One of the owners of the architecture firm where I work recently explained how he approaches design in a way that felt almost confessional. He admitted, “At the start of a project, I don’t know where this is going.” This is a master speaking, mind you. I appreciated the unvarnished truth.
I suppose I saw a flash of my own creative process in Tom’s words, not that any of us necessarily chooses how our minds operate. Some people can envision an entire project from the start, whether it’s a building or a novel, while others discover the solution, rather than merely refine it, along the way. Yet, there is a presumption that all creative people have far-reaching vision, and an expectation that all great creative people are in control from the start–that the work itself is details and execution to support a grand shock of inspiration. Such external pressure often leads to liberal truth-telling about the nature of a person’s process–Ah, yes, it came to me in a vision–POOF! For that, I appreciated his candor all the more.
Tom also likes to invoke the metaphor of skiing the trees for how he designs and lives life. Skiing the trees is a deceptively simple concept if taken only for its roguishness. Yes, a person who says he skis the trees sounds very cool; he’s an iconoclast, a rebel, etc. But ditching the carefully combed slopes–where the masses tend to ski–requires great physical skill and dexterity. Skiing the trees is not merely a choice between the beaten path and fresh, virgin powder; it requires investment and expertise. To ski the trees requires emotional mettle, superior balance, core strength, intuition, trust, a flash of daredevilry. The calm confidence of experience to know how to get yourself out of hidden and uncertain circumstances when they appear, often with little notice. Skiing the trees brings untold dangers of unblocked cliffs, obscured crevasses and hidden streams as well as the hazards of underbrush, like logs, branches, stumps and, of course, trees themselves (see: Sonny Bono.) Skiing the trees is not for the beginner, nor is it for everyone.
I think the appeal of skiing the trees for Tom, apart from the thrill of danger and cheating death, is solitude. Skiing the trees affords the chance to practice one’s craft in an unpredictable and challenging environment where you can shut out the rest of the world. You point the tips of your skis where you want to go and push off, no witnesses. It’s freeing to navigate without the pressure of observation or the comparison with someone else’s speed or skill. It’s up to you, alone, how and when you make it down the mountain. And, hey, you might discover something really cool that the people barreling down the slopes would never have the chance to discover. As a writer, I get this, too.
I’ve spent the past three months doing a lot of not-writing due to long work hours, which has left me feeling frazzled and creatively depleted. August was all about moving households, so I had been banking on the solace of a two-week residency in September at Vermont Studio Center, which was helpful in many ways, especially after the frenzy of work travel, but proved entirely unrestful. It’s a large residency (55 people) with daily activities (yes, you can opt out, but…) and boisterous meal times (the food was quite good) three times a day. Because the weather was warm, the mood was quite festive and I found it difficult to buckle down and focus as I had at Mineral School last summer. By retreating to my studio I felt like a party pooper. In the end, did I get my work done? Yes. Did I make a few friends? Yes. Did I feel relaxed and recharged? No.
After a dismal go-round with an essay in October, I decided to attempt NaNoWriMo this month with a relaxed goal of 500 words a day. Just write. But a work trip threw off my mojo in the second week, although the 4,500 words I’ve written so far are not bad. What I’m realizing is, the disarray of buying a house and moving, traveling for 32 days out of the last 60, lack of regular exercise (still working on that) and head space (too many emails and meetings) has brought me to a strange place in my creative life. This hasn’t come up since I started writing in earnest seven years ago. At the time, I had no foundational practice, so I built one step by step, and it seems like it is time to rebuild the temple.
I’ve realized that the end of 2017 is going to be about feeling my way into a new writing life as a different kind of writer. For the first time in seven very productive years, I don’t know where this is going, and admitting that is a relief. I have reached the end of a cycle and it’s time for renewal and rebirth, but I don’t yet know what that means. I can’t yet see the next mountain, let alone find the tree line.
The piece that I’m working on now–can I say it?–is actually a long-form work, which is a first for me. (Please don’t make me call it a novel.) For seven years, short stories and essays have been my jam, mostly because shorter works fit better with my busy work-life, and they are (for me) easier ways to learn craft. Hooray, an essay ENDS! Terrific. But the length of these pieces was also about fear. Like Tom, when I start a story, I don’t necessarily know where it’s going; I figure it out along the way. With a short work, this is doable, but the idea of not knowing where the hell my story is going until after I’ve written 100,000 words is nothing short of terrifying. What if it’s all a waste of time? the German portion of my DNA whispers in terror.
Fear of failure, I realize, is more of what holds me back than anything. I can blame long work hours, too many distractions and travel, but underneath that is fear. It’s an old bad habit, and it’s hard to unlearn. I’m not special in this, but I sense that this particular fear is what I have to overcome, whatever comes next.
Sometimes, our fears are made and reinforced by the family who engendered us; sometimes we recreate the situations of our childhoods so that the dynamic is perpetuated long into our adult years. This is why people who dare to ski the trees and put their creativity out into the world are so inspiring to me. They remind me that fear is in our minds, and that it’s possible to change our thinking. Yes, a skier can indeed crash into trees, but that can happen anywhere. Staying curled up inside doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be safe. Trees can fall on houses, after all. Isn’t it better to dare?
I was thinking of all this as I saw news of the release of Andy Weir’s second book, “Artemis.” Weir is one of those legends that we emerging writers point to as freak happenstance (if we could only be so lucky.) As you’ll remember, he self-published “The Martian” in 2011, which was then picked up by Crown Publishing and then optioned for a movie with Matt Damon–the sort of do-it-yourself fairy tale that all writers claim not to hope for themselves… and secretly do.
Just before “Artemis” came out, I had taken matters into my own hands with a chapbook of poems called UGLY ME. I wrote them in 2015 for an installation, but they’ve been sitting in the dusty innards of my computer ever since. (The collection was accepted by Finishing Line Press but it never came to fruition.) It occurred to me, perhaps as it did to Weir, that even without a published, I could release the book into the world rather than leaving it in the dark, which seemed like a waste. After I hit Publish, I wondered if I was being vain or weird about “UGLY ME”–until I saw that Weir’s second book. He reminded me to believe in my own work.
Something else happened around this same time.
Back in 2016, I was on a work trip to Mexico when one of our firm’s owners came back from first class to my seat in coach. He said that the firm’s speaker committee was going to commission a talk from me that fit into that year’s theme of “Love, Sex, Death and Drugs.” I was so excited–which one would I pick? I began scribbling immediately and had the first four paragraphs completed before the plane landed. These sections began:
1. The first time I fell in love…
2. The first cigarette I ever smoked…
3. The last time my mother spoke…
4. As my mother lay dying…
I didn’t know which of the four themes I would end up writing about. In fact, I had no idea where the piece was going, but I skied the trees and let it unfold. I ended up with sixteen sections about my life at sixteen, which (like most sixteen-year-olds) was all about the transformative energies of love, sex, death and drugs.
I planned to use the text as the basis of my talk, giving myself a mental A+ on being ready for the assignment ahead of time, as I refined the piece over several months. Eventually, I realized that no one from the speaker committee was going to invite me to talk. Half the year had passed, and the calendar was full of speakers for the rest of the 2016, all interesting people from outside the firm. It felt demeaning to have to chase after the committee, nor did I want to be rejected if they simply didn’t want me as a speaker. Alan never brought up the subject again, nor did I.
Last fall, I submitted the piece for publication. Silently. Without anyone watching.
It was accepted quickly, which made me feel a little better. Then it sat in someone else’s computer for many, many months. I feared that the UGLY ME situation had arisen again–maybe they were hanging onto “Sixteen” without any intention of publishing it?–until last month, when it went live on Duende’s website.
It had been so long since I wrote that essay–I started in January 2016–that it almost feels like someone else’s work to me. This demonstrates how much things change, even in a year or two, and how impossible it is to know exactly where things are going or what the end results of my efforts will be. I can’t fully know, and I think I am okay with that.
The planner part of me wants a clearly defined uber-goal–the top of the next peak– but I think my current challenge is more ephemeral than finishing a story or landing an elite residency. The answer is not an MFA program, either. My path, should I choose to accept it, seems to leads off into the hazy distance–is that a tree line I see?–where I have to trust that the past seven years of experience has prepared me to meet the unknown. All there is to do is point the tips of my skis in that direction and push off. As to where I land… I guess we’ll just see about that, won’t we?