Monday 26 September 2022

Fiction and change


The west coast of British Columbia

In Buddhism, one of the fundamental teachings is that everything changes. That could sound, at first glance, like a self-evident truism that explains how trees lose their leaves in fall and the tide changes a shoreline as it ebbs and flows. But on another level, this idea can be terrifying. When I told my sister about this teaching, she said it scared her. I would say it scares me, too. For the most part, I like the way things are. I don't want them to change.

I was thinking about this in regards to storytelling. Fiction, too, we're told, is about change. But more specifically, it can be about a few responses to change: 

  • resistance to change: something happens that a character/characters struggle against (The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood)
  • desire for change: the character's situation is untenable and they seek to change it (A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews)
  • fear of change: the threat of change causes a character to react (The Road by Cormac McCarthy)
  • tumultuous change: the character is suddenly thrust into a new situation (Deliverance by James Dickey)
  • inability to change: a character is stymied by their rigidity (Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro)
 Some of these changes overlap and intertwine. And obviously, change isn't always negative. In fact, the happy ending is where the change turns out to be for the best. Or at least, the change is accepted in some way by the character. 

Wednesday 17 August 2022

Adventurous or reckless?


Multi-day trip in Desolation Sound
A few years ago, I took a rappelling course from a local adventure company. The students were just me and one other person, a young guy. As we worked on our knots, the guide began a conversation about finding people you'd be comfortable climbing with, and also, being someone others would be comfortable climbing with. Then he asked the young man, whose name I've forgotten, but I'll call him Greg, to share a story about something that had happened to him recently. The story was that Greg had rented a kayak. Having never kayaked before in his life, he happily paddled out to the middle of Okanagan Lake. Like way out. Google tells me that Okanagan Lake is 120 kilometres long and between 3 and 5 kilometres wide. In other words, it's a big lake.  

All was going well until the wind changed. Then Greg found himself tired out from his paddling so far and unable to make any headway. As he floundered, getting nowhere, he admitted that he grew petrified with fear at the size of the waves breaking over his kayak bow. Eventually, his energy completely spent, he pulled out his cell phone and called the kayak rental company to come and get him. A guide had to kayak out and tow him back in to shore.

My sister, who I've shared many adventures with, says it's important to know what you don't know. For example, Greg could have found out that the bigger the body of water, the greater the potential for big waves, because of something called fetch, the distance over which wind travels across the water. He could have also found out that the wind can change on Okanagan Lake, and setting out with it gently blowing in one direction is no guarantee that it won't change before you return.

Also, I personally would not kayak alone out into the middle of a lake unless I had to, for example to cross it. The nicest part of kayaking, IMHO, is staying close to shore where you can see things like birds and other shorelife and where bigger boats can't travel. Some kayakers love the big waves and will travel out into the lake for fun, but they tend to do it in groups for safety. Also, it's important to consider your stamina and to avoid using it all up on the first leg of your journey. 

One thing I realized that day on the rappelling course as I heard the story is that I would not climb with a partner like Greg. Being adventurous is one thing. But being reckless is just a few skipped steps away.

Another day, my friend and I were setting out to kayak, again on Okanagan Lake. We unloaded our boats from our vehicles and then carried our gear down and began strapping it to the hull. We each carry an extra paddle, a throw rope, a pump (to pump water out of the boat) and a paddle float. In the photo above, I'm also carrying a marine chart and a plastic cup to use as a bailer, because I discovered through practice that my arms tire pretty quickly using the pump to empty my boat. But those are items I add only for a longer, multi-day trip. 

While we were prepping our boats, a man stood by watching us. I noticed he had a slight grin on his face. When I met his eyes, he said, "You sure like to be prepared." His tone was gently mocking. I agreed that I did like to be prepared. He said "My friends I go out  paddleboarding in the Atlantic Ocean with just a cell phone for safety gear." The implication was we were wimps and he and his friends were not. I smiled and refrained from comment, but I was thinking that it sounded like the perfect opening for an adventure-gone-wrong movie. In the movie, the fit, cocky man out on the ocean on his paddleboard loses sight of his friends when the weather changes. He tries to call someone on his cellphone, but discovers he can't see the numbers through the fog on the plastic. So he tries to fish it out of its holder and he drops it into the (very) cold Atlantic Ocean. 

I don't want to leave my safety in someone else's hands. If I'm going on an adventure, I don't work Search and Rescue into my safety plan. That's a failed plan.

The paddleboarder's approach reminds me of something I've seen fairly often: a fear of looking stupid for being "over-prepared." Like people who don't wear helmets when riding or lifejackets when they're boating, some people seem to feel that taking steps to be prepared for things potentially going sideways is embarrassing. But which is really more embarrassing? To be the one who pulls out a mini air pump and a patch kit on a remote bike trail to help a stranger who gets a flat (as my spouse has done), or to be the one who makes someone else risk their own safety paddling out in high winds to tow them to shore?

Thursday 2 June 2022

When I'm stuck


A rock and a hard place.
Some writing days, nothing much happens. I write a few sentences and scratch them out, get up and make a pot of tea, figure out a crossword clue, come back to the writing, write and cross out, write and cross out. If I have a string of days like this, I usually start to suspect that I'm going in the wrong direction.

Apparently, Warren Buffett has a box on his desk for investments that he considers "too hard." I use a similar filter for writing. If the writing is too hard, if a sentence or a plot isn't taking me somewhere, I back up and start again. But sometimes it takes me a while to notice.

When I was writing my second book, By the Secret Ladder: A Mother's Initiation, which is a memoir about the first year of new motherhood, I reached a point in the book where I was overcome with doubt. My editor had already warned me that expectant mothers might be scared by some of the story. I felt like if I told the truth, I'd be dooming the book to obscurity. But the dark part was the story. There was no way around that. I wrote, trying to ease into it, then I crossed it out. This went on for days. 

Finally, I realized that the path I was trying to take, softening the story, was too hard. And so I backed up and started again. Here's what I wrote:

Warning: This chapter is a little dark. If that bothers you, you could always skip it and go on to something with more light in it, more of what we associate with new mothers. You could choose to believe that becoming a mother is only about what you gain and never about loss. If you chose to believe that, you would have lots of company. 

I'm not supposed to be dark about this. I'm afraid of sounding ungrateful, afraid I've already screwed up my karma by unloading all my petty worries, and, as the books say, worry is bad for the baby. I worried about being worried.

After several days of unsatisfactory progress on my most recent novel, I realized that I'd set myself on a course I didn't want to follow. My characters were stuck in a cave (strangely metaphoric) and one person who is injured offers to give the other a boost to reach a potential exit overhead. But I discovered that I wasn't interested in writing that scene. This is how I got myself out of the corner I'd backed my writing self into:

A different stuck moment
"Let's try it," he said. "It's going to hurt but it's not going to kill me."

"Okay," I said. [Here's where I got stuck.]

But we didn't move. We sat there for another ten minutes or so while John Lee shifted, trying to get into a comfortable position, and groaned softly, trying not to. 

The conversation that followed did interest me and it got me back on a track where things are happening, the story is pulling me along. 

I pay attention to a physical feeling in my body when a story is deepening and beckoning to me. It's same kind of thrill I get from reading a good book. It's why I write.