Monday, September 5, 2011

Hiking Through the Writing Process

by Laura Krauss Melmed

The other day my husband and I climbed a mountain.  It wasn’t a Himalayan peak or even part of the Rockies, but a 1,000-foot forested slope of the Allegheny range.  The mountain, marked on a hiking brochure pulled from our “activities” file, is located not far from our vacation home in Western PA. Sure, the trail traversed a state hunting preserve, but we were (almost) sure August wasn’t hunting season, and the description of the hike promised lovely views along the crest of the mountain. 

After a short and scenic ride, we located the deserted and overgrown parking lot where we left our car, grabbed our backpack, and started in the direction of the orange markers blazed on the trees.  The brochure warned that we would soon come to an unmarked part of the trail; not to worry, though, because after traversing about three tenths of a mile of open forest, it would be easy to pick up the trail again.  Well, maybe for some, but for these urban adventurers, things were to take (literally) a different turn.  Not immediately picking up on the blazes again, we set forth fearlessly up the mountain.  Unfortunately, we were traversing a thorn forest.  Thorny creepers clutched at our legs.  Thorny trees repelled our grasp.  Undaunted, we persevered, slogging ever upward, but never actually finding the trail. 

At last, shards of sunlight penetrating the dusky foliage above us indicated that we might be nearing the top of the mountain.  Did I mention that all during this climb, we had been hearing intermittent gunshots in the distance?  At this point it seemed prudent for me to lean against a tree and consult my Smartphone to ascertain the dates of hunting season in Pennsylvania.  My husband insisted on climbing ahead to reconnoiter.  Returning to me at my resting spot, where I had determined that hunting season was not yet in force (we surmised that the gunshots were those of a neighboring farmer taking target practice), he reported that the top of the mountain was indeed close above us but that he could not locate the trail along the ridge. 

We decided to call it a hike and start down.  After another thorny adventure, only this time going downhill, we made landfall on a farmer’s private property (not the one who was taking target practice, we prayed) and had to climb over a cow fence.  My GPS then came in handy in locating the road along which we had parked our car.      

The moral of this story is, maybe those extra fees for my smart phone are actually worth it.  But beyond that, what does the story of this hike have to do with writing?  Actually, a lot.   Beginning a new story is the start of an adventure, much like undertaking a hike into unknown territory.  The trail may seem to be clearly marked, if you have mapped out the story in your head or written an outline, but once you begin the writing process, you often go off the trail.  This may be for the best, as it is the process of writing itself that points to sometimes thrilling new vistas and possibilities to which the writer must be open.  But sometimes while working on a manuscript, I feel that I have gotten lost in the woods.  Often a session of hard work may result in taking a path that leads nowhere, or to a place I don’t really want to be.  Then it is my job to try to find the path that will lead me to the top of the mountain—a finished poem or story that shines. 

If I don’t find that path, I may have to give up on this story for at least a while and start another.  But it is important to keep sight of the fact that in the process itself, there are always lessons to be learned and skills to be gained.  In climbing the mountain, my husband and I still had the chance to take a brisk climb together on a beautiful day in the woods.  We had the feeling of accomplishment that comes with knowing that we ascended 1,000 feet.  We had a shared adventure, and the most delicious peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and fresh peaches waiting for us to devour at our post-hike tailgate picnic.  Plus, this adventure gave me a subject for this blog! 

In the same way, when considering your own work or your students, remember that losing one’s way is not always the worst thing that can happen.  It can open new vistas, offer new lessons, and may even lead, eventually, to the top of the mountain!

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1 comment:

  1. Laura,

    I'm rewriting a story and your hiking analogy helped me to realize that it needs a mountain top experience. I had already begun using the path analogy when planning,even if it never is written. You helped me to go even further with that line of thinking. See, you never know how your writing will help someone else.
    Thanks for posting about your experiences and relating it to writing. I'm grateful!

    Linda A.