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’s at the Core of the Core Ideas

Along with my faithful writing companion, Kelly Davio and several other writer pals, I attended Jennie Shortridge’s release party for her latest book, Love Water Memory at Elliot Bay Book Company here in Seattle. The party was a rollicking good time, complete with booze and schnibbles, and—best of all—music performed by the author and her friends/bandmates. Jennie is a brilliant writer with the most lovely singing voice, and I envy her beyond measure. I was truly blessed, and quite humbled, when Jennie graciously endorsed Girl with a great blurb several years back and I have ever since admired the way she seems to effortlessly move through this crazy industry.

While Jennie read and discussed her new book, she talked about the genesis of the core idea behind it: a newspaper clipping about a couple who found their way back to one another—and back to love—after one of them suffered a rare form of amnesia. Listening to Jennie describe how she came to weave her own story from this nugget of a core idea got me thinking about what compels writers to do what we do, to tell stories. No two writers truly accomplish the task in the same manner, but at the heart of it, we do because we cannot imagine a life without writing.

J.K. Rowling once said that the idea for the Harry Potter series came to her while she rode home from work one day on The Tube, and the train pulled into King’s Cross Station, the character of young Harry Potter suddenly appeared in her mind fully formed. Stephen King says that the plot of his bestseller, Misery, came to him in a dream. For me, the experience of stumbling upon inspiration to write has been varied. For my memoir, obviously the story was already there and was already pretty good (at least, that’s what the reviews say so far), and I just had to make sure to tell it right. The idea for my current project came up a little more adventurously: while skiing in white-out conditions on the Summit at Snowqualmie with my brother, Dylan, about three years ago, he turned around to ask me if I was alright and I assured him that I was. Then, he asked, “It’s kind of ominous, isn’t it? Looks a little like the end of the world.” Boom—in a single heartbeat, the concept for a post-apocalyptic, volcanic winter story waltzed right on in to my mind, my protagonists desires and conflicts, trials and allies, mentors and loves all swirling around in my head just like the snow whipping around my face as I moved down the slopes. And poor Dylan had to endure my wild, ceaseless and barely coherent brainstorming for the remainder of the day.

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Earning that Title, One Tear at a Time

Do not be so sweet that people will eat you up, nor so bitter that they will spit you out.

-Pashto folk saying

It’s been a great week, full of some damn exciting developments: I’ve purchased a brand new car and landied a hard-earned promotion at work, and yet I’ve had an awfully rough go of it all. That might not make much sense to some of you, but to those who have come to know loss and grief, it makes perfect sense, because you know that after suffering a life-changing loss of someone close to you, all good things become bittersweet rather than purely sweet. Let me explain.

A few weeks ago, my old Volvo wagon blew her tranny and is now going to the great Volvo lot in the sky. She served me well and kept me safe on the road for the last five years, and I was sad to see her go. I was pretty certain about what kind of car I would buy next, how it would all go down, and indeed the decision has essentially made itself. I considered and drove a few different cars, sought advice from several knowledgeable folks, and did a good deal of research on Consumer Reports. My big brother, Gabe, held my hand from 2,000 miles away and helped me through every single step of the process. In the end, I settled on a new 2013 Subaru Forester, with not many—but just enough—of the niceties to make me feel like I’ve gotten something pretty fancy-pants. I got a great car at a great price, and I cried the entire way through it.

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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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