I always grow excited for the turn of autumn. I eagerly await the leaves, the first golds and oranges to be burnished into brilliance by the first wisps of chilly breezes that say snows, scarves, and socks are on their way. I find that this year, I am looking forward to autumn more than usual.
This past summer was a hard one, filled with many extremes of happiness and pain and just as many lessons. Perhaps it is for this reason that I find myself looking towards that time of year when everything else is changing, too.
A few days ago, I returned from a long vacation up north to the unknown wilds of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. Idaho may not seem too wild to you, but for someone who has never been there before, it held mystery enough. My family and I stayed several places during our travels, and we saw many lakes in all three states we visited. Now, I’ve seen the ocean from many parts of the world, and I’ve seen lakes in just about as many places, but no matter how many times I’ve seen them, I am continually in awe of large bodies of water. Blue is my favorite color, and water, often dressing in the color of the sky, astounds me in the way it can be so many other colors at the same time.
However, it was in Montana that I discovered the allure of the water.
For years, my brother and his wife have gone to Lake Flathead to stay at a family lake house, and for just as many years, I have heard the stories of how wonderful it is, how peaceful, how utterly relaxing and free. After my sister-in-law taught me how to paddleboard, I understood what they meant.
After getting my balance used to the long board and keeping me standing on top of it, I paddled out onto Lake Flathead with my sister and sister-in-law in a mist of ash and burnt sunlight from the wildfires. The water stretched for miles into obscurity, the smoke clouding the horizon and blending the point where water and sky met so completely that it was difficult to separate them. Besides the nudge of gentle waves against the fiberglass board, everything was quiet. The ash settling quietly on my shoulders drifted like snowflakes.
After a while, I took my paddle out of the water, got down, and very carefully stretched out on the board. My cheek against the foamy surface, I was nearly eye-level with the million subtle ripples of the lake at sundown. With a whispered song of faraway pines and the heavy assurance of deep water beneath me, the rocking waves gently shook the world off my shoulders.
It was incredible.
Over the next few days that we stayed there, the skies grew clearer and the waves more active with breezes. We never again had that surreal experience, but as we took part in all the water sports we could stand, the lake revealed its other wonders. I enjoyed cutting through the waves on a fast boat, and after plowing through those waves behind that same boat, I fell off enough to learn that you should let go of the rope that’s dragging you when you wipe out. I rode a jet ski for the first time and kicked up water at 30 mph. But almost every day, my sister and I would slip down the rocky beach with the paddleboards and push off over blue-green water.
When the sun was overhead, we could see clear to the bottom of the lake some ways from the shore. We floated over boulders thirty feet below. Then, when we figured we had gotten far enough from civilization, we sat down on our paddleboards, threw our legs over one side, and laid our paddles across the boards to hold our makeshift raft together as we drifted on the current and talked.
As we often do when it’s just the two of us, we discussed the things that matter most to us. Mostly as we sat there with our feet dangling in the water, we talked about writing.
Perhaps because of the busyness of house construction, renovations, and all the other stressors of summer, it’s been difficult for me to write. I have put aside time for it and, sitting hunched at my computer, I have tried to coax it to life like a struggling houseplant. The words often felt dull. The idea was there, but it was a discipline to write. I knew that I had to keep doing it, that I wanted to, but it was a very different feeling than how I’d felt so many months ago, pounding out the book that would be my thesis. In the last months before the defense, writing had been so fluid, so natural. I could hardly keep up, running behind the story with papers and sticky notes flying in my wake. Lately, it’s felt that the story is dragging a stick along a dirt road, content to poke into every bush and kick every can while I hang on the fence and wait for it to catch up. I always knew it would eventually. But it is hard to be excited about this state of things when you remember when it was different.
While we stayed at Lake Flathead, I stole away from reading Emma on the dock to go upstairs and write.
I didn’t even notice at first. I sat, tapping away for a good and long period of time before I realized that I was writing. It was so easy! Look at all the words I’d just typed! I knew they probably weren’t that great, but they had arrived so pleasantly that I’d forgotten how trying it had been just days before.
Several years ago, I started reading a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It’s inspirational for any kind of artist and does its best to encourage and energize artists to do their best. The author puts forward many ideas and suggestions for how an artist can take care of herself, foster creativity, and conquer artist’s block.
I wouldn’t say I’ve ever encountered artist’s block in the traditional sense—there always seems to be some kind of writing going on with me—but there was one section that stood out to me when I read this book. Being on the water at Lake Flathead reminded me of it.
Julia Cameron talks about the visual element of being an artist. Writers are observers, taking in yarns of color, snatches of dialogue, and sketches of people. When we write, we draw from a pool of all of these things. As we do that, the well is slowly emptied. It is all put to use, but if we’re not careful to restock our pool, we deplete ourselves. We dry up. In her words, it is important to be aware that we should always be filling the well.
As I watched the water under beautiful sunsets, I tried to fix in my mind the texture of the waves, the way it slipped around the boat like glass at night. I concentrated on the way it felt to lay out on the paddleboard, to push my hand into the waves and glide forward. I wanted to remember everything new and tie it down with words the way we moored the boat the dock—once in a figure eight, then several times around the base to make sure it’s tight.
Thumping downstairs to make dinner after that time of writing, I remembered that I’m always filling my well. Every day I have music, flowers in my garden, conversations from friends, and television shows. These are channels for sure. But there was something about being on the water at Lake Flathead that gave me a greater understanding of water— how large masses of it can change with just a breath of wind the way a breath of inspiration can change your mind about a story, how important it is to keep the grass green and growing and to keep fires at bay.
A sign at the guesthouse read, “Take a Deep Breath—You’re at the Lake Now.” I hadn’t understood the magic of the lake before. Yet, after rocking on its waves under an endless sky, seeing osprey skimming over its surface, and swimming in its chilly waves, I feel that several buckets of cold, pure water have been added to my well after a parching summer.
It is difficult to come home from vacation, but as with any journey, coming home is where you have the chance to prove what you’ve learned and where a new journey can start.
“Art is an image-using system. In order to create, we draw from our inner well. This inner well, an artistic reservoir, is ideally like a well-stocked trout pond. We’ve got big fish, little fish, fat fish, skinny fish—an abundance of artistic fish to fry. As artists, we must realize that we have to maintain this artistic ecosystem. If we don’t give some attention to upkeep, our well is apt to become depleted, stagnant, or blocked.
Any extended period or piece of work draws heavily on our artistic well. Overtapping the well, like overfishing the pond, leaves us with diminished resources. We fish in vain for the images we require. Our work dries up and we wonder why, ‘just when it was going so well.’ The truth is that work can dry up because it is going so well.
As artists, we must learn to be self-nourishing. We must become alert enough to consciously replenish our creative resources as we draw on them—to restock the trout pond, so to speak. I call this process filling the well.”
-Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way