When you buy a 45-year old pontoon boat complete with tiki roof and torches, you have to expect problems. You just don’t expect them on your maiden voyage.
It was our first Father’s Day living on the lake. Both of our kids were working, so my husband decided the two of us should celebrate his big day with mimosas on the water.
In the middle of our bay, my husband cut the engine, and we drifted away from our house, pushed along by a gentle morning breeze. I closed my eyes and sighed. All was well.
After we finished our drinks, we tooled around the other bay (our lake looks like a number eight) before turning the boat toward home. A third of the way back, the engine stopped. It was simply running one second and not running the next.
Small insistent whitecaps now slapped at the side of our boat, and without a motor, we quickly drifted farther away from home. My husband kept trying the motor. Then he took off its lid, muttering, “I don’t know what I’m looking for, and even if I did, I don’t have any tools.”
Before long, the side of our boat ran into a long bed of cattails—on the opposite side of the lake from where we lived.
That’s when it came to me—this was a lot like writing.
Get comfortable with uncertainty. Floating there, stuck there, I didn’t know what was going to happen next. Maybe not a single boat would come our way. Maybe we’d burn to a crisp or start taking on water, sinking slowly into the leech-filled muck below.
The same holds true with a blank page. Now what? In situations like this, I often panic, but the combination of the mimosas and water seemed to be having a sedative effect on me. Huh, I thought while my husband fiddled with the motor and vigorously shook the gas tank. This is a pickle.
Get comfortable with futility. As we pushed up against the cattails populated by busy red-winged black birds, I picked up the paddle, thinking I’d long-pole it toward a house that was a good quarter-mile away. No go. The wind was too strong and the boat was too heavy for me to move it even a foot, let alone the whole way. We were dead in the water.
I recently had a conversation with a writer who was working on a memoir. I asked him how his process was going. He told me that it had taken him several months to find the right way in. During that time, he’d tried all sorts of different things that turned out to be dead ends. But, he said, “I trusted myself. Eventually, I knew I’d find something that worked.”
Try and try again. After sitting like that for ten minutes —pushed up against the sibilant reeds—my husband tried the engine once more. It caught, and we started making progress back across the choppy water.
Students often ask me how many times they should revise something. “Until it’s right,” I answer.
“But what if it takes three or four rewrites?”
I hate to burst their bubbles. “It might take three or four years.”
Sometimes the direct route is the best. Sometimes, it isn’t. I am not good at math, but even I know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. When he got the boat restarted, my husband made a beeline for home. That meant we were driving straight into the wind and against the biggest waves.
Halfway home, the motor died again. Immediately, I started paddling hard, urging the boat toward some low hanging trees where I knew there was a sandbar. I was actually paddling away from home, but toward something that I knew would catch. As we beached on the sand, I saw a school of minnows—their silver sides flashing in the shadows and light.
We often write toward the big things—death, divorce, despair. The question is, do we bear down and go directly at them? Sometimes that might be the best course of action. Other times, it might be wiser to hug the land, the certain shore, and inch our way towards them. That way, not only can we feel safe and supported, we might discover other small and wondrous things along the way, like the flash of a silver minnow.
Thank God for the kindness of others. That sandbar was within a doable—but exhausting—swim of our house. I was about to jump in and “just keep swimming” when a fishing boat happened by. We flagged down the man wearing an America! t-shirt and asked if he could help. He told us to throw him our rope, and he pulled us—backwards—all the way home.
When we reached our dock, we thanked the man and told him to stop by if he ever needed anything. “Like a beer,” my husband joked.
“I’ll take you up on that,” the man smiled as he pushed the throttle down on his shiny new boat and zipped off across the lake.
I’d be lost without my writing friends—and especially my husband—who generously offer their time to help my work limp along to a better place. They read draft after draft, make suggestions, and give me encouraging and frank feedback. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing—and life and tiki boats—it’s that I often can’t get where I want to go without some help along the way.
Starting the day off with a mimosa doesn’t hurt either.