatever the story I was telling would be, it would soon see its own audience and endure all of the critique and judgment that came with it. 

Are you feeling nervous? Are you having fun?
It’s almost over, it’s just begun

from “All Eyes on Me” in Inside by Bo Burnham

Unlike Bo, apart from a few stints leading workshops, I had little experience out there in front of an audience, putting that vulnerability out in public for people to see. Social media counts to a certain extent, but it’s curated at best, Photoshopped beyond recognition more regularly than people would probably like to admit and filtered to only show particular slices of humanity (and almost never the bad parts). But to put oneself out there for public consumption, subject to ratings, reviews, feedback, and potential humiliation or applause, is something I never felt at ease doing, perhaps because I didn’t know myself well enough to definitively put any version of myself on display. But when you create, there’s a part of you that makes itself known through whatever medium you use. It may take some deciphering and practice to figure out what exactly that is, but it’s there.

As much as I didn’t see it at the forefront of the project—probably because I was too close to it or not wise enough about myself to see it—The Forest was not just a detached experiment for some fun art project. It was a dark and lonely road to travel. It shows in its words, whether I knew it then or not. Bright, shiny, happy people don’t often think to write lines like “We are the fallen, waiting for redemption with words and liquid promises that turn into lies” (from “A World Without Us”) and “Let me be lonely, closer with every lie to an unborn reality, gross and unaware, breathing thoughts, burning words, and dreaming of drowning” (from “Thorns Over Petals”). I referred to the project in terms that I could disassociate with—even now, I do not speak of the poems in The Forest as something personal but steer its interpretation into the court of the readers, letting them imprint themselves on the words. But those phrases came from me and my mind, no matter which way I try to cover it or call it something else. Though it took distance to see, those words came from a place of darkness, fear, and confusion, just like Bo’s lyrics did.

Heads down now, pray for me
Get your fuckin’ hands up
Get on out of your seat
All eyes on me, all eyes on me

from “All Eyes on Me” in Inside by Bo Burnham

When The Forest was accepted for publication by Riza Press, it made these stories, and whatever was meant to come after, real. I was about to be put on a stage, ready or not, with my words torn asunder by whatever critical eyes read them. Though it wouldn’t be until April 2021 before the book was put into the world, the almost year’s worth of time felt a lot shorter in many ways, even as each wave of edits and design adjustments occupied what little time I had. When I had the final version physically in my hands, it was a surreal departure from the internal journey I had been traveling thus far. I had several micro-poems scattered about my Instagram with some level of attention reaped on each, and a few literary journal credits on my resume at this point, but this book was something people would have to consciously buy specifically for my words and stories, these products of a time behind walls, spiraling and figuring out what it meant to be human and vulnerable to the world’s whims. The mostly black cover with the hint of light between the trees seemed to echo the hopes of the world as a whole. But here I go disassociating again . . . 

My and Bo’s journeys showed parallels of introspection, madness, and meta at every turn. His gracious cleaning of the viewer’s screen during “Intermission,” its music bed deep and foreboding and his older age evident, felt like my regular social media post curation, scraping away at the darkness coating my readers’ screens in hopes of finding a glimpse of light that they—and I—so desperately needed. His voice-distorted cry of help “All Eyes on Me” was much like the sporadic lines of my mind’s darkness, the end products our anthropomorphic representations of the depression and anxiety we felt in isolation. Bo’s sedate accounting of a world gone awry in “That Funny Feeling,” punctuated by flickering campfire lighting and a backdrop of a forest . . . well, the parallels were all too clear.

The world doesn’t care
that everything that destroys you
blurs the memory of
what we once were,
oh, sepulchre of the dead.

You are a facsimile,
a soul sewn into wax,
but this is our perdition.

Until next we wake.

—from “Thank You for Your Contribution” in The Forest by T. C. Anderson

I imagine Bo and I couldn’t be any more different from each other in almost every aspect of the definition, but there is one thing we did have in common while inside: amid our walls, we saw a canvas. At times it may have felt like a prison as we were sentenced to house arrest by the media and the world for the mere crime of being human and vulnerable. Maybe it took everything from us, every last drop of sweat and every possible salty tear we could cry. But in the bigger picture, we could either let these walls define us or we could paint, project, and tell stories of our grand exits from the dark forests these walls created. And now, all eyes are on us.

T. C. Anderson is a Texas-based writer and artist with work published in Sunday Mornings at the River, Capsule Stories, Pages Penned in Pandemic: A Collective, The Raven Review, and more. Her poetry collection, The Forest, was published by Riza Press in 2021 and will serve as the inspirational basis of an art installation of the same name with artist Mari Omori premiering in 2022. Anderson’s artistic and collaborative work has been shown in several local art galleries, as well as online and internationally. A graphic and multimedia design professional, she holds a BA in graphic design and media arts from Southern New Hampshire University.

Headshot of T. C. Anderson
T. C. Anderson

Buy T. C. Anderson’s poetry collection The Forest on Bookshop.

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