Words & Wilderness: How I Started My Next Book in the Woods

I’m sitting alone in the woods trying not to think of the posted bear warning signs. I’ve just arrived after a four-hour drive through scorching desert that ended when I turned into the mountains and wound my way up to this remote campground. There was only one other couple in over 40 sites, and I chose a spot on the other side of the loop.


I check my phone. No signal, as I expected. Hoped for.


Now, as I meditate with my eyes open (remember: bears), I anchor on the sounds of gentle birdsong and wind humming through the tops of the Sequoias. The sun lowers behind the mountain, and it’s so quiet at times that all I can hear is a ringing in my ears.


After 20 minutes, I pull out my notebook and do writing practice as the sky darkens. I fill three pages with childish exclamations in fast loopy writing and tedious descriptions of pinecones and creeks and cotton candy skies and can’t stop smiling. I inhale the smell of pine and feel like I’m detoxing from loudness. Holy shit, I think, I really did it. I put a thin mattress in the back of the car, packed some bags, and now here I am.



I’d spent the past two years staring at these mountains from my desk with a kind of longing that can burn a hole in your gut. Sure, I’d visited them with my husband for a hike or adventure day regularly during that period, but it’s not the same as immersing yourself in them alone or with the intent to explore your insides instead of the outside world.

Enough was enough, I’d finally told myself, my insides twisting. It was time to get out of the office. It was time to buy bear spray. It was time for a “write away,” a microadventure (in my case) where you leave your home to focus on a writing project.


I’d had an idea for another book brewing in me for years, a memoir about my first decade of teaching. I’d been noticing a gradual simmer over the past year, and then it finally began to pour over the edges of my notebook, and now the moment felt right to lay down its foundation. Having written one memoir already and failing to make much progress with another idea this past spring, I knew it’d be ideal if I could get away from distractions and comforts and noise, and then come home and steadily chip away at it.


I look up from my lap and notice that it’s almost dark-dark. BEARS IN THE DARK! My brain screams, but I know they’re probably already asleep. I relax. It’s only just after 8:00pm, and I’m not tired yet. I turn on my headlamp and open the back of the car to pull out another sweater since it’s getting cooler after the sun fully set. I walk around camp as I brush my teeth, spitting foamy white circles at the base of a little bush. I look up, brush brush brush. The black silhouettes of a hundred giant trees make me dizzy with awe.


I climb into the passenger seat and write five pages on the topic Tell us a story you want to write, knowing this is my true entry point into the heart of this write away. I find myself writing about Mrs. Morris, my first grade teacher, whom I adored for her energy and kindness and for writing me back every time I wrote her a note when I had to move on to second grade and missed her terribly. I’d leave them on the back of her door, and I’d find a reply the next day on a red apple-shaped card. I wrote her when my hamster died, and she replied with another apple, saying, That must be so hard. How does it make you feel? She then told me about her pet dalmatian that she’d lost when she was my age and how sad it made her. She made me feel so seen, modeling one of the most important things I could ever emulate as a teacher myself one day.


But why am I writing about Mrs. Morris when I set out to write a memoir about my own teaching experiences?


Because I don’t think you can talk about teaching without talking about learning, without exploring the teachers of your own life and how they influenced you– whether positively or negatively– and Mrs. Morris burned a love of learning and words into my guts that I’d carry with me for the rest of my life, becoming a teacher of words years later.


As I wrote and wrote and my hand started to cramp, a possible structure for my own memoir started to unfold– maybe I could tell my strongest memories and lessons as a student and fold them into the stories I tell about being a teacher?


But then, writing practice took me into a hilarious series of memories about how I could never figure out how I was supposed to really dress as a teacher, and one embarrassing memory spilled out after the other. What if it shouldn’t be written chronologically, then, but by theme?


By the end of the last page, I started writing about my plan for the next day, the only full day of this write away. I wrote:

  • List and organize key scenes

  • List and organize flashback ideas

  • Answer the following questions (pulled from The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith, who is so anti-writing practice and prompts but whatever) before proceeding any further:

  • What do I want to write about and why? What do I have to say?

  • What have I learned and how can I illustrate those lessons?

  • What solution do you want to be a part of?

  • Pull out one key scene and start writing before I get too into my head; see what unfolds

A gem emerged by the end of the last sentence in the writing practice: I want to write this directly to future teachers. I want to share stories and advice I wish I’d known before embarking on the path. I want to try starting each chapter with “Dear future teacher,” and see what happens from there. I could feel the weight and pressure of all my own expectations for this book lighten as soon as I wrote and then thought about this. Now that I was just talking to a hopeful new or future educator, the task seemed much less daunting.


I crawled to the back of the car and snuggled in with a book before bedtime. My toes touched the back of the hatch, and I felt blanketed in a sense of wonder and curiosity and anticipation for what was to come.


Just four hours in, and the write away was off to a promising start.


DAY 2


I slept terribly.


Bright golden light crept through the edges of my eye mask. I pushed it off with a grunt and the sunrise blinded me, shining in from every window.


Grumpy and achy, I rolled onto my side and caught my breath– a kaleidoscope of sun rays burst through the row of Sequoias and over the side of the mountain and straight into my chest. I was awake!


I opened the back of the car while still bundled under my blanket and the chilly, earthy morning air flowed in, waking me more effectively than any cup of coffee could.


A whole new day ahead of me with nothing but time to write, hike, meditate, and read. Damn, what a gift.


I boiled water on my little stove and made coffee (let’s not get carried away with fresh air being the only way to wake up). I basked in the sweet simplicity and slowness of the morning and was excited to get started. Ready. I took my steaming mug over to my canvas chair in the shade facing the creek and sat for 20 minutes, taking sips of coffee and being a very bad meditation student. After, I began writing practice after scribbling What solution do I want to be part of? on the top of the page. 10 minutes, go. Keep the hand moving.


Afterwards, I drove to the place I’d planned to work the whole day, the Kennedy Meadows General Store about 35 minutes away. It was a popular resupply stop for those hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), a 5-month thru-hike I’d daydreamed of doing for many years and read about in many memoirs, my favorites being: Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart by Carrot Quinn, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and Thirst by Heather Anderson. I knew there wouldn’t be many hikers at this time of year, but I still felt a thrill as I pulled up to the store– the only one for miles– and five dogs rushed at my car.


They were all mini Australian shepherds and would be extremely cute, wiggly distractions for me over the next six hours. As soon as I opened my door, one came right up to me with a sniff of welcome and curiosity. I patted her side and a small dust cloud rose from her fur. She scampered off into the cabin-like store, and I followed her inside, giddy to my core.


On every wall and surface were items geared toward hikers: freeze-dried meals, duct tape, beer, Band-Aids, individual safety pins for 20 cents each. I tried not to trip over the dogs around every corner as I made a mental note to come back, sit at the empty wooden bar, and just write about all of this one day in detail until my heart’s content.


An older man with long white hair hobbled out of the back, moving slowly with one crutch under his arm. He returned my greeting with a grunt, and he didn’t get much chattier when I paid for my iced coffee. But, he made actual eye contact when I told him I’d be hanging around for a bit to work on a new book. I was so startled when he looked up that I overshared about a short story I began about PCT hikers and the apocalypse. For this, I was rewarded with a small nod and pursed lips.


I set up on a plastic table in the shade on the porch, spreading out my notebook, books, laptop, and pen. It took me a moment to get settled because there was so much to take in: a dozen quails that just emerged from the side of the store; the pile of dusty board games held down by a huge Ziplock bag of hundreds of bottle caps; and a hiker’s box filled to the brim with discarded items like hats, unwanted snacks, a broken water filter, and books the hikers had finished or may have realized were an unnecessary weight. Everything felt brimming with a story, and I reminded myself I could come back another time to take it all in properly. Now, it was time to get to work.


I spent the next few hours in a flow state, following the energy and my plan from the night before and greatly encouraged by my writing salon, whom I didn’t expect to connect with while up here but the store had recently gotten WiFi, so I hopped on. For six hours, there was always someone in the Zoom room to check in with every 90 minutes or so, which helped keep me going until well past when I’m usually able to do deep creative work.


I finally did hit a wall though in the seventh hour and signed off, throwing a couple of empty Red Bull cans into the recycling bin as I headed out, achy from sitting too long. It was time to take a break, and what better place to stretch my legs and air out my brain than the PCT?


I drove to the Kennedy Meadows campground and found the trailhead I was looking for. It leads to a bridge after about 45 minutes with little change in elevation, which sounded perfect for this post-COVID body that gets fatigued so easily and is still regaining its strength.

It was hot and buggy, and I loved it. I pictured all the badass, sunburnt, and hairy humans lugging everything they needed to live on their backs for over 2,600 miles, many spending up to five months on trail as they made their way to Canada from Mexico or vice versa. While I was only here today to take a 90-minute break from work, I still felt a deep sense of connection that started once I arrived at the general store that morning. I might not be a thru-hiker, but I was still on my own kind of journey, and I could feel that energy like one senses a prickling in the air before lightning strikes.


My brain decided not to unplug on the hike as I expected; instead, it was like fireworks ricocheting inside my skull. At first, all the ideas and questions for my book that I’d been exploring earlier were now a chaotic swirl of colorful sparks, but the longer I hiked, the more the smoke cleared, and I was left with vivid imprints they’d left in the sky of my mind.


With each step, I was gaining more clarity about the book, how it should be structured, how it could unfold. I think I was smiling to myself for at least a whole mile. By allowing my body to move and stretch, it allowed the work I’d done earlier to do the same. I had to pull out my phone a dozen times to take notes, to catch these ideas before they faded or were replaced with something else.


By the time I got to the bridge, I was pooped. With an even greater respect for the hikers who do this for 8 or 10 hours or more a day, I sat down and dangled my feet above the river, resting my head in my arms on a wooden beam. I tried not to compare myself to others with stronger bodies and lungs; I tried to practice the self-compassion my meditation teachers teach. I tried to just be right there on that hot bridge exactly as I was.


It’s so much like writing, I thought. There are so many others out there doing it, too, in so many different ways. Many are much better than I am with more experience or more degrees or more books or all those things and more. Many can write for much longer and have more confidence and stronger voices and unique styles.


In that moment, I realized I felt like the 90-minute hiker compared to the 5-month thru-hiker but in the vast world of writers and writing. Because there isn’t any kind of measuring stick for what it means to be a writer, I constantly find myself comparing myself. Before, when all I did was teach, the measuring stick was much clearer: did you make a lesson plan? Go to class? Grade papers? Check, check, check. I knew what to do and by when. Every day was a deadline, and classes started and ended at the same time. The semester began and ended. There aren’t nearly as many of these clear signposts in a writer’s life, and god help you if you ask me what that even means if I’m having a bad day.


I stood up and began the hike back to my car. Walking the path in the opposite direction made it feel like a different trail, a new perspective. I noticed new details like a giant mossy boulder I’d missed on the way in, like the rusting PCT emblem pounded into a tree to point the way. I knew that my ability to notice the world around me and feel it deeply were inextricably linked to my writing life, and I also knew– despite what monkey mind thoughts may come and go– that it doesn’t matter what other writers' lives look like. What matters is that writing has brought me a way to come back to myself when I get lost, a way to make meaning of what I’ve lived through, and a way to share and connect with the world.


What a wild journey it all is, and I’ve got a lot more trail ahead of me.


Katie


PS: Join me on my next Write Away from October 10-13th in Red Rocks, Las Vegas!



All are also welcome to join my writing salon at any time.


If you're looking for a workshop or class experience, see what's currently being offered here.


I also offer week-long writing practice retreats in beautiful, natural settings like Joshua Tree and Idyllwild.


Or, pop in to one of my free offerings such as my memoir book club or Friday writing practice to connect :)


#writing #writingcommunity #writingpractice #memoir #writingoutside

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