December 12, 2019 § 3 Comments
In the 2018 documentary “Free Solo,” a camera crew followed rock climber Alex Honnold as he free-soloed Yosemite’s 3,200 ft El Capitan without ropes, hardware, or a climbing buddy. It was nail-biting to watch him move through each of the pitches (a pitch is a steep section of rock, normally about one rope-length if you’re climbing with a harness), but Honnold did it with style and precision. He even had a low-key celebration at the summit, shaking hands with the camera crew and doing a little dance. It was fascinating to be behind-the-scenes with the documentary team that worked hard to capture this event without affecting Honnold’s climbing focus.
A lot of what Honnold does as a climber applies to writers:
- Set a goal
- Practice physically and mentally
- Be part of a supportive community
- Know when it’s time to step out on a limb—or not
- Celebrate reaching the summit
Honnold set a goal to free solo El Capitan several years before he actually did it. As he says in the documentary, “I’ll never be content until I at least put in the effort.” This gave him something to aim for, while doing other, smaller free solos during that time. As writers, we set lofty goals for essays and books we want to write, and outlets we want to publish in, aiming to finish by set deadlines while working on other, more manageable pieces at the same time.
Honnold practiced hard to be able to pull off this climb. He repeatedly completed each pitch with gear and a buddy, making notes in his notebook at the end of the day about each pitch. These notes were down to the single move level: “put right hand on rock outcrop and smear with left foot to reach left crack hand hold.” This is similar to when we write multiple drafts of an essay, changing small words at the sentence level to make a piece sing. When he wasn’t on the wall, he was preparing mentally by reading his notebook and reminding himself of the moves for each pitch. As writers, if we want to get our work published, we need to practice our craft by writing as much as possible, reading to learn from other writers, and taking courses when we’re able to do so. We have to practice physically—by putting words on the page, but also mentally—to have the courage to dig deep into our psyche to tell tough stories.
Honnold has a very supportive climbing community, both in the documentary team that filmed Free Solo and in the climbing community as a whole. His girlfriend Sanni McCandless championed him, though she worried about whether he could pull it off. As writers, we benefit from a supportive community, whether that’s online or in person, with people who write the same genre as we do or in other genres. I’m in a few online writing groups, and have a writing buddy with whom I check in which every week as we’re both writing books about science. During November’s NaNoWriMo, we checked in every day. A nonfiction writer friend said being in a writing group with novelists was quite helpful because they opened her eyes to how she could use fiction techniques to spice up her nonfiction.
Honnold actually started his free solo one day and then called it off—he wasn’t feeling ready that day. Writers must also take risks and step out of our comfort zones, but we have to make sure we’re ready, whether for writing about a family member in a less-than-favorable light, or digging deep into a traumatic incident that we’ve kept hidden away not just from the world but from ourselves. We have to be prepared to manage those risks, and if we’re not, we can put that writing aside for another day when we do feel prepared.
When Honnold finally summited El Capitan, he did a little dance and cheered a bit. It was pretty low-key given the magnitude of what he had just accomplished, but he did celebrate. I think this is something we don’t do enough of as authors—celebrate when reaching our writing-related summit. Maybe we got an article published in a new (to us) literary magazine, or maybe we were approached by someone to write something for their magazine—these are all causes for a break and a celebration, rather than just forging on to the next task.
Free soloing isn’t for everyone—in fact, there are very few people in the world who actually do it and are still alive. “This climb is really about the process of moving through fear,” said co-director E Chai Vasarhelyi. “How methodical [Honnold] is about it, how studied it is, and how we all could probably do that—hopefully it inspires people.””
Writing also requires that we move through fear—fear of what’s on the page, of what we are hiding and preventing ourselves from writing about. Writing isn’t for everyone. But as writers we can learn a lot from free solo climbers, and using their approach to mental and physical preparation can give us the courage to do the work to get our writing out there.
Sarah Boon‘s work has appeared in Outside Magazine, Catapult, The Millions, Alpinist Magazine, Longreads, LA Review of Books, Chicago Review of Books, Literary Hub, and more. She is currently working on a book about her adventures in remote field research and blogs at Watershed Moments.