The Writing Life: Ebb and Flow by Lisa Ahn

On the coast of Maine, in a sheltered bay, my husband, kids and I watch the ebb and flow of tides. High water hugs the long-grass shoreline, push-pulling at the reeds. In the shallows, small stones and fragmented shells waver in a dancing rhythm rocked by currents. The water holds the light, refracts it, as small fish dart their pathways. They remind me of the creative bursts that fuel a writer’s day — when the writing’s going well, that is.

A good day writing is like a high tide, full to bursting with the motion of ideas. On those days, I scribble madly, relishing the depths, the fluid grace of words. I can write for hours without a break. I hardly need to breathe. My husband calls it madness, but it feels more like diving deep, submerged inside the tale, pulled along by sentences unspooled. They have a gravity of their own, the draw of moon on waves.

Not every writing day is easy. On a bad day, I wring out nothing but a limp paragraph or two, frightful, flopping fish left stranded. Sometimes, I am a writer who isn’t writing. And when the tides recede, I always panic, mindless, quick to flounder with that gasping clutch of fear. It isn’t writer’s block, that cozy couch excuse. I know the drill, the standard imprecations, advice of hard-core writing mavens:

A writer writes!

Butt in chair!

Just do it!

And there are times when such prodding is effective — a lazy afternoon when my pillow calls me for a nap.  Sometimes the answer is that easy — get up early, stay up late, write inside a sleeping house, stealing words from the nether side of midnight. But there are other days, other circumstances, when self-discipline is not enough, or, worse yet, when it becomes self-flagellation, barbed wire at the back.

The answer isn’t always found inside a golden nugget, wrapped neatly in a truism.

In Maine, low tides mean a scenery transformed. The water scrimps and shimmies back until its edges wink, two hundred feet away. The bottom lies exposed, a vast expanse of mud and muck and stones. My kids pull on their oldest shoes and venture out. I follow, less delighted as our feet sink and squelch with every step. We learn to balance on the larger rocks and hop like frogs from place to place. Leaning forward, peering, we find shells and snails, muscles, crabs and bulbous strands of seaweed. We find fishing bobs and lures, golf balls, coins, beads and glass. Further out, we see the remnants of a burned-out boat, a hulking wreck that begs a tale. Low tide delivers up its hidden wealth to nothing but a watchful eye.

High tide is always only half the story.

For a myriad of reasons, sometimes we are writers on the other side of words. We are mired in low tides, gasping. We may be stumped by injury or illness. In the year of my concussion, I hardly wrote at all. My computer collected dust instead of stories.  On other days, family obligations have a deeper call, more resonant and pulling. The fact is, we are never writers only. We are wives and husbands too, mothers, fathers, sisters, uncles, grandparents. And for all the years I’ve tried, there is no perfect balance, no deft juggling move that leaves me mistress of all realms. Instead, I dog-paddle through a shifting mercury of roles. Sometimes, I have to put the pen aside. This is never easy, never smooth.

Still, even low tides have their grace, their gifts, their truths.

Every morning at the house in Maine, I watch the birds. With a cup of coffee, binoculars and a guide book, I scout the skies and shoreline. I am thrilled by diving osprey, bound to plummet and ascend, droplets coursing from their wings, always rising toward the light. How often do they come up empty, even with those eyes so keen? In contrast, cormorants are floating queens and sun-bathers, wings spread, drying feathers perched on beams of burned-out boats, posts and buoys. They relish what they find, no matter where the water stands.

But it’s the low-tide birds that soothe me most, blue herons and snowy egrets on the shoreline, motionless in shallows. They are nothing like the high-tide birds, the circle-soaring osprey who plunge and dive, course and rise, live fish in their talons. Low-tide birds are masters of the quiet stance. Of waiting. They are devotees of patience, of faith placed firmly in the ebb and flow of life.

Today, I am once again a writer barely writing. Even when the minutes pool before me, my thoughts are snared and elsewhere. There are no darting, sun-sparked fish. There is only muck and squelch, unpretty. At first, I lean into the panic. But then some small treasure catches at my eye — a bit of sea glass maybe, a scuttling crab, a rainbow lure. I look deeper and I find, again, that there is grace in shallows, in the rich muck that feeds the water born. I cultivate the heron’s eye, the egret’s quiet faith, the hidden blessings in low tides. I stay just where I am, collecting, relishing what is, knowing that the water always rises, once again, again.

Lisa Ahn, Columnist emeritus

Lisa Ahn's writing has appeared in Quiddity, PANK, Limestone, Prick of the Spindle, Toasted Cheese and Literary Mama, among others. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two spunky daughters, three cats, and a dog who steals everybody's socks.

 

 

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  • Kathryn Dyche Dechairo

    Love how you equate the artistic life with the tides . . . so very true. Life’s lessons aren’t always easy or comfortable in the beginning but they are all part of our journey of learning and growth. Take care of you. xoxo

    • Lisa Ahn

      True, true. Thank you.

  • Rob Hanson

    Great extended metaphor. Love how you packed your prose with those lovely nautical terms. My favorite phrase–a burned-out boat, a hulking wreck that begs a tale.

    • Lisa Ahn

      Thanks! I was fascinated with that old wreck. I’m sure it will show up in a story someday.

  • Vaughn Roycroft

    Love this, Lisa! Such apt and beautiful metaphors.

    • Lisa Ahn

      Thanks Vaughn!

  • ElizabethGrantThomas

    Beautiful, truthful post, Lisa. It’s been awhile since we’ve been in touch. I’ve had a similar year, filled with my own writing lacuna. My mother-in-law died this summer, and I barely wrote a word for 10 months. I’m *just* now feeling the energy — tentatively — to start again. Sometimes it’s difficult to give ourselves the permission to say “it’s okay; I’ll be back when the time is right.”