The most important thing I learned while walking the Camino de Santiago was how to stop walking. During this 22-day hike up the coast of Portugal, I sometimes got my best hiking done when I looked up the trail, fixed a point in my mind, and said, “I’ll stop there, in 15 minutes. I’ll rest when I get to that point, and not before.” When I was sore and tired and fed-up, I would return my eyes to that spot. When it rained horizontally and the wind blew mud in my face. When I slid down a rocky embankment into a pile of yuck. When I realized I’d lost my water bottle some miles back.
15 minutes. I can walk for 15 more minutes.
I brought this new skill home with me and applied it to my job, my garden and my writing. Clients at work driving me nuts? I’d give them 15 minutes. Then I’d politely disengage. I’d weed an entire lot of greens in 15-minute chunks. It might take all day, but it was done. A news column or travel blog post would have me pulling my hair out. I’d give it 15 more minutes, then get up and do something else.
Knowing there is an end point helps me focus, and encourages me to trust the process. If I’m not writing anything good right now, the next chunk will be better. Or the one after that.
I am terrible at setting aside hours for writing. If the entire day stretches in front of me, I do nothing but procrastinate and prevaricate. The sun will set and I’ll have produced 36 tweets, 12 cups of coffee and 49 games of Words with Friends.
It’s far easier and far more effective for me to work in short bursts. 15 minutes is enough time to get warm. If I get up and walk the dog, I’ll still be humming with story ideas. Words popping at me. Phrases singing in my ears. Yes! Go back and write that down! Another chunk of time.
On the Camino, I walked slower than other pilgrims; most I met covered far more ground in far less time. But I reached Santiago de Compostela just the same.
It was yet another lesson in why comparing myself to others is pointless. What did it matter if other hikers seemed swifter or more focused? Their stories — their journeys and challenges and gifts — are different from mine. I finished my pilgrimage in my own manageable chunks. Done.
As I gear up for my second novel, I am being more intentional about my Camino lessons.
Prepare for the Adventure.
I didn’t fly to Europe to walk 150 miles on a whim. I researched the hike, bought new boots and broke them in, had my backpack professionally fitted. I walked the forest preserve trails every day for months, building my stamina. I read the stories of other pilgrims and let their adventures serve as both inspiration and warning.
I’m prepping for this novel too, in much the same way. Reading writers who inspire me, building a story framework, writing every day for endurance.
Lighten the Load.
Almost every day on the Camino, I abandoned something I’d initially thought was “essential”. I left extra shoes in Esposende, the dress I’d never wear in Tui. And why did I ever think I’d use a camp mess kit?
Carrying extra stuff gave me the illusion of being safe and self-reliant — of having everything I could possibly need — when in fact, the opposite was true. It made me vulnerable. It weighed me down, hindered my progress, burned my fuel.
When I catch myself not writing YET because I’m low on coffee or the printer needs ink or I can’t find my favorite purple pen, I remember to unload my mental backpack, and abandon the non-essentials. All I really need is enough silence to hear my voice, and a way to write it down.
Write in chunks.
When I’m drained, or out of words, or frustrated beyond belief, I commit to writing for 15 more minutes. Then I stop.
On the Camino, when I’d reach my goal point, I’d sit in the grass and regroup. When you’re already in the middle of nowhere, there is no turning back, no car to hop into, no way to avoid the next 8 or 10 or 14 miles. They simply had to be walked. Sometimes, 15 minutes at a time.
This novel, too, has me hanging off a bridge, in the middle of nowhere. There’s no turning back, no exit in sight.
It simply has to be written. I’m thinking 15 minutes at a time.