Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Shell Path

Even though I don’t live near the sea, there’s a shell path on the side of our front yard, a narrow swath of white seashells that marks the boundary between our property and our neighbor’s yard.

It’s not a very wide path, perhaps two feet across, and it’s not a very long path, maybe thirty or forty feet long, but it helps establish a clear line between the two yards, and I love the way the shells remind me of the sea, even if I can’t see or hear it from our home.

Every month or so I spend a few hours moving up and down the path pulling weeds. It is tedious work because the weeds are often long and stringy and deeply rooted. It’s not easy to grasp them, especially when wearing gardening gloves, and it’s never easy to pull them out entirely.

I’ll squat on my heels, stretching my calves and Achilles tendons, straining my quads, until I switch legs for balance or to relieve a cramp, and I’ll work with my back bent beneath the warm sun and think about the sea and how the sunlight sparkles off its surface and how the waves roll into shore and then retreat out to sea again.

After ten or fifteen minutes, it’s easy to lose my patience and perspective, to forget the larger picture—how the path serves as a boundary between our yards, how the shells, once weeded, look so beautiful, like a path stretching toward the sea—and it’s easy to become frustrated because the work doesn’t go faster.

But becoming frustrated doesn’t help the work. It only inhibits my ability to enjoy the sight of the shells and the vision of the finished path in my mind.

That's when I have to remind myself to slow down, to let go of my expectations of how the work should go, and to see—really look hard and see—what’s in front of me at this moment, to understand what needs to be taken care of now.

Maybe the weeds don’t belong where they are growing, or I'd prefer them to grow elsewhere, but rushing to pull them will only mean that I’ll miss more of the weeds than I’ll pull. And then I’ll only have to return to pull out the rest at some point.

This process of weeding, of keeping the shell path free of weeds, reminds me of the way the revision process works.

I’ll put down words in the same way a gardener might put down a shell path. At first, the words look perfect. The sentences appear straightforward, the verbs and adjectives strong and firmly rooted, and there isn’t a weed in sight.

But then I begin to see things that I didn’t see, not because I wasn’t careful or precise when I put the words down, but because I simply lacked the ability to see the weeds. I was too close to the material.

So, when I go back to the beginning of a manuscript to revise it, I try to slow down, to look at it as part of a larger picture, to understand what needs to be done in this moment. It’s the same process as weeding the shell path.

I have to pull unnecessary words the same way I pull weeds on the shell path. I have to go back to the beginning and start over. Neatening, straightening, clearing out clutter, cleaning up.

I want the manuscript to read cleanly, without any distractions for the reader, just as I want the path to offer a clear, unobstructed path, whether it leads to our back yard or to the sea in my imagination.

This kind of work takes patience. It requires a willingness to slow down and really see what is on the page (not what I might hope or think is on the page but what is actually there).

Most of all, it takes a certain commitment and devotion to work on the path, to keep working, even when my legs and back ache, even when my fingers start to bleed from reaching past the sharp edges of the shells and the gloves have torn, even when the mosquito bites itch and the red ant bites burn as if my skin is on fire.

Each writer must learn how to stay in the moment and do this work.


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