Without a Compass

Jacques Cartier used an astrolabe to guide him from northwest France to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River in the early 1500's. Odysseus sailed by the stars, though the Gods had a very big influence over where he went and what happened to him at each of the stopping stones that led him back to Ithaca. Athena did all she could to speed Odysseus home, Poseidon equalled her efforts, but to foil the man.

Undoubtedly romantic to use sailing as a metaphor for novel writing, yet it can feel like that. While the seas are not treacherous in a physical way, it's just as risky psychologically to leave port for a journey of unknown length, that may have to be aborted, that will end somewhere, eventually, but where? You've stocked your ship with all you think you may need, cast away with the inner breathlessness that accompanies any new venture. In the beginning you may use charts, perhaps an outline. The weather is calm, you bob up and down on wave after predictable wave that are the days you come and go from your desk. Some are like the doldrums, when you put in the time but get nowhere. Then a sudden brisk wind of inspiration forces you to adjust your sails, to set out on a different tack. At first, happily, excitedly occupied, you soon realize that you have no idea where this tack is leading you.

At an AWP conference one year, it was maybe the American novelist Ron Carlsen who said, when in doubt, trust your fingers. Let your fingers do the writing.  Sounds like an old advertisement for the Yellow Pages, but it is good advice. Thinking too much can lead to confusion, inertia. So you give into the fresh breeze, which cools your face as you think - but not too much - of all the writers who have been in this position before you.  Jack Kerouac, for example, who advised...

"Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better."

Yet even he must have had days when word pairs such as these came in from under, 
                                  failures, sailors
an imperfect rhyme poets use to create an inharmonious feeling, like dissonance in music. "Somethin's happenin here. What it is ain't exactly clear," as Stephen Stills of the Buffalo Springfield wrote, about a different kind of troublesome situation.

An island up ahead, a sheltered cove. With luck the clouds will clear and some Calypso will appear with advice similar to what she gave to Odysseus, to keep the Bear (Ursa Major) on his left hand side and at the same time to observe the position of the Pleiades, and Orion as he sailed eastward, traversing the Ocean. Or perhaps you will discover an astrolabe left behind on the beach.