• Jake Russell

Look, I'm A Tree

I don’t know that I have much to say today. I’ve already spent a long while trying, but everything I write comes out tepid or turgid or both. Like an overcooked and floppy cold old slop of penne. And so I start again. And then again and again. And each attempt is more basic and tasteless, more bloated and impotent than the last.

I set a contract with myself a few weeks back for each of these pieces to be 1000 words, give or take, and right now that feels far-fetched.

I’d like to give in. And maybe writing about the difficulty of writing is a form of giving in. An effortless way out of the quagmire I’m in.

Sometimes I have a conversation with my unconscious when I’m writing in the quagmire and don’t know which way to go. I ask myself what I’d like to write about and usually I’ll find myself typing about the difficulty of writing until doing so clears my mind enough for an idea to emerge I like. It’s an exercise that almost always seems to work.

I’ve decided not to do that this time, or rather, I’ve decided to run the exercise live. Which feels both brazen and cowardly, like I’m flashing my pants in public but also darting back inside. Plus it runs the risk of reading like a meandering stream nonsense.

You’re invited to keep drifting with me or feel free to step out at any time, I won’t mind.

I think we’re still at the start. And almost every time I write, whether for myself or for a client, I find myself in this near-inescapable part of the start – and the start can drag on a long old time – when I don’t know what to write about, let alone how to write it, when ideas aren’t just hard to come by, it’s as if they don’t exist at all.

I’m sure everyone has their own version of this in whatever endeavour they pursue. It can be heavy going. Like wading through muddy sludge, one clunky, sticking foot after the other, hoping persistence will be stronger than exhaustion, and the pristine waters aren’t too far off, where clarity will reveal fresh ideas directly on the surface.

Despite my familiarity with it, each time I’m wading through the sludge I wonder if I’ll ever make it through or if this is it this time. Maybe I don’t have any ideas left in me, maybe I’m finally done, maybe I ought to just lie down and bury myself in the mud.

So, pause a moment and look up. Ask, is this effort I’m making simply something I must accept? Am I making too much effort fighting off effort itself? If I graciously accept the effort, will it become...effortless? Quite the conundrum if I think too much about it. Enough to hurt my head.

Wait, wait, wait, I’m making too much effort yet again.

And what comes to mind suddenly is the Taoist fable of the tree.

The one about the supple tree that survives the storm by yielding to the wind, while its rigid neighbour gets royally blown over.

So how does that fit into the conundrum of effort versus acceptance, then? Let’s see.

The rigid tree, presumably, is making too much effort. It strains against the prevailing wind, struggling to impose its will on things. And after a while it snaps and topples over.

Meanwhile, the bendy branched birch accepts the blowy conditions, and simply yields to the stronger stormy force in order to outlast it.

So, be the bendy tree. And, as it happens, I have been before, quite literally.

In our school performance of The Wizard of Oz when I was 8 or 9, I was cast in the part of Tree. It wasn’t exactly the part I was hoping for. I didn’t have any lines of dialogue, I just had to stand in the back of a few scenes with my arms in the air. Which didn’t do much for my self-esteem. Admittedly, I was tall for my age and my acting rather stiff. So, looking back on it now I see how my teacher approached her job of casting with quiet Taoist wisdom: accept, don’t try to change, the nature of things. She saw that I was tall and my performance wooden. In other words, a natural Tree.

If she’d forced me into those ruby slippers or rammed me into Scarecrow’s threads, I’d have probably tried so hard I’d have snapped and toppled over. Whereas the Tree came effortlessly. She knew what she was doing, Miss Gilbert.

We didn’t actually call our teachers by their surnames in my school, we called them by their first names, which was ever so progressive. But if I’d just written “she knew was she was doing, Kate” you’d have gone, “who’s Kate?”

So, I went with the nature of things. This time, the nature of prevailing context.

Like the bendy tree, going with the natural force of the wind.

Like me writing about the difficulties of writing when it’s the only idea I see.

And would you look at that, by accepting just that, I’ve rather effortlessly written the 1000 words, give or take, I set out to write each time.

Those crafty Taoist blighters, they know a thing or two, don’t they?

And so, it just leaves me yet and yes again – especially if you stayed with me to the very end of this stream of effortless mess – to wish you love in the time of quarantine.

Jake x

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