Rippling Forward: What Baby Elephant Seals Can Teach Us About Embarking on Big Projects
Plus, Barbiefy yourself, read some fantastic NBCC John Leonard Prize finalists, and register for Lighthouse Writers Workshop's Lit Fest
A few weeks ago I visited one of my favorite places in the world, Point Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco. The ranger told us we’d arrived at the right time to see the beaches filled with baby elephant seals. We set off to find them at Drake’s Beach and we discovered dozens of enormous seals basking in the sun. I was confused. Could these ample creatures be babies?
According to the friendly volunteer who was keeping seals and people safe, yes, these 300-pound creatures were babies. They were born weighing 75 pounds, then gained ten pounds a day while they nursed. The mothers ate nothing for a month while they fattened their pups. At the point when I saw the seals, the mothers had returned to the sea to find food, and the babies were left to fend for themselves.
The babies could live off their milkfat, eating nothing, for about two months, and then they needed to head out into the ocean and hunt for fish. The question was, how did these barely mobile lumps gain enough dexterity to accomplish that? A few of them were already making an attempt the develop the muscle necessary to survive. I watched this guy struggling to reach the beach for quite a while.
As loyal readers know, no creature I observe can peacefully lead its life without becoming a metaphor here in The Tumbleweed, and as I watched these elephant seals struggle against my kryptonite, the all-powerful nap instinct, I thought about how what they were attempting to do reminded me of how it feels to begin just about every creative project. Like you are this inchoate blob, who yearns to accomplish this goal, but you don’t even know how to begin. The fellow in the beach video above was at more of an advanced stage on the journey toward his goal. This video captures the efforts that were more typical of beginners:
He lifts his head up, but then needs a nap. He makes another attempt to move, but it’s so hard! All he can do is kind of ripple forward his fat, and gain an inch or two. After that, his small shivers suggest two more efforts to move forward before he succumbs to that warm sunshine, soft beach, and lulling surf and birdsong. Napping bliss!
The muscle and athletic ability he needs to make it to the enormous ocean and swim and hunt for food is just theoretical at this point, much like how when I begin a draft, it’s barely coherent and it’s almost impossible to believe it will one day grow into a publishable book. But between naps, the elephant seal makes his continuous attempts, and so do I. We just keep rippling forward, inch by inch, starting where we are, using what we’ve got, in hopes of one day achieving our goals.
So today when you embark on your project, don’t get frustrated if the progress is slow. Allow yourself to ripple forward at your own pace, accomplishing whatever you can, and as long as you don’t stop rippling intermittently, one day you’ll be playing in the waves as your idea takes shape.
The Assorted Whimsy Portion of The Tumbleweed
A few weeks ago the trailer for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie was released and many of us swooned. They also suppled a free Barbie-themed selfie generator which I may be in the process of having too much fun with.
Using this is just what the movie’s marketing team would like you to do—but it’s for Greta! She’s one of my favorite directors and actors so yes, I will obey.
Also, before we dropped our rental car off at San Francisco International Airport, we stopped at the closest gas station to refill, and we discovered it had a 24-hour vegan convenience store called Hangry Planet, which claims to be “North America’s first plant-based mart.” Read all about it in VegNews. The gas station was also home to this unusual…sculpture?
The work is entitled “Battle of Tanforan: 95 Million BC.” I learned that Tanforan was a temporary “assembly center” where Japanese Americans were processed and held before being sent to more long-term incarceration camps during World War II. Which does not illuminate this sculpture for me, exactly. I wonder what song the T-Rex is playing on his boom box while he’s eating Putin.
You never know when a gas station is going to completely blow your mind, I guess.
The Book Recommendation Portion of The Tumbleweed
During the past few months I participated in the judging committee for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book, which I’ve done for four years now. If you’d like to bribe me to favor your choice in the future, I want you to know three things:
1) I have only one small vote out of about fifty of us who participate.
2) I love judging this award specifically because it’s for best first book, so I’ve never had a prior relationship with any of the finalists or much knowledge about them and I feel as unbiased as a cool mountain breeze as I enjoy reading them.
3) But if you’re offering me a $100,000 Indonesian vacation, let’s talk. Just kidding. I am proud to be a member of the NBCC because our judges ARE NOT CORRUPT. I promise, we’re doing this for the love and for no money at all.
I’d like to enthusiastically recommend our winner, Morgan Talty’s Night of the Living Rez.
This important, moving, authentic collection of stories revolves around a character named David who lives on the Penobscot reservation in Maine. The stories move back and forth in time, from David’s childhood to his early adulthood. I enjoyed the construction of this collection, how the characters recurred and were interlinked, and its out-of-order chronology enhanced its puzzle box of meaning, so each time we went back to David's childhood and learned another piece about it, I felt like I had gained an additional layer to my understanding when we returned to adult David. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be so glad you read this book, which has also been honored with the National Book Award 5 Under 35, the Sue Kaufman Prize, and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize.
I also want to recommend two of my other favorites from this year’s contenders.
I loved Jonathan Escoffery’s If I Survive You, an accomplished story collection that examines the aftermath of a natural disaster—through the story of one family, it details how Hurricane Andrew upended communities, split families apart, and required years of rebuilding. Escoffery’s characterization of the two Jamaican American brothers at the heart of this collection is masterful. Escoffery writes with style, he captures the south Florida setting vividly, and portrays aspects of it that I haven't seen before in fiction—from life at a subsidized senior housing facility to a scrappy tree-trimming crew run by a part-time reggae musician. And he builds in some genuine surprises into his stories. More than once, I was shocked by the ending of a story or a turn it took. Jonathan Escoffery will be at this year’s Lit Fest, and I’m looking forward to his reading on June 10 in Denver. (It’s free, but you need to register.)
Jessamine Chan’s The School for Good Mothers also riveted me. This novel has a gripping premise, and it was a page-turner. The stakes of Frida's situation couldn't be higher, with her child removed by the state and Frida forced to attend a reeducation camp to win her back. The breaching of the barrier between the ordinary world and the extraordinary world (in this case a mother-monitoring dystopia) was skillfully and smoothly done. It reminded me of Murakami's novels that begin in the ordinary world and suddenly take off in a fantastic direction. Like the work of Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, the dystopia Chan has imagined only feels a few degrees removed from current reality. She has taken a logical leap of the imagination and then fully realized this world, with its institutions, its functionaries and its inmates.
The Happenings & Links Portion of The Tumbleweed
Lighthouse Writers’ Workshop’s Lit Fest registration is open now! It’s the first year the festivities will be held in their brand new building at 3844 York Street. I’m teaching five classes, and I’d be delighted to see some Tumbleweed readers there:
Building Your Own Emotional Thesaurus, Saturday, June 10, 9:00am - 11:00am
Getting Published: Stories, Essays, Articles, and Books, Saturday, June 10, 1:30pm - 3:30pm
And Then I Woke Up: Writing Endings for Short Fiction and Nonfiction, Sunday, June 11, 1:30pm - 3:30pm
When News Breaks in Your Backyard: How to Craft and Pitch a Timely Essay, Wednesday, June 14, 4:00pm - 6:00pm
Seeing the Big Picture: Techniques for Revising Books, Thursday, June 15, 1:30pm - 3:30pm
As always, The Tumbleweed welcomes your questions and comments about writing, reading, taco eating, rabbit wrangling, Deion Sanders, and baby seals.