A few weeks ago I was teaching long days (and a few nights) at a high school writers’ workshop. I’ve taught at this workshop for years, but this year, this changed, strange, lost year, we went remote.
Which meant that my kid overheard me on my laptop lecturing, meeting with young writers, workshopping their novels, and encouraging them to keep going. Jumping on his trampoline in the evening, he asked me hard questions, as he always does.
What does that mean, maybe this is not the right time for your story?
What does that mean, maybe you need more space before you can write?
I realize when I talk to students, I am often talking to myself. Myself as I was at their age, very serious and impatient, which is fine and valid—but also, myself as I am now. Very serious and impatient, worried about time in a way that makes maybe more sense because it is running out for me, sure as it is for every person.
I told my son (I told my students, I told myself): maybe we need more time sometimes to say what we want. Maybe we have an idea but it needs more maturing. Maybe we need to live with a character for a bit before we can write her.
Maybe we need to go through the other side of an experience before we can understand it.
We walk every day, my son and I and partner, usually. My son is rarely quiet, but on these walks, he talks to the trees, the birds, he picks berries. I can be in my head a little more, focused on the wild path in front of me.
I have been tossing around the story for my next novel in my head for months. I know the main character. I know the setting. I know the main acts. But there was a side character, a good friend of the narrator and important for the story, who I just hadn’t figured out. Who was he? Why did he matter? On our way through rain-slick, humid woods, he came to me, clear as the morning.
I think I’m ready to write—but I’m not ready to write. Time won’t let me. I have work for my day job in journalism, a lot of planning for the next school year (whatever shape it takes). It will be a month, at least, before I can put these new words down. But that’s OK. I needed that time before to sort things out about my story—maybe I need that time now to sort through it even more, to find solutions to better problems.
You’re writing in your head even when you’re not writing on paper, is another thing I say. And yes, maybe more than anything I’m hoping this is true now.
Maybe this is a season of sacrifice. I don’t mean: sacrificing not having haircuts or going to the movies, though I certainly am sacrificing that too. I mean more plainly the sacrifice of time, of isolation, of being cut-off from contact except virtual, which isn’t ideal for most of us. The sacrifice of losing much of this year and our plans for it.
I had planned for the release of my first novel. That’s still happening, thankfully, but happening … differently? Probably quieter, as has been the case for all books published in the pandemic. I have to let my expectations go, like my hair, grown wilder, longer, lighter, a strange mix of sun and iron and gray.
You can do anything for a year, is something I remember my friend saying to me when I was about to move away from the only city I’ve ever loved. I think I love rural places more than cities, it turns out, but I’ve never been able to find my way back to living in the same place as that friend and the others I had then.
So much of life is trying to find your way back.
To grieve what you lost but not forget it, and maybe, one day, return to it. Or make something better.
Scent is so connected to memory. The smell of chamomile always reminds me of the short time I lived in Bath, England. I loved it there, and I guess I tried chamomile tea for the first time when I was living there, in a big old Georgian house divided into apartments where we all left our doors open. Being raised in a rural place without much money, I tried a lot of things for the first time when I was older, in my twenties or beyond. There are many teas that help with anxiety, and chamomile is one, good for these times, of course— but for me, the herb is more about accessing memory, going back, keeping that time alive if only in my head, if only for one cup.