At my family’s camp Up North in Wisconsin, one of the most beloved traditions we still follow today takes place far outside Birch Trail’s property lines. Our beloved BT sends out nearly 65 wilderness trips each season, taking the campers climbing on the granite bluffs overlooking Lake Superior, hiking in the Isle Royale National Forest, paddling down the mighty Namekagon river, or from lake to lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Some of the most beautiful scenery to be found on all of god’s green earth.
I never took to backpacking as much as I did to the boating-oriented trips because, to me at least, it always seemed rather silly to carry a week’s worth of camping gear and food on one’s back when a lovely little canoe or kayak could manage the heavy lifting for you instead. Though most of our days during those canoeing and kayaking trips were filled with talking, laughing, and singing (there is a whole lot of singing and cheering that goes on at Birch Trail) our trip leaders would inevitably institute another long-held Birch Trail camping tradition: the silent paddle.
There isn’t much about silent paddling to describe that you wouldn’t already assume; enforcing an hour or two of total silence as the canoes, kayaks, or sailboats cruised across the water allows a young person the opportunity to really notice the exquisite beauty and quiet of their surroundings, as well as to go inward and notice what those surroundings could make her feel. As a deeply imaginative and introspective kid, I truly relished those silent paddles, and they include some of my fondest memories.
On my sea kayaking expedition with NOLS in 1999 along the southeastern coast of Alaska the summer after my senior year of high school, I was surprised and much delighted to discover that silent paddles were a tradition among their ranks as well. Though I often found myself battling rainy skies versus the sunny ones of my summer camp days, and struggling against powerful swells and strong currents of unprotected ocean waters much more challenging than the gentle rivers and lakes of my Midwestern wilderness sojourns, there was still something comforting about not having to talk.
It’s been a long time since I went camping, longer still since I went for a paddle. These days, my professional endeavors and grown-up responsibilities far eclipse such indulgences. I’ll be visiting camp in a month or so, and I’m sure I’ll be able to climb into a canoe while I’m there; in fact, I’ll make sure of it. Until then, I’m pushing hard in my work, trying to write my brains out like I usually do just to stay on top of it all.
Two nights ago, my writing forced me explore something no writer–no matter how preoccupied with the dark and twisted–ever truly wishes to embrace: the death of a child. But this is where the story has taken me. It just is.
Every night when I sit down to start writing, I turn on the lamps, light a few candles, and cue up a very specific set list of music. Not every writer can focus with music playing in the background, but for my overly active mind, having quiet melodies softly filling the emptiness keeps me on task. But because the subject matter was so somber and so horrendously dissonant to what I wished could have happened for my characters but know cannot, I thought the occasion called for silence–the equivalent of a silent paddle, if you will.
I needed to hone in on the emotions my characters would be feeling, needed to cry along with them and experience their pain without the distractions of my own life. I suppose this is true of every writing session but it was especially true that night–whatever had happened to me through the week or day, what I’d done at work and had for dinner and who I’d talked to on the phone that night and whatever email had just popped up on my iPhone–all of that needed to fall away so I could honor the imaginary baby who had just died on the page. He deserved my full attention. It was brutal, it was pure, and it was appropriate.
The tough thing about fiction is that you create these imaginary people–give them names and faces, feelings and histories and sometimes futures. Sometimes not. You break them, heal them. Sometimes not. It’s all the stuff of good storytelling, and I guess the only question is how hard you let it affect you as the creator in the process. I know this all sounds terribly dramatic and intense, and it is for a spell.
But there is a flip side, let me tell you about it: Just as I push aside the real world for the time I’ve allotted to about made-up ones, so do I also push aside imaginary lives as best I can when it’s time to live my actual life. It’s not a perfect system by any means, but I do my best to compartmentalize everything I’ve got going on, keep it all in its own place whenever possible. Just because my book is in such a dark place and I have to take myself to there for a visit every night to write about it, doesn’t mean I’m in a dark emotional state all day in preparation and anticipation. I have to live my life and take care of myself. I have to be around for a while so I can write lots of books, not just one or two. I’m tougher than heartache, real or imaginary.
Sure–some days are silent paddles, and I can handle them, but most days I never stop singing.