I’m 38,000 feet over the eastern seaboard somewhere between Boston and Miami, on a cramped and noisy jet plane, sitting next to a man who smells strongly of body odor and Aqua Velva. Flight attendants are moving up and down the aisle, delivering drinks and snacks, and a gaggle of passengers are milling about a few rows up, in line for the lavatory.
Except for sunlight streaming through windows, it’s totally unlike the stillness of the Room, where phones are silenced and computers don’t beep, where the only sounds come floating up from State and Broad, and from the occasional sneeze or tearing of Velcro, followed by a hushed ‘sorry about that,’ and where there’s a motivational vibe in the air.
The vibe in this Airbus stinks of sweat socks, and I’ve no place to stretch out my typing hands across the keyboard. I’m all hunched up.
Still, I had a plan to get some work done up here. I’ve got Billy and Bruce blowing through my headphones, and a couple of books for inspiration. This should be the perfect spot to finish a piece with which I’ve been struggling — an essay on the anxieties I used to feel about flying when I weighed 350 pounds, and seat-belt extenders and an encounter with a beautiful Nordic flight attendant.
But I can’t write a damn word and it’s not because of the working conditions. The problem is I can’t stop thinking. I can’t get out of my own way. I’m stuck. It’s not writer’s block — I never think of it that way. It’s more that there’s a jumble of ideas rattling around in my mind and I can’t sort through it all. I can’t contain anything. I can’t find a single line of clarity.
I’ve been here before, muddled and baffled at the keyboard. We all have. To my mind there are two ways out. One of them is not more typing.
Sometimes the best choice is to walk away. Not permanently, of course, but for a little while, to let my thoughts marinate. The best ideas will inevitably float to the top, the worst will wither away. But that takes time. Instead, if I’m lucky, I can free-write my way out of the jam.
I can put the computer away and go back to a method I discovered years ago, in Natalie Goldberg’s classic book, Writing Down the Bones. And that’s what I’m going to do, cruising up here in the stratosphere, sitting in this seat between my wife and the odorous man who’s name turns out to be Leon.
I take out my notebook and start pushing a fast pen across a clean page, non-stop. I write whatever comes to mind. I fill my Moleskine with word after word, sentence after sentence, only about half of which relate to the actual essay. Some are meaningless drivel: “The Crest was delicious this morning; my teeth felt great.” After a while, though, the nonsense is cleared out and the sentences start to make sense. I can see puzzle pieces coming together and solutions starting to reveal themselves through the simple act of forward movement.
And all I had to do was get out of my own way. Ultimately, it boils down to the advice of a great baseball player, Yogi Berra, who once asked, “How can you think and hit at the same time?” Though a New York Yankee, the team I despise more than any other, Yogi’s counsel is wise and wholly applicable to our craft.
How can you think and write at the same time?