My first Muskoka Novel Marathon in 2007 was essentially a religious experience. From the drive up to Huntsville to the drive to the Kawarthas after I partook of the 48hr version of the marathon. It was all a haze of Kool-aid drinking meditating worshipping wonder. I was sold. I was a convert. I had found my people, my place, my me.
Eventually, I attempted to get that religious experience down on paper in the form of a poem. But the real joy of writing poetry is in the moments leading up to the writing of the poem and in the hope you feel that you achieve the goal of getting everything in your head down in the stanzas that you write. You never quite get there…you feel the euphoria of being there in your mindscape…but what travels from that video screen in your head through your fingers and eventually lands on the computer screen or paper is nothing like the vision you carried. It sometimes suffices, but it never meets the vision. Words are never enough.
Here’s the poem I wrote about my first Muskoka Novel Marathon experience:
After the Marathon
As winter whips its winds to frenzy
I am reminded of that time-
forty thousand words in my head
screaming white freedom
inside my withering mind.
And after the marathon,
the tears of no more words,
my insolent venting of could have-
might have beens. And the exhaustion,
like melting ice on pregnant lips,
a scream inside an empty car
with nobody else to hear.
When I thought the oddity over-
passing from Muskoka to Haliburton
with Cohen on my lips-
two deer arrive,
linger long enough to catch my eye,
to stop my hurling car,
to say, “I see you. You are real.”
And tears again. To find yourself
when you are lost; a figment
behind an endless stream of words.
After the deer, when Hallelujah
has played and the light of day declines,
I pray, one hundred-thirty pages
strewn like wild wind across the cluttered dash,
and here am I… stopped again-
a wild bear on hind legs,
pawing the slowly gloaming air.
Stopped, I wonder the wonder,
breathe to say, “I’ve been here too.”
And in the rear-view… three more,
mother, babies dawdling behind the car.
And the bear, as if he knows my head
and where it’s at, he paws again,
lifts his massive claws to night and speaks.
These are the things that I have left,
the shaking memories of a whirlwind journey took.
And forty thousand words inside my lonely head
was not enough. A bear to stand and scream
is what it took to leave it all behind,
the vent, the Cohen din inside the tremulous mind,
and most of all, the words that could have been.
THE WORDS THAT COULD HAVE BEEN. Every year I regret those words. Every year I mourn them. But I also give thanks for the ones I eventually get down on paper. This year is no different. I went a long time before locking into a story idea…almost a full 24 hours. I do the 72hr marathon now…stay the whole three days. After that first year, I knew I wanted more. More, more, more. 48hrs is not enough.
I already wrote a marathon wrap post when I got home, but I wanted to talk about what happens immediately following coming back to the land of reality. I say reality, because at the marathon it’s a different kind of reality that happens. There is a freedom at the marathon that is very much like sleep-a-way summer camp. It’s silly and frivolous and fun..and very very serious. It’s not the reality we, as adults, are used to. Schedules evaporate…we are on OUR TIME. So, coming back to the land of adulting…you need to adjust, put away the candy and get real.
When you get back to reality, it’s also the first time you get to sit down and read your words. At the marathon, you write and you write and you write. But you don’t read (or, at least, I don’t…I have to point out here that every marathoner is different). You just move ever forward into your story. What happens, essentially, is that you start reading it a couple days after your return and it’s like you’re reading the work of someone else…you don’t remember it, you’re not very deeply connected to it…the concept is familiar, but the words are by and large new to your ears. It’s an extremely odd phenomenon, really. You wrote the story, but it’s not yours. It belongs to the wildness of the weekend. It belongs to Muskoka.
You never quite know what you ended up with until you sit down and read your story for the first time. It’s an eye-opening experience. I’ve come to believe that I write my best stuff at the marathon. Not because it’s a particularly wonderful writing environment–even though it IS–and not because I go in prepared–because I DON’T–but because I connect to Natalie Goldberg’s WILD MIND while I’m there. There is a moment when you put your ego aside and you are no longer a writer writing, but simply WRITING itself. You lose connection to your self as you slip sleeplessly and exhaustingly into your story and soldier on ever forward. THAT is the beauty of the marathon…that you get to dive so fully in to your writing that you disappear. Somewhere after 16 hours, 23 hours, 56 hours…YOU are gone and there is only story—and these seemingly disembodied hands in front of you pounding away at a keyboard you’re barely aware of. WRITING. NO YOU. I know, I know…it’s so zen. It’s hogwash. It’s flighty. It’s new age crap. SHUT UP! Until you’re there, at the marathon, you’ll have to take my word for it. I WAS Wild Mind.
What happens now—THE SUMMING UP. I’ve been reading and editing my novel. I only reached about 100 pages this year, as I didn’t immerse myself into the story until I was a full day into the marathon. My regret was huge. But as I slowly trudged my way into the story, I began to feel better about my productivity. I like it! I like the words that I created. I’m okay with them. AND…I feel that I will be able to continue the story once I get to the end of the editing journey I’m on to read and fix what I left the marathon with. I’m excited about finding out where the story goes, where the lives in the story are taken. I’m turned on by the need to bring it to fruition—TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS!
I have been feeding Michael chapters on my Kindle account as I read and edit them. He has an uncanny ability to find nits and suggest fixes. Last year, his influence was a huge part of my novel writing experience. Without him, I’m not sure I would have finished the novel. This time around, as I am writing about New Brunswick, I have to admit he’s having a bit of an issue with dialogue. If the East Coast of Canada is your ancestral home, you know that there is a dialect to be found there. What might look like twisted and incorrect language is merely the way they talk there. I have a few characters who are very regional. They say things the way New Brunswickers would say them. Editors need to leave these bits in. Regional dialect helps to place a story…it’s all part of the story’s setting. Michael’s just gonna have to flinch at some of these twisted words being spoken by my characters. Especially the story’s grandmother, Imogene, who has shall we say a slightly unique way of speaking.
I’m ready to embrace the rest of this novel’s journey. What the marathon did was start me off…it gave me the roadtrip part of the novel, and brought me to the meat and potatoes of my story. I’m excited to continue. And I have this wonderful thing called the Muskoka Novel Marathon to thank for taking me this far. Every year it starts me off on a journey. I don’t always complete the novels it helps me create…but I always love the experience. And in September…we get to reassemble–us 40+ writers–and we get to award each other with trophies and kudos and praise. It’s the crown on top of the fundraising event. I can’t wait to get there!
But for now…I have a story to tell. It’s the story of Finn Barker, the character I created on a July Saturday night in Huntsville, Ontario while sitting in a room filled with writers creating. Finn is real. And I left him in a vulnerable situation at the end of the marathon. It’s time to rescue him.
Thank you, Muskoka Novel Marathon—for helping me to once again get words on paper. The wonder never ceases to amaze me. Yes, we raised over $34,000.00, and yes…the YMCA of Simcoe/Muskoka county is going to have much needed funds to help with their literacy programs. Yes…lives are going to change for the better because of what we were able to accomplish monetarily with the marathon. And that IS the most important thing here. But for us writers—we get the gift of words, the gift of time, the gift of camaraderie, and the gift of childlike sleep-a-way camp in a beautiful town filled with lovely places and people. The benefits to us writers are vast…and lasting. It’s a religion, and I’m only one of its many preachers. I drank the Kool-aid.
See you all at the wrap-up!
(A Short excerpt…the opening lines of my 2016 Muskoka Novel Marathon novel, which introduces the main character—Finn Barker.)
There’s more than one way to go home. Sometimes it’s something we can only do in theory because there’s no home to go back to. Even if it’s still standing. And sometimes we return kicking and screaming, like salmon running up river against their will but with an inborn instinct they cannot escape. Must go home. Must go home.
Unless you never truly left in the first place, chances are the road home will be a painful one. One that will leave you, to paraphrase the words of W.B. Yeats, in a world more full of weeping.
There is nothing like a death to signify the beginning of that journey home. Death and dying. For Finn Barker, that was the straw that finally broke his resolve to never again return.