Author Leslie Lindsay Moves Mountains, One Rock at a Time

So much of a writer’s life is spent hunched over messy desks under the glares of overworked computers, all alone,  trapped inside the creative avalanches of one’s own mind. Those few times each year when we congregate at conferences, book fairs, and workshops, we marvel at and cling to one another with abandon. The connections we make and those intellectual bonds we form sustain us year-round, often throughout our entire careers. They buoy us during hard time as well as success. I was fortunate to come across just such a friend in author Leslie Lindsay this past April at the University of Wisconsin Writers Conference in Madison, Wisconsin. My very own home state, no less.

With all I’ve had on my plate these last few months–putting together this incredible poetry anthology, finishing my novel, promoting Girl, working a full-time day job, and trying to keep myself and my dog in good spirits, I am fascinated by how writer-mamas manage to throw their families into the mix.  I damn sure plan to keep writing as I move through life and, hopefully, one day become a mother myself. I asked Leslie what writing means to her as she evolves, and how she balances those dual identities of artist and mother. Here’s what she had to say:

 

As I write this, I have a load of wash going, towels in the dryer, a happy basset hound at my feet, dinner simmering in a Crock Pot and two children happily playing outside with rocks, sticks, and their imaginations.

Am I distracted?  Of course!  Am I a driven writer?  Yes.  Can I do it all and still have time to do the things I love?  Well, that depends.

The art and craft of writing takes time.  Lots of time.  It also takes a certain doggedness, a thick skin, a passion for the written word, and more time.  To make it work for me and my family—which is comprised of a devoted hubby, a basset, and two very busy elementary-aged children—I must be very disciplined.  Some days it’s easier than others!

Leslie Author Pic (1)Perhaps you’ve heard of the jar and the rock scenario.  Bear with me as I explain. Take a glass jar…one of those big canning jars and fill it with a few large rocks.  Those are your main priorities in life like home, work, church/synagogue, family, school.  You have to do those things to make it in life, right?  But the jar’s not full yet, is it?  Okay, so go out and grab a few smaller rocks—the things you like to have as part of your life.  Maybe that’s time to shop, study, read, time with friends, etc.  Still not full, right?  Then you add in sand and water…now the jar is really full.

As a mom-writer, I’ve had to shift my priorities so that writing is one of my “big rocks.”  It’s quite literally what grounds me.  When I am writing, I am in my own world where nothing seems to matter except my story and the characters that inhabit that world.  Yet, all of those other things need to get done.  It’s about balance.  For me, writing is as integral as eating, breathing, and being with my family; it’s a strong fiber of my being.

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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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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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