Just returned from a long bank holiday weekend camping in Devon with some pleasant drives and strolls through Somerset and the Cotswolds as well. The English countryside with its rolling patchwork of greens and yellows and occasional puffs of white sheep and dairy cows—all accessorized in dense hedges or stony walls and cottages—is certainly an isle of inspiration for a writer. Be they grasses or cobbles underfoot, the paths one treads here are a return to the natural state and the fundamentals on which we build our lives and stories.
The last writing prompt I followed involved fire; today’s regards that other element that seemed to so dominate my camping trip, whether it surged onto the coastal sands or pattered against our tent in the night. I speak, of course, of water.
Page 31 of Room to Write asks us to “write about water: tap water, ocean water, rain water, any water or experience or dream of water that has both wet and whetted [our] imagination.” Well, I’ve written about my water dreams already, so I’ll try not to be too redundant here…
WATER. It multiplies the Mogwai or signals an approaching T-Rex, melts the Wicked Witch or freezes Leonardo to Kate Winslet. It helps kids slip-n-slide and makes T-shirt contests more interesting. It conforms to the shape of its container and yields both its clarity and taste to the color and flavor of what enters it; yet I would not call it submissive. No, it fills the container’s inner space to empty it of air and weigh it down, and it dilutes the efficacy of what it absorbs, dissipating it in its solvency whenever it can play this advantage. It carves canyons and fjords in its liquid and solid states, eroding away in its slow, subtle way of feigning innocence. Water cleanses away the toxins, rinses the filth; it quenches our thirst and hydrates our cells. It cools or it scalds, it cleans or it floods; it can keep us afloat with its density or yank us down with its current, hold us up on a wave or crush us under a whitecap. It ebbs, it flows, it dips, it swells. It can flush out mortal life or baptize into one everlasting. In its glassy calm, its surface can reflect our being and the wonder of the skies as it refracts the perceptions that penetrate deeper. Water contains mystery in its depths, holding it beyond the reach of light, and yet what it sprays forth to glitter in the sun can somehow reveal all the answers.
Water has always fascinated me…as a little girl, I wanted to be a mermaid, and as an adult, I found a new way of communing with it when I learned to sail (the capsizing drill in 50-degree Fahrenheit Lake Michigan being one bonding session I could have done without…it was less fun the second time around when the main sail came down on top of me and trapped me underwater—not to fear! I was an apt pupil and remembered my survival strategy :)).
Anyways, I find I often allude to water in my writing as analogous to emotions and circumstances, playing on the ways it can be a subduing or overwhelming force, an annoyance like a leaking faucet, or perhaps a current that sweeps my characters along the tributaries that lead into their destinies. It’s a recurring motif, for example, from the very first to the very last sentence of a short story I once wrote in which the narrator is literally unable to drink from a water fountain, which parallels her deeper “thirst” as she comes of age:
“Here she had the smartest guy in my physics club falling all over himself to impress her, saturating her ego with his deluge of compliments, but she gets all haughty and tense, as though struggling to ignore the persistent drip of water torture.
Girls like her just rinse and spit. They’ll spit out a mouthful and have the nerve to complain that they’re thirsty.”
I also can’t help but think of this element at the pen-tips of the pros, such as the way Stephen Crane wields water in his short story, “The Open Boat”:
“None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea. The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks. Many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which here rode upon the sea. These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously abrupt and tall, and each froth-top was a problem in small-boat navigation.”
No matter how light or heavy the content of a story, there seems to be an abyss of options for describing water or using it metaphorically, especially as it shares the complex dualities of fire that I’ve discussed previously. In this way, it is a tap that could never run dry, so to speak.
So I’m curious—what are examples of water imagery that you have found effective, either in your own or others’ writing?