If I had one talent as a mountaineer, it was the complete absence of a voice in my head telling me to be afraid of the edge. I have zero fear of falling and an absolutely unfounded belief in my own sense of balance.
Maybe I am stretching my metaphor too far, but my brain’s absolute refusal to be afraid of falling has mostly served me well in both the life outdoors and at the typewriter. I have climbed plenty of mountains that were beyond my actual abilities as a climber just because I was too dumb to notice, and I have attacked many a story that other writers might shy away from out of fear that they would fall into the canyon of cliche.
Writing Howard Carter was a bit of a high wire act. Every plot element, every theme I was exploring had long ago been cast in bronze as a science fiction trope. I had a list of them that I wanted to use ranging from the freeze ray to the boy genius and as I ticked each of them off the list, I knew I was walking a ledge and in danger of my story plummeting to its death.
My newest Work In Progress actually, honestly, scares me in a way that actual cliffs do not. It’s not because I’ve never written anything in this vein before, but because the path through the world of mysteries and thrillers is so well trod and the cliches so numerous that there are cliffs on every side and new ones opening before me with each previous one I successfully traverse.
That might be overselling it a little, but I’m not sure that the same couldn’t be said for everything we write.
As authors, we live in a world where all the mountains have been climbed before. There aren’t many ‘first ascents’ left for us to assay. So we walk in the footsteps of those who came before us and try to be aware of the anchors that they set along the path; some of them are solid and secure and we would be fools to ignore them while others are set in crumbling stone and we trust them at our peril.
It’s an imperfect metaphor and I don’t climb mountains as much as I used to, but I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about it recently as I laced my literal boots and set out through the meadows and valleys of Western Washington.
Unlike writing, mountaineering is often (but not always) a team sport. And it’s here that my metaphor has the greatest chance of falling apart completely. In mountaineering, of course, you take precautions involving ropes and anchors and companions who will either point out that you’re being an idiot or they will feed you more rope.
Writers are mostly solo artists, but I think most, if not all of us, have that First Audience. For Howard Carter, I threw it out there for anyone who reads this blog to see and invited the world to point out when my footing was uncertain and I should back away from the ledge.
In writing, you anchor your story in the truth of the scene and at the other end of the rope is your audience’s faith in you. No matter how the tropes and cliches blow and circle you and attempt to knock you off the ridge, you cling to the truth of your scene and rely on your First Reader(s) to let you know if you’re doing okay and feeding you more rope, or you’re being an idiot and should turn back and try another route.
Either way is fine, I’m not afraid of falling and I don’t mine living life on the edge as long as I have someone I trust not to let go of the rope.