Staring at a blank page can sometimes feel a lot like standing at the bottom of that unnerving route you’ve wanted to climb for years: you know it, the monster chimney with the insecure stemming on polished rock that leads you to that massive roof that gives you the heebie-jeebies. It feels overwhelming and insurmountable.
There is a lot of writing advice out there to get over writer’s block, but nothing has helped me as much as climbing. These are ten lessons I learned while rock climbing, and how I’ve used them in my creative projects.
It is the best way to avoid physical and creative injuries. Nothing deters a potential writer more than having to fill a blank screen with words, and expecting to get a perfect, final draft in her first try.
Warm-up by either writing a stream of consciousness for 20 minutes or picking five prompts and writing each one for five minutes. The key is to write as fast as you can to trick your inner censor. Don’t judge your first drafts. You’re just warming-up.
Creativity is a muscle. It has to be exercised regularly. Just like you would not skip a hangboard session because you would lose precious finger strength, do not skip your writing sessions.
Make a schedule and stick to it. Work out different muscles. If you write poetry, try writing a literary essay. If you would like to write a novel, start with a short story. Train so you can achieve your bigger goals.
Start small. In the beginning, I realized that writing one hour a day was more realistic and achievable in my everyday life than the high expectation of writing for hours on end. With time, you can increase your training sessions.
3. You will get sore.
Much like muscle pain, after your first couple of writing sessions, you will feel the burn. You will doubt, you will want to quit, you will cry and tell yourself these few sessions don’t make you a writer. However, if you push through the soreness, in a couple of days, you will be filling looser, more in shape, you will start pouring words into the page.
Climber’s (and writer’s) mind is process-oriented, not goal-oriented.
When we want the goal real bad, it’s easy to forget our accomplishments. Because we didn’t get the 5.11a on-sight, we forget the mind-blowing flash of the crazy exposed 5.10c route from last week. Because we are too obsessed with finishing this chapter, we miss the beauty of our characters unfolding right before our eyes.
Keep track of your progress. Maybe you wrote for five days in a row, you finished a poem, or you kept writing after a rut when you thought you would never be able to write anything good again. Looking back on it, you will feel proud and even surprised about how much progress you’ve made.
5. Progress is made one move (or page) at a time.
We all know the feeling of climbing a route only to look up and fall into despair because we still have six more bolts to clip, and we are already close to pumping out. But then, as if the all-powerful gods of rock took mercy on us, we divinely remember: “I only have to make one move at a time.”
The same is true for writing. You only have to make progress one page at a time. Hell! In bad days you only have to move one sentence or even one word at a time!
The trick is to make one move after the other until you reach the chains.
6. Adopt a positive mindset.
You can’t climb if you don’t have a positive mindset. It’s impossible. You will not climb over your last piece; you will not commit to the crux move; you will try half-heartedly… And fail.
I had to learn early on that I had to change my self-talk if I wanted to climb. Soon after, I started topping out those boulder problems that seemed so hard in my first tries.
You can get to the top. You can finish a novel. You are a good writer. Stop telling yourself you can’t and…
7. Get used to fear.
Fear never goes away. You just get used to it.
You learn to climb with fear, and you learn to write with fear until it does not control you anymore. Dani Shapiro, in her book Still Writing, says you can create “muscle memory” by consistently ignoring your inner critic. That way, it becomes easier to climb—or write—every day.
8. Rethink failure.
What is scarier? To fail on a climb or an intellectual one? If you are a little like me, it is sometimes easier to work out than to write, to fall on a wall than to rewrite that article, and never getting it right.
But what is failure? Is it not climbing a route clean? Or we’ve been told that not obtaining perfect results in our first attempt means we’ve failed? I think real failure is letting the disappointment in ourselves be so great that we stop trying altogether.
9. Be resilient.
Climbing has taught me resilience in the face of repetitive failure.
There will be bad days. I may blow the crux move, and I might fall. I might get rejected by one magazine after the other. But I keep trying. Because there will always be failures. The question is what to do afterward.
Climbing has taught me that even if I don’t get the on-sight or the flash, sometimes the redpoint is way more satisfactory because I had to work hard for it. I think we forget that we can do the same in writing. We can keep trying until we get the redpoint of our essays, our novels, our poems. We can perfect every move until, after ten drafts, your piece flows even better than you imagined.
This may be the most important lesson. Avoid burning out and overuse injuries by giving your mind, heart, and body a break. You will feel so refreshed when you start writing again, and words will flow with more ease after all the training you’ve put into your work.
Experiment and find what works for you. Maybe you need two days of rest in a row, perhaps you write one day on, one day off. However, don’t rest more than you write. Have the discipline to come back after your break and start back again on point number one.
After I started applying these lessons to my writing process, I noticed an uplift. If I was willing to climb with the risk of falling, why not do the same when writing?
Nowadays, the novel I’ve been working on for the past seven years is doing better than ever. I write in a fever every day at my desk in the tiny cabin I share with my partner, and in the converted van we built so we could travel and climb together.
When the hard work is over, I step away to relieve my writer’s mind with climbing sessions at the gym, or outside, where the great walls of the wild outdoors are waiting.
Ana Martínez Casas spent the last six years traveling to 12 countries, bicycle-touring through Central America, and scuba diving in the Caribbean. She has snowboarded and ran rivers as a raft guide in Colorado, and led backcountry trips in Wyoming. Last summer, she road-tripped from Colorado to Alaska to rock climb. You can follow her adventures at @anamtzcasas.
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