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The Long Hike

Writing a novel is like trekking up a mountain. You have to get uncomfortable before you really start getting somewhere.

· Writers Life,Pep Talks

I went hiking this past weekend. I tried to meditate as I walked, focusing on my breath, the sensations and sounds of being out in nature. The burn in my muscles as the trail started to get steep. But constant "Mommy look at this!" interruptions tended to break up the meditative flow. It's okay. There's more than one way to be "in the moment," and sometimes, it's letting my mind wander where it will, drawing inspiration from the trees and my child's exuberance and the smiles of passing hikers. But whenever my mind wanders, I inevitably think about writing. Specifically, how I still have a very long way to go on my current work in progress.

But then, halfway up the trail, something occurred to me. Writing actually has a lot in common with a hard climb uphill.

When you start the trip, you're excited. You can see that peak way up near the clouds. It's incredible to think, That's where I'm going! I'm awesome! This is going to be epic!

Then, the work begins.

I'm always surprised at how tired my legs feel in that first mile. It's overcoming inertia. Like those first few tentative chapters of a new writing project--stretching, getting a feel for today's rhythm, which might not be just like your last project or last weekend or even yesterday.

The first mile marker passes, and you're definitely warmed up. It feels great. The trail is getting a little steeper, and your shirt is getting damp. But you don't mind. It's supposed to be a workout, right? Just like being in the weeds of a new first draft. The final chapter is so far away, and you're not sure how you'll get there. But just being on the path is exhilarating.

You take a quick break for water and look around. Wow. You might be slightly out of breath, your socks might be bunching in a weird way that makes you question the shape of your toes. But this is incredible. You're out here. You're doing this!

An hour in, maybe two. And it's getting steep. (Who picked this trail anyway?) Even the most easy-going kids are starting to whine. Your calves are cramping, fingers achy. There's a fork in the trail, and you have no idea which way to go. You pick one and keep going, certain that you're going to end up lost. Then you realize that you are lost. This sucks. You're hoping your hiking buddies don't quit on you. Or worse yet, forge ahead without you.

As a writer, this might happen halfway through the first draft. Or with your fifth revision. Or after the fiftieth rejection. It'll probably happen again and again: that awful feeling that this is going nowhere. You're not going to make it.

But you remember: I'm on an adventure. It's not supposed to be easy all the time. It's hard to push yourself past what you thought you could do. If it wasn't, then anyone would do it. You double back, find your way. You ask your family for patience, and ask your friends for help. A lot. A lot of help.

You slow down, breathe, and stop putting so much pressure on yourself. And suddenly, magically, you get into an incredible rhythm. You're having an amazing time just putting one foot in front of the other. You focus on the air filling up your lungs. You gain confidence in yourself; you scramble up a few boulders that had looked intimidating before. And all the while you are actually letting yourself enjoy it.

Then, after all that hard work, it finally happens. The top of the mountain.

You've finished! You're there! You finished the manuscript; you found an agent; maybe your book even came out! And the view might be perfect. Or...you might find it's not quite what you expected. You might even be disappointed. Really? This is it?

Huh.

We've all heard it too many times: "It's not the finish line, it's the journey." Yeah, yeah, yeah. Saying it doesn't make you really believe it. It's hard when you scale that mountain, and find it's not as amazing and life-changing as you'd hoped. You're achy and sore, and realize there's still a long trip back down. And an even taller mountain after that. And the next. Getting to the top--of whatever current trail you're on--is a relief, no question. But it's really just a pivot point. A place to turn around, see how far you've come, and realize that you aren't anywhere near finished yet.

You start to realize that your goal wasn't what you thought. It wasn't really about getting to the top of that mountain peak. It's about coming out again the next chance you get, taking on a fourteener next time. Or a multi-day backpacking excursion. Pushing yourself in new ways, and learning more about yourself, each time. And seeing the value in every single step you take, every moment spent on the trail. Sometimes you won't make it all the way up to the summit. You stop at a great overlook, take a breath of that incredible air, and head back down.

It's not a failure.

It's just another step on this very, very long hike.

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