Earlier this month I had the good fortune to be a guest on a friend’s sailboat for ten days. Up until then I’d only ever spent a day or half day on a sailboat and hadn’t needed to do much but sit back and enjoy the ride. For this trip, I was one of three hands on deck, and I really had to pull my weight. I learned so much about sailing, and yet it was just the tip of the iceberg (hmmm, maybe I shouldn’t mention icebergs and boats in the same sentence…).
I’m still pretty green when it comes to sailing, but I did take the helm on many occasions, and when we were fully under sail, traveling between seven and eight knots, I learned what it really means to “stay the course.”
Usually when sailing, the captain plots a course according to the nautical charts. This results in a waypoint, the destination you’re aiming for (in our case, nearly deserted bays of small islands or along the Peloponnese coast. Unless you’re motoring only, the wind has to be taken into account, and you might have to tack and jibe–basically moving in a zigzag to catch the wind–in order to get where you want to go. It occurred to me that writing often feels like this too; we generally make our your way toward writing goals following very indirect lines.
On good sailing (writing) days, when the sails (your mind and hands) fill with wind (inspiration) and you’ve harnessed great power to propel you forward, there can be a wildness to the ride. The boat heels to one side and you need to maintain your balance on a slanted deck. You need a light and strong hand at the helm to maintain a good angle to the wind. But a strong wind pulls the nose of the boat into it and the helm can stiffen and draw you off to one side, so minor course corrections are always being made if you are to make progress toward your waypoint.
Before, when I used to think of staying the course in terms of writing, I imagined maintaining a steady rhythm and routine, keeping my eyes on the goal, and basically plodding along. But after having experienced it literally, I see it as a dynamic, energized process of monitoring and responding to a variety of ever-changing conditions, many of which can steer you astray or tip you into the drink.
The wind, like life, is rarely consistent. We consistently need to make minor (or major) adjustments in our writing process in order to keep moving toward the waypoints we’ve chosen. Struggling with this is normal. Sometimes the wind wins. It’s rarely smooth sailing for very long. Your skills, your passion, and your stamina will see you through the rough seas of process so that you can occasionally experience tranquil bays of progress and accomplishment. But reading the wind, adjusting the sails, and riding unexpected waves will always be required.
Every sailor respects the wind, stands humbly before it, and each writer comes to respect the unpredictable nature of inspiration, word flow, and maintaining life conditions that support the creative journey. But no matter how choppy the waters, how wild or absent the wind, when we take the helm in our writing, all we can do is try our best to maintain an even keel and stay the course as we sail in the direction of our dreams.
By the way, we use so many nautical metaphors and phrases in our everyday language. I found this site that explains some of the origins of terms such as: by and large, batten down the hatches, broad in the beam, hard and fast, get underway, give a wide berth, high and dry, hand over fist, know the ropes, loose cannon, shipshape, shake a leg, taken aback, the bitter end, slush fund, three sheets to the wind, and many more.