Interview with Writer John Lane: My Paddle to the Sea

Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo, with exception of John Lane photo, courtesy of John Lane

An Upstate, South Carolina river
An Upstate, South Carolina river

I rarely let go of a story.

I’ll research an article or essay, write it, and have it published, but it’s not often that I just file the story away and stop thinking about the subject. I like to keep following the story.

I’ve been writing about and following John Lane since 2008, when I interviewed him^ about his book, Circling Home. John lives in my hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina, so many of the places he writes about are familiar to me. That’s one reason I keep reading his work; the other is, quite simply, that he’s a good writer who wants to make sense of his experience through the writing process.

John’s newest book, My Paddle to the Sea, was just published by University of Georgia Press and the launch party, hosted by Spartanburg’s indy bookstore, Hub City Bookshop, was probably the best attended in Spartanburg’s history, if Facebook chatter is any indication. My Paddle to the Sea opens with Lane’s recounting of a tragic white water trip in Costa Rica and his subsequent 300-mile paddle of South Carolina’s waterways, a trip initiated partly for catharsis. But as with all of Lane’s projects, writing and otherwise, his 300-mile paddle trip was also undertaken as one more effort to understand himself, his local ecosystem and history, and his place within them.

Though I’d have rather interviewed John while walking around a riverbed in Glendale as I did three years ago, I was happy to have talked with him about My Paddle to the Sea via email.

One of the qualities of this book that struck me–and has stayed with me since–is the way in which you honor other people by reflecting upon and celebrating what they’ve shared with you, whether an experience, as with Venable Jr. [Lane’s partner on the paddling trip], or a lesson or idea, as with other writers. You did so in an artful, elegant, authentic way that I found quite moving. Were you conscious you were making these acknowledgements of influence as you were writing?

The major decision I had to make with this project was: go it alone, or go with a friend, or a number of friends. Originally, when I conceived of paddling almost 300 miles to the sea I’d thought, yes, I’ll do the trip alone and make it into one of those “man against the wild” type adventure stories. You know, rugged individual sets out against the elements in a kayak with only a can of pork & beans, a sleeping bag, and a Swiss Army knife. But our tragic trip to Costa Rica changed that. After the deaths on that river in Costa Rica I realized I’d have to have the help of my other adventurous friends if I wanted to pull this trip off and get back in the adventure saddle. I’d lost the desire to be alone on the trip.

After Costa Rica the idea of the trip became a celebration of friendship– planning and doing, sharing stories, overcoming adversity, and telling the tale. And I knew from the beginning that telling my tale would include telling the tales of my good friends Venable Vermont and Steve Patton. They are both adventurous men who have pulled off long river trips and had near misses like the one I had in Costa Rica, and they both had plenty to say about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as we paddled along.

As far as the other influences–the writers and others who have come before– I’m always conscious that landscapes have deep histories, and I always want to acknowledge that other minds have passed before me. I knew going in that the Santee River basin wasn’t “unwritten,” wasn’t a blank slate. There was the mind and work of Henry Savage and his great Rivers of America volume on the Santee, and then there were literary writers such as WJ Cash, John P. Kennedy, Julia Peterkin, and poet Archibald Rutledge. Their voices had to be included along with mine. They had already sung of this river.

I also felt like you struggled with trying not to be judgmental of people who don’t share your world view, and I wanted you to write about them in a way didn’t set up or reinforce binaries of “us” and “them.” I think the place where I felt most frustrated about this was the characterization of the “hook and bullet crowd” in the Low-country. (I fully acknowledge that I wanted you to do this because I struggle with it in my own life/work.). Any thoughts about this?

John Lane
John Lane
Well, there is often an “us” and a “them” in many things, and I think it’s a lie if we try to act like it doesn’t exist. It’s like me traveling to Zimbabwe (which I did last October) and thinking when I land that there is no difference between me and those who I encounter in my travels. I’m not saying that there is always a hard “us and them” line– after all, we’re all humans– but my values are often different than what one of my friends calls the “hook and bullet crowd.” If you reduced me to my own stereotype then I’m close to what “they” would call a “tree hugger.” I don’t deny that and actually I find intellectual strength in it.

I probably understand the motives of the person who sits in a tree to stop it from being cut down more fully than I understand one who sits in a tree stand all day to shoot a deer. But I do share many values with the hunting and fishing tribe–my love of wildness, my observation skills, my knowledge of landscapes– but there are still often some fundamental difference between many of those who hunt and fish seriously and those who do not. Mostly these are simply management issues. Most wild land is managed now and I’m generally more of a preservationist as opposed to a conservationist. I’d like to see land set aside and managed for all creatures great and small, not just deer and turkey. I’d like to see large tracts of territory where ecological processes can go on without us. I prefer free-flowing rivers to recreational lakes. If you forced me to choose between the ideas of John Muir or Gifford Pinchot, I’d choose Muir. Pinchot’s “Wise Use” doesn’t cut it for me entirely.

And in South Carolina there is a huge spectrum in the hunting/fishing world. Many who hunt and fish I admire deeply and they too would vote for preservation. Others I wouldn’t agree with, and those are usually the ones who think of hunting as a “sport.” Through the years I’ve come closer and closer to understanding and even admiring those particularly who eat what they kill. (I’ve even developed relationships with several hunters where we eat what they kill.) But I still can’t kill game myself, and I know that “they” generally see the wild world through the scope of a rifle or as just off the tip of a rod. I see it at the end of a paddle or under my feet or bike tire. The worlds of the hunter and the non-hunter are often very different and they are managed in different ways.

In the book you say, “There are no simple answers to contemporary recreation in the [American] South.” But besides kayaking your local waterways, what are some of *your* answers? How do you engage with the land apart from the time in your kayak?

Well, in some ways this is a continuation of the question above. There has been a shift in our culture in the last 30 or 40 years from wilderness to recreation, from preservation to conservation, from nature worship to use. During the 60s and 70s the lobby for the values of wilderness and preservation were strong. Read Wallace Stegner’s “Wilderness Letter.” Read the 1964 Wilderness Act itself. The idea of limited and controlled human access to wilderness in particular was supported politically and intellectually.

Lots has happened to bring some of those values into question since then. The work of historian William Cronon in the 1980s brought into question the idea of wilderness itself. Cronon suggested that wilderness was an idea invented by urban people, that the places we call wilderness– take Yellowstone for example– were actually inhabited and used by people regularly for thousands of years.

There has also been an explosion in technology and income that can take people into wild places– from airline routes to kayaks to four wheelers to light weight hiking gear. Every improvement in gear makes it easier for humans to “use” wildness easily. Every uptick in the adventure travel industry has made it harder to support the values and ideals that were outlined in the Wilderness Act. That document saw value in difficulty of access and use.

In the [American] South it’s even more complex because there is such a large population within easy driving distance of our limited wilderness areas. The Chattooga Wild & Scenic River and its Ellicott Wilderness is within a 2 hour drive of 7 or 8 million people and many of them like to recreate “in the wild.” It’s complex for me because I value wilderness, but I also like to go into it, to recreate. Here’s another place where the easy “us” and “them” breaks down!

Lane's home river
Lane's home river
I’m spending alot more time enjoying “nearby nature,” my own backyard, than I did in the past. Much of my walking/paddling now takes place close to home. I’m finding out that there’s a lot to be learned and enjoyed in my “limited wild” (to use David Gessner’s term). I began to walk a small circle every morning with my dog on our 4 suburban acres that I wrote about in CIRCLING HOME. I’m always engaged on that walk.

What are the other places you want to explore in the South that you don’t know so well yet?

I really want to spend more time up in the Blue Wall area, the mountain front west of here. I’d like to hike the whole Foothills Trail. I also want to paddle as many of the South Carolina rivers as I can.

Regarding some of the practical aspects of promoting and selling this book, what’s your strategy?

I’m hoping that readers who know my work from the past will pick up on it, and I’m hoping that there will be a few good reviews. I’m also hoping that the 30 minute video RIVER TIME ( that film makers Chris Cogan and Tom Byars put together about me and the trip will take off and get shown on local ETV stations around the south. They have a few screenings set up in SC and Georgia and we’ll sell some books there. I’m not sure how it will be received in other regions. We’ll just have to wait and see.

^One of the unfortunate aspects of writing online is that technology evolves and some published works get lost in the evolution. My article that accompanied the oral interview linked to above has been eaten by the interwebs.

From “Good” to “Great”: Tips for Becoming a Better Writer

As a writer, editor, and translator, I spend my days (and nights) surrounded by words.

I’m lucky: I love what I do and I’m regularly reminded why I love writing and why I think it’s important. Just today, for instance, I received a submission for Matador Travel from a writer whose opening lines read: “As the rooster announces the arrival of morning, Grandmaster Dai Kang’s slippers hit the concrete. It is 4am.”

It’s a perfect opening: the details are plentiful, yet the phrasing is tight. There’s an economy of language that confirms the writer’s skillfulness while successfully putting the reader in a specific place and time. The writer also introduces a character and provides just enough intrigue to engage the reader.

I knew the piece “worked”, but I sent it to a couple of other editors for their input. “Amazing,” one e-mailed. “I actually read it twice.” Another editor responded, “Fantastic.” Everything about the piece was well-crafted, and we look forward to publishing the piece so that other readers can enjoy it as much as we did.

For every moving, entertaining, or informative piece I read, though, there are many that fail to impress, that fall flat and leave me wondering what can be salvaged and reworked. As an editor, I view my job as including the tasks of determining whether the piece is thematically and stylistically consistent with the format, vision, and interests of the publication for which it has been submitted; asking the question: Will this be meaningful to a large readership?; and nurturing the writer’s own voice and style while making sure the piece meets the preceding two criteria.

It’s not always an easy task, or a fun one–many writers are notoriously sensitive to criticism and rejection. But it’s through my own experiences as a writer that I’ve come to understand my work as an editor. It’s in that spirit, then, that I offer the following observations and tips for writers who are hoping to be published:

1. Trim the fat. I once heard a writer refer to revising and editing as “killing my babies.” As someone who writes long, Saramago-esque sentences myself, the metaphor resonated with me… it can be painful to cut the words we’ve worked so hard to birth onto the page. It’s true that some stories and subjects warrant 3,000 words. Many, however, do not. And in either case, even the most devoted, enthusiastic reader has a limited attention span.

When I say “trim the fat,” I don’t mean that you should force your piece into a word count (unless the publication requires that). Don’t kill rich details. Don’t omit a crucial character. But read through your piece before submitting it and ask yourself: Is every word absolutely necessary? Does every word advance the narrative? If the answer is yes, keep it. If the answer is no, start trimming.

2. Read with a critical eye. So how do you separate the lean from the fat? Simple. Get rid of filler words. So many words we use in everyday speech are unnecessarily imported into our writing: this, that, these, those, them, there are, there is, it, and etc. are just a few examples. Take a sentence with filler words and look at it critically: what can be eliminated without sacrificing detail? Try this tip consistently. I promise you’ll be surprised by how many words are simply unnecessary.

3. Write with precision…and passion. I recently landed a contract to write a guide to Mexico City for an online travel planning company. I was given a style guide to follow; though it was strict, it was not constraining. I was confident about my subject–I know my second home well–and I completed the guide with passion. I was satisfied with what I’d written and sent it off to the editor, sure it would be accepted immediately with praise and no requests for revisions.

I was wrong. “I just have a few revision requests,” the editor wrote. When I opened the document, I could see red marks all over my draft, the editor’s frustrated notes electronically penned into the margins. “WHY IS THIS PLACE GREAT?!!” she wrote with evident exasperation. “WHY IS THIS RESTAURANT ‘CELEBRATED’?!” I could almost see her, sighing and rolling her eyes, and I felt chastised by her feedback.

As I sat with the draft and reviewed it with fresh eyes and an open mind, I realized she was absolutely right. Words like “good,” “great,” “must-see,” and “celebrated” have no meaning for a reader who has never been to Mexico City. I knew the places I’d included in the guide were good, great, celebrated must-sees, but I hadn’t taken the reader there. I had to be more precise. The second draft–and the final product–were better because the editor pushed me to get rid of vague adjectives, forcing me to be precise.

So here’s the tip: Avoid “good,” “great,” and all other vague adjectives that mean nothing. Remember the 5 “Ws” of writing: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. WHY is the place great? Pushing yourself to be precise won’t just benefit the reader; you’ll become a better writer and you’ll fall in love with your subject all over again as you struggle (and succeed!) to articulate precisely why it’s so important to you.

If you find precision challenging, ask a trusted friend to read your draft. Can he or she understand the place or experience you want to convey? If not, what would the reader like to know that’s currently missing?

4. Be yourself. Recently, I had the painful experience of working with a writer who was simply trying too hard to channel her voice to fit the vibe of our publication. I could sense the talent underneath her words, but so much of her writing felt stilted. Something simply didn’t ring true, though it was difficult to express this to her.

Writers are constantly trying to fit their resumes and themselves into the varied visions and expectations of editors and the publications they represent. Don’t. Be yourself and always channel your authentic voice. When you force your writing to be something it’s not, the reader can sense the inauthenticity. And besides, you’ll be left with the yucky feeling of defeat and compromise. If the piece doesn’t fit, don’t force it. You’ll find your place. In the meantime, keep writing.

What tips do YOU have about improving as a writer? Please share your comments and experiences below!

Photo: thorinside (Flickr creative commons)