There's a New Yorker cartoon pinned to my bulletin board of a man and a woman walking down the street, talking casually. The woman is saying: "She went off the grid to write a book about being off the grid so she could come back to a better place on the grid."
I put it up there a few years back and it's been amusing me ever since. I'm that girl who left the grid (ie: the "real" world of publishing) to write a book about leaving the grid. (My memoir, "Shucked," about the 18 months I spent working on an oyster farm was released earlier this month.) Being the butt of a great New Yorker joke is something I actually carry with a bit of pride. Sure, my project was cliché: Countless others have traded a "regular" life for one that allows them to get their hands dirty--especially doing in the food world -- in order to write about it. (See: Bill Buford; Michael Ruhlman; Julie Powell.)
But what I secretly love about that cartoon, and the reason I ripped it out in the first place, is that I (and all those writers who have done this before me) know that the point is not about getting back to a better place on the grid. It's what you do while you're off it.
My time working on an oyster farm put me in the privileged position of taking an extended break from reality. I was in my early 30s and had spent a decade grinding away at a career that, while successful, wasn't very satisfying. So, I went off to boot camp on an oyster farm, working my tail off to acclimate to a totally foreign environment while generally putting the brakes on what had been a life speeding by much too quickly. It's a leap many people fantasize about but not everyone can take. I had a partner who understood how desperately I needed to take a break and was willing to sacrifice our savings (and not a small amount of his own happiness) for me to do it. So it was a leap I could afford.
As for the book, well, that was never a guarantee. There was a kernel of an idea, a sense that I needed to tell this story at some point. I started the project with a blog and a personal journal but didn't fully believe that the project could indeed fill an entire book until I was several months into it. I'd always dreamed of writing a book, I just didn't think I'd have to spend 18 months hunched over a muddy expanse, pulling crusty bivalves from the ocean floor to do it.
And it turns out, doing farm work in the middle of a frigid New England winter was the fun part. Writing didn't come easy. Once I left the farm, I had about four months to finish the book, which meant I needed to write about a chapter a week -- a pace that had never been part of my author fantasy. There is nothing romantic about staring at a computer screen for eight hours straight and only coming up with two sentences of actual, usable copy for a book that requires 300+ pages of it -- and doing it all over again the following day. My process was that I would wake early -- 5 a.m. most days, the same discipline I used on the farm -- so that I had no distractions and a clear head. I would sit at my desk until about 10 a.m., then take a short break and sit there again until the mid afternoon. .. or until my mind shut down and the words stopped coming. The first time I cracked open an email or peeked at the news, I was done for. My mind would wander and the words would stop. I'd spend the afternoons going back over the previous day's pages, often gritting my teeth in frustration at my own lack of creativity. On top of which, a few weeks into the process I learned that I was pregnant. For those who don't know, during those first twelve weeks, a pregnant woman's mind can only ingest so much before it either implodes or screams desperately for a nap. There were moments during the writing process where I would simply sit at my desk and cry.
Yes, the process left me awake most nights thinking that I would never be able to do justice the experience I'd just spent 18 months savoring, cultivating, and trying so desperately to capture ... not to mention the ongoing fear that somehow, this would all translate into me failing as a mother. But I managed to meet my deadline and turn in a book that, in many ways successfully captured my time off the grid. More importantly, I gave birth to my first son -- and as far as I can tell, haven't done any permanent damage just yet.
As for being back on the grid, I wouldn't call my place better or worse. But I do think that I'm more aptly positioned. I've found a spot where I can exist in my work and my personal life with a deeper sense of enjoyment and gratification. And the reason why is because I've realized this: If I'd gone through this same process and never gotten a book deal, I would still be better off. Not only did the experience allow me to step back and see that the most important parts of my life required the kind of focus and attention I'd just given to this farm and the people there, it taught me to appreciate my work and whenever possible, to live completely in the now. I find that reason enough to leave the grid -- even if just for a little while.