E.L Doctorow said writing a novel is like driving in the fog at night. Author Laraine Herring says it's like traveling through Texas. I'm sure I'm not the only one, but I once compared it to running a marathon. (full disclosure: I have never run a marathon.) But you get the point. Sitting down to write a book, writing it, finishing it, is a long and arduous process. I suppose it is like any difficult (yet ultimately exhilarating) endeavor. It continues to fascinate me--where the drive comes from to take the first step on a journey and where we find the motivation to keep going.
As promised I'm sitting down today with pretty much the most motivated guy I know, climbing guru Andy Politz, to pick his brain about what compels him to do what he does and some of the cool things he's learned along the way. Andy doesn't take metaphorical journeys, he goes on real ones. Specifically, he climbed Mt. Everest. He's also a climber of other mountains, a mountaineering guide, a teacher, a motivational speaker, and a writer. And, he was on the team that discovered George Mallory's body (another story all together that you can see more about here and here and here.)
Jody: Whenever I do an author interview the first thing I always ask is where do you get your ideas? So, let's start there: where did you get your desire to climb?
Andy: I'm convinced that if you tap into the arena you're meant to be in, it's a life-changing situation. That arena will provide the skeleton that much of the rest of your life will be built upon and hang from. For me, it was one thing leading to another--from camping with the folks, through backpacking, some local rock climbing and ice climbing. All through high school I spent a month every winter climbing in New Hampshire. Right after I graduated I started guiding on Mt Rainier; I realized I had to be a climber and adventurer. I'd seen that college was not a necessary thing for me, that I would be able to make my way through my wits and being creative about how I made a living, incorporating adventure into the working world.
Jody: I like that "incorporating adventure into the working world." How many people can say they do that? What do you think makes a person want to go on an adventure, or I guess, follow any dream?
Andy: Our adventures are a rite of passage through a transition in our lives-- moving out of our teenage years, getting married, raising children, preparing to enter our later years, even preparing for the greatest adventure, our death. I'm convinced that the adventures we choose are a customized lesson to help us get through these stages.
Jody: Whoa. You know that makes a lot of sense. I'm thinking about how I started writing seriously when my kids reached middle school and were tired of their helicoptery mom hanging over them. And now I know a lot of people who are at the stage where they are empty-nesters and wondering what's up next, maybe they've decided to try something new--start a business or write a book or...climb a mountain. But that's just the beginning of a quest--making the decision to do it.
Andy: Right. As you progress through your new found arena, realize that the beauty surrounding you is your battery charger and that the failure you'll experience is the only true way you're going to discover your real capabilities and capacities.
Many of the significant challenges along the path remind us that the journey, whatever it is, is essentially a solo experience, and the course we set is bound to change as we gain a greater sense of ourselves. The most significant outcome, the goal, of our adventures, is to gain an understanding of managing a hopeless cause.
Jody: I like that about the beauty battery charger. It sounds like you're saying "enjoy the ride." And you're right about a lot of this being a kind of mental exercise. If you're talking about something like writing, there are all kinds of internal things that can derail you--self doubt and perfectionism, etc. For something physical, like what you do, a lot of it seems to be mental too--believing you can keep walking on, even though you're freezing and tired. But what do you mean by a "hopeless cause"?
Andy: How I see it is the adventurer is a specialist in operating outside his comfort zone; he's up to facing more hardship than is unacceptable to most people; and for him, fear comes along as a valued companion. There's also a relentless insecurity. You're always short of some essential element: be it time, gear, skill, insight, strength, knowledge or a do-over to replay a costly mistake. But here's what happens: in time, with enough experience, this stuff all gets taken in stride. The experienced adventurer learns to manage I can't, never, and impossible. If it is something you, deep down, really want (need?) to do--all those labels that come with "hopeless" can be worked around.
Jody: I think you hit on what's at the core of all this, the mental attitude that you adopt when you've decided to go for something. But, okay, what happens if you do that, and you still fail?
Andy: Now were talking about some thing I know well. I am probably an expert on failure. But if I am out to increase my life experience, or the beauty I'm exposed to, or some such experience, I have to frame out a situation bigger than I am. In many of these situations, failure is more than we may care to bear. I've learned to model hazardous situations as best I can: break them down into small bite-size chunks, gain some understanding of what the hazards are and when they are likely to show up, and decide how I will likely handle them.
Doing this helps me show up with the right toolbox and gives me a little mental insight into what I'm getting myself into. Stopping is simply a matter of recovering from the consequences of an inexperienced decision. It's no different from the idea that you need to do something 10,000 times to really learn it. Taking a break should be expected. Many times, that "break," has my "tail tucked between my legs"--I'm shuddering in fear and vowing to never go back there again.
Jody: But you do.
Andy: Yeah. With a little space and time, I see the mistakes I made, the strengths I had that were available but unused and how I could have used the momentum of the situation to better advantage.
Failure? That is when you give up on the Grand Vision for your life. I believe it is still sitting dormant, deep down, in your soul with the loss of the exuberance of youth. But along the way you have acquired a strength, vision and fortitude, that can resurface later in life. Your Mt. Everest can still be climbed, even now. How you approach it today will be a far different approach than you would have 10 years ago, with a denser vision and greater tenacity.
Jody: Why did I think we were talking about mountain climbing? This is Pursuing a Dream 101. You shoot for something big. You bring your tool box. You take a break when you need to. You learn from your mistakes. You risk failure.
Here's something that occurred to me along the way in my writing journey: one day it hit me that there was a very real sense that what I dreamed--to be a published author--might not ever come true. Did you ever reach a low point like that, and what did you do?
Andy: Of course! The adventure does not necessarily have to be about climbing mountains, or rowing oceans, or skiing unsupported across Antarctica. But back to your question about hitting a low point, the most significant action I have taken to insure success, ironically, was to vow to quit. If I didn't get up Mt. Everest on my 4th attempt, I was walking away forever. In essence, you've got to realize the value of your project. Realize life is short and will end. I only have so many 'projects' I'll be able to accomplish this time around. So, imagine what Not Doing This will mean to you. Back yourself into a corner and quit or finish. Every action needs to be so that I can climb my Mt. Everest-- every meal, rest, book I read, step I take, so I can get up and spend a few moments in that rarefied air.
Jody: So, you put a deadline on it and then you doubled down and moved forward. I sort of did something similar. I knew I was going to have to go back to work if I couldn't earn any money writing and I put a date on that, and then just wrote more than ever in the mean time. But it was hard.
Andy: Most of my failures have been because it was so much more monotonous than I was prepared for. I was ready for winds that would blow me off a ridge, avalanches, rockfall, frostbite, high altitude sickness, the risk of falling, etc. But I hadn't previously been prepared for the sheer boredom of taking 18 hours to traverse a mile of ridge, out and back, at 28-29,000 feet. Boredom does not require action packed decision making. It is monotonous. I would venture that any monotonous situation can be turned into meditation. That realization has been incredibly valuable along the way.
Jody: Do you think can motivation be learned? Taught?
Andy: If you're in the right activity, there is no question about motivation.
Jody: You make it sound so easy, but I know you're right. We all have to find that thing we're passionate about. What still intrigues me is how some people are able to climb mountains and other people struggle to do things like get out of bed, go to school or work, or take care of their kids.
Andy: But you know what? I think climbing Everest is easy compared to showing up day after day and doing stuff like that. Everest is an amazing place and when you make it to the top, you get to walk down! Compare that to dealing with little kids pushing your buttons!
Jody: That's true. I don't know if you're giving yourself enough credit here though. You've been awesome talking to me today. Before I let you go, what are you working on now?
Andy: Climbing, writing, teaching...
In the last year I've been working on a long-term project: Ascents of Honor . The group encourages Americans to share a common passion with returning veterans--to help them reintegrate into the community. The idea is that for every passion that a veteran may have, there are people in the community who share that passion. We're encouraging the people to invite vets in and help these folks get back on their feet. It's about the activity-- be it: building engines, sailing, songwriting and music, walking the Appalachian Trail, art, whatever--and of course, what I'm bringing to it is mountaineering--but it's even more about the community. This is a hard, hard situation these people are going through. I'm not proposing we become therapists. Just friends. And, that's very important no matter what journey we find ourselves on.
Let me add, Jody, and to all you writers out there--you can play an essential role here--there may be a vet down the street who needs some help getting a story composed. Team up with that person, and it's very likely to be life changing, on both sides of the paper.