By Barbara Hurd
Let’s agree that this enterprise we writers are engaged in can be a cheerless one and that all of us have faced the blank page, the cold rejection, a mind too frozen to start.
In the face of such bleakness, we each, I suppose, need our own version of a hot toddy. Here’s one of mine: Once, on expedition with the Department of Natural Resources, I hiked for miles through snow-crusted woods and helped pull bear cubs out of their den. As the official folks tested the mother they’d tranquilized, I nestled the infants inside my jacket to keep them warm. Whimpering, they tried to scramble up my chest, poke their heads out the neck-hole of my jacket. I remember their wet-dog smell, sharp claws, their blue eyes, widened, perhaps, by having been hauled above ground weeks before they were ready.
That was years ago, and I haven’t been in a bear den since. But I know they’re still around, and so, on these winter days, I like to picture the cubs hidden underground, curled up and waiting for some warmth. I keep my hat pulled low and my imagination on alert for what I’ll likely never hear again nor ever forget: mewing in mid-winter, deep in the den before there was any sign of life on the surface, any hint of thaw or—back on topic now—any start of a next sentence or line of a poem. What would it take, in other words, to dwell for a while in winter’s stillness and trust that down there, below the sometimes blank surfaces of our stymied minds, an idea or story could be stirring?
And would that trust differ from the usual writerly appeal of winter—you know, the hush of snowy, shortened days, the notion of holing up, undistracted, and cranking out those pages that need a cocoon in which to grow? Winter as refuge, snow as insulation, silence as opportunity. All that.
All that groping after metaphor, which can also lead one to falsify, get stuck in the dazzle of language.
And so when I find myself too intent on shellacking every moment in the natural world with spiritual implications, I turn to Chekhov, who claimed that “You should sit down to write only when you feel cold as ice.” Good plan. The search for meaning, after all, can cloud our ability to see what’s literally in front of us.
But if we listen too much to Chekhov, what will keep us going when we find ourselves with an eye so cold it can do nothing but ice-pick a draft to smithereens? Freeze any attempt to get an essay underway? And what if the “mind of winter,” to use Wallace Stevens’ phrase, doesn’t result in a clear way of seeing but, instead, distills so austerely that what’s revealed isn’t some essential truth but a mind so utterly empty we can’t bear to acknowledge it as ours?
What then? Bears cannot be counted on, nor can the proverbial light bulb in our heads or even those writing prompts you find in books with titles like 100 Writing Prompts to Make You a Master Writer. Shall we take up Buddhism or chess or some other enterprise that cultivates a little patience? Go back to school and study tax law? Maybe.
But first, a small reminder: Sometimes a new sentence can be triggered by something as simple as a line from a master writer. I fill my notebooks with them. Listen, for example to this one from Gretel Ehrlich’s The Future of Ice: “This is water teaching ice how to become water.” Doesn’t that make you want to put your slippers on and shuffle to your desk? Doesn’t it remind you that the next germinating moment can be that nearby?
Here, for instance, is chilly Chekhov once again: “Art prepares the soul for tenderness.” Tenderness, I would emphasize, even out of an icy eye, even toward our own next sentence or line as it reaches, in a cold-snap-sputtering start, toward a precision we might call art.
Barbara Hurd is the author of three creative nonfiction books: Walking the Wrack Line, Entering the Stone, and Stirring the Mud. The recipient of numerous awards, including an NEA Fellowship, the Sierra Club’s National Nature Writing Award and four Pushcart Prizes, she teaches in the Stonecoast MFA program.