It isn’t often that I wake up and start writing a novel, but more than a week ago, I made the decision to do so. The occasion? A cast of characters fermenting in my mind intersected with a phenomenon I’d forgotten about: National Novel Writing Month.
As far as I can tell, it was fifteen years ago the last time I’d attempted NaNoWriMo. It came with a simple set of rules: Start from scratch. Write 50,000 words in a month. Fiction preferred. Quash your inner editor and just keep the story rolling, no matter how ludicrous it might be. Rack up the word count by the end of the month, and you win. End of story.
The point? During this month of writing, you learn things. For people who have regular jobs, how to find time to write is an important lesson. So is how to get family members and friends to respect your writing time.
I’m already an author. So for me, the learning curve is different. After my first cup of coffee is ready, I plunge into the blank space with a fervor. A flurry of index cards, scribbled on with ideas, urge me along. “Pick me! Pick me!”
As I quickly learn, it’s a time waster to keep riffling through them. Better to start my main character down the road and see where he ends up. Literally. By the time I look up again, three hours have passed and John is awake. Time for breakfast and extra fortifications of coffee.
He exits, and I return to writing, this time with a secret weapon: a soundtrack. I’d dabbled with putting together a playlist of music that fit the time and place and characters of this novel. Off it rolls, and I only catch snippets in the back of my brain as the story moves along.
I send my character out for lunch and I look up: it’s noon. Okay, this is silly. I’m hungry, so I decide to interrupt his lunch with a cascade of minor problems. He never gets his sandwich, and the clock ticks off six hours of writing. I’ve hit 5,186 words.
Oops. I’m supposed to pace myself, not dash though and burst into flames. Lesson one: set a time limit. I waited those last few minutes, rearranging a phrase, and closed the document precisely at the six hour mark. Perhaps tomorrow it’ll be a four hour mark. But today I learned that six hours is a sensible outer limit.
John returned home and said he needed to go for a ride to clear his head. “Take me!” I said. So we loaded up the bikes and headed to the Coast-to-Coast Trail.
As we parked, ducks started running to us from every direction. It was uncannily like a scene plotted in my mind today but not written. I stepped out of the car, fearful of being pecked to death by ducks, as Tim Cahill once wrote. But the ducks lost interest in us after it was obvious we had no food for them. I thought about my childhood excursions to feed ducks at the duck pond and here, a dozen duck generations later, was the result. Ducks trained to appear on demand. Another bell chimed in my mind, tied to story. Is this how it works? I leave the house to avoid writing too much in one day, but my writing is still going on in my head? Hmmm.
We didn’t start the ride where I expected, so I shifted my expectations. Riding parallel to US 1 isn’t very interesting. Once we closed in on the old Nevins Fruit Packing House I’d reached new ground. And thankfully, even though the trail was torn up right at SR 46, we had no traffic to wait for and could keep on rolling, even when a line of cars snaked past full of parents picking up schoolkids.
By this point, I’d remembered the White Sands Buddhist Center, a destination that I dare say a small minority of the folks in our county even realize is here. I suggested that it be our goal for the ride, so I could decide then whether to sit there in mindfulness or ride back to Titusville.
A bright light approached us. John skidded to a halt as he recognized the rider. The Bearded Gent, aka Gary. In his phone, John is JK the Miata Hiker. As we talked, I thought how the world of casual cyclists is as small as the world of Florida hikers. He spoke of his serendipitous meeting with the Communications Director of the East Coast Greenway, and the day he saw three panthers in Scottsmoor.
“Two of them were blocking the trail, staring at me. I tried to get my camera out but my brain froze. All I could think was, ‘Lion!’” His eyes grew wide as he spoke.
He told us about the many snakes he’d seen, from a pygmy rattler that stood its ground to plump cottonmouths stretching out in the sun. It’s that time of year, of course— as the air gets cooler, the reptiles seek to soak in the heat that the paved path releases.
I thought about the squirrel I’d just seen minutes before, sprawled across the pavement just north of the line of cars waiting for school to let out in Mims. With its eyes closed and its body perfectly still, I’d assumed the squirrel was dead. I’d already adjusted my arc of travel to miss the bundle of fur when its eyes opened and it scampered off the pavement.
I couldn’t help but worry about the darkening clouds overhead. It took another 15 minutes or so to reach the gap in the sand pines to visit White Sands. A dampness in the air drew the sweet scent of pine out of the needles, infusing the landscape around me with memories from childhood, delightful aromascapes from walking in balsam woods.
I pushed my bike into the gardens and leaned it against a tree. Stillness. Muted light reflected on the massive forms of the Buddha. I thought I saw a movement, and so I walked to the gift shop. It was there I met a woman who, like myself, was engaged in making art. She had colored pencils and a painting in front of her. The synapses didn’t quite connect.
“Watercolor pencils!” She proceeded to tell me how they worked for her art and why. I admitted I’d forgotten they existed. It was too long since I’d made art. This kind of art, that is.
She began to whirl the paper. “Which way do you think it looks best?” As it turns out, our interpretation of form and structure on this piece were 180 degrees out of synch. I saw an iris; she saw a bird’s nest. We could each see elements of the other. She then told me of her struggle to illustrate a children’s book with an author who could only see the story as it was written, not as it was illustrated through her creative lens.
I felt as I had received a koan.
It was time to ruminate on it. Could I express it, or understand it?
The fountain murmured before me, keeping distant noise to a low drone. I kept hearing a skittering noise at the edge of my perception. For some, this is a noise associated with mice and rats and horrible things that go bump in the night.
For me, it means lizards. As I sat quietly, I saw their shadows moving. Suddenly, an anole no longer than my thumb jumps on the armrest of my bench and regards me gravely. It is staring. At my blindingly pink shirt.
It occurs to me I am a color out of place, until I look around. I match well with the smattering of blossoms that surround me, the drooping pink impatiens and pale scarlet hibiscuses, the perky pink flowers on a gnarled desert rose.
I look at the lizard again, and it looks at me. Around us, the air is thick but not still: sporadic bursts of cool air make the leaden nature of the clouds a little less oppressive. On my last visit, blue skies made for a stellar backdrop to a tour of the temple and its grounds. Today, the journey is inward.