I have a thing for ferries. Since 1994, I’ve relied on them for transportation to and from my home. First, it was The Lady of the Lake, the passenger-only ferry that took me the 55-mile length of Lake Chelan when I lived at its head in Stehekin, WA. You can read about many of those sailings and life on the lake in my memoir, Hiking Naked.
After two years in Stehekin, my family and I moved to Lopez Island, WA. This summer we’ll celebrate twenty-two years of sailing on the Salish Sea to and from the mainland with the Washington State Ferries. A division of the Washington State Department of Transportation in operation since the early 1950s,WSF is the largest ferry system in the U.S. Its 21 vessels transport 24 million passengers every year through some of the most picturesque scenery in the world. Unlike The Lady of the Lake, ferries that serve Lopez carry 100 or more vehicles in addition to passengers (including livestock and delivery trucks of all sizes).
This mode of transportation is one of the most relaxing, inspiring, and tranquil I’ve ever experienced. Most days, the gentle rocking of the vessel slows my heart rate (except at those times winds are roaring, tossing the 380-foot vessel side-to-side). Announcements of whale sightings send passengers dashing to starboard or port to catch a glimpse. And for a writer, the ferry is one of the best people-watching and eavesdropping places around.
It’s no surprise, then, that I didn’t hesitate when I had a chance to take a ferry across Lake Windermere in Great Britain while traveling among Friends. The fifteen-minute crossing travels the narrowest part of the lake in Cumbria every day except Christmas and Boxing Day, just as it’s done for more than 500 years. Although the current vessel, Mallard, can carry 18 vehicles and 100 passengers, there were only a dozen cars on the gray, blustery, weekday when I travelled.
Still, I was charmed.
I’m taking my fascination with ferries a new direction this summer. On August 1, I’ll become the first Writer-in-Residence on the WSF Interisland Ferry. The Tillikum (Chinook jargon for “friends,” “relatives”) is the vessel that usually makes this run, sailing only between Lopez, Shaw, Orcas, and San Juan islands. Details are still in the works, with an official announcement coming in July, but I’ve already done some trial runs. The Tillikum (or its substitute if it’s in the shop for repairs) will become my floating office. My assignment: to observe, study, and write about, well, ferries, as well as the Salish Sea and threats to its well being.
I’ll keep you posted about my new project. And if you see me on the Interisland, don’t expect me to disembark until I’ve made one or more complete loops. Welcome aboard!
The question from a friend seemed innocent enough: “Would you be willing to work with me and some other writers to plan a literary festival?” My positive response rose from that blissful place of ignorance. A few weeks later, I naively made the twenty-minute ferry trip to neighboring Orcas Island to meet (and be elected to) the board of the embryonic festival.
That was about eight months ago. After this past weekend’s inaugural Orcas Island Literary Festival, the ignorance has been replaced by experience, but the bliss remains.
Today, I’ve returned to the quiet and calm of my writing desk to reflect on the journey of organizing, and participating in, a literary festival. It began, as so many meaningful life events do, with a walk.
Lit Walk – authors read and chatted at a variety of venues throughout Eastsound Village. The Olympic Mountains’ “rain shadow” didn’t protect us from April showers, but storytelling, poetry, essays, and food and drink cloaked us. It turned out to be a luck- and fun-filled Friday the 13th.
Twin Peaks: Black Box and Center Stage – The Orcas Center theaters pulled everyone to new heights with panels discussing home, humor, landscapes, suspense-thrillers, memoir, food, and turning books into film.
Interviews with bestselling and award-winning authors revealed some of the stories behind the stories.
Kids Read (and Write) Too – The Lit Fest Family Fest (free, thanks to partners and sponsors) encouraged all ages to venture into the world of words.
Refueling at the Book Fair and Bistro – Trekking literary territory is invigorating and demanding. The Madrona Room and lobbies at Orcas Center replenished us with good food, coffee, small presses, local goods, performances, and bookseller extraordinaire, Darvill’s Bookstore.
Battle of the Genres – The only “conflict” throughout this expedition was all in fun, late on Saturday night. Trivia, improv, and puns marked good-humored competition among poets, YA (young adult) authors, and writers of thrillers. Local wine, beer, and sweet and savory snacks kept energy up.
As with all exhilarating outings, I’m eager to explore other trails we bypassed this year and to revisit the ones we followed. I’ll have that chance soon. On Monday, the board members will convene by conference call to begin work on next year’s festival.
Want to be updated about the 2019 plan? Sign up for the Orcas Island Lit Fest newsletter on the OILF website or Facebook page.
Failure is the destination that comes to you when you do not act. ~ Kim Stafford
The opening sentence in the email echoed many others I’d received: “I’m sorry to decline your submission…” It was the twelfth such note for that particular essay, one in which I’d pushed the boundaries of prose structure. I’d experimented with the “hermit crab essay,” a technique coined by author Brenda Miller that uses tools such as menus, how-to instructions, lists, or any number of forms to help a writer ease into tender material in a shielded way, just as the hermit crab’s soft underbelly is protected by the shell it crawls into.
The editor suggested that the frame I’d used—an airport arrival and departure board—didn’t support the content of the essay. My shoulders sagged as I typed “rejected” on my submission tracking form and pondered the critique. As much as I appreciated the feedback (it’s rare to receive any explanation for a submission’s turndown), I wasn’t sure I agreed with it. Perhaps it was, as the editor acknowledged, the nature of “… a subjective industry, and what didn’t work for me might well work for another editor, or another lit magazine.” Regardless, I’d tried something new in my writing, and it still hadn’t found an audience. The essay rebuff resurrected fears of “doing it wrong.”
~ ~ ~
Mistakes weren’t welcomed in my family. Missteps at the ballet recital led to embarrassment and disappointment. Straight As were expected—and rewarded. Fully thought-out plans were insurance to ward off the unexpected or dreaded. In a family on a tight budget, experimentation was expensive.
This ethos served me well when I enrolled in nursing school. The potential for mistakes lurked at every bedside, inside each medicine cup, and within doctors’ orders scrawled in patients’ charts. The stakes were high, and my starched, white, student nurse apron didn’t carry power or protection. I dedicated myself to sidestepping slip-ups.
The first time I made a medication error, my hand trembled as I completed the incident report form explaining I’d given the wrong pill to a patient and how I could have prevented the mix-up. The fact that the patient wasn’t harmed by my wrongdoing did little to ease my shame, embarrassment, and fear about future blunders. Worry about mistakes followed my steps in and out of patient rooms, hovered over my notes in charts, and stood in wait when I talked to physicians and families.
Co-workers and supervisors didn’t value creativity when it came to starting an IV, inserting a urinary catheter, measuring narcotics for injections, or reading an EKG strip. More terrifying, if I veered too far from standard procedures or tried an untested approach, a patient might suffer injury—or death. Even if there weren’t any adverse results, not following the rules might require that I notify the doctor and explain to the family; I also could be reprimanded, sued, or fired. Although there might be more than one right way, the pressure to avoid the wrong way weighed on me.
~ ~ ~ ~
Twenty years and a variety of nursing jobs later, I felt competent and less worried about errors, but confined by protocols and standards. Dr. Danielle Ofri, associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine and editor-in-chief of Bellevue Literary Review, writes of similar restriction. “During the tumultuous years of medical school and residency training, I always felt that something was missing, that a part of my experience remained unfulfilled. During a two-year break after residency, I was drawn back to my original interests in literature and writing, and found that these filled the gaps in meaningful ways.”
It was a two-year sojourn with my husband and two children in a remote, mountain village with eighty year-round residents (and no health care facilities) that helped fill the creativity gaps in my life. With writers, photographers, woodworkers, printmakers, bakers, and fabric artists as my neighbors, I found willing mentors to support me through experimentation with creative work. But two decades of upholding science and fearing the consequences of wrong decisions left me yearning for foolproof formulas for “success.” Instead, I discovered the hours and years of practice—and willingness to make mistakes—necessary to achieve a level of skill and satisfaction with watercolor brushes, linoleum block carving tools, pastry cutters, and the pen. I produced mounds of paper for recycling and sheet pans full of misshapen croissants with my flawed efforts.
It’s taken me another twenty years, dozens of rejection letters, and pounds of manuscripts in the recycle bin to believe what an artist/nurse friend claims, “Failure in art only leads to better art.” Author Naomi Epel echoes with, “Bad writing is part of the creative process.”
Now, I devote my days to my desk, scrawling “bad writing” on paper or tapping it out on my laptop keyboard. Just as when I work out at the gym, I begin my writing time warming up. First, I follow a journaling practice I learned from poet Kim Stafford, who learned it from his father, poet William Stafford: write the date; follow with a few sentences about the previous day (nothing profound allowed!); next, jot down an “aphorism”— a brief thought, observation, or idea; finish with words “in the form of a poem, or half a poem, or notes that may never become a poem.”
For the next few minutes, I read writing I admire—scenes rich with sensory detail, poems that tackle difficult subjects in lyrical tones, essays that compel me to look at life from a different angle. Then I select one of the several writing projects I usually have going at a time. I set a timer for 25 minutes and, in the silence of my office, try to put aside beliefs about “the right way.” When the timer chimes, I step away from my desk and fold laundry, wash a few dishes, or stroke my dog’s ears for ten minutes or so, my writing focus shifting to the background. What I don’t do during that respite is make phone calls, read email, or check Instagram. When I return to my desk and re-set the timer for another 25 minutes, I often pick up where I left off with clarity or a new idea about how to proceed.
This practice works for me, but not for everyone. It’s my way to open my door to creativity, but it’s not the only way. Yes, I still stew over fellow writers’ critiques of my words and hesitate when I press the “submit” button to send work to a publication. I know that most of the time, editors receive dozens (sometimes hundreds) of submissions from skillful, imaginative writers who have their own ways to express themselves. The probability is high that I’ll “fail” and that another writer’s way will speak to an editor more than mine. But the accumulation of rejections reminds me that the consequences of my experimentation aren’t so fraught with disaster as when I was a nurse. Instead, the trial and error and re-try process delights, rather than terrifies. And the acceptances, though few in number, affirm that my voice—my way—has a place.
The response to the umpteenth revision and the eighteenth submission of my hermit crab essay surprised me; it was awarded an Honorable Mention in a lyric essay contest and would be published in The Lindenwood Review. I smiled, marked “accepted” beside the essay’s title on my submission tracking form, and opened my journal to write the day’s date.
Surely the sun shone bright that July day in 1973 when I achieved my goal of typing 50 words per minute with no mistakes. Even if it was raining, I’m certain the sun would have split apart thunderclouds to send a beam of light through the panes of glass in Mr. McGeorge’s classroom.
It had been my mom’s idea for me to take the typing class during summer vacation between my junior and senior years of high school. A small-town newspaper editor, she probably reasoned it would be a useful skill to have, “Because you never know when you might need it.” I was pretty certain I’d never “need” to know stenography (the other summer class Mr. McGeorge taught), but I could accept that typing might come in handy when I went to college to study English.
Hunched over a black Royal typewriter, pounding its QWERTY keys into the touch memory of my fingertips, I willed my fingers to move faster through drills, repeatedly typing simple sentences. Mr. McGeorge, always in black trousers, a crisp, short-sleeved shirt, and a plain, black tie, strode among our desks. I’m sure he carried a stopwatch, too, for all of the exercises were timed as I attempted to increase my speed while decreasing my errors.
The stakes were high. A few rows of sleek, red, self-correcting IBM Selectrics waited to reward my achievement. I dreamed of the day I’d type quickly enough to graduate to the light gray keyboard that propelled a silver ball of letters across the page. I’d no longer have to lift my right hand off the keys at the end of a line to press a silver arm that sent the carriage back to the left margin; with just a slight stretch of my right pinky, the RETURN button sent the ball of type back to start a new line. Best of all was the X key that magically eliminated miss-typed letters so I could replace them with the correct ones.
Nearly forty-five years later, I don’t worry so much about the speed of my typing. My lightweight, silver laptop automatically corrects many of my typos, or at least signals their presence with a squiggly, red line. I can highlight words, sentences, and entire paragraphs, then move them to another spot in the document—or to the “trash.” Now, I can’t imagine writing a 60,000-word manuscript on the Royal, but I’m glad it’s still around. Like many writers today, I’m infatuated with any kind of manual typewriter.
During a recent wait in the San Francisco airport, I discovered an exhibit celebrating the typewriter as “…one of the great inventions of the modern world…” easing and speeding communication on paper when typewriters appeared in the late 1800s. The exhibit caught the attention of other passengers, too, as a dozen or more paused, like me, in front of the display, jockeying rolling suitcases (some likely holding laptops and e-readers) and snapping photos with smart phones.
I don’t know if the exhibit is still there, but if it is, it’s the perfect advertisement for a book released earlier this month, Uncommon Type – Some Stories by Tom Hanks. According to New York Times reporter Concepción de León, “The collection of 17 stories all include, in one way or another, typewriters, which are Mr. Hanks’s passion.”
There’s a good deal of buzz about the actor’s book. Evidently, Hanks is as good on the keyboard as in film.
“It turns out that Tom Hanks is also a wise and hilarious writer with an endlessly surprising mind. Damn it.” ~Steve Martin
“Reading Tom Hanks’s Uncommon Type is like finding out that Alice Munro is also the greatest actress of our time.” ~ Ann Patchett
I haven’t yet read Uncommon Type, but I’m looking forward to it. I’m hoping at least one of Hanks’s stories includes my personal favorite. As a Chicago transplant, it’s just my type.