I wanted to post another chapter before I left for Nashville. I actually posted a good chunk of this chapter a couple months ago, but seeing as I turned in all the final edits yesterday, I thought I’d post the entire thing. It’s a short chapter, but it’s gotten some good feedback. There’s a small section in the middle of the chapter that calls back to an earlier chapter in the book. I attended a Robert McKee seminar, and in one of his lectures he addresses the power of conflict as a means of changing a character.
Thanks for helping me edit this book. Earlier I posed a few chapters, and based on your feedback made some critical changes, included excluding an entire chapter that some of you felt was confusing. Here’s another sample.
P.S. While in Nashville this week, I won’t be able to moderate comments. But when I get back, I’ll post them all in a flood.
The Thing about a Crossing
It’s like this when you live a story: The first part happens fast. You throw yourself into the narrative and you’re finally out in the water; the shore is pushing off behind you and the trees are getting smaller. The distant shore doesn’t seem so far, and you can feel the resolution coming, the feeling of getting out of your boat and walking the distant beach. You think the thing is going to happen fast, that you’ll paddle for a bit and arrive on the other side by lunch. But the truth is it isn’t going to be over soon.
The reward you get from a story is always less than you thought it would be, and the work is harder than you imagined. The point a story is never about the ending, remember, it’s about your character getting molded in the hard work of the middle. At some point the shore behind you stops getting smaller, and you paddle and wonder why the same strokes that used to move you now only rock the boat. You got the wife, but you don’t know if you like her anymore and you’ve only been married five years. You want to wake up and walk into the living room in your underwear and watch football and let your daughters play with the dog because the far shore doesn’t get closer no matter how hard you paddle.
The shore you left is just as distant and there is no going back; there is only the decision to paddle in place or stop, slide out of the hatch, and sink into the sea. Maybe there’s another story at the bottom of the sea? Maybe you don’t have to be in this story anymore.
It’s been like this with all my crossings. I have a couple of boats and every couple years I take them to Orcas Island and make the crossing from Orcas to Sucia, and it’s always the same about leaving the shore so fast and getting to the middle and paddling in place for hours.
I knew it would be like that when we crossed the country on bikes too. I sent in my paperwork and did my miles in the mountains here in Oregon and showed up in Los Angeles, knowing we would start fast, that the Pacific would fade behind us and we’d be in Phoenix by sunset and then we’d spend the life of Moses crossing Texas and the Delta, and it happened just like I thought it would. We grew into the roads, and the roads are where we lived. We slept in rock quarries and on the doorsteps of churches. I slept on the floor of a convenience store just off the caprock in Texas. I put my head by the beer case to get some cold air and it didn’t matter that I had a condo back home or a bed, because you become the character in the story you are living and whatever you were is gone. None of us thought the bike trip would end. We never felt like we were getting closer to the Atlantic Ocean. Even in Virginia, we felt as far as Louisiana.
The night we left Bob’s dock, I didn’t want to paddle through the night or across the wide inlet. We didn’t leave his dock till after midnight, and we had to paddle for hours through the pitch black, and in the middle the inlet was so large and the dark was so dark we couldn’t make out either shore. We had to guide ourselves by stars, each boat gliding close to another, just the sound of our oars coming in and out of the water to keep us close.
I think this is when most people give up on their stories. They come out of college wanting to change the world, wanting to get married, wanting to have kids and change the way people buy office supplies. But they get into the middle and discover it was harder than they thought. They can’t see the distant shore anymore, and they wonder if their paddling is moving them forward. None of the trees behind them are getting smaller and none of the trees ahead are getting bigger. They take it out on their spouse, and they go looking for an easier story.
Robert McKee put down his coffee cup and leaned onto the podium. He put his hand on his forehead and wiped back his gray hair. He said, “You have to go there. You have to take your character to the place where he just can’t take it anymore.” He looked at us with a tenderness we hadn’t seen in him before. “You’ve been there, haven’t you? You’ve been out on the ledge. The marriage is over now; the dream is over now; nothing good can come from this.”
He got louder. “Writing a story isn’t about making your peaceful fantasies come true. The whole point of the story is the character arc. You didn’t think joy could change a person, did you? Joy is what you feel when the conflict is over. But it’s conflict that changes a person.”
His voice was like thunder now. “You put your characters through hell. You put them through hell. That’s the only way we change.”
My friend Josh Shipp is one of the greatest communicators I’ve heard. He’s only in his twenties but speaks around the country at high schools, and has even made appearances on MTV. Kids love him because he is funny and direct. Josh grew up in more than twenty foster homes, never knowing his real parents. And yet he is incredibly successful. I asked Josh why he’s so healthy, so emotionally stable considering his childhood. Josh told me something I’ll never forget. He said Don, when something hard happens to you, you have two choices in how to deal with it. You can either get bitter, or you get better. I chose to get better. It’s made all the difference.
If it weren’t for the other guys in the kayak, I would have quit that night. We’d gotten up before sunrise, spent the day at Bob’s, and were paddling now nearly twenty-four hours later. If it weren’t for the other guys I would have lay down in my hatch and slept and drifted out with the tide. But hours after I thought we’d arrive, I made out the gray wall of the cliff face on my right. We were close to it before we saw it, and it was like the walls of an ancient cathedral; our sounds were coming back at us off the rock. We had to follow the cliff to another, smaller crossing where there was a beach we’d made camp at on the way to the back of the inlet.
Then one of the guides pointed out bioluminescence was happening. He dropped his paddle into the water and what looked like sparks splashed and some of them floated like embers on top of the water. We all looked at our paddles and stirred them around in the water and there in the darkness the ocean glowed. The further we paddled into the opening, the darker the water and the brighter the bioluminescence became. We could see each other now because there were comet trails behind our boats, and there were sparks flying off our bows and onto our spray skirts, so bright you thought you needed to wipe them for fear they would burn the fabric.
It was four in the morning but we were energized by the ocean. As we got closer to the other shore, there were a million fish swimming beneath our boats, each leaving a trail, and the ocean was flashing from beneath us as though fireworks were going off in the water. “I’ve never seen it like this,” one of our guides said. He said he’d seen the ocean glow when you splashed your paddle, but he’d never seen the fish light up the water from underneath. When we were a hundred yards from shore and paddling into the lagoon, the whole ocean glowed like a swimming pool. None of us wanted to get out of our boats. I paddled around in circles in the lagoon, watching the fish streak beneath me like a meteor shower.
It’s like this with every crossing, and with nearly every story too. You paddle until you no longer believe you can go any further. And then suddenly, well after you thought it would happen, the other shore starts to grow, and it grows fast. The trees get taller and you make out the crags in the cliffs and then the shore reaches out to you to welcome you home, almost pulling your boat onto the sand.