Today’s guest post comes to us from Jennifer Ochstein, Assistant Professor of Writing at Bethel College.
The more I write, the more I’m convinced that writing is, for me at least, a matter of courage. The problem is that I am not very courageous.
I became acutely aware of this during my recent pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St. James. The 1,200-year-old Christian pilgrimage trail traditionally begins in St. Jean in France and extends nearly 500 miles to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. My husband and I walked about 150 miles of The Way earlier this summer.
When we arrived in Madrid after an eight-hour, overnight flight, we had to take a five-hour bus ride to the small town of Ponferrada in northern Spain where we would start our pilgrimage. We left our house at 11 a.m. on Wednesday and didn’t arrive in Ponferrada and the alburgue (hostel) where we would sleep until after 6 p.m. on Thursday. By the time we finally slept, we’d been awake for nearly thirty hours, minus the six-hour time difference.
I’d like to say that the emotional breakdown, or rather, the utter soul-rattling panic that seized me next, was jet lag and sleep deprivation. Those may have contributed, but my mind had started churning and I couldn’t find the off switch. All of the unknowable elements of our next twelve days crashed in on me. I freaked out.
* * *
I was reminded of a writing retreat I took three years ago. I left my home in Indiana and drove to a remote village in Virginia surrounded by trees and hills and little else. During my ten-hour drive, stopping only for short bathroom breaks, I made the mistake of eating nothing but a bagel and drinking less than eight ounces of water (I was intent on making time). When I arrived and took my hands off the wheel, they were vibrating, as if they were part of the machinery of my car humming along the highway. When I pulled myself from the driver’s seat, I was lightheaded and my legs were shaky. The humidity was at ninety percent with a temperature to match, and I stumbled my way to the front door of the retreat house.
The caretaker seemed confused and asked me who I was. When I told him, he looked even more confused. According to his schedule, I wasn’t supposed to arrive until the next day. The retreat house was booked. It was dusk and I’d have to backtrack miles to find a hotel.
My chest tightened as I told him he would need to check again because I was certain I had reserved my stay. He disappeared, returning five minutes later; he explained that the owner was out of town and he was house sitting. He would set me up that night in the owner’s bedroom and then get me settled into my own room the next day.
Once in the temporary room, the full weight of my panic engulfed me. Why had I thought I could spend the next three weeks writing? I certainly didn’t have enough words to fill twenty-one days. How was I going to get through these three weeks? I nearly packed up and drove the ten hours back home.
I called my mother, who talked me down: give it till morning, she said. If you still feel like you can’t do it, then come home.
Get some rest, she said. Eat something.
* * *
Three years later, standing at the foot of my bunk bed in the communal sleeping quarters of the Spanish hostel, the panic rising in my chest felt familiar, though no less terrifying. This time, I couldn’t hold back tears as I considered what I’d gotten my husband and myself into. The whole Camino thing had been my idea. I’d brought us to a country where we didn’t speak the language and where we were going to have to hike across completely foreign terrain. I had no way of knowing when we would eat, where we would sleep, in what city we would find ourselves. I had no control over things. I couldn’t fathom what the next twelve days would bring.
Why in the world did you think this would be fun, I asked myself. What were you thinking?
When I found my husband waiting for me outside the hostel, I apologized over and over for getting us into a mess. He tried to encourage me, but I couldn’t hear him. I couldn’t stop my tears and I couldn’t stop my racing panic.
I spent most of that night shivering, partly from the cold (there were no blankets and I’d decided at the last minute to leave my sleeping bag behind to keep my pack lighter), and partly from the fear of having to walk into the unknown.
In the morning, I heard the other pilgrims stirring, getting themselves and their packs ready. I told myself that I only needed to start walking. No more. No less. Just start walking. And that became my mantra: just start walking.
In Virginia three years before, I had taken my mother’s advice. I slept. I ate. I drank some water. And for three weeks, I just kept writing. I wrote 50,000 words, more than I ever had before. Three years later as I walked the Camino, the parallels between the writing life and pilgrimage slowly emerged.
Now that I’m settling back in my everyday life, I can predict, more or less, what will happen tomorrow, and the day after that. I can plan what I will eat and I know where I will sleep (barring any acts of God). And this is why the writing life can be so difficult for me—the unknown of it, the utter unpredictability.
This writing, I can’t control it. When I try to write the true thing, I don’t know what it’s going to ask of me that day, or whether it will make the old panic rise again, the kind of panic that keeps me from hearing anything except itself. Each letter, word, sentence, paragraph; each essay, poem, short story—all of it is an act of faith. This writing asks more of me than I often want to give. So I must remind myself, each new day: just start walking.
Jennifer Ochstein is Assistant Professor of Writing at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana, and has published essays with Hippocampus Magazine, The Lindenwood Review, Evening Street Review, and The Cresset. She also writes book reviews for Brevity and the River Teeth blog. Follow her at jenniferochstein.com.