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memoir training

Writing Tip: Writing and Canoeing

by Matilda Butler on September 9, 2013

catnav-alchemy-activePost #76 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

What a Writer Can Learn from a Big Canoe Race?

Photo by: Charla Photography

Photo by: Charla Photography

The Labor Day weekend is regularly marked in Kona, Hawaii by the Queen Liliuokalani Long Distance Outrigger Canoe Race–billed as the world’s largest long distance outrigger race. I was lucky to get to see it this year. From our oceanside lunch table, we waited until word came that the first of the canoes had been spotted. We edged our table and chairs nearer the water’s edge. Not long afterwards, we saw the 6-person canoe that would win the race with a second canoe not far behind. Then we waited and waited. Eventually a third canoe crossed in front of us. And by the time we had finished our lunch the regular flow of outriggers meant I could easily see ten at a time. The six crew members in each paddled furiously.

To understand what that means you need to know that the women began their paddling in Kailua Bay just a short distance from our table and continued for 18 miles until they reached Honaunau Harbor. The men double the miles by turning around and paddling back the 18 miles to Kailua Bay. It was their canoes that we watched as they completed the 36 miles. Eighteen miles of paddling is amazing in my book, but to do that continuously, pulling through the water with rapid movements, is awesome. And 36 miles seems to be more than double the effort for tiredness and distraction would set in.

As I sat watching, I began to imagine what it would take to achieve this feat. Forget winning or placing. Just what would it take to move the paddle rhythmically at a fast speed for 18 or 36 miles?

The only answer I could come up with was practice, practice, practice.

What This Suggests for Writing

Of course, as you are now guessing, this got me thinking about what it takes to write a book whether a memoir, a novel, or creative nonfiction. Is it enough to decide to do it and then just expect a quality book will emerge a certain number of months (or even years) later?

I wish that were true. But it takes more than just sitting down and writing. It is more than story, plot, and writing craft. If you have been working on your book, you have probably determined how hard it is. You have been having your own experiences with trying to paddle through your personal ocean — with digging deep in order to propel yourself forward to your writing goal. Reading books in your genre helps. Reading books about writing helps. Taking classes helps. Belonging to a critique group or writing group helps. Learning about character development, emotional engagement, effective dialogue, sensory detail, and time/place will make you a better writer.

Practice What You Learn

But you have to find ways to practice what you are learning. Why? What do I mean? It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of something new — a new book, a new class, etc. Then you move on to the next book or next class or next conference and repeat the cycle.

Instead, slow down. Practice what you have learned. Practice it until it becomes a habit. Incorporate new concepts and skills, using the best of them that work for you. Don’t dump what you learned in one class when you take a next class. You need to view your increasing skills as building blocks–blocks that will let you reach your writing goal. Then when you feel comfortable with your new knowledge, once you can see its benefit in your writing, develop a stretch goal. Take another class or purchase another book.

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