Monday, November 17, 2008

The Braes o' Killiekrankie

"If ye hae been whar I hae been..."
(The Braes of Killiekrankie. Trad. Scots song, arr. Corries)
What you are, what you have done, and of course your imagination (a part of what you are) shape your writing. Yeah. Much of writing is derivative from other writing you’ve read but... well we’re all shaped by experiences, both in the content and way we approach it. I started rock-climbing when I was eight, and it has probably colored my writing and indeed my life more than anything else. And it has many odd parallels to writing. (I daresay you could do this with a martial art or music...)

For a start - anyone CAN climb. (We’re not that far from our simian ancestors. Yours truly just less far than most of the rest of you. It’s all right. I try not to look down on you, even if I think leaving the trees was a mistake.) Physically we’re just about all of us capable of it. And that -- if you’re capable of reading -- holds true for writing.

Yet... very very few people climb cliffs, and even fewer get anywhere near the top of the sport. Actually, for a lot it stays a sport they try and move on from. Once again the parallels are clear. The reason in both cases is quite simple: If you’re going to do it well... It’s hard. Hard rock has the highest calorie-burn of any sport. At the lower edge, when you’re being top-belayed it’s moderately exciting (or terrifying) but not really challenging. But if you’re going to get anywhere it is going to take training, practice, commitment, falling, getting hurt. And at the top edge it’s more addictive than heroin. You can’t get to the top of the sport without constant work. The very top edge takes innate skill and a training regimen. At the middle to upper-middle layer you can get by on enormous natural ability or one hell of a lot of hard work. And this is true of writing too. Oh, and those who think they have innate talent and don’t have to work... are usually wrong.
So: if we all can climb (or write)... why do some people who really want to, fail? Well in both cases there are factors beyond your control. Don’t worry too much about them. If you can’t do anything about them, is there a point in fretting? Of the other obstacles... Most of those are in your mind. That doesn’t make them any less real or difficult to deal with. I’ve known a fair number of people who do brilliantly on indoor walls... And simply fail to translate that onto the exposure and unpredictability of natural rock. Part of this both with writing and climbing is a failure to focus on the proximal. Concentrate on doing the moves (writing the next page) and you can do it. At the same time you do need to look ahead (unless you are following an established line - route finding - looking from the bottom of a cliff and knowing what will go and which line to follow is very like writing). But don’t spend your time looking back.

Every climber gets asked ‘why do you do this’ (because, honestly, it is like hitting yourself in the face sometimes. So nice when you stop) and explaining it to someone who doesn’t do it is very difficult. The rewards are often intangible. (And accept this is so true of writing!) Damn few people make a living out of rock-climbing, but a lot of climbers make a life out of it.

It is dangerous and you can get hurt (or killed). You can take precautions against this... up to a point. You can stick to solid, pre-bolted routes (well worn but popular tropes?), have good gear that you know how use (grammar and a spell checker) wear a helmet (don’t read Amazon crits) and have a reliable belayer (writer friends who will catch you). But if there is a loose rock (lousy editor, bad distribution, poor cover) that decided today was the day to fall... nothing you can do will stop that. But realistically those at the top venture out of the safety zone -- not un-practised, ill-equipped and unknowing (those are idiots) -- but as a carefully calculated risk, using their skill at route finding to open new lines. It’s far more dangerous... with a far higher rate of simply failing to get off the ground, but it is there the greatest excitement and glory lie. Perhaps 5% of all climbers go into this successfully, and perhaps 1% of those gather 95% of the new routes. And if you can’t see the parallels here - you shouldn’t be writing. Occasionally fools blunder in and open something spectacular. Occasionally a climber (or writer) will come from nowhere and explode on the scene... but usually when do a closer look you find that isn’t the case, yes they ventured on new territory, but actually they did a lot of practising first, on a local crag (or mag), quietly.

Finally, climbing is a solo-team sport. It is deeply solitary and the decisions that will keep you from failure or death or injury are yours. You’re on your own up there (just as the writer is on his own) and you need to balance self-confidence, determination, and prudence. If you can’t cope with little day-to-day things, you probably won’t cope with climbing - or writing (but learning to do it can help you to cope with those day-to-day things). It is psychologically very hard, and you need to be prepared to be that. But it is also very dependent on your second - your belayer who is anchored and holds your rope to catch you. Your life is in their hands and you need to have hands you can trust, and preferably ones that have the experience to say ‘go left’ or ‘come down!’. The same is true among writers.

Because you aren’t a climber until you fall. And you will fall.
And you aren’t a writer until you’ve been rejected. And that too will happen.
(the picture BTW is my son Paddy on a sea-cliff route I opened 20 years ago)
Dave Freer


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Ooooooh, Dave. I love your analogy.

It works on so many levels. Of course the final one, is that you have to be a little crazy to attempt either!

Cheers, R.

Dave Freer said...

Lol. But it's a _good_ kind of crazy, really.