The path through the woods
Madeleine L'Engle on writing and courage

The freedom of the trail

Walking the trail.

In The Seven Secrets of the Prolific (a very practical guide to overcoming procrastination, perfectionism, and writers' blocks), Hillary Rettig proposes a "trail metaphor" of writing:

"Picture your writing session as a stroll down a beautiful, sun-dappled woodland path....All of a sudden someone pops up out of the underbrush and joins you on your path -- it's your husband, full of opinions on your current writing." As you walk on, your parents join you, your siblings, an old teacher, a critical editor, all yammering in your ear with opinions, worries, criticisms of your work. "Soon, you're walking at center of crowd, none of whom you've invited."

The prolific handle things differently, she explains. "They decide, with absolute authority...who comes on their path and how long they can stay. You're only allowed on if they want you on, and the minute you're no longer an asset to their process, you're gone....And no free passes -- everyone has to pass the 'asset' test, including partners, parents, kids, and 'important' teachers, editors, and the like. And those who fail a few times permanently lose their right to apply for entry.

"They're banished, baby.

"And so the prolific have a wonderful time strolling peacefully and productively through the hours, days, and years of their work."

Flowing past obstacles.

On the banks of memory.

The painter Philip Guston (1913-1980) described a similar process. Everyone followed him into the studio: his family, colleagues, mentors, critics, friends, enemies, everyone. But as Guston worked they all left again, emptying the studio one by one. On a good day, he said, I am finally alone; and on a really good day, even I leave the room.

"When the work takes over," wrote Madeleine L'Engle (in Walk on Water),  "then the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere."

Contemplating the dive.

"Remember as you begin," Dani Shapiro advises (in Still Writing) "that you are in a remote and exotic place -- the literary equivalent of far eastern Bhutan. It is a place where no one can find you. Where anything is possible. Where, for a time, you are free, liberated from the expectations and ideas of others. You are trekking and the vistas are infinite. This freedom is necessary whether you're working on your first book or your tenth. In order to create a world on the page, you need to push away from the world around you. You must forget its expectations and constraints."

Time slips away.

"So what it is about writing that makes it -- for some of us -- as necessary as breathing?" asks Shapiro. "It is in the thousand days of trying, failing, sitting, thinking, resisting, dreaming, raveling, unraveling that we are at our most engaged, alert, and alive. Time slips away. The body becomes irrelevant. We are as close to consciousness itself as we will ever be. This begins in the darkness. Beneath the frozen ground, buried deep below anything we can see, something may be taking root. Stay there, if you can. Don't resist. Don't force it, but don't run away. Endure. Be patient. The rewards cannot be measured. Not now. But whatever happens, any writer will tell you: This is the best part."

Wading into the Water of Story

The gifts of the journey.The books quoted above are: The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procastination, Perfectionism, and Writers' Block by Hillary Rettig (Infinite Art, 2011), Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life by Danio Shapiro (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013) , and Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L'Engle (Northpoint Press, 1995).