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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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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All Grown Up and Stuff at AWP

I’ve just returned from my fifth trip to the annual AWP Conference (the Association for Writers and Writing Programs) , and am proud to say that I’ve yet again survived the thrilling ordeal. It’s taken me two days, three loads of laundry, about six servings of pasta, and many hours of sleep to recover and recombobulate after the exhaustion and overstimulation of the chaotic, 12,000-attendee conference, but I am once again walking and talking like a human being.

This year’s conference was almost like a homecoming, in a way: I caught up with old friends, signed and swapped books with said friends, reminisced over the silly foibles of my not-so-distance youth in this industry, and looked back at the distance I’ve traveled thus far in my writing career. When I first attended the AWP conference in Chicago five years ago in Chicago, I was fresh out of my MFA program and had no idea what trajectory my career would take. I had only submitted my work to a handful of literary journals, and had only been published in one. I certainly never dreamed that in a matter of years, I’d be editing one of the industry’s most reputable literary magazines, and would have published my debut memoir, A Real Emotional Girl by a New York-based publisher of substantial prestige (In hardcover! With a photo insert!).

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The Girl on the Cover of Girl

Next week is the annual AWP conference, to be held in Boston this year, and I’ll be attending the weekend’s festivities for yet another round of literary gluttony and general mayhem along with my faithful companions and fellow editors of The Los Angeles Review: Kelly Davio, Ann Beman, and Joe Ponepinto. In addition to the densely scheduled and attended panels, workshops, and readings, as well as the whirlwind of nearly ten thousand like-minded artists crammed into one overburdened convention center, there is also the delightfully overstimulating chaos of the AWP bookfair.

I spend about 90% of my bookfair time manning the LAR booth where we sell issues and subscriptions, say hello to all the contributors we’ve come to positively adore over the years, and–of course– participate in some of the best people-watching around. But that other 10% of my bookfair time belongs to the decadent hour or two or five I get to spend blissfully wandering the crowded rows upon rows of the world’s best literary magazine, arts programs, small presses, and writers. For those of us in the writing biz, this is heaven. I savor that experience of say hello to old friends every single year, and every year I buy too many books and magazine and merchandise because I find myself wanting EVERYTHING. Best of all, though, I look forward to drinking up the sights of so many gorgeous, hard-won books on display, all those richly crafted nuggets of knowledge and emotion and art wrapped up so finely in the kind of design feats that can knock your socks right off. Heaven, I tell you, heaven.

One of the things many non-writers are surprised to learn about the publishing process is how little control an author will usually have in the selection of his or her cover art. Luckily for me and Girl, the incredible team at Skyhorse Publishing included me on the decision and welcomed my feedback in what proved to be a thrilling and highly educational search for that perfect image to represent my book. Because I’d been dreaming of publishing this memoir for so many years, I came to the table with images already in hand. I’d held onto a photograph taken by progeny photographer Holly Henry, and was delighted when the designers at Skyhorse responded well to it. Galley copies were printed with that original image, which was a haunting and somewhat polarizing image, and I was elated. While all the little loose ends of font choice and alignment were still being settled, word came down from on high that we’d have to choose a new image, and do it quickly.

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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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Reflections From the Finish Line

I’ve neglected this blog for far too long, friends, and I apologize. I hope the absence is forgivable in light of what I was busying myself with the last few months: the upcoming release of my book!

The last 60 days have been tough, but incredibly rewarding. Having never sent a book off to be published before, I suppose I didn’t have much in the way of expectations, and I certainly knew the process wouldn’t be easy, but the reality was actually even more grueling than I could have ever anticipated. In the end, I managed to make some pretty significant—and incredibly beneficial—edits to the manuscript in an awfully short window of time. Every day for nearly a month, I would wake at 6, work a full day, come home to walk and feed Mona, and then I’d sit down in my home office for at least 6 or 7 hours of editing, only to start the whole exhausting routine all over again the next day. It wasn’t easy and the lack of sleep definitely wasn’t a good look for me, but I’m rather proud of the work I did. I never thought I could say this, but I know with complete confidence and calm that my book is absolutely the best I could possibly make it.

When the day finally came for me to approve the last few remaining revisions and send off my little brain child for typesetting, I was anxious about really being finished with something that has taken me 10 years to create. The moment approached in an anticlimactic build-up, and I felt like I needed to do something that would signify or commemorate this momentous occasion. So as I made one final sweep of my manuscript, dedicated it to my father and my family, I turned on my dad’s favorite movie, “Jeremiah Johnson”. I half-listened to the movie, only registering key plot points of lines of dialogue intermittently. There were moments when I stopped to reflect on the landscape of the film, or to let one of those iconic lines of dialogue resonate in my mind; at times it almost felt as if my father were speaking to me through the movie.

Many hours later, as I pressed the “save” button one final time, I felt a sudden rush of weightlessness, almost dizziness. I instinctively placed my hand against my heart and felt the heavy burden of this opus leave me. And then it was finished. Finished.

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