Saturday, August 8, 2009

How a hike is like writing a story.

Hike or write, simply start out -- and immediately walk into a mess. Wrong path! Wrong plot! I think I'm going to skip through a sunny meadow of blonde grass, but in about two minutes my socks and pants are thick with burrs, grass-snags, sticky-flowers, spikes; every step is a delicate exercise in avoiding the sting of already-embedded stickers; the path becomes a gauntlet of sharp grass and pricker-plants. I think it's going to be a sweet story about a woman and her excessive writing habits, and suddenly there's unrequited love, an X-acto knife and complexities of time and space. I zag over to an oak copse nearby, sit on a rock, avoid the poison oak and spend ten minutes picking all that crap out of my socks and pants. Like those bad, bad dreams, I'm not really dressed for this event, having impulsively dashed out in wooly socks, Birkenstocks and linen pants; at least I had a hat and water and a piece of chocolate. And of course, I'm never really prepared for a story either, merely honoring the impulse to write, without having any particular place in mind or any specific secondary characters. But water and chocolate always come in handy.

With a few minutes of reflection, I see the path I should have started out on, a more civilized, orderly path under the canopy of oaks and bays: no grasses, wide, nicely lined with rocks. Hey ya! This is working. And so it is with a story; there's those necessary (coffee-slurping, nit-picking, snack-gnoshing, wall-staring) moments that, though annoying, allow me order the events or line up the recalcitrant characters in semi-workable relationships.

The stroll down the marked path under the tree-canopy is enjoyable; sometimes this middle part of story-writing is too. The scenes fall into place, the characters all come from the same era and speak in the same dialect, verb tenses agree. (I can so dooooo this; who says writing stories is all that hard?) Then the trees and the wide, easy path dump me at the farther edge of the meadow: a narrow, crooked path wends onward through tall grass. Hmmm. This looks just like the start of the hike: big trouble. But I'm all the way down the slope and probably more than halfway; might as well continue. (Sound familiar? Isn't this where the zombie jumps the doomed couple? Go back, we all scream, go back!)

Soon, I'm in waist-high, then shoulder-high grasses. Deep doo-doo, in other words. Sometimes I can’t quite tell where the path is going, in fact it looks like it's either about to quit or turn in the opposite direction. This is the dangerous stage, when the story might well end up languishing in a drawer for the rest of its natural born days. But I do have a sense of where I'm supposed to end up, and so I keep on, one foot in front of the other (a la Ron Carlson), trusting the path, both hike-wise and story-wise. Then, a few landmarks show up. Here is the second little bridge, a bit frail, narrow and rickety, but it gets me over a bubbling stream; why, yes, the main character did have a rocky relationship with her first husband, which supports the endless whittling of the pencils. Bingo! here is the ultimate motivation! And voila, here is the larger path taking me up the brushy bank! Soon enough I am sitting on the bench overlooking a fabulous valley. I can practically see a wispy “The End” in the hazy clouds and credits scrolling over the dappled land below me, then up the big blue sky.

The return home on an alternate route, the paved road, was quick and easy. It wasn’t until sat down and poured myself a cup of coffee that I discovered the tick on my hat & the fatal flaw in the story: she was writing in pencil; she could have just erased; the zombie would never have known.

But maybe the reader won't think of that.


  1. One thing that I always do while I am hiking is I will turn around and look at the path so that I will have an idea of how to get back. The path always looks different at 180 degree.

  2. ah, yes, so it does. And it's another good thing to do with a story, turn it around, read the events backwards, look at it from another angle. Thanks for the insight!


Noise makers!