To the Water

By Justin Daugherty

Essay

1.

The way to Hidden Beach is down, down, down. Drive out on the highway, through the endless Upper Peninsula woods full of birch and pine. There are no signs. Past Sugar Loaf Mountain, past the rocky outcrops that crowd the highway. Pull off of the highway at just the right spot, where you can finally see all the way to Lake Superior from the road. Colin will tell you when. Remove the old blanket from the trunk, the raw hamburger, the Doritos. Others take out their tents, which you don’t have. You walk a bit through those beautiful woods, the long, thin pines rising far overhead until you see it, far below. I can’t get down there, this is insane, you think. But, stop that, you can get down. You might scrape an elbow or smack your head on an uprooted tree leaning almost in line with the horizon. In fact, you will cut yourself on the way down, repelling in the mud and grass and grabbing at loose branches that fall away as you reach for them. That’s nothing, bruises and scrapes fade. Others will take the hard way to the beach, climbing down the sheer rock wall. Take your time. Admire Anna’s poise and the ease with which she moves toward the beach. Make sure each step is firmly rooted in the ground. You will shake and pull at trees and roots before you hang from them or use them to swing around to a more manageable route to the sand below. Lake Superior will guide you, will call to you, and unlike Odysseus, follow her siren song despite the danger in it. Rocks will tumble away beneath your feet, you will slip in the mud and slide down the steep decline. You will attempt to throw the blanket to the beach, it being too awkward to carry on your shoulders, and it will float and snag on an out-of-reach tree. You will curse the tree, the blanket, but be calm. Take your time. You will look back toward the car, to the highway. Smell the lake, the fresh water scent rare in Nebraska. Inhale. Look to where the land levels out, to the sand. Look at the tide as it rolls. You will make it to the beach and there will be blood. You’ll make it. Just head toward the lake.

The thing about a breakup, for a writer, is that it can be crippling, like a baseball bat to the shins. Up until recently, I was on a roll. Ideas galore, inspiration flowing from everywhere. Two stories finished in a month, ready to be polished, edited, submitted. Published author, here I come!

 

***

 

When my then-fiancee called with the phone call rejection notice – yes, it was a phone call, but we were 750 miles apart – all progress stopped. I jumped in the car and drove home to salvage what I could, to talk it out. Surely, a mistake was made. All I had to do was get her to see that everything could be fixed, we could be put back together.

I couldn’t write a word. I tried. I sat in a hotel room in Madison, staring at the computer, playing Scrabble online instead of thinking, writing, plotting.

I searched news sites for story-worthy bits and wrote a pile of writing prompts, anything to jumpstart my stagnant creativity and to distract me from the crisis at hand. Nothing worked.

I was in the barren, infertile wasteland of the post-Apocalypse.

Okay, so that’s a bit melodramatic.

The blinking cursor taunted me until I closed the laptop and watched Monday Night Raw. It was that or syndicated episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond, and I despise that show.

I gave in to my block, let it take over. This, for a writer, is like drinking arsenic to cure a cold.

 

***

 

During the next few days, I was preoccupied with relationship stuff. I met my ex and we talked about where things had faltered, who hadn’t done their part, where we would go from there. It wasn’t going to work, we decided. We were two different people, neither ready for marriage or anything it entails. I was okay at first. We went to a party at a friend’s beach house along Lake Superior. We had a good time, deflected concern about us with a joint air of contentment. This is for the best, we said.

The next night, returning to the beach house, something changed. A friend’s band played an informal show in the living room. I jammed on the drum set. I watched the sun set from a sea kayak on the lake. I was having fun, but then a revelation about the relationship, about my failures as a boyfriend, broke me.

I didn’t think about writing. I couldn’t. I shut down. I had to leave.

 

***

 

I drove straight through from Marquette to Omaha, thirteen hours on the road, eager to find some distraction from my current anger, bitterness, defeat. I got lost in Marinette, Wisconsin, and somehow wound up circling the capital building in Madison instead of continuing on the highway. Six hours of Iowa’s flat landscape – sorry, Iowa – didn’t help matters any. I barely noticed the wind turbine fields, like science fiction forests, along I-80. The whole time, I tried to force myself to come up with an idea. A germ.

I find this isn’t the best way to deal with writer’s block. It can’t be forced. If Robert Olen Butler’s right, then it has to come from some dream-like place, not through the manufactured idea farm of the mind.

I returned to Omaha, went to a bookstore and broke out the laptop. Then, a notebook, in which I only scribbled, doodled pictures of covered wagons and guitars.

In the past, I believed that writer’s block was the author’s own creation, a reason not to write. But, this was real. I took the new Ecotone from the shelves, the current Prairie Schooner, read story after story hoping for something. It was hopeless. After six hours, I went to the bar.

 

***

 

The same thing happened the next day, this time for eight hours. And the next. Then a few more days after that. Every day, I texted writer friends, asking for advice. How do I come out of this? Read, one tells me. Drink more, then write, the other says. I did both. By then, the post-breakup loneliness had set in and I was getting worse. More Scrabble and crossword puzzles and World Cup soccer. Production: zero.

 

***

 

I met Brian, my best friend, at a bar. We talked about the breakup, how I was feeling, how my ex-fiancée was doing, about the particularly bad idea of rebound sex.

“I haven’t written a thing in days,” I said.

“Nothing?” he said.

“I’m void of ideas.”

“Maybe you should channel your emotions into your writing,” Brian said. No way, I thought, I don’t write that sort of stuff. Breakup fiction is for Matthew McConaughey movies. But, I thought, maybe he was on to something.

 

***

 

This isn’t what he meant, I’m know. I’m sitting at the same bookstore I have all summer, writing out those emotions, giving life to past events. I’m feeling a break now, a small wave of my former self returning as I write this, the muse awakening from a too-long slumber.

There are no new ideas, yet, but I’m writing.

Now, maybe, that block is finally crumbling.