“No. Not at all,” Sherman Alexie said in response to Bill Moyers’ question as to whether writing has a healing effect on the writer. The question was about Alexie, personally, and he spoke only for himself. Alexie went on to say that he had been healed by the words of other writers but never by his own (you can see the full interview here). I am in no position to speak for writers in general, but I suspect that many can identify; however, I will also only speak for myself. Before I began to write daily I had the romantic notion that writing was a salve. I’ve since learned, in my case, it is more of a compulsion—perhaps even a bad habit, as I suggested in my last post. It offers nothing in the way of healing or comfort—sometimes a sense of satisfaction, but also, just as often (sometimes more often), dissatisfaction. This is a recent realization for me, and I’ve been considering, if it is not writing, what my source of healing is or could be. It is, of course, the river.
I grew up with a river for a backyard, listening to its burble as I fell asleep at nights, and there are not many places you can go in the mountains of Western North Carolina where you are more than ten minutes from a river or creek. I spent my childhood wading, swimming, and tubing in those rivers. I should say upfront, though, that I’m not a “hardcore boater.” I didn’t start guiding rafts until about five years ago, and I began kayaking only three years ago. Because I came to whitewater a little later in life, I missed that window of bachelorhood in my late teens and early twenties when so many boaters are hitting the water almost daily. But I have always known the rivers and needed them, and it’s during those summer months of raft guiding on the Nantahala River, when I’m done being a teacher for a short time and am on the water nearly everyday, when I am most content and at peace.
Save human tragedy, which I have yet to experience in that setting, there is never a bad day on the river. When I’m there I never wish to be somewhere else or to be doing something else. On the best days, the sun is high and the Nantahala glows in tones of gold, amber, and copper—never blue. On the worst days, when the rain is falling hard, the river is still beautiful, perhaps more so. The water turns dark and gray, and it huffs up a mist of fog so thick that you can believe, if you like, that you are the only boat on the water. Regardless of the river’s climate, when I’m there so is my mind—just above and beneath the water’s surface, ahead and around the river’s bend. The trip from top to river’s-end is a balance between quiet, calm thoughtfulness and quick, adrenaline laced focus. There has never been a time on the river, and I don’t suspect there will be, when I have said, “I would rather not be here.”
For me, writing does not heal. But the river does. And because of that—it must be because of that—the river almost always finds its way into my work. Sometimes it is featured heavily, becoming almost a character. Other times it may just simply be a flash of scenery. It is a motif I cannot get away from in my writing, and I don’t want to. Writing makes you crazy—or perhaps it is a symptom. Maybe both? Though that voice of unsettled discontent and dissatisfaction is crucial for meaningful poetry and storytelling, that voice must also be hushed and comforted at times. As I said, I can only speak for myself on this, but If I were to give any advice to other writers who may feel as I do, it would be: find something. Find your river.