On Writing: Running Through the Rapids


I have a good friend named Aaron that took me on a camping trip early one summer. We were camping on the edge of a small, shallow river. Along the way our canoe would sometimes bottom out and we’d need to get out and walk along the rocks to guide it back toward deeper water. Aaron seemed as comfortable walking or running barefoot along the slippery rocks as he did on dry land but I was unsteady and terrified of falling. I watched Aaron bounce across the river, surefooted, almost cocky, while I teetered standing in one place. I think about Aaron gracefully skipping across those rocks with a can of beer in his hand and the practice and poise of some kind of magical hillbilly ballerina a lot. What really sticks out for me is that I don’t remember him looking down and I don’t remember him hesitating.

When you stop and really think about it, the mechanics of walking are mind-boggling. Your senses and your muscles team-up, tense and flex in just the perfect way, from your toes to your inner ear and if you had to describe exactly you were doing, you’d never be able to do it. This simple verb that most of us take very much for granted is one of the most elegant and sophisticated things we do in any given day. We learn to walk when we’re very young, before the mind becomes fixated on explaining things. We learn it by watching others walk, by trying and falling and ultimately just doing it enough times that our bodies remember. We learn to walk because we know we can before we even try. We just need to figure out how. Balance is all about muscle memory and muscle memory is all about repetition and practice. Aaron can skip across those rocks partially because he’s done it a million times. You don’t learn to walk or run across slick rocks or to write without putting in the time.

Writing isn’t an ephemeral gift that some people have and others don’t. It’s a discipline and a practice but it also must be more and less than that. Writing is a complicated verb that requires a lot of elegant and sophisticated things all working together but unlike walking we learn to write after our brains have already fallen into the trap of over-analysis. If you try to think about writing too much, you can’t do it properly. If you hesitate on those rocks you’ll slip and fall in. Creative inspiration isn’t something that comes from nowhere; it’s your muscle memory telling you where to go next.

I try to write the way Aaron ran across those rocks in the Siletz river but from time to time I still stumble and flail around. Creativity is an unconscious process like walking is an unconscious process. You have to be able to do it without being able to explain how. You can practice. You can make yourself stronger. You can watch others. But ultimately when you’re alone with your story you just have to move without hesitation, without looking down, and trust that your experience is enough to get you to shore.

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