Follow The River, No Matter Its Rapids, No Matter Its Turns

Follow The River, No Matter Its Rapids, No Matter Its Turns

It’s a lot right now.

I think if we can agree on anything, anything at all between us, it’s that everything is a whole lot. It’s too much. It’s a pandemic and an election and protests (which are good!) and we’re all trapped in a glowing LeMarchand’s Box with Trump and there’s climate change on the near horizon and did I mention there’s a pandemic? A big, scary, lung-punching, brain-tweaking pandemic? If you’re not screaming into a couch cushion soaked with gin right now, who even are you?

There’s been renewed interest in a post I wrote in 2017 — Ways to Stay Motivated in this Shit-Shellacked Era of Stupid — and with the rise on views on that post, there’s also been a renewed bevy of emails headed by way from writers who are foundering and floundering in all of this *gesticulates wildly* going on around us. Certainly these emails echo my own mindset, which is — after a garbled gargle of inchoate rage and bewilderment — how are we supposed to write during this? How the hell am I supposed to put pen to paper, fingers to keys, and type out something that is even vaguely cogent, much less even a little bit escapist? How are sentences not just strings of profanity and ASCII garbage, how are our stories not just 300 pages of wasps stinging ignorant bigots in their mouths? How do you not type with your fists, how do you not tell these stories through your clenched and cracking teeth? How are our books not just screams?

And I don’t…

…have a great answer for that.

Because there is no great answer. There is only — as there often is in hospitals right now — triage. We’re all just trying to hold it together. Deadlines or no deadlines, the words must flow, but sometimes it’s a trickle, and sometimes it’s a violent bar-night vomiting.

But here’s what I’m thinking.

I’m thinking all of this is a river. It’s a dark, fast river. It crawls serpentine through the earth, through the forests. Sometimes it moves slow, other times it’s all rapids. Sometimes it is eerily serene, and sometimes it’s rough enough to knock your teeth into your knees and draw blood. It’s waterfalls and eddies, it’s deep and it’s cold. Like all rivers, it can soothe you, and it can betray you.

This river, the river we’re in and on now — it’s harder, meaner, a river after a flood, a river whose waters are not sated, who will not abate. It’s mudded up and frothing like the muzzle of a rabid wolf.

You can fight against that river.

We often do, in writing. We often go against our own moods, against the news of the world, against bad reviews and against poisoned thinking. Our work is often an act of anchoring our boots against the soft slick weeds and the water-smoothed stones and move against the current.

Upstream, stories can be born.

Sometimes, though, I think you gotta do the other thing.

Sometimes, you go the other way.

You go with the flow.

You run with the river, not against it.

And what that means, practically speaking is, you let it happen. What you’re feeling, what you’re seeing, sometimes those elements demand to be seen in the work. Sometimes the river is the channel that feeds the narrative sea, and that means you need to put it in there, out there, all over it. You don’t escape. You confront. You ride the turns, you rough out the rapids, you take all your fear and your anger and your confusion and you put it on the page. And not even in a way of trying to write something that’s marketable or sellable — but just trying to speak honestly about who you are, about the world in which we’re living, and about your grappling with all of it. It’s not even about writing a cogent book or a collective piece. It can be about taking the time to punch that keyboard and scream onto the page — if only to clear the water and find time to climb back onto shore to write something else. It can be the thing you’re writing, or it can be a way to get to the thing you’re writing.

I don’t mean to suggest this as good “advice” — it’s certainly no requirement. You have to do what feels best and right — and, further, what feels most productive in the direction you need to be going. I’m only saying that, if it’s that much of a slog, if the slow churning march upriver and against the current feels like you’re fighting too hard and losing to the pressure, turn around and go the other way. Sometimes we want to, even need to, write about what’s going on inside our heads and our hearts. Sometimes we can’t ignore the room on fire. Sometimes we can’t get out of the river or go against it. And in those cases, let the waters take you. Write what needs to be written. Write what the river tells you to write. Follow the water, and see where you go.

(P.S.? You can always edit it later.)


26 responses to “Follow The River, No Matter Its Rapids, No Matter Its Turns”

  1. I can’t imagine being someone who is trying to write real stuff these days. I have trouble writing my on my boring little blog. Some days I have trouble even reading.

    • I haven’t written anything in about 5 years. Work took up a lot of space, then came 2016, then, well…it was downhill from there. Work still takes up a lot of space, and now I get to worry about getting laid off (there’s an assessment coming!), or whether my now college graduate son (class of 2020) will ever find a job. Read? Nope, just the soul sucking news. WRITE??? An even bigger nope.

      When you said “have trouble reading”, my first thought is “I’m sorry”, and my 2nd is “me too!”

    • I’ve struggled to continue working on my w-i-p since this pandemic began. Funny how it works, but I’ve gradually lost the urge to write about a bunch of characters in a dystopian world locked up in an underground bunker, by a bunch of medical-type people who are trying to keep them ‘safe’ from the outside world…

  2. As a student, it has become more difficult to focus on my writing assignments. There is a dark pall to my writing these days, nothing happy or positive. Even when I go looking, still nothing really happy or positive. But still I write.

  3. I don’t know how you do it, Chuck, but somehow you always seem to write exactly what I need to read precisely when I need to read it.
    Thank you.

  4. I love this, will clip it and tape it on my screen frame…
    “ Our work is often an act of anchoring our boots against the soft slick weeds and the water-smoothed stones and move against the current.

    Upstream, stories can be born.“ Thank you for this post, the image of river. You’ve Inspired.

  5. Was a year ago today I finished Wanderers. A year later and we’re living it. Triage is a good idea, but these days it’s not great to attack the worst until getting to the simpler. Don’t be hesitant to pick off the easier items for a sense of relief and progress.

  6. I am doing a lot of punctuated chase-the-wordcount writing… write what I can, and then… bake something. Knit something. Take a walk. Play with the kitten. Avoid the fuck out of media, social and otherwise, while I’m doing any of those other things.

  7. This. The river is something I can understand, something I can work with (or against, or flail underneath the surface of.) Thank you.

  8. Thanks. I seriously needed that.

    One interesting part of my fiction writing I’ve noticed during all of this is that I’ve been spending a lot of time editing old work I finished before all this shit hit. I tell myself that’s just where I am in “the process,” I’ve finally hit editing time. But I wonder.

    I don’t know if I’m really sure how to make a book right now that’s not full of people mask shaming and committing suicide in the most creative of ways. I did a full outline for a new novel idea, but it’s just that…an outline. I guess I just have to believe I’ll get there again.

    On the plus side (knock on wood), I’ve been going gangbusters on the non-fiction work. Facts are just…anchoring, I guess?

  9. What if the world isn’t the river, or these troubled times aren’t the river, but what if the writing is the river? I saw this passage then, in a different light — “I’m thinking all of this is a river. It’s a dark, fast river. It crawls serpentine through the earth, through the forests. Sometimes it moves slow, other times it’s all rapids. Sometimes it is eerily serene, and sometimes it’s rough enough to knock your teeth into your knees and draw blood. It’s waterfalls and eddies, it’s deep and it’s cold. Like all rivers, it can soothe you, and it can betray you.”

  10. This is so good! My rage (AKA the rapids) is coming in handy right now in my writing, but I alternate between that and late-night Netflix binge-watching.

  11. LeMarchand’s Box, indeed. You’re absolutely right that we sometimes have to ride the current and follow where it goes.

    I’ll do my best. Hopefully everyone else can do likewise.

  12. I can relate to this with my own writing. Usually when I’m starting a new blog post article thing for my website, I’ll only have a vague, germ of an idea for it. The rest of the content gets shaped as I’m writing it. It’s as if I have to begin writing down my basic ideas on paper, and only then will the mental floodgates open like a free-flowing beer barrel.

  13. Another way is to sit on the banks quietly and watch the river flow, with a tranquil mind. It is called “thatasth”(being on the banks) in Sanskrit. That is being a witness to the flow of life.

  14. I love everything you wrote here – for its verity and prose. I tried to pick out my favorite parts and I can’t. I love the whole effing thing – every word, comma – every blasted part of it! I’m going to print it and hang it on a wall in my office.

    I have been writing because: a) I ignore as much of the news as possible; and b) my writing (good or bad) allows me to vent, and most of the time, gives me the feeling that I’m actually doing something (what a concept) – other than panicking. Who knows what will come of what I write today, but I’m sitting down and doing it. I’ve lost 30% of my “day job” money and I’ve cut back on a lot of things. I have gone swimming in the pool of despair. Then I climb out and sit my butt in the chair and get back to doing the work. As usual, you hit the nail on the head, you are awesome, and you are ONE HELL OF A GREAT WRITER! Thanks for all of it! Stay safe and well, Chuck!

  15. Thank you for this piece, it came at a time where I needed it most. I’ve been, floundering would be the word that fits I think, with my writing as of late. I make sure to get as much onto my Evernote drawer as possible–some days it’s a chore to slog out one hundred words–others it’s like drinking from a firehose.
    I wonder though, I haven’t published anything for fear of someone discovering how shitty my writing is. Do I throw it against the wall, and let everyone see how it splatters?

  16. “If you’re not screaming into a couch cushion soaked with gin right now, who even are you?”

    Good question. Well, I’m someone who is not screaming into the gin-soaked couch cushion, but that’s because I’ve developed my own version of that kind of rage. Still, thanks for asking. I love this post. I live in a very small town in the West, and I find myself wanting to scream (whenever I go out among people, which is seldom) “WTF? Who even ARE you?” into virtually everyone’s maskless faces.

    My feelings of despair have been especially deep today, so I’m glad I read this post. It helped. Thank you.

    And thank you for Wanderers. I read it in March, and I think about it often. I find myself having mental conversations with some of the characters, and with you, Chuck. What a great book. I just wish you hadn’t been so prescient. Still, thanks for the way you reach out to the rest of us. Please keep doing it.

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