The writing residency I attended a few years back was set at the edge of a redwood forest not far from the ocean. I was dazzled to be there. I’d applied on a lark and was stunned to get the note that said, “Space just opened up, can you be here in a week? My fellow residents were a mad band of Butoh dancers, visual artists, filmmakers and writers, and it wasn’t unusual to find a small sculpture fashioned from twigs and stones tucked into the grass in the fields around the artists’ studios, or happen on the slow unfolding of a dance in progress along a path.
I was glad someone was making art. In the fresh expanse of time I had to write, I found myself flipping through the pages I’d brought and the notes I’d jotted down as starting points for pieces and thinking, “Now what?”
It was my first time away at “writer’s camp,” and much as I’d longed for it, the empty space in my schedule intimidated me. It was me and the work, there to do big things. Free at last. I doodled across pages and watched the hummingbirds that hovered expectantly nearby. Now what?
So I spent many days, early on, walking the looping trail around the property, climbing one of the round, gold hills to stare at the oaks that were scattered across the land like small herds of buffalo, or hiking beyond the far studios to the edge of the woods. At dinner, people’s chance comments about the light in the trees and echoes of coyotes in the ancient stands glanced off me.
It was a week before I realized I’d never experienced any of that because I hadn’t gone in.
Sometimes, the signs aren't for you
The trail that led into the woods was blocked by a gate. A low, wooden gate that, but for its small No Trespassing sign, would’ve been at home in a Thomas Kinkade painting. On my walks, I’d get there, look up at the trees, and, after a pause, turn back. Yep. It says, “Don’t enter.” OK. It must mean me.
It seems crazy to me now. Absurd. The gate wasn’t attached to a fence, and though I don’t remember it, it’s quite likely that a path had been worn around it. For a person on foot, it was purely symbolic. Any magical power it had to stop me was granted by me.
Funny to say, the most significant work I did at the residency might've been getting past that gate. In time, I noticed the way I was stopping there, and the noticing was key. It had been so automatic to turn around—that was the rule, wasn’t it?—that the action was all but invisible. But when actually saw how I was being bossed around by that ramshackle collection of boards and that flimsy little sign, I laughed at myself and hopped the thing.
The long, slow walk into the tree was delicious. And yes, those woods were filled with the poems I needed to write, some carried in the mouths of coyotes.
Swinging open the gate
Most of the blocks writers face aren’t quite that literal, but they’re surprisingly similar. Our minds are funny that way.
* A writer is wrestling with the direction for a story. He says he thinks he knows what he wants to do with it, and he spells it out for me, but he’s at his most animated when he tells me an “off the topic” anecdote that turned up in his research. It’s clear that that’s where the juice is for him. Would he think about starting there? “Oh no,” comes the quick answer. “That’s not serious enough.” Feels like a gate.
* A mom says she hasn’t had time to write since the baby was born. But the baby’s in preschool now, and pockets of her days have opened up, though her story about not having time hasn’t caught up. Feels like a gate.
* A novelist says she’s been lugging around a work for years and can’t get it finished. It’s keeping her from doing other writing, but it won’t move. She doesn’t speak of the stuck piece in detail or with excitement or desire. It’s an obligation, something that has to be finished because she invested so much time in it so long ago. Feels like a gate.
You could just walk through
It’s interesting to think about blocks as gates, barriers that stop progress, but also meant to swing open. I’m surprised at how often they’re unlatched already, but stop us simply because we’re so accustomed to stopping. We turn around because our minds flash a sign that says, “You’re too busy to write,” or “You just have 15 minutes and it’s not enough,” or “That’s trivial,” or “That topic’s off limits.”
Take a look at what’s getting in the way of your writing and see if you’re being stopped by an old story, a gate that you could easily open with the slightest tap. The old, habit-laden barriers are sometimes difficult to see yourself, so it can help to get an outsider’s perspective on what’s going on in your process.
That’s what I help my writers do. We identify the gates, walk around them, test what they’re made of and what they’re connected to. And then we pass through. It’s always astonishing to see how much creative energy, joy even, is available on the other side.
What kind of relationship have you had with the gates in your path? Share your story in the comments.
(Gate photo by David van der Mark, via Flickr.)