Up is mandatory—what my Grand Canyon hike taught me about writing

The photo above explains why I have been silent for a few weeks.

I was busy hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon (and back up).

When I tell people, I get one of two reactions: “Wow, that’s awesome!” or “You’re crazy!” These responses are remarkably similar to the reactions I get when I tell people I’ve just finished a draft of my fifth novel.

Here’s what the hike taught me about writing.

http://www.amazon.com/Over-Edge-Death-Grand-Canyon/dp/097009731X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1345834397&sr=1-1&keywords=Death+in+the+grand+canyon1) If you don’t prepare, you could die. Of course this is a tad dramatic, since nobody has ever died (as far as I know) from not finishing a novel. You really can die if you don’t take the Canyon seriously. At least 550 people have, according to the book “Death in Grand Canyon.” Especially in August, when temperatures at the bottom can reach upwards of 105 degrees Fahrenheit, you must carry adequate water and replenish electrolytes. And never, never, never plan to hike down and back in one day. Writer’s lesson: Get in shape by exercising your writing muscles. Understand the writing terrain and the weather. Carry with you everything you need. Do not read about failure before you start.

2) Going down is optional, coming up is mandatory. Once down, your own two feet are the only method of return unless you are near death, in which case you are eligible for medical evacuation. About 250 hikers are rescued from the Canyon each year. Interestingly, these are commonly fit men in their 20s who failed to prepare adequately or take the hike seriously. Applied to writing, this means not abandoning your readers. Whatever plot or emotional journey you take them on, you need to bring them back by the end of the piece. You can’t leave them stranded at the Canyon bottom, no matter how beautiful it may be.

3) It may be the most difficult thing you have ever done, but it is doable if you put one foot in front of the other. Many writers—especially of book-length fiction or non-fiction—feel overwhelmed and intimidated by the enormity of the task they see before them when they start. You don’t get to the bottom of the Grand Canyon in a single step and you don’t complete a book-length work in one sitting. It takes months or years of putting one word/sentence/paragraph/page/chapter after another. Concentrate on taking that next step.

4) Radical beauty awaits. The payoff for all the training, the logistical planning, the slamming down of electrolyte mixtures you’d rather not drink, getting up at absurdly early hours to beat the Canyon’s summer heat, is that you’ll have an experience claimed by only 1% percent of the people who visit the Grand Canyon’s rim. The proof of the allure is that I have hiked to the bottom not once, but twice, the first time four years ago. It is an experience no camera or words can capture.

Coupled with the sense of accomplishment that comes from having done it, the Canyon’s awesome beauty makes hiking to its bottom an almost addictive experience. Many are inspired to return year after year. Others, like Colin Fletcher, author of “The Man Who Walked Through Time” and the first person ever to walk the length of the Canyon below the rim, experience a profound shift in the way they see the world.

The process of writing, too, can open you up to unexpected splendors.

Not all writers will be drawn to immerse themselves so deeply in nature. But, as a writer, you can travel to the bottom of your own canyons and return to the top nourished by whatever sustenance you find there—without ever leaving your desk.

Curious about the Canyon? Here are some of the links that helped me prepare:

Grand Canyon Lodging – where to stay at the bottom and the top
National Park Service – home page for the Grand Canyon
Hit the Trail – Grand Canyon trail descriptions and other info
Phantom Ranch weather – from the National Weather Service

26 thoughts on “Up is mandatory—what my Grand Canyon hike taught me about writing

  1. Inspiring. Visiting after a recommendation from Kourtney Heinz on her blog.

    I took a dip of a hike into the Grand Canyon a couple years ago. We didn’t have time for the full monte, but wanted a taste. Even that little down-and-up left me breathless in more ways than one. Yes, it is like launching yourself into writing, the liberating declaration, I’m going to do this! The ideas that pour out, the first 25 pages and then … the long, step by step slog (so far to go! So hard to do! So complicated!) Took the plunge to write after a lifetime of procrastination and diary keeping, pounded out a first novel and made every beginner’s mistake in the book, buried it in a drawer, and am now making every beginner’s mistake in a second novel, despite access to volumes of good advice on how to avoid beginner’s mistakes. I suspect it’s like the Grand Canyon: you just have to experience it to understand. Oh the highs and lows.

    Congratulations on your 2012 award and on finishing your fifth book. Thanks also for the pick me up.

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    • Good for you for starting on the next book. Yes–it’s hard for those who haven’t experienced it (Grand Canyon or the highs and lows of writing) to understand. I hope you’ll find something to spur you on when the going gets tough.

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  2. Hiking – I can barely scramble up the rocks near the Peak District, let alone GC! Alas I will never match your talent, but I do appreciate your thoughts on perseverance and preparation – could be applied to many areas of life.

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    • I have realized since I published the post that I might have sounded quite full of myself for “bragging” about getting to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up. I’m glad you read the post in the spirit in which it was intended: sharing a personal challenge and inviting others to think about the challenges in their own lives!

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