Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Writing is a Beach

In retrospect, I should have gone the other way first. Or just stayed inside. It was the windiest, coldest day out of a week of cold, rainy and altogether less than picture-perfect days in St. Petersburg, Florida. Leaving me questioning the “Paradise” part of the name of the workshop I was in town attending. “Writers in Paradise” had just drawn to a close and I had a few hours before I was due to meet new friends for dinner and then head to the final literary reading and farewell reception. Drained from an intense week of reading, writing, learning, listening and critiquing, I wanted a chance to clear my head and was in need of some fresh air and a little exercise. Plus I was staying right on the beach and had only had time for one stroll down the sandy shore during a mid-week day off.

Perhaps not quite this much fresh air, I thought as I turned south, against my better judgment, and began to make my way along the water’s edge. I knew in the back of my head that the strong wind that was nearly propelling me along was going to be pushing against me every step of the way once I turned around to head home. But it felt so easy to be carried along by the wind that I dismissed my practical notions and allowed my body to be guided further and further away from my warm hotel room. My thoughts drifted as I watched the waves rush up on to the packed sand. It looked like hands, with fingers crawling frantically up the shoreline. Each time the tide pulled back out, the wind would whip the foamy remains and send it skittering along the sand in front of my feet.

A handful of kite-surfers were skating across the top of the waves and then alternately being yanked into the air or dunked into the water beneath their kites, depending on which way the wind took them. Brave souls. Or stupid. Willing to risk a little cold and perhaps an injury to take advantage of the ease of flight provided by the day’s conditions. As I watched them and continued down my path, I wished for a big, strong wind behind my writing pen. I felt like it could be that easy, for the words to just flow and for some higher power, if you will, to send my hand in the direction it should go. I don’t write, I type, but that’s beside the point. I had been thinking about my writing and talking about my writing and learning about my writing all week, and I was good and ready to write. Come on wind, get behind me and let it rip.

I had been walking at what felt like a brisk pace for a good bit, lost in my head, when I came up to the first dead bird. It was then that I realized the colorful kites were far behind me, and that I appeared to, at least for the moment, be the only person on the beach. Partly buried in blowing sand, the sea bird was twisted, like it had been desperately avoiding a crash landing. A few paces beyond it, I passed another one, in much the same position. And then a little further down, another bird was in my path. This one alive but happily munching on a dead fish that had been washed to the shore by the violent waves. An opportunist if there ever was one. By the time I passed a lone yellow child’s beach chair, sitting next to a large pit that had been dug in the sand, my calming stroll on the beach had lost its charm. I was nowhere near sunny St. Petersburg. I was wandering in some post-apocalyptic landscape. This was the place ideas came to die. I was terrified that would be me. That I would come home from this conference and sit down, ready to create and nothing would come. That I would hold my fingers over the keyboard, ready for it to be easy, for the words to flow, and all I would have was dead carcasses and empty chairs and unexplained holes.

I pressed on. A glimpse of more kite-surfers farther down the beach gave me renewed hope and then the little timer on my iPhone rang, telling me I had been walking for thirty minutes and it was time to turn around. The brunt of the wind hit me full-force in the face. I had to pull the hood of my thin sweatshirt over my head and tie it tight under my chin to keep the wind out of my ears. The top layer of sand was dancing and swirling like angry fog over the packed earth beneath it, coming at me, pelting against my sunglasses and looking for openings in my shoes, trying to find any way in. Every step was its own journey. I tucked down and leaned in, pushing back as hard as I could at the wind. Try and stop me, I thought, digging my feet in. I suppose I could have cut between the hotels and made my way to the street, where the buildings would have blocked some of the force, but by then I was in it to win it.

The dead birds became landmarks and I scanned for them regularly as I pressed forward, knowing that passing each one would be an accomplishment, steps closer to home. The bird with the fish was long gone, having either finished his meal, or lost it back to the ocean, surely to be re-gifted by the waves to some other lucky bird farther to the south or north. I averted my gaze as I passed by the fallen, not wanting to see their twisted forms, thinking that they had lost the fight that I was going to win. As I got closer to my hotel, I passed a person. And then another. Idiots, I thought, counting myself and as one of them, wait till you turn around. You should have gone north first and gotten the hard part out of the way. I imagine I looked like an overwrought alien, my giant sunglasses protruding from my tightly-tied hood, which was no doubt pressed close against my head. My body hunched forward and my lips pressed in a tight line in a largely unsuccessful attempt to keep out the sand.

When I finally turned inland, the finish line in sight in the form of a large hotel, I allowed myself to revel in my victory. The journey back had been so much harder with the wind fighting me each step of the way. But I had made it. I was a little sweaty, despite the cold, I would be sore the next day and I would be taking home an inordinate amount of sand buried deep in my tennis shoes as a reminder of the day. I looked at my timer. It had seemed like an age, but it had only taken me eight extra minutes to make it back against the wind. Writing is like this, I realized. All of this. Sometimes the wind is at your back, and the going is easy. Roll with it. Sometimes it’ll be in your face, possibly blowing sand up your nose to spite you, but you can still keep going, and it really won’t take you much longer to get there if you just dig down and put one foot in front of the other. Maybe, don’t try to fly, just settle for a good slow pace. If a fish washes up on the shore, by all means, eat it. You know what I mean. And sometimes, all you will have are dead carcasses and empty chairs and unexplained holes. All I can say then is keep scanning the horizon for your proverbial kite-surfer. And when in doubt, try just turning around.


  1. Well told story...and good advice:)

    We recently worked with a veteran Story Board artist who gave us a great tip. While struggling to find a hook for a scene we were working on, he got up to leave the room and said, "don't work so hard, something will present itself." Wow. We’ve heard similar sayings before, but this time it hit home. Somehow the blank page (screen) isn’t as blank anymore.

    Keep up the good work!


  2. Karen,

    My lovely friend! This is my first time to read any of your writings. It is a perfect start. I really enjoyed it and am sending it to my daughter. She is 15 and is struggling in school a little right now. Perfect metaphore. Thanks for the link!