Health and Fitness · Writing

How writing is like bouldering (no, really)

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Bouldering is the essence of climbing.

There is no special equipment required; no harnesses, no hardware, no ropes. It’s just you and the rock in front of you.

Sort of like staring at the blank page of a new document file.

I started bouldering about four months ago, not long after I’d finally mastered the seemingly impossible feat of being able to do two pull-ups in a row. I wanted to put that newfound strength to work, so I signed up for a bouldering pass at a local climbing gym.

As it turns out, bouldering involves a lot more than just strength.

If you’ve never tried it before, here’s how it works:

A typical climbing gym will have an area sectioned off for bouldering, usually a collection of walls not more than 15 feet high and often at a negative slope (meaning, you have to lean slightly back from vertical). The walls will be covered in multi-colored hand and foot holds in a variety of shapes and sizes.

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(One hold at my gym looks like an elephant’s trunk from one side. From the other side, it looks…not like an elephant’s trunk. I always feel the need to apologize after grabbing it…)

The colors  of the holds mark out your routes; just like a ski slope, they differ in their level of difficulty, from V0 to V16, where V0 is the easiest. At my gym, V0 routes are marked in green. After four months, I still haven’t graduated to yellow (V1).

Here’s how you start.

First, get on your climbing shoes (*sings* there’s one thing on your mind…no? Okay). Give your hands a good dusting of chalk.

Second, stand back and stare at the wall.

No, really.

Like any journey towards a particular goal, you have to know where you’re going – and how to get there. Find your starting holds – they’ll be right at the bottom of the wall. Even your feet start off the mat. Locate the next green hold, then the next, all the way to the last one at the very top. If you get both hands on that last hold, then you’ve topped out. Yes!

But first you have to start. Being so low to the ground, it can be hard to use your feet for leverage. Sometimes you find yourself twisted in an odd position and needing to switch hands in mid-climb. Sometimes what you were sure would work as a foothold just…doesn’t.

Sometimes the very first move is such a stretch that you can’t make even that regardless of how many pull-ups you can do; because it’s more about skill than strength.

And always – always – you fall.

And that’s okay.

Because below you is a nice comfy crash pad to catch you. And around you is a gym full of people with a whole range of experience, who are more than willing to give you whatever advice they have to offer.

(It takes more leg muscle than upper body strength, says the guy with 50lbs more upper body muscle than me, dangling easily from a fingerhold with one arm. Yeah. Legs. Right.)

So you keep trying. You keep trying, you keep practicing, and you figure it out. You get stronger.

And finally, you top out.

Eventually you’ll get to the point where you can flash it – scramble straight from hold to hold and topping out without a pause or mishold.

(Or you come in the next week prepared to finally conquer a route only to find that they’ve completely changed everything around, and you’re basically starting from scratch. Hooray.)

So, how exactly is this like writing?

First, you need to have a solid base. The ability to do two pull-ups won’t help much with crafting a story, but you do need to have a basic understanding of grammar, story structure, and character building. If you don’t, you’ll never get off the ground.

Next, when plotting your story, you have a myriad of possible routes available to you. These are the different-colored holds.

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It’s a bit daunting to consider them all at first. If you’re not a great storyteller yet, you can choose an easy one, reliant on old familiar tropes. Go for the green. If you have a bit more skill, move up from there.

I’ve done quite a bit of writing, but I’ve yet to complete and publish an actual novel. I’m starting at V2 (red) for now. That idea I have for a two-book, dual-POV full of unreliable narrators and plot twists? Yeah, that’s purple. Fingerholds only. It’s going to have to wait until I can flash the red problems.

Oh, did I mention that bouldering routes are actually called problems? Fitting, I think!

Then comes the process of writing itself. You’ve stared at that wall of problems, you’ve picked out your path and gotten past the first two holds (i.e. plot points – am I beating this metaphor to death yet?) – only to find that where you thought you just needed a push with your right hand is not going to work. At all.

You lose your grip, and you fall.

And that’s okay.

Don’t keep tackling a problem the same way, over and over again. Because it’s not about brute strength; it’s about skill. Find that hold that was hidden behind a different problem; try using your other hand. Maybe you need to take your foot off that hold altogether and smear the wall instead, trusting in the support beneath you to hold you up.

Set up that plot twist earlier. Introduce a new character where you need another POV to prop up the narrative. Reach out to other writers and ask, hey, have you ever had a problem like this? How did you get past it? Start at the second plot point if you’re having trouble getting past the first. You can always go back and start at the beginning later.

Maybe you were wrong about where the beginning really is.

Or, drop back to the ground and try a completely different approach.

They’re your words. You can use them however you need to.

You look at the move in front of you and you think It’s too far to reach oh god I’ll be upside down I’ll never make it I’m going to fall. You freeze, lose your strength, and fall.

It’s too many words my character doesn’t have a motivation I’ll never finish this.

Sometimes, all it takes is getting past that fear and instead telling yourself I can do this. And it’s okay if I fall.

So you go for it.

You might fall.

But you might not. You might just finally make it all the way to the end.

It’s not uncommon to walk into a climbing gym and see no one climbing, while half a dozen people just sit on the mats, staring upwards. Sometimes they’ll be chatting, but mostly they’ll be focused entirely on the problem that just kicked their ass, contemplating how overcome it.

Writing is like that too. Sometimes, you just need to take a step back and stare at the overall structure of the story that’s currently kicking your ass, and contemplate how to overcome it.

Build your base. Write as much as you can, whenever you can. Look for inspiration in unexpected places.

Then come back to the page, and tackle it again. You’ll only get better; you’ll never top out if you don’t try.

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