Snow Sunday: The Mountains Beyond Telluride

Snow Sunday: The Mountains Beyond Telluride

When we travel and leave Telluride, we often swap out one set of mountains for another. In my own case, I’ve spent the past 10 days in the Southern Appalachians, at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Asheville, North Carolina. The mountains here are different: they roll rather than rise into jagged peaks. Their colors in the mornings are violets and minty greens, colors an artist would try and capture with pastels rather than oils.

warren wilson snowI’m here for the first part of a graduate writing program at Warren Wilson College. It’s one of the harder things I’ve ever done. Not hard in the sense of loneliness—I’ve made plenty of friends. Nor is it hard in terms of the concepts: I’ve heard most of them before. Ideas such as character development, narrative engine, and the sublime are as familiar to the aspiring fiction writer as skier lingo is to Telluride. It’s like talking about the width of a ski underfoot, the depth of the power, or the line on Mak’m.

No, the difficulty here is in the excavation of the self. We’re constantly being asked to dig deeper and to put more of ourselves on the page. The only writing worth writing is the work we most fear. The best writing is not an escape, we learn, it’s risk taking. Every man contains within himself the entire human condition, they tell us, the work of the writer is unearthing it, much like a sculptor chips away at marble to find the statue within.

But this is not easy work. I get that the self is vessel but how do I crack open that vessel and discover what is truth, what is knowledge, and what is memory? Taking risks is something that looks great on an inspirational poster, yet it is harder in practice. And exactly what are the risks I need to take to express a more sublime self?

Of course in Telluride, we know all about risk taking; we do it all the time. We climb mountains and strap on our skis; we mountain bike down narrow trails; and we rock climb cliffs. This is part of our everyday existence. Our activities are not just exercise: they help us discover who we are. Perhaps this is why we’re so drawn to mountains and often when we leave, we seek out another set mountains as if mountains in a different shape might challenge us in a new way, might help us to understand ourselves in this life better.

There’s a line this week that keeps haunting me: We write not to be understood but to better understand. I believe that this applies not only to writing but to everything we do that encourages us to take risks, whether it’s climbing a peak that’s made of loose scree or picking our way down a ski run that was steeper than we’d guessed. In the challenge, there’s the discovery and in the discovery, there’s the unearthing of the self. And that is what life seems to be about.

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