Today is the last day of my self-designated writing-intensive month. I decided not to do National Novel Writing Month this year – NaNoWriMo was fun last year, but its target of 50,000 words in the month of November didn’t seem a good fit for me this year. I had a family trip to New York planned in early November, and I don’t need to write 50K more words, necessarily. (Also the project is supposed to be a new novel, though people openly fudge on that, and on various other rules as well – there’s even a discussion forum on the site called NaNo Rebels!)
At one point a few months ago, I had the idea that my personal goal for NaNoWriMo this year should be to complete my first draft. I have a lot of stuff written, but since my process is in no way linear, I still need to knit it together into an actual coherent story. I’ve been doing some of that, a combination of revision plus writing new material to fill in missing pieces. There is a ton of it to do, and I keep having to remind myself that trying to rush it is not only counterproductive in general, but also runs completely counter to the theme of my novel, which is about time going too fast!!
Though I let go of the (completely unrealistic) fantasy of finishing a draft this year, I was having trouble letting go of doing some kind of special focus on my writing at NaNoWriMo time. So, with Don’s support, I decided to try doing two longer self-guided writing retreats within one month’s time. I spent 5 days (plus packing & travel time) in November at an AirBnB on the Lemonweir River in Mauston WI, and 5 days (plus packing & travel time) in December at a friend’s cabin on the Wisconsin River.
Having so much time to devote to writing in these beautiful, comfortable spaces felt like an incredible privilege. It was also, at times, a bit daunting. I finally understood at a gut level why people say writing a book is work. Of course, I wasn’t writing 24/7. I slept, and meditated, and took walks, and cooked my meals, and spent time on reading and research as well as writing. But coming back to the project day after day, hour after hour, definitely took discipline. As did packing up to leave again for the second retreat 2 weeks after returning from the first one. Fortunately a writing buddy was joining me for a day and a half of the second retreat, or I might’ve been seriously tempted to stay home.
I put in approximately 110 hours of time on the project in the 30 days between Nov. 15 and Dec. 15. I have written 6000 new words on the manuscript (not counting this blog, or my daily ‘Morning Pages,’ or my weekly contemplative writing practice class). I have also done a bunch of scene revision, plotting, idea mapping, character sketching, and diagramming. I was able to sort through some of the complexities of the scientific ideas, and get into a good frame of heart/mind to write some challenging scenes that I wasn’t getting to while working in shorter chunks of time.
One downside of so much time away was that my practice of protecting my weekday mornings at home for writing was harder to maintain during the month because of cramming other activities in while I was home to make up for the time away. It’s kind of a tradeoff between deep & long vs. short & steady.
Ah, but all of the above is probably not very interesting to you unless you’re a writer, or an aspiring writer. Here, for everyone, for the first time (drumroll, please) is an excerpt from an ACTUAL SCENE from my manuscript. It’s a fitting choice to honor the rivers of my two retreat locations.
As Ruth entered the canopy of the flaming maple tree at the edge of the field, the sunshine almost seemed brighter, as if filtering through the golden leaves amplified the light. The ground, flatter here, was also strewn with bright yellow. To her right she saw a path leading into the woods, marked with a wooden sign. It was in the shape of an arrow pointing down the path, and had on it a simple, childlike painting of a stream, with blue wavy lines and a reddish-brown fish-head poking out of the water. Smiling, she followed the direction it pointed, beginning down the leaf-strewn path.
As she stepped fully into the woods, a sudden breath of cooler, moister air greeted her with the smell of leaves-becoming-soil. Her pace slowed as she listened to the rustling of squirrels and the bird calls around her. The path switch-backed a couple of times down the side of the hill. After a few minutes she began to hear the sound of trickling water, and to catch glimpses of reflected sunlight below her. Around another bend, she came to a muddy section of the path with wooden planks laid on it in sections. The makeshift boardwalk led to a small wooden footbridge over the stream. A side path with more boards led off to the right before the bridge, and she followed it a few paces along the stream’s edge until she found a suitable rock to sit on.
Settling onto the cool, lichen-covered surface and propping her booted feet on smaller rocks at the very edge of the creek, Ruth sighed. The stream was lovely. It sparkled in beams of sunlight that made it through the still partially-clothed trees, and burbled as it danced over rocks of many colors. Some fallen leaves flowed quickly past her in the stream’s center, while others eddied slowly near the edge.
She’d always had a fascination with flowing water. It wasn’t just pretending she was the Girl from Atlantis in the shower. She remembered how as a child, when the neighbor’s sprinkler was on, she used to love watching leaves travel by in the street gutters. The journey of a single leaf took on epic proportions in her mind, then and now, as she watched it angle and turn to catch the current, struggle against obstacles, get caught and sucked under, or released to sail onward.
Her very first publication had been a poem about rivers. She’d been about 10 or 12 and it had been printed in the “Neighbors” page of the local paper. Without thinking, she began to recite it aloud now. “Rivers rushing, cold and clear…” She felt a little shy, as if her words were interrupting the birdsong and the chatter of the squirrels. But the babbling of the brook offered cover, and if the birds were judging her, she’d never have to hear about it. She began again and recited the whole poem.
Cold and clear
I can hear
The rivers rushing down the falls
The sound of rushing water calls
I have to come
And listen more
To see what rivers
Have in store
For me, for you, for everyone
Upon the rivers rushing
It had been a while since she’d thought of the poem, and she was glad she could still remember it. Suddenly, though, she realized that even at age twelve, she’d seen the rivers as rushing. Sparkling and splashing, yes, but also rushing. She sighed. What was that song Mim had sung to her the other day? Slow down, child, slow down. Something about a river flowing from within you, carrying you home. Allowing unfolding.
As a young adult, on her first real wilderness canoe trip, she’d discovered how a river’s flow could be a deep meditation on time. This was decades before she’d learned sitting meditation, and sitting still was very hard for her in those days. But somehow, sitting by a moving stream, she could find stillness, maybe because it was moving so quickly. Or was it?
She watched an individual droplet as it plunged over a cascade, trying to gauge the speed of the stream. Then she followed a patch of bubbles on the surface as it moved past — racing in some places, meandering in others. It was overwhelming, to think of all the drops, all the bubbles, moving so fast, for so long, all the way from this small tributary to the ocean… To avoid dizzying herself she shifted her perspective back to seeing the stream as a whole, and it seemed much more static. Instead of seeing myriad droplets plunging past her, she saw a standing wave. The water made a more-or-less stationary, uniform shape as it flowed over solid rocks and between the banks. Sure, there were random moments of change within the standing waves, but even those seemed to come and go like familiar friends, a curl or ripple at the edge disappearing into a smooth wave again, then the side-curl re-emerging again.
Ever since that first realization, she had loved to sit still by a river like this and deliberately move her attention back and forth between the two perspectives. It reminded her of the particle/wave duality in quantum mechanics. And of course, she knew that if she could sit there long enough, she’d see how the river, over a much longer time, was shaping its own banks, wearing down the very rocks that configured its flow. The song by Cris Williamson, “The changer and the changed,” began to go through Ruth’s mind.
It was yet another level to try to remember that the river was all three at once — rushing droplets, stationary waves, and a channeled flow whose course morphed with the ponderous pace of geologic time. “Oh!” she exclaimed aloud now as she realized, Maybe this is how I can learn to ‘horge*’! Maybe I just need to shift from seeing drops, to seeing waves. Or from seeing waves, to seeing the riverbed itself? She suspected that horging, if it was really a thing, might need to be a more gradual slowing or speeding of her perception of time. Still, it was a place to start.
Ruth’s butt felt cold and sore from sitting on the rock. As she stood up she picked up a stone and tossed it with a gentle underhand into a part of the stream that was smooth. Plunk! A gout of water shot up, and the stone plummeted to the bottom. It reminded her of that guided visualization where you imagine yourself as a stone in a river, falling to the bottom, settling there, allowing the busyness to flow over and past you. But wait! There was also that Zen teaching, about learning to be like a smooth round ball floating on the surface of a moving river — to go with the flow, not be thrown off center by it… Maybe, she thought as she headed back up the path, I can learn to do both as needed – to slow down, get heavy, sink to the bottom, let the water smooth me out. Then, when action is needed, to rise again, filled with air, smooth and light and traveling with ease, even joy, along the rushing river of life?!
*Horge is a made-up word introduced earlier in the chapter. It’s a way of moving or bridging between different rates of time.