Paddling Against the Current

This past Sunday was a beautiful day in the Northeast, so Jim and I strapped the kayaks onto the roof of the car and headed down to the River. This wasn’t the kayaks maiden voyage of the season; child #1 and the French exchange student had kayaked last weekend and christened them for the new season. We hopped in and paddled away from the shore, the water calm and the wind barely blowing. The day had the perfect conditions for kayaking.

About five hundred feet into our trip, I started complaining. My life vest was riding up. My paddle didn’t seem to be working correctly. Someone had changed the foot pedals in the boat and my feet were too far away from them. Jim calmly told me how to adjust everything and we started out again but this time, I noticed the underlying problem, the one that was making the beginning of the journey so hard.

We were paddling against the current.

Makes sense. The river we kayak on feeds into the great Hudson River, so the water is going to flow in that direction. I had forgotten that for the first part of the trip, you were paddling upstream, as it were, going against the flow, which made making any headway more difficult. When we reached the turnaround, a little stretch with a copse of wild overgrown trees smack in the middle of the water, I put my paddle down. There was no need for it. The current carried us through this stretch, our boats moving silently and gracefully along.

See where I’m going here?

Sometimes life feels like being in a forty-pound kayak paddling upstream. Other times, it feels like you are on autopilot, being carried along by the gentle current, the one that leads you in the right direction. I think this analogy applies even more so to writing. You jump into your work-in-progress and….thunk. No where to go. Paddling upstream. Your vest is too tight. Nothing is working.

I always tell my kids that it takes way more energy to be negative than it does to be positive. I’m trying to bring this approach to life in general, and writing, more specifically. Paddling upstream on your book is a waste of time. So, show of hands: who likes to waste time out there? (I’m looking…I don’t see anyone.) I thought about what I do when I hit a bad patch in the plot or a character does something that doesn’t make any sense to me or I get a case of your garden-variety writer’s block. Well, in kayaking terms, sometimes I whine that my vest is too tight. Sometimes I blame it on the paddle. And sometimes I just row back to shore and rest a while until I realize what’s been stumping me. It may be as easy as starting over, putting my character in a different situation. I may have him or her run into someone and start a conversation. I might have them make a phone call. I’ll do anything to get to that tranquil place where I let it all go and let the current—or in this case, my imagination—guide me back to shore.

I may have stretched this analogy thinner than a taut rubber band and for that, I apologize. Sometimes, though, things just hit me in the face and make me wonder if other people experience the same sorts of issues in life and in writing.

What do you do when you find yourself going against the current or paddling upstream in either your writing or life in general?

Maggie Barbieri

8 replies
  1. The Stiletto Gang
    The Stiletto Gang says:

    Maggie you raise a really interesting question: how to power through the upstream current, e.g., get through the brick wall you may have hit in your writing. But there is also the corollary qustion which is: when to quit fighting against the current?

    Sometimes I think that I stay with a project too long because I don't want to admit defeat. Sometimes I think I need to go back to shore and determine, when not under the stress of the current, whether the project is worth continuing at all. Maybe I can power through it, but I might still be disappointed with the outcome. To continue the kayak metaphor — I paddled the whole way, but the scenery was desolate and depressing. I get points for the exercise, but that wasn't the full purpose of the trip.

    Oy! I think I can need to stay on dry land. Good blog for thinking about writing.


  2. Susan McBride
    Susan McBride says:

    Maggie, I love your analogy! I feel like I'm paddling upstream just keeping up with everything I need to do everyday. I have to constantly remind myself that the world won't stop spinning because I can't get a few things done (hard to accept when you're a chronic overachiever). When I'm writing and get stuck, the best thing for me is to talk it out with someone (usually Mom or Ed)…or sleep on it…or get on the treadmill…or in the shower. I've found without fail that doing any of those things–which all include getting away from the computer–do the trick. Thanks for a wonderful post on this Hump Day morning (does anyone still say "hump day"? Just curious). 😉

  3. The Stiletto Gang
    The Stiletto Gang says:

    Marian, staying with a project for too long is another problem that I have! Time to go back to shore, in that case. I agree with you whole-heartedly.

    Susan, paddling upstream is exhausting! So I hope for all of us, we reach that place where we can put our paddle down and coast back to the shore.


  4. Vicky Polito
    Vicky Polito says:

    I try to change my definition of making progress against any counter-current. I'm writing something now called "The Expectations Game" and the title resonates with me because it's our expectations that create our reactions to and acceptance of things. Example: I can be really entertained by a movie that is only fair in quality but about which I had pretty low expectations going in. A movie about which I have heard nothing but raves and hyperbole can leave me a bit disappointed because the hype was too high for even the best movie to match.

    When stuck in a writing project I reset the goal for that two hours or that day or that week. When I'm on a tight deadline that can be hard to manage, but I do what I can. I change the goal to something that is not a cheat, but is more reachable if I keep working hard. It's that or burn time feeling panic and failure, usually for no good reason and to no good end.

    I have a hobby that seem to let my mind clear, too. I knit, a creative effort that usually pay off quickly and well and seems to break the ice in my frozen mind. Knitting is, for me, stitch by row progress (in my head, so much like the word by sentence progress of writing) that changes the raw and somewhat unstructured materials of pointy sticks and yarn (which are sort of like pens and ink in my stretchy metaphor) into something lovely and/or useful. Oh, and even doing something that is mundane and that I normally hate but that is a sure win and accomplishment helps. Was it really so amazing to have gotten the kitchen pantry or the damn spice cupboard in order in the past hour? No, but actually spending the effort paid off and I'm in the end glad I did it and feeling like I'm on a roll of progress because of getting it done. Problem solving is problem solving at some point, right?

    Last but not least in my mind is the power of a good walk or bike ride or gardening. Just getting out of the office, getting some air, moving a little, hearing some birds, sometimes feeling a little rain on your face, etc., is a wonderful tonic.

    And, Mags–speaking of getting it done: where are those pictures of your new cat buddy you promised to post sometime, hm?! (I know it's off topic, but this popped into my head last night while my cat was staging a nocturnal pep rally for who knows what–he's a cat!)

  5. Beth Groundwater
    Beth Groundwater says:

    To carry the analogy further into whitewater, sometimes when I'm "in the zone" while writing, I feel like I'm being propelled downstream by the characters. They'll speak and move faster than I can keep up with my typing fingers. And sometimes, I'll be splashed in the face and knocked into going a different direction by them, or sent into a whirlpool of spiraling story concerns–what if this happens, then this? How will that change the plot outline? And is it a better line to follow down the story river?

    Yes, writing can be a slog, but it can also be an exhilarating roller-coaster ride!

  6. The Stiletto Gang
    The Stiletto Gang says:

    Vicky, would you riff on this in a future blog for us? I'm always interested in what you have to say when it comes to writing because you bring a real solid sensibility to the process that I often overlook when thinking about it. Let's chat offline.

    Beth, you're the paddler so I trust your instincts! And you're right–it's a roller-coaster ride. Sometimes you're screaming with exhilaration…sometimes in terror. Maggie

  7. Laura Spinella
    Laura Spinella says:

    Great post, Maggie. I have been paddling upstream in a duck boat (maybe you have to be a Mass resident to get that) with the end to my current ms. It's my hope that the writing current will shift eventually, leading me to smooth sailing!

  8. Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith
    Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith says:

    Though I haven't done any real paddling for years–and when I did it was to get a speed boat back to shore after it ran out of gas–I certainly understand what you're saying in this blog. I think we all go through similar periods like this.


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