Literacy lesson learned. I spent 10 months of my life sleeping outside, all because I didn’t read a book.
If you read my last few posts, I made a pledge to sleep outside until I finished writing my first novel. The story was about a 12 year old boy who got stranded on an island off the coast of British Columbia. Without any survival experience, he had to rely solely on his imagination to survive from summer to spring.
I started sleeping outside- in June was it? or July? I forget. I thought I’d be done in October. No such luck. Then I thought I’d finish by the first of February. No go. Then the weather started warming up. Not good. If the cold winter hadn’t prodded me to finish the story, the warm nights weren’t going to do it either. I could be sleeping out there forever.
Then in April, I read a book. A great book! But a bittersweet read. Every page came with a gut churning realization. This was the exact book that I had been writing for the past 10 months! Ugh.
The book: Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen
The synopsis: A 13 year old boy fights to survive after being stranded in the Canadian wilderness.
The clincher: Gary Paulsen was writing from real life experience. I was writing from my imagination.
I tried to salvage what I could, tried to change my story, to accentuate the differences and adjust the plot. But it was an entirely different experience. It was a literary identity crisis. As a matter of pride, I didn’t want to give up. I just didn’t know how to bow out gracefully. But it all happened pretty naturally. The story died quickly on its own, and in May I realized it was time to move back inside. I had a weak (but somehow rational) justification- my story was finished! It just happened to be written by somebody else…
But there’s also a more poetic justification for wrapping things up, complete with irony and a sleight-of-hand plot twist. In an Escher-esque way, the story had come to life. It started with my main character, a kid, relying on his creativity to survive a year in the great outdoors. It ended with me, an old guy, relying on my own creativity to survive a year on the porch. The boy didn’t make it, but the old man did. It was hard letting the boy go- he had a great story to tell- and it was difficult coming back to reality without him. But I survived the adventure, and in a strange way, the story is now complete.
I’m grateful for the experience, and for a patient wife and kids who put up with stunts like this. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being a writer, it’s that the job comes with heaps of frustration, anguish, and struggle. But that’s the stuff that makes a story great.