I’m sitting outside today, avoiding writing the novel I’ve been setting aside for two years. I came to New Mexico hoping to be rejuvenated and inspired. I started this novel two years ago, after my first trip here. I was struck by the completely alien surroundings and thought it was perfect for my tortured protagonist, who was doomed for the “fish out of water” fate. I thought if I put myself back in the dry heat and the sand, then her voice would become clear again.
But it’s been hard to jump back in this time. I broke the cardinal rule of writing, which was to stop my routine. I told myself that because I was in another graduate program, I had permission to slack off on the writing. I could’t really expect to finish a novel while earning another degree, could I? But the result is that I feel like a hockey player who’s been out with a concussion for a year. The stories don’t unfold the way they used to.
What does occur to me, as I sit here procrastinating, is that all of those nature writers were on to something. I’ll admit that their names sparked a bit of my own eye-rolling in graduate school. Dillard, Thoreau, Carson, Abbey–I begrudgingly read the heavy hitters, imagining them as people who had the means to leave their jobs behind and head out into the wilderness for months if not years at a time. I thought well, of course nature is beautiful and inspiring and terrifying–tell me something I don’t know. They were interesting at times, but seemed redundant after a few hundred pages. I wasn’t in a place to really appreciate it. How can you when you have to read two hundred pages by Friday and prepare a presentation of modernism and write a critique of a set of poems by the same night?
Earlier today, when I was still avoiding writing, having an internal debate about my narrator’s voice and whether I should include multiple points of view, I watched an ant scamper along the table outside. It was a round table with a metal rim. The ant scurried along the rim, passing me three times as it traveled the same path. It seemed so hopeless, this ant traveling so far in a circle, over and over, going nowhere, with no end in sight. Finally I could’t stand it anymore and said, ‘Deus ex machina,’ as I brushed it from the table and it fell into the grass.
And of course I’m not the first person to feel this way: trapped in an endless loop, feeling as if I’m always moving, yet going nowhere. As May approached, people kept asking me ‘what are you doing after graduation?’ ‘what are you doing in the fall?’ ‘what will you do if you don’t find a job?’ ‘what are you doing next year?’ After a while it drove me crazy, and I thought, what if I just want to slow down and enjoy moments as they come for a change? What if I want to get out of this loop of motion, and just take it week by week, or day by day, and see what moments find me?
All spring, I searched for artsits’ residencies. I thought I needed a capital-R Residency to give me permission to take a time-out to slow down and make my own work, and do what my heart wanted so desperately to do. A Residency is a reward, an opportunity, a free pass to delve into your craft, because that is its purpose. But after being denied several times, I thought: Do I really need to go through an application process in order to get what I want out of a residency? The answer, of course, was no. What does a residency provide? Time to work and reflect. A change of scenery. A work space. A chance to meet kindred spirits. Couldn’t I create this myself?
And so I did. (Part of my procrastination includes reading “The Alchemist.” As the narrator says, when one realizes his dream, all of the universe will conspire to help him achieve it. This has become more and more apparent as I look back on the last few years of my life, but that is another story.) And through an overwhelming show of support, I raised the funds I needed to travel to New Mexico. When I was asked to house-sit, my one month stay turned into two. I’ve now found a place to print the book that I put together while on this trip. I’ve earned small amounts of money that can prolong my stay. I’ve met amazing people who remind me of why I do what I do.
Now I feel a bit bad for brushing the ant off the table. He would have found his way eventually, but I, being trained in the goal-oriented rat race, was a bit too impatient. It’s probably the same trouble I’m having with my protagonist, now that I think of it. We’re taught in writers’ workshops to make characters suffer, stay in the moment of the scene, but sometimes we worry too much about how hurry up and get to the end. So now I’m going to get back to her and see what she really wants. I think I agree that the key is time and space: realize your dream, chuck the fear of failure, and the universe will conspire to help you achieve it. Because the universe, it seems, likes a good ending as much as we do.