White Water Writing

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

15 thoughts on “White Water Writing

  1. Well said – and an excellent reminder – words are our raw material, we need to move about the world, open ourselves up in order to place the words well.

  2. There was a TV programme on in the UK recently called Hidden Talent. Members of the public were invited to take a series of tests to determine if they were naturally talented at, and had the potential to develop, a particular skill. These included rock climbing, opera singing, lie detecting and free diving. Those selected as having a potential hidden talent were put through a series of very stretching – and often fear-inducing – exercises.

    One of the people who had a natural talent at free diving described how she had a severe anxiety attack during one of her dive attempts. She could not complete her dive and came up for air, in a very distressed state. She then described how her anxiety turned into a complete feeling of calm – she described the feeling as one of deep meditation, which I think matches your Zen moment experience. She was able to complete the dive.

    In her real life she is an opera singer. She now uses her ability to centre herself and find an oasis of calm to reduce her nerves and improve her singing ability. As soon as I read your story I thought that your experience mirrors that of the free-diving opera singer.

    I’m not sure I’m brave enough to try kayaking, but I will try to see the positive side of scary experiences in future!

    • Yasmine,
      Thanks so much for telling this story. I find the idea of diving – in the ocean and through the sky – terrifying. Even the idea of zip-lining through the forest canopy has me hyperventilating, but my editor at EasternSlopes has me signed up for this last, so I’ll never say, “Never.” And as good as it is for us to paddle outside our comfort zone, it’s also good to know our own limits. I’ve been able to see a connection between my fear of paddling and my difficulties playing a Mozart Fantasie on the piano – so there are many ways to approach one’s own fears.
      Thanks for reading the blog and for taking the time to comment.
      Deborah.

  3. I find this article so inspiring, I started to write for Street Articles merely to gather some form of practice, I’m more a mathematician. It was very nerve racking submitting the first article for publication, yet over time, with 190 odd published articles within the site, it now seems so much easier.
    Your article shows how the professionals also suffer the times of difficulty, the time when an outside experience is needed to carry on. The likes of me and other amateur authors, will gather encouragement from this article, I wish there was some way I could share it with them. Our site does not allow direct adding of directories, but this article, I intend to keep and in my following article, to link back to it. Thank You for sharing, a real inspiration…

    • Bulldogsturf:
      I’m glad you found this post inspiring. I find 190 articles an inspiration!
      If you have a blog, I think you can “repost” this; if not, you can probably add a live link to your site back to this.
      No matter how much I write, earn from writing, see my work in print, every day I face the same challenge as every other writer on the planet: the blank page. Makes whitewater kayaking seem like a walk in the park.
      Best, Deborah.

      • Thanks for replying, I have already written the article and sent it in for acceptance, I placed a link within the article back to your article. I do this as it will be an inspiration to my followers and other budding authors. I have followed the Blog now for quite a while and find the articles helpful and educational. As a 60 plus man who struggled at school with languages, I enjoy now penning articles of different things, in fact what ever hits me in the morning. I thank you once more for your article very inspiring..

  4. You’re so right. There is nothing like a challenge that really scares us and test our physical (or mental) limits to make us get a sense of perspective in our everyday life, or our writing life.

  5. What a beautiful and inspiring post! The most outside of my comfort zone I have ever been was when I traveled to the small West African country of The Gambia when my son was a Peace Corps volunteer. I wanted to bolt within 10 minutes of being there. Thanks for reminding me of that moment and how I draw upon that the same way you draw upon your kayaking experience. Now, perhaps you’ll challenge your comfort zone and figure out how to post your white water pictures!!!

    • Jamie – You’re absolutely right about the photos. My excuse? Yesterday, I used up all my technology patience learning how to post on blogspot, where I was invited to join The Vermont Book Shelf blog: http://vermontbookshelf.blogspot.com/
      I do have an instruction session planned with my IT guy this Thursday. Somehow, learning how to use technology does not give me the same thrill as learning to kayak – though I do gain some sense of competence when I learn a new skill. Obviously, you’ve hit a sore nerve!
      I’m glad you found the post inspiring. Your comment has certainly given me much to think about! Thanks for writing.
      Deborah.

  6. You have given me so much focus and courage for my writing in the midst of all the “to-do” lists that form threatening rapids around my writing kayak! Thank you, Deborah!

  7. Great stuff! I have challenged myself in just such a way this year – and am blogging it here (alisoncowan.wordpress.com) – my Year of Daring Do. We all have different limits, as you say, and it took a little time for me to ‘own’ that although my particular challenges are a ‘walk in the park’ for some, they are valid for me. One of the un-looked for upsides is that I am finding my life to be more interesting, richer, more exciting with the effort of putting myself out there. And yes – a richness of experience must inform ones writing. Bravo to you for tackling your paddling challenge – and facing up to the ziplining one (sounds scary!). I am toying with the idea of doing some white water paddling too!

  8. You write, “One of the un-looked for upsides is that I am finding my life to be more interesting, richer, more exciting with the effort of putting myself out there.” Putting oneself out there is tough for a writer, whose natural pose is retreat to the comfort of working in pj’s. So kudos to you for an entire year of challenges!
    Thanks for reading the blog and commenting on this post.
    Deborah.

  9. Pingback: Paralysis of Analysis

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