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Deb Waage

© 2004

Deb readingBears and Blank Pages

“What do I do if I meet a bear?” I asked my fearless husband.

“Just reach out and slap him,” he responded. It was not as humorous to me as he might have intended because I was sure the boreal forest that surrounded my new home abounded with bears lurking behind every bush and tree just waiting for me to venture out alone for a quiet walk in the woods. Nevertheless, I cautiously stepped out the door and soon became acutely aware of every little noise that I was sure belonged to big teeth, sharp claws, and slobbering bear breath.

I encountered no bears on that walk or on many others, but when I’m deep in the woods or alone in a berry patch, I still become a bit nervous. I haven’t had to reach out and slap any bears, but instead, have discovered they are probably more afraid of me than I am of them.

A more recent concern for me, although less daunting than the occasional bear, is writing.

What could these two absolutely unrelated topics possibly have in common? To me they both represent venturing into an unfamiliar wilderness. It may be the sounds of a big black furry animal lumbering toward me as I huddle quietly in my tent or the thought of moving my pencil across blank pages being lost forever in a tangle of words and phrases leaving myself and readers confused, disappointed, and frustrated. Both can elicit a certain undeniable creeping fear. One comes in quick heart pounding bursts that can be heard for miles and the other is silent frustration and anger because the words don’t come easily. Charting the course through the unknown involves a certain amount of risk, humor, and perseverance. Both bears and blank pages represent these risks. On one hand I may be mauled beyond recognition or on the other, I may mutilate perfectly good words and phrases and never say what I intended to say.

“Why sleep on rocks if you don’t have to?” my husband asked. I knew he wasn’t as intrigued with camping as I was, so I approached my good friend Jean. We prepared for a three-day, two night canoe trip into the Boundary Waters. I loved being outside and spent many hours hiking, exploring, and spending time alone in the woods and was excited about this wilderness adventure. After reaching the first portage and unloading the canoe, the importance of a yoke to transport that heavy awkward mass, which worked so well on water, over a 180 Rod stretch of land to the next lake slowly began to dawn on me. As Jean hefted up the two packs meant for mules and started up the portage, I assured her that I would figure out a way to transport our canoe. I tried several different strategies, and finally, seeing no other way, I flipped it upside down and carried it on my back. The result was a canoe that looked like it had two legs and was making its own way across the portage. Later that night as we set up camp and laughed about our walking canoe, I confessed I had a little concern – bears and the dark. She responded, “Well now’s a fine time to think about that!” We laughed and talked late into the night and finally fell asleep. Well, one of us did and one of us lay awake gripping a flashlight through the rest of the night ready to beam it on every little sound heard from outside the tent.

The thought of taking this writing class was a little like that canoe trip. Although I love to write and do it often, I had never really shared my writing with anyone other than teachers when I was a student. Sharing my writing as well as navigating my way around the city would both be very different wilderness experiences from the canoe trip in the BWCA, but this was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. I found myself committing to the MN Writing Summer Institute. What was more intimidating- the logistics of the class or the new environment that I would soon find myself in? “First things first” I had to get there. I wanted to become a better writer.

I felt a little trepidation as I thought about this new wilderness that I would soon be immersing myself in. Actually it was a bit more than a little trepidation. I emailed several people at the institute and campus for more information. Everyone was very helpful, and I became a little less nervous. Arriving safely on the U of M campus a few weeks later was no small feat considering the fact that for the past 25 years I have happily and quietly resided near a small northeastern MN town that just recently installed its first stoplight.

Traffic increased as I neared the city that first week. I remembered the directions I had memorized. It sounded pretty easy. I just needed to watch for the exits. Somehow, though, I failed to visualize the entire route of 35W and its relationship to University Avenue. I followed interstate 94 onto 494 rather that 694 and headed south. That explains how I took the scenic route. I managed to survive rush hour traffic with cars and huge trucks whizzing in and out of traffic at speeds close to 80 MPH without the use of a signal light coupled with the extreme opposite of crawling along inch by inch in a total gridlock of metal and steel. I couldn’t decide which I liked better, but it was with a huge sigh of relief and by the grace of God that I happened to glance to my left and saw the name on the building - University Village - my home for the next three weeks. I peeled my white knuckled hands and sweaty palms off the steering wheel, and made a mental note to check the map next time and plan to arrive either earlier or later in the day. Although one of my worries was over, there were still plenty of new concerns on the horizon.

As I thought about what was to come next, I remembered a quote from a little red book with a worn cover tucked away in a cupboard of my kitchen. This 1981 Norwegian church cookbook has a great saying between its smudged pages. “If you see ten troubles coming down the road, nine of them will go into the ditch before they get to you.” How amazingly true I have found this to be whether visualizing bears creeping through the darkness or getting lost in a mass of humanity never to be heard from again. This cookbook quote seemed to apply perfectly to my new adventure. Why worry needlessly?

The MN Writing Institute was made to order. I wanted to do more with my writing but didn’t quite know where to begin, and I also wanted to become a better teacher of writing for my fourth grade students. Although I had never been comfortable sharing my writing with an audience, it was necessary if I wanted to become a better writer and teacher. I usually had no trouble filling up pages when I wrote for myself, but that was no longer enough. What better way to become a more experienced writer than to immerse myself in writing and acquire knowledge from writing experts? I remembered the great experiences learned from meeting the BWCA wilderness on its own terms and the confidence I gained as well as the insatiable desire to continue camping and exploring unknown places. Metropolitan life and confidence in writing are equally as intriguing.

Time passes all too quickly. I find this to be especially true as I write and rewrite making changes as I go with one eye on the clock and an urgency to finish before they close the lab for the night. I am happy to see that I am not the only one spending Sunday night doing last minute work. It’s worth it I think to myself. The challenges, uncertaintanities, and trepidations that I first felt when committing to the MN Writing Institute are melting away and being replaced with a more comfortable self confident feeling. My writing group is caring, helpful, and insightful. Their ideas and suggestions are given freely and positively and are not only encouraging but inspiring. A writing group is like the yoke on a canoe. It’s an invaluable tool that makes the job of getting from one place to another so much easier.

As I moved into the sharing stage of my writing, another memorable quote popped into my head. “Whether you think you can or think you can’t …. You’re right” – these great words of wisdom spoken by Henry Ford apply so well to any situation. They hold true no matter what the adventure or where the wilderness. The power gleaned from positive thinking is a catalyst for overcoming any obstacle no matter how intimidating. For me these words hold inspiration to forge ahead on even the most daunting of adventures - camping or writing.

Reflecting on past experiences and present circumstances, I have come to trust my instincts. Bears, quiet dark nights with creepy sounds magnified a thousand times, busy metropolitan life in an unfamiliar city, blank sheets of paper, and sharing my thoughts and feelings in writing are all an adventure. A successful camping trip, arriving at University Village in a non round-about way the second week, feeling more comfortable with expectations of the Writing Institute, and getting to know my wonderful writing group have all been positive experiences. It is an exciting possibility for this inexperienced writer who loves to write. I know the risk is worth the adventure. Bears and blank pages are less intimidating, and sharing writing is what makes writing worthwhile