This post is part of a series I started on September 9, 2012.

Some time ago, my husband and I went with a painter friend to a Mendicino County beach. It’s hard sometimes living in Berkeley to remember that there are places only a few hours away where it regularly gets to be over 90 degrees in the summer, and the day we went to the beach was one of those days.

Driving through the vineyards along Route 128 felt like driving through an oven even with the air conditioner on, and it was a relief when the road ducked into a dark redwood forest, twisting around the giant trees and the bends in a river that gradually widened until it met the sea, its banks and bed kneaded by the tide into a wide mouth. The forest stopped abruptly then, as if the thick fog that clung to the shoreline held them back. As the car crawled through the sea grasses the temperature seemed to drop by thirty degrees all at once.

It wasn’t a beach day, exactly, but we bundled up in jackets and wandered, admiring the giant boulders that cut through the water like shark fins marking the end of the beach on one side.

Navarro Beach is one of my favorite beaches for many reasons. One of them is the driftwood, a word that feels deceptive when the biggest pieces of driftwood are two whole redwood trunks stripped of their bark and branches and bleached by the sun and the sand and the salt until they’re as gray as the fog.

The bigger of the two is such a popular canvas for charcoal doodles, one only has to bend down and dig through the sand to find a piece of charcoal big enough to make a mark.

I am a terrible artist, so I always hesitate to draw anything more complicated than my initials, but our friend took to it immediately drawing swoops and squiggles in wide arcs.

“What are you drawing?” we asked.

“I have no idea.”

“Do you always start a drawing like that?”


Very. Serious. Business.

When I was in graduate school, few workshops were complete without a few minutes of free writing to a prompt. I always hated free writing sessions, sitting there with my pencil motionlessly over an empty notebook, my mind as blank as the page while my classmates wrote as if they couldn’t get the words down fast enough and the workshop facilitator watched me with concern.

Writing to me has always been a Big Deal, each word coming slowly and painfully like plucking a hair. This practice of writing as doodling felt not only foreign to me but downright painful, as well.

All through grad school, I told myself that this was my process. Some writers compose at the story level. Some compose at the page level or the sentence level. I compose at the word level, I said, like a sand sculptor working with tweezers piling up one grain of sand at a time.

This assertion got me through grad school, but I never really believed it. My voice sounded just a little too squeaky, and I envied the relaxed way my peers approached the blank page just a little too much.

Most importantly, it’s not the way things always were. I had vivid memories of being a pre-schooler standing in front of my Fisher Price easel I smearing paint over a pad with abandon.

Writing is a search for buried treasure.

The first story I ever heard about a writer’s process was a story my eighth grade teacher told about Robert Cormier when we were studying I am the Cheese. The scenes of the protagonist riding his bike weren’t written explicitly for the novel, he said. They came from descriptions of riding a bike that Cormier had written and stuck in a drawer. Many years later while he was working on the novel that would become I am the Cheese, he stumbled on those pages serendipitously, and he wove them into the novel.

I was only just beginning to think of myself as a writer when I heard this story, and I listened with rapt attention. Robert Cormier’s drawer sounded like a treasure box. And I wanted one.

Early in my twenties, I tried to create something like this for myself, reverently placing everything I created in a black file drawer. I had no idea how someone got from writing drawer to that serendipitous find, but I assumed that the magic ingredient was time. If I only piled up enough things in that drawer and waited long enough, I would eventually have the same experience Robert Cormier did. 

Creative work needs a chaos monkey.

Recently, I’ve begun to wonder if I was right to believe in the power of time to make ideas grow, but that was only half of the recipe. 

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg says that every new work should start with the lowest expectations. “Sit down with the least expectation of yourself; say, ‘I’m going to write the worst junk in the world.’” There is something about creative work at its best that’s receptive to chaos. Robert Cormier’s drawer worked because it was full of false starts and half drafts and vague ideas, seeds, in other words, not finished work reverently buried.