Once, in Vermont, I went on a run on a wooded path that I was certain, having looked at it on a map ahead of time, was shaped like an oval and roughly a mile around. I had planned to do a few miles, but after three laps, I found myself unable to spot the way out. Everything looked like trees. I realized I had no cell service and could not pinpoint my location on the map.
I kept running, concentrating on any visual marker that might help me form a true topographical understanding of my surroundings. That swampy, reedy area — I have seen that swampy, reedy area before. And that gnarly tree trunk, that is definitely the same gnarly tree trunk I passed ten minutes ago. That spray of pink and yellow flowers is not new.
The miles piled up and I tried not to panic. I didn’t actually know anyone back where I was staying; I was at a writers conference. Perhaps my roommate would report me missing, but how long would it take her to realize I hadn’t come back? Some trail hiker would surely find me before then. Maybe I should stand in one place and wait?
But something told me to keep running. I wish I could say that after several times around I felt more confident in my knowledge of the path, but I kept questioning myself right up until the moment that I found — hidden from my view in the direction I was running but plainly visible as I glanced back over my shoulder — the off-ramp. I would not need to be rescued, but I also hadn’t been very smart about the whole thing.
So here’s where I’m at with the novel. After starting over (again), I tried to outline the plot (again) and I am now experiencing the odd feeling that I am simultaneously crossing the same bridges I crossed before and have no idea where I am or where I’m going.
“Part of me thinks I should just abandon it entirely!” I wrote in my writing group’s slack.
They all chimed in, a chorus of NO. “Abandoning is not an option.” “Abandoning is not what needs to happen.” “Don’t abandon ship!” They questioned the need for a map at all — does Sigrid Nunez map? Did Denis Johnson map? The best novels (the novels we love, anyway) are more than a little chaotic, so maybe just write into the unknown and see what happens? Sara made a point about novels: that what separates them from other forms is how forgiving they are, calling the elasticity of the novel “a generosity.” And maybe it is, maybe it is a gift I need to quit fighting.
So hello, I suppose, from the murky middle. One day I hope to know this ground a little better, but for now I will just keep running.