Thursday, March 19, 2015

Entering the Woods

“No dawdling or daydreaming,” warned the mother of a school friend. “Go directly to school and come directly back home.”

Her words filled me with horror. To walk back and forth from school and not stop to notice the cornstalks bursting through sheets of ice. Not stand beneath a tree and puzzle at the cottony gray veils spreading between branches—a witch’s shawl, I thought, but later learned it was deadly gypsy moths. Not crouch over a brass key found on the sidewalk, and shiver, knowing it was a clue dropped by a spy who was watching right now to see who dared pick it up.

Every day was an adventure, a treasure hunt crammed with mysterious characters and wondrous sights, and how on earth could I get to the heart of the world if I didn’t dawdle, daydream, and step off the path? At nine, I already knew I’d be a writer and accepted my destiny: to always be late, to go off the clearly marked, brightly lit path, and to make it to my destination via the most winding route imaginable.

Today, I see my friend’s mother’s warnings echoed and transformed into time management software, templates and graphs offering shortcuts that speed you through the creative process. No pain. No wasted minutes. No blundering in the dark. Someone has already mapped your journey for you and connected the dots.

It may not be fair, but I kind of blame Little Red Riding Hood’s mother for our obsession with speeding to our destination while ignoring the by-paths that tempt along the way. Go directly to Grandma’s house, she said. Don’t go off the path or talk to the Wolf.

Even as a kid, I loathed this tale and its cheerless message: Complete your mission and do not stop to smell the flowers or acknowledge the danger that lurks at the side of the road.

It’s often tempting when we start a creative endeavor to follow the safe, clearly marked path. Others have gone before you and left behind signs and guideposts. You won’t get lost on that path, and you may get to Grandma’s house in record time, like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, looking at his watch and muttering, Hurry, hurry, there’s no time to waste.

The forest of tall, narrow birch trees outside St. Petersburg—
trees like guards hiding secrets, maybe fairy tale monsters.

But you know what? I’m here to tell you that if you want to truly create a book, song, painting or magic illusion from your soul, you need to step off the bright-lit road and explore the deep dark woods. The roads are not marked. No dots are connected, and you have to hack your way through in order to create a path no one else has ever walked. Strange sounds accompany you, unknown creatures howl, and vines wind around you. You will be alone for a while. You will get lost. You will get scared. And you’ll hear the sound of your own voice crying out in the wilderness. It may seem the sun will never rise again and you’ll be lost forever.

That’s the time to gather your strength and courage for a final effort. Our ancestors, who told fairy tales around a fire at night or in a kitchen, understood one of the primary messages of the tales: a character must undergo a sea-change, dramatic and profound, in order to become the hero or heroine they are meant to be. Entering the woods—whatever form they take—is like entering the deepest, darkest part of yourself. If you write, your characters need to undertake this journey as well as you do. If you brave the woods and face the dark terrors that haunt you—your personal Wolf—you will glimpse light at the end of that long night.

And when you finally emerge from the woods, you may find yourself at Grandma’s house after all.   

Or a castle on a mountain.

Or ancient ruins by the sea.

Or your own backyard where it may appear you’ve been doing nothing but lying on the grass, while in reality you conquered dragons, saved (and taken) lives, discovered the cure to a dangerous virus, touched a star.

I confess that my favorite versions of Red are the ones in which she does it all: picks flowers, chats up the Wolf and gets his measure, and makes it to Grandma’s where she outwits him, and in the process manages to clear the woods of that dangerous beast. All in a day’s work. And then she, Grandma and the Huntsman settle down for tea and cookies. Now that’s a story that warms my heart.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 
                           --Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

A note: In case you wonder, I do own a watch. Several months ago, in preparation for a three and a half month sea voyage spanning three continents, I bought a large, complicated watch that looked like it could do everything but navigate the ship. Sadly, it was so complicated I never could figure out how to change the time in each new port. Neither could anyone else. I’ve since taken it off and set it on my bedside table. I feel much more relaxed though it emits resentful beeps at unspecified times (5:39, 7:53) that remind me of my friend’s mother. Dire warnings, I’m sure, which I’m happy to ignore.