Canoeing Down a River = Good Storytelling … wait, what?

It’s summer in mid-Missouri, and that means it’s hot and muggy. That means it feels like you’re walking into a sauna when you walk out your front door. So, naturally, that’s the time I start thinking about large bodies of water.

Swimming pools, lakes, rivers.

One of my favorite summer activities is to drive down south a few hours to take a canoe down a river. Some people like to take inner tubes down the river and merely float along, drinking beer, relaxing, occasionally pulling over to jump off a cliff into the water.

I, however, prefer to canoe.

Some people think this is crazy. It takes two people to effectively paddle the canoe in any semblance of control, and if you can’t synchronize your movements … well, it’s not good. Canoes also like to tip over, which you know if you’ve ever tried to paddle one. And if you happened to bring anything with you in your canoe (food, water, beer, towels, a cooler), it’s all going into the river if you tip over. (There are creative ways to avoid that, but this isn’t a “How to Survive Canoeing Down the River” post, so sorry.)

But I love it. I guess you could say I like a bit of a challenge.

And it made me think the other day how canoeing down a river can be compared to a good story. (Yeah, I know, I can’t do anything without somehow bringing writing into it!)

One float trip in particular comes to mind when making this comparison. The hubby and some friends and I were fairly experienced at this whole canoe thing by the time we took this trip. But the river was high and fast that year, and it sprang several surprises on us.

We tipped at least five times that day, a new record. Once when the hubby’s canoe tipped (we alternated paddling partners for fun), the current then proceeded to shove the canoe under a tangle of branches sticking out from the bank. Have you ever tried to stand in a strong current and then pull a water-logged metal canoe out from underneath trees against that strong current?

No? Well, it’s rather difficult.

A friend lost his glasses in the river on that trip, and then found them again. (A miracle!)

My canoe tipped right before a narrow, very deep, very fast channel (thanks to a back log of people who had tipped over … we tried to avoid crashing into them and then tipped over ourselves, argh). The canoe, me, the hubby, and all of our stuff was subsequently rushed through the channel at great speed. I could do nothing but keep my head above water for that ride, and let one of the towels go (it snagged on something underwater).

We explored a cave, and then all nearly fell off a cliff on the way back down to the canoe.

We made it back home in one piece, somehow, but with the cuts and bruises to show for our efforts at riding the river (and exploring that damn cave).

Still, to this day, it is the only float trip I remember in great detail. We still talk about that one, too.

We could have just sat in some tubes and meandered along … but we didn’t. And now we have all these crazy stories of survival to tell!

In the same way, the best fictional stories stick with us long after we’ve finished the book. Days, weeks, years, our entire lives. We remember them for the same reasons I’ll always remember that one float trip: because they make us feel things. We feel for the characters. We feel pain and joy, exhilaration and curiosity, strength and satisfaction. They make us feel alive.

Because they are unpredictable: they don’t proceed in the direction we expected. Just like the river tossed us unexpected obstacles, the best stories take hard rights when you thought you were going left. They dump you out of your canoe when you weren’t ready for it. They shock you with their originality and thrill you with their conclusions.

As readers, we don’t want to sit in an inner tube and take a nice, peaceful float, with no risk of spilling our beer.

We want risk. We want stakes. We want challenges. We want obstacles. We want white water.

Give us surprises. Give us cuts and bruises.

Make us feel alive.

❤ Jeni and the Wordwraiths

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