Do you enjoy transitions in your life? Do you feel their heft, resist them, then embrace?
At the start of this week, my last night in Amsterdam brought hours of fidgety insomnia. I couldn’t understand why, for I’d slept so well the other Amsterdam nights, as if rescued from normal pressures by escaping. I recalled Marina Benjamin, author of Insomnia, a book that has affected me greatly, talking in a book reading about turning the usual view of insomnia as a vile absence into something of a presence, a time for “interrogating and exploring.” So I did my best to just tolerate the fidgetiness and in the morning we shifted towns and I hung on and then, knowing a change was needed, in new cafe, a new town, new air, new light, new mind … I got really cracking on what I’m meant to do here. I have changed.
I can do it. I can do it.
When did you last feel like throwing a glass of wine across the room, so intense was your welling irritation that something was amiss? You keep staring at a problem or an issue or an article or something you’ve made. You fidget and suppress a groan. This is physical! You hate yourself and once you cure yourself of that self-hatred, you certainly despise the original issue, this … this … thing that hurts so much.
I’m in a faraway Dutch cafe and I’m reading, for the nth time, a chapter draft. It reads quite well. It tells the story. It seems to choreograph this and that event, this and that character. Nothing seems completely shitty. Yet something is wrong, a key feature is awry. This chapter lacks the life you felt in the previous chapter. It’s drizzling outside and soon you’ll leave work (it’s your birthday, after all) to spend a pleasant afternoon in an unusual museum, in strolling, in cooking, in reading. But that bloody chapter!
Well, I’m here to tell you now (those seven words actually echo an old CCR song!) that what I’m going through is positive not negative. That’s how the brain assimilates new comprehension: it has figured out a new connection is needed but the conscious brain veneer hasn’t caught up yet. This is positive not negative.
At least that’s what I’m telling myself…
This month of redrafting is weird. Waves of debilitating panic wash over me. I think, frick me, why did I ever begin this, will I ever finish, isn’t every thought and word garbage?
But I’ve been here before. The only way forward is the next small step. Do something and progress is there. “And the world is not what it seems to poor blind birds,” sing The Felice Brothers on the wonderful real-poetry folk savagery of new album Undress, the sound fills earbuds while around me the hubbub of Cafe Fika burbles. A waitress glances at me waving my arms in mime, she smiles. I smile. I can do this.
All good times come to an end and I lazed around a bit during my last two days in Amsterdam, and today’s easy 100 kilometer train ride southeast to Nijmegen nonetheless chewed up time, and I felt myself growing impatient, and the impatience grew, and this university town didn’t at first feel at home like Amsterdam did, and …. you get the picture. Well, Cafe Fika, a sprawling cafe edging towards a proper eatery, might not be like the magical Cafe Koosje, with its half-seedy bar patina, but as soon as I sat down here, my shoulder knots dissolved. I’m drafting and redrafting. All wounds are salved.
Quite some time back, I went to a bookshop reading by Marina Benjamin, author of the remarkable “Insomnia.” Quoting Miles Davis on how he “plays what’s not there,” that is, invented new forms of music, Benjamin observed that writers find the idea of writing what’s not there (that is, inventing new fields and forms of writing) as “very seductive.” My immediate excited thought was: can I frame my nearly-dead Cranes book as a new way of writing about birds and birding? One reason this notion is “seductive” to me is that I now know (and this has taken me years to realise) that the normal books about birds are not ones in which I can shine. I’m neither a good birder, nor a naturalist, nor a travel writer.
But if I reframe the project and the book, can I create something worthy? Can I save the world?
Out of that bookshop brain niggle came my 15 Cranes in the Anthropocene idea. More on that later.
It’s 4:14 PM in Cafe Koosje in the Plantage district of Amsterdam, a few tram stops out of the tourist-packed centre. I was always going to resist being fussy, just picking a local cafe, because the point was the work not the precisely intricate cafe details, but this place is brilliant and I’m working really well, quite as well as the original purpose impelling this trip. So let me ignore the last six days (I think they were okay) and talk about now.
And that is the context. Check out this Austin Kleon post that in turn references World of Tomorrow, a short film by Dan Hertzfeldt, and listen to our hero: “Now is the enemy of all of the dead.” Indeed. Today I went through, once again, my very first book chapter. It’s so familiar I can almost recite it, which makes it hard to edit, but, after initial hesitation, I’ve powered through and amped it up and I think it works.
Tomorrow the dead will witness me being the now.
Allocating an hour a day to something quite nebulous sounds like a bad idea. But forcing myself to attend to what I actually want to do in the future with birding and writing and all the ideas and emotions attached to the confluence of those two activities … well, it’s been a life changer. Originally I thought I’d do a 2020 Big Year based on a birding idea but that idea proved undoable, but nagging at the idea has transformed it into a major project to unfurl over the next half decade. Without the Wings Big Year, I’d have nothing.
Now comes a dilemma. I’ll be focussing on Cranes and climate change and what a novice might write about those subjects in tandem, but what now for the Wings Big Year, its final five months. One hour a day, remember?
Well, I’ve decided to scratch away at all those impediments to being a good birder/naturalist/writer. More specifically:
- How to learn more about ornithology without boring myself silly
- How to get crane images, a recurring problem (see the image above, that’s me photographing a Little Raven – is that good enough for a book? Spare me!)
- How to produce compelling maps of how Cranes migrate
- What is migration and how does one think about it and write about it without being either “gee whiz” or boring
- Etc., etc., etc.
An hour a day on this shit? Thrilling!
The pressure has eased off and now I’m celebrating internally the year I’ve had so far. Hours worked, hours done. Part of the pleasure has been daily, sometimes twice daily, sojourns at Finders Keepers, an ideal writer’s café. Lovely coffee, always room, splendid people, airy lightness, great music … just the ant’s pants.
Everything today in the choppy sea of my work is hidden from view. Getting ready to flee the Southern Hemisphere means taking the clay of my book in a suitcase and that’s tough. One foot wrong and I’ll curse myself next week. I approach the task in different ways – sometimes sorting physical piles of crap, sometimes sifting through folders of files, sometimes gleaning from past notes on what to do – and slowly clarity emerges, or at least the deception of clarity. Some material I take as softcopy, using brilliant cross-device aggregator Evernote. Some I print out at Officeworks, slip into folders, and stash in my suitcase. All of it is heavy with meaning, with import. A sense of thrill gooses my neck.