Walking with an Essayist

It is gray and frigid outside. I have accomplished little at my desk. I have plans, when I return home, to draft an essay about love. So I want my walk around the lake to go quickly. I pump my arms and my strides go longer.

But the Essayist says, Think of Brenda Ueland.

This lake holds her ashes.

Tell me, the Essayist prods, what she wrote about walking calisthenically.

“‘When I walk grimly and calisthenically,’” I recite, “‘just to get exercise and get it over with, to get my walk out of the way, then I find that I have not been re-charged with imagination. For the following day when I try to write there is more of the meagerness than if I had not walked at all. But if when I walk I look at the sky or the lake or the tiny, infinitesimally delicate, bare, young trees, or wherever I want to look, and my neck and jaw are loose and I feel happy and say to myself with my imagination, “I am free,” and “There is nothing to hurry about,” I find then that thoughts begin to come to me in their quiet way.’”

Bravo, says the Essayist with brisk applause.

But still I want to move quickly. There is so much I need to do today.

If you must, the Essayist pants, but at least remember Ueland’s words about duty.

“‘We have come to think that duty should come first.’”

Yes. And we will our work to come. You know that if you will it to come, it will never come. This is like the advice you give your single friends: “You’ll only find a man when you stop looking for one.”

Essayists are full of metaphors. When I lock my sight on a lamp post an eighth of a mile ahead, planning to race toward it, the Essayist says, This is like working on an essay. You set a goal, and you push toward it.

I finish a small curve in the path and see that the lamp post is beyond the marker with the orange-painted tip—not in front of it. My pace slackens.

Don’t be discouraged, the Essayist says. This is like when you see that you have more research to do, or discover that you must make yourself cry in order to feel deeply enough.

Just before I reach the lamp post, I shift my eyes to a new target: two distant women with a spaniel apiece.

Tsk! the Essayist hisses. You are forgetting to celebrate. Finishing an essay requires a bottle of wine, and reading out loud, if only to an empty living room!

I’m surprised to hear my essayist acting so festive. From what I’ve seen, essayists are perennially brooding and frustrated. But I switch my focus back to the lamp post, and when I see it slipping past me, I feel unaccountably happy. And, through its black paint, I notice tiny blooms of rust.

This is like red-lining a draft you thought was final. You see all kinds of new things—but they are small and manageable. All of the hard work is behind you.

The women and the dogs are approaching more quickly than I expected. I’m still thinking about the rust.

This is like having a deadline, the Essayist explains. Deadlines are wonderful, God-given things. Approaching deadlines make you rush, and when you rush, you act intuitively. Intuition is an essayist’s gold.

The women are having a giggling fit. I think they are laughing at my essayist, because she is wearing ruffled gauntlets under a purple cape pinned by an enormous brooch. But it turns out they don’t even notice us. Between hysterical gasps, they cough out words to each other. The spaniels are intoxicated with glee, crisscrossing leashes and sniffing everyone’s leavings.

Not far beyond them, I take an especially long stride to miss a smear of dog poop. My essayist says nothing. I turn to look at her, and she’s holding her chin up like a countess.

“So?” I ask. “What is a smear of dog poop like?”

The Essayist sighs and shakes her head. I had very much hoped you wouldn’t notice that.

But I had noticed it, and I was now thinking about it. I was thinking about the fact that in the icy cold, I couldn’t smell the dog poop. But if the dog poop came home with me on my boot, then it would smell in the warmth of my house. Which made me wonder why poop stinks. I guess nature wants poop to stink so that we won’t eat it. Imagine if it smelled like pizza or fajitas or hot brownies. But then I remembered that dogs eat poop all the time, and once at the zoo I saw Malaysian sun bears eating poop, rolling balls of it on their long tongues and spitting it back into their paws and patting it and eating it again, so either nature thinks it’s fine for dogs and bears to eat poop, or it’s fine for everyone to eat poop, and it’s more a question of taste . . .

. . . and that is what we call Artist Brain, I hear the Essayist finishing. It is frenetic and full of perils, often repellent, but also unavoidable. A type of diligence, I daresay, required of those who make curiosity their business. This is also the thing that makes it difficult for artists to go to parties with normal people.

Without telling the Essayist, I set my sights on something too far ahead to see. The kiosk at the end of the lake, perhaps half a mile away, where people hang found car keys and flyers for yoga classes and advertisements for babysitters.

This is like doing a big project you have never done before, the Essayist says. For you, it is writing your first book. You are considering a third rewrite. You can’t see, just now, what your book will look like. But you know you will get there.

It is cold at this end of the lake, always windy and sometimes snow flurries here and nowhere else. Despite the fact that her cheeks are awfully red, the Essayist loosens her scarf. This is like when it is cold, she sighs, in her own world.

So I take a minute to see some birds. A naked tree full of starlings putting up the usual racket, and two ducks whistling past, surprisingly high, silhouetted like bowling pins against the white sky. And then suddenly, whirling around, I realize that I have walked right past the kiosk without even noticing it. It’s a good fifty yards back.

This, the Essayist says with a proud warmth in her voice, as if her protégé, by staring off into space, has done something wise beyond her years, this is like writing a better book than you ever imagined. At some point, the book you thought you were writing will disappear, and you will not even notice.

“But how will I know when I’m finished?”

You will never be finished. That is what deadlines are for.

“You mean that’s what book contracts are for,” I say, annoyed.

Two concentric trails ring the lake. In the winter, the parks department leaves one unplowed. For most of my walk, I use the cleared trail. But at one section, the messy trail touches the lake. I always switch paths there, to get a good close look at the ice, and, today, the cracks and the slush. It is the wrong time of year for the ice to be melting. The lake should be covered with fishermen’s huts and figure skaters and cross-country skiers. But it’s quiet.

My essayist is quiet too.

I listen to my feet crushing through the icy old snow, which is mashed together in hard ridges and packed down under other people’s footprints. Crush crush crush. Even if the Essayist said something right now, I wouldn’t be able to hear her, I think to myself. Crush crush crush.

I look over at the smooth trail, where white-shoed runners bound silently past. It takes me a while to realize that I’ve forgotten to switch back. But I decide that I like the noisy, slow-going trail with all of its bumps and slippery spots better. It’s satisfying. My boots feel like they’re doing what they’re built to do. And even though these paths seem much the same, the truth is, they cover different territory. And they never cross, which means that they lead different places.

The Essayist is just behind me, picking along in her delicate button-up boots. I’m trying to decide whether to take a detour. This is the bakery, I would tell her. It’s like when you need bread.

But I’m confused, because I needed this walk to move me along on the essay about love, and now this conversation is getting under my skin, and wise old Brenda Ueland would know very well that this is the essay, and the essay about love might have to wait. Or no, this: Oohhhh, but my child—this is your essay about love.

Either way, now this piece has me curious. I’m skipping errands and going straight home to write it. Where could I send it? Who might like to publish it?

Stop, says the Essayist. How can you describe a walk before the walk is finished?

So I begin considering our walk, and suddenly I can’t remember where we’ve been. Was the lamp post first, or the pair of women with dogs? Something came before the lamp post, and that was the thing that started all this, but did it have to do with a tree trunk or just general stress? I want to get it right from the beginning—

You are grinding. What does Ms. Ueland say about grinding?

“‘And when you understand a thing, don’t grind over and over it, to grind it into your memory, as children play scales on the piano, or students cram for examinations. The moment you understand it, know that it is a part of you forever.’”

Exactly!

“But I’m not so sure I work that way,” I say. “What if I just have a really, really bad memory, and I forget the kinds of things good writers remember and jot down whenever they get around to it? Thoughts fly out of my brain like bats from a belfry. Except they don’t come back.”

The Essayist is holding up her skirts, tiptoeing past some kid’s sodden Cheerios, flung from a stroller. Sorry, what were we talking about?

“Let me show you something,” I say. “We’re getting close to my house.”

Ah. This is like the writer’s creative cycle. She slingshots away from home, into a distant orbit. There, she gathers stardust, arranging the pieces into something beautiful and never before seen as she swings back toward Earth. She then disembarks her journey. Finding what grounds her, she gathers strength for the next excursion.

“Okay,” I say, pulling off my coat and hat, and taking off my shoes. “But look here. Wait—can you take off those boots? The sand and salt wreck the floors.”

Do you have a buttonhook? she asks.

“Never mind. Here’s what I want to show you. Here are three lamps in the living room. This is like when it gets dark before you were ready so you come downstairs fumbling, and that’s when you realize it’s time to think about dinner. So here is the kitchen. This is like when you realize Shit, I forgot to defrost the chicken and so you start looking through takeout coupons but you realize that it’s not right to pay so much for takeout until one of these essays makes some money. So here is the refrigerator. This is like when you have Swiss cheese in one hand and a stalk of celery in the other and out of the corner of your eye you see that the cat has no food in his bowl and no water in his other bowl, and that might explain why he’s been eating the plants in the dining room. And this is like when you realize that you haven’t watered the plants in three weeks. Anyway, carrying on, here is the cat himself, and as you’ll notice, he is very soft and fluffy and if you hold him still long enough he might lick your face, and this is like when you want him to do it again, and you want to show someone else so you start wondering how soon your husband will be home, and whether it is worth keeping the cat just like this in front of your face to show your husband when he walks through the door. Next we have the television set. This is like adoring all of the characters on Desperate Housewives, even Bree, and wishing the show was on all the time, and even though you know it’s only on Sunday nights, sometimes just secretly checking to see if they made a mistake and aired it right now. Over here is my e-mail account. This is like when you are addicted to cocaine. Here is the bathroom, and here is soap scum all over the sink and pink residue from bubble bath in the tub. This is like when people come over and feel offended by visible germs. And this is my desk where I still have to write that essay about love, because I’ll feel like a quitter if I don’t.” I take a breath. “Do you see what I’m saying?”

But she’s gone.

Brenda Ueland. If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence, and Spirit. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1987. (Originally published in 1938.)

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