By Jay O'Callahan One of the challenges of creating the story of someone else's journey is making it your own. Dick wheeler made a 1500 mile kayak voyage beginning in the north Atlantic and ending in Buzzards Bay, Cape Cod. The journey took 4 months and a tremendous amount of effort. His life was in constant danger, and he came back a changed man.
It took well over a year for me just to absorb all of the material. I talked to Dick Wheeler many times and recorded our sessions. Then I began to read about Newfoundland and the fishing crisis and the ocean itself. I read Rachel Carson, Farley Mowat, and Thomas Berry. My wife and I traveled up to Newfoundland to meet some of the people that Dick had met and see the land and sea and get a sense of the fishing crisis ourselves. I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours just absorbing information about the journey, the sea, and the fishing crisis.
As I began to shape the story, more and more questions arose. Who should tell the story? Should I be the narrator and tell what Dick Wheeler did? What is the story really about? Did some transformation occur inside Dick Wheeler? I began to tell the story in the person of Dick Wheeler and that gave the tale immediacy. Then I realized he could be talking to his kayak which the Newfoundlanders called "Aukie." Again that brought immediacy to his journey. Dick could tell Aukie of his concerns, worries and discoveries. This was very much in keeping with Dick Wheeler who talks to his dog all the time. Dick is a very bright man but also a very warm man who is perfectly comfortable talking to his dog.
I learned that over-fishing is a worldwide problem and we have the capacity now to fish out the seas. I saw in a new way that we are damaging the earth and the seas. The knowledge stunned and infuriated me, so that sermonizing crept into the story. The story doesn't work if it's a lecture. A story works if you're concerned with the characters. That brought up a brand new problem. Can the sea itself be a character?
What drew me most to this story was a kind of mystical experience Dick Wheeler had in Portland, Maine, when he had almost finished the journey. He had paddled 3 million times and was exhausted but was also almost one with the rhythm of the sea. He heard the sea speak and it was that experience that moved me most deeply. My problem was how can I make the sea a character? How can I convey this mystical experience? When Dick told a Native American what had happened, the Native American, a member of the Wampanoag tribe said, "Well your journey was a vision quest." The Native American was not surprised that the sea spoke, but for an ordinary middle class American audience, this experience is much more difficult to grasp. I struggled along finding a way to build to that crucial moment. If I did not succeed creating that moment, then the story would just be a travelogue. I wanted something much deeper, for I realized Dick's was a spiritual journey.
I also wanted to capture the rhythms of the journey and the sounds. Day after day Dick was paddling and he found a rhythm which I needed to suggest. As he paddled down the Newfoundland coast he had the constant sound of the guillemots and puffins. He was not inside; he was outside and the sound of wind and guillemots was ever present and so the sound of the guillemots became an important part of the story itself.
Speaking of sound, I met Newfoundlanders and studied their accents and was careful to use their exact speech. Chris Malloy, a Newfoundlander in his seventies, would say things like, "I'm bringing ye home. If I don't bring ye home, my wife will be destroyed." I've never met anyone who said ye, but it is part of his everyday speech. I got close to the people of Newfoundland and saw the whole culture was changing because the Grand Banks had been nearly fished out. One handsome young fisherman said to me in fury, "I used to be a fisherman but now I'm a tour guide and I'm stuck because the fish will never come back!" I will never forget the anger and hurt in his eyes. As I read more and realized the extent to which we are harming the earth I felt my own fury and that crept into the telling.
It took a long time and many tellings to rid myself of preaching and to create a story about a character who transcends himself. Flannery O'Connor thought when we turn away from the grace, we remain small. This is a story of a man who continually grew through his journey. It is finally a spiritual story about a man who discovered our relationship with the earth is awry, and if we don't change it the sea itself could die.
An intriguing part of the journey is that Dick was never isolated. He paddled alone but had the companionship of the guillemots, the puffins, the razor billed auks, the wind, the sun and the sea. On land he was greeted with great generosity by the Newfoundlanders. A coldness and sadness set in when he left Newfoundland for Nova Scotia and Maine, for he was entering the modern world, the world which thinks of itself as separate from nature, a world which denies anything is amiss with the sea or our relation to the earth.
Outside Portland, Maine, Dick had the mystical experience of the sea speaking and it is this moment which gives the story hope. The story ends with Dick Wheeler telling the story; there is hope here for he is doing exactly what the sea asked of him. My goal was to have the listener experience some of Dick's extraordinary experience. I hope I've succeeded to some extent.
The Tale Trader