Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: 'Writers and Rivers'

Apr 28, 2017

Novelist Gustave Flaubert reached a frustrating impasse while writing Madame Bovary. So, he wrote to a friend about the struggle, hoping it would fix his writer's block: "What a heavy oar the pen is, and what a strong current ideas are to row in!" Commentator Scott Thybony can relate. He, too, spends a lot of time thinking about writing and rivers, the subjects of this month's Canyon Commentary

The Colorado River in Grand Canyon
Credit Scott Thybony

Ten years after learning how to run a river I began to write.  The two, I found, weren’t so far apart.  On my first rowing trip we were rigging at Lees Ferry when I counted one more boat than boatmen.  “Whose boat is that?” I asked the trip leader.  He looked straight at me and said, “It’s yours.”

Having floated the Colorado River before but never rowed a boat, I suggested he teach me a few strokes.  We headed into the current for a practice run where he showed me how to row forward, how to row backward, and how to pivot.  “You’ll do alright,” he added.  “Just follow me.”  My writing began much the same way.  With a wife and child to support, I had to make a living at it from the start.  I had never taken a class in writing or journalism, so had to pull straight into the current and let the work itself teach me. 

My first river trips came as a surprise when I found myself making one mistake after another.  Oars splintered, boats got hammered by big waves when I missed a cut, eddies grabbed hold and wouldn’t let go.  It took awhile for me to accept that’s how you learned.  And when I began to write I had to work through a new set of mistakes.  At first, whenever the momentum of a story slowed, I found myself over-writing, the way I used to over-correct when learning to row.  The fewer strokes, I discovered, the cleaner the run.  And sometimes in the middle of a rapid I reached a point where all my skill and experience, all my conscious effort no longer mattered.  Nothing more could be done but straighten the bow and take the wave head-on.  Learning to ride it out prepared me for the difficulties I faced in writing.

On the Colorado I would lie awake at night listening to the river, and knew by sound alone whether it was rising or falling.  I knew when to get up and retie the boats and when to roll back to sleep.  Writing also taught me to listen.  After finishing a page I would pay attention to the sound of each line and know whether to start again or let it stand. 

A river trip has a natural, narrative flow to it beginning with the put-in and ending with the take-out.  When sitting down to write I often face a jumble of notes and research material having no apparent start or finish.  Then I notice how one word flows into another until a thread emerges, the way each stroke takes you farther downstream.  Stringing together a story isn’t so different from piecing together a whitewater run.

When scouting a rapid from a high point it’s pure chaos at first.  All you see are waves breaking into spray, water churned to foam, and the current shredded by rock.  Then it begins to sort itself out as you study the possibilities.  You might see where a few stokes are needed to punch through a wave and reach the slackwater behind a boulder.  From there you’ll have to make a quick pivot and pick up the one twist of current taking you past a plunging hole toward the tail waves at the bottom.  Before returning to the boats you settle on a single line, a way through the maze of waves and rock.  In writing it’s called a storyline.  Both will carry you through the turbulence and around the next bend.