Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Telling a Story is like Climbing a Mountain

I've just got back from a two-week holiday in Austria. One week was spent staying in a remote hut high in the Alps, with no electricity or gas (we cooked and heated water on an ancient wood stove). On a warm sunny morning, I sat outside and wrote this in my notebook:

The impulse to write something is currently strong. Breakfast has been made and eaten, and all the washing done. We have no more chores, no further plans and it's too hot and sunny to go for a hike. There's no TV or radio, and no internet, of course. And I'm not very sure what the time is. Around 11am? It doesn't matter. I've got nothing to do. I could read my book, or challenge Dani to a game of backgammon, but somehow the circumstances seem right to start writing.

Below our hut stretches the green woody valley in which sits the touristy village of Werfenweng. But it's not visible from where I'm sitting; it's hiding round the corner and just over the other side of the slope of the meadow in front of me. (Later, one or both of us will have to wander down to the shop – a round trip of at least two hours on foot – to restock on milk and teabags, and maybe eggs and cheese.) The meadow is green and grassy, peppered with cow parsley, dandelions, clover and countless other tiny white, yellow and purple flowers I can't identify. To my left is the milking shed, where the cows are brought at 6am and 5pm every day (We've already accustomed ourselves to this rhythm, and their morning arrival no longer wakes us.) Beyond the shed, but also out of sight, down the hill and behind some trees, is the Gamsblickalm. Behind me is the hut, of course, and behind that the the looming Tennengebirge mountains. Their rocky peaks, dotted with occasional patches of snow, are constantly wreathed in changing patterns of cloud and shadow. In the shifting light, they dance, steam and breathe.

There is something close to silence, but there are tractors roving about further down the valley, the chirping of crickets and buzzing of insects, the occasional bout of birdsong or clang of cowbell somewhere up the mountain; then, beneath all that, the rush of the stream that passes a few yards in front of the door of the hut, and the wind high up among the hilltop pines. And the scratching of my pen on paper.

Our hut.

I'll always put off writing. I'll always seek out excuses and distractions. But the impulse to write never goes away. It is always there. As with the sound of the wind in the distant trees, I need to shut out everything else in order to hear it. And once I have heard it, it is up to me to decide whether to respond or not.

What should I write, then? According to my most successful suppositions so far, the only things we are likely to find – when engaging in any activity, not just writing – are music, games, laughter and stories. Why? Because these are the only things we are looking for. They can usefully be referred to as cosmic elements. (The meanings of the abstract nouns can be stretched as far as necessary. I will write a defence of my metaphysical postulations some other time.) Of these four things, for reasons that may become clearer, a writer should write stories.

This restriction does not help someone like me who is determined to find excuses not to write. The sheer variety of stories to be written is likely to bamboozle me. Each one is unique; each one glimmers like a star surrounded by countless other stars in the galactic array stretched overhead. Take your eye off your chosen star or story and you will never find it again. There are always too many stories; we are lost among them; we breathe them; we drown in them; they overwhelm and smother us.

The peaks of the Tennengebirge mountains have caught the sunlight, and I have shifted position. I am sitting on the other side of the hut to gaze up at them. Twenty pale cows and a couple of calves are lying at the base of the cliffs on the other side of the stream, and Dani is sitting next to me patiently chopping a swede for tonight's stew. I am writing more slowly now, as my eyes are constantly being drawn upwards to the mountain tops, and every time I look up, they have changed their appearance. They are mesmeric.

There may be as many stories to be told as there are stars in the sky, but there are also just as many mountains to climb. Some may be mighty snow-capped summits; others, mere grassy hillocks. Each one is an invitation. Each captures the imagination, drawing your gaze and impelling your feet to follow. However, the hiker, unlike the writer, is not bewildered by the swarm of potential mountains to climb. He has no doubt which one to attempt. Nor do I. It is this one here. The one right in front of me. The one it is so hard to tear my eyes from. If you think of stories as mountains rather than as stars, the story that must be written is clear: the story which presents itself first, which captivates. All other stories melt into the background, and once we can focus on the peak, there can be no further confusion about whether it must be reached: it must.

It is time to use the mountain analogy to dispel (once and for all?) the myth of originality. You may feel the urge to kayak to some unmapped corner of planet Earth in order to discover and ascend a summit that no other human has attempted, but the sense of the achievement comes from doing the climbing, not from the mountain, whose name and location are of academic interest. It is you who have done the work in getting to the top, no one else. Therein lies the originality – it is a feat accomplished only by you. The experiences and the journey are also uniquely yours, and would be uniquely yours even if a million climbers had trodden the path ahead of you.

Here, then, is your story. Don't go looking too hard for a story to tell. Tell the story that invites you to tell it. How do you tell it?

We climb every mountain the same way, so every story is told the same way. The first thing to do is to take in the whole journey. Fix your eye on the summit of your story. That is your goal. That is the place you have to reach. Your route up may need to be changed as you go. Some improvisation is practically inevitable, but so long as you know broadly which way you are headed, so that the top is reached, your story will be successfully told.

On our first full day staying at the hut, Dani and I climbed up to the Elmaualm. It was tough going, as we had to make our way up through rain and mud. Dani pointed out that mountains are normally "scowling", "foreboding" and "intimidating". They are never "protective", "comforting" and "helpful". Almost always, the peak you are heading for lies much further up than it seemed from the base. Thanks to the steep gradient, we were presented with a series of false summits. Only when we got to the brow of the hill did we see a fresh ascent loom up in front of us. The mountain seemed to be playing tricks with us. These optical illusions were the insults added to the injury of my muscles and the shortness of my breath. I am very unfit. I felt small, vulnerable and mortal. The Elmaualm (1,513 metres above sea level) isn't even the top. From there the path bears northwards, rising steeply to the Werfenhütte (1,967 metres), the Thronleiter steps, the Edelweißhütte (2,360 metres) and the peak proper. But we were certainly pleased with our modest achievement, and our hosts at the alm were impressed that we'd come up along the steeper, more remote path, rather than snake our way up along the gravel track. They rewarded us with fresh apple juice and a bowl of soup – a hearty, meaty broth in which floated one enormous liver dumpling the size of my fist. Our coats steamed next to the tile stove and we warmed up, further aided by a small glass of apricot schnapps.

When you are writing a story, you can take the cable car. You can be at your destination in minutes. You will have all the advantages of the fine view from your story summit without the laborious back-breaking work and without, crucially, the slightest possibility of getting lost along the way. Your narrative will proceed at a steady pace, in a straight line, in an easy-to-follow manner. Yet somehow, your story won't quite feel the same. You will know you cheated. Because the accomplishment feels less, rather than more, than what was promised at the start, your story is bound to be disappointing. Sadly, but predictably, the more satisfying way of telling a story is also the more arduous.

But this does not mean that you owe it to yourself to make the telling of the story as difficult as possible. When you are climbing a mountain you don't charge up through the forest in the direction of the cliff face, intent on getting lost and drenched. You have to keep your eyes and ears open. It is best to proceed slowly, set yourself intermediate targets along the way, become aware of how each stage in your journey relates to the whole. The most useful path may be the one that appears to take you further away from your goal. When I am hiking, I can sense my attention being drawn in several directions at once. I have to pay close attention to where I am placing my feet so I don't end up tumbling arse-over-tit into a ditch. I am also distracted by the sights, sounds and smells around me: a movement in the ferns that might be a marmot, but which is probably a blackbird; a drift of tiny white flowers I'll have to look up when I get back; or the shadows of clouds scooting across the treetops. I'm also keeping an eye on my progress along this leg of the journey, making sure I am still on schedule, watching the time and the weather, and using the peak (if it is still visible, which it often is not) as a spur to keep going. Perhaps most importantly of all, I find it crucial to stop from time to time, and turn around to enjoy the view back down the valley (if it is not now shrouded in mist, which it often is) and contemplate the distance covered so far and how much still lies ahead.

It may seem inefficient, when telling a story, to halt the action and break the rhythm in order to describe the surroundings and circumstantial details, but these pauses are as important to telling a story as they are to climbing a mountain. Without them, the careful progress from one point to the next carries with it no depth or context. As with climbing, it is crucial to shift your focus constantly, to ensure that the story proceeds unstumblingly along (ditches and other obstacles must be negotiated with care – you may regret imagining they can be leaped over with ease) and that each scene or story element is enjoyed both for its own sake and for the part it plays in the whole. Did I mention you should enjoy yourself? You should, as much as possible, especially in the early stages of your story, because the final approach to the summit is going to be hard.

The mountain is difficult to climb – that's what makes it worth climbing. The story you decided to tell felt compelling precisely because you didn't know exactly how to tell it, and there were perhaps times when you doubted you would make it this far, when you were stuck, lost, or you just didn't have the energy or patience to go on. The closer you get to the top, the steeper the way becomes, yet you are drawn upwards more forcefully than at any point so far, in spite of yourself, in spite of your aches and pains. This final leg is fuelled by adrenaline and emotion.

And finally – as you reach the place that inspired you from the outset – the peak of the mountain or the peak of your story – where are you? What have you accomplished? What surrounds you? How do you feel?

You have reached a high point. From here you have set yourself above other humans. You can see a greater distance and have gained a unique perspective on the world below you, based more on the work you have put in to reach this position than on the actual position you have reached. Familiar landmarks look strange and small. God's viewpoint can be a humbling one. I would like to say that the feeling you get from reaching the peak is one of pure joy, elation or pride, but it is seldom that simple. The mountain has taken its toll on you, and if the story was worth telling than it took more out of you than you were anticipating. Perhaps you put a bit too much of yourself into it, or perhpas it made you aware of your own limitations, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Too bad – if you didn't want to feel raw from telling the story, then you should have taken the cable car. Your exhilaration at reaching this special place is likely to be mixed with anxiety and melancholy, not to mention a certain sense of isolation and loneliness, set apart from the rest of humanity. It is not surprising, then, that hikers rarely spend hours perched next to the cross or cairn, drinking in their magnificent view beneath them and the glory of their own achievement. For the mountain has one final dirty trick to pull.

Your story is still not finished. It is only half done, in fact. You cannot celebrate its completion until you have made your way back to your starting point. You must get moving again. The way back down the mountain is easier and quicker, it must be said, partly because the main doubt about the expedition – whether the peak would be reached – has now been dispelled. It is still important to be sure-footed on the descent, but familiarity with the terrain is a great a help, and obstacles, dead ends and other difficulties that you encountered on the way up can be avoided with the benefit of hindsight. The mountain is no longer as intimidating as it seemed before, but it still demands your awe and respect. You may have "conquered" its summit, but the impact it has had on you will always be far greater than you or any number of walkers can have on it.

A story, like a mountain, is a fact. It is self-evident and self-consistent. It is inescapable and compelling. It is the fact of our own mortality and frailty set against the incalculable millennia of earth, sky and rock. We tell this story in order to learn about ourselves.

The signposts to the Elmaualm assured us that the walk would take us 50 minutes. I'd assumed we were both pretty fit and fast walkers, but the journey took us more like 90. I blame the bad weather. The onward journey, over the Tanzenboden, down through the pine forests to the Mahdegg-alm (where we stopped only very briefly), before winding down along easy farm lanes back into Werfenweng – by which time the clouds had vanished and we began to enjoy hot sunshine – had taken more than six hours.

This, and the fact that the warm weather we're now enjoying is not forecast to last more than the next day or so, forces me to admit that I won't now get the opportunity to climb the Tennengebirge peaks. Not this year, anyway. They're strictly for the fittest and most well-equipped of hikers, willing to get up at the crack of dawn carrying enough provisions to keep them going for 12 hours at the very least. Alas, I can't do that. The mountains I enjoyed climbing the foothills of have defeated me. Likewise, I'm unlikely to return to London having completed a story. But I did write this.

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