Silent Paddle

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.

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What We Lose to February

I know, I know—it’s been an awfully long time since I’ve written a post, and I get yelled at all the time for it. The truth is that I’ve been so immersed (infected might be a more accurate term) in writing my next project that I’ve barely come up for air, let alone had time to write the kind of blog post I know my readers deserve. So please bear with me as I stumble in and out of real life as I finish this book, and cross your fingers that I survive the process. I’m not joking–I may not make it though this one.

And speaking of the writing process, let me tell you—this life I’ve chosen for myself, this writer’s life—it ain’t for pussies. The incredible amount of discipline and dedication it takes to see a manuscript through to the end is indescribable, unnamable. That focus and devotion takes such an awful lot out of me, and when I’m working as fiercely on a project as I have been these last few months, I find that I can neither think nor talk about virtually anything else.

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To Make the Story Important

I’m ankle-deep into the most inspiring, amped-up writing project I’ve ever attempted, and I feel positively infected by it. This new novel is all I think about, all I talk about. Though the hero of my story is nothing like me, I feel incredibly in tune with his character. I don’t want to give anything away just yet, so I’m going to play this one close to the vest and not reveal too many details, but what you need to know is this: the story takes place in a post-apocalyptic volcanic winter, and the protagonist is a man. What he must go through to survive takes unmatched courage, skill, and drive. And of course, everything he needs to know how to do in order to survive, I first need to learn so that I can write it. This means that I’ve been researching my little tushy off, reading field guides and watching hour upon hour of how-to videos about hunting and preserving meat and staying alive in arctic temperatures. Let me put it this way: when I’m finished writing this book, you’re gonna wanna hang out with me when the end of the world comes. This book is going to require some seriously legit writer chops to pull off, but I’m more than up for the challenge.

The plotlines have been outlined, the main characters have been named, and I’m steadily working through all the organizational and preparatory matters I go through when working on a new manuscript. But there’s something else I traditionally do at this stage in the game, and that is to revisit all my favorite stories and document what makes me love them so much, so that I might use those key points as inspiration for my own story. One thing I’ve noticed about many of my favorites, is the common thread of tragedy and loss. Legends of the Fall, Never Let Me Go, The Cider House Rules, The Road, Steel Magnolias, Proof, The Color Purple—all these stories have several things in common: First, they’re all either books or plays that were later made into motion pictures, and second, each story finds its main characters at one point or another badly beaten up by the world, bruised and battered by life. It’s painful to watch, painful to experience by proxy, but wonderfully interesting. Because here’s the thing, characters who confront no obstacle and subsequently achieve no growth are boring. Ordinary love, ordinary troubles and ordinary characters don’t create lasting, haunting stories. In order to create a compelling, evocative story that can stand the test of trends and time, a writer must choose to put her characters through a great many terrible things. Just as we must sometimes cut away pieces of writing that might be fantastic but ultimately ill-serving to the story (what we in the writing profession refer to as “killing your darlings”), so too do we often have to create beautiful, noble, wonderful characters only to kill them off the very moment they find true happiness.

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