The year I turned thirty, I nearly died trekking over a mountain pass in Nepal. This was the same 17,769-foot pass through the Annapurna Circuit where, in October 2014, an unexpected snowstorm took the lives of nearly 40 people.
My adventure could have turned out just as badly. I had gone to Nepal to meet up with Nick, a man I hardly knew, but thought I loved. Before leaving, I had done little research and was as stupidly under-prepared as Cheryl Strayed admits to being in her terrific memoir, Wild. We were trekking in March, and by the time we reached Thorung La Pass, the snow was thigh-high on me.
We should have turned around. But, as Jon Krakauer describes so brilliantly in his book, Into Thin Air, people climbing mountains often become so determined to conquer their peaks that common sense falls by the wayside. So on we went, Nick and me, with a ragged band of perhaps fifteen other trekkers from different countries, and one Sherpa who “sort of” knew the way.
I don’t know how we made it. I was terrified, as the clouds gathered and the wind blew up, making it nearly impossible to see more than three feet in front of me. My hands and feet went numb because I had been too idiotic to wear proper clothing. I had wrapped my feet in plastic bags because I had inadequate boots and wore two Yak wool sweaters under a windbreaker because I didn’t own a down jacket.
One man on that trek kept me going, a man in his sixties who had begun this journey back when his wife was still alive and hadn’t made it. He was determined to do it now, despite his age and one bum knee. As we staggered up the mountain through blinding snow, he kept telling me, in gasping high-altitude monosyllables: “One. Step. At. A. Time.”
And that is what I say to myself now, when conquering my fears as I write novels: ONE. STEP. AT. A. TIME.
It’s a raw and risky business, writing fiction. My fellow novelists Kristin Bair O’Keeffe and Lorrie Thomson and I put together a panel on this topic for the 2015 Newburyport Literary Festival, because we wanted to talk about taking risks and conquering real-life fears, and how doing that has translated into lessons we use when writing fiction.
In addition to my Himalayan odyssey, another of my other greatest life lessons was getting divorced and marrying a man with children. I had two children, as did my second husband, and all of them were young—ages 6,7,8, and 9 when we got married. In other words, whereas previously I had gotten through thigh-deep snow one step at a time, now I was thigh-deep in children. They were loud, active, opinionated children, too. As one friend said, “Dinner at your house is louder than any rock concert I’ve ever been to.”
What was I thinking, having so many children? Artists aren’t supposed to have any children! In fact, all of my life—and that includes the year I turned thirty, the year I trekked over that mountain pass—I had envisioned a gypsy existence, one where I traveled solo, wrote, and took a lover now and then, but never became dependent—or depended upon.
And then, seemingly overnight, I had a big white house and four blond heads clamoring for attention. Add to that a dog, a couple of cats, some hamsters and gerbils that always seemed to be escaping, and what chance did I have to write?
Yet, somehow, I wrote: on weekends, when my saint of a husband would get the kids out of the house or tell me to go off to a cheap motel and work on my book. And at night, too, when the kids were asleep, a cup of mint tea or a glass of wine at my elbow.
And here’s the funny thing: I wrote more, much more, after I had children than I did before, even though I had far less time. When I was young and single, I squandered my hours. There was always a concert to go to, or a movie, or maybe I just felt like lying around and watching television. Having a family taught me to manage my time.
More importantly, motherhood taught me the true meaning of unconditional love, and opening myself up to that depth of emotion gave me the courage to start successfully rendering emotions on the page—something I’d held back from doing before, because I thought emotional writing wasn’t literary writing.
The lesson from family life that I carry over to my writing? COMMIT TO YOUR CRAFT, HEART AND SOUL, AND SHARE YOURSELF HONESTLY WITH READERS.
Just one more lesson to share here. This has to do with my sister, a sister I never talk about, and that most people don’t even know existed. I rarely talk about Gail because she died of cystic fibrosis when she was five years old and I was twelve. As in any family that loses a child, ours was shattered.
Now fast forward to my life as the mother and stepmother of four young children. With my second husband, I had passion and parenthood, and yet we didn’t have a child together, and somehow that felt lacking to me. So, at age 42, and with four children already under my roof, I got pregnant again.
And then I got scared. Really scared. By this time, genetic testing was much more advanced, and my husband and I could get tested to see if we were cystic fibrosis carriers. It turns out that I am. The clinicians could rule out some genes for my husband, but not all of them. He could be a carrier, too.
Should I continue with this pregnancy or not? I couldn’t bear the idea of an abortion—not because I don’t believe in it, politically, but because I personally couldn’t do it—and so I had the baby.
I was afraid during much of that pregnancy. But I also realized, during that time, that I have love and support in my life, and that I was resilient. If something was wrong with the baby, I knew I’d cope.
And that, too, is a lesson worth learning as a writer: BE RESILIENT, MOVE FORWARD AND KEEP LEARNING. Whether it’s rejections or bad reviews, lousy sales or your agent drops you, learn from the experience and move forward.
If you want to succeed as a writer, then, here are three life lessons I want to share:
- Take it One. Step. At. A. Time. Nobody has ever written an entire novel in day.
- Commit your heart and soul to the process, and be honest on the page.
- Be resilient, and learn from everything you do. That is as true in writing as it is in everything else you’ll do in this life.