Learning to Float

It was gray, raining, but a narrow ribbon of cornflower blue ran between the stormy patches to the north. The ribbon ran over the long rolling hills around Zanesville, over the Love’s where the old men in Arby’s were talking about bad weather, over the damp flat fields outside of Columbus, where corn stalks were bare and bent with November.

“You’ve always had goals, and you’ve always achieved them,” Jorge said, driving. He’d be on a flight to Mexico in two hours, watching the steel-and-wheat-colored industrial north disappear, sipping a chela, anticipating the appearance of desert, dry rolling hills, a thousand tiny colored boxes. I’d be en route back to the cabin in rural southeastern Ohio where we were living, wondering where I got lost, when exactly the route had petered out, and whether there would be another to take its place.

“That’s exactly it,” I said. “The deeper I get into this the more amorphous the goals become. The deeper I get into it the more I find interesting. The less I know.” It’s not as if the goals shimmer away, mirages – it’s that each time I approach them they seem so much smaller, so much less significant, just tiny niches in the huge ecosystem of writing.

Let me be specific. In the beginning, which was approximately 2008, when I decided not to take a teaching job and to give full-time writing a go, I simply wanted to “live from writing.” It took maybe two months to realize that “living from writing” meant churning out a whole bunch of fluff about culinary trends in Oaxaca, and the type of writing I wanted to do would require a staunch, sacrificial imperviousness to lucre. The type of writing I wanted to do then was basically whatever popped into mind, the pursuit of a flare of interest in an idea or an everyday moment. I had a blog, of course. I was – oh cringe, oh horror – “finding my voice.” I wrote what I believed in and ended up getting a job as an editor and contributing writer that paid for my meager living expenses in Mexico. First goal met. I was, albeit somewhat indirectly, living from writing. I was passionate about my work, which fed my writing and vice versa. And then I began wanting more – more intellectual stimulation and guidance, a breakthrough to another level as a professional writer. In 2009 I applied to M.F.A. programs, and in 2010 was accepted to the University of Pittsburgh’s writing program with full funding. Another goal, met. I was ecstatic.

When I came to Pittsburgh I could’ve clearly stated that my goal, like that of six million other beginning writers, was to write for the big glorious magazines of literary fame, the ones winning the National Magazine Awards and perpetually showing up in The Best American Travel Writing. Pittsburgh’s M.F.A., unlike many creative nonfiction programs, was heavily focused on literary journalism, and for me this was ideal. As I tend to do, I tunneled my ambition obsessively towards this goal, and moved closer, and closer, until finally I tasted it. It was close enough that I was almost, almost level with it.

But by then I was reading and loving Anna Karenina. I was reading Tin House, Louise Erdrich, Beryl Markham, Robert Bly, Poetry magazine. I’ve always been a voracious reader, but in the past my tastes had been almost exclusively nonfiction. I was never interested in studying literature. In college I majored in History and History of Science and reveled in books like Bill Cronin’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, thinking I’d do a PhD in history. I loved nature and environmental writing. Annie Dillard was (and still is) my favorite writer. When I began traveling I read Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux, Somerset Maugham, Peter Hessler. And when I realized that writing itself was what I wanted to pursue, not necessarily history or anthropology, I dug into the quintessential creative nonfiction: Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, John McPhee. In the M.F.A. I dug in even further, subscribed to half a dozen magazines I’d only been able to read in anthologies and online in Mexico, and devoured magazine writing. My reading proceeded in straight lines, bent at slight angles from one another, each pointing to a clear goal.

Yet at some point – and I cannot pinpoint exactly when, which may be where the problem, if it is a problem, begins – one of these straight lines dissolved, my tastes went rambling and roving into the classics and poetry and experimental essays, my writing changed and grew messier and broadened, and when I looked up and saw my goal close by it seemed insignificant, like one dry rivulet in an enormous desert etched everywhere with them, overrun with potential waterways and arroyos and canyons shallow and deep. I measured myself against that goal and found myself changed, as Hunter Thompson describes in a letter to a friend:

The answer — and, in a sense, the tragedy of life — is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things. We adjust to the demands of a concept which CANNOT be valid. When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you.

This was at the end of the M.F.A. At the end of two books. At the end of furious rounds of pitching and writing and rewriting. I moved from Pittsburgh to the cabin, a temporary staging ground for the next goal, the next furious throughway I’d build to the next level, and found myself completely lost. I learned the names of the trees in the Ohio woods for the first time, after having spent eighteen years growing up in this state and after having returned to it continuously throughout my adult life. Cherry with its rich thick scales, its bark the color of steak medium rare; the delicate jigsaw of dogwood; the cool papery gray of beech. I saw a pileated woodpecker outside my window; I know because I looked it up. Overwhelmed by the immensity of the literary landscape and the intense pressure of not knowing where I fit within it, I turned my attention instead to the immediate, the tangible, the close-up. I identified moths and caterpillars. Saw hawks, flickers, chickadees picking seeds from walnut bark; heard two owls calling to one another at dusk. Read and read and did not write. Thought of ideas for stories, for novels, for essays, for books; felt the weight of all the ideas, all the possibilities, collapse over me like a huge circus tent. Drove my husband to the airport for his flight to Mexico, and drove back listening to Joni Mitchell in the rain. Caught, per Internet randomness, Hunter Thompson’s letter:

And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives.

I have always been a swimmer, making clear fervent strides, feeling the water part. I have always marked lanes for myself. But perhaps the reason I decided that what I wanted to do with my life wasn’t precisely to study history or anthropology or any other subject in particular but to write, which isn’t so much a discipline as a medium, was because I like the perpetual not knowing, the perpetual learning, the very openness that now is beginning to overwhelm. I get bored easily, I am endlessly curious, I want not to fill in familiar blanks but always to be pushing out further into new territory. And yet it seems impossible to be successful this way: success mandates niches. Specializing. Doing “your thing.” Having “a voice.” Burrowing into your corner of the publishing world and staking your eager little claim on it. I haven’t figured out how to do this. I don’t know if I want to do this, but what does this mean, now that I don’t have the luxury of a graduate stipend, now that I don’t have the luxury of the naiveté I started out with, now that writing is so firmly at the center of my life and my identity? Where do I go from here, how do I proceed now without goal, without path: how do I float?

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a woolly worm. That is a luna moth. That is a star lichen, and that, believe it or not, is a wild persimmon tree, growing right here in southeastern Ohio. One act of noticing, one detail at a time, piecing the world together, seeing what I’ve always either taken for granted or dismissed. This is how to begin again. In this is the effort not to see too far ahead, not to initiate that familiar, comforting process of mapping out the next road, setting up those shining goal posts. Trusting, instead, the buoyancy of one word, one essay, one story at a time not to rush me along towards the end game of success but to lift me through each day with a little more grace, more faith. That is a red maple, and that is the oldest oak on this farm, the first one to rattle when a storm is coming.



  • j9durland says:

    Thank you Sarah. This is really, really good.

  • So beautiful and beautifully put. As a person with no ambition, I need these reminders too. To see, to change your perspective, to translate, to define, to entertain. These are the goals and they feed us. Still f*^$ing broke, though.

  • Ahhh, to choose to float. It is not an easy decision, but is one filled with so much more wonder. I read over and over again that a common habit among creative types is that they walk. I walk too, and I find that ideas flow when I do – perhaps the increased blood flow oxygenates and stimulates the brain – but I am almost exclusively inside my head. It is only when I sit still that I notice. That I observe. That I feel the air, smell the dry leaves, hear the nibbling of a chipmunk. That I can get a true sense of the world around me, in all of its beautiful details. Sitting still, surrendering to being carried, is so difficult when we want to progress, when we want to be in control, when we want to DO. But if this essay is an example of what happens to you when you surrender to floating, then I say float.

  • I read this standing up mixing bread dough. Usually I wish and wish for the mixture to come together, always surprised by how persistently it doesn’t – until it does. But tonight, reading this essay, I just kept on mixing. What a lovely series of musings, and I love the photo. Keep going.

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