Friday, February 14, 2014

Writing Wild.

Two summers ago, I spent a week kayaking in the Tongass National Forest wilderness with two rangers and a photographer, Irene Owsley. Irene and I were artists in residence, there to experience the Tracy Arm Ford's Terror wilderness and create art from that experience. As soon as we landed in Holkham Bay, Irene got busy with her camera and tripod and an array of gear. Me, I sat on a rock and stared at the water.

A writing friend once noted that writers often look like they're just wasting time when really they're working. Being a writer means spending lots of time thinking, imagining, noticing, experiencing, staring out a window, she said, but to others it looks like you're just, well, staring out a window.

And that's why I sometimes felt awkward on that kayak trip. Irene was so obviously working, sitting under her umbrella changing lenses, switching filters, clicking away, while I mostly looked like I was goofing off. Sure, I had my rite-in-the-rain pad and pencil always at the ready, and scribbled whatever little image or phrase surfaced in my consciousness, but mostly I was just there, kayaking, looking, listening, letting my hand dip into the cool glacial waters. Not until I got home did I get down to the part of writing that looks like work.




So, on this past summer's kayak trip to Shuyak Island in the Kodiak Archipelago, I did my usual thing: while out there, I was just there. Rite-in-rain pad, check, and morning pages most days, check, but mostly I just soaked up the experience like the sphagnum moss that lined the edges of forest and pond. I paddled through sea otters bobbing among bull kelp so thick it was like paddling through spaghetti; I walked outer coast beaches resplendent with wildflowers and washed up treasures; I climbed into old-growth Sitka spruce forest, padding upon layers of moss so soft I could have slept away my life there; I brushed my teeth at water's edge while watching barnacles and sea stars and hermit crabs carry out their lives.

This trip didn't come with any outside expectations that I would create anything from it, since it wasn't an artist residency but was simply an adventure with three friends (one of whom, Carol Hult, is also a writer.) Still, I did what I always do: soaked it up, scribbled down a few things, and then, once home, stared at a blank page.

After an adventure, I try to devote at least a full week's worth of writing time focusing on nothing but that adventure time. I want to do it right away while the experience is still so fresh in my mind that the seas still sway me and the forest wet still drips on my head. I sit in my familiar office, in front of my familiar blank screen, and let the images flow. I recreate scenes. I capture bits of conversations. I describe each day with the detail of a diary entry, eyes open to the outer events of the day and the inner responses of my own mind and heart. I move from this sort of freewriting into essays, poems, short stories, scenes for a novel... I let the work take shape as it wants. In the poet
A.R. Ammons' words, I "look for the forms/things want to come as."




This pattern works for me. For the Tongass trip, I ended up with two poems, an essay, and a magazine article that was published in Canoe and Kayak magazine and graced with Irene's incredible photographs. For the Shuyak trip, so far I've got a brief essay and three poems. I'll share below one of the poems, as long as you promise to see it as a work in progress, but one that nonetheless captures some of the feel of that time on the water.

The Outer Coast

I have dreamed
this have dreamed
long swells rocking
and the light swaying
westward have

dreamed the round blue
of sea meeting nothing
but lambent sky. from
where this longing for
something beyond the
familiar? where
this dream of floating
far from what I love
to call my own? remote
as stars glinting among
undulations of kelp
these seas and yet
home to some deep
sounding of the heart,
a primigenial memory
of a time when I, like
these moon jellies I
paddle softly through,
spent my days adrift
aimlessly aimed for what
i could not yet see.