When my husband and I decided to learn how to backpack, we started with a big pile of books. The Internet was in its infancy back then, and so we bought a stack of wilderness titles covering everything from how to start a fire to how to use the bathroom when there isn’t one. After months of reading and preparation, David and I crammed our backpacks full of supplies and set off on a trip that would later come to be known as The Trail of Tears. On the way back down the mountain, I cried for a solid five miles because of the blisters on my feet. We didn’t make it to the peak of Mt. Charleston, which was our goal on that trip, but we did learn that the guidebook’s trail rating of “strenuous” didn’t in any way reflect the conditions on the mountain. Honestly, for a couple of weeks afterwards, I couldn’t think of a description of the trail that didn’t include profanity.
Aside from getting a hard lesson in backpacking, I learned another thing from the Trail of Tears: books will only get you so far. A book could not warn me that my hiking partner would decide to virtually run past a church group he thought was moving too slow, thus exhausting both of us before we had even hiked a mile. The books did warn me about overloading my backpack, but until you’ve had shoulder straps cutting into your sunburned shoulders for hours on end, you don’t really grasp how important it is to eliminate every ounce of extra weight. And my books could not capture how very important water becomes—especially when you have to melt snow to get it.
Becoming a writer was a similar experience. Writing hasn’t given me blisters or caused me to scream at my husband (very often, anyway), but it certainly has reduced me to tears on several occasions. I’ve spent an entire lifetime accumulating books about writing, and I’ll tell you the number one thing I’ve learned from those books: you learn to write by writing, not by reading books about writing.
You can read books all day long about the process of revision. You can collect tips and tricks galore, but if you don’t apply that knowledge to your work, it’s useless information. You don’t edit by contemplating editing. You edit by cutting out words that don’t look or sound right—and then sometimes you put them right back in. You edit by taking all that knowledge you’ve accumulated and trying it out on your work, kind of like it was a guinea pig. Sometimes the results will be great, and sometimes you’ll be convinced you’ve edited away the best part of your work. You’ve simply got to take the leap and start tinkering.
You can find hundreds of titles about the process of finding an agent and getting published, but no book can capture that heart-pounding moment when you click the “send” button and watch your work go off to someone you don’t know. No book can prepare you for the sting of criticism and rejection that inevitably accompanies writing.
Writing’s therapeutic value is extolled in many books, not just those directed to writers. But no book can fully tell you how relieved you can feel after emptying your thoughts into a journal or letter. No instructions or directions can describe how it feels to search deeply within our souls and hearts for the words than will help us.
The books can come close. Doing your homework on any subject is a good idea, but it’s no substitute for the actual activity you are researching. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, you know. For writers (and backpackers), "close" may leave a lot of space between the imaginary and reality.
And speaking of backpacking, I must tell you that David and I made a second attempt on the peak of Mt. Charleston two years after the Trail of Tears. My failed first attempt taught me far more about the wilderness than any book. On our second try, we had the practical knowledge to take us to the peak, which is just under 12,000 feet. Standing on that peak, listening to the wind whipping past us, absorbing the panoramic view around us, I felt as though I’d scaled Everest. It's a feeling that words alone can never convey.
Post Script: You can listen to my radio essay about our hike to Mt. Charleston at:
Picture courtesy of Brad Mering at http://www.sxc.hu/photo/223647