A couple months ago, I wrote about how hiking can improve your fiction writing. Today I would like to flip that topic on its head and explore how fiction writing can improve your hiking. Since I’ve already established a baseline for the relationship between the two in my previous blog post on the topic, I’m going to jump right in.
Sense of Story
In hiking, there’s often very little to give you a sense of the world as a place where stories are constantly happening. In fact, it’s usually quite the contrary: when you go to a park, everything is in a state of more or less suspended animation. Much like a museum, things are expected to be in one particular place or state of being at all times, without change or alteration, and if they aren’t, then something’s wrong.
Yet real life doesn’t follow the rules of a museum or a park. Real life is unpredictable, iterative, conditional, and adaptive. It’s constantly expanding, contracting, reaching, and striving toward some objective or another, whether we’re aware of it or not, even if that objective is nothing more than survival.
And that’s where fiction writing comes in. By conditioning you to see the world in terms of stories — in which characters struggle over a conflict of interest and eventually achieve resolution through the sum total of their interactions — fiction writing can help you to see how nature is constantly telling a story, though the characters may be animals and plants, and the conflict may be as simple as getting the maximum number of calories from a piece of dead wood before the first frost.
Presence of Character
In every work of fiction, there is at least one main character, and frequently there are several. Yet regardless of the exact number of characters, there’s no doubt that their existence is essential in order for a story to take place. (Think of Lord of the Rings without Frodo or The Hound of the Baskervilles without Sherlock Holmes, and you see my point.)
But when you’re hiking, it’s easy to think there are no characters, let alone main characters, apart from yourself. In many ways, it can feel like you’re the center of the universe, if only because many parks are so strictly monitored for the presence of large predators that there are hardly any other animal species of comparable size to our own for us to identify as protagonistic or antagonistic.
But fiction writing can remedy this misperception by teaching us that characters come in all shapes, sizes, sexes, and species. Whether your character is a middle-aged white dude from Victorian London with too much time on his hands and a taste for cocaine (yes, I’m talking about you, Sherlock Holmes) or a talking tree who’s not really a tree who loves to walk around in the woods reciting poetry that nobody wants to hear now or ever again (yes, I’m talking about you, Treebeard), fiction writing can help you to see all of nature as being inhabited by characters — who may be similar or dissimilar to us in a multitude of ways, but who really just want what all of us want: to live.
Awareness of History
In every work of fiction, there is at least some amount of history, even if it’s only partially understood by the protagonist (as in Harry Potter) or hidden from the protagonist for most of the story (as in the movie Memento). This history is what allows the fictional setting of the story to come to life, to feel real, to be believable in the eyes of the audience. And it’s what provides the protagonist with the narrative momentum to move forward, or occasionally backward, in life.
But that history is often absent in hiking. Occasionally there are exceptions, which I have noted frequently in past blog posts, which remind us that the land we’re walking was once inhabited by people who lived and died centuries before us. But for the most part, hiking tends to feel like a long walk through land that is either of devoid of history or has long been bereft of it.
Counteracting this, fiction writing reminds us that even when we’re oblivious to history, its effects can still be felt. This applies to real life as well as fiction, as in the case of a body of water that was the site of an eighteen-year-old’s drowning (Eno River Rock Quarry) or the case of a house that was the site of a family’s progressive downfall at the hands of typhoid fever (Cole House).
Whatever the case may be, fiction writing teaches us that everything in life has a history, and we would be well served to learn from it, if only to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
Moment of Epiphany
In every good work of fiction, there’s a moment when something happens and everything clicks, whether this is the moment when Frodo assumes responsibility for the almost-impossible task of destroying the Ring of Power (at the Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring) or the moment when Jake Sully decides to turn against Colonel Quaritch and side with the Na’vi (after the destruction of the Home Tree in Avatar). This moment is essential not only because it provides a rationale for later events but because it provides the audience with the necessary motivation to stick around for the rest of the story.
But hiking often doesn’t provide this. Whether due to the arbitrary rules and regulations of the park or the fragmented nature of the lands over which the park extends, it’s hard to find a true moment of epiphany, or even revelatory self-awareness, in the course of hiking.
However, fiction writing can help by teaching us that our own willingness to be invested in an activity is often an epiphany in itself. Simply having the motivation necessary to complete a task (like jumping onto a forbidden bookshelf, as pictured below) can be an act of revelatory self-awareness that causes us to re-evaluate our place in the world and the effect we can have on it.
It proves that all of us are authors, not only of works of fiction, but of our own lives. And those lives are best lived not behind the comfort of a screen, but in the real world, where nature and culture collide on a daily basis.
So there you have it: four ways fiction writing can improve your hiking. In all honesty, I could probably come up with another four (or five or six) ways in which fiction writing does this. But these are the main ways and the ones that will be immediately discernible to most people.