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When I was 23 years old, I moved to Davis, California, to start a graduate creative writing program. Almost immediately, I was homesick, heartsick, and restless. I’d just come from working at Grand Teton National Park for the summer and spent most of my free time in Davis dreaming about going back to the mountains. When I wasn’t dreaming of the Tetons, I was dreaming of Kansas, my true home, and the place where I’d left everyone I had ever known and loved. I remember laying on the floor of my new bedroom in Davis, the empty walls roaring around me, thinking, How do I get out of here?

When I wasn’t writing, I was searching Craigslist for jobs in Jackson Hole and Lawrence. I called my mother and my friends every other day, trying to talk through the pros and cons of dropping out of school and hightailing it back to Wyoming or Kansas. I wanted to be anywhere other than Davis, a town that seemed too clean, too boring, too vanilla to inspire anything in the way of writing. It provided neither the natural beauty of the Tetons nor the weirdo artsy culture of Lawrence. Sure, it was California, but everything good about California was at least two hours away: Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada to the east, the Bay Area to the west, Big Sur and the desert to the south, and Lassen to the north. Despite having grown up in Kansas, I had never felt more geographically secluded. Nothing I loved was nearby.

Then, a couple weeks into the first quarter of school, a guy in my cohort, Jacob, asked if I wanted to go climbing with him. It was something we’d discussed during Visiting Day the spring before, but I figured it was just a drunken idea, one of those promises people don’t actually follow up on. But Jacob had just come from D.C. and seemed equally bored with Davis. He was going to buy shoes and a harness and would pick me up every Tuesday and Thursday morning before workshop. We were going to climb together.


I grew up in Wichita, Kansas, in a bookish family that spent little time outdoors. We did not go camping. We did not go to the mountains. We once rode some mules into the Grand Canyon, but all I can remember is being afraid the animals would tip into the abyss and send us toppling to our deaths. As a young girl I was shy, overweight, and timid — climbing a wall while suspended from a harness was the most inconceivable activity I could undertake. And yet, when I was a freshman at the University of Kansas, my friend Erin convinced me to go climbing with her one night. She was an avid climber and active member of the university’s rock climbing club.

My first time climbing was rough: I could hardly make it up the easiest routes; my knees quivered with fear; my fingers ached from gripping the holds. It was, in other words, embarrassing and intimidating and like nothing I’d done before. But after going a few more times, something strange happened. I found myself thinking about the wall, tracing the routes in my mind. In class, I’d run my hands over the new calluses on my palm, wondering when I’d get the route I was working on. Sometimes I’d dream of reaching for holds. I was hooked.

From then on, a few times a week, my friends and I would collect at the rec center where there stood a 50-foot-tall wall covered in colorful plastic holds. We’d slip on our climbing shoes and harnesses and take turns tying in, belaying each other and encouraging one another up routes. In the early fall and spring, we’d pile into Erin’s car and drive six hours to Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in Arkansas, a hub for sport climbers and horse people alike. On these trips, we’d spend half the time climbing and half the time goofing around. At night, we’d drink Carlo Rossi and tell stories by the fire. Somewhere around 10:00, our camp would spontaneously erupt into a dance party. Inevitably, one of the ranch hands would come out and tell us to shut it down. In the morning, everyone would be hung over and happy and ready to climb.

Climbing became a big part of my life in college, filling the spaces writing left behind. It forced me to leave my desk and go out into the world, to meet new people and have adventures. To exercise and take risks and feel brave. To live a life that supported my work. Whereas writing satisfied me on an intellectual and creative level, climbing fulfilled me physically and spiritually. Together, both practices made me feel whole.

As I loaded my schedule with workshops and wrote my first short stories, climbing became the thing I leaned on when the writing felt bad. When I was climbing, the only thing that mattered was the wall and how I was going to get up it. When you’re at the top of a sandstone crag in the Ozarks, looking out at a valley of trees dressed in their best autumn colors, a mean comment in a fiction workshop feels infinitely and beautifully irrelevant.

Despite climbing all through college, I never got very good. But that’s not the point of climbing — at least not to me. To me, the point was to challenge myself and force myself toward fear. To undertake an activity that seemed absolutely impossible but was so fun I couldn’t imagine not doing it. An activity that was, at least in this way, exactly like writing fiction.


In Davis, one of my professors, Lucy Corin, had us begin every class with a ritual. We’d go around the room, each of us reading a sentence that had struck us during our reading the week before. The ritual was intended to create a force field, a chain mail of sentences separating our class from the world outside. Inside of this force field, we were writers. Although I was initially skeptical of this ritual, I was surprised, each week, to find that it worked. After going around and saying our sentences, the class would fall into a hushed reverence. The ritual put us into the proper gear for writing.

Outside of school, Jacob and I developed our own ritual. We’d go to the climbing gym before or after class, or on the weekends when there was nothing else to do. When we were in workshop, we’d talk about climbing, and when we were climbing, we’d talk about workshop. If one of us had a bad critique, we’d take it out on the wall, pushing ourselves to get higher than we had the day before. As we tied in and chalked up our hands, a bubble would form around us. Inside the bubble, it was just us and the wall. There was nothing else. So long as we were climbing, our writing felt gloriously far away — a monster we were battling in another dimension.

One of the things I love most about climbing (and writing) is the absolute concentration it requires. When you’re climbing, your face is to the wall; the world behind you becomes inconsequential. Your body is your greatest tool, and over and over again it surprises you — your foot finds purchase, your hand connects with a hold that seemed, only moments before, impossibly far away. When you fall, it is not a sign of failure, but of daring. You tried something and it didn’t work, but at least you tried it. Like writing, the satisfaction of overcoming a climbing problem makes everything else — the pain, the frustration, the disappointments — worthwhile.


A smart person once told me that nobody wants to read a book about graduate school. This is just one reason why it’s important for every writer, especially writers in school, to have an activity outside of writing that requires the same focus, the same passion, the same obsession. This certainly isn’t a new trick — writers have long relied on secondary passions to inform and reflect on their work. Haruki Murakami runs; Flannery O’Connor raised peacocks; before her death, Sylvia Plath took up beekeeping. My roommate in Davis, an exceptional fiction writer, rode horses. Other writers I know paint, play soccer, bake, or keep a garden. I know a poet who’s obsessed with an arcade game called Killer Queen. Perhaps I’m confusing correlation with causation, and it’s a tendency toward obsession that produces writers, but either way, having a secondary passion helps ease the existential panic that so often afflicts us when we’ve grown too attached to the page. It also gives us something to write about.

I imagine that for every writer who finds solace through climbing, there is a climber who finds solace through writing or some other artistic medium. There are plenty of creative climbers — I particularly like the art of Renan Ozturk — who I’m sure use art in the same way I used climbing to get me through school.

Although I no longer regularly climb, I try to always have another outlet, usually something physical, to sustain and support my work. Sometimes it’s yoga, other times it’s hiking. I hope to one day learn how to fly-fish. In the end, it doesn’t matter what you choose so long as your passions feed one another. They should breathe new life into the stagnant spaces that develop when you spend too much time with your face pressed to the surface of your trade, be it canvas, page, or rock.