I have spent the last ten days at Whiteley Center on San Juan Island, a residency for writers, academics, artists—anyone trying to do focused work on a project (I call it my Beautiful Writer’s Prison). I am here to almost-finish a draft of my next book. There are deer and otters and seals wandering around, and all the birds in the world, and wooded paths that skirt the Salish Sea. Somehow, whenever I come here, I am productive beyond my wildest imaginings. You’d think with all this natural beauty I would be distracted. But instead I am replenished, and I manage to work hard.
Which is not to say I am any kind of whirling dervish. Some days, yes. But most days I sleep in. Maybe I’ll pull a coat over my pajamas and take my morning coffee down to the dock to visit that mischievous otter, come back for a little more coffee by the cozy fireplace. Eventually I will meander over to my study and work intently just until I am in desperate need of a forest walk. Then I will wander off into the woods. Still, somehow, the pages pile up and up.
On this trip I am staying in a cottage situated at such an angle that I can see a little into the cottage across the way. I try not to spy or anything. But I can’t help noticing: My Neighbor is a bird of a different feather. When I drag my ass out of bed at the shamelessly late hour of 7:00 a.m., she is already up. Her light is on and her computer is open and she is sitting up straight, tapping away. When I come back to my cottage for lunch, she is tapping. When I change into my sock monkey pajamas after dinner and write in my diary or pop a DVD into my laptop for an episode (or three) of Big Bang Theory, she is tapping tapping tapping. Maybe she is watching Big Bag Theory, too? I doubt it. And because she is already working when I get up and still working when I go to bed, I wonder: Maybe My Neighbor works all night long.
Yesterday, I went for a walk on the forest trail, which is brimming with mushrooms that have come to life in these autumn mists. While I was tripping along, visiting with the fungus and the fallen leaves, I heard a thumpa-thumpa-thumpa behind me. It was My Neighbor. She was running. She ran right past me, gave me a little smile, looked at her watch, and kept running on down the path. I was wrapped in my wool sweater and striped socks and scarf against the dark woodland chill. Flush with health and sweat and pumping blood, My Neighbor seemed comfortable in her space-age fabric shorts and T.
Now, it might sound as if my message is Holier Than Thou. Something like: here I am, communing with the mushrooms, while My Neighbor misses all the little things at her strict, brisk pace. But I’m not saying that at all. I am certain that we are both happy and holy in our own ways and in equal measures. My message is just this: DANG! She’s RUNNING.
So I stood there for a moment like a lost child, holding the sad broken little feather I’d found on the ground somewhere, and thought, “I’m too slow.” I stood there longer, feeling crumpled, thinking that same thought. Then eventually a different thought came: “No, I’m just a tortoise.” And I am. There are so so so many days, here and at my home studio, that I have worried, “Oh my god, I am not working enough, I’m not doing enough, I’m not hard enough on myself, I will never get done, I will never meet my deadline…” Somehow, after all those days, I woke up today, walked over to my study, and there was my book, sitting on my desk. Not perfect. Bits and bobs hanging loose. Lots of work left. But fully drafted. Almost done. It seemed to me to be glowing. And I thought, “Where the HELL did that come from?”
Honestly, I would not be surprised to see Rumpelstiltskin appear and tell me that he had spun the words while I slept.
Someone sent me a fun little video about productivity from Leonie Dawson. In it, she talks about riding the wild donkey of creation, and just holding on, getting crazy and messy until it’s done. It’s inspiring, and I love it. But the donkey I ride doesn’t look like hers, bucking around like mad. Mine looks like this:
See how this lovely woman in the scarf is plodding along the path on her quiet donkey? And don’t you just want to get into those baskets? The road is long, and they are full of good provisions. There is is a blanket, and some cheese and chocolate and apples and tea and wine. After a lovely lunch in the grasses and hills you pack up the baskets and get back on your nice patient donkey, because it’s time to get going again, down that beautiful path. Plunk plunk plunk. That’s me, writing.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t writing days where I am completely carried away, and forget to eat, and emerge with ink on my fingers and leaves in my hair, and having forgotten human speech. That happens, too. Of course. But after those days, my plodding little donkey is there, waiting for me.
The Pace of Creation is a mystery. It is different for all of us. And that’s just fine.
Meanwhile, hey, I am almost-finishing a new book. I love it. More on that to come…