The dry river is running again. The Salinas used to run more often, but as we pump more groundwater, as the climate warms, a moderate rain simply soaks into the thirsty soil. Even several moderate rains. Only sustained downpours bring the water to the surface. Last year we had very little rain. I am not sure the river flowed at all.
It rained over and over this December, more than seven inches when we typically average two and a half for the month. Even that is not enough to break the drought, but it is enough to make the Salinas flow in its shallow, sandy channel.
On New Year’s Day I went to the river park to watch the water flow where windblown sand usually awaits. Traditionally, I go to the coast on or around New Years. I like to stand on the shore and look at the ocean, feeling I’m at the end of one thing and the beginning of another as the year opens. I see a distant horizon full of possibilities.
This year, though, I went to see the dry river run.
In past years I have made a New Years post detailing my writing career for the year, listing the pieces I’ve had published. A year ago, I wrote quite a different post, about the pandemic, and how for a while I couldn’t write at all. How, swimming in the sea of grief and heartbreak that was 2020, I couldn’t bear to get rejections. Eventually, though, I went back to the writing itself, finishing a draft of a new story collection by the end of the year. I had high hopes of revising and submitting that book and querying agents again for my novel. But when I made a few submissions, getting the rejections put me in a funk for days. Pre-pandemic, I was pretty good at shrugging off rejections, making over 100 submissions a year. The pandemic changed me.
In 2021, I wrote very little aside from blog posts, short pieces that don't involve probable rejection. I have always considered writing a major purpose in my life. I have set aside time for it, gotten an MFA, etc. But last year, I didn't enjoy it. I dreaded it, especially revision and submission. In 2021, I asked myself: What if I spent that time doing activities I enjoyed—reading books, playing my ukulele, going to the beach, etc.? Maybe enjoying life should be my priority. The pandemic probably fueled my emphasis on enjoyment, since for so long I hadn’t been able to do so many of the activities I relished. I wanted to have fun, and writing had stopped being fun.
Still, I can’t stop thinking like a writer. I spin stories or construct characters in my head. And I think in metaphors.
So I went to look at the water running where during this last, drought-stricken year nothing flowed. Perhaps it’s a metaphor, I think. Perhaps this year the river will run again and the desire to write will rise and the words will flow. Writing will be fun again, sparkling in the light, reflecting the world around in surprising and beautiful ways.
Ann Hillesland writes fiction and essays. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, including Fourth Genre, Bayou, The Laurel Review, and Sou’wester.
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