Saturday, August 22, 2009

Riding in the Dark

Two nights ago I joined friends for a movie in Vancouver. Loath to sit in the lineup for the Lions Gate Bridge for a half hour, I instead rode my bike across from West Van, through the craziness of downtown and over the Burrard Bridge, using the new bike lane. It was great! In the past, I've ridden the Burrard Bridge, stuck between the speeding traffic and the pedestrians I was sharing the sidewalk with. There was nothing there to keep me from falling into the car lanes, not a guardrail, not even a raised edge to the sidewalk. I was always worried that, as I passed a pedestrian from behind, yelling, "On your left!", they'd turn to look and bump me into traffic. But with the new bike lane, the pedestrians and I have a new, happier relationship. They aren't scared of being run down and I'm not scared of dying under the wheels of a bus. It's all good.

On the ride back home, which I shared with my friend and ardent bike commuter, David, we cut through Stanley Park. It was dark and there were few cars. And luckily, David's lights were much more efficient than my little 'emergency' ones. (I don't usually ride at night.) As we rode along the park roads in the darkness, I felt the adrenaline rise inside me. I became the child at play, the girl on an adventure. The night was warm and clear and beautiful and flying along the pavement felt good. The night closed in on us, our lights creating a tunnel we traveled through.

At night on a bike, you concentrate on what lies ahead, in your line of vision, and not on all the peripheral stuff. It's fun and your way is clear. It struck me that this is another way of living in the moment, this temporary cleaving of the darkness as you pass through it. It closes up again behind you and your world is defined by the reach of a beam of light. It feels good to be able to let everything else go and concentrate on just your small bit of time and space. It's freeing somehow.

When we left the pavement and turned up onto the gravel trail through the trees, the darkness became more intense and we had to slow to follow the curves, not seeing where the trail went except for a few feet ahead. A small, dark, shadow animal ran across the path between our wheels and startled me but it was probably no less startled by our presence. (David's reassurance that it was probably a rat didn't actually help.) When we finally emerged from the trail out onto the pavement by the bridge, my adrenaline was high. The pedaling back across the bridge to West Vancouver was easy and I was almost disappointed when we made it to our destination and I climbed off my bike. Just like that, playtime was over and the world expanded back to its usual self but it felt smaller now somehow, more friendly. Perhaps it's just a matter of how brightly you let your light shine.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Whose voice is it, anyway?

In taking my writing courses and in my writing practice, the question of voice seems to recur, over and over and over again.

There's the traditional idea of voice in literature, regardless of in what genre it belongs. Who's the narrator, do they tell you the story in first, second, or third person? Are they a character in the story, or one outside of it, telling you what's happening?

In a travel writing course I just took (an excellent one, by the way), the use of voice kept coming up - other people's voices, the voices of the people you meet, the characters inhabiting your tales and the places you journey to, making them real and interesting for your readers. Readers want to hear their voices, know the people you come across, care about them, learn their stories, and you, the writer, are only the conduit. Your own voice is only important in as far as you, the author, represent them, the readers.

In writing nonfiction we all find different voices and, because some of it is autobiography of a sort, the voice we choose to use is often our own. Funny how we have to struggle to understand what our own voices should sound like, instead of just having them flow organically out. It's as if we're strangers to ourselves, just learning how to talk. But then, talking to ourselves is not the point, is it? So we must define and hone our voices to ones that others can hear, are willing to listen to, want to listen to, even. And for so many of us writers, as perhaps is also the case with nonwriters, we are constantly discovering new facets to our own voices, experimenting, trying things on for size, discarding what doesn't serve us, doesn't fit our narrative or our own self-image.

For some of us, having so long suppressed our natural voices,trying to silence them or make them like everyone else's, we aren't even sure what we really sound like anymore. It becomes a process of discovering ourselves and our own voice. So now, just as I am learning to hear my own voice, I'm also learning that it's the voice of others I need to write. And my own voice once again becomes a background whisper, informing the 'othervoice' of my writing.

For such a long time though (an eternity it seems), my voice was silent - through the nonwriting years, those times when physical activity became my means of expression. When 'sweating it out', pushing myself until I could barely breathe, let alone speak, was the point. My body did the talking then. So now, when I write, my own voice refuses to be silenced; to take a back seat to the voices of my characters, even if they are real people in real places, with so much more to say than I could ever hope for.

It becomes louder, more insistent, the more I try to downplay it, like a child shushed too often, rebelling. But, like a child, when given free rein, it says things I can never have imagined - embarrassing, if honest, things. No one wants to talk about that, I tell it. "BUT I DO," it insists and there is no way to quiet it without making a scene. Perhaps that's the gift of being a writer, as well as the curse. That your voice, once acknowledged and encouraged, is unable to be silenced.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Pleasures of Insomnia

I lay awake very early this morning, as often happens, my mind a whirling, restless creature full of thoughts that will not be silenced or made the least bit quieter, even temporarily, so I can sleep. I lay on my right side, my back; then threw myself over onto my left side, wrapping my arm around my pillow and drawing it more tightly beneath my head and neck. I clamped my eyes more firmly shut against the faint light filtering in through my lashes. Finally, after what seemed an interminable time, I looked at the clock, having avoided it till then so I would not have the additional insomniac pleasure of knowing how many hours I counted down tossing and turning before dragging myself, exhausted, from my bed. It was 4:47 a.m.

I got up and walked around the apartment, gazing out the window at the lights of downtown and the gently brightening sky. I logged into my computer and sat on the couch, reading messages and replying to them, aware that whoever I was writing to would see the time stamp and realize my predawn sleeplessness, but it was better than lying awake in my bed. Finally, urged by the beautiful morning shining outside my window, I decided to try something new. I hurriedly dressed, threw a baseball cap over my sleep-tousled hair and drove down to the beach and the seawall. Only a few other cars were parked in the lot as I started my trek by the water.

I walked through the delicate morning light; the blue, white, and pink hues of the lightening sky reflecting onto the water beside me. Everywhere the birds were busy making their living. Seagulls trying to swallow too-large, flat, silver, disc-shaped fish that minutes earlier, had been swimming among the rocks on the bottom of the ocean, crows dropping white-grey oysters upon the rocks in an effort to break open their shells and get at the tender bodies inside, white-crowned sparrows flitting and pecking among the dried grass stems and calling to one another, and stilt-legged herons stalking their breakfast along the shoreline.

At first, I saw few people and reveled in the solitude and the glory of the morning. I felt virtuous and clever to be out so early. But there was something more. I felt immensely grateful – for the sea, the light, the birds, the dew on the plants, the very air I felt filling my lungs. It seemed to me, as I walked, that my life was like the day – sitting there open and waiting and full of possibility. There was a clarity and brilliance to the day. Then I began to meet others, coming and going, making their morning journeys as I was. And I noticed, in their faces, a certain optimism and openness that was missing when I take this walk in the late afternoons. People look you in the eyes in the morning and smile easily and say hello. Later in the day, these same people, or perhaps other people on the same route, their minds full of the day's problems, avoid meeting your gaze and, if they do look at you, keep a carefully neutral expression lest you are tempted to begin a conversation with them. For these new, fresh, smiling, morning people, I was also grateful.

I realize now that I have been missing out on one of the best parts of the day when I sometimes lie in bed staring at the ceiling above me, tossing my body from side to side in an effort to get comfortable enough to drift off again. This morning, my mind, instead of being full of thoughts that torment me, raced with inspiration, plans, empowerment, and joy. Perhaps my body is wiser than I give it credit for and perhaps, next time it wakes me in the fragile dawn hours, I will listen more closely instead of trying to silence it.