Lars Andersen and his Adventure Outpost are known for the expert guiding of kayak trips to our Florida springs and marshes and creeks. He's known for his deep knowledge of the natural world. He's known for his gentle way of teaching. Lars is not as well known for his writing. Which is just wrong. Here's an excerpt from his latest essay.
"Some days I slip below the water’s surface and glide through the flowing ether, past schools of bream and darting needlefish and weave through billowing pastures of eel grass and bitter cress, over the intricately sculpted limestone rim of the vent and then down into the lightless chasm. I’m in utter darkness. Everything I see and feel—the water’s coolness, the power of its flow, the pressing silence—is the pure essence of the earth. Its temperature becomes my own. I am buffeted by Florida’s pulse; awash in her "vital signs."
Damn, what a paragraph. And now go read the rest of this essay. (Have a kleenex near by.)
Some years ago Lars published Paynes Prairie: The Great Savanna. These days the best way to keep up with his writing is to subscribe to his "wanna go" list which besides offering up kayak trips, contains long descriptive, historical, and personal essays about each paddling location. Someday these will be collected into a book. But until then, between the "wanna go" list and Lars' blog, we'll be able to keep up with some of the most tender and knowledgeable essays about the natural world of Florida.
Yes, that is an Adrienne Rich quote, but it's also the title of an upcoming anthology from Sundress Publications. Not Somewhere Else But But Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women and Place will include my essay "Rolling in the Mud" which was first published in The Alaska Quarterly Review.
Sundress Publications "is a (mostly) woman-run, woman-friendly publication group founded in 2000 that hosts a variety of online journals [Including Wicked Alice, Gone Dark Archives, and Intentional Walk which is devoted to the poetry of sports] and publishes chapbooks and full-length collections in both print and digital formats."
I'm so glad to be part of their endeavors.
Today about three hours into the the four hours of Study Hall, I squirmed around in my writing bed and made squealy noises under my breath. There was a novel being written in the next room. I didn't want to disturb its progress, but I had to express the "yippee" moment that happens when you smack down a period on the last sentence of an essay. And in this case, an essay I've been working on, often in despair, for six months.
I am certainly not going to read it over for awhile. The way it wanders all over the place, the possible muddiness of that middle section - I'm not thinking about that. Whatever I find, what I do know is that there's a there there. Over these months, I was never sure. Let's party.
As part of a "blog hop" I was tagged by the writer Sally Bellerose. (Have you read her novelThe Girl's Club?) So, now I'll answer the same questions she did about a work in progress. And at the bottom of the post, I've linked to Libby Ware, who's the next Wednesday author on this "hop." Okay, let's go.
What is the working title of the book? Titles, sheesh. I'm so bad with titles. But this is a collection of personal essays and some of their individual titles are "Rolling in the Mud," "A Certain Loneliness," "I Am Here, in this Morning Light," "The Last Period," "Horror in the Okefenokee," "Poster Children," and "The Wild and Wooly Waccasassa."
Where did the idea come from for the book? I'd always thought of myself as a fiction writer since I always had a novel going. From time to time, I'd intersperse the novel writing with a short story or personal essay and these essays, more than anything else, kept getting published. So I'd write more of them. And more would get published. At this point six of them are out there (or about to be out there) in journals that include New Letters, The North American Review, Arts & Letters, and The Alaska Quarterly Review. The anthologies First Person Queer and Something to Declare: Good Lesbian Travel Writing printed a few more. The word count of all these essays combined is becoming book-length respectable. When I started judging book covers from the perspective of what I'd want for mine, that's when I knew I was working towards a collection.
What genre does your book fall under? So on the flyleaf, under the ISBN, the Library of Congress subject listing would be, in no particular order – Personal Memoir, Disability, Lesbian, Nature Essays.
Which actors you choose to play your characters in the movie
rendition? The natural world of Florida would be one of the main characters, and I'm the other "main character" so I'm not thinking the film rights are going to get snatched. But since you asked, for the younger me's, I'm sure there are all sorts of up and coming braces and crutches and wheelchair-using actors that would do a great job. For the old me, I'd want Linda Hunt for sure. Oh, oh, oh – I can so hear her as the voiceover throughout the movie.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? This collection is the love-child of Lucy Jane Bledsoe's The Ice Cave and Kenny Fries' The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin's Theory.
What is the longer synopsis of your book? As a disabled baby, child, teenager, and a young and now aging adult, my life has flourished within a world of uncertain tomorrows. I've negotiated my way through the mud and sand of Florida and felt a permeability between my body and these environments whose survival is dependent upon the extremes of flood, drought, and fire. In response, I'm working on a series of essays that layer together my travels with the particular journey of my own body. Now, all sorts of people with all sorts of disabilities write all sorts of things, but I've noticed that there are some common characteristics, and one of them is that we almost never leave the body out of our writing. The physical cannot be ignored. The challenge in an essay is to write about the details of the body and the ways it moves through the world—the tiresome frustrations, the slapstick moments, the grand triumphs—but wind them within the long history of humans and our relationships to the earth.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an
agency? I'll for sure send some queries out to agents, but I'll also be submitting to university and independent presses.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your
manuscript? My first essay ever was published by Common Lives/Lesbian Lives in the eighties, and I scribbled a yellow pad draft of the latest yesterday.
Who or what inspired you to write this book? I've already mentioned the collections by Kenny Fries and Lucy Jane Bledsoe, but I'd have to add Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams and all of Jack Rudloe's books. And there was this moment, after I'd finished that last brilliant, poetic chapter of Janisse Ray's Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, that I just knew I wanted to be a serious writer. And the language in Jackie Kay's Red Dust Road - I always hope for a smidgen of something like that in my work.
What else about your book might pique the reader's interest? There are alligators.
New Letters accepted one of my essays. So today, while I'm giving thanks for turkey and pie, I'll add an appreciation of all the people, from editors to interns, who create literary journals. In a small town in Florida, in an old wood house shaded by live oaks, I prop up on my writing bed and work on a piece until I think it might be ready. (I'm often wrong.) And then I launch it out into the world. Thanks to journals like New Letters, it sometimes doesn't sink.
Here's Sue Austin in her propeller-driven underwater wheelchair. If I ever should have a book of personal essays published - which would require a whole long series things to happen beginning with me actually writing more essays - this is my current choice of book cover. Everyone imagines the design of their not even yet written books, right?
Well, not done, done. It doesn't have a title, one paragraph transition is so problematic that I'm thinking perhaps the whole section about gagging has to come out, I use the word "perhaps" way too many times, some of the sentences are overwrought, and I'm thinking perhaps (g) the tone jerks around too much. But it has a beginning, middle, and what I right now think is a perfect end. I got to have that surge of joyful completion as I smacked out the letters of the final word. (Which was "that." You had to be there.)
"Why am I writing about my arm hurting? It doesn't fit in anywhere." "Is it okay to swear in an essay?" "This part has to go - it'll make readers cringe in embarrassment for me." "It might not even be true." "I'll write it and then plan on deleting." "Boring and stupid, boring and stupid, boring and stupid." This won't ever come together into anything, ever." "Maybe I'll make tuna fish for lunch." "Ohhhhhh, that's a nice little transition." "And what if I flip these paragraphs?" "And then this cringy part would slip right in here." "Damn." "I should walk the dog now."
I'm sitting on a lump of cold flesh. Six hours of kayaking and a chilly day for South Georgia means the only reason I know my backside is there is because it always has been. Can you get frostbite on your butt? I decide you can't, but am planning an immediate precautionary hot shower as I paddle out of the swamp and up the canal to the marina. My wheelchair is still standing sentinel at the boat ramp.
I wedge the kayak between the uneven cinder blocks at the bottom of the ramp. Now all I have to do is roll out of the boat, scooch over the concrete, balance on all fours, raise onto my knees, and twist into the seat of my wheelchair. I prefer to do this with no one watching since sometimes people act funny when I crawl by. Besides, an observer always makes something go awry – like losing my shoes or trapping one breast under the seat on my way up. Either way, I'll do it. I let nothing interfere with a good day on the water.
Before I can start my roll over the side, a smartly uniformed ranger appears at the top of the ramp. He chats about the weather. He asks about my trip. How many alligators? Any otters? He lingers. Knees to chest, arms clasped around them to stop the shivering, I try to wait him out. In the middle of his story about the year it snowed, I abandon modesty and make my moves. More than once, I am butt-first in his direction.
Panting and finally sitting face forward in my chair, I smile at the ranger. His neck and face are sweaty and red. His expression is professionally bland, but I can see the horror underneath. Eyes averted, he mutters something and walks away, disappearing over the top of the ramp. This pisses me off. So what that I don't move the way he does. Why can't people just deal with, admire even, someone figuring out how to do whatever it is they want to do? Screw him.
It isn't until I am at my campsite, blood returning to my backside, that I feel something cold and bare. Have I mentioned that I don't use underwear kayaking? It gets wet. It bunches.
Squirming from side to side, I strip off the thread-worn, used only for kayaking pants. I hold them in front of me. Except for three frayed strips of material, the seat is gone. That last trip along the concrete was too much for it, and I had been left exposed. I picture my butt pointed at the ranger with the ragged remains of the pants stretched across it and looking not unlike a balding man's bad combover.
I was unfair in my assumptions about that ranger, and I'm going to have to apologize to him – but only mentally. Anything else will be too embarrassing for the both of us.
Originally published in Breath and Shadow.
I woke up this morning with scribbled, almost illegible notes on my bedside yellow pad - "let it echo back and forth," "Juncus effusus? "get to be sad," "look up synonyms for inadequate," "relentless," "Florida redbelly cooters," "value in the world."
Sometimes I have a whole, polished, nicely done as far as I can tell essay written, and I still don't know what it's about. But I poke and think and revise and highlight a word or phrase that has a certain energy to it and then wake up in the night with the answer. Now, I can make the essay do its job.
Thankfully, this time, with this essay, still at the it's-all-down-there-on-the-page early revisions stage, I have at least a clue. I knew it was about being a swimmer, but "stuff" about disability and writing kept showing up. Where was the thread, the deep meaning that connected it all? Last night, as I, mostly asleep, wrote, I knew. Today I decipher handwriting and translate the best I can into the imagery of the essay.
If you're looking in my window all you see is me sitting propped up on my writing bed and bent over the computer on my lap. Perhaps you notice how the little dog's sleeping breaths push into the small of my back. It's a quiet scene. But don't miss the jerks of excitement, the thrill of getting the right phrase that makes me stretch my arms high over my head, and the long blank looks out into the street and yard as I let a layer of understanding settle inside me. Really, there's a party going on. See, there's me grabbing up the little dog and kissing her head - which means I've come up with a lovely transition from one paragraph to another.