Going the distance – in mountains and manuscripts

A couple of weeks ago, the WIP and I arrived at a standstill. Nearly 60,000 words in, I was sure it was crap. Not just crap, epic crap. I put the whole hot mess aside and turned in relief to a scheduled long weekend in Glacier National Park, a last hurrah to celebrate end of summer. We had in our sights an ambitious hike, one that logic would have told us was well beyond our abilities.

We are middle-aged people, in middling shape. I run the occasional half-marathon slowly, very slowly. Scott golfs. This hike went well beyond 13.1 miles or 18 holes. If—and only if—we managed to catch the last boat of the day on Two Medicine Lake, we’d save ourselves a final lakeside slog of a couple of miles back to the trailhead. Then the hike would be only 17 miles. Miss the boat, and it grew to nearly 19. Oh, and with a 3,000-foot elevation gain and subsequent descent.

But that elevation gain, according to everything we read about the Dawson-Pitamakan Loop, and everyone we knew who’d hiked it, made for once-in-a-lifetime views. Indeed, one blog rhapsodized about it as a “bucket list” adventure. “You won’t have any problems,” our friends assured us. Like us, they’re of a certain age. Unlike us, they hike every chance they can get. Logic nudged us hard at that moment. We ignored it.

I had many, many hours on that hike—13 to be exact, because needless to say, we missed the damn boat—to contemplate the similarities between our crazy-ass endeavor and writing novels.

It takes a willful rejection of logic to sit down in front of a blank screen and type the first of an eventual 80,000 words, let alone to imagine those words might ever be published. I remember the first time I hit 50 pages. I couldn’t believe it. Only 300 more to go! The distance yawned as scary-impossible as those 19 miles (was that really the boat, disappearing into the distance?), those 3,000 feet up and 3,000 more back down, knees screaming with each step.

The anguish of writing fiction (“These pages are crap. Such crap that even the dog won’t eat them—and the dog eats everything.”) is the mental equivalent of the hike’s physical agony. And of course once a manuscript  is finished, there are the rejections upon rejections, not unlike the blisters upon blisters that bubbled up on my feet as the hike dragged on.

So why do it?

Because the views! No matter how breathless the descriptions of the hike, none did justice to the reality. We stood atop a pass, the vastness of the plains just visible beyond the jagged peaks, glacial lakes the color of polished turquoise gleaming far below. We got punchy, laughed when hail pummeled us and winds shoved us around as we negotiated an endless narrow ledge. At the end, we laughed again as we jogged in the fast-deepening twilight along those last, missed-boat miles through lush huckleberry bushes, singing to warn away any lurking grizzlies. It was crazy! As crazy as the shimmering idea that prompted the novel! And the sight of  the trailhead sign was every bit as exhilarating as that of one’s own book on store and library shelves.

After we got back from the hike, we chewed fistfuls of Advil and lectured ourselves on our foolishness, not unlike writers who fall into the dark place where they calculate time and effort against lifetime poverty. Never again, we told ourselves. From now on, we’d be responsible. Oh, yes, we would. That sort of logic lasted until the muscles unkinked, the blisters healed. Now, I’m back to wrestling with the WIP with renewed purpose. Turns out it’s not quite as crappy as I thought. And Scott and I are already plotting our next mountain adventure. I can’t wait.

Filed Under: Rejection Writing

3 responses to “Going the distance – in mountains and manuscripts”

  1. Pam says:

    As a hiker and a writer, I totally embrace this analogy. As a friend (the one who said “it would be crazy,”) I am personally inspired by your taking on and conquering both publication and the life-or-death march in Glacier. As a running buddy, I look forward to planning another “over 13.1-mile” slow one with you.

    As a reader, I love your mastery of word and image and rhythm. What an adventure! Thanks for taking us with you.

  2. Kathleen Shea Aregood says:

    Aregood and I – fresh off 5 years in North Dakota – can’t wait for your WIP. Lets us fans know when we can expect it!