On Writing and Islands

on the shores of rangitoto island, new zealand

on the shores of rangitoto island, new zealand

The trail was empty and the fine gravel beneath my feet felt solid and stable. It was just what I needed--- an easy lollygag along a foreign shoreline, alone with my thoughts. The Auckland sky and I were both on the verge of releasing waterworks---just one rip in the silver lining away from a gusher that would drown me on the mental and physical island I had found myself on. 

I love big cities: the noise; the anonymity; the insular existence of strangers in the street. I feel safe from my own thoughts in big cities. On an island, however, there is a kind of loudness that only a thunderous silence brings. The crunch of the rocks beneath my shoes and the rippling sea licking the shore boomed at first, but soon my thoughts began to elbow their way in between my ears and speak up.

I began to think about something a new friend and writer Amy Gigi Alexander had asked me to do earlier that morning, to answer the question, "why I write?" then post it on my blog. At first I didn’t want to do it and made mental excuses for why I shouldn’t or couldn’t.  As if feeling my current state of mind, Gigi sent another message a little while later.   

“I think this is a great thing for you and for me to write... I think this idea suits you and I just see something very good coming out of it,” she wrote.

I wasn’t in the greatest mood that morning. Prior to receiving Gigi’s request, I had had a not-so-positive exchange with an editor that left me feeling dejected and worse, mediocre. For the first time in a long while I wanted to quit writing. Am I a good writer? What am I doing this for? I asked myself over and over. No answers came back.

The only thing that kept me from curling up in bed and watching a replay of “Armageddon” that was on local television was that is was my last day in New Zealand and I had planned to visit Rangitoto, a volcanic island just a 20-minute boat ride from the harbor. I grabbed the bus map and shut the door behind me. Feeling disenchanted, I decided to let fate dictate the day’s agenda. If I miss the bus, I’ll go back to my room. I told myself.  If I don’t make the boat, I’ll go back to my room. Pulling the short straw wouldn't make me feel guilty, either.

The bus pulled up when I arrived at the corner, so I hopped on. It dropped me at the port just as the crew were pulling in the gangplank. They waved me aboard and I did one of those movie scene leaps onto the ferry as it cast off from the dock. Once on the island,  I planned to climb to the summit of Rangitoto, some 850 feet high with views that were  “sweeping" and “stunning” and other clichéd descriptions I'd read in the brochure. I shuffled off the boat behind the herd of day-trippers in sun hats and boy scouts weighted down with camping gear.  We hit the trail at once, but when I came to a wooden sign with a yellow arrow pointing left toward the summit, I went right, opting for an empty path snaking toward the sea.

Within a few hundred yards the fine gravel beneath my feet changed and the smooth and easy jaunt turned laborious. I prudently stepped over black lava rocks with jagged edges, many pocked with holes and slippery with moss and yellow grass. Eventually the path smoothed out again but very quickly narrowed and turned away from the shore, leading me into a thicket of green plants with serving platter-sized leaves, and scruffy brush dense enough to block me from seeing beyond 10-feet in any direction.

The silence was even louder in the trees and I heard my own voice. The writing life is a lot like this island path.

As a child I loved words and wanted to read them or have them read to me all the time. As I got older I penned my own MadLibs and stories about girls with magic powers and super strength. I worked on the school newspaper in junior high, wrote secrets in a pink diary that locked with a tiny golden key, and I sent letters to pen pals whose addresses I found in the back of Teen Magazine. Words intrigued me, too, and I wrote them down in a small notebook, especially the names of places that had a nice sound to them or were fun to say like Siam, Fiji, Honolulu, and Machu Pichu. They were often places I wanted to visit.

But then I got lost.

The writing path is sometimes narrow and confining...

The writing path is sometimes narrow and confining...

Somewhere between middle school and college I put down my pen and let my head fill with thoughts of majors and careers and other grown up things like a business degree and work experience. I thought it made me more responsible and desirable  though to whom, I 'm not really sure. By the time I was 29 I realized I’d gone an entire decade without writing anything but term papers, marketing reports, and emails. Ten years sacrificed to a ‘career,’ a word whose definition in the dictionary is defined as ‘a calling.’ That calling strangled the creativity and light right out of me. I had to quit to let my true calling surface and revive my dulled spirit. I applied for a low paying reporter position at the newspaper in my town and to my great surprise, without any clips or experience, I got the job. An editor, David Wallace, said he just had "a gut feeling" that I’d be good at it. He left soon after I started and I never saw him again. If I ever do, I’ll thank him and his gut.

Along the leafy path on Rangitoto, the tree tunnel finally opened and the slim trail widened into an expanse of lava rocks and whispy yellow bushes sprouting from what seemed like infertile terrain. I stopped to absorb the scene. The clouds had lightened and streaks of filtered sun began to warm my face and highlight the white sails in the the harbor. I turned around and saw Rangitoto’s peak looming in the distance, where I had planned to be. I thought of the dozens of people ascending it at the same time, who were probably all snapping pictures of the same "awesome" view, and I was glad I had taken another road. I looked at my watch to see how much time I had left on the island and another thought popped into my head.  "At this precise moment, April 25, 2014 at 11:20 am, I am the only person on the entire planet standing in this spot."

That resonated for some reason. I had to take time to study the moments, the bad for their learning opportunities, but especially the beautiful ones served to me alone. I let out a shaky breath, releasing it into the air along with the sobs that I'd held inside me for the previous couple hours. The serenity and clarity this path presented to me deserved better than tears, so I wiped my cheeks and continued forward.

The trail bent right into the trees again and out of sight. Still letting the universe guide me, I told myself I’d walk until I’d sung the entire alphabet song. If, when I got to Z, there was nothing more to see beyond tree tunnels, then I’d head back to the dock and catch the ferry back to the city. I had only arrived at N when the bush gave way to another opening lined with black lava rocks where I found, wedged into the crevices, a plank of sun-bleached wood about 3-feet long that some lonely soul had left for the next one that ambled along.

The writing path is dotted with places to sit and rest.

The writing path is dotted with places to sit and rest.

I didn’t realize I needed a rest until I sat down. The makeshift bench wobbled beneath me at first, but I planted my rubber-soled shoes firmly on the ground in front of me to find my balance and again, listened to soliloquy of the silence.

Before I left my room that morning, Gigi had also sent me a quote from the great Flannery O’Conner who said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

What I think is this: I am a writer. Good or bad writer is not for me to decide. I am just someone who loves to stitch words into stories on paper and hope they sing to someone. It's the plight of all of us who put our personal work out into the world. What's up to us, however, is whether to let someone's judgement drown our inspiration. Why that person I’d spoken with earlier in the morning had upset me so much, I didn’t know. Like the path I walked along on Rangitoto, the writing life is a rocky and unstable at times, and it will throw you off balance. But it also has moments of joy, ease, satisfaction and peace.  Writing is my art. Not everyone will love the masterpiece but I hope they can at least appreciate the effort and intent of the master.

And I thought about the answer to my own questions, too. Am I a good writer? What am I doing this for? Those questions solicit different answers every day, but quitting was not going to be one of them.

I opened up my notebook while sitting on that plank of wood left, perhaps by another writer, on a volcanic island and my thoughts erupted. I drew. I wrote down ideas for stories and words I love the sound of, such as Rangitoto, and I scribbled the outline for this post. By the time I boarded the return ferry back to Auckland, my dark mood had lifted just like the remaining clouds had done. I arrived back to the noise of Auckland under clear skies.

The restorative power of writing is as magical as the encouragement of a friend. Thanks Gigi.





Kimberley Lovato

Kimberley Lovato has written about travel, lifestyle and food for national and international publications and websites including National Geographic Traveler, Executive Travel, American Way, AFAR, Condé Nast Traveller (UK), Ryan Air, b.there, Easy Jet Traveller, leitesculinaria.com and frommers.com, among others. She is the author of a Michelin Guidebook on Brussels, where she lived for six years Her culinary travel book, Walnut Wine & Truffle Groves, about the Dordogne region of France, won the "Best Travel Book" nod in 2012 from the Society of American Travel Writers, as did her personal essay, "Lost and Liberated," which also appeared in Best Women's Travel Writing, Volume 8. When she's not plotting her next trip or her annual pilgrimage to France, she resides in San Francisco where she is a correspondent for BBC's Passport Blog, a student in Stanford University's Creative Writing Certificate program, and a brave mother of a teenaged girl.