September 14, 2021 § 9 Comments

By Kirsten Voris

Portrait of Kirsten Voris ©Bill Hatcher 2019

When I first started kayaking, I made sure to reach the departure point early so I could snag the kayak with the working rudder. A kayak rudder, for those who don’t know, is that little piece of plastic hanging off the end that you angle one way or another with your feet, to steer.

More often than not, rental kayaks have broken rudders. Some are rudder-free by design. I like a rudder. They help you stay perpendicular to the waves. Which you do, to keep from being swept out to sea. Or late for lunch. My tours in rudderless kayaks have been marked by anxious paddling and fear of group shaming. Lest I end up like that woman who was drifting off towards Greece before anyone noticed. How, I fretted, do I make it to the lunch spot without a rudder?

This year I had hoped to steer my writing life by a project that feels overwhelming. I’m avoiding it. I have homeless essays, fresh off the latest round of rejections. I’m ignoring them—and covering my to-do lists with new essay ideas.

I feel unsettled, fearful, and unmotivated. Rudderless.

I have been here before. Self-study is one way out: which confidence-destroying, time-sucking habits am I currently indulging? These tend to fall into two categories: structural and spiritual.

Structural challenges (i.e., time wasting):

  1. Sometimes, I do for someone what they can do for themselves. For years I did my boyfriend’s laundry. I thought he expected it (he didn’t). I thought I was my job (it wasn’t). Now, my boyfriend’s socks are gray and I have more time to write.
  2. Sometimes, I behave as though things are emergencies when they aren’t. How long does it take the average person to respond to email from their cousin? Longer than it takes me. Learning to make people wait is my new favorite spiritual practice.
  3. Sometimes, I confuse structure with tyranny. My ability to focus is episodic and this has been true since I first parked myself in front of the TV to do homework. I couldn’t understand how writers sat still long enough to write books. Recently, I discovered you can schedule writing time in tiny chunks and sprinkle them throughout your week. And things still get written.
  4. Sometimes, I refuse to stop. Do you need a vacation? I do. And I’m taking one. Which brings up a ton of guilt. Because I should be…productive? Not taking meaningful breaks is one way I punish myself for not producing the phantom thing that will earn me the right to rest. When I’m mean to myself like this, I start seething. Writing turns into the job I had picking bad cherries off a conveyor belt. I deserve a vacation. So do you. When we return home, refreshed, things will seem different.

Spiritual challenges (i.e., grave self-doubt):

  1. I forget why I write. But when the mean voice in my head becomes deafening, I affirm to myself that sitting down to write protects me from despair. Having written something, anything, never feels like I wasted my time. And on some days, it seems like the most important thing that I do.
  2. I forget I can write. So when a kind person says something complimentary about a thing I’ve written, I remind myself to say “Thank you.” Then I can’t pretend I didn’t hear them.
  3. I compare myself to others. The only thing that releases me from this dead end is writing. And re-reading the New York Times piece Green-Eyed Verbs by Sarah Manguso. “All writers,” she says, “will envy other writers, other writing. No one who reads is immune. To write despite it I must implicate myself, to confess to myself, silently or on the page, that I am envious. The result of this admission is humility.”
  4. I feel self-indulgent. I come from a book-devouring family. Mom got up hours before work so she could read first. She didn’t love her job. And why should she? People were supposed to have safe jobs with regular hours. Jobs that anyone could grasp. Jobs that made grandmas nod and beam. Writing those books that Mom read? That was self-indulgent. Writing about yourself was worse. That’s airing dirty laundry. So I strive to remember the years I spent crying on the way to my regular, normal-person jobs. My gnat-like attention span. This lets me conclude that writing is the only thing that makes sense.
  5. I can’t find my rudder. After a string of rejections, I’ll look at an essay and think: I should burn it—or rewrite it. Of course by now, the essay has grown on me. It’s my baby. I’m not going to rewrite it; it’s perfect. So I wait. After a month or six I am less sensitive/reactive/attached. I can read with curiosity. Perhaps humility. And revision feels a little less like eye surgery.

So I’ll get back to it. Once I figure out where I’m hung up.

Years ago, on day 2 of a 4-day Turkish sea kayaking adventure, my rudder broke. After two long days of over-paddling, whining, and stabbing wrist pain, I figured out what to do. Steering with the paddle is harder to learn, but just as effective. Actually, you can turn on a dime with a paddle. And you can move forward with one. Habitually showing up for my writing practice is the one thing that unsticks me when I’m stuck. I may feel rudderless, but I’m still paddling steadily towards the lunch spot.

Kirsten Voris is an essayist and co-creator of The Trauma Sensitive Yoga Deck for Kids. She’s on draft two of her stage psychic bio and looking to connect with women writing about the history of magic and mentalism. Find her on IG @thebubbleator and Twitter @bubbleate.

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§ 9 Responses to Rudderless

  • Elizabeth Herbert Cottrell says:

    Very thought-provoking, Kirsten, and I find your reflections have so many parallels in many aspects of life. Thank you.

  • Leslie Doyle says:

    As an avid kayaker, I love this. My kayak trips are local so they aren’t quite as adventurous, but I see a lot of wonderful things. My kayak doesn’t have a rudder, and I am adept at steering with my paddle. Now–I need to apply my experiences to my writing as well as you did here. Thank you!!!!

    • Kirsten says:

      Hi Leslie! Happy to meet you. Most of my kayaking adventures are quite tame these days. There’s nothing like floating on the water. What if writing felt like that? In my head!

      Have a lovely day and thank you for stopping by.


  • dorothyrice says:

    Oh Kirsten, you hit the nail on my head with this one. I can so relate. I feel lost; which sounds somewhat like your rudderless. Well said, you! Keep paddling! I know you will.

    • Kirsten says:

      Thank you so much for stopping by, Dorothy. Think less paddle more is my new mantra! There are so many gorgeous essays inside us all. We just have to keep going.


  • Andrea Firth says:

    Great essay Kirsten. Love the rudderless kayak metaphor.

  • Andromeda Romano-Lax says:

    This spoke to me. As both writer and kayaker, I do struggle without a rudder! Thank you, Kirsten!

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