I'm writing this from my favorite late-in-the-day workspace: the living room couch in front of the woodstove. And before you get the idea that writing is a cushy life involving lying on the couch and eating bon-bons and watching soap operas, let me assure you that there are no bon-bons anywhere in the neighborhood and I'm not watching soap operas (we don't have a television). The couch is just where I go when the day's store of energy is used up, but I haven't finished the day's work. I put my feet up and my computer in my lap, and keep writing.
Sometimes when I'm tired and still wrestling words at this time of night, I wonder if I'm crazy to write for a living. Perhaps. But the truth is, it's the only thing I want to do. I'm reminded of what Ken Washington, Director of Company Development for Minneapolis' renowned Guthrie Theater, said when I asked him for advice for young artists:
If you can do something else, do it. But if you are driven, don't let anyone stop you.I spent the first decade of my career in field science, studying how ecosystems, the wild, self-sustaining communities made up of plants and animals and their relationships, shape the landscapes we share. I studied sagebrush, one of the West's iconic shrubs, wildfires, and the habitat needs of big animals like grizzly bears. I loved the work: it took me outside, gave me license to explore some of the wildest country in the lower 48 states, and nurtured my bond with the community of the land.
When a health crisis and divorce shattered that life, I moved away from the home I loved and thought I'd start over again in science. Until I found writing and was hooked by the lure of telling stories, whether true or invented. What keeps me at this crazy business after two decades, eleven books and literally hundreds of magazine articles and newspaper and radio commentaries is knowing that what I write is a gift: it could be just the thing to lift someone's spirits, teach them something they didn't know they needed to know, or spark that "ah-hah" moment when suddenly we see the world differently.
Good writing can change minds, nourish spirits, and touch hearts. Good writing can, I believe, change the world, one reader at a time. And there's much in the world I'd like to change, starting with mending our fractured relationship to nature, which I believe has a lot to do with other ills like poverty, war, and violence.
So here I sit on the couch, writing long after my work day should be done. Because - thank you, Ken Washington, for helping me understand this - although I could do other things, I don't want to. My heart is in writing. And to write well, my writing has to come from my heart.
In her song "Goodnight America," sing/songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter talks about dreaming with her heart outstretched as if it were her hand. That's a powerful image: it speaks of courage and vulnerability, of being true to one's inner self as well as to the outer world. So here's my new writing goal: to write with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand.