I started writing when I was eight years old. I first began indoor rock climbing when I was in my twenties. Loving the indoor wall, I decided to try it outdoors. While in Maine, I went to Acadia National Park, hired a guide and set off to expand my love of climbing. Except, it didn’t turn out that way. I was petrified outside and, as a result, I hung up my climbing shoes and carabineers and didn’t climb again until about eight months ago. It didn’t escape me that during a different period of my life, I had also stopped writing due to fear.
Now, I’m tackling 5.9s and 5.10s indoors, writing like crazy and noticing the similarities between writing and climbing. Sure, one is sedentary and solitary while the other requires physical fortitude and a partner. But they both begin with a blank canvas, determination and trusting those who have gone before.
To test my theory, I spoke to Abby Dione, owner of Coral Cliffs Climbing Gym in Fort Lauderdale. We met at the gym and talked before climbing.
Jo (sitting across from Abby at a picnic table in the gym): When you see the rock you are about to climb for the first time, what goes through your mind?
Abby: Usually, I look up and allow the rock to speak to me. If something draws me in, I will walk up to that line and I’ll study it.
Jo: Like a blank page. When I’m starting a novel, I think I know what it’s going to be about but then I look at the page, wait until something draws me in and I start typing.
Abby: I also look for the chalk marks. Like a Talisman, it tells me about those who have come before me. From the ground, you look up and wonder what route to take. The markers really help.
Jo: As writers, we look to those who have written before us and have been successful.
Abby: Right. But you don’t copy their words, do you?
Jo: Of course not. I read their novels and study their techniques for suggestions and lessons I can incorporate into my writing.
Abby: On the rock, there are bolt hangers that climbers have put there. They’re spaced about every 8-10 feet. They’re suggestions. You can follow the bolt hangers or make your own path.
Jo: Or a little of both, right?
Abby: Of course. If you just imitate others, you’re not being creative and you’re not learning.
Jo: If it doesn’t come from within your heart and you’re just copying someone else, it’s not yours.
Abby (smiling): So true.
Jo: When I write and I’m in a flow, there is nothing better. I get lost in the plot, the characters, the setting. Does that happen to you when you’re climbing?
Abby: Absolutely. When a route is good, it flows.
Jo: Do you consider climbing creative?
Abby: Yes. It’s creative and analytical. There is a lot of problem solving. It’s rigid because you have to get from point A to point B. The creativity comes from what happens in the spaces between.
Jo: I know what you mean. The writer has to get the protagonist from point A when the story begins and the protagonist is down on his luck or sad to point B, which is when he finally has the tools to overcome the odds thrown at him. To get the character from point A to point B in an interesting way is the creative part.
Abby: But not every book follows that format.
Jo: True. There are different styles and genres. Is that true in climbing too?
Abby: Yes, there are different terrains and different rocks to climb. Slab, flat, straight, overhanging.
Jo: How do you feel when you get to the top of a route?
Abby: I feel elation and wonderful satisfaction. While climbing, you face the rock the entire time. When I get to the top, I take a moment and look at the scenery and really soak it in. How do you feel when you finish a novel?
Jo: The same way. It’s such a great accomplishment. I take a moment and breathe and enjoy what I’ve created. But the joy doesn’t last that long.
Abby: How come?
Jo: Because if it’s only the first draft, I know I still have a long way to go. I rewrite my novels 20 to 30 times. For me, the real writing is in the rewriting. What about after you climb a route? Do you want to work it again? Maybe do it better?
Abby: Not usually. Once I get to the top, because so much time and energy was used, I don’t want to do it again. Not straightaway anyway. I might revisit it down the road, you know, put it in drawer for a while.
Jo (laughing): I can’t count how many novels I have in a drawer. Do you like to tell people about your climbs?
Abby: Yes, but not to gloat. I tell them because it’s beautiful and I want them to climb it too.
Jo: That’s how I feel about my books. I want people to read them so they can experience the same elation I felt writing them.
Abby (pulling on her climbing harness): I guess you’re right. Climbing and writing are similar.
Jo: Ready to climb?
Abby: Climb on!
Jo: Write on!
Coming soon: From Point A to Point B, Writing and Rock Climbing, Part Two