When you crack a good book, it’s easy to forget that someone toiled long, lonely hours to produce what you now so effortlessly hold in your hand. At some point somewhere, a writer sat alone in a room thinking, imagining, creating. He put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) with no guarantee of success, no promise of payout, no rules or roadmap to follow. Yet still he set out, steeling himself for the long, arduous road ahead, doing his damnest to remember always that the reward is in the journey, not the destination.
In this way, writing is much like hiking: there are a hell of a lot of ups and downs along your way to the summit, but that’s what makes the whole experience so profoundly satisfying. Along the trail you may encounter magnificent vistas where the entire mountain range spreads out before you, or you might find yourself mired in dark, choking forests where you can barely see ten feet in front of you. There are bleak, windswept ridges and dank, pungent hollows. Places where life springs abundant, others where it struggles to gain a toehold. Later, when you show people your pictures, they see you smiling atop some proud peak, exhausted but elated, battered but not beaten. Despite all the hard work, you accomplished what you set out to accomplish. And success is a beautiful thing, something people love sharing and appreciating.
Less glamorous and typically uncelebrated are the countless hours you spent preparing for your adventure. The trips to EMS or REI or LL Bean, where you selected the right boots, the perfect pack, the vast array of backcountry gear you’ll need to survive on the trail. The practice hikes you took in the forest preserve or state park near your house. The route you mapped out, then double and triple checked. The emergency contacts you notified of your planned whereabouts. The field first aid course you completed…just in case. And, certainly not least of these, all the mental calisthenics you engaged in while convincing yourself that you were up to the momumental task ahead.
Similarly, no one ever sees an author’s first or second or tenth drafts. No one pores over his outlines and notes, seeing all the scratch marks and revisions. No one counts the crumpled sheets of paper in his wastebasket or the deleted paragraphs in his computer’s recycle bin. No one realizes how many nights he’s lain awake in bed contemplating a particularly irksome character conflict or plot hole. No one really grasps that for every minute you spend reading, the author spent an hour or two or ten writing, revising, and polishing those same words. Instead, all the reader sees – because it is all the reader is meant to see – is the author’s triumphant summit photo, the culmination of all his hard work, that perfect snapshot.
This is the magic of good writing. It allows us to pretend that all the author’s prep work, all his practice and toil, all his false starts and missteps, never occurred. It tricks us into believing that his story always existed, a perfectly-wrought conflict between perfectly-formed characters in a perfectly-rendered world. It’s an expert illusion, one that authors and, indeed, all types of artists, have been practicing for millennia. And we’re happy being deceived. When words flow effortlessly off a page or when brushstrokes come alive on a canvas or when the very music we listen to seems to dance with life, we forget about the writer or painter or musician. All we see is beauty, pure and magnificent, an expression of something we cannot ourselves articulate, but to which we can all relate in some primal way.
For now, I’m still gathering my gear, planning my route, building stamina and strength. I’ve summitted some minor peaks in the meantime: I’ve finished my first novel, built this website and a small but thriving Facebook fan page, written several short stories I really like, and continued sending out submissions in the hopes of getting published…all while pressing forward with my second novel. I know I’m making progress even though the summit isn’t yet in sight. I can feel it out there, waiting.
Even if you don’t tag along with me through all my preparations, all my practice runs, I hope you’ll join me at the summit someday. I hear the view’s incredible.