• Day S E V E N •
Harvester Island Writers Workshop
Friday, Sept. 9, 2022
Today’s post is a retrospective within a retrospective. Confusing I know. Stay with me. In the chronology of writing camp, we’re at Friday 9-9, the last full day. Tonight we’ll feast on Dungeness crab and the reading of each other’s stories.
Today’s post is a flashback. In this morning’s final instructional block, Leslie throws us a curve. Using this week’s tools, we are to write a new scene in 30 minutes—something related to Tuesday, the day that God opened his zoo. I could have written about the pod of whales that stayed and played. I could have written about that momma bear and how I get every primal instinct she’s ever had to eviscerate any threat to her cub.
I write about a picture I can’t get out of my mind. It’s worth the thousand words I’ll try to throw at it. Call it a colossal suck-up piece to the teacher if you want. I’m okay with that. When someone changes the way you think about a craft you’ve honed for thirty years, it’s worth a 30-minute shout out. Here’s mine.
Covered in salt spray, kelp stains, and understanding that there would never be another day like this one, I look toward shore. Captain Duncan calls down to his fisherwoman author wife on the deck below. High winds have already claimed his halibut hat into the suddenly choppy Alaskan waters. Now, high tide makes saddling his barge up to the beach a precision maneuver, even for a seasoned salmon fisherman of five decades. It doesn’t help that his cargo is comprised of fifteen writers with pens, iPhones, and an insatiable need to capture every contour of the story he unwittingly finds himself the protagonist in.
“Leslie, grab the running line,” he calls from his “throne of power,” the upper wheelhouse of his barge.
In an instant, our writing instructor abandons verbs, adjectives, and sage soundbites about writing to dive face-down, more than half of her slight frame plunging over the side of the barge. Her knees bent and feet airborne from the depth of her reach below water, the only thing keeping Leslie Leyland Fields on deck is her grasp on a rope and 45 years of knowing how much weight needs to stay in the boat for all of her weight to stay in the boat.
“What should I do with it?” our fisherwoman writing instructor asks, holding the running line tight with her right hand.
“Hold it up,” Duncan yells.
She rises to her knees and holds it up, dutifully and triumphantly against arthritis and the high tide. Duncan steers the craft to shore, lowers the front ramp, and we disembark onto dry beach, not a drop of Pacific ocean water on our boots.
It’s a perfect landing.
Over pastrami sandwiches the next day, I ask Duncan what would have happened if Leslie missed the line.
“You’ve got one chance to grab it, or else in that wind and tide, your boat is going to end up parallel to shore,” he says.
“What is the name of the rope Leslie held onto so she would stay in the boat?” I ask.
His crew member, a wind-burned, bearded Alaskan caricature of a man whose name is also Duncan corrects me.
“There are no ropes in boats. Only lines.”
“Mmmkay,” I say, summoning my best “whatever” tone of voice.
“But mooring lines are held by rope rings,” Chef Tammy, a former captain in the Bering Sea, plays along from her peanut gallery, the kitchen.
“Rope rings should hold ropes,” I tell the younger Duncan, messing with him for the pure joy of messing with him.
“Writers,” he says, rolling his eyes and taking a bite of his sandwich.
I push back from the lunch table and walk up the grassy hill to retreat to the quiet of my room for an afternoon of writing. I’ve got a two-hour window. I do what I’ve done a thousand times—open a new document, marvel over the invitation of a blank page, and tap my right index finger on the letter J in a quadruple-time beat to the blinking cursor. I wonder what will happen if I miss the running line. If I hesitate, waiting for just the right angle. If I fail to hold onto something, Someone, true while I dig deep for words that might actually guide readers—and me—to shore. I wonder what will happen if I let the line lie.
I make a decision. Writing safe has had its day. I decide it’s time for it to die.
I remember what my dear friend Alice Crider told me years ago. Decide is a death word. Like homicide or pesticide, the root of decide means that something will be cut away. Something has to die. I decide that from here on out, I’m writing like I’ve got one chance to grab the running line. I want to drop to the deck, disappear into the underside of the thing, grab the words, and hold them up. Whether they’re theologically airtight or not. Whether they earn me a publisher or not. Whether anyone reads them or not.
We have seen so much on this day at sea. Whales so close we could hear the chime in their empty blowholes after they expelled water and sound and majesty. A momma bear and her well-fed cub, feasting on salmon by the side of a stream. Female sea lions forming a harem around their massive, sloppy bull on a sea lion haul out.
But in the end, it’s something my fisherwoman author friend didn’t teach me about writing that taught me the most about writing.
She taught me to grab the line.
Postscript to this story coming Friday 9/30 in my monthly newsletter. It’s an ending I couldn’t have scripted even if I were a fiction writer. You won’t believe it. It involves killer whales and killer soundbites. I think they’ll encourage you that the distance between your dreams and their fruition may be shorter than you think.
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