Thursday, December 4, 2014

Journey in the Cloud

Fog on the mountain
A couple months ago, I had a serendipitous encounter with a neighbor while walking on my road. She mentioned she was writing a memoir and had just begun working with an agent. I mentioned that I was applying to graduate school for a degree in writing.

She said she was part of a local writers' group, and that the group had just lost a member who'd moved away. They were looking for new writers to join them. She asked if I would be interested. I said yes.

So that's how I began meeting with a great group of talented women writers in early October. We're all working on different things, mostly memoir and non-fiction. There isn't a ringer in the bunch - these women are such excellent writers it humbles me to be in their company.

We meet on Wednesday evenings at the home of a member who lives way up in Tuna Canyon, which is at the crest of the ridge, and on a hilltop that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. To get there, you drive up Fernwood Pacific, a torturously winding road through one of Topanga's oldest neighborhoods, full of switch backs and tight ox-bow curves.

Last night, after three days of storm, I drove up into Fernwood. It was already dark; darkness falls about 5:15 these days.

If you look at a map of the Fernwood neighborhood, it looks like someone dropped a handful of cooked spaghetti onto a tablecloth. The main road, Fernwood Pacific, is the noodle outlined in blue, below:

Only in this case, the tablecloth has been thrown over a large mountain. Where Fernwood Pacific intersects with Topanga Canyon Boulevard, at the upper-right, it is 738 feet above sea level. By the time you get to the lower left-hand corner of the map, you've climbed 1100 feet in six miles.

Last night, as I started driving, the ocean fog was creeping into the canyon. Here, in a peculiar phenomenon, the ocean fog climbs up the coast mountains and cascades over the top, rolling down into the canyon. The higher up I drove, the thicker grew the fog. By the time I had reached the summit, I could barely see in front of the car.

As I climbed, I began to worry. The road is tricky, climbing a narrow ridge, bordered with steep fall-offs to one shoulder, or sheer stone cliffs rising up from the other. In some places, deep storm culverts gaped, big enough to shred my car tires if I drove carelessly into them. I thought for a moment about turning back.

And yet - I had driven this road before. Though I could not see for than a few feet, I knew what lay ahead. I had been to the house before, and knew there were lanterns to mark my destination. I had come this far already, and to turn back now would be foolish. It would be no more foggy after our meeting than it was now, I thought. Press on. So I did, and I arrived at our hostess' warm and welcoming house, and listened to some wonderful and inspiring readings.

A quote attributed to the American novelist E.L. Doctorow appears in many books about creative writing.

"Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."*

I read that and thought it was particularly apt for last night's journey in the clouds. Up beyond 1500 feet, it was only by focusing on what was right in front of me that kept me climbing.

When our meeting concluded, two hours later, we stopped and steeled ourselves for the treacherous journey back through the fog. Then we opened the door and stepped out into the night.

The sky was completely clear, the stars glittering.

Morning fog from my house
*Doctorow's wonderful quote appears everywhere, in "Brainy Quotes" and in "Goodreads" and online in blog after blog about the creative process. It appears in creative writing textbooks and "how-to" guides. Only there's one odd thing. The origin of the quote was an interview Doctorow gave to George Plimpton in the Paris Review in 1986. You can read the interview here:

The words "in the fog" do not appear. The closest thing I could find was an attribution to a 1988 volume of collected Paris Review interviews with writers. Perhaps the language about fog was in Plimpton's original notes, and edited out for the journal but later re-inserted in the book? It's a mystery.

I guess the point is, just keep driving on, and focus on what's in front of you.


small mind said...

so pleased you found the group with a spot just waiting for you ...Px

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Except for the dangerous drive -- I've been wondering if you've had mud slides from the rain -- this is altogether lovely. Isn't it funny how a life experience clarifies something in a discussion?