What could learning to whitewater kayak possibly have to do with writing? In my case, four things: work, knowledge, companionship, and fear.
#1. In the first place, I went to kayaking school on assignment, so technically, I learned to kayak for work. EasternSlopes.com paid me to go to spend a weekend at Zoar Outdoor Adventure School, so I went – and I wrote about it. I also learned to kayak.
#2. When it came to kayaking, I learned a whole new vocabulary as well as a whole new skill set. I also learned a new way of looking at water, and of seeing the landscape from a completely different point of view. Acquiring knowledge is critical for a writer. Language is our raw material, and we always need to expand it. Information – how rivers work, the physics of kayaks, the wonder of wetsuits – expands the stage on which we can write our characters and their stories. New points of view enlarge our vision. As writers, we need to keep learning, so that we don’t become stagnant, repetitive, or stale.
#3. Taking any course is always a good way to meet new people. It forces me to practice my social skills which –face it – can get a little rusty in my writing studio, where I spend most of my time by myself. Among the others in my course were a veterinarian, a private chef, a home health aid, and an EMT – all decades younger than me. These were interesting, friendly people, full of ideas and experiences different from mine, and rich in personal idiosyncrasies – idiosyncrasies which may appear in future, fictional, characters.
#4. Paddling outside my comfort zone is the fourth and possibly most important writing lesson I learned from kayaking, and I’ve embraced this new gig for how it challenges me to overcome fear.
Fear is a big obstacle to writing from that deep place where truth resides. It’s so much easier – and so much more comfortable – to write the predictable, the pleasant, the banal. It takes courage to speak the truth, which, as I understand it, is a writer’s job.
Often, people don’t have the words to articulate their experience or the courage to speak their truth. They rely on writers to do that. It takes courage to be a writer, to sift through experience and pluck out the episodes that make for a dramatic story.
But even before a writer creates characters and plot and setting – even before a writer inks that first word on the page – it takes courage to step out of the whirlwind of ordinary life – the world of career building and mating, parenting, grocery shopping, and weeding the garden. It takes courage to step out of the powerful current of everyday life, and to sit down and write.
I was terrified the first time I nosed the bow of my kayak into swift-moving water,
but since turning in my piece, I’ve been out on the water again. Halfway down the river this second time out, something happened. I loosened my grip on my paddle, I exhaled, and I felt the river running under me as I surfed a wave. It was a Zen moment. I was peaceful and completely present. Instead of being scared, I was excited.
Now, when I’m at my desk, fighting the background of mental static – deadlines to meet, bills to pay, errands to run and looming self-doubt – I remember that moment on the river, and I let all the mental detritus of everyday life wash downstream, so I can focus on being absolutely present for the story at hand. From this place of calm and stillness, I can push aside all the details of everyday life, I can silence my internal voice of self-doubt, and I can write scenes that make me shudder, cringe, blush. I tell myself that if I can paddle my way through rocky, turbulent, rapids, I can write my way through any amount of self-doubt and fear.
What do you do to challenge yourself out of your comfort zone?
Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist, essayist and educator who is much better with words than images; she sincerely regrets her inability to make any of the dynamic photos of white water kayaking along the Deerfield River stick to this post. Learn more at www.deborahleeluskin.com