I come from a long tradition of writers whose creativity seems to depend on movement. Long walks clear my mind, creating space for the seeds of stories to grow unchoked by the weeds of surface worry. Running cuts through my self-doubt and overthinking. Yoga feeds my intuition and cultivates mindfulness and self-acceptance. These are key qualities of mind to induce states of flow. I lean particularly on lessons learned in yoga while in revision mode. Hiking and/or backpacking cultivate the resilience to trust in the messy process. In late July, I backpacked around Mount St. Helen’s, along the Lowitt Trail, with two friends. The trail offered several physical and mental challenges, plus some nuggets of wisdom that I carried home with me to use when I returned to the page. Let me try to break them down here in a few key aphorisms.
In this moment, there is peace.
No matter how hard I try to avoid it through careful preparation, I always seem to pack heavy. This was a topic discussed often on the trail as other hikers seemingly sped by us with comparatively petite backpacks. We asked each other: What would you leave behind to have a lighter pack? Answers were–not much. So, our packs were heavy. Except for the first overcast morning, the sun shone fiercely. We spent four days and three nights on the trail. At times the trail seemed to be a mere scratch on a cliffside, the ground just shifting sands underfoot. We trekked up and down many rock gullies. Three of these were so steep that they required ropes to navigate the trail. In a couple of places, the trail seemed to disappear before our eyes as we walked across boulder fields that stretched on and on into the distance. We scrambled our way from trail marker to trail marker, following the dusty footprints or cairns left behind by hikers before us. So much of the trail was exposed that you could see the routes ahead for miles. But here’s the thing: there is a lot of discomfort that comes with thinking about those miles ahead. Just as there is discomfort in thinking of how much further you need to go on your journey to finish your book, or to publication. For the most part, worrying too much about the future makes everything harder. During rest stops, I would pull out my map and think about the road ahead, but when we got to walking again, I tried to stay in the moment. I literally counted the number one to myself over and over to myself at times as a reminder. In this moment, there is a three-headed tigerlily proudly lit by the sun. In this moment, the lavender lupine carpet spreads out along the base of the hills and along the trails. In this moment, I can turn and see any of three mountains and feel a rewarding breeze at the top of a hill.
In writing, there is the ritual of the warmup. I feed and walk my two dogs, do a moving meditation, and prepare the sacred coffee. There is the feel of the keyboard under your fingertips, the sound they make when you get going. The pause of thinking, too. There is the moment of the story unfolding in your imagination. The stall when you get to a sticky part. The breakthrough. It’s counterproductive to the work in these moments to think too much about the miles ahead. Doing so has been known to sabotage an entire writing session. If I’m honest? It’s enough to do in a whole week of them.
Turn up your senses.
The mind wants to worry about the future (or to rehash the past). On the trail, this becomes strikingly tedious. There is so much more joy to be had in turning up the senses. Notice the bright red miniature strawberries along the trail. Then bend over to pick and eat one. Identify plants and trees. Take in the panorama of trees, sky, and earth. Listen for birds, the sound of flowing water, the voices of other hikers approaching, who might have intel on upcoming water sources.
The days were long. The water sources were sparse. Our bodies were more tired and sore each day. Our feet hurt, then blistered. But what do I really remember when I look back on all that? The moments, when I had my senses turned up to the volume of awe. Every night we sat under an open sky, trying to name all the constellations we could remember knowing. That is the sort of thing we need to do as writers: turn up our senses in the spirit of constructing our stories so that the places, characters, and scenes come alive in our imaginations.
Take care of others.
I know some people who like to hike alone. I’m not one of those people. When we stopped for water, we stood in a line so we could remove each other’s water bottles from the sides of our packs. At one point, my shoe was untied, and my friend said, here, put your foot up on my knee so I can tie it for you. We told each other stories. We pointed out what we saw along the way. We all paused when one of us needed a break. We shared snacks, sunblock, and moleskin. The end of every day was spent sitting in our camp chairs, sharing a meal, and laughing. Well, except for the night when we were too tired and possibly dehydrated to eat. But even that night, we laughed.
It can be the same way in writing. You certainly can go it alone, and I suppose that’s a quicker way to dig into the deep dark shadows of your soul if that is what you are after. As for me, I am looking to connect to others through my writing and along my journey. This means cultivating friendships with other writers, taking time to read other people’s work and give feedback, offering encouragement, writing a blog to inspire other writers, being a part of a writing group or community, and reading and reviewing other writers’ work. It’s taken me some time to see that this part is at least as important as the writing itself.
I’m taking August off from actively writing forward with my novel, focusing on rest and renewal. I’m gathering all the strength and commitment I will need to get back to my desk at 4 AM on school day mornings through the coming school year. I’m proud of myself for writing through June and July, and also for having the sense to take August off. It hasn’t even been two weeks, and I already feel the benefit of the pause. When I return to my characters again in September, I will be more present for them because I took the rest I needed to. The need for a rest may also have been inspired by the incredible effort it took to make my way all the way around Mount St. Helen’s in four days. And you bet your ass you would have heard the three of us singing that familiar refrain “She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes” when we got there.
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Some past posts to keep you making time:
Additional Inspiration: The Washington Trails Association pairs a few hikes with poetry!