Thursday, April 23, 2020

So There Was This Time When...

If there's anything kayakers like (almost) as much as paddling, it's telling paddling stories. Around the campfire, while sitting on the beach, or even while kayaking, we all love to share our past adventures and hear about what other people have done, be it large or small. Stories are one of the strongest bonds that tie humanity together, and while they can serve as a pleasant way to relax in good times, they also serve as a support system and a way to strengthen communities during times of stress.

As someone who's shared a lot of stories (shameless self-promotion: my kayaking memoir A PADDLER'S JOURNEY is available in paperback or ebook), I encourage everyone to take some time to write your own stories down on paper or computer. Maybe even record a video. Save your stories now while so many of us are alone and isolated and with each passing day our memories of what really happened fade a little bit more. Share them with your buddies or your local kayak club. Or save them for your kids when they get older (and can handle the truth). You'll find the process of writing or recording will force you to remember more. It will make the images clearer and the idea behind the store more forceful. It will give you more happiness in the moment and it will save some for posterity.

And as a writer and paddler I have a few pieces of advice to get the most out of your stories (caveat: feel free to ignore everything I say because what works for one person doesn't work for everyone. Find your own path).

- Think about your audience. When you're telling someone a story, that person is right in front of you and you automatically tailor what you say to who they are and how they react. Writing is different. You have to think about who you want and expect to read this. Are they a paddler? Do they know what a boof or a pourover is? Will they want to hear about a grand adventure they might never be able to do themselves or would they like to hear about something that reminds them of what they've already experienced? Do you want them to learn a little more about who you are as a person or do you want them to have a good laugh? Maybe your audience is just yourself, and you want to record your stories so you don't forget the little details later. Until you know who you are writing for it's very hard to get anything right.

- Think about the point of the story. When we're talking in real-time, we normally share a series of events that can ramble around and around, even circling back before arriving at a theme, but when you organize a story into a different medium it becomes necessary to have a point to the whole thing from the start. A thread the action carries through it. It doesn't have to be something deep and grand, but it should be something relatable. Something like: mishaps happen to the unprepared (and it's funny!); it takes courage to attempt something that will change you; friends in hard times are important. Sometimes you won't really see what your point is until you finish the story - but that's a good time to go back and start again! Which leads to the most important point:

- Editing is necessary. Everyone's first draft is pretty crappy compared to what they are capable of. You might be able to get something down on paper the first go-round that is easy to read and gets the point across, but I guarantee you will be able to improve it if you take another look and spend a little more time on it. Editing isn't everyone's favorite thing to do, and it might not be necessary if your goal is simply to record the facts, but it really is the best way to get something out of your own writing. It's when you have a chance to analyze not only what happened but how it sits in your mind and fits into the bigger picture. It allows you the creativity to change and improve how you word things. It's the core of what writing really is.

I hope you all take the time to write out your stories. Share them - you can do it here in the comments if you want. I've shared many over the years, but here's one I don't think I've told before, just to show that it doesn't have to be a long epic, it doesn't have to require near-death experiences or hilarious adventure. It just needs to connect us to the humanity in everyone.

The Best Tip

I've taught a lot of kayak classes and the particulars tend to blend together, but one sticks out not for what happened on the water but afterward. There was a mother (mid 40's) and daughter (college student) in a beginning whitewater class. Neither were great athletes or outdoor adventurers. They both did fine, as I recall, but it was clear the mother had signed them up as a bonding experience, and me and my fellow instructor were wise enough to stay out of their way and let them enjoy their time together. After our wrap-up for the two-day class the mother came over with a big smile and gave us a generous tip - more than enough for the two of them. Always nice to get some extra cash for having the sense not to work too hard.

A few minutes later, as me and my buddy were cleaning up gear, the daughter came over, a little hesitantly. She said she didn't have any money, but she was an art student and she had made a couple postcards as a class project and wanted to give each of us one. I think we all knew that a couple of river bums who lived in tiny rented rooms weren't really the art-collecting type, but we expressed our gratitude and she rushed back to her mom. I headed home and threw the card in my desk drawer.

Here's the part where you might expect me to say I still have that card. Maybe even framed it and put it up on a wall now that I have a house (and a daughter) of my own. But I don't. It's long gone. I mean, it stayed with me for half a dozen moves and it was always right there in my desk whenever I sat down to write. But years ago I needed to send a thank you note to a friend who had been there when I needed them. I knew what card to send.

You see, the card had made me feel good about myself for having helped another person feel a little joy. It only seemed proper to send it along to give someone else that same feeling of satisfaction and gratitude. And that's my tip to you: art is meant to be shared, and in so doing it honors both the giver and the receiver.

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