Thursday, September 20, 2018

Bikes in the forest

Since coming to the island I have started to cycle the forest trails with a group of women on Sunday mornings.  For a rider accustomed to the flat, paved cycling lanes of Richmond, an island city in the Fraser River delta system, it has been a shock to the system (and to my bicycle!). 

The trails are full of dips and curves, roots and rocks.  Sometimes the hills are so steep that standing up makes my back wheel spin out from under me and I have to sit down to keep moving through loose gravel or bark (I really need to trade in my city street rain tires for knobby off-road tires!).  Sometimes the salal grows so close on each side that the trail disappears and I have to keep my eyes ahead and forge on through, trusting that my tires will find purchase and that my forward momentum will get me through.  I have at times seen an upcoming root or rock and thought, "No way can I navigate through this," but I'm going fast enough and the riders ahead of me have done it so I launch myself through it.  Sometimes I even make it without crashing.

A few weeks ago I was feeling more off-balance than usual, seeing that the trail curved tightly between two small trees but unable to pour my bicycle through the gap without sailing off into blackberry brambles.  I hauled my bike back on the trail by the handlebars, brushed the leaves off my shirt and climbed back on.  Within minutes, I was concentrating on avoiding a rock when I missed another turn and landed (more softly) in the salal. By this time my fingers ached from my tight grip and I forced myself to concentrate on the trail. We plunged on through the bushes, vines reaching out to grab my handlebars, branches scraping my legs.  We climbed, panting, up another hill, and I felt my back tire skid.  I looked down at the rounded rocks of the trail and felt myself careen off into the bush again.

The woman behind me was patient and tactful.  She stopped, waited until I was ready to start off again and said mildly, "I was told that if you look where you want to go instead of where you are, you will find your way through. It's a way of trusting yourself and your bike."
Cycling crew

"Huh," I answered, too breathless and frustrated to say more. I would try it.  Look ahead, I thought, not down.  Trust myself, trust my bike.

As we took off again, I tried to take her advice.  I was so accustomed to watching the obstacles just in front of me that it was a conscious effort to look beyond them.  I forced my eyes to see ahead to the open trail, through the curve and between two close trees that resembled a needle to be threaded by me and my bike.  But this time my hands were looser on my grips, my stance on my bike more relaxed.  And without quite knowing what had happened, I was through, gliding along the wide pathway, lifting my eyes to look ahead.

We stopped for a water break, and I marvelled to the group what a difference it made.  They nodded.  Tensing up and looking down, they agreed, was a sure way to end up where you don't want to be.

Tiny cottage and bike
That afternoon I sat down at my desk and looked over my new writing project.  I corrected little typos and wordy phrasing, moved some details to the other end of a sentence. I started a new paragraph, my hands tensing over the keyboard, my words stumbling on each other.  What was this sentence adding to the narrative momentum, I thought, and erased it.  The cursor blinked.  Come on, come on, get the sentence down.  My phone whistled and I turned to it in relief.  Texted pictures from this morning's ride.  I thought about what I'd learned from my cycling group.  Look where you want to be, not where you are.

My fingers relaxed and the words stuttered and then began to flow.  I knew where I was going -- writing was just a trail to get there.  Full of knots and roots and rocks, of course, but if I kept my eyes on my destination, trusted myself and my story, I would stay on the path.  My fingers began to fly and soon I was blasting downhill to a chapter end.  Euphoria twice in one day.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Cover Story

It's an adrenaline-fueled moment when I see the subject line in the email:  "Possible cover image for...".  To see how a designer imagines my story, works it into images, massages metaphors into the symbols, colours and font design makes the publishing process real.  I won't share until it's confirmed and released, but I'm happy with it.  I have students who obligingly tell me they won't judge a book by its cover, but as a librarian I know it happens all the time.  I do it too -- there's an emotional quotient to a cover that affects readers before they read the title page, and designers who get it right know how to strike that fine balance between the content of the story and the audience appeal. 

The cover of Fishtailing gave me a jolt.  It was strange to think of someone putting hard images to the characters who had taken such deep root in my imagination.  I saw where they came from, and the click of shared understanding made the somewhat frightening process of publishing my book a little easier.  It was out there in the world, on its own trajectory, not just a piece of myself.

I appreciate the emotional connection with the cover designer of my second novel, Baggage, and I look forward to the connection with readers as well.

Smoke and mirrors

The Gulf Islands have been relatively free of the forest fire smoke blanketing the rest of the province this summer.  But this week, it rolled in, blocking the sun, turning the nearby islands into foggy shapes, catching at the back of my throat.  Our walking group was cancelled today, and the radio recommends avoiding all outdoor exertion.  In the evening the strange orange light casts an apocalyptic haze over the world.

It's frightening to hear news pundits predict that these last two smoky summers in British Columbia will become the "new normal" as climate change takes hold and inches the thermometers higher until the forests are tinder dry and the summer skies are filled with choking smoke for weeks on end.

But the smoke does provide new imaginings.  From last blog entry's writing opener I take a line, "I am a part of all that I have met, yet all experience is an arch wherethro' gleams that untravelled world that fades forever and forever."  The worlds begin to rise.

  • a boy from the city is trapped in an inflatable boat with a girl he doesn't like, with a broken motor, dangerous currents and smoke that destroys their sense of direction; 
  • far in the future, a subsistence farmer scrabbles an isolated living from the former tundra boglands, the smoky Southlands uninhabitable, the air unbreathable.  He's been alone since his brother died a year before.  One night, he hears a knock on the door; 
  • after fleeing a fire that destroyed her home, her school and much of her town, a girl returns with her family to start over in the charred landscape of what once was a sheltered suburb.
The smoke is a mirror, and if I look deeply into it, the stories swirl around, bubble like steaming broth.  I can't see the blue sky behind the smoke, can't go walking through the forest or cycling on the trails, and the visibility makes kayaking a bad idea.  So I go down the stairs to my writing room, power up my computer and look in the mirror for the untravelled world.