A few years ago, I visited Boulder, Colorado, and hiked the trails in Chautauqua Park. The evergreen trees that patchworked over those razor-sharp hills took my breath away (literally). I had almost reached the peak when I came upon this steep and rocky road. Winded and fatigued from the previous few hours of my frolic in the forest, I stood there and contemplated my options.
After rubbing my aching shins, I inhaled and shouted, “Let’s do this!” One step after the other, my boots clung to the rocks as each stride brought me closer and closer to my goal—the top. Slow and steady at first until my confidence grew, I allowed each footfall to reassure my path. As I reached the peak, the clouds uncovered the sun and beamed down upon the mountain and me. Success.
Only, everything I just wrote in that previous paragraph is fiction. What really happened was that I was exhausted after hiking for a few hours in that high-altitude environment (darn, the altitude). And as I stood there and contemplated my options, a sassy hiker strode by me with her taut shins and wrinkle-free complexion, and bounded up that path, ignoring the danger and potential injury. I thought I heard her say, “Get that arse moving, old lady.” But surely, she only said hello or nice day or some other hiking pleasantry.
As I stood at the foot of that rocky hill, I decided not to ascend and instead imagined the experience. Fiction can do that. Fiction can take you places you never thought you’d go, never thought you wanted to go, with the point of seeking out a universal truth that is still individual to you, the reader. It can render experiences that are true to life and true to you—without bloodied knees or sprained ankles. The universal truth revealed that day? Life brings challenges that don’t always have to be tackled. The individual truth was—I was pooped.
Writing sometimes presents a similar dilemma. I have often stood at the bottom of a steep slog of something I needed to write (a difficult scene, emotional dialogue, an ephemeral description) and been filled with self-doubt. Did I have the strength I needed? Was I equipped with the right skills? Could I recreate the thoughts in my head on paper? Inevitably, I seek out the inspiration of another writer who makes it all look so easy and eloquent. Most of the time, I will advance up that hill and succeed but only after multiple, sloppy attempts.
Did I wimp out that day in Chautauqua Park? Maybe. I like to think that I made a mature decision based on the facts I had at the time: steep hill, tired legs, laboring lungs vs. a mountain made of stone. I opted for the fictional version and allowed my imagination to do the work.
Not going up the hill did little to spoil a gorgeous day filled with the scent of pine and morning mist. Now, I cling to the memory of how I felt magnificently tired on a day when nature won. This time.