There’s only one first time

By the time I had reached the end of this post on Monday, we found ourselves in a cell hole. Cut off, incommunicado, out of touch. As much as I love getting away from civilization on our sailing adventures, we also leave behind some taken-for-granted conveniences. So my Monday post has become my Tuesday post.


Silk’s Post #49 – Grace Harbour is one of our favourite anchorages in Desolation Sound, an untamed jigsaw of islands and inlets that chokes the north end of the Georgia Strait up the coast from Vancouver, British Columbia.

The Strait separates the southern half of Vancouver Island from the mainland. The northern half is kept apart from the soaring mountains and deep fjords of the mainland coast by the narrower Johnstone Strait, with its swift currents and sometimes vicious seas.

I’ve been here before. It’s always enchanting, but no visit can ever duplicate the experience of discovering it the first time.

imageDesolation Sound was named by Captain George Vancouver on his voyage of exploration in 1792. Obviously, he wasn’t in a very good mood when he came up with such a depressing moniker. The islands that rise up from the sea, some separated by narrow passages with currents that run as strong as 12 or 14 knots, are called the Discovery Islands. Most are named for English or Spanish mariners on the voyage, as though Europeans were the actual “discoverers” rather than Johnny-come-lately visitors to a land that had been settled by the First Nations for 10,000 years.

But that’s the power of the discovery experience. There’s a certain magic in seeing or doing something for the first time that can never be duplicated. It doesn’t matter that thousands or millions of people before you have seen or done the same thing. The discovery experience is when something comes alive for you for the first time, and prior to that it may as well not have existed. The moment belongs to you alone.

Probably the best read, and most treasured, memoir of this coastline is The Curve of Time, written by M. Wylie Blanchet, an adventurous widow who used to bring her five young children upcoast for whole summers in the wilderness aboard a small boat back in the 1920s and 1930s. Here’s one of her descriptions that, to my ear, sounds like love at first sight:

“The mountains grew higher and higher, and gossiped together across our heads. And somewhere down at their feet, on that narrow ribbon of water, our boat with the white sails flew swiftly along, completely dwarfed by its surroundings.”

The first time is when all your senses are in overdrive. What you are seeing or doing is brand new, and you gulp it down greedily. Maybe fear motivates you to pay attention, or maybe wonder or delight – depending on the circumstances. Your senses take in the big picture and the vivid details at the same time, and your brain processes them at light speed and files them in your memory cache.

This memory cache is a wonderful survival mechanism because it allows us to recall what we’ve learned and not have to learn it all over again every single time. However, it also makes the second-time experience less dramatic than the first, because we call on our memories instead of entirely relying on our senses.

Whenever we experience a “first time” it’s like seeing the world through the fully open eyes of a child again. It’s when we’re completely “present”, in the moment, engaged and excited by novelty. Isn’t this why people love to travel to new places, to recapture this feeling?

So what does this all have to do with writing? I think the mental and emotional state of “being present” is essential to all art – writing, visual art, performing art, all of it. It’s what separates the fresh and original from the tired and trite. If we can train ourselves to truly be attentive, with mind open and senses alert and unfiltered, our observations will be sharper and more insightful, and our writing will be more alive and gripping.

I think the ability to bring all our faculties to the present moment stimulates and feeds imagination. Some writers seem to have a natural gift for this creative state of mind. We read their scene descriptions and we’re absolutely “right there” in the story. We find surprise and delight in their original plot twists. Their words carry us to the equivalent of real life “first time” experiences.

You know when you’re in the hands of one of these master writers and storytellers. It’s when you can’t turn out the light and go to sleep, even though your eyes are burning and the alarm clock is set to wake you in a few short hours. Or when you can’t stop yourself from reading passages aloud to the person next to you.

imageThe analogy of writing as a journey of discovery is far from original, but not less true for being something of a cliche. Capturing the spirit of the “first time” remains an elusive art. And it keeps us at the keyboard, searching for the words that will bring our story fully to life with the authenticity and originality of the discovery experience.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s