Last Wednesday, flying home after 2.5 weeks of school visits in Arkansas, Alabama, and North Carolina, it occurred to me that it had been months since I’d made any real progress with my writing. Sure, I’d spent time at the computer working on the new novel, but it had been in fits and starts, and the results were just so-so, at best. Crammed into row 20, seat C, I raked myself over the coals. What was it with me? Why the sluggish pace? Did I call that being a writer? Writers write, no matter what. Get with it, Birdseye! Or are you an impostor, a fake, conning yourself and others? Whack! Blam! It was beat-up-on-Tom time.
Fortunately, at that moment the crackle of speakers overhead interrupted my self abuse. “We are now beginning our descent into Portland,” the pilot announced. “If you’ll look out the left side of the plane you’ll see Mt. Hood, elevation 11, 235 feet.” Sure enough, there was the crown jewel of the Oregon Cascades, its dramatic, snow covered summit jutting up out of the clouds. At the sight of the highest point in my home state, one I have climbed multiple times, I eased back in my seat and took a deep breath.
Mountain climbing is a complex combination of challenges — weather, altitude, snow and rock conditions, the route chosen — that must be met in order to achieve the goal of reaching the top. Sometimes it seems as if the mountain is throwing everything its got at you to get you to give up. It’s hard. You have to narrow your focus on the here and how — climber’s mind — and dig deep in order to push on. It’s in that process that you not only climb higher, but also learn and grow the most.
So it is with writing. Life sometimes gets in the way, throwing complex challenges in the path of creative goals. In my case it was the cumulative weight of too much on my plate. I was overwhelmed, my popcorn mind flitting from this to that, trying desperately to keep up. Instead I’d fallen farther and farther behind, and finally ground to a halt, ironically at 35,000 feet and 500 miles per hour. It was time for climber’s mind. “Don’t obsess on finishing the novel,” I told myself. “Just the next step. And the step after that. And the step after that. Keep plodding away.”
Which is what I was up to this past weekend — plodding away. I’m happy to report that it paid off. No dramatic breakthroughs, no whirlwind rushes to the summit of a finished book. I’m still figuring out who my main character, Keats, really is, and how his complicated world view is going to drive the plot. And where my story settles on thematic, conceptual, and structural levels. Lots to do. But I’m moving steadily upward again, making progress one step at a time. And boy, does it feels good.