My Writer’s Idyll is a Busy, Messy, Full Life
Steve Edwards Goes to the Woods to (Not) Find His Voice
A truism long held in the literary world is that the greatest gift you can give a writer is time: to daydream, to wander, to write. Every writer thinks about what their career might look like if only life’s ordinary restrictions were lifted. In my twenties, after finishing an MFA in fiction, I was lucky enough—for seven months at least—to find out. I won one of those contests you read about in the classifieds of Poets & Writers. The PEN/Northwest Wilderness Writing Residency. In exchange for an hour-a-day of routine caretaking, I got to live rent-free and alone on a 95-acre off-the-grid homestead along the Rogue National Wild and Scenic River in Oregon. There were no neighbors, just stands of Douglas fir and madrone, a logging road, a footpath to the river.
From my writing table, I had a postcard view. A pair of apple trees framed the gate of a garden, and beyond loomed a steep, forested ridge that turned from black to palest blue in the morning sun. I had a typewriter and its satisfying clack-clack-clack-ding. I had notebooks, pens, pencils. I had an idea for a novel and all the time in the world to write. The writing should have been easy.
In my first month at the homestead, however, nothing worked. My idea for a novel suddenly seemed dumb. I wrote and scratched out paragraph after paragraph. I threw my pencil across the room.
I couldn’t understand it—my plan had seemed fool-proof. I’d retreat to the woods, dash off my novel, and return triumphant with a manuscript that would sell for enough money to bankroll the next one. It never occurred to me, I guess, that an ideal writing situation might not produce ideal writing, or that too much free time was as bad, if not worse, than none at all. In life as I’d known it before traveling to backcountry Oregon my writing time had been a contrast to the distraction of family and friends and work, a kind of oasis of dreaming. In life before, I’d only needed a few hours of quiet here and there in order to listen to myself, sort out my ideas, get words down in the shape of a story. I savored my time apart and guarded it jealously against intrusion. In Oregon, that contrast fell away. It was all dreaming, all the time, and the only distraction was me, the swirl of my thoughts against a quiet so unremitting that a Columbia black-tailed deer chewing grass outside the bedroom window could rouse me from sleep.
To keep from feeling like a total fraud and a failure, I shouldered into work projects around the homestead. I reclaimed a big meadow fir saplings had invaded, dismantled an old corral fence, cleared weeds and brush from miles of mountain trail. I took long hikes to the river, stopping to watch birds and insects, and to look for black bear sign. I planted a meager garden, dug bull thistles, taught myself how to fly fish, swam naked in a pond teeming with rough-skinned newts. At night, under the flicker and hiss of a propane lamp, I tapped out letters to friends back home.
Stunned by the beauty and loneliness I encountered at the homestead, the stories in my letters were more than stories—they were my life. Taking a cue from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, which struck me like a revelation, I wrote with abandon about what I saw and felt and thought, as though the first person to ever do so. I didn’t think about getting published, just telling the truth.
Rilke’s famed injunction: Ask yourself—must you write? Those letters became my answer, an emphatic yes.
To this day I remember in my body how it felt to sit at my little writing table in that cabin along the Rogue, in a pool of lamplight, surrounded by the homestead’s utter dark and quiet, tapping away at a manual typewriter. It was freedom, pure and unencumbered, delivered to me by the gift of time. The time to write, and the time fail miserably. The time to fail miserably, and the time to discover a place of necessity from which to begin again. In those letters, in the typewriter’s smeary stamped ink, in wild and rough-hewn sentences, I discovered with clarity what Rilke meant when he said: “Love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you.” Such a beautiful, simple equation. Holy almost. I remember the care I took in folding those letters, sealing them, addressing and stamping them. The joy of my two-hour drive to the post office.
If I have an inner barometer about the worth of something I’m writing today, 15 years out from my time at the homestead, it’s how it felt to write those letters. Does what I’m working on now feel as urgent? As true? Am I merely writing about my life, or am I writing from it in some integral way?
It’s not always easy to tell, and sometimes months pass on a project before I realize I’ve been faking it, indulging myself with pretty sentences, ignoring mistakes, writing out of habit rather than necessity. And now that I’m a dad and a husband and hold down a full-time job (all things I’m utterly grateful for and humbled by), I don’t have as much time to write. I don’t have time for indulgences and mistakes. If I’m going to have a successful career as a writer, I have to make use of every spare minute and hour. Guilt eats my lunch otherwise. Self-loathing descends.
The kid I used to be, who set off for the wilds of Oregon with dreams of overnight success—he still lurks within. His fears and doubts are my fears and doubts, and I’m no closer than ever to understanding why success at writing is the chief means by which I assign value to my existence. Just that it is. Maybe because of the value I’ve found in reading books and the desire to save someone else the way books have saved me. I don’t know. What I do know is that my time at the homestead—and especially the writing I did there with no thought of publication—is what has made possible even the modest success I’ve known as a writer. I had to lose my writing to gain it back. And what I know now that I had only just begun to learn 15 years ago is that perfectionism and ambition and self-pity are far more damaging to my work (and to my life) than any time constraint. In moments of self-loathing I return to this idea the way students of Zen return to the breath: gently, with forgiveness. If I don’t have as much time as I’d like to write right now, I most certainly don’t have the time to beat myself up about it.
At the homestead I remember feeling very conscious of the gift I’d been given—all that time and space and freedom. I remember wanting only to prove myself worthy of it. Maybe my official writing wasn’t working out but I was seeing things: a black bear with cubs, mountain lion prints in a dusty driveway, an osprey soaring over the river canyon with a flailing steelhead in its talons.
Every day, right out my front door, the wild Klamath mountains gave themselves up without apology or explanation.
With whatever time is available to me now—even if it’s just a few days here and there, and even if I fuck it up—I want to write like that. Not to somehow prove myself worthy but to be the gift.
I remember how one day, on my way home from a late afternoon hike, sunlight hit a cloud hovering on the far ridge. The sunlight turned the cloud pink, and the cloud turned the Douglas firs and madrones pink, and turned the long grasses in the meadow pink, turned the red-dirt logging road pink, turned my hands and arms and skin pink. The whole world glowed like breeze-brightened ember. I stopped and stood there a second, gob-smacked, gawking, wondering many scenes just as mighty I had already witnessed and forgotten, and pitying myself for being alone, for having nobody with whom to share such transcendence. Then I heard a voice—an inner voice, like the one I listen to when I’m writing—and it said that the point wasn’t to remember any of this vision but live a life as beautiful. If I could do that, the voice reasoned, I would share this moment with everyone I met. And if I could do that, I was never really alone.