I want to share with you my metaphysical approach to writing and other challenges, which I call the mountaineer model. This is my first Ideospectus series, to be completed over multiple posts. My sincere hope is that reading my approach to writing prompts you to consider your own strategies. My insincere hope is that the hours I spend committing my theory to public record make me a better writer. (Selfish!) I apologise if this zeroth part comes across as long-winded or esoteric. Parts I-IV will be more focused and practical.
The mountaineer model
The general gist of my model is this: Writing is a challenge akin to mountain climbing. If we are to track either activity, writing or mountain climbing, we will see that there is more to it than moving from an origin, to slope, and finally to pinnacle. A mountain climb or writing task is more like a continuum of peaks, troughs and plateaus. The climber/writer might head away from the summit/deadline to acclimatise to reduced oxygen/confidence, but the overall incline is still positive (upward). The point is, writing is nonlinear and there will be days where writing does not seem to happen. That is okay; c’est la vie.
My philosophy is that you will make effective progress, if and only if you play your strengths to changing terrain. Even though the landscape changes are unpredictable at a local scale; though your path towards the zenith is uncertain; taking a wider vista of the mountain will reveal areas where it is in your interest to rest, climb, descend, or find another path.
To illustrate in writing terms, you might be working on a thesis that has fixed requirements at the global scale; it has to have a literature review of about four thousand words, it needs to adhere to APA style guidelines, et cetera. At a finer level of analysis, completing the task is a nonlinear, stochastic set of events and processes. You could for instance get sick, or decide to change your topic, which will affect progress globally (and locally) in ways both predictable and unforeseen. In other words, you cannot expect to change the mountain.
There are however ways to change the mindset of the mountaineer, in accordance with the expected gross stages of mountaineering. That is what my theory is all about – when there is a mountain in your way, zoom out, and see what the next major obstacle is. Then, adapt your mindset to surmounting just that obstacle – never mind the rest of the mountain, because it will still be there waiting for you. The rest of this essay applies the mountaineer model to writing. More specific writing advice will be shared in subsequent parts of the series. I hope each post inspires you in tackling future writing projects, whether those be academic, technical, fictional, or social.
The meta-obstacles of writing
All writing projects present the same four meta-obstacles to the writer in random sequence. The meta-obstacles are tabulated here, along with the optimal mindset for overcoming each:
The mountain includes the others – it is the entire project, but is included as a meta-obstacle in its own right for an important reason. That is, each writing project is not just the sum of its parts, in the same way that the mountain is not just a series of peaks and troughs. Advancing 20 metres up a 45 degree slope is not the same at base camp as it is 5,000 kilometres above sea level. So, it is important to make a whole-of-project plan before you put pen to paper, that will help you to track specific types of challenges later on. Crucially, the most effective plans are those that embed the theme of self-care. Caring for yourself – for the writer – is a necessary condition of producing excellent writing, yet many of us are focused solely on filling blank pages in a certain time. In sum, to ensure you do not get overwhelmed at the thought of writing a thesis or climbing Everest, invoke the mindset of the wise warrior and plan your life while climbing (not your climb while living) – more on this in Part I of the series.
Personal wellbeing antecedes professional excellence.
The other three major meta-obstacle classes are inclines, chasms, and summit. The incline is what most writing textbooks talk about almost exclusively: the stages of sourcing content, and drafting sections, sub-sections, paragraphs, sentences and so on. At these stages, the writer should unpack her ideas and arrange them into a working corpus. Analogously, the mountaineer should unpack his supplies and establish a secure campsite at strategic points of the incline. In both the writing and mountain-climbing sense, the process of unpacking and repacking is the job of the Promethean poet. Prometheus was believed to have formed man out of clay from the bones up, and so writing is similar in that you need to get the skeleton in place before you can ‘flesh out’ your writing (add flesh and skin to bare bones). We shall focus on the Promethean poet in Part II.
A man contains all that is needed to make up a tree; likewise, a tree contains all that is needed to make up a man. Thus, finally, all things meet in all things, but we need a Prometheus to distill it. (Cyrano de Bergerac, The other world, 1657.)
The chasm represents the pitfalls of writing: writer’s block, procrastination, perfectionism, imposter syndrome, et cetera. Having planned and built a solid framework, the writer may be tempted to carry all of her ideas over the precipice, but this will not work – the weight of her thoughts will throw her into the Carollian rabbit hole. The trick here is knowing what to jettison. To that end, evoking the mindset of a brutal butcher is helpful. I am talking about a willingness – gleefulness, even – to sacrifice or reconstitute any part of the skeleton, flesh and skin that you have crafted. Some writers have looked to Alferd Packer for inspiration; a mountaineer who butchered (allegedly) his companions to survive his tour of the mountains of Colorado, USA. I will write more about the brutal butcher character in Part III.
The only way to exit, is going piece by piece. (Kerry King, Piece by piece, 1986.)
The summit is not an end point, neither in mountain climbing nor writing. You still have the return journey to plan for. In writing, this might be dealing with an assignment marker, editor or reviewer, who has made suggestions for improvement. You can save yourself a lot of pain by anticipating what their suggestions will be once you have submitted your work. In short, it is prudent to allow at least two days of proofing before submission. The more skilled a writer is at self-editing, the more time he will save navigating the journey back down to base camp. With that said, it helps to consider who the audience is likely to be (e.g, a time-poor professor? Bored first-year students?), and be merciful to them. Try to polish your work so that it will be a pleasure to read. In addition, try to counterbalance a sense of mercy for the consumer, with a sense of mercenary for the product; be real about how many applications of polish are needed before you can say a work is finished. The merciful mercenary shall be the topic of Part IV in this series.
Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings. (Stephen King, On writing: A memoir of the craft, 2002.)
I will conclude with a visual mnemonic of my writing model. Gold-shaded areas represent meta-obstacles that are more commonly confronted at the beginning or end of a project, but can become the writer’s focus at any point along the journey. Banksia-shaded areas represent the ‘nuts and bolts’ meta-obstacles; they demand attention most when the writer is sitting down to write. The axis of symmetry between the top and bottom areas reminds us about the additive versus subtractive nature of the meta-obstacles; the wise warrior (WW) and Promethean poet (PP) aggregate (they plan and unpack), whereas the barbaric butcher (bb) and merciful mercenary (MM) segregate (they jettison and commit).
Going forward, Part I in this series will outline some practical advice on how to be the wise warrior as you plan and progress on your way, despite your destination. Part II will advise on how to unpack your ideas, build them into a skeleton, and give it flesh and skin – just like a real Promethean poet. Part III will instruct how to cut the fat – or jettison excess venison – as a brutal butcher would. Finally, Part IV will suggest ways of committing to the final effort to the summit, and the return journey; this is the art of the merciful mercenary.