I took my family to Portugal to celebrate Carnival in the small seaside town of Quarteira. I was worried the kids would be disappointed after growing accustomed to hauling home large sack
s of light-up swords, stuffed animals, bouncy balls, toys, beads, and doubloons from many of the Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans. As it turns out, the extra stuff was not missed. Kids in Portugal celebrate with confetti, ticker tape, silly string, and candy. My kids joined right in. The float riders dumped buckets of confetti on the spectators. They also held out buckets so the kids could run up and grab handfuls of confetti to throw at each other. My oldest child collected a pile of ticker tape that was so big he could jump into it like a pile of leaves. The simplicity of it all was so beautiful. An unassuming parade in a tiny, forgotten town, where the costumes were grand, the music was on fire, and the waves crashed on the shore just behind us. When I returned to my hotel room that night, I sat down to edit my work in progress. I could suddenly see all that extra stuff that wasn’t needed. All the pretty lines that had to go. The tiny parade gave me permission to trim boldly.
The next day, we went to Praia da Marinha, a lonely beach with staggering rock formations. We climbed boulders, explored caves, and waded knee-deep in the cold, turquoise water. My oldest child sat alone on the beach, which surprised me. He’s our wildest adventurer. Usually, he leads the charge up the mountain, and he’d swing from the rafters if I’d let him. I wondered if he was feeling alright. I sat down beside him and was surprised to see that he was writing something. He told me he got an idea for a comic book series while wandering along the shoreline. He’d borrowed a pen and paper from my bag and was sketching out his characters and plotlines as quickly as he could. He told me there would be twenty-five books and that he already knew how the series would end. I was proud to see that he knew the importance of seizing that creative moment. And I was struck by the mysteriousness of ideas, how unexpectedly they come to us. For me, and for my son, the ocean stirs things.
Our flight home was fine until it wasn’t. Dusseldorf was blanketed in fog and besieged by high winds. I’ve never liked the look of airplane lights blinking in a foggy sky. The turbulence was troubling. I played it cool for my kids. Everything is fine, I promised them. See? I'm smiling! Would I be smiling if things weren't fine? Then, the wheels touched the runway and I could finally breathe. Until...the pilot revved the engine and we took off again. The plane shook, and it occurred to me that we were sitting inside what was really just a large tin can with loose plastic lining and fragile wings. I could smell something burning. The nose of the plane pointed upward. I looked out the windows and saw only fog and those eerie blinking lights. Where were we going? What was happening? Was the plane going to crash? Could the pilot even see?
Writing is weird work. We learn how to distill our stories at small parades. We come up with our best ideas at deserted beaches. We understand suspense and high emotion when our lives are suspended high in the sky. What experiences are shaping your current work in progress? How does your life inform your craft? Give this some thought the next time a parade turns out smaller than you’d hoped, the next time you are swept up in an idea that pulls you away from the norm, or the next time you feel a pure emotion like fear. Life teaches us everything we need to know about writing well, and no two writers will learn the same lessons in the same way. That’s what makes books so magical. Every page contains tiny flecks of the author’s life hidden between the words. Someday, someone's going to read one of my chapters, and they're going to hear whispers of my time in Portugal, and just like that, we're traveling together.
Until next time, xoxo.