Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Two Lessons about writing I learned from falling off a cliff

You ever have a story to tell that you just can’t get into words?  I do, and its very frustrating.  Mine is the story of these two pictures:

The most frustrating part is that the story is about something that happened to me.  That should be easy right?  Well it hasn’t been easy at all.  Here is the outline of my (never ending) work in progress:

  1. Thanksgiving morning 2011.  Family gathered in Southern Utah. 
  2. Let’s go rock climbing!  Fall 35-40 feet.  Hit the ground.  Why is everything spinning?
  3. Call an ambulance?  We’re in the middle of nowhere. Hike back to car.  
  4. It’s just a cut on my head right? Do we need to go get checked out?
  5. Went to nearest rural hospital.  Walked in to the Emergency Department.  Told them what happened.  Doctor thought I was lying. Sat in wheelchair while they admit me. 
  6. They do X-Rays.  Doctor no longer thinks I’m lying.  Small hospital staff freaked out, no more quiet holiday.  
  7. Did CT scan.  Is that bleeding in your brain?  Uh oh.  We can’t help you.  Air ambulance called.  You’re flying to Salt Lake City.  Leave your family here.
  8. Air Med comes.  Have some morphine.  Wow, guess what? You’re allergic to morphine!  Inside on fire as body rejects morphine.  Can’t breathe.  Choke on vomit during flight.  Try to signal flight nurse to have her help clear airway.  Am I going to die?  
  9. Trauma patient at the U of U.  I worked here for 9 years, that’s fun!  I can hear you talking you know?  Did you really have to cut my clothes off?  
  10. 3 days in ICU.  6 broken ribs, 2 shattered shoulder blades, 3 broken vertebrae, 2 skull fractures, punctured lung,  12 (or was it 13?) staples in head.  Helmet saved your life.
  11. Not a single invasive procedure? No surgery? No cast or anything?   Go home, hard to lie down.  Sleep in chair.  T Rex arms.
  12. Back to work in a week.  6 weeks later all clear.  7 weeks later and I’m back skiing again. 

I have tried to write this short autobiographical piece with no success.  I have started and restarted my account on many occasions over the past couple years, but it has never panned out.  Is that because I am an inadequate writer?  Maybe.  But this happened to me, why is it so hard?

I sat down and thought about why I couldn’t get my story on paper.  I read through the failed attempts and recognized that each attempt was dramatically different, yet each a poor fit.  In reviewing the failed attempts, I saw two common threads in each of them.

First,  I wasn't writing to my audience.  In fact, I realized I had never addressed who the audience was.  Was I writing a journal account to be read only by posterity?  Was I writing a piece for a climbing magazine?  Was I writing a more comprehensive autobiographical account and tying it into other events in my life?   Was I writing a Public Service Announcement for helmet use?  Was I trying to write an inspirational story about a miraculous event?   I never decided. I still don’t know who my audience will be, I am working on that, but I know now that I need to have the answer before I start writing again.        

Second, I was drowning in detail.  Take a look at this failed attempt:

My first mistake was leaving the bolted routes and trying to find my own line.  I should have known better than to try and lead a route in Navajo sandstone that had not undergone extensive cleaning.   I could see at least three solid placements from the ground, so I assumed there would be sufficient protection throughout the first pitch.  The first few moves went well and were well protected, in less than a minute I had climbed twenty feet and securely placed two C4’s.  At this point the route changed from vertical face to progressive slab and the opportunities for protection were few.   Not wanting to run out the climb too far, I placed a C3 in a shallow horizontal crack.  I knew the placement was shaky at best, but it felt better than nothing.  I didn’t give it a second thought as I continued friction climbing the slab. After another ten feet, I still couldn’t find any placements, but I reached a three inch ledge and began edging a traverse to some natural anchors.  After a few steps and with my back foot weighted, I went to unclip a runner from my harness when the edge broke beneath my foot.  The awkward position I was in when the edge crumbled caused me to fall feet up and back first.  I felt a tug on my harness as my topmost placement, the C3, broke its crack and popped out.

Reading through my failed attempts I saw a lot of paragraphs like this one above.  The detail was too thick, and even if my audience were climbers the jargon was too heavy.  Knowing when to elaborate and when to be brief can be tricky.  Here's my take: If it sounds too much like a technical manual or a recipe and its not intended to be either of those then there is too much detail.  This has helped me in my current endeavor of writing a fantasy novel.  If I am describing a magic system and I find myself going into textbook mode, I need to rein it in.

I am learning a lot about writing, and I have lots of room to improve.  I know I need more lessons.  I just hope I can learn the rest of them without another trip to the ER.

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