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Tonight, driving Lake City Way through Kenmore, I saw at least a thousand crows flying west. The sky was clear and then, suddenly, it was littered with crows. They flew at a great distance from one another, but still they flew in the same direction, headed, no doubt, to the same destination.
I heard a bit about crows on NPR this morning. (I listen to NPR every morning.) The bit was all about how crows will find a common site to spend the night—a rooftop, or a tree. I imagined the birds I saw tonight all huddled together in a big oak or poplar. I imagine they’re there right now.
I’ve done a lot of noticing lately. The past few days have been beautiful, weather-wise. Perfect fall weather. Pastoral, even. The days are getting much shorter, and I have less time to notice the way things look outside when the sun is out—even if it is hidden behind a blanket of clouds. My commute time is about the only time I can really spend looking around.
The other day there was a bald eagle just outside my office. Okay, it wasn’t right outside my office; it was several hundred yards away, high in a tree. But I could see it quite clearly, and that was enough. It stayed there for a couple hours, maybe more. I couldn’t stop watching it. I had plenty of work to do, but I couldn’t stop watching this bird that apparently had nothing it needed to do.
I felt kind of bad about spending so much time watching the eagle. I didn’t get much done in those two or three hours. I called my co-workers to my office and showed them what I was watching. They all oohed and aahed.
Yesterday I drove to Mt Vernon to give a workshop on drafting and revising to a class of nursing students. The workshop went really well. I spent much more time in that class than I’d anticipated, but that was okay. The students were really engaged, very energetic and full of questions. I was really ‘on,’ too. I’d done a lot of prepping , even though I’ve given this workshop a number of times.
And throughout the workshop, I spent some time noticing things, too. I noticed how comfortable I was in front of the class. I noticed how focused I was. I noticed how I moved, where I stood, how I listened and responded to the students. I noticed how much I knew and how much of that I shared with the class. I noticed their needs and I noticed how I tried to meet them.
I noticed how much I’ve changed, how much I’ve grown as an instructor.
There was a time, six or so years ago, that I was a horrible instructor. I taught freshman comp and I absolutely sucked at it. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and I stressed about it all the time. But there was no time then to learn how to do better. I had my writing to focus on. I had classes of my own. I didn’t have much time to notice anything else.
Just as with everything else I’ve written in the past week, I have no idea where this is going. I am writing about crows and trees and teaching. I am writing about students and eagles and work.
I think what I wanted to write about is nature. Most of the things I have been noticing lately are out there, somewhere, in nature. Driving to and from Mt Vernon, on that stretch of I-5 that seems to go on forever, I felt nearly giddy. The day was gorgeous—in the fifties, clear and autumnal. Right then, in the car, I wanted to write about it all. I wanted to pull over and grab my notebook and sit on the side of the road and write until I’d placed the entire scene on paper.
But I couldn’t do it.
I could have pulled over, yes, as long as I didn’t miss the workshop. And I could have grabbed my notebook and started writing. That is true too.
But I couldn’t get the scene on paper. There was too much.
If you haven’t been there, one thing you should know about the stretch between Bothell and Mt Vernon is that it’s flat. Once you get past Everett, the scene just opens up, like a book falling open to its most comfortable page, and you can see everything. There’s no way I could have described it all. I tried to perform the translation in my mind as I drove. I thought if I could just tell myself what I was seeing, rather than just seeing it, I could have the words to get it all on paper.
But I couldn’t do it. There weren’t that many words. And the words I did have weren’t the right ones. They were trite and empty.
So instead I watched the land drive by and I watched the Cascades and imagined I could run my hand across their tops. I imagined how sharp the peaks were, and how the edges would rip open my palm. I thought about this for miles. I didn’t have to work hard to stick with that one image. I’m not sure why it seemed so appealing to have my hand sliced open by mountain tops. It was sort of like that feeling you get when you are driving and you stick your hand out the window and let it rise and fall against the wind. That same sort of disconnect.
I can’t remember what pulled me out of those thoughts, what caused me to reengage with my hands on the steering wheel, my foot on the gas, the road noise, the traffic. I’m not quite sure when I stopped looking at the mountains and when I started driving again. And I thought: I’ll never be a nature writer. Let Barry Lopez do it. He’s pretty good at it. Me—I’m better at other things.
And then I thought: what am I good at?
I was still pretty jazzed about the class, and I suppose I rode that high for a while, and I thought about the job I do and how much more I have been doing it lately. And I’m pretty good at it.
I thought I should write all of that down, too. The way my hands remain dry when I’m in front of a class, the way I can sound smart and actually feel smart at the same time. The way I felt like everyone wanted me to be there, wanted me to talk to them.
At one point during the workshop, I somehow put myself on autopilot for a few minutes and went first outside the window, just enough to notice the leaves and sky and find my car in the parking lot. Then I was back in my head, likely listening to a student answer a question, and I was telling myself who I am. I was placing myself in time and space. I am 35. I am teaching a class. I drove here from Bothell because someone asked me to teach this class.
And so on.
And now I’m here on my couch and my laptop is on my lap and my feet are on my coffee table and my dog is resting his head on my arm and breathing into my ear.
And I am trying to be good at what I am doing. I am trying to notice what I am doing while I am doing it and it’s not working. I am too aware of what I am writing. Too aware that I am not writing about what I thought I’d write about, or maybe it’s less about content and more about process. I’m too aware that I’m not writing like I wanted to write.
I need to disassociate. I need to find a way, when I am writing, to notice the peaks of the Cascades and run my palm along them and not think of driving.
This laptop is feeling heavy on my lap, and my dog is pressing his jaw into my arm. I am too present to my now. I am too aware of where I am and what I want to do. I have tried so hard to write tonight, if only for an hour, and while there are words on the page, they do not capture the litter of thoughts in my head, or the vast landscapes between those thoughts.
I look back on what I wrote a couple nights ago, and I think about how the thoughts just sort of came out of me. I remember how there wasn’t much effort in what I was doing, just that I was doing it.
I came to the page tonight not wanting to write. I forced sentences and words into my head and from my head to my hands and I have put words on the page, but they are not the words I wanted to see.
One writing exercise I’ve followed tells you to write about one thing. Freewrite for a minute about X. Then stop. Now start again, but this time, begin your first sentence with ‘what I wanted to write about is.’
I don’t know what would happen if I began a sentence with that phrase right now. I don’t know if I’d manage to get out what I thought I would get out tonight. I thought I would have written about the difference between writing about nature and writing about character. I thought I’d write about how I do not feel I am able to write about nature and how instead I feel much more comfortable writing about people.
I thought I would write about the students I worked with this week. Or that I’d write about the bus driver I met at the park and how odd it felt to have a conversation with a bus driver without being on a bus. I thought I’d write about the stretch of land between Bothell and Mt Vernon, and the people who might live in that area north of Everett. I didn’t know that I would write about so much without writing about any of this.
So I’m wondering how to retrain my brain, if that’s what needs to happen. Or how to retrain my Self. How do I tell myself that tonight, for one hour or more, I will sit on my couch with my feet on the coffee table and my dog’s weight pressed into my thigh and I will write about this one thing? I’ve forgotten how to approach the page with a thought in my head and how to push that thought onto the page. There was a time when I was able to do it. I wrote stories and I knew my characters quite well.
Lately the page seems empty to me. Instead of possibility and product, I see big and white and empty. I see what I am writing and I see that my fingers are moving and that there are words coming out, but instead of seeing a series of connected thoughts, I see only black shapes. Rather than trying to fill the page with a certain thing, I am trying to fill the page with a series of black shapes. A combination of letters and symbols.
Scott used to tell me that writers have it easy. We only need to work with 26 letters. Artists, he would tell me, have to work with the entire world, its shapes, its colors, its movements.
Maybe that’s why I couldn’t get the scene down on the page. Maybe that’s why my story about the crows has no real meaning. Twenty six letters is not enough.
Even so, there should be some way for me to decide that I will use these 26 letters to write about one thing and that I will sit on my couch and do it. That I will pick one thing from that scene and write about it. That I will find my character and follow her.