Stretch, wander, and push | Brown Butter Pistachio Financiers
Yesterday marked eight years of this site. One year ago, there was cake, and I was thinking a lot about writing.
When I brought up the same subject recently, it wasn’t intentional. In fact, I didn’t make the connection. Maybe it is that the time around anniversaries encourage the taking of stock. I’m thankful for the tendency, as I am thankful for the generous comments and letters from many of you that followed that mention, sharing personal experiences of trying to put thoughts into words, or your own processes from a variety of creative disciplines.
I feel lucky to have been part of the dialogue. If you don’t mind, it’s a thread I’d like to continue.
It begins with a reoccurring analogy: on the road.
Right around this time two years ago, a windstorm hit where we live.
That morning I had a meeting out of town. I planned to leave early, and because I would be away for the day, my boys were going to spend it with my parents at their house. I remember standing in the driveway, waiting to kiss Sean goodbye while he buckled in the lads to take them there, when I heard the wind blowing high in the trees. It was a sustained howl. I looked up and saw clouds moving with such speed that I said something to Sean about it; for whatever reason, neither of us were concerned, and neither of us checked the weather report. At the time, nobody seemed to grasp how bad the day would become. Even when I did turn on the radio, there was a warning to take things slow, but no real sense of urgency.
Traffic was heavy. Street signs and billboards bowed and rattled. My hand cramped from keeping a firm grip on the wheel. I made it to my meeting on time. I turned off my phone.
I wasn’t aware of it then, but I’d driven out of the path of the storm. What seemed only gloomy, but not wholly memorable where I was, brought 100-kilometre-per-hour gusts at home. It knocked out power, knocked off siding, and blew roofs clean away. It could have been much worse that in was. We were fortunate.
By the time I tried to head back, the storm was over. The winds had stopped and the once-troubled sky was now a clear, bright, and almost surreal blue. Nonetheless, the bridge that arches over the bay was still closed. There was a lineup of cars inching forward, jostling for position, as four lanes were reduced to three, then two, then one. Police cars with flashing lights directed us through the supports of that bridge, to cross the water on a much smaller one. Past that place, the highway itself was barricaded.
The service roads and side roads were packed. There were detours marked, but with all the scattered debris, it wasn’t long before you were redirected by a downed power line, or a tree snapped like a twig or, in one case, an overturned, life-sized, ornamental elephant.
There is a landmark near our house that’s visible from quite far away. Three-and-a-half hours into a drive that usually takes 90 minutes, I caught sight of it for the first time. As I made my progress in lurching zigzags across the backroads in between me and that beacon, it would blink in and out of my view. I’d get a glimpse as I crested a hill, only to lose it again as I dipped into a valley or the road turned away. There was no specific logic or wisdom to the route I chose; with no insights into which course was clear, I simply did my best to keep myself aimed at where I knew I wanted to end up.
It took more than five hours to get there.
For me, writing is often that drive. You see, I’m not a great planner. I can’t lay out a itinerary of introduction, thesis, support and conclusion, and hit all the points, neat and tidy with time to spare. I will have an idea of where I need to finish, and there are occasions when I’ll take the scenic route. Usually, however, the distance from the beginning and end is a winding one. There are false starts. And misdirection. And turning back. I stretch, wander, and push the boundaries of the map. I get another map because the old one was covered in scribbles and ripped in places, and I couldn’t seem to fold it right. Then I’ll fill that map with so many scribbles that I’ll need a new pen.
It’s good to keep a stack of maps.
I’m not above asking for directions; there’s wisdom to be learned from who have travelled here before and from those who are still part of the caravan. They’ll give you a lift when your tank runs dry. What’s more, a travelling companion can calm the nerves caused by a motor that clatters and sputters with every jolting mile, or the stomach-churning feeling that you’re in a neighbourhood you don’t recognize. It’s nauseous mix of terror tinged with exhilarating curiousity. You might want to sip some ginger ale.
Guides and company can only get you so far. Much of the mechanics of writing is hidden, isolating work. That’s when the sun is gone and darkness sets in. Bring snacks.
Scour the landscape for sign posts — those points upon which the whole adventure pivots, the phrases that stick out of the scenery like an upside-down cement pachyderm. I’m telling you, keep an eye out for those markers. They get you through. With them, you might find a different approach. Follow their directions, even when the passage seems too narrow, when you’re filled with paralyzing doubt and can’t remember why you wanted to take this trip in the first place, and it’s quite certain that the pavement will crumble under your wheels. Don’t stop. Keep moving.
In the end, you’ll be hunched and achy from sitting too long and your mind will want to hurtle ever forward, not ready to relinquish its hard won inertia. Take a lap. It will take even more effort to realize when you arrive. You’ll feel a mess, most likely.
Wear the miles like a trophy.