In early June, I hiked through the Tennessee woods at a national recreation area called The Land Between the Lakes. The woman at the visitor’s center handed me a trail map and, peering over the desk at my shorts, warned me about ticks. “I’m from South Dakota. I know a little something about ticks,” I wanted to say but didn’t. Instead I smiled and thanked her, drove to the trailhead, and marched into the woods.
I emerged after three hours crawling with ticks. Up my legs, down my arms, across my chest—and those were the ones I could see. Most were the size of newly hatched spiders, the same color and shape of my countless tan-brown freckles, which made them hard to detect. Some were already enjoying the blood buffet, others were feeling for the right entry point.
Maybe it was the heat and my exhaustion after trekking up and down those hollers, but I borderline lost it for a few minutes. I envisioned my unmentionables festooned with ticks that I would eventually find, bloated with blood. Surely one or two had crawled into my ears, where they would inevitably lay eggs in my brain. I felt legs prodding me all over and hungry mouths digging in. In a frenzy I plucked off and swatted away what I thought were all of the ticks, jumped in the car, and tore off for Clarksville, where I was spending the night. Just get to the shower, I thought, clenching the wheel and trying not to feel my skin crawling.
Ten minutes later, I was pulled off the park road, shaking my shorts and tank top out the window. I considered driving in my underwear and sports bra, but the rental didn’t have tinted windows. I probably flicked a dozen more ticks out the window before reaching Clarksville. At the hotel I stripped down and checked myself—thoroughly, if you know what I mean—with a hand-held mirror and tweezered off a few more. I showered and checked again. Nothing. I calmed down, forgot about the eggs in my brain and the hungry mouths. Still, as I slipped my sandals on the next morning, I noticed a small tick with its head deep in the flesh between the second and third toes of my left foot.
What was I so afraid of? A little lost blood? Lyme disease? In truth I wasn’t scared of either. I was more afraid of being a host—of letting an unwanted parasite feed off me.
It’s the stuff of horror films, isn’t it? A hidden creature draining you slowly over time while you go about your life, unaware, until one day you feel a little ill, then very ill, then you’re dead, brought down by an insect you could pinch between your fingers. Then there’s the indignation; that’s my blood, damn it. Keep your gluttonous little mouth away from it.
Yet I allow myself—rather, invite myself—to be a host for life-draining little monsters every day, to the detriment of my writing life.
Take social media, for example. If I spent the time I’m on Facebook on writing instead, I would have a novel finished. I’m not anti-social media—I have found jobs, places to submit work, and local readings with it—but I also let the mindless chatter that dominates those platforms suck away large portions of my day. And let’s talk about my cell phone, a leech drawing out my energy with its text messages, emails, news updates, and calls. These distractions also diminish my writing time, and few provide creative fuel. That tiny rectangle has a disturbing amount of power, and who is to blame but me?
Procrastination, though—I am a host for that more than anything. Even this essay is procrastination (I should be working on my book, not fiddling with an essay!). Most days there are a thousand things to be done before writing, pressing duties like reorganizing the bookcase, eating potato salad on the couch, and cleaning the light switches. My worst offense is crowding my designated writing days with errands. When the day ends and I’ve written barely anything or nothing, I feel ashamed for letting small tasks eat away the hours. Procrastination is many small decisions made over time. If you say yes when it asks to sink its little teeth into your day, the consequences might not appear immediately. Over time, however, procrastination drains your writing life, creativity, and rate of production. It also drains your confidence.
One tick usually doesn’t kill, but a dozen, fifty, a hundred? That’s a different story. If I don’t tear the parasites from my life, then they will snuff out my writing. Maybe not this month, or this year, but eventually.
I needn’t fear the woods, or even the ticks, so long as I remember to check for them. Honesty with myself is key here. I’ve reached a point where it’s time to remove a few parasites from my writing life and get back to work—and outside for more hikes, this time with bug spray.
Stephanie Anderson is a writer living in Boca Raton, Florida. She holds an MFA from Florida Atlantic University, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, The Chronicle Review, Sweet, Devil’s Lake, Farm and Ranch Living, and others. Her essay “Greyhound” was the 2015 winner of the Payton James Freeman Essay Prize sponsored by The Rumpus, Drake University, and the Freeman family. Stephanie is proud to have grown up in South Dakota, and she recently completed a book on sustainable agriculture.