Sunday, July 16, 2006

White Water

In Down the Great Unknown, Edward Dolnick writes about John Wesley Powell and his crew of nine men whose exploration in 1869 took them down the Colorado River into the unknown terrain of the Grand Canyon.

As they set off in their wooden rowboats, Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran, and his men had no idea what they would find because no one before them had mapped the Colorado River.

Each stage of the journey brought them into new and dangerous territory. The men never knew if another raging rapid was waiting for them around the bend or, worse, a waterfall that would plunge them to their deaths.

"Roughly speaking," writes Dolnick, "the danger in most rivers is dodging the rocks, whereas the danger in the Colorado is coping with the force of tons of water forming towering waves and holes ten feet deep and whirlpools like light-devouring black holes."

How many of us feel that we're facing similar dangers as we embark on new writing projects?

Of course, we expect to run into a few bumpy stretches as we push off into an unknown river, don't we?

Yet, like Powell and his men, we set off bravely into the water, letting the current take us.

And we spin downstream, paddling fast, spray spitting into our faces, hoping that we'll manage to evade most, if not all, of the rocks hidden beneath the surface as we navigate our way downstream.

But what happens when we encounter an unexpected wave that threatens to overturn our craft?

Or when we crash into sudden whirpools, like "light-devouring black holes," that can scuttle a project before it's even on paper?

When one of Powell's boats is caught in just such a wicked whirlpool, Sumner, one of the rowers, describes the experience afterward in the journal that he kept during the trip:

"...Dunn and I could not pull out of it to save our lives. It spun us round like a roulette wheel. I thought I saw a chance to get out as the boat spun round past a rock about thirty feet away. Seizing the rope in my teeth, I made a desperate plunge. Good lively swimming, combined with the momentum of my jump, enabled me to make the rock by a scratch. Seizing it with a death grip, I was able to pull the bow of the boat out of the swirl, whereupon it shot ahead like a scared rabbit."

In the same way that Sumner and his crew survive this whirlpool, writers have to find ways to swim through the black holes that threaten to engulf us and our projects.

Sumner relies on his wits under stress, letting the current spin him (because it's futile to fight it), and takes advantage of a rock that appears thirty feet away.

Using only the tools at his disposal--a rope and his teeth--he manages to reach the rock by jumping from the boat and swimming hard, then, once on "safe" ground, pulling the boat out of danger.

Isn't this what we must do as writers?

We let the current take us (especially if it's a powerful current), and, when finding ourselves in danger, use the tools at hand to swim for "safe" ground, even if it's only a rock in mid-stream, so that we can pull ourselves to safety and continue on our journey down the river.

"Such hazards make river running a high-stakes game of pinball, with the caveat that the boatman is both the player and the ball," writes Dolnick.

His words couldn't be more true for writers.

Listen to how Dolnick describes the art of running the river:

"The art in river running consists not in trying to outmuscle the river--no human stands a chance in that test of strength--but in identifying a path that leads smoothly downstream..."

And this:

"The trickiest zones are at the junctions where two 'moving sidewalks' merge or collide or interact in some still stranger way. The catch is that often the boatman must seek out these junctions, intentionally moving into harm's way, in order to maneuver downstream."

Like the boatmen, a writer sometimes need to move into "harm's way" intentionally in order to find the path that leads deeper into the story.

"The important thing to remember is that you're dancing with the river," John Running, a modern-day boatman, tells Dolnick, "and you're not leading."

Writing is a high-stakes game, too, and it's only by our wits and luck that we manage to make it down the river without capsizing or losing our boats against cliff walls or rocks threatening to break them apart.

Just like Powell and his crew, we're likely to find ourselves in trouble simply because it's the nature of the writing process.

Here's how Powell wrote about the dangers that he and his crew faced at a particularly troublesome spot on the river called Sockdolager (a 19th century expression for a crushing blow or knockout punch):

"Down in these grand, gloomy depths we glide, ever listening, for the mad waters keep up their roar; ever watching, ever peering ahead, for the narrow canyon is winding, and the river is closed in so that we can see but a few hundred yards, and what there may be below we know not."

He had no idea what lay beyond his sight, yet he kept going...

So, the next time that you find yourself gliding through the "gloomy depths" of your own project, not knowing what waits ahead, don't give into despair.

Think of Powell and his crew as they explored the "mad waters" of the Grand Canyon, not knowing if the next bend would lead them to their deaths or to the next rapid or to their goal of reaching the end of the canyon.

Somehow they found the inner resources and physical endurance to reach a place beyond which they'd never gone before.

And, like these early adventurers, you can find your way, too.

As for Dolnick's book, it's as suspenseful as any adventure novel, and written with as much grace and power as the Colorado River itself.

Not only is it a fascinating account of one of America's great expeditions, it's a sobering reminder of the risks that explorers--whether boatmen running unknown rivers or writers rafting down the unknown corridors of their imagination--take every day.

Most of all, it's an important testament to the perseverance, skill, luck, and courage that anyone needs when setting off into the unknown.

* * *

Down the Great Unknown: John Wesley Powell's 1869 Journey of Discovery and Tragedy Through the Grand Canyon is written by Edward Dolnick, the former chief science writer at the Boston Globe. He has written for The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, and the Washington Post. To hear an NPR interview with Dolnick about the Powell expedition, check out:

1 comment:

jo'r said...

Sometimes writing really is a little like voyaging down an untamed river. I’m reminded of characters that I’ve launched along supposedly well-outlined, hopefully exciting, but ‘fully-approved-by-the-author’ excursions, and along the way the character was sucked into an unexpected whirlpool of morally and/or physically ominous situations. Those were times to break into a sweat, and wonder about whether this was what I really wanted for my YA protagonist and her reader. Then, like Sumner, I was the one grabbing a rope, leaping for the rock, and hoping that together with my protagonist we could do a good, literary job of pulling our story free. I may still have looked at it for days afterward, wondering if the episode should stay in the recorded journal/story, but even if it didn’t, I think it probably influenced the voyage the character and I ultimately shared.