“writing a novel* is like driving in the dark. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
–E.L. Doctorow (from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott)
*Insert “weaving a tapestry,” “making a painting,” “living a life.”
I find this perspective of living a creative life immensely comforting, because so much of the time it is an exercise in staying present, noticing, doing what’s next. The big picture, for most of us most of the time, is out of reach. To remind myself of this I look back a year, two years, ten years and ask myself, “is this where I imagined I’d be?”
The answer to that question is a resounding “NO.” No matter what I predict will happen, it probably won’t, at least not in the way that I think. Terrifying? Yes. Exciting, exhilarating, freeing? Yes. But did I mention terrifying?
I really don’t like driving at night. I never have. Nor have I ever been fond of driving winding mountain roads (even though I grew up driving on them). Even in the daytime. I can do it just fine, but there’s always a low-grade sense of anticipation. Sometimes when I was a teen-ager, new to driving, I’d round a tight bend in the road and there’d be deer, elk, bighorn sheep, bicyclists…one time an owl snacking on a dead squirrel in the road at dusk, rose up before me in an immense flash of surprise, temporarily blinding me to the road ahead. No, give me a vast horizon. Those places that seem like you can see the curve of the earth in the distance. I like the long view.
Still, sometimes I’m reminded of the beauty of not knowing, or seeing, what’s around the next bend. Once, I rounded a mountain turn and saw not far from the road was a moose mama and her young calf, nursing. Not knowing what’s around the corner could mean I could come across anything from a suicidal squirrel, to clear roads ahead, and everything in between. There could just as easily be something magical and unexpected around the bend.
The “what if…?” cycle is a painful (and unproductive) one. The sisters Procrastination and Frustration (see an earlier blog for more on their sneaky ways) love planting this paralyzing phrase in our minds at vulnerable future-fearing moments. But the truth is that NO MATTER WHAT I IMAGINE IT WILL BE, IT WON’T. I may, if I listen carefully, have a flash of insight (or a gentle nudge) in a direction, but it will never be just what I think it will be. Collaborating with the unknown is one of the greatest joys in art-making, and in life. This means we need to remember to have the courage to relax into it, and just keep rolling, even if we can only see as far as our headlights.