People sometimes ask me how I decide what to write about. Today, on deadline, I’ve got only a vague thought I had last week while picking up groceries after a trip to see my grandson in Baltimore. Maybe by trying to answer the question, I’ll be able to finish my assignment before the day is out.
I’m not a journal keeper, so I have no personal prose to look back on when searching for ideas, though I almost always have a pen or pencil and some form of paper with me. This is a habit I learned from the late journalist Richard Dudman, when I used to write the weekly Cranberry Isles column for the Mount Desert Islander. I was apologizing for pulling out a pen and paper to write down something he had said. Somehow, I thought I was just supposed to have a good memory all the time, but I was a lot younger then.
Richard said, “Don’t you know? The shortest pencil is longer than the longest memory.” These are words I’ve been happy to know and to pass on to others. My little pads hold jewelry sketches, book recommendations, contact information, and, once in a while, an actual idea for a column.
I try to find an idea that involves an aspect of everyday life, something that people might relate to whether they live on an island or not. We all pay bills, shop for groceries, and order stuff on line. But what part of those processes change because we live on an island? I look for something that might cause a non-island reader to say, “Wow, I never thought about that,” or “So that’s what they have to do to live out there.”
I want it to be something that islanders would read and then nod to themselves in solidarity for the things we know just aren’t so quaint about island living. Or, maybe they read the column and feel good about how lucky we are to live here.
Many ideas occur to me while shopping at Hannaford. For example: Is there a story in the fact that I find it extremely stressful to still be doing my grocery shopping in Ellsworth at 3:30 on an early June afternoon? Do other people see friends down the bread aisle and choose to bake this week, instead, because there’s not a minute for chatting when you’re running late for the boat? My stress level is increased due to the amount of one-way construction traffic between anywhere and the boat, these days.
While at Hannaford last week, I was picking up produce and dairy stuff after being away for five days. (I had plenty of time before the boat, so no stress.) I was thinking about how shopping in Ellsworth is always part of my wind-down after being away. Buying necessities and something easy to make for dinner is a coming home ritual. Could “homecomings” be a concept for a column?
Yesterday, when I thought I would sit down to write, my friend Susie called and said she was going to take a quick trip off island on the 11:30 boat to get plants. Did I think she could do it and make it back to the 2:30 boat?
“Well, if you’re only going off to get plants that should be plenty of time,” I said.
“Wait, do you want to come with me?” she asked. I met her at the dock.
I knew I wasn’t going anywhere that afternoon with my homecomings idea, but I did bring it up as a topic of discussion on the ferry ride with Susie and my in-laws Danny and Katy Fernald. They own the Islesford Artists Gallery and the busy season where none of us really see each other, especially on the mailboat, is about to begin. It was a treat to have such a quiet boat ride with a chance to talk.
“I might write about homecomings tomorrow, but I have nothing. Do you guys have any rituals or any thoughts about homecomings at this time of year?”
We proceeded to discuss how many different things show up at this time of year. Perennials and seeds are coming up in the gardens and plants from the greenhouses are arriving by boat. There are pollock around the docks and the lobsters are moving back inshore. Someone recently caught 50 squid in the harbor. The mosquitoes are back and so are many of the song birds.
I grew up coming to Islesford with my parents just at this time of year, so all my happy childhood memories of the island took place from mid-June into early July. Even though we only stayed for a few weeks, I felt like I was “home” every time. While I may not have been able to develop a whole column on the idea of “homecoming,” I’m pretty sure I’ll sense some knowing nods from readers who also feel they are “home” whenever they get to the Cranberry Isles.
Barbara Fernald lives, writes, and makes jewelry on Islesford (Little Cranberry Island).