A boat under sail is a lovely thing: the white sails against the blue of the sky, slipping through the water quietly and surely. My husband is an avid sailor, so we spend weekends on our 35-foot sloop on Lake Ontario, and one thing I’ve learned is that there’s a LOT of complicated rigging going on behind the pretty sails, some of which you can see in this picture. As I took it I realized that there are lessons to be learned from the art of sailing that I can apply to my writing, so that my stories leap ahead and don’t founder. Here are four of these lessons.
Get the rigging right. Let’s start with the picture. It shows some of the rigging connecting the mast to the hull so the power that drives the boat doesn’t rip it apart. What it doesn’t show is running rigging used to control the sails under way. If the rigging isn’t right, the boat will be slow or roll excessively in the waves, or (worst case) the mast will come down and punch a hole in your hull and maybe your head. You can’t be a decent sailor without a solid understanding of how the rigging works and how to use it correctly
You can’t be a decent writer without a solid understanding of the rigging of your story, either. There are rules of story structure, generally referred to as the craft of writing, that vary depending on genre and style, but rules you need to understand so you can use them well, letting your story soar. A writer who wants to ignore these rules would be like an architect who wants to ignore gravity; sure, creative and all, but the whole thing is going to come down. Frank Lloyd Wright, in designing his breathtaking homes and buildings, didn’t ignore gravity, he used it. You can learn about the rigging behind the stories in any number of ways. Read books about craft and story like Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story or any number of books from the Writer’s Digest series. Follow blogs like Janice Hardy’s Fiction University and Larry Brooks’s Story Fix. Take courses. Attend writer’s conferences and workshops. LEARN.
Know the dangers, but go anyway. A sailor’s chart can be a scary thing: rocks, low water, sunken ships, underwater cables, shoals, shipping lanes where giant tankers will run you down without ever seeing you. You also have to worry about the weather, since an unexpected thunderstorm or the complete loss of wind can ruin your day. There’s always a hint of the sailor’s prayer: Oh God, thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small. So why do people sail, if there are so many risks? Some have to, because it’s their job, but others, like my husband, do it for love. He gets a sense of peace and balance and fun out on the water, tilting in the wind to rid along the waves, he gets no place else. So he’s careful. He reads the charts, gets detailed weather reports, and keeps an eye out, then takes off into the blue. There’s another saying: a ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.
Are there risks in becoming a writer? Heck yes. It takes a crazy amount of time and energy if it’s going to produce anything worthwhile. You lock your door, ignore your family, and live on coffee and cookies for an eternity, and then you have to let other people read what you wrote. if you’re very fortunate, less than half of them will hate it. You cry, you revise, you get hit with more suggestions about how to make your story better by making it into something completely different. You need skin like a rhino to get through this thing. So why do it? Because there’s nothing you’d rather do more. Because the words boil out of you anyway, and there is joy in harnessing them and teaching them to behave. Because writing is not safe, but you’re a writer, and that’s what writers are for.
Go with the flow. If you drive a power boat, you just engage the engine and go. If you sail, you find that the wind sometimes has other ideas. It may be coming from the wrong direction, so you have to tack back and forth, sneaking up on your destination by going side to side like a soldier under enemy fire. It may drop to where you’re crawling along at the speed of a leisurely stroll. It may veer unexpectedly, getting behind the sails and throwing them to the other side of the boat. (You don’t want to be in the way if this happens. There’s a reason why the spar at the bottom of the sail is called the “boom.”) So you have to be flexible. A trip may take you longer than you planned, and may involve visiting areas that weren’t on your original itinerary. You have to be willing to enjoy whatever voyage you wind up having, rather than focusing on the one you had in mind when you set out.
The analogy for writers is obvious. Even the most assiduous planners (which would include me) find that the story has ideas of its own. Characters shift in their motivation, or fade out, or suddenly jump to center stage. Plot holes yawn open and have to be bridged. New directions appear, tempting you with what seems like a well-paved highway but turns into a cul-de-sac littered with spiders and old bones. And then you have to decide whether old bones are exactly what your story needs. Writers, like sailors, have to be flexible.
It’s not about the destination. One of the places we love to visit each summer is the town of Gananoque in the Thousand Islands region of the Saint Lawrence River. My husband will sail there typically in about seven hours, depending on the wind. By car, the trip is just over an hour. So why bother sailing, when we could drive? Because it’s not just about Gananoque. No matter how charming the town is, it’s those seven hours on the water my husband really loves.
Most writers want others to read their work. I know I have the goal of publication, getting a book on the shelves, real or virtual, being read by people who don’t know me and don’t care about my personal journey as a writer, but who want to spend time in the world I’ve built. That’s my destination. But if that’s the only thing I think about, if I don’t enjoy the journey itself, it’s going to be a long, grim trip. Most writers find truth in the old saying, “I don’t like to write, but I like having written.” Still, if there’s no joy in the writing itself, then a writer is going to have a pretty joyless life. Find the joy in the journey.
Here’s wishing you fair winds and following seas, and words when you need them.
In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Connected.”