Friday, June 25, 2010

In Praise of a Writing Journal

I've never been a journal keeper. Maybe it's because, as a leftie, I could never manage to get my hand into those tiny little books with the metal clasps. And even if I could, the lines in those things were so infinitesimally spaced…well, let's just say I'm still a wide-ruled girl. Plus my personal idea of hell is to think that anyone can read my mind and, for me, a journal just seemed a doorway to that netherworld.

During the writing of Storyteller, however, I had so many story ideas and worries and enthusiasms bouncing around at once, I decided to break down and carry a composition notebook around with me. Who knew I would love it? Having all my ideas in one place? What is this "organization" thing you speak of? Unfortunately, many of the pages have lines like "no words today - boo" or cryptic messages like "Don't forget the Cheerios under the seat!" I kept it through Storyteller, its sequel The Reaches, a nonsensical NaNoWriMo project and the ill-fated mystery endeavor. I'm into my third notebook now just as I'm starting my newest project and have discovered the real beauty of the journals.

"I've been here before." You know that feeling at the start of a new, exciting writing project when it feels just like someone drops you in the middle of Kansas and says "Now get to the Grand Canyon! Pronto!" You're psyched! You love the Grand Canyon and you have a pretty good idea where it is from here. You get ready to take that first step… and all you see is wheat. Miles and miles of wheat. And that voice pops up and says "You can't get there from here."

Pull out the old journals. Writing periods I remember as effortless or story arcs that seemed to me now to have grown out organic and smooth are remembered quite differently up close in the notebooks. Days and weeks of anxiety and despair and false starts and weird go-nowhere ideas take up pages and pages of the journal. I see a million tangents that got weeded out after they had helped bridge difficult passages; I see periods of frustration that were just hammered through with brute force. I see moments of elation when things finally picked up steam. Mostly, though, I see that I made it. Again and again, I wrote my way from start to finish, each time convinced this would be my last time.

Like the journals themselves, the stories were messy and flawed and full of missteps. Unlike the journals, however, they have been edited and tweaked and cleaned up so nobody has to know their ugly childhoods. Their beauty comes from their polish. The journals' beauty comes from their rough ugliness, from the crazy and sometimes pathetic desperation scrawled through their pages. "I've been here before" and my journals have the scars to prove it. Consider me converted to the world of the writing journal.

Now if you'll just point me in a west/southwesterly direction, I've got a Grand Canyon to see.

Monday, June 14, 2010


FEAR. There's a word for ya. Good fear, bad fear, deep fear, hidden fear. I am of the belief there are only two real emotions in the human heart – love and fear. Today I'm talking about fear.

It all started because a friend of a friend decided she needed to start a "bucket list." (May I nominate that phrase for most annoying phrase/concept since "cool beans" and "think outside the box?" In my humble opinion, writing out a bucket list gives unnecessary gravitas to ridiculous but fun things, like getting laid in Vegas, while trivializing difficult achievements, like becoming fluent in Hungarian. And, even worse, it gives people an excuse to put off doing the things they'd like to be doing if they would just conquer their own fear and inertia. "I can't do it now, my show's on, but it's on my bucket list!" Sorry, I should save this for another blog.)

Anyway, my friend's bucket list contained white water rafting on the New River in Fayette County, WV. I live in WV and have always felt a sort of secret shame that I had never partaken of one of my state's most famous and exciting activities, but to be honest, the thought of it scared the piss out of me. I don't really know why. I can swim; I'm not scared of water, but there are some serious Class Five rapids and, well, I like breathing. But the opportunity presented itself and I agreed to go, fear be damned. We also decided that, as a reward for bravely facing the lower New River in spring, we would treat ourselves to the newly opened zip line canopy tour that ranged across the gorge. A good plan, right?


I received two excellent pieces of advice before we left to raft. One, your paddle in the water will keep you in the boat. (Thanks, Melanie.) Two, listen to everything your guide tells you. I concentrated so hard on every word out of our guide's mouth I nearly set him on fire with my mind. I don't really know how or why it happened, but on that long, winding bus ride down the gorge to the launch site, my fear grew from anxiety to white-knuckle terror but part of my brain (probably the part that didn't want to be laughed at by the 11 year old kid in the raft with me) told me to stare down that fear, to fight through it. Or rather, paddle through it. We came upon the first real rapid of the day, a Class Three with a Class Five hole at the bottom, aptly named "Surprise" and what do you know? I did exactly what our guide told us, paddled like hell and came out on the other side laughing my head off and immediately in love with white water rafting. In every picture of me on that river, I am grinning like a baboon.

Fear of the unknown conquered by facing it head on. Check.

Skip ahead to the next day. Our adrenaline glands had gotten a well deserved rest. We suited up for the tree-top canopy zip-line. Three hours of gorgeous sailing over the beautiful New River Gorge. I had a few little butterflies but mostly I was pumped. After all, I had jumped out of an airplane the year before and I had just upped my bravery quotient by successfully rafting the Lower New River. I was ready! The fact that thunder clouds were rolling in over the mountains only gave me slight pause. The tour was rain or shine. I was in.

It started with a ground-school. These people take their customers' safety very seriously and they make sure everyone understands exactly how to do what they are going to spend the next three hours doing. We were clamped onto a pair of wires in a rather complicated series of carabineers, given instructions on breaking and steering and self-rescuing should we not complete the zips, one of which would be over 730 feet long. I watched my friends go first, zip lining over the perilous height of four feet. I learned from their mistakes. I felt confident in my ability to follow the directions. And then I felt this sick little worm of fear begin to twist inside of me. I thought maybe it was just a left over from the day before, or perhaps an unfortunate habit of fear that I might have picked up somewhere, like a cold sore. I took my turn on the ground-school line successfully and told that little evil worm of fear to buzz off. I had come to zip line and zip I would!

The first zip was 100 feet long heading right out into the gorge. The landing platform was easily thirty feet up in a sturdy hemlock and if you don't think that's high, well, think again. I could feel the adrenaline pumping as I watched friend after friend zip across the chasm with varying degrees of success, all laughing, all whooping it up. When I stood on the launch stump, harness hooked in, palms sweaty, heart pumping, I told myself I was going to face this new fear, this new shade of unknown, and I was going to zip my ass all the way across that gorge.

And I zipped. I kept my ankles crossed; I braked softly when instructed; I steered as true as an arrow and landed perfectly on the second platform. And do you know what I learned in that one jubilant instant? That I hate zip lining. The guide congratulated me, hooked me to the safety belt to prepare for the next zip and looked genuinely shocked when I said I wanted off the platform. There was one more zip to go before the rescue line and the guide assured me that once I did it again, I'd get over my nerves. After all, she told me, you're doing really well. And so we zipped again. Another 100 feet, another easy, straight, fast dead-on landing. And the transformation of my dislike of zip lining into outright loathing. The storm was blowing in. The hemlocks were swaying and I was fully prepared to scamper down that tree like a squirrel if need be. The guide told me to trust my equipment. I told the guide several words that rhyme with "duck" and the rescue line was prepared.

Did I regret bailing on my adventure after only two short zips, ignoring the guides promises that I would come to love the activity? Not for a heartbeat. The gentle man on the ground who plucked us from the rescue line (I was not alone in this defection) told me that I had made the right decision. He said "Honey, if you don't like it by now, you're gonna hate it in three hours." Truer words were never spoken. And when I saw the face of my best friend, who is perhaps the bravest, boldest, ballsiest woman I have ever known, when she returned from three hours zipping through the gorge in a driving rain storm – well, I congratulated myself on making the right decision.

What's the message here? One, don't invite me zip lining. But two, all fear is not bad fear but all fear must be faced. Some things you fear because they've become big boogey monsters in your head and when you right up to them, they're nothing more than ghosts. Some things you fear because when you get right up on them, they are indeed scarier than hell. But you won't know until you get right up on them and that is usually the scariest step of all. And whether you fight or flee, you can at least know you were brave enough to take that step in the first place.