Saturday, July 25, 2015

How Writing is like Kayaking

OK, writing isn't really like kayaking at all in the literal sense, aside from the fact that you're normally sitting down when you do either one. But in a much more figurative and existential sense, and definitely in how I relate to both disciplines, they have a lot in common. [For new readers: in addition to this blog and my upcoming memoir, I write fiction under the pen name Blair B. Burke] In fact, I think you can find most of these traits in just about any endeavor as long as you look for them. It's really about enjoying whatever you do.

It's Always Different

One thing you hear from kayakers is that you never paddle the same water twice. The ocean, in particular, is always changing. The same spot might be foggy and moody, bright and dynamic, mellow or challenging - all in the same day as weather changes, tide falls, and swells rise. Rivers are vastly different at different flows. An easy run of rock-dodging at low water turns into big-water play at high flows. Even your local lake changes from winter to summer, afternoon to sunset to moonlight paddle. And even if you managed to keep everything else the same, changing who you're with creates a brand new experience. The constancy of change is what draws us to the same areas time and time again.

Writing offers the same sense of wonder and exploration each and every time I sit down at the computer. Every story is new, the people in it change as it goes. If I'm writing a fight scene it's never the same style as the last one; a meeting between characters changes with their personalities. Even if I have to go back and re-write a scene that wasn't working, a single different word in the first sentence will send me down a new path and into the unknown. The only thing that gets old and repetitive is the editing, but that's the equivalent to practicing rescues. It's not always exciting and fun, but it's where you learn new things through hard work and essential if you want to improve.

It's Completely Absorbing

What draws many people to kayaking and other physical pursuits of a similar nature is the sense of being in the moment. When you're at the lip of the drop or watching the wave start to form behind you - your entire focus is on what you doing right now and what's coming in the next second. The rest of the world falls away. Last week's trials are long gone and Monday's staff meeting is too distant to even acknowledge. It feels like what being alive should feel like and the smart ones are those who bring that feeling into their everyday lives.

When I write I start with a full water bottle and snacks nearby. I know from experience that I can lose myself for hours, so much so that I'll eventually look up and realize the sun has set, I'm parched and starving, and my bladder doesn't care if I finish this chapter. You can pour all your energy into what you're doing and still come out more energized than when you started. That's pure joy.

You Travel Beautiful Places

The sheer granite walls on a high Sierra runs, the rocky coast of my local Mendocino, even a simple sunset on the lake in the middle of town - we kayakers get to see some very special sights, often in a way that no one else can. You learn to appreciate the simple and the magnificent. (One thing I will say kayaking has over writing: the pictures definitely come out better :)

If you think it's nice to travel to someplace rare and beautiful, it's even better to create it. Not all my worlds are pretty - some are grimy, filled with bad people, and lots of bad things happen. But I've gotten to go into space, go back in time, fly like a superhero and live the life of a cat. Writing is exploration, pure and simple, and it's a helluva lot cheaper with fewer security lines. And if the dreariness of a place ever gets me down I can brighten it with a couple choice words.

The People are Like Family

Kayakers are a tribe. I can go anywhere and find folks to paddle with. People I've never met will offer to not only show me the water but also the best burrito in touch and maybe a couch to crash on for the night. If I forgot something they'll lend me their spare. They don't need to know which side of the political fence I'm on, what kind of family life I have, or how often I shower. Kayakers accept each other and form a community that's at once easier and deeper than how we interact with most of the world. The friendships you form might only last for one paddle, or maybe for a lifetime. Either way they really count for something in a world where too often society is filled with bland interactions that accomplish the necessary at the cost of true meaning.

For all that writing is a solo endeavor, it has its communities too. They tend to be virtual - I have writing friends across the country and the globe who I've never met and probably never will. I also made some of my first new friends in Mendocino by joining the writing club in town. They're as diverse as kayakers, from teens just starting out and so excited to be in the club to eighty-year-olds who have written their whole life and are still happy to welcome someone new. Once again, all it takes is the knowledge that we are all involved in the same activity, that we've faced the same challenges and experienced the same joys. We have one thing in common and it's enough to build on.

It Makes the Rest of My Life Better

I'm happier when I write. I bring that joy back with me to my daily activities, and I'm a nicer, kinder, and more supportive person because of it. When life is hard I can daydream about writing. It's a refuge that protects me and a place where I can build back my energy to face the harsh realities. Yes, it can consume my time and draw me away from other people and other activities, but there are so many good things in life that we have to pick and choose of which we'll partake. Kayaking does all those things as well and I feel lucky to have found more than a single thing around which to build my life.

And that's what we all do, kayakers or writers. At least we should. Find the things that bring us joy and spend our time there. Treat everyone we meet like they're part of our community, because whether we know it or not I'm certain we have something in common. One of my kayaking friends, who passed away far too young, had the most diverse group of friends, many of whom were completely unaware that he kayaked (even though he was on the kayak polo national team with me). If there's one thing I learned from Albert, it's that everything you do can and should make you happy. Writing, kayaking, eating, dancing, laughing, working, getting married, raising kids, moving apartments, or simply waking up in the morning. Treat life like you mean it and go out there and do your thing - whatever it is.


  1. It is second nature for me now. I have made it a habit that either at home or by the campfire, I put down a few lines about the day's paddling. I have even expanded to other journals to keep track of my cross country skiing, biking and hiking outings. I like to look back, to see where I went and how I traveled down the trail that day.
    It is not for everyone, I agree, but for those who enjoy remembering their days on the water I would recommend it. It will make each trip, whether a long days journey down river or a quick outing on the lake, an odyssey.

    1. I've actually never gotten into the journaling. I don't go back and read about my old trips. The fun for me is in the sharing of the trip, even if it's just a handful of random people who read the words. So this blog is pretty much all I have for write-ups. Now pictures on the other hand...