So I’m learning to climb the walls.
It’s simple, you see. You just don’t fall off. The problem is, as my friend Hannah says, that simple does not equal easy.
Believe it or not, the wall-climbing is work-related.
You see, there’s this young man in a long-term project who likes dangerous, strenuous sports. I am not taking up parkour, so he’s stuck with rock-climbing. Thank God he doesn’t BASE jump anymore, because unlike him, I do have a sense of self-preservation. I’m also drinking a lot of soy milk chai and eating my veggies, because I am a method writer, I’m afraid, and my characters’ personal habits infect my life.
But wait, you say: that’s crazy!
Yeah, probably, but it’s true. And it works. When I let my characters infect my life a little, they feel comfy in my head and move in. They bring their tics and quirks, and writing those character details becomes almost automatic. I know all sorts of things about them that never make it onto the page except in that they inform their kinesthetics and their personal behavior. Cathoair has a stiff neck; he rolls his head a lot to ease it. Jenny’s favorite color is purple and she loves scratchy wool sweaters and heavy blankets and boots. Michelangelo’s a borderline sociopath. The reason nobody ever freaks out over Jeremy mentoring an orphaned sixteen year old girl is because he’s gay. Isolfr can spit water between his teeth a good ten feet.
And Chaz, the current boy? He’s about a half-inch from clinical attachment disorder, and he knows it. Also, his clothes never fit quite right, because of his build. And he loves to climb things, and he’s good at it too. His climbing friends call him The Gecko, for his manner of scurrying across the rocks. They don’t know what he does for a living, or that it’s terrible, and while they’re a bit awed by the sheer volume of food he puts away, they also don’t know he’s a superhero.
And the reader, honestly, may never know that he spends three nights a week in the climbing gym during the winter, and goes bouldering with the gang on weekends in summer. Just like they may never know that Sol has a Harley Softail he takes out to Virginia on Saturdays in good weather, or that Reyes can cook.
But I have to know these things, because these are the things that inform the character’ voices, the metaphors by which they process the world.
Which is why I spent the evening falling off walls. Well, one reason: to better inhabit my character. To pick up a few bruises the same way he picks up his bruises. (My friend Marna says, “A day without a bruise is wasted.” I think Chaz probably says that too.)
Another reason I spent the evening falling off walls is that learning to do a thing helps one write it. The kinesthetics of climbing are not easy to understand just from watching somebody else do it. It’s not CGI. It’s got weight and strain and the shoes hurt. When you’re balanced between two tiny footholds and one inadequate handhold, straining for that second handhold, and you have to shift your weight over a deeply flexed knee and somehow stand up on it and then lunge to grab that hold that’s just an inch out of reach, well, that’s a practical problem, an intellectual problem, a problem of courage, a problem of mechanics, and a problem of physical strength.
Having real knowledge of things helps; wearing (or swinging) a sword is not what you might expect. Nor is wearing a medieval gown. Or a pair of stilts. Or shooting a gun. Or lossing an arrow. Or doing any of the myriad other things a fictional character might do. It’s that difference between reality and CGI, between the Hollywood swordfight and a real, bloody swordfight where you are wary of that flashing metal thing, because it can hurt you. (The movie Rob Roy, if you were wondering, has pretty good swordfights. The part where the combatants fall back and circle each other and pant? That’s dead-on.)
That’s a second reason that learning new things benefits one as an author. Here’s a third: you never will get to that handhold you’re trying to reach unless you commit. You have to have the courage to push off, release the secure place you’re standing on, and trust your ability to hold onto that tiny little crack in the rock that you can’t see or even touch from where you are standing.
And the funny thing is, you have to stay close to the rock to maintain balance. If you lean back, you’re supporting your weight on your arms, and you wear them out. But you have to lean back to see where to put your feet, especially if you are a girl, you know, with girl architecture. (Or if you have a little bit of a belly.) And you have to lean back to see what might be over your head for holding on to.
On the other hand, the closer you are to the rock, the more stable you are.
That’s a lot like writing. You can’t see the story when you’re too close to it, but you have to be in it, immersed, up to your neck to write it well. So there’s this routine where you jump in, cling it, push, climb, struggle–and then fail and fall back and stand at the bottom and stare and make faces and go “Hmm.” And then you try again, with this new path you’ve charted, which never survives contact with the wall.
Our brains are very good at modeling reality. However, reality never acts exactly like the models.
And there’s a fourth thing.
Because I think in pained metaphors most of the time, one thing I am learning over and over again is that writing is just like everything else I try. (Writing is like archery, and horseback riding, and paying the bills, and–)
Writing is like climbing because art is about failure. Art is about taking the big risk, the big jump, and wiping out–and trying again until you get it right.
And so is climbing walls. You cling precariously, you stretch, you jump, your foot slips and your fingers don’t quite reach and your balance is off and you wipe out over and over again. (Ideally, there is either a crash pad under you or a rope holding you up, so no permanent harm is done.) And eventually you get there, and manage to stand up on the next foothold, and you confront the next small problem. Meanwhile your hands ache and your strength is failing, and you think you probably got your feet in the wrong places getting past that last bit. Which means you will never get up to the next handhold unless you can somehow switch them on the fly.
So you cling, and you think. And you chew your lip and make those faces and go “Hmmm.” And you try something else.
And you fail.
And eventually you learn to climb this wall. Or write that book.
Well, maybe. I hope. I still have not made it to the top of even the easiest climbing wall at the gym I go to, so I am not speaking from experience.
And what you learn does in fact help you climb the next wall, because you have picked up technique and strategy and strength along the way. But it doesn’t teach you how to climb that next wall, because every wall is different. And every one is something you have to figure out along the way, and then get strong and crafty enough to handle.
And if you’re working honestly, each one is probably a little bit harder than the last.