Fog is a living part of the San Francisco landscape. It's a year-round naturally occurring phenomenon that follows a predicable pattern; whenever the temperature warms up around us, it pushes the fog in. Or as Carl Sandburg said, it comes in on little cat feet. We tell ourselves that we love the fog. It’s cool and moist and mysterious. It softens edges and muffles sound. It has been a seductive muse to many writers, musicians and painters. Mark Twain actually did not say ‘the coldest winter I’ve ever spent is a summer in San Francisco,’ but we love to repeat the misquoted sentiment anyway.
A few days ago, I took a walk around Stow Lake, where a low, thick fog had shrouded much of the landscape, erasing Strawberry Hill—the island in the middle of the lake. I could hear the rhythmic lap of oars dipping in and out of the water, but when the boatman came rowing out of the fog, it felt like a vision. Like magic. Like he appeared out of nothing.
When the fog comes into the bay, Alcatraz vanishes. As if it isn’t there anymore. I’ve heard visitors say, “What happened to Alcatraz? I thought it was out there in the Bay?” I reassure them that it’s still there and I do know that it is, yet I always experience a sense of relief when it peeks out of the top of the fog bank. Ahh—there it is. See?
I learn life lessons every day; quite often they come from the landscape around me. There is a very steep hill a few blocks from my house—so steep that when you drive to the crest, you cannot see the road in front of the hood of the car. When my girls were young, they would beg me to drive home that way and then we’d all shriek as we went over the summit and I swear, that as many times as I did it, there was always a moment of Oh Sh—! doubt that we are about to plunge off a cliff.
Like a person who wanders in the fog, I used to be a complete pantser—someone who writes by the seat of her pants. I would get a vague idea for a character and a situation and then just start writing to see where it went. It was an act of faith, like driving over the crest, trusting that the road would come up to meet me. And it did (although I wrote a lot of plot-less fiction that way.) In the past few years, I’ve tried to be more of a plotter. A planner. I find I like having a map that shows me where I’m going.
But still, there are times when the fog comes in and even with a road map, I can’t see where I’m going. It’s scary and takes an act of faith to push forward. Slowly, I’m learning to trust my sense of direction again, that if I continue to take careful steps forward, I will find the road. Alcatraz is still there. When the words do appear, they’re like that boatman rowing out of the fog, ferrying an unparalleled thrill and reminding me that writing is magic.