Rudders and Oars
On my keelboat trip after Christmas, we had a routine governed by a tiny brass hourglass that hung in the cabin, just within the sight of the rowing team. We sat for duty on our benches facing the stern of the boat, side by side, watching the sand trickle, grasping and pulling on our heavy 18-foot-long wooden oars.
The captain would flip the glass every 30 minutes. For our hour-long turns to row, we took our places on the port or starboard side of a bench, and grasped the oars resting in the pins. Starboard (right side) oars had red paint, and port oars (left side) had green. Based on our positions, we rowed together to propel the boat forward–down the unseen river behind us. That took a little getting used to.
We’d listen for instructions from the helmsman who, at the rudder, and behind the cabin, was out of sight. He stood looking from the stern, over and around the cabin, and downriver. He guided our boat around bends, away from sandbars, along the current, and often against gusts that seemed to think our little cabin was a sail. It often seemed to be a mean wind.
Our trip took advantage of the current, and our general direction was clear…we were going downriver. But, like the writing life, rivers have bends. They have sandbars. They carry along logs and debris. And are often visited by mean winds.
As I began my first keelboat rowing experience, I realized that just moving with the current isn’t sufficient. It became obvious that movement within the current–faster than the movement of the water around us–was pretty critical to the helmsman being able to direct us with the rudder!
A rudder does nothing, and has no effect, unless it is moving through the water around it. That, my friend, requires the boat to move faster than any current it is in. To navigate to port or starboard (and indeed to turn about if we lose an oar, or a push pole), we must move through even moving water to steer.
This applies so readily to my writing life. I’ve been writing seriously now for some six years. I discovered early the adventure of the on-line, elbow-to-elbow, and face-to-face writing community. My writing friendships are priceless. I am challenged, encouraged, and urged forward.
But it’s not enough to ride, if I want to steer around obstacles (like life happening). It’s not enough to just float if I want to keep from beaching on a sandbar (writing slump). My writing life requires rowing.
Rowing will carry me purposefully and deliberately through my writing life. Sometimes I can flow gently with the current. But sometimes I need to break away from mid-stream. Sometimes I need to choose which angle in the river my boat moves. The winds and gusts of life try to blow my writing life into a steep muddy bank. But in every circumstance, I need to row, row hard, to pull my rudder through whatever water I’m in, to allow my helmsman to steer my chosen course.
That means writing not only in-stream, but through-stream. Writing not just for the current (my writing peers around me, the community of writers I travel this river with), but for my own journey. I’ve recognized the voice I hear, the helmsman standing there, grasping the rudder at the stern, calling out commands. He is my own writing heart. I need to hear my helmsman, and row as ordered, for my situation: day-by-day exercises, a promising work-in-progress, or an inspired idea. My heart stands at the stern and sees over me, to the river coming into view behind my back He sees all the distracting dangers it may hold, and the course I need to avoid them. I need to write accordingly.
“Make-way all!” “Hold water, green!” “Pull hard, red!” These gruff-voiced calls still ring out loud in my river experience memory, and I now have them embedded in my writing perspective.
There is nothing I am enjoying better in life now than my river trip, and the current of my writing community. In the history I like to write about, rivers were roads…they were often the only way to get anywhere. I know I can’t leave the river. I just have to learn to navigate it well.
Often writers say among ourselves, “I need to get my B-I-C (butt-in-chair) and write!”
By this rich metaphor I’ve had the privilege to experience, I say, “I need to get my B-O-B (butt-on-bench), and ROW!”