Higher purpose

(Guest entry written by Charlie Lenk.)


It’s not only the altitude, the high desert we camp in.  (High: June Lake is 7600 feet above sea level.) It’s not only the relative starkness of the surroundings, the pine needles covering the bare ground and the scattered small boulders and the coarse granite sand underfoot.  Nor the sky, bluer by day and more star-drenched by night than a city-dweller ever remembers exists, nor the deep chill of the lake water on the toes and whatever other part of the body you’re brave enough to thrust in, nor the looming bulk of the peaks above taunting We’re between you and home – deal with it.  It is instead all of these things together that makes going into the mountains to write such a fruitful experience.

Or maybe not even any of them.  Like most adventurers, you’re only as good as the purpose you head with into an unfamiliar land.  If your purpose is to write: well then, you’ve come to the right place.  You’ve certainly gone far away enough to do it.

My own 395 experience, in 2009 and again in 2010, was that the combination of these three factors – setting, distance and purpose – made me unstoppable as a writer.  The first year I picked up the thread of a story I had been too afraid to continue for eight years, and the next year I spun that thread into the beginnings of the novel I just now finished drafting.  I wasn’t sure I had it in me, so my purpose in attending Clive’s 395 workshop was to find out.  The setting and distance conspired to show me I did.  I haven’t looked back since.

I haven’t been back to June Lake either, something I very much regret.  I miss the eastern Sierra so much it’s almost physical: the openness of the highways and the tufa and volcanic ash lining them, the way the conifer bark in places smells faintly of vanilla, the crackle and eager conflagration of the stiff dry pine cones as they’re thrown on the campfire.  The ground-squirrels looting lunch off the picnic table and darting into their holes when you yell to stop them.  The snap of the high, dry air in your nostrils as you stir early-morning to an unclouded sky and wonder: What story am I going to tell today?  Because being there makes the stories spin out, often so fast they trip over themselves and each other as they come.  It just happens, and everything makes it.

Including the writer.  While the writer can pin it to his/her heart’s content on the exotic locale – the setting, the distance – that doesn’t obscure the fact that it takes purpose for the locale to mean anything.  Come if you’re brave.  Come if you’re ready.  Come prepared for a small miracle, that of your own heightened creativity pouring from you almost like a nosebleed.  (Those happen sometimes too.  Make sure you bring plenty of tissues, and all the other gear the outfitters recommend.)

A small miracle, and then maybe another.  And another.  And…?  It’s a full week.  Be there, be open, and most of all – be purposeful.