For more than a year, I had been struggling to write a novel. Ideas soared in my mind, but every time I attempted to capture them on paper, they landed with a clichéd thud on the page. Would I ever be able to shape my lofty ideas into well-crafted prose? Months wore on as self-doubt progressively ate away at my confidence.
Then came a long-awaited trip to the Galápagos Islands, the trip of a lifetime. Boarding a ship on the island of Baltra, my husband and I joined others sailing across the Galápagos archipelago, a rugged collection of lava islands 600 miles west of Ecuador. As we took to the open sea, naturalists filled us with information about native flora and fauna struggling to survive in harsh island conditions.
How like writers struggling to survive the landscape of the blank page, I thought.
We saw giant prickly pear cactuses as tall as trees on barren hillsides, candelabra cactuses sprouting from ancient lava flows, multicolored land iguanas posing on hillsides, and fierce-looking black marine iguanas sunning themselves at the edge of the sea.
One day, disembarking onto the southernmost island of Española, we climbed to the top of the wind-swept island. I gazed at a bleak landscape covered with grass, rocks, and spindly shrubs. From a blowhole in the rocks, the pounding sea sprayed me with saltwater as I stared in wonder at small dusty clearings on the ground. In the middle of each stood an albatross.
A great bird of the sea with a wingspan of six feet, the albatross is most often viewed solely in the air – something pure and beautiful, yet distant and untouchable. On the isolated island, with the wind in my face and the true range of obstacles facing the albatross before me, I was filled with awe.
Our naturalist gathered us together and explained that the albatross spends its entire life at sea, effortlessly riding the thermals of the sky, soaring great distances over water, and feasting on bountiful schools of fish in the ocean. Only when pulled back to earth to procreate does it lose its ethereal quality and enter the realm of the ordinary.
"How do they survive so long at sea," I asked.
"By following the wind, and eating and resting at sea," she answered. I thought of the long stretches of solitude and hard work demanded by writing. Sometimes they seem no less arduous than months at sea.
"Once grounded," our naturalist continued, "the albatross's vulnerability is exposed." Conditioned to life in the clouds, it must perform its most urgent work on land – work it seems ill-equipped to do. On wobbly, unworldly feet, the great seabird tucks in its wings and walks the land in search of a mate with which to propagate its species. To do this, the albatross thrusts its mighty yellow beak upward to the sky and performs a dance. If it is fortunate and finds another interested and worthy bird, the potential mates stand face to face and bob their heads up and down, side to side, lifting and opening their beaks in song and story.
Then the female albatross nests directly upon the dry and rocky ground, which offers little protection from hungry Galápagos mockingbirds that skulk about, eager to find an unprotected egg. An exposed egg will quickly be pecked open, killing the precious offspring inside.
How like those critical inner and outer voices eager to attack a vulnerable idea.
Only once a year does the lofty albatross sweep down from the sky and touch the earth, our naturalist told us. If all goes well, the chick will grow and fledge, lift off from the hard earth, soar upward, and become a thing of grace and beauty.
In the clouds, the young bird will learn to move constantly with the wind, dive deep into the ocean for sustenance, and land upon the hard and crusty earth to birth anew. The albatross's story is one of endurance and patience.
Gazing upward at the graceful airborne bird, I recognized the timeless story of the albatross within writers, dancers, musicians, and artists, who have ever dreamed an artful dream and struggled to bring it to life.
As I packed to return – stowing away my camera, sandals, and shorts – I carried with me precious images of the beautiful and inspiring bird. I also brought back renewed confidence to continue my writing.
The albatross would not appear in my novel, but its inspiration would urge my pen forward.