In the zone. Been there?
At times when I write, I may as well be sans body. I’m elsewhere. I could be a character on a gurney whose heart has stopped, and his spirit rises above the gurney, flows into the LED surgery lights above while he hears an echoey voice not unlike Sarah Jessica Parker’s saying, “Do you like black licorice?”
“Yes,” I say. “Red Vines that are black.”
“It’s time for the tunnel,” says the voice, “which is as black as black Red Vines.”
My character, you see, is having an out-of-body experience—while I am.
Writers, more often than not, tend to sail in their heads rather than on a real stormy sea. Hemingway? Okay, he was different. He liked boats and Buicks and running with the bulls. He’d say it was good. I’ve never found that good.
Thus, I had to ask myself a few weeks ago why was I standing on the white edge of the Cornice at Mammoth Mountain in California, skis on my feet, contemplating the edge? I’d never skied the Cornice before, which required taking a gondola to the top, over 11,000 feet high. The snow was fast up there. Perhaps one shouldn’t stand on the edge of such a steep drop, with fast snow, especially on skis. The Cornice required some courage.
Let me freeze frame me on that edge. The fact I still skied was nothing short of amazing. When my uncle took my cousins and me to Buck Hill outside of Minneapolis when I was twelve and threw me on skis, I was terrified. I hated heights. I hated being cold. I hated falling down.
For the next sixteen years of skiing, I remained terrified. I stayed on the gentle slops and kept it up mainly because I liked the idea of skiing. I especially liked when the day was over and I’d survived. “It feels so good when I stop,” said a friend in high school, explaining why he was a long-distance runner.
In my late twenties, on my yearly Lake Tahoe ski trip with my college roommate, Stew, I finally found a run I really loved, and I kept skiing it over and over in a fog that enveloped it that day. I could only see about fifteen feet in front of me. It was my kind of gentle slope. When the fog lifted, my eyes grew wide. My favorite run was actually long and steep. I realized then that my fear had been inside my head.
“It’s in your head,” I reminded myself on the edge of the Cornice. I pushed off, curious to see what’d happen. Could I really make that first turn? My heart flew when I did. I created a kind of dance on the way down, not falling but quickly turning, quickly observing, quickly avoiding ice and heavy bunches of snow.
I’m explaining this as a way to also explain how writing stories is for me. I might have a great idea for a story, but I don’t know where it’ll go, or what it’s about, or even why I want to write it. I push off into it to see what happens.
Skiing is of the moment. Sometimes things work smoothly, but there are always surprises—ice, rocks, turns that throw me off. Similarly, writing always surprises me. Characters say and do things I didn’t expect, and such moments can change my plans. I might zip off on a tangent and have to get back.
Like author Kurt Vonnegut, I often think I can’t do this again—either write or ski—but I try anyway as with this very piece. All I knew for this was I wanted to write about the mind/body experience. For my last novel, A Death in Vegas,all I knew was that my protagonist had his own company that sold beneficial bugs for organic gardening—ladybugs and the like. I knew he found a dead woman in his hotel room on the morning of a Las Vegas convention. He had nothing to do with it. The Las Vegas police suspected him. Wwhich ho set him up?
Once I started writing the story, I paused to outline, following paths, adjusting, trying new things. That’s because I can think faster than I write, and brief notes in an outline lets me zoom quickly. Six drafts later, after I honed, adjusted, tried new things, I was done. My characters and story had grabbed me.
I’m not prone to exercise. I have to push myself. I swim because it gives me energy to write. Skiing takes me away from writing—yet I always return refreshed and energized. To write well requires being physical. I have to put my body into the world.
The skiing at Mammoth beyond the Cornice on my recent trip often made my thighs scream. The snow was heavy. I fell twice, not having fallen once in my previous nine days of skiing this season. Yet I amazed myself that I could do this. Skiing requires precision. It requires stamina. It requires a belief that your body will know the way.
Philosophers often focus on three elements: mind, body, and spirit. If you push off into the white page as well as onto a white slope, that third element, spirit, seems to soar. You find yourself in the zone. I love the zone.
I originally wrote this for Free Kindle Books and Tips, which you can see by clicking here.
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.