On Lighthouses and Clarity

It took three solid weeks of endless frustration and sleepless nights for me to decide to try something new. I had been staring at a blank page for hours each day, willing the words to appear as they always had before. Something was wrong—and I didn’t know how to fix it.

Let me back up a bit.

The summer of 2009 was when I decided to take a big risk; I quit my job to finish my first book. I had had some money saved up, still lived at home, only had a few bills, and the time seemed right. For the first few weeks, I established my routine and made remarkable progress. I had written as much in those few weeks as I had in the seven months previous. I was on track to finish the first draft by the end of June.

But then I hit a wall. I had contracted the worst case of Writer’s Block I had ever had. One of my characters had to die, but I couldn’t think of how to do it. I spent those three torturous weeks trying every solution I could think of: writing around it, writing something else, taking time off—everything every writer says will fix a case of Writer’s Block. Nothing worked.

So I tried something different.

I’m normally a very private and solitary person—it’s one of the things that made me like the idea of writing. Everything in every story, start to finish, was something I designed and placed with purpose. It had worked for me up until then, but I obviously needed to get out of my comfort zone in order to finish what I had started.

I called up a couple of girls I knew, and the three of us drove out to Montauk. Hither Hills had played an important role in my childhood (it was really the only beach my mother liked, so that was the one we went to) and I was hoping that the area would spark some kind of creative impulse. I picked up the girls in my rundown (and purple) Elantra, and we sped out to Montauk Point. (Just to be clear, the car was purple because it was a hand-me-down from my sister, and while I appreciated the car and it’s insanely low price tag, I didn’t appreciate the occasional whistle I received from construction workers who assumed I was a woman).

On the way, I explained my problem to the two of them. Ashley had read a bit of my book when I was first starting out, and she and Desirae had a wonderful time shouting out ideas. (These ranged from car accidents to asphyxiation brought on by inhaling cleaning supplies—to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever had such a morbid conversation). Gradually, as the scenery changed from trees and shopping centers to dunes and open space, we started talking about other things.

It was the middle of the week, so when we made it to Montauk Point, the place was nearly empty. We made our way over to the trails, the Lighthouse looming above us. We followed the winding path, down the stepped pavement and onto the rocky beach. Ashley fancied herself a photographer (which really means that she bought a nice camera) and dragged us up and down the shoreline, stopping to document anything she found remotely interesting. I never saw the appeal of photos of driftwood, but, bless her, she found it fascinating.

We chatted and jibed, joked and teased, and for the first time in months I wasn’t thinking about writing. Somewhere between the rocks under my feet, the surf rhythmically pounding the shoreline next to me, and the decidedly uninteresting driftwood, I forgot that I was supposed to be working on something. And overhead, the Lighthouse still loomed, massive, immovable and iconic.

We hiked up to the bluffs, watching the shoreline grow fainter beneath us. In reality, they aren’t all that high, but from up there looking down, it might as well be Everest. Somewhere along the trail, we lost track of Desirae. She turned up ten minutes later, muttering something about a birds’ nest. I assumed they were seagulls, but she insisted that they were crows. I couldn’t see the Lighthouse from the bluffs with the rocky expanse next to me, and for some reason it made me uneasy.

Birds, I thought, but didn’t know why yet.

After hours of aimless walking and time-killing, we found ourselves at the top of the trail. The two girls sat on the bench swing that had been there since I was a boy, and will probably still be there when my grandkids are born. The stepped pavement wound down to my side until it was out of sight, lost in a bend through its path amid the trees. I stood next to the swing, leaning against one of its support posts, idly chatting with Ashley and Desirae.

I looked down at the steps and remembered skinning my knees on them as a kid. Running up and down that path when you have the coordination of a five year old is inadvisable, but go ahead and try telling that to a five year old.

Stairs, I thought, but didn’t know why yet.

I looked back toward the girls, and noticed something strange. From where I stood, the support post of the bench swing entirely eclipsed my view of the Lighthouse. Moved my head to the right, just fractions of an inch, and I could see it again. Tilt back, and it was gone.

Something buzzed in the back of my mind. Irritating, it was like an itch in a spot that was entirely impossible to reach. I couldn’t place a finger on it, because it wasn’t quite an idea yet. It wasn’t even really a thought. The way I described it later was a big mental wad of thoughtstuff, something that could be an idea if left marinating long enough.

Lighthouse, I thought, but didn’t know why yet.

The sun was beginning to set, and the three of us decided it was time to go. I took a long last look at the Lighthouse, absentmindedly scratching the back of my head in an impossible attempt to prod the idea into existence. It wasn’t ready yet, though, so instead we left.

Driving back, the scenery hadn’t begun to change from dunes to trees when the cop pulled me over. To this day, I cannot recall what his face looked like, but I remember his voice: it was gravelly, rough, and sounded like rocks rolling down a hill. I fumbled in my glove compartment to hand him my registration.

Authority, I thought, but didn’t know why yet.

The cop let me off with a warning, for which I was grateful. I dropped the girls off that night, and went home, where my unfinished book sat waiting for me.

Stairs, I thought again, but I finally knew why.

That night I didn’t sleep. The answer to my Writer’s Block was right in front of me, and seemed painfully obvious once I spotted the solution: a steep metal stairway. It was the perfect way for the character to die; a misstep and a tumble all the way down. I hurriedly wrote the character’s demise, but I couldn’t have stopped there even if I wanted to. The words leapt across the page, and by early the next morning, shortly after dawn, the draft was finished. Out of breath, I sat there and stared at what I had done, completely exhilarated.

Finally finished, I thought.

Montauk had given me the answer I needed—whether it was the company, the time away from work, or the area, I couldn’t tell you. But I do know that Montauk wasn’t through with me yet, because right then, flush with pride and excitement at having completed the largest project I had ever attempted, the thoughtstuff finished cooking.

The birds got me started, followed immediately by the gravelly voice of the police officer and his air of authority. But more than anything else from that day, the Lighthouse stood tallest in my mind. Everything came together in a crystalline moment of penultimate clarity as I realized that, during that little trip to Montauk, I was actually coming up with the seed for my next book. I remembered the trick of perspective from the bench swing, and quickly wrote what would become the first line of that book:

Sometimes the Lighthouse is there, and sometimes it isn’t.

I smiled and finally went to sleep. My last few thoughts were that not only had Montauk answered the question I asked, but had also answered the question I didn’t even know I had: what’s next?