As I tossed back my morning dose of Instagram posts and memes, I came across a national geographic photograph of the river terrapin turtle of Cambodia. Maybe you’ve seen him. Midway through a strand of facts about how turtles have been roaming the planet for over 200 million years, the journalist informed his followers that it was national turtle day. I Immediately thought back to the turtle I spotted at the civic center pond a few days ago, still as the stones on which he was sunbathing. I thought, somewhat smugly “Wow, what a coincidence. I’m so in synch with wildlife,” before reminding myself that this holiday, along with doughnut day, and the name “turtle” itself was a system of order arbitrarily pinned to pieces of our wild world, without the permission of anything wild at all. The significance poured out of the moment. Even then, I sat down at the kitchen table to free-write about turtles with my coffee--if not for the turtle’s sake, in honor of the people trying to protect and vouch for them on social media. The unalterable slowness of the animal, beside the ever-increasing speed at which information is published and circulated on my device, gave me a sense of deep satisfaction. I began by describing the appearance of the particular turtle who’d been photographed in the "natgeo" post, the stark contrast between its black face and banana-slug-yellow eyes. Then my mind went to the chocolate turtles, at which point I looked down at my keyboard and paused, not remembering whether these candies in particular were filled with just caramel or caramel and nuts, and if so, which kind ?
This turtle wasn’t particularly handsome. A beak of a nose, hardly any lips. I could see the prickly razor teeth along his gums as he gave the camera a smile. I kept returning to the banana slug yellow. Perhaps because I’d once found one on a redwood floor. I immediately stopped to investigate the creature, partially out of authentic interest, partially thinking it would be cute to the date I was with. The slow and slimy thing recoiled, its antennas shrinking back into its brown-smudged forehead. Bent down on one knee with a leaf, I heard my date call my name, pulling me away and onward to our inevitable doom. A man who gets between you and your animal-loving inner-child is not likely going to make you happy in the long run. Shaded by the misleading mist of chemistry, we continued our walk down the fern-fringed path, pausing to sit on newly carpentered benches engraved with deceased elders’ names, haloed by Emersonian quotes.
Back to turtles. Turtles have been around about as long as the redwoods that towered over me that day. By the way, the felt-red of a redwood trunk, in the light, looks a lot like a chestnut mare’s winter coat. It’s an inconceivable number, 200 million years. And because of its sheer enormity, it leaves the brain dumb and dazed rather than amazed. While waiting for my takeout dinner outside a Puerto Rican restaurant this evening, I read a Medium article on a how the brain can’t do much with abstracts and facts. To appeal to the sympathies of a reader, an author must use examples. Facts are the cargo we must package in specifics, bubble wrap in stories to ensure their safe arrival to the frontal cortex of our reader’s brain. For example, right now you are paying higher attention than you were a sentence ago, as I dangle an illustrative anecdote .
I set out to write about turtles. But the prompt "turtles" was a hollow shell for another animal to make its home: a few sentences in, and out comes a contemplation on chocolate, past dates with slugs, culminating in some undeveloped scraps of narrative theory smudged with the oil of garlic plantains from a takeout dinner. Yet, it’s precisely the turtle’s gradual irrelevance on the surface of my post where lies, I think, his deeper relevance. (Pause here for a profound “hmm” and imaginary beard scratch). I, like a turtle, have been trying to take my time. I’m attempting the task of being still, letting what comes come, and not rushing the exposure of my soft insides to a harsh sun of lit up phones. I want my first-thought ideas and seedling stories to germinate in quiet, compost uncommented, and tempt me with their perfumes, before I pack them and put them on your window(sill) to please or perturb.
If you’re an aspiring writer like me, do it for yourself before you do it for them. See how it feels-- in the darkness of your own mind, on your own time, where language can articulate its limbs as self expression rather than a stiff performance. This is where you find the words and, most importantly, the desire to take the plunge, regardless of who is watching. Slowly but surely, what you thought was a sedentary rock on the shoreline grows legs and inches its way to the shallows. Soon enough, the shallow drops off unto the deep and the animal known for her slow pace, swims at a brisk pace towards the frontal cortex of a brain.