Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Small steps

Climbing at Skaha Bluffs

Lately, whenever the weather is warm enough and the day ahead is free, I've been trekking into the rocky bluffs just outside of town with two or three friends. We take water, salty snacks, maybe some fruit and hot tea, and gear: ropes, carabiners, harnesses, shoes and helmets. The gear dangles from our backpacks as we hike in on one of the numerous trails that snake between the cliffs and crags.

It's beautiful to hike in here among the fragrant bent pines stretching into clear blue sky, to hear the tattoo of woodpeckers, and see hawks wheeling overhead. But we're not here to hike.

In the parking lot, we've pored over our climbing book and picked a rockface that the sun will warm throughout this crisp fall day.  We're beginners, so we've picked a couple of climbs that aren't too difficult, but offer us a bit of challenge.

At the crag, we rig up our climbing anchors and ropes, paying careful attention to the knots -- double fisherman's, figure eight, girth hitch. Our lives literally depend on getting these knots right. We dial in and focus. The outside world drops away. Dimly, I'm aware of carabiners clinking musically like bells on a donkey in a sleepy village. Sunshine and wind. The cool rock beneath my fingers.

Each time I begin to climb, stepping onto a tiny swell of rock that I'm going to call a foothold, running my fingers hopefully over the cliff to find something, anything, my fingers can cling to, a voice in my head says, "You can't do this."

My stomach roils a little and adrenaline quakes through my limbs. It is possible that the voice is right. I should have started climbing thirty years ago.  Not now, when I'm closer to 60 than 50. The thing is, it may have taken me this long to realize that in every beginning, there is the potential for failure. And failure isn't the end of the world. It's not even the end of the climb.

Every time my toe presses into an indent the size of a cashew, I take a chance at failure. When I choose a path for my climb, there's the chance I'll have to re-think my decision partway up the rockface when I can't find anything to hold onto.

I recently heard a climbing instructor tell a group of climbers to take small steps instead of looking for one big one. It's good advice, I found. I take a small step and the rock looks different. What seemed impossible suddenly becomes possible.

I'm learning how a small step can open up a bunch of new possibilities.

Monday, 8 July 2019

Is only trouble interesting?

Chilcotin mountain meadow

My students complain that I never teach any happy books. Last semester, totally by accident (are there any accidents?), I had a cannibalism theme going (The Odyssey, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and a documentary film called Stranded: I've Come from a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains). I tell them that only trouble is interesting, or so, in various ways, say many writers with a dim view of human nature. For the most part, I've found this to be true. Only trouble is interesting. When everything is going smoothly in a book, I ask myself, when's the story going to begin?

But I recently read Heidi, and I thought, maybe this is the kind of book my students mean when they ask why I don't teach happy books. It's a delightful book; that's the word for it. And yet it starts with trouble and more trouble. Heidi is an orphan who is being deserted by her aunt -- left with her grandfather who lives alone on a mountain and has a reputation for being an ogre. Everyone in the village thinks it's cruel to leave her there and that the grandfather will have no idea how to care for a little motherless girl. The reader expects big trouble. But Heidi is so sunny and positive and curious and warm that she opens her grandfather's cold, closed heart and the two turn out to be kindred spirits who love nature and solitude. The book is heart-warming from the start and it's a gentle reminder that most people are essentially good, or at least mean well, and that the natural order of things is probably not to (The Road spoiler alert!) roast your newborn child on a spit over a fire. Most relationships have at the core some spark of tenderness and goodness, however clumsily expressed, and a book like Heidi captures that. I think that's what I love about good children's books. Not saccharine, they admit hardship, but they don't stop there.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Slow writing

My 1975 notebook
When I was twelve years old, I wrote a novel called The Mystery of the Secret Passage. Much of it I wrote in our wartime house on a leafy Winnipeg street, where we had a crawlspace that was sun-warm in summer and furnace-duct warm in winter, smelled of old insulation and dust and had a small slatted vent where I could look out into our front yard and the sidewalk that ran past our house. I set up a makeshift desk with some boards, and in my memory, I sat on the floorboards and wrote. Having the desk made me feel like a real writer; it lent a certain commitment to what I was doing. I wrote the novel, suspiciously like a Nancy Drew novel, which I loved, in Hilroy exercise books. Word by word, sentence by sentence, I sank into the private world I was creating, not caring where the story was going or who might read it.

A page from Red Fox Road.
For my most recent novel,  Red Fox Road, I decided to allow myself this same luxury. I wanted to return to the simplicity and joy I found in writing when I was twelve. I wanted to close my ears to my own inner critic, and write something slowly, happily, word by word, just for the sheer fun of it. I had an idea that had captured my imagination: a girl on a family vacation becomes stranded alone in the wilderness when the family's GPS leads them astray. The idea was based very loosely on stories I'd read in the paper about mishaps with car's navigation systems. Also, my own little family had had a close call one day when we headed off on an off-road driving adventure, got lost, and couldn't retrace our steps because we didn't have enough gas.

I took out one of the notebooks I usually use for a journal, and began with the first sentence. It came easily and I didn't worry too much about whether it was the right sentence. It took me somewhere. And in writing this novel, I learned to pay attention to that feeling. Does this sentence take me somewhere? Is it where I want to go?

"In each act is the seed of the next." I'm not sure who to credit for that sentence; it's not my own, but it became my guiding principle. If the sentence I wrote took me somewhere I didn't want to go, I backed up, crossed it out, and wrote a different sentence. The wrong paths were usually ideas that I had imposed on the story, rising from some sense of obligation to include something. Apparently Warren Buffet has a tray on his desk labelled "too hard" and he puts ideas that he doesn't understand or has to work too hard at into that tray. My principle was similar. I wanted the story to roll along, to unravel like a road I was travelling down. I didn't want to impose too much of my vision on it in advance. I wanted to watch, almost listen for it. For me, the fun is in following the story, not having the story follow me. If I've set it up well enough, the story takes on a life of its own. It has its own intelligence, which is smarter than me.

In Journal of a Novel, John Steinbeck writes, "I sometimes feel that when I am writing I am very near to a kind of unconsciousness." I would say that about the way I wrote as a child, and I'd say that it's when writing is at its best for me now. I feel a physical change in my body when I find that, a sense of inhabiting the world I've created. I dream about it, it's the first place I find myself if I wake in the night. I can hear my narrator's voice, I watch what she does, what she feels and thinks.

Writing by hand seems to help me find that. Slowed down, I'm both more careful, and less constrained. Maybe the slower, physical act of handwriting, the pen drawing letters on a thick new loaf of paper, helps me pay more attention. And in writing this novel in notebooks, I remember the twelve-year-old girl that I was, on an adventure without a certain outcome, just for the joy of it.