Poorly defined trail

In Banff, nearly a decade ago, I took a walk on a Sunday with a couple of other writers. At the “trailhead,” a white piece of board nailed to a makeshift post bore the words:






A lovely discovery for writers off duty (as if writers ever are). I haven’t forgotten that sign, that trail. And so I find myself thinking this morning of the poorly defined trail. That lovely path of uncertain duration, destination.

This month, life intervenes and little writing (I suspect) will happen. At times like these, I think of the closing lines of David Bergen’s essay in the Pen Canada anthology Writing Life: “There was no writing in those days, but they made the writing that came after possible.”

The only path I can see through March is poorly defined. How will the work happen? Will it happen? A friend wrote recently, “Writing is never really about writing, as we know.”

I hope Bergen’s words and the words of my writer friend will be true of this month, this trail. I trust that, one way or another, they will. After all, I’m still carrying around that water, those rocks, the backs of Gabriella’s hiking boots, those grey skies, the interior life that inhabited me then. How long do we carry the things we carry? Perhaps, for writers, it is until we have figured out what they are for. Until we know how to use them.


Margaret Atwood says, “Novels are about time.” These days I’m trying to teach myself to write a novel. Writing a novel, to me, feels like wrestling with time in a way that other writing doesn’t. It feels like an impossible task–the proverbial octopus with five arms tucked in just as the first begins to make its escape again. And one can’t draft the whole (not even a very rough or poor version of the whole) in a single sitting, or a week of sittings, as one can with a poem or essay. So a novel requires some form of continuity and steadfastness across a great duration of time in quantities it is difficult to sustain while one is also bearing and parenting small children. Not only does it take time to write a novel, and time to read one, but novels are, in some important way, about duration in time (as Atwood says) and also about extension in space–these very human problems. I’ve found trying to write a novel is complicated and difficult in many of the same ways life is complicated and difficult: novel-writing in some way (at least for me) seems to mimic or reproduce the problems of being embodied–of experiencing the world necessarily, as Kant had it, in space and in time.


Of course, we know octopus wrestling is never really about the octopus. My novel-writing problems are peculiar to me in important (and potentially instructive) ways. But even though everyone’s poorly defined trail looks a little different, I’m always on the lookout for models–particularly other mothers of small children writing novels (other mothers of small children doing anything of their own that requires sustained focus, really). I’m willing to find my models anywhere, to learn from anyone. There’s a story of an octopus wrestler of the 1940s named O’Rourke who succeeded where others failed by conspiring to have himself lowered into the water as live bait, staying there until an octopus was “sufficiently wrapped around him,” at which point his partner waiting in the boat above would haul him to the surface.

We all need such partners–those who can tell, even at a distance, our triumphant splashing from our desperate flailing. A writer needs someone at a distance waiting in a boat, ready to haul her out when the moment is called for. Sometimes we have these happy companions available. But inevitably, we will sometimes need to split ourselves apart in space and time and do this for ourselves, dive down and wait above, let the octopus find us and also haul ourselves hard and fast out of the water, in success or in failure.


A poorly defined trail is not pristine wilderness–others have walked that way before. They are the true explorers, and their feet have cleared a hint of a trail. No writer is ever really off duty–which means everything is a metaphor, and the metaphors change as often as we need them to. It is said of O’Rourke that “He knew full well, many years ago, what today’s octopus wrestlers are just beginning to learn—that it is impossible for a man with two arms to apply a full nelson on an octopus; he knew full well the futility of trying for a crotch hold on an opponent with eight crotches.”

I think this is wonderfully literal. And I also can’t help but hear it as a metaphor for novel-writing, and also for mothering, and certainly for the attempt to do both in the same life, the same space and time. I love what O’Rourke knew–it’s not that the task is impossible, only one must have the courage to surrender to the inevitability of being overcome by one’s mark, at least for a time. One must be prepared to go beneath the surface, to stay there.


And so, this month I will be off duty, but not off duty–never off duty. I’ll be following this poorly defined trail, looking for the footprints of others who have walked this way, while practicing the crotch hold on my 19 month old.

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