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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

the sure-footed writer

Yesterday afternoon I decided to round out the "medium-power-walk" that Kimmie and I had done by jogging around the last couple of blocks. Near the end of the short jog in the glorious afternoon sun, I tripped over an elevated square of sidewalk on 6th Street and plunged to the concrete, hitting it hard. I lay there a few moments, hoping I hadn't broken anything. A guy who was working on his motorcycle nearby got up to ask whether I was okay.

"Yeah, I think so," I said, picking myself up. "Just some road rash."

I had abraded my right knee and right palm. I also had very minor abrasions of right elbow, left knee, and left palm--the places you'd expect. I jogged the remaining block home, where Kimmie helped me clean the wounds. Only a small amount of blood was running from them, so I decided not to dress them until bedtime, when we put gauze on my knee.

Interestingly, I felt very little pain throughout the experience. As I said to Kimmie when she asked about me before dinner, the scrape on my knee rated about a 1 out of 10 on the pain scale. It reminded me of when I ruptured my left Achilles tendon in 2002. Then too I felt almost no pain--indeed, less than I did yesterday. The wound did not become sore until after surgery, when it was the incision that throbbed. Now my right thumb is weak and tender, and it does hurt when I try to use it. But it's fully mobile, and indeed I'm using it now to type, which does not bother it.

When I woke at 3:30 this morning and lay in the dark, my thoughts churning as they often do in the dead of night, the phrase came to me, "the sure-footed writer." Usually I am sure-footed and not prone to tripping or falling. In the dark this quality seemed to be significant from a writing standpoint.

I remembered watching a nature documentary recently, which featured some footage of ibexes--a wild goat of the Middle East and Africa. They seem to be preternaturally sure-footed, living largely on cliff faces. There they tuck themselves and their young into caves that are inaccessible to predators. There is some attrition among the ibexes due to falling, especially when they're young. A certain number do plunge to their death each year. But most don't, and the insouciance with which they negotiate impossible-looking rock faces is astounding. One ibex picked his way up a cliff face, zigging and zagging as though he were going up flights of stairs, when the ledges he was stepping on were no bigger than his little hooves. He seemed to be simply walking up a vertical rock-face.

The ibexes are confident. Step by step they pick their spot and go: pick and go, pick and go. Most of the steps are not secure enough for them to pause on; they have to keep moving, picking the next step and going. It's a vertical version of using stepping-stones to cross a stream: the stones may or may not be stable, but if you keep moving you can make it. Each move is a commitment. You're heading somewhere, and there is no room for doubt or second-guessing.

In writing terms, I take this to mean trusting one's instincts. Trust what comes up, use it--the image, the idea, the word--and keep moving.

And don't forget to lift your feet.

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