A Book Without a Story

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I’ve found that writing a book about an incredibly long hike often mirrors the metaphors of hiking the darn thing itself. Look back too often at where you came from, and you get wrapped up in premature editing. But an occasional healthy glance at where you started reminds you of your progress.

Last fall, I trudged through 85 pages of what essentially became free writing. It’s not all unusable but I did find that I ended up with a whole lot of boring writing that didn’t come from an honest place. Now, with new structure, I’m trying to hike my way through the pages themselves—starting with St. Jean Pied du Port and straight on to Santiago. I’m not allowing myself to veer off to discuss childhood memories or side stories no matter how tempting it may be. I will write what happened, as much as I can remember, and that will be that. Then, after reaching the end, I’ll weave in the stories that make the book about me, about why I went. That should work, right?

So far, not so much. I’m on page 14 of single-spaced writing and I’m only about 2 hours into my first day of hiking. Unlike a day at the office or even a day on vacation, time slows to a snail’s pace when hiking. So much happens over a period of 24 hours. And without a clear story of WHY I’m writing about all this yet, how do I know what to include and what to skip over? 14 pages on one day is too much to do to a reader.

And so, I’m prematurely hitting the “why am I doing this” writer’s roadblock that came up when I was walking. The questioning that occurs when you’re hiking a pilgrimage can be more troubling and threatening than blisters or bad knees. I reach the end, but for what? There’s no monetary gain, if anything you’re more in debt by the time you get home. Without a belief in Christianity, I have no religious or after-life related aspirations. In book terms: who wants to read this story? If it never gets published, why spend all this time parsing through my brain to desperately try and remember details of a day that caused me so much pain?

So you see, walking and writing about a pilgrimage requires literally rewiring your life and career purpose. You have to erase the monetary justification and even the artistic hype and self-importance attached to everything you do. I have to accept that I may never see a dime, never get a single reader (outside my family and friends doing me a favor), or get any concrete personal fulfillment from writing this story down for others to experience.

At this point you’re probably wondering, so why do it? Because I have to. Because telling this story inhabits nearly every moment and thought of my day. It should be a drinking game–if Ginny doesn’t find a way to work a Camino story into a conversation, you drink. The other way around would be dangerous to our livers. It’s part of me, and won’t be put to rest until I organize it into a story it deserves.

And yet, even though a portion of my brain constantly lives on that trail, I somehow feel more present in my actual daily reality. I stand taller knowing I’ve experienced the Camino, I feel less afraid about what my day holds. I understand the impermanence of pain, of psychological struggles. I know that a new town, or mindset, awaits me at the end of each day. I know when life feels mundane, it feels that way for a reason–and the same when its hectic. I respect each detail of my day with a new energy.

But the last thing I want to do is write one long, lofty book about metaphors and motivational phrases. These phrases only work when they’re paired with action and proof. Without living the lofty phrase, it’s just empty words embroidered on a pillow.

So how do you keep writing when you’re not even sure why you’re writing it or what you’re writing? I guess you just keep writing. The other alternative–stopping altogether–is undoubtebly much worse.

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