I started climbing in the summer of 2013. I was a month away from starting what I desperately hoped would be my last year of grad school, and I was going through what was, in retrospect, a full-blown identity crisis.
I knew I was not long for academia, and I had no idea what was next. My deeply-repressed dream job was to write, but I wanted it so badly that I didn’t dare believe it was possible. (Oh, I do love writing, but there are enough shitty writers in the world, I told people at dinner parties, hoping I sounded worldly and practical.) Instead, I figured teaching might be marketable, so I took a job where I lectured at high school kids whose wealthy parents had paid to send them to a Stanford program for the summer. I drove over the Dumbarton bridge at 8am and 2pm every day, listening almost exclusively to Lorde’s The Love Club EP. When I got home each afternoon, I’d half-assedly work on my dissertation research, then find ways to write: blogging for an academic journal, starting a newsletter for the psychology department, interviewing for an editing gig with the graduate student science magazine.
My interviewer was the editor in chief at the magazine, which founded very fancy to me. When he offered me the gig, I was sure that my life was going to change. It was evidence that if I just pretended hard enough, I could be the type of person I never thought I could be. Weeks later, we added each other on Instagram, and I saw a photo of him at Dogpatch Boulders. I thought: Why stop at writing? Maybe I would take up something else reckless and impractical, like climbing. I would fake my way out of my fear of heights and develop Michelle Obama arms along the way.
Years later, I write for a living and climb in my free time, but I am reluctant to call myself a writer or a climber. I still feel like I slipped in the back door, and that as soon as I draw attention to myself by naming what I’m doing, someone will call my bluff. I never went to journalism school; I never even took English courses, unless you count a handful of poetry workshops. (One instructor, a famous poet I found wildly intimidating, only liked the poems I wrote while high, so I’d smoke a bowl every Sunday night to make sure I had something to workshop.) And no one’s really taught me to climb. Anything I know about technique has come from falling off the wall a lot, and my rope skills come from generous, patient friends. Still no sign of the Michelle Obama arms.
These two passions (ugh, I’m sorry, I really hate the word passion, but there is no better word I can think of that connotes intense devotion without implying you feel only positive emotions about the object) are like fraternal twins: separate beginnings, but fertilized by the same stuff. All my writing fears and victories have some parallel in my climbing, and my processes for both are eerily similar. I never feel ready, so starting is usually the hardest part. Once I get going, I’m searching for a flow I can only achieve like 10 percent of the time, and the other 90 percent, I’m cursing the life decisions I’ve made up to this point. The battle is sometimes partly rooted in reality (the hold is terrible / the story you thought you’d tell has fallen through), but most of your struggle plays out in the mind (you’re going to fall and die / you’re going to fail and die). At the top, everything is right with the world and I am untouchable. Then the whole thing starts again.
It should be no surprise, then, that one fuels the other. For most of September, I was burnt out to hell; writing a single email felt impossible, let alone whole stories. I worried I’d run out of good ideas forever, and that the words would never come back. N convinced me to take a few days off for a climbing trip down to Smith Rock, and at first, I brought my shitty attitude with me. I haven’t been climbing at all! I kept saying.
On the second day, we walked up to a 5.6 warm-up. (5.6 is climbing parlance for “real chill”; at indoor climbing gyms, it’s among the easiest grades you’ll see.) “Do you want to lead this?” Nate asked. (Leading means being the first climber, who sets up the rope by carrying it up with you as you climb, clipping it into pieces of protection — on this climb, metal bolts in the rock — along the way.) I had a thousand excuses at the ready. Again, I hadn’t been climbing at all! It was cold! That section between the second and third bolts looked less than completely straightforward! I couldn’t see the finishing anchors from the ground! I didn’t sleep that well the night before!
But mostly: I was really, really scared. And I had meta-feelings: I was embarrassed to be scared. I should be better than this, I thought. A real climber wouldn’t be afraid of something so easy. Even worse, what would happen if I couldn’t do it — if I freaked out in the middle and had to bail, or fell to my death? So, I reasoned, the best way to avoid the fear, the embarrassment, and probably death was to just not try at all.
N led it, and I top-roped it. (After N carried up the rope, he threaded it through an anchor at the top so subsequent climbers can climb on “top-rope,” which makes it impossible to fall very far, and hence, way less scary.) I gathered confirmation for my excuses. I was, indeed, tired, and it was, indeed, very cold. That section between the second and third bolts required one actual move, and the finish was a bit meandering. So, ha! I’d made the right decision after all. Climbing is scary and terrible and it’s best avoided at all costs. The world doesn’t need another shitty climber who’s afraid of leading a 5.6.
Our friend M climbed after me, and while she was on the wall, I felt increasingly sheepish. I thought of what N said to me after I gave notice at the one real job I’ve ever had, the one that paid me well and came with nice benefits and a 401(k), because I wanted to write full-time: Brave people are scared, too. You’re brave because you’re scared and you’re still going to do it.
I don’t want this to read like, wow, total redemption story where Jane got brave and everything was fine! But yeah, I did end up leading that route, and I was scared, which made me proud to have tried. (And then embarrassed to be proud!) Later that day, I got very scared leading an even easier route. And the next day, I onsighted my first 5.7. Am I still embarrassed that I don’t lead harder than that outside? Yeah. But I’m trying to let go of that embarrassment, because it’s doing exactly nothing for me, and not trying because I’m afraid of failing (or falling) isn’t doing me any favors, either.
Same goes for my writing. Again, I hate for this to read like ~~cliMbiNg cHaNgeD mY liFe~~, but after I got home from Smith, I gave no shits about writing rejections. Anticipating a “no” is never fun, but it’s a less visceral fear than being perched 80 feet up a rock on my toes and fingertips. The stress of writing may be slowly chipping away at my life expectancy, but failure is less likely to break my ankles. Nonetheless, I am grateful for the opportunity to fail, again and again.
🚨 Extremely Niche Content™🚨
Climbing : Writing — A List
Running it out : Waiting to finish a deadline with only a couple hours before it’s due
Multi-pitch with a third person : “The top editor is going to take just a quick look at your piece”
The approach : The pitching process
Bouldering : Writing on Spec :: Ropes : Kill fee
When someone else leads a route for you and you just toprope it : A fun and easy assignment that pays $1000
Crux : Crux
Internet worth your time
Taffy Brodesser-Akner on the expectation that women be mindful, peaceful, and calm, and how she is very not. If you know Taffy’s work, you will not be surprised that this essay is at once funny, self-deprecating, poignant, and sharp.
There’s a woman with a YouTube channel dedicated to her possum. If that sounds good to you, you are correct, but I guarantee it is so much better than you imagined.
Prachi Gupta in BuzzFeed with a moving tribute to her late brother, with meditations on toxic masculinity and family.
I saw this TikTok a month ago and I think about it around 10 times a week.
It’s the best time of year.
Some stuff I’ve written lately
If you’ve been keeping tabs on the climate demonstrations, you’ve probably seen the extinction symbol. Here’s the story of how it was created. (Slate)
Antibiotic resistance is spreading among seals and sea lions in the Salish Sea! (High Country News)
The news is filled with stories of the dark family secrets revealed by DNA tests, so when 23andMe told one woman that her cousin was actually her half-sibling, she panicked. But the error was a glitch in the service’s algorithm — and it has the power to freak out consumers and cause unnecessary family drama. (Slate)
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