I am what they call an “anxious traveler.” Especially on airplanes. Statistical assurances, mechanical-theoretical explanations, the collective buttressing of stolid reason itself is powerless against the full-body panic I feel when our heavier-than-aircraft bounces cheerfully through a draft of turbulence.
Unfortunately, the only cure I have found to date is probably worse than the disease. Several years ago, I boarded a plane from Boston to San Francisco to deliver a conference paper. I hadn’t yet written the paper. Only later did I realize that for the six or so hours I spent in the air, typing up something that resembled a conference talk, at least from thirty-thousand feet, I had been too consumed with anticipatory dread to register the slight rocking of my airborne chevalier.
The moral of my story is not, however, that one may become a less anxious flyer by writing papers by the seat of one’s pants. Indeed, my advice is that you try to avoid that panicked scenario. The pedagogical insight is this: it is possible to write during turbulence.
The point came home to me recently, as I attempted to juggle writing responsibilities with a transatlantic move. Stressed out by the logistics of travel, nervous about the actual flight, mentally out-of-sorts in a partially-packed apartment: how could I possibly start—let alone finish—this writing assignment?
There was no secret formula. The way forward, quite simply, was to commit to putting words on paper. One pernicious myth about writing is that you need perfect conditions. A clear schedule. A clean desk. A sun-filled day. The full Gemini moon falling in your seventh house of productivity and insight. The well-kept secret of successful writers is that you do not in fact need the stars to align in order to start chipping away at your research and writing. Imagine the “flow” of writing as a draft of potentially bumpy air one enters and rides. You must climb to the right altitude—strapping yourself into the task at hand, climbing above the distractions—but once you find it, wherever you are and wherever you are going, you can cruise (and don’t worry about the bumps: they’re completely normal).
De-sanctify your writing process: you don’t need a perfect time and space to write. Not all writing sessions transpire in a reverent hush by the altar of contemplation. All you need is the will to begin. Then writing becomes—like airplane travel—just an efficient way to get from point A to point B.
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