I happened on a documentary yesterday on the National Geographic channel that I feel compelled to recommend. Called Alone in the Wild, it documents Ed Wardle’s attempt to spend ninety solitary days in the Yukon wilderness. Putting the challenge in context, Wardle has twice summited Everest. (You can see a page about the show here. I haven’t been able to locate a DVD, and the documentary doesn’t seem to be available on Netflix.)
If the title or subject matter evokes anything for you it will probably be the similar story of Christopher McCandless, whose fatal journey Into the Wild was turned into a book and subsequent movie. By absurd chance I happened to read the original magazine article about McCandless when it first came out in 1993, and my reaction then is the same as my reaction now: I’m not surprised that someone who knew little or nothing about surviving in the wilderness died after only cursory study and inadequate planning.
I want to stress that I take no satisfaction in the fact that McCandless died. The arrogance and ignorance he displayed is the flip side of adventurism and daring, and had he lived he might have profited from the experience both personally and financially. I do think, though, that there is a human tendency to perceive conception as the greatest obstacle to attainment. It’s not the doing that’s the hard part, it’s thinking of something to do that takes real ingenuity.
Over the course of my life I’ve come to believe that this is exactly backwards. In the storytelling world it doesn’t take long to realize that great ideas really are a dime a dozen — or a gross. It’s execution over the long haul, draft after draft, and the realization of detail in the final polish that makes any idea shine. But that’s not fun to contemplate because it presupposes a life of hard work and apprenticeship, when what everybody wants to do is fall out of bed and land on fame and fortune.
You can think about digging ditches all day long, but until you spend weeks or months conditioning your body to the task, and learning which shovels work best in which soil, and how to protect yourself in the rain and heat and cold, and how to dig a ditch that runs true, you’re going to stink at ditch digging. That same goes for opening a restaurant, flipping houses or digging gold out of the ground, or anything you might suddenly decide to do one day that you’ve never done before.
Ed Wardle’s journey was particularly powerful to me because he understood what he did and did not know. Instead of assuming that he could simply drop into the Yukon and survive, he took appropriate provisions and made plans for rescue if he ran into trouble. He also knew that his experiences as an outdoorsman did not qualify him as a survivalist. While extremely fit by anyone’s measure, Wardle was conscious of the fact that living alone for ninety days meant learning how to survive in ways he was not trained for.
Learning how to do anything takes time and practice. That knot you use on your shoes only became second nature after endless drills. The same holds true for wandering into the woods for three months, or sitting alone and crafting a book. Despite everything you’ve read about one-hit wonders and people who landed a publishing contract with their first title, the odds predict that none of that is going to happen to you. If your approach to writing for the first time is a gut belief that you know what you need to know to survive, you’re probably going to end up like Christopher McCandless
I don’t need to tell you that writers live with loneliness. There’s no way to avoid it, and that’s a big reason why watching Alone in the Wild was so affecting. While it’s true that Wardle’s health degraded as he struggled to find sufficient food, and it’s a medical certainty that insufficient nutrition affected Wardle’s mindset and mood, what Wardle seemed to find most difficult was isolation, not hunger. And the effect of that isolation on him was considerable.
I know this effect, and you probably do, too. I also know the effect that my own isolation can have on the people I’m close to, and how much more difficult it is to endure isolation when I’m away from or without people I love. The only long-term solution to navigating these emotional currents is to try to find balance between writing and relationships. Maybe you isolate yourself and push hard to finish your first draft, but after that you take more time to give back to the people tolerating your obsession. Or maybe you prefer a set schedule each day, so you can treat your writing like a nine-to-five job. (Or a ten-to-four job.)
In a historical context I’ve wondered if alcohol and drugs become prevalent in the lives of some writers as an antidote to loneliness and isolation. Does alcohol make a writer’s silences easier to endure? (I don’t know because I don’t drink.) I’ve also wondered if writers who are known to have been famously alcoholic at one time or another — Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Capote, O’Neill — drank in part as a defense against loneliness while working.
Then, too, alcohol can ease the pain of the writer’s lot. To write is to be lonely, Goodwin says, but alcohol assuages loneliness. To write demands intense concentration, but drink relaxes, emancipating the writer from “the tyranny of mind and memory.”
I don’t know if Hemingway and Fitzgerald partied every night when they weren’t writing, but literary lore suggest these men were a whole lot more extroverted and social than I’ll ever be. Is it harder for an extrovert to endure being alone in the writing wilds?
I am generally comfortable with being alone. I like being in love, I like being with family, but I am equipped to handle and even exploit long silences. I know plenty of people who are different, who seem to gain strength from socializing while solitude seems akin to injury. Is writing harder for them, or do they simply find a different balance that works?
Alone in the Wild also offers a glimpse into the power of simplicity. One man. A wilderness. The chore of existence. The threat of bear. Everything about the documentary is spare and quiet. Even Wardle’s language and on-camera presence is devoid of the kind of philosophizing that seems endemic in such works — including the telling of McCandless’s tragic tale story.
I tend to favor simplicity in my own life, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate detail. What I’m happy to do without in Alone in the Wild is the noise, bluster, motion and adverb-driven camera work that defines everything from music videos to bad action sequences to Martin Scorcese filming a dinner table. There is as much to see and comprehend in a square mile of wilderness as in any city on earth, but you can only see and comprehend those things if you’re willing and able to slow the pace of your mind.
Yet all of these observations are mere shadows cast by the reality of Wardle’s personal trial. I could not help but sympathize with him as he confronted an unknown that he had not anticipated. He knew surviving in the wild would require adaption and growth. What he didn’t know is that survival is existence, not living. I’m sure the experience transformed him in some way, and that he has an appreciation for things he might have previously taken for granted. But that experience came with a price.
In your writing life you will ask yourself to walk into the wilds again and again. The more you write the more prepared you will be to do so in the future, and the more likely it will be that you will do more than merely survive. But you will also pay a price each time. Finding a balance that allows you to live is the challenge of the writing wilds.
— Mark Barrett