Essay written 15 June 2009, in response to questions posed by memoirist & writing instructor Dara Lurie.
Why write? What transformational qualities does writing bring into my life?
Writing is like stepping into a river. I stand on the bank beneath a graceful sweep of willow boughs that dip over the water. I would say that I am about to go canoeing, that I am setting boat into water intending to venture downstream. But that’s not right. I’ve only been canoeing once, and perhaps the once was enough for me. Trying to get into the canoe while my husband steadied it I lost my balance and fell into the water: an instant baptism. Indignant and wet I was tempted to give up right there. But we were all by ourselves miles from anywhere so there was no point in doing anything other than be a good sport. So I tried again and somehow managed to get myself into the righted craft.
We pushed off from the bank and set forth on the water. It was early morning and a motionless layer of mist capped the river, peaceful and atmospheric. I felt anxious and apprehensive, fascinated too, sometimes by turns, and sometimes all at once. I was uncertain as to the character of the river, whether I had the stamina for the miles-long trip, and if I would be up to any very rough patches that might lie ahead.
We glided beneath a verdant canopy, paddling along one side of the canoe, then the other. There were luxurious stretches where we skimmed smoothly through the water. Looking back on it, every moment of our journey was rare and unexpected. We watched in awe as overhead an eagle spread its enormous wings. Moments later a large downy-white feather came wafting down and with an exhalation of delight my husband reached for it as it floated through the air. He tucked it carefully in his pocket, his enchanted souvenir, though later, after our return, to his great disappointment he couldn’t find it.
More than once we ran aground, the canoe hitting and grinding along the bottom, and finally refusing to budge from a bed of rocks or mud. We had to climb out and push it into open water, and there again would be the awkward business of clambering back in. There was one section of the river where the water suddenly became quite deep (so it seemed) and fastmoving. Branches and logs eddied turbulently ahead, then vanished over an edge, and I feared we might be pulled towards a waterfall. Somehow we navigated safely around what turned out to be a fork in the river. The waters calmed and we paddled down the center of a long, straight stretch arbored by an arch of trees and vines. A large majestic bird appeared – a heron? an egret? - and for several minutes flew at a stately pace and remove ahead of us. It seemed to be leading the way, and we followed.
There was heartbreak too, I recall. A duck raced past us upstream squawking and flailing in distress. It was caught in fishing line and couldn’t get free. There wasn’t any way we could help it. My husband would have had to jump into the frigid water, swim against the current, and try to overtake the fastmoving duck – it couldn’t be done. We reluctantly turned away and continued our journey.
I was relieved when our campground swung into view and our early morning waterborne adventure was over. I stepped back onto shore glad to be in one piece. I was glad that it was over, but also to have had the experience.
That is what writing is like for me, stepping off a riverbank into an uncertain current. It’s a little scary but rewarding. I have to stoke myself to go into the water. I can think of a million excuses to stay on land. But if I can coax myself to venture out for a time I am grateful for the journey. I have gone and I have come back and I can think about where I’ve gone and what I’ve seen. I have experienced something I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t set forth. I believe that Virginia Woolf understood this. When she wrote she stepped into the waves, into a current that bore her along a “stream” of consciousness. When in the end she couldn’t go on anymore she made the metaphorical literal and pockets weighted with stones, stepped off the bank, her final immersion, the one she herself would never record.