Tuesday, November 10, 2015

What a Hay-Bale Labyrinth Taught Me About Writing

Shortly before Halloween, my boyfriend and I went to Arata Pumpkin Farm in Half Moon Bay, California, to pick out our pumpkins. Arata’s is a famous autumn spot in the Bay Area, and not just for pumpkin selection -- every year, they build a maze attraction out of hay bales. This year, the design was a labyrinth. Believe me, folks, this was not a kiddie maze. This thing was enormous!

Still, before we ventured inside, I was not too concerned. “I bet this will take us half an hour, tops,” I remember thinking as I watched an exuberant group of pre-teen girls run out of the maze’s exit, cheering their success for all to hear.

Not only did the hay-bale labyrinth take us much longer to complete than I expected (and there were moments of despair when I thought we might never make it out!) the experience also illuminated a great deal of truth about being a writer.

Here are the lessons I learned:

1. Often, the best way to start is simply to plunge in. The entrance to the labyrinth is intimidating: a huge minotaur greets you with his battle ax at the ready. Starting a writing project can be similarly daunting. Whether you are preparing to write a short story, essay or poem, or preparing to tackle a longer work like a novel, play or memoir, the blank page can be frightening.

The best strategy I have found is to simply begin. Push past the self-doubt and let your fingers scurry across your computer keys; pick an opening in the maze, scurry past the imposing minotaur, and off you go!

2. There is no map. Before entering the maze, we climbed a staircase outside the entrance to look out over the entire labyrinth, hoping to get an advantage -- to plan our route. But the vantage point was not much help. We could not memorize the proper route to take, and although we could make a general plan, we had to dive in and discover through trial-and-error how to make it through to the end of the labyrinth.

The same is true for writing, or any creative pursuit. You can plan up to a point, but then you must dive in and try it out for yourself. There is no map you are given; you must create the map yourself.

3. Discouragement is not only normal, it is inevitable. There were times when it seemed like we were just wandering in fruitless loops through the maze, retracing our steps over and over again, and discovering a new path through the intricate labyrinth felt impossibly out of reach. I wondered if we would ever find our way out!

In her luminous book of aphorisms Excess of Being from Arch Street Press, artist Lera Auerbach muses:
"An artist's
to eternity
requires a fee
in disappointment."

Yes, we all inevitably face disappointment, rejection, confusion, and discouragement. That is a part of life. But only by persevering through the maze can we attain new successes and joyful discoveries!

4. Feeling challenged is a good sign because it means you are pushing yourself to grow. I had never attempted to make my way through a labyrinth before, so the whole experience was new to me. This made it more difficult, because not only did I not know what to expect, I did not know what to look for. Nor did I have the experience to trust in myself and my knowledge. All the same, undertaking this new challenge pushed me to go with my instincts. It made me grow.

The same is true for writing. It would be easy to write the same stories over and over again. Growing as an artist means trying new things and risking failure. As Lera Auerbach writes:
"I love
what I do
but it's not mutual."

It might not always feel like our art "loves us back" but often that feeling is simply growing pains!

5. Struggle makes the elation of success that much sweeter. When we finally made it out of the hay-bale maze, I felt full-to-bursting with pride. Because the challenge was so difficult, when we finally succeeded, it meant so much. If we had flown through the maze without a hitch in ten minutes, the thrill of success would have been minimal.

The same is true for writing. This is something I must remind myself over and over again, every time I face discouragement or rejection. For example, there is a wonderful literary magazine I have admired and submitted my work to for years. Years! And I received nothing but rejection letters. Still, I kept submitting. Last week, I received an acceptance letter from them! I started crying, I was so overjoyed. The success was made sweeter because of the years of struggle.

"Being passionate about your work is 80% of success, but that passion must be sustained over a lifetime. Otherwise it's just an infatuation." - Lera Auerbach, Excess of Being