Friday, April 02, 2010

Writing: It's All About the Climb

This week as part of my ongoing research of writer and activist Elizabeth Oakes Smith, I read her letters to The Portland Daily Advertiser about her journey to Mount Katahdin. Meanwhile, I've been putting together some of my family life posts to create a manuscript. I finally have a good draft of what will become a memoir on my journey into motherhood. Holding this stack of scribbling in my hand feels like reaching the top of a mountain. I've always wanted to accomplish writing a book, and the task has always seemed to be of mammoth proportions, like looking out on a range of mountains at the beginning of a climb. Three times I have started out, and turned back, shelving a manuscript. This past winter I promised myself I'd finish one.

In the Indian summer of 1849, along with two friends, identified as Mr. and Mrs. M, Elizabeth Oakes Smith accomplished her life-long wish to climb Mt. Katahdin, the highest peak in Maine. She published the account of her amazing pilgrimage in a series of letters. The story of her journey is inspiring, and reveals her pioneer character traits.

"Mount Katahdin, the highest summit of Maine had been from childhood associated with all my dreams of wild and magnificent scenery." Smith begins.

Imagine, a nineteenth century, forty-three year old woman climbing a mountain just for kicks! To me, this trek reveals Elizabeth Oakes Smith's brave and optimistic spirit. Much of the venture is joyful, filled with singing and sleeping on giant Hemlock boughs. They discover quaint villages and interesting people. She sleeps with a gun at her side and is sometimes startled by the haunting sound of moose and owls in the dense forest. The group faces drenching down pours and nights without a campfire.

Like the peaks of Mt. Katahdin, a writing project of any size can be intimidating if you pause and stare at it for long enough. Just like writing, and rewriting the sections of a book, a journey up a mountain and back has can only be handle in pieces over a length of time. Both endeavors require patience and endurance.

This memoir has taken me about two years to compile, and will probably take another four months to edit. It's a good mental exercise for an impatient Generation X'er like myself, who wants to blink her eyes and see a glossy book in her hand.

Smith's adventure was not accomplished in a weekend, it took weeks. She describes the hard work involved in this venture:

"We averaged five to eight miles a day, which ought to be a trifle to a healthful woman, properly dressed for the occasion; but this distance, notwithstanding all our comfortable preparations, left us nearly exhausted and never was sleep more ready or more refreshing than we found it at night on our hemlock boughs."

The draft of my first manuscript being done, I feel like I've reached the top of my writing goal, but I still have to tweak my way all the way down to the finish line. Today I meet a journalist friend of mine who is editing the rough draft of my manuscript. I brace myself for what he might say. In fact, I tell him what to say over seared Ahi Tuna salad.

"I want you to say: It's crap, Loren." Then I close my eyes and wait to be zapped.

He refuses to hit me with an artistic bat, even when I ask for it. I want to know why. Is he trying to be kind? Does he know something I don't know, (like that I'll die of food poisoning in a few minutes from eating raw fish)? We've known each other for 16 years, the warranty on phony politeness expired a while ago and there are no recalls on our friendship. I want the truth, and maybe, I just want to fail. If he says the writing is beyond awful then I can give up this lofty goal, leave the metaphorical summit and retain the mystery of unconquered aspiration.

My thoughts wander to Smith's fear of demystifying the mountain.

"I even half regret that a woman's foot has touched its height, and wish it had remained inaccessible even to me- for now the spell is broken and Katahdin will be the resort of idleness and gossip, and no longer the remote king of the north."

My friend leans back in his chair. "I'm not going to say that." He says.

I snap out of my daydream. "Huh? Come on, but I like criticism!" I whine. "Tell me it bores you to tears."

"I like the middle." He says. "The work has good meat."

In Smith's journey through the wild uncharted woods of Mt. Katahdin, some parts leave her wishing she had never left the comforts of home. Ironically, when the task is done, she misses the fun of it. The same can be true for a writing project. There are sections that I love, and fly through writing, while others are a struggle, leaving me with the knowledge that I will alter my path the next time I work my way through the piece. In the end I will miss the joy the project brought me in the discovery phase.

I leave lunch peering down the mountain, ready to see the project through to the end. An editor is like a travel guide. He can tell me what my options are, but I still need to get there by myself.

"Send the chapters to me in pieces, as you make your way through revising them." He says, and I feel so thankful to have a writing coach and a friend rolled into one.

It's amazing how your energy can be restored when others believe in you. I go home ready to look at the manuscript again, one piece at a time. Each tiny revision will be a reason to celebrate being one step closer to my goal, like a pioneer's tale of crossing through rough terrain.

"We laughed heartily at our little glorification in fording this brook. But this was our day of small things," writes Smith.

In taking on a writing project of such proportion, I'm forced to wonder, what's the point? What is it that drives me to write for a half hour a day? I can only describe it like this. Retreating to a keyboard to write helps me reach that peaceful stillness that is also achieved by meditation, or maybe, Yoga, without the physical benefits. On her pilgrimage to Katahdin's summit, Smith and her companions fall into a pattern of survival that she finds refreshing compared to city life. The deeper into the forest they travel, the quieter their surroundings become until the group experiences an "unbroken stillness of nature" that fills Smith with an inner sense of peace. She writes:

"Oh, one hour of life like this, is worth an eternity amid the dist and dullness of cities."

With help and encouragement, I'm well on my way to completing the climb of my own interior mountain. Finishing this first large writing project without being eaten by my own doubts will feel exhilarating. It doesn't matter to me if I ever sell a book. I'm the type of person who, when walking down a wooded trail has to leave evidence of my trek behind for the next people. Smith and her group left a message at the top of Katahdin. She accomplished the dream of her childhood for no one other than herself, but the evidence of her long-gone trail has reached me, and I am inspired.

"Then we wrote a letter to be left at the top of the mountain and enclosed it with our cards in a bottle for the next visitors, desiring them to do the same, and thus establish a literature and Post Office upon Katahdin."

More Info on Katahdin, and the source of the pictures in this post

Elizabeth Oakes Smith's account of Climbing Mt. Katahdin - the source of the quotes in this post


Putz said...

i like the middle of this oaks/smith treatis, it has a lot of meat>>>>love you intensely>>>>the putz

Loren Christie said...

lol Mr. Putz

Putz said...

go see my mormonism explained

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

You do have good meat - deep inner thoughts that come out in your writing. Keep up the good work.

Loren Christie said...

Thanks for the encouragement!

Dear Internet Traveler,

Welcome to my writer's blog, started about six years ago for fun. Over time, the writing I have posted has ranged from personal reflection, to Long Island history research, to tall tales for my own amusement, to feature articles for local newspapers. As you can see from topics listed here, I travel in many mental directions in regard to interests. Click on the tabs and labels to explore my strange mind which senses that you may be having a criss-cross day. If so, perhaps this blog will distract you. However, please note that if you tell me my blog is beautiful just to get me to advertise rhinoplasty surgery and cheap drugs from Canada in your comment, I will ask the gods to give you a tail that cannot be concealed.


Loren Christie

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