Semis and Switchbacks: Careening Down the Mountain of Writing

The first day of my trip back home was definitely the longest.  I got up early and stopped off at my brother’s house for last minute goodbyes, and then left to face the next nine or ten hours of driving.  To get out of North Carolina and on to I-40 I had to work my way up around Raleigh-Duram and then over the Blue Ridge Mountains into Tennessee.

I have kind of a finicky Monet relationship when it comes to mountains.  Meaning, from a distance they seem really freaking awesome and beautiful, but up close?  A big mess with humongous trucks hiding in the daisy smears and oblivious tourists skidding out of the mushy stream beds.  See, I grew up in the Texas Panhandle.  There, horizon to horizon, you have mostly flat land broken up by hills the closer you get to the Canadian River valley, which cuts it’s way horizontally across the Panhandle from New Mexico on into Oklahoma.  Though I love the Panhandle region, as a child I often fantasized about moving to the mountains.  The idea of trees so tall they blocked out the sky, of rivers and streams containing actual running water (no, not a typo.  My part of the Canadian River did, once, have water in it, but now it’s mostly dry or running below ground), and log cabins with roaring fires tucked away in little valleys made many appearances in my early writings.

Having driven up and down mountains now, my general opinion of them can be summed up thus: Mountains Suck.

For one, verticalism.  It’s not as great as a cinematic panning camera will trick  you into believing.  And shut up, verticalism is a word now.  Going up is so not the problem.  Going up is like walking into a nature candy land.  You’re skipping along, singing Bon Jovi, admiring the sheer beauty of the turning leaves, the mighty trees, and the deep greenery in all its shades and hues.  Things are going great.  You know exactly where you’re going, the sun is out and shining, fall is creeping into the landscape, and the world is opening up to you, a cornucopia of scenery and intense visual stimulation.

Then you hit the top, and you think, this is pretty damn awesome.

Two minutes later you start your descent, and you think, Thor on a pogo stick, this is a fucking nightmare.

In writing, I call this kind of situation the Goblin Train of Measly Self Worth.  Why?  Because after you do a stint at the top where everything is going well, when your project has hit the accelerator and, NYOOM, everything just kinda takes off for the moon at warp speed, there comes the inevitable tripwire that sends you headlong down a scary dark crevice.  Usually with doubts rising up as rocky spikes, ready to skewer you on their points of self loathing.

In the actual mountains, this picturesque nightmare came into fruition with the infamous switchback roads.  Roads that shift like a sidewinder through the sand.  Dead man’s curves.  Visibility down to only as far as the next curve ahead of you and the last curve behind.  Walls of rock and trees hanging on precariously by their roots on one side while the other is a sheer drop off, with only the tippy tops of trees  visible.  All the while you careen around and hope nothing falls on your head, or that you don’t miss a turn and fall on someone else’s head.

As if that weren’t enough, the road I was on was popular among eighteen wheelers, which drove like they only need half those tires on the ground at any given time.  And the roads, they don’t actually need to be large enough to comfortably accommodate breathing room between the two lanes, of course not.

At this point I think it’s probably prudent to reveal that driving through these mountains, yeah, that was the first time I’d ever done so with me behind the wheel and as the sole person in the vehicle.  If you ever need a definition of ‘trial by fire’, day one of my cross country trip would be the entry.

Squished between semis and regular vehicles, the downward trip through the mountains saw me in the middle of a snakelike line, bumper to bumper, everyone trying to do 40 and 50 around the curves where any mistake, the slightest loss of control, would send you smashing into the rocky skin of the mountain, the five foot concrete barrier between people coming up on your side, or over a stomach sickening drop I tried to pretend did not exist.

I’ve had more than a couple instances in my life where I was pretty sure death was brushing up like a friendly cat, just waiting to see which way things would fall.  In the mountains, I’m pretty sure death was poised like a football fan in the bleachers, ready to celebrate a touchdown, complete with beer hat and foam finger waving.

About a quarter of the way down the mountain I started talking out loud.  Most of it was a barrage of four letter word combos laced with prayers to ancient gods scraping through my teeth.  I held the steering wheel so hard I lost feeling in my fingers and cussed them out because I couldn’t loosen up anyway, had to keep two hands on the wheel, ten and two, I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die, this was such a bad idea.

After almost ramming into the side of a semi carrying sheets of glass that niggling little voice in the back of my head grew nine sizes and clamped onto me with vampire teeth.

You can’t do this.

You’re not strong enough.

Not experienced enough.

You’re a terrible driver, what the hell, you don’t ride the brakes like that.

You’re going to cause a million car pileup, stupid.

We’ve all have that voice.  It’s a slimy little thing, a sun-allergic goblin that lurks in the cesspool pits in the back of our heads, whispering poisonous nothings into our ears.  Telling us we aren’t smart enough, talented enough, quick enough, funny enough, experienced enough, we’re just not enough.  It sits there and tells us those things, and the more we listen, the more it grows, until it ends up like those creepy ass Furby dolls.

We encounter this goblin a lot while writing.  After the inevitable high, the goblin comes squish-squashing out of the dark and pokes holes in all our rainbows and balloon clusters.  The characters are changing in ways you hadn’t planned on.  There’s a gaping chasm in the plot you just noticed.  The dialogue is stilted and too telly, not enough showy.  The villain reads like a mustache twirling cartoon.  No one will like your hero, the goblin whispers.  You’ll never hack the grammar stuff.  It’s unreadable, it’s horse shit, it’s all been done before by someone so much better.

Stop.

Somewhere between the second switchback and the first of many near accidents going down that mountain road, I realized that if I kept listening to that dumbs goblin I really would die.  Cowering under pressure, reading into the negative nonsense, it’s not life threatening when you’re sitting behind a desk staring into the white abyss of Word or Scrivener.  Eying the semi tires next as big as my CRV in the next lane, that was when I realized I would die if I kept thinking like that.

There comes a point, a jumping off point, where you have to decide how you want to handle the terrifying ride down to hell.  You have to choose if you’re gonna let that goblin grow into a hulking behemoth breathing down your neck, let it push you around, keeping you down and scared and meek, or you choose to punt it’s moss-ridden ass back to the swamp and own your own space on the death coaster, to drive on despite the dangers.

Being strong is a hard thing to do.  Going down that mountain, I had no backup.  I had no safety net to catch me if I made the wrong choice.  I was in control of my vehicle and in charge of only my feet and hands and head.   That was it.  Banking back and forth, I realized I couldn’t think about the What-Ifs or anything beyond moment to moment.  There was no capacity for that.  I had to keep my eye on the road and the vehicles around me, react only to what was in the immediate vicinity because that’s all I could realistically react to.

In writing, sometimes you have to let go of the big picture and just focus in on the portion of the highway you’re on.   Word by word, letter by letter.  Listen to the story, to the characters.  Lock the goblin out.  There will be a time later to give your prose the stink eye and tear it apart in order to make it better.  That time is not when you are in the middle of writing it.  That is the time to ride it out wherever it may go, to just get it out, and to listen to the only voice that really matters: your characters.

After a couple of hours, I made it out of the mountains and into the foothills of Tennessee.  I pulled off the highway the first chance I got, kissed the ground, and lifted a shaky middle finger at the craggy, foresty peaks, because fuck the mountains.  I cursed them all the way down to their bones and roots, swore to never drive through them again because hell naw.

But I made it.  I did it.  There was no fiery crash, no plummet to a squishy doom, no million car pileup that would bring the entire interstate to a screeching halt.

That’s the secret about that squat swamp-dwelling goblin.  Most of what it tells you?  Plain bullshit.

So the moral of this story is to keep going and to trust yourself.  Trust your voice, your vision, and when times get tough and scary and full of doubt, push through.  I can guarantee you that, unless you are in the mountains with semis and surly loggers riding your bumper like it’s no tell motel happy hour, it’s not actually as bad as it seems.  You just have to decide it’s not.

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3 thoughts on “Semis and Switchbacks: Careening Down the Mountain of Writing

  1. Pingback: Increase Your Productivity: Kill the Goblin of Amnesia in Your Head | Crazy Inkslinger, A Writer's Blog

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