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Culture Vulture

Writing is like climbing a mountain

A mountain climb yields many writing lessons

We stand at the base, contemplating the mountain. "Clara might find it hard," Lee Seong Ah says, concern crossing her face as she studies me. I am in Hello Kitty leggings and a Wonder Woman T-shirt and look like a sack of potatoes in a parka.

We stand around like this for a few minutes as my South Korean friends discuss my physical fitness level (zero) and the difficulty of the hike we are about to take (hard). I let them talk over my head. In the presence of a mountain, I am reduced to a nervous child, biting my nails.

We are all writers-in-residence at Toji Cultural Center in Wonju, 2½ hours by car from Seoul. Living and writing together, in a commune-like set-up for weeks, we have fallen into the habit of taking long walks in the shadow of nearby Baegunsan, or White Cloud Mountain. But this is the first time I am tagging along on one of their hikes up the mountain.

Finally, Park Jong Dae, who is working on translating a German novel into Korean, has enough of the waffling. He drags me by the arm up a steep dirt path. I stumble, twigs cracking underfoot, and try to keep up. There is no other way to tackle this, I realise, but to heave my lumpen body forward.

Much has been made of running as a kind of pseudo-literary activity - kick-starting the writerly mind - thanks to Haruki Murakami's 2007 memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

I have spent most of my life avoiding exercise, but I understand the kind of peace that might be found pounding pavements in jogging shoes or enduring marathons - the repetitive activity jogging the memory, too, and creating new verbal rhythms.

As a metaphor for writing, scaling forested peaks is apt: You plunge into a writing project... with foolhardy ignorance. You cannot make it without people you trust... to drag and support you.

You keep going, even when it's painful; until you finish what you started.

Yet, at Toji, the preferred pre-writing exertion is the dogged conquering of mountains. As a metaphor for writing, scaling forested peaks is apt: You plunge into a writing project - be it a novel, a collection of short stories or poems or a memoir - with foolhardy ignorance. You cannot make it without people you trust (first readers, editors, publishers) to drag and support you. You keep going, even when it's painful; until you finish what you started.

"It's like being loaded up for a mountain climb," American writer Jonathan Lethem once said in an interview, about beginning a novel. "You see this kind of slightly cloud-covered top that you're driven to reach. What lies between you and that top is unknown and that's excitement." 

But this is not a metaphor. This is really happening. To me. Out-of-shape me.

At first, I am an embarrassing wreck - puncturing the serenity of the hills with my ragged, open-mouthed breathing and plaintive cries - "rest, rest!" It is decided that the others will go ahead, while I take my time behind them, accompanied by the gallant Kim Bong Lae, who writes young adult novels about school trips with zombies. I trust these guys completely. They are hardy, tenacious and inspire me to find strength within myself.

My friends find two fallen tree limbs, strip it of small branches and hand them to me. Soon, I am "skiing" uphill, with my twin poles. I stab my sticks into the soft earth to test it, to divine the steps I should tread.

I discover muscles I never knew existed in my calves. Dried leaves crunch satisfyingly under my sneakers and plants reach out thorny hands to touch me. I understand what it means to be in the zone, when you are concentrating on just putting one foot in front of the other, calculating the efficacy of the next step. You look neither left nor right, focusing only on the path ahead and your ability to stay on it.

Eliminating pockets of wild nature does us all a huge disservice. It robs writers and artists of places to put in time and training; to fulfil their apprenticeships, as observers of the minute, voices of the voiceless and documenters of the world.

On a mountain hike, you notice the tiny fern bracken that unfurls on the ground - the Koreans call it gosari and eat it blanched. You notice the eerie parts of the forest, where the pine trees have grown so tall that no sunlight penetrates to the ground, leaving the bottom half of these trees denuded of leaves and grey.

You hear the caw of a bird that sounds like a baby. You finally learn what a dandelion looks like - yellow and happy - before it turns into a pale clock. Even if climbing and looking does not stimulate creativity in you, it ought to make you a more tenacious reader, a more patient viewer and a finer appreciator of beauty.

I'd thought that, while hiking, I'd be able to puzzle out some knotty point in a short story I am working on. But when you are hurling yourself against a mountain and trying to make yourself stick, the mind remains mercifully blank. It is this blankness that is useful. Any confusion about tangled plots and contorted characters fall away and you re-emerge with a clean slate, ready to try again.

Your physical reality reminds you of the flimsiness of your constructed worlds in words. This is reassuring. This is nothing compared with the mountain. If you make a mistake in writing, just delete and start again.

We reach the top. I'd expected a momentous view. Instead, there is just a road. A road that winds around the mountain. A road we could have taken, instead of bashing through the undergrowth and sliding on loose soil, it slowly dawns on me.

My friends rest under a lone cherry blossom tree. Novelist Kim Do Yeon gives out handfuls of edible green shoots plucked from trees. I hum the Chariots Of Fire (1981) movie theme and swan around taking wefies.

And herein, perhaps, is the ultimate lesson the mountain has to teach the writer. That you shouldn't expect fireworks and confetti when you are "done" with a book.

A finished manuscript forgotten in a drawer and a published bestseller amount to the same thing. You allow yourself to be giddy and silly for about five minutes and then you get right back to the business of getting down the mountain. The tough route you forced yourself to take is the only thing that matters.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2016, with the headline 'Ain't no mountain high enough for a writer'. Print Edition | Subscribe