Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Hiking before writing

I spent the first four hours or so of the Aspen Summer Words writers’ conference hiking.

I know that seems like a strange way to kick off an intensive week of literary conversations and practice, but somehow it felt exactly right. The schedule of the conference is such this year that the events I want to attend are in the afternoon and evening; my mornings are free. And I should be using those free mornings to work on my own writing. After all, that’s why I’m here.

And yet yesterday, even after an early-morning four-mile run through Aspen’s beautiful North Star Preserve, and after savoring a bagel and coffee while I read both of Aspen’s two daily newspapers, what I really felt like doing was hiking.

That’s not really a way to improve your writing skills or network with other writers, I told myself. It’s not even a way to get any writing done at all. You’re really planning to kick off the annual writers’ conference by hiking?

Well, yes. And it turned out to be a magnificent plan. Indeed, it did not result in my getting any writing done. In fact, quite the opposite. It cleared my mind in a way nothing else does. I don’t get to hike nearly enough, especially on challenging Alpine trails, but whenever I do, I notice this same effect: it seems like when I’m hiking I can’t think about anything else except the climb. I don’t find this with walking or running. As exhilarating as those activities are, they tend to expand my thinking so that I can focus on whatever writing project I’m in the midst of or generate ideas for future projects.

But hiking is different. I find myself concentrating only on putting one foot in front of the other, while I absorb the sensory input of the smells and sounds around me without my making a concerted effort to do so. The dirt, the sagebrush, the birdcalls, the rustling in the brush alongside the hiking trail: all register with my senses even as I don’t focus on them. And my mind seems to empty itself out, almost like a suitcase magically unpacking itself.

In a way, it might have been more productive if I’d been actually writing or doing something that facilitated thoughts about writing, but what this did instead was similar to stretching out before a hard workout. I felt like the strenuousness of the climb and the attention I was devoting to nothing but the trail under my hiking boots was giving me a clean slate with which to start a week of intensive writing.

I stayed on the mountain for four hours, and when I reached the beginning of the trail again, I felt ready to think about writing. So it was a useful discovery: sometimes the best way to commence an activity is with the opposite of that activity. The afternoon featured two interesting panel discussions by various writers, and the evening included a social gathering with other participants at the conference. With my mind cleared, I was ready to start thinking about writing and talking about writing. And, best of all, to start writing, with a level of attention that had missing until the hike was complete.

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