Sometimes in the middle of a moment or event, I find myself slightly removed, watching with my psychic pen in hand, wondering even as I experience something how I will write about it.
This strange, constantly penning side of my brain often draws parallels between adventures I’m having and my writing life. An example of this occurred a few summers back, when I was caving in Horne Lake, burrowing deep into the earth via rocky tunnels and winding, blacker-than-black channels into surprisingly wide caverns and the like.
My obsession with caves (and writing) started when I was very young; I blame Mark Twain. While I loved Tom Sawyer (of course) and could never understand his passion for insipid Becky Thatcher, I adored Huck Finn. And the descriptions of the caves he got to explore (where Injun Joe lived for a long while) always threw me into paroxysms of jealousy. Why couldn’t I live in a cave? Why couldn’t I at least live near caves? Second only to sunken treasure, caves were the top of my romantic things list.
Fast forward to holiday planning 2009. As I investigated interesting things we could if we got tired of Rathtrevor Beach or jumping off small cliffs into Englishman River (which would never happen, but it was fun to see all the Island offers), I came across ads promoting Horne Lake caves. Real caves. Twisty, freaky, creepy, awesome ones.
We knew we were leaving the surface before we even entered the cave; the change in temperature is immediate and complete, even just at the mouth. Squeezing through crevices that put off the claustrophobic, we ended up in strange room after strange room, filled with nooks and crannies and platformed layers that would’ve made perfect sleeping quarters!
I was giddy with the knowledge of how much there was to explore. It didn’t matter that other people were doing the same thing, sometimes in the same area. Caves are unique through each person’s eyes, imagination, fears, and purpose. I felt completely alone and cut off, sometimes in a delicious, adventuresome way, other times in an awed, slightly fearful way. What had I got myself into? Could I get myself out?
The light from our headlamps (and from others’ in the caves, though for the most part my son and I were alone and even went separate ways a few times) shone in narrow beams, the inside of the earth so dark, so void of light that it seemed to devour the rays we tried to cast. I could only see as far ahead as I could shine the light directly. But it was enough.
For fun, we turned off our lights and tried to figure out where to go next, how to get out of a particular spot, by feel. Worms of panic squirmed occasionally. What would we do if our lamps went out? The answer was simple and obvious: we would get out the same way we came in. Step by step, hand-over-hand. We’d close our eyes, so the dark would feel like a choice, and move by thoughtful gut instinct, prodding the air ahead with hand and foot, making sure a steady hold waited for us. Eventually we’d make it through.
The terrain of the caves was captivating and varied: by turns rough and jagged, alternatively smooth and rounded, like mounds of mud had rolled down in layers, then hardened. Deceptively soft looking. Some areas were bone dry. Others sweated beads of moisture. And here and there, crystal clear pools glimmered with reflections when your light happened to touch them. Often, but no less delightful for the frequency, the glow from my headlamp would bounce against seemingly black, dense stone only to have it light up and sparkle like it was dusted in stars.
Yes, writing is like exploring caves in every way. Exhilarating. Intimidating. Sometimes fear-invoking. Challenging. Revealing. Often I can see no further in a story than to the end of a line. I have to accept the necessity of feeling my way around in the dark, and I’m continually amazed by the depths and diversity I discover. And just like I can’t wait to do more spelunking, I’m always excited to climb through the gnarl of passageways, dead ends, and mysterious spaces that make up my writing. And my head.
I hope you had a great summer—and whatever they are, I hope you’re inspired and itching to explore your own passions this fall!
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“Pen Caving” originally ran in the Terrace Standard in September 2009, but I felt it was still apropos –and again my kind editors agreed. It was reprinted in the Terrace Standard on September 30th, 2015. I hope it kindles memories of your own adventures and motivates you to explore and dig into new scary, exciting terrain, literally and metaphorically! ;D ~ Ev
My family plays a game called Star Spinner. You go outside when it’s dark and find a large field (or at the very least, a space moderately free of dangerous obstacles). One person has a flashlight (turned off for the time being) and heads away from the group. Everyone playing holds his/her arms out to their sides and spins and spins and spins, until from far away the flashlight holder yells, “Go!” and turns on the light.
Dizzy and blind—laughing hysterically, shrieking with nervousness or moaning with a sick feeling of nausea—each person runs as fast at they can (which is always, at best, some lurching, stumbling gait) toward the light.
I’ve played many times, but I’m still not sure who wins. I think the person who gets closest to the target thinks it’s him, but really it’s anyone who participates, who runs stumbling toward their goal, who gets up after falling, who perseveres in spite of the nagging, sensible voices in their heads and the fear (it’s dark; you’re dizzy; you might fall; stand still for crying out loud, stand still!).
Lying (inevitably) on the cool grass, staring up at the stars, still feeling slightly queasy (from spinning, from laughing, from nerves), it doesn’t matter how far you got. You’re just pleased you played. You were dizzy, had no idea where to go, but you ran full out.
Star Spinner—in addition to being just a crazy amount of fun—has always struck me as a powerful metaphor for various aspects of life: for writing, for faith, for relationships. . . .
I can only see so much—and half the time I’m anxious beyond words—but if I push past that and run screaming and laughing into the dark, I overcome fear and realize I’m completely exhilarated. The goal is often still shining somewhere beyond me, but the more I play, the more that part doesn’t matter.