I recently returned from living as my protagonist. To match my novel of historical fiction about queer pirates, I sailed for a week on a wooden tall ship from Boston to New York City.
It was my 30th birthday gift to myself, my first vacation, and the first hands-on research for my novel all rolled into one. I’d scrimped and saved and made poor life choices to make it happen. And I was stoked.
The trip was all its own. I internalized some great sensory details, like how it feels to tread a sun-warmed deck barefoot after the crew has just put down fresh sand. Or mastering the hip sway of the sailor’s walk in classic do-or-die fashion. Or the comfort of being quite literally rocked to sleep to the sound of lapping waves.
But there was also so much that I couldn’t capture.
How do I explain the utter majesty of an osprey swooping down to catch a fish, clutching it long-ways as the poor shiny bastard struggled against the food chain into the oblivion of the midday sun?
How do I express the childlike giddiness of running the length of the deck after being interrupted watching the sunrise, keeping my sight on the two dolphins who suddenly felt our schooner was game for a quick race?
How do I get you to hear the satisfaction of snap when sails fill after we raised them, to understand that unheeded stars are secretly nothing more than light shone through pinpricked paper, to see the rich and varied colors of nature and sea and sun that no manmade device has yet to capture?
There’s the helplessness of being on a small boat in a big ocean that isn’t in the mood to be kind, of trusting strangers to put you where you need to be, of just looking out over the expanse and truly realizing for the first time, “Whoa. There’s a lot of water out here.”
These experiences were all beyond words when they happened, and sound so hokey when I try to explain them here and now. Probably because I’m actually trying to put words to them.
Therein lies the problem.
It’s a bit like what Julie Carrick Dalton wrote in her recent piece: “It was awe inspiring. How could I possibly contain that feeling in words?”
I, for one, don’t feel I’ll ever be able to. People like Julie can give you the prime rib when you ask for it. But me? I’ll be holding out some half-thawed hamburger in my naked palm with the biggest grin I can muster. Because if I look pathetic enough, maybe you’ll still take it and say thank you.
And I’m okay with this failure. I became okay with it much faster than I ever thought I would. Because I realized I had an adventure. And while I may not have walked away with words, I still walked away with stories. I may not be able to put my experiences into words that form sentences, but these experiences are a part of me now, and I am my book. My experiences may not be words, but they will shine through the spaces between them.
As writers, we become obsessed with pouring ourselves into others, with sharing every little piece and thought and detail we have to the public until we’re wrung out. We’re terrible with our self-care because our novels are us no matter the content.
And so the world sometimes steps in to give us a break. It’s tough love, but sometimes we need to have our mouths taped in order to get us to shut up. To have our words taken away from us so we can’t indulge the itch to tell, to share.
“This one isn’t for sharing,” the world says with a finger to its own lips. “This one’s just for you.”
Living as my protagonist made me the pinpricked paper. And I’m thankful.