I’m not a kayaker, canoeist, or rafter, but as a writer, I know something about putting in, how it feels to step near the water’s edge and consider entering the stream of the written word. At these moments, I hope I’ll find the current of the headwaters enticing enough to step into whatever writing journey awaits me.
But how often I sit at my desk and wrangle with my trepidation. I avoid new files— those glaring pages, white and empty, as well as old files—ragged drafts that have yet to take purchase in my heart and mind. And this week, to the side of my keyboard, lays a file titled, “The Braided Essay,” ready for submission if and when I revise the MLA format to a Chicago Style Format in order to comply with submission guidelines. Contemplating the work, my brain shuts down and the questioning begins. “Do I really have anything to say?"
So, I divert my attention from what feels like daunting labor. The litany of diversion has no end. I wheel through my browser history of websites. And I mean wheel around like a hamster in a cage, one after the other, each with little or no update from my last spin around: the local paper and weather, social media for my daughter and daughter-in-law’s retail businesses, and Facebook pages for my MFA alma mater and authors I admire.
As I weigh my avoidance, I think of my late Boston terrier, Emma. Whenever she approached water, she tip-toed in. Naturally anxious, she tested the river bottom for sand, mud, and rock, and then for cool or tepid water. On hot days, her exploration was short-lived. Heat is hard on Bostons. Their flattened snout makes air and blood circulation less efficient. They can easily suffer from heatstroke. So, on those days, Emma got to it. In shallow waters, near the edge of the ditch or stream, she’d promptly lay down and quickly lap the wet and cool. But on any given fall day, or near quickening currents, Emma opted out. Not one toe put in. She simply turned tail and headed toward home.
I realize I often test the writing waters, much like Emma. If I have a deadline, I go into survival mode. I’m a Boston terrier on hot days, and I put in. The intensity of an imposed limit focuses my attention. And, if I’m fortunate enough to feel the pull of a piece of writing, perhaps in late revisions, I find the waters inviting and willingly open the file. But, without the insertion of necessity or the momentum of engagement, I am Emma on cool days, having nothing to do with testing the waters. I opt out and turn from the risk of putting into the waterway.
I find this tussle with ambivalence on-going in my writing life, rooted I know in fear. So, when I’m able, I lean on a few enduring tactics that reassure when the rush of the stream feels too swift or cool. Near the current, I listen for the voices of mentors. I listen for their guidance and faith as I consider tip-toeing in.
One fall evening, long ago, my late brother, an industrious sophomore, shared two of his study habits when I struggled with new math and “reading between the lines” in Call of the Wild.
He said, “Sometimes when I have a hard time studying, I get a treat, like a cup of tea, and then I sit back down to work. And they told us in school it’s better to study for forty-five minutes and then take a break for fifteen, do something else, go outside, and then come back.”
For most decades of my life, I’ve practiced the rituals of his counsel—heating hot water for tea and creating a steady pace in the pairing of my work and movement as I write. His words rest beneath thousands of hours of my writing journey.
After reading and studying with Priscilla Long, writer and teacher, her practical, old-school take on writing calms my litany of doubts. She declares in Minding the Muse:
Creative work is, first of all, work. I’ve learned that when I’m in the middle of working on a piece, my feelings are best ignored. These feelings are predictable, inevitable, and irrelevant. What if I worked when I felt elated and stopped when discouraged?
I repeat her words when I whirl in my diversions and I hear her say, “Write. Just write.”
And Sheila Bender, a poet, essayist, teacher, and one of my earliest mentors, believes, “To keep on writing requires both an emotional and cognitive desire.”
I once took an accounting of that desire and found that, for me, satisfaction arises from a sense of purpose, in the serendipity of creativity, in the intellectual challenge of puzzling over revision, and in the spiritual discoveries I find embedded in the art.
As reminders of these desires, I favor artifacts near my desk: a beaded stone talisman from a writer’s workshop, the feather of a blue jay, a photo of me and my brother when we were children, and a copy of “Praying,” by Mary Oliver, in which she encourages the writer to begin simply, a word at a time, about anything, for that very act creates the entry into discovery.
I realize that, although my trepidation will persist as a writer, when I am Emma tip-toeing into the unknown of the waterway, I must remember I possess in these images and echoes, an assurance that, when I take the risk to put in, the current will know the way.
Mary Kurtz and her husband, Pete, raise quarter horses, cattle, and hay on their ranch in the Elk River Valley in northwestern Colorado. They have two adult children. Her first collection of essays, At Home in the Elk River Valley: Reflections on Family, Place and the West, was recognized as a 2012 National Indie Excellence Award Finalist in Regional Non-Fiction; and received the 2012 EVVY Bronze Award for Non-Fiction/Experience. Mary’s essays are also anthologized in Ankle High and Knee Deep: Women Reflect on Western Rural Living, edited by Gail Jenner. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Regis University.
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