When I started bouldering, I thought it would be a good way to get some exercise. I certainly wasn’t expecting to get a new perspective on writing. But then I got slightly obsessed, enough to start watching Reel Rock videos and listening to Climbing Gold, and I’ve been regularly struck by the similarity between how climbers and writers discuss their disciplines. We all have our projects, we prize the flow state, we value aesthetics – climbers being admired for their style as much as their power – and we struggle with the realities of making a living from our disparate crafts.
The more I climb, the more parallels become apparent. When I get sprayed with unsolicited advice, I think of the gems I’ve learnt from pedants (professional or otherwise). When I struggle with the crux of a route – knowing what needs to be done but unable to achieve it – I remember Ted Chiang’s warning to my group at Clarion West that our critical faculties would develop faster than our writing abilities, so we wouldn’t have the requisite skill to fix the issues we could newly identify. When other climbers race up the same routes that have me stumped, I watch them in the same way I read now, skimming for tactics I can ape.
What strikes me most, though, is how writers and climbers share an appetite for failure.
Whether they’re beginners or adepts, most climbers at my centre spend the majority of their time falling. It’s the nature of the game: progress is won by those who push themselves beyond their limits – learning to commit to that dynamic jump, to step up onto that piss-poor foothold. Away from the keyboard, I’ve had no experience that so closely matches that of drafting, re-writing and editing a manuscript, all while never being certain it’s going to come together. So it is with projecting a route: I might fall a hundred times and still not reach the top. It’s very Samuel Beckett (‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better’). Climbers fail over and over, making the continuous trade-off between what Bill Ramsey calls the pain of sucking and the pain of working hard. But they rarely take the pain alone. Typically, climbers come bouldering in groups, workshopping solutions together and cheering each other on.
I’m reminded of this when I visit my sister in Ghent and she brings me to her local climbing centre. It’s much fancier than the one I started attending a few months ago back home in Durham, but it has the same unmistakeable odour of chalk and feet. Though we’re twins, my sister is athletic in a way I’ll never be. I watch her dance up a route. Then, without any of her grace, I give it a go myself and get stuck partway through. But she’s shown me what to do and she’s still right there, raising her arms to spot me, coaching me from the floor. It’s like receiving a critique or editorial notes in real time. When I reach the final hold, I know I wouldn’t have done it without her – no less than I could’ve completed a single manuscript without the support of my peers, my agent and editor, my family and friends. And though my failures are entirely my own, my successes are (I hope) a credit to everyone involved, everyone who’s ever offered their encouragement.
I wasn’t always so comfortable with failing. Despite only having started bouldering recently, I was taught to lead climb as a teenager and failing at that nearly put me off for life. In my defence, it was fairly spectacular. The crunch came when I was clinging to a rockface, halfway up my section of our multi-pitch, legs jitterbugging as I tried to work out my next move. A rope trailed down from my harness to where my sister was belaying me. Although I’d been able to place a few pieces of gear – lodging metal nuts and hexes into narrow cracks to create anchor points for the rope – I didn’t trust any of them. Somehow, I screwed up the courage and lunged for the next hold, but the rock was slick with rainwater, and I slipped and fell, my weight ripping the badly placed gear from the wall. Like the superhuman she is, my sister hauled in the slack and caught me on the next piece. I was scraped up and badly shaken, but our teacher got me back onto the rock right away, which helped mitigate some of the harm of that moment. Even so, I stopped climbing shortly after.
In hindsight, it was too high-risk of an introduction to the sport. But I’m grateful for it, because I learnt – eventually – that I can fail badly and still be ok, and that I don’t have to face the consequences alone. It’s a lesson I revise every time I go bouldering. I’m never going to be a good climber, so there’s nothing at stake, and failing in that context helps me remember it’s just part of the process. And we writers are fortunate: our failures can be existential but they’re never perilous, never the sort to land us in A&E or the mortuary. We can afford to be bold. This is what I think of when I get back from the centre and open my manuscript. I’m ready to fail again and I know that – across the Channel – my sister will be there to catch me when I do.
Photograph © XoMEoX