How is Writing a Novel like Climbing a Mountain?

How is Writing a Novel Like Climbing a Mountain?

Mountains have been on my mind lately. Mountains and writing.  Mountains of writing.  How writing my novel has been like learning to climb a mountain. You don’t start mountain climbing by tackling Everest. You start smaller and build your skills, surpass previous altitudes, backtrack when you must. You attend clinics to learn safe techniques and meet others who share your mountain climbing addiction. The writer’s equivalent of mountaineering clinics? The juried writing conference.  This writer’s idea of the perfect writing conference location? In the mountains, of course.

I’m a New England brat and proud of it. But, I’ve spent most of my adult life in Wisconsin and that’s a mighty fine state to land in – full of kind people. Milwaukee’s a great city, but I’ve missed something the whole time I’ve lived here: mountains. Okay, I know, the mountains I grew up with aren’t considered “mountains” in lots of the world, but by Wisconsin standards — where flat rules and rolling hills happen, those New England mountains are mountains. From my house to school or wherever I went, mounts, as they were called in that vicinity, created curves in the skyline above the trees. Here’s my favorite picture from the town where I grew up, Southampton, MA, with Mt. Tom in view, where I first donned skis and loved the whoosh of flying downhill:

Skiing in Vermont brought me closer to real mountains. Then, hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with my not-yet-husband, helped me understand that I need mountains. I need them the way some people need coffee, or meditation, or the ocean. Something in my soul sparks and sings when I’m near or on a mountain. A creative call rises and a spiritual connection often thrums. Yes, it’s time again for a Julie Andrews moment:

I have several clear and marvelous memories of moments with my sons and husband in the mountains. On a visit to the Grindelwald area of Switzerland, in the early summer, our younger son, usually a wild, romping boy, was attracted to the mountainside flowers. He spent long moments touching, smelling and giving me long moments of loving watching him do that, well aware this was a precious, fleeting time:

We spent a few days in the winter in the Heidi-like town of Mürren, Switzerland – no cars allowed, my husband pulled the boys around on a sled. It was a glorious, beautiful place and the Heidi images wounded me in a most unexpected way. I found myself missing my father terribly, who had died eleven years earlier. The night Dad died, when I couldn’t sleep in my shock and sorrow, I flipped the pages of an old copy of Heidi I found on the shelf. Somehow, it’s green smooth cover with a mountain image spoke to me. I brushed the cover. I turned the pages. I read and reread the same paragraph as I listened to my sister wailing in the next room. I had trouble shaking that memory in Mürren, but I did, as I watched our three year old marvel at the Alps:

A “western epic” camping trip – on this trip our older son (age 3 above, 13 below) climbed his first mountain with his father. This trip was the summer of 2001…soon, the world we knew would change. Planes would crash and towers fall, but that summer, we had a season of s’mores, roadkill counts, hiking and camping with blissful ignorance of 9/11:

An anniversary trip to Glacier National Park. I was not yet serious about working on my novel. It was 2007. I was still terrified, lacking self-confidence and self-discipline in my writing. It was again the summer before a big change. The following summer, cancer would enter our home. There’s really nothing like cancer to take a scared, unfocused writer and turn her into a writer who gets the work done and gets the work out there :

My husband’s mountain addiction is a bit different than mine. He needs to climb and conquer – and, he has. He’s done the trek to the base camp of Mt. Everest, summited Mt. Fuji and summited many of the highest peaks in the United States. Here he is some years ago in the Tetons:

My writing addiction has been my parallel to his “climb and conquer.” I’ve worked long and hard on my novel. I’ve attended conferences to learn and advance as a writer. I’ve workshopped at Iowa, Tin House and the New York State Summer Writers Institute. I’ve succeeded in having stories published, including excerpts from my novel. And, now, I am ready to go to the advanced fiction workshop at the Aspen Summer Words Conference.

Aspen. Major league mountains. Major league writers. I am so fortunate to have the opportunity to study with Luis Alberto Urrea and have the chance to meet with two agents. I’ve been climbing and improving. I can see the summit. And when this one’s conquered, I have plenty more mountains of words in my sights.

Happy #writing.

(NOTE: This post appeared at my blog,, a few days ago and has been receiving lots of positive feedback, so I thought I’d pass it along here too. Hope it speaks to some of you.)

4 thoughts on “How is Writing a Novel like Climbing a Mountain?

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  4. Dear Pam,
    I really like the pairing of your photos with your writing. This is one of the best uses of extended metaphor I’ve ever seen. I hope you have a wonderufl time at the conference.

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