For years I’ve held an image in my head of a plant growing toward the light as a way of understanding the writing process.
It was an image that a beloved writing teacher shared with me years ago, and the image of my work growing toward the light--drawn to the light--helped me through some dark passages in my life as I tried to sort out which direction to follow in terms of what I wanted to write.
As long as I lived or worked in the city, surrounded by tall buildings which often cast their shadows in my path, I found it comforting to think of the writing process as a process of growth, and to believe, as my teacher reassured me, that if I kept writing, I would grow like a plant toward the light.
But after living in sun-drenched Florida for more than a decade, where the light is so intense that often I’ll draw the curtains to block out the light from my office, I’ve come to think of the writing process less like a plant growing toward the light and more like a sea turtle trying to lay her eggs in the dark.
If you’ve ever spent time on the coast of Florida, you may have noticed nests of sea turtles protected by orange or yellow police tape tied to the top of wooden stakes that volunteers have planted around the nests to protect the eggs buried in the sand.
And you’ll find signs like the one that greeted us in our hotel room in Sanibel last summer:
Keep lights near the beaches off or shielded from May through October. Artificial lighting from buildings or flashlights confuses nesting females and hatchlings. Disoriented by light, baby turtles wander away from the water and die.
After reading that sign, I began to wonder: what if darkness, rather than light, was needed for the creative process?
The more I thought about it, the more sense it made.
What if writing required that we mimic nesting sea turtles and swim in the dark? And what if light—any light at all—has the power to distract us from our purpose?
Just like the sea turtles, if we can’t find a nesting site because of the distracting lights, we'll wander away from our true purpose and die.
Since then I’ve asked myself what it means to truly swim in the dark.
It's an image that suggests we need to rely on our internal compass in order to know which direction to go in rather than relying on an external light source.
No matter what we write, the process of writing requires this kind of internal vision. To write, we need to cultivate an ability to look inside ourselves. We need to be curious about the world inside us, but even more we need to be compelled to discover that world in the same way that sea turtles are compelled to find a place in the darkness to lay their eggs.
Plants do grow toward the light, as my teacher assured me years ago.
Sometimes that’s an important image to hold in my head as I start out on an unknown path.
It’s comforting to know there is light beyond the darkness, and that the sun does shine and warm the earth, and that its light and warmth will nurture growth.
But sometimes it’s just as important for me to remember not to trust an external source to dictate a direction that I can know only from swimming in darkness.
It’s the process of swimming in darkness, after all, that gives me a way of learning to trust my own instincts.