I live in the Silicon Valley, the land of dot.coms, jam-packed freeways, and a lot of cement. Not the sort of place one expects to find a Cooper’s Hawk but this is after all, the land of big dreams, so I guess anything is possible.
I’m a writer with a day job. A creature who is, alas, not on the endangered species list. I’m up at 5am every morning and by 5:45 I’m on the road, following the ribbon of asphalt that leads me from home to work. It’s pretty much a straight shot of freeway from my house to my office, weaving through the various downtowns and businesses tucked up close against the guard rails for fear of letting a single valuable square foot of Silicon Valley real estate go to waste.
While I drive, side-by-side to the big semi trucks filled with computer parts and silicon wafers on their way to the fab shops, I’m usually thinking about my current work-in-progress. Of late, that means my new verse novel which deals with a kid who not only doesn’t believe there’s a way of out of his particular situation but doesn’t believe he deserves the right to imagine his life any differently. There is much of me in him. Not the me of now but the me of before, when life was less than good. It’s a good time to daydream. The sun is barely up and fog still hugs the foothills I see in the distance.
Most mornings the first five minutes of the drive are hell. Not that there’s much traffic on the road. There’s not. And not that I hate my job. I don’t. But I’d rather be home looking forward to a few hours of working on my novel than just beginning a long day in my cubicle surrounded by engineers who don’t really understand this odd, non-native creature “the children’s author” who seems to have nested in their midst. After the first five minutes comes acceptance that, for now, this is the way of my life. I kick the music up a notch and start to sing, still trying to twist plot points into their most effective poses.
I drive on, mentally placing my main character in jeopardy and waiting to see if he is smart enough to figure out how to solve his own problem, how to get out of his own way. Every so often, out of the corner of my eye, an occasional patch of dirt surprises me. A forgotten plot left bare perhaps due to an architectural accident or the simple fact that the building owner just couldn’t afford those extra 200 square feet of prime real estate. Perhaps the city owns the dirt. I don’t know. For certain no one tends to it as, throughout the seasons, native grasses, weeds, and wildflowers take turns moving into temporary quarters. Each time I spy a sprawling patch of buckwheat or the brilliant blue on a ceanothus, I get a thrill, almost as exciting as my first sale. Nature and technology as roommates – just the sight of it fills me with hope.
Nowadays, most mornings, life feels good. My writing is going well and I believe that I am doing what I was meant to do. But some mornings I can’t find the balance. I feel too much pressure to go to work and make a living before I can come home and make a life. I think about giving up the writing and just living my life as a “normal” person, someone who heads to work and back home again with time for dinner and a sitcom and who never worries about contracts and book awards and royalty checks that always need chasing down.
There’s a saying (probably credited to Zig Ziglar): If you don’t want to keep getting the same things you’ve been getting then maybe you need to be doing something else. I think about that a lot as I drive, wondering what choices I could have made that would have taken me down a different path. There are many, probably more than I could name, but the one that always comes out on top, the voice I hear the loudest, is that I am meant to write. Yet while I can acknowledge that, I still need the day job because survival in the Silicon Valley most often requires two decent full-time incomes.
Such is life. As I drive, I begin to swap out the scenes in my head of my main character and his teacher for the meeting I have at 10am with an engineer in France who needs my help with a database. Not quite bestseller material. I’ve reached the zombie zone in my drive. I am no longer a writer cruising the highway in search of stories. I am a Dilbert robot who has exchanged Word for Excel. My work day hasn’t really even started yet and I am already at war with myself, “wants” versus “shoulds” and the “shoulds” win every time.
At about the halfway point between home and work I see it. Every morning, without fail. A Cooper’s Hawk perched high atop the light pole beside the freeway. And every morning, without fail, it surprises me. A touch of wildlife following ancient instincts deep in the heart of the concrete jungle. It watches over a small field (no more than a quarter of an acre and really not even a big enough plot to house your average Silicon Valley mansion). It watches and it waits. The field is walled-in by freeway on one side and busy frontage roads on the other three sides. It would seem to me that there’s a limited amount of buffet options for the hawk. But still, every morning, he is there, waiting for breakfast.
I realize it’s a lot like writing. Even when life seems overwhelming, you have to show up, expecting write, expecting the words to come, every morning. Even when the roads around you threaten to choke the creativity out of your soul, still, you have to show up. You have to do the work. You have to believe the words will come as long as you are there waiting for them.
Because if the words don’t come, you will die. Oh, not physically as the hawk would die from not being fed but emotionally from not following the path you were meant to walk. If you are a writer, you know what I mean. To thine own self be true because really, no one else cares. Write or don’t write – the world will still go on spinning. Except for you. Because if you are a writer, you have to write. And even when the words don’t come easily, you have to show up and expect that they will come when you need them the most.
The Cooper’s Hawk is mostly monogamous and usually mates for life.
A writer, once exposed as such, can never really separate from the words that demand to be heard.
For a few days last week my car was in the shop and my husband had to drive me to work. Each morning we left about fifteen minutes later than I usually would. By the time we reached the halfway point between home and work I could only point to where the hawk usually sat and try to explain to him how good it made me feel to see the hawk in the same place every morning. We were kindred spirits, I could sense it. We were both hunting for what we needed in order to survive. I wondered if, once I went back to my regular routine of driving myself in a bit earlier each day, I wondered if the hawk would still be there.
My husband assured me that yes, as long as the hawk continued to score a single meal from that tiny scrap of countryside beside the freeway that it would continue, day after day, to expect more, and possibly better meals than the day before.
It’s just like the writer who needs only a few lines on a personal rejection, encouragement at a conference, or that elusive first sale, to help them believe that they are doing what they are meant to do. That they should write, no matter what or who tries to constrain their creativity. That they should write, because it is the writing that will allow them to soar.
It’s easy to imagine the Silicon Valley of just thirty years ago – rolling hills of chaparral covered with poppies and sage and coyote bush, orchards of apricots and plums, and families of hawks feeding across the land that would one day be bottlenecks of freeways and computer chips.
Thirty years ago I was about to graduate high school. I loved to write but I didn’t believe my words would take me anywhere. Like my main character, I didn’t know how to get out of my own way. So I put the words aside, afraid to let anyone know how very much they sustained me. The longer I hid the words, the more constraints the world put on my dream of being a writer.
I wish back then I had been a bit more like the hawk, that I had believed anything was possible, even against the outrageous odds life throws at you. I used to give up too fast and too often, sure that the fault was always mine. But I understand things better now. I know there are times to watch and times to feed. I know that there will always be things that try to get in my way and keep me from doing what I was meant to do. I know that I must be willing to let go of the past so that I can find my place in the future.
I am a writer.
Watch me soar.