Monday Writing Motivation: A love letter in the River Great Ouse
The marina in which our houseboat is anchored is connected via a channel to the River Great Ouse. In these covid-raddled months, when rain, wind and ice allow, Trish and I launch our inflatable kayak from our deck. It takes just a minute or so to make our way out onto the river. Then we can choose either to turn left and paddle a mile or so downstream to Cardington lock, or right, and paddle a mile or so upriver to the town lock.
We could go further either upstream or downstream by portaging round the locks – and, in the summer months, we’ve done just that – but for the most part we stick to the two miles of winding river immediately accessible to us.
We’ve got to know it intimately – each twist and turn of the Ouse, each shadowed grotto hidden beneath willow or chestnut branches, the tug of the current as we approach the various sluice gates, the banks of lilies that blossom at the height of summer, the untidy reaches of bramble, the row of sloe trees, whose fruit we harvest in late autumn to replenish our stocks of sloe gin.
And in return for the joy our expeditions give us, we committed ourselves to picking up the rubbish that inevitably finds its way into the river: plastic bags and bottles, glass bottles, beer cans and unidentifiable scraps of this and that. We’re doing ourselves a favour, of course – but we also find walkers along the banks thanking us for removing this garbage.
The recent floods that swept through Bedford – raising our houseboat a couple of metres above its usual levels – scoured the streets and alleys of the town, unending skips and rubbish bins, and sweeping their contents down the river. Much of this ended up tangled in the trees and brambles along its banks.
There was really nothing we could do but begin plucking this plastic debris – low hanging fruit – from the twigs and branches to which it had become attached. We’ve devoted several trips to this deeply satisfying task – and we anticipate many more to come.
Now all of this is merely the prelude to the real point of my piece. Floating on the river, alongside a wreath dedicated to a recently deceased great grandfather, we found a folded sheet of paper, clearly torn from a jotter. We tossed it casually into the bucket we carry on the prow of our kayak for just that purpose – but later, when we returned to the houseboat, we realised not only that the sheet of paper was filled with writing, but that the writing had not been rendered illegible by its immersion in the waters of the Ouse.
Naturally, I was curious. I read it. This is how it began:
“I am beautiful, I am stunning, I look like a princess, I look like a goddess, I look like a model, I look like a Bollywood actress, I turn heads, men fall in love with me so easily and effortlessly, so quickly, I’m mesmerising, I’m hyponotic…”
And a little further down:
“Thank you for loving me, thank you for the kiss, thank you for the cuddles, thank you for the texts and calls, thank you for sleeping beside me…”
And still later:
“Thank you universe… I am grateful to you. “
The author of this love letter to her husband (and to life) committed her most ardent feelings to this sheet of paper before consigning it, in ritualistic fashion, to the river. It’s a message to the universe, a declaration of self-belief and gratitude.
Well, that’s a great way to begin the new year. But it also provokes a thought for us, as writers: You could invite your character to do what this woman did: write a letter that confides his or her deepest feelings about love and life. Expressing our gratitude for our blessings has become a trope of self-help gurus. But this is a little different. We’re not suggesting that you express your own gratitude – but have your protagonists do so. In order to identify those deepest feelings, you’ll have to climb deep into their hearts.
And having done that, you might push a little further and ask your antagonist to express his deepest resentments.
And then swap them about, and have your heroes articulate their resentments, and your villains their gratitude.
And slowly, slowly, you’ll find that, just as our river has done, your characters will yield up the secret commitments that make them what they are.