Writing a Wrong (or Zebulon Pike Inspired this Blog Posting)

NOTE: This blog posting was actually written in May, 2011 on my own site. I was recently reading over some of the stuff I wrote, and decided I should post it here to see if it might motivate any other writers. If it does, great! If not, great! We all find our own ways to be motivated.

“Preparation and motivation do not push you to the top. To get there, you need determination and dedication…and then take that first step.” — Me, while trying to motivate myself

Standing at the edge of my day job, I can easily see the Front Range of the Rockies stabbing their defiant fists into the air. The most prominent fist is Pikes Peak, what the brochures call “America’s Mountain.” It was this morning, while sucking down copious amounts of coffee and staring off into the vastness of the desert, that I was reminded of Zebulon Pike and how mistakes often turn into something else entirely, how mistakes can actually be a good thing.
Zebulon Pike, explorer and mistake maker
For the history buffs out there, Capt. Zebulon Pike first spotted what he called “the Grand Peak” on November 15, 1806. As he pushed up the Arkansas River into what is now Pueblo, he decided to attempt a climb of the mountain that now bears his name. On November 24th, a four-man climbing party left their camp to begin their ascent. Due to Pike’s distance miscalculations, it took two days, not one, to reach the base of the mountains. On the morning of the 26th, the climb began. However, continuing miscalculations of distance and deteriorating weather prevented them from reaching the summit by nightfall.

The following morning, Pike arrived at the summit. His climbing party was treated to a spectacular view of oceans of clouds below them and a panoramic blue sky above. Their view also showed that due to their previously obscured view of the peaks from the valley floor, they had climbed the wrong peak and were standing atop 11,499 ft. Mt. Rosa. The Grand Peak was fifteen miles away.

Pike wrote in his journal:

“. . . here we found the snow middle deep; no sign of beast or bird inhabiting this region. The thermometer which stood at 9° above 0 at the foot of the mountain, here fell to 4° below 0. The summit of the Grand Peak, which was entirely bare of vegetation and covered with snow, now appeared at the distance of 15 or 16 miles from us, and as high again as what we had ascended, and would have taken a whole day’s march to have arrived at its base, when I believed no human being could have ascended to its pinical [sic]. This with the condition of my soldiers who had only light overalls on, and no stockings, and every way ill provided to endure the inclemency of the region; the bad prospect of killing any thing to subsist on, with the further detention of two or three days, which it must occasion, determined us to return.”

Zebulon Pike never made it to the top of his own mountain.

I find all this interesting as a writer. After all, writers are not perfect; they make mistakes. If writers didn’t make mistakes, where would the editors be? To prevent mistakes or to correct them before they reach the reader, thousands of books have been written on the subject. There are books on how to self-edit, books on how to construct a sentence, books on how to self-edit a constructed sentence while standing on your head. Writers are prone to mistakes, even the best of the best.

While some writers reach the peak, others do not. What is the difference when we all make mistakes?

Preparation.

Recall that Pike’s climbing party “. . . had only light overalls on, and no stockings, and every way ill provided to endure the inclemency of the region.” In short, they weren’t prepared to make the climb. They didn’t have the appropriate clothing to endure the rough conditions of that November in Colorado. Had Pike believed there to be more than desert in the West, he would have prepared his troops better, let them take their coats and hats and gloves and scarves. Had he been prepared, Pike might have reached the summit.

Using Pike’s story as allegory, how do writers prepare for their climb up a mountain, from page 1 to page 453, from start to finish? That mountain (of a novel, of a short story, of an essay) is wrought with peril, is it not? There are cold spots, crevasses, ice caves, even abominable snowmen. There are mistakes to be made along the way to the top, and any writer who tells you he or she has never made a mistake–has never been totally prepared for the climb–is a liar.

When I talk about preparation in writing, I am not asking if you have a pen or some paper or new laptop with all the distracting bells and whistles. I am not asking if you have your leather-bound journal or your eraser, even if you have your idea. We all have ideas, even those of us who do not write. Ideas are thoughts, born through the interaction of synapses and every one of us has an idea (or two).

No, preparation is about having a plan of attack, being able to visualize the possible barriers to success and then being ready to conquer them with the proper tools. Preparation is about having characters who will climb the mountain with you, knowing the strengths and the weaknesses of those characters, and making it possible for them to reach the top. Preparation is about plot (the trail you plan to use), about theme (the reason you’re climbing in the first place) and about structure (knowing the tools to use and when to use them).

All writers have a goal. They see a mountain in the distance and they say they’ll reach the top. Many writers don’t make it. They start out with shorts and slippers and expect to be warm at the top. Although they really wanted to climb the mountain, they didn’t prepare for the journey. They didn’t learn from Pike’s mistakes and didn’t write his wrong.

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