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Mentored Risk

The following post was written by Catherine Curtis, and was first delivered as a paper at the Associated Writing Programs Conference 2012 in a panel entitled "Wilderness Writing: Theory and Practice."

In the wilderness programs where I’ve participated as student and mentor, the courses are designed to encourage risk taking, both in outdoor activities and writing personal essays. Not risk for risk’s sake, or for thrill’s sake, or to be hot shots or Facebook stars, but risk as an inner signal that we’ve reached the boundaries of our comfort, though not necessarily our skill. We encourage students to brush up against the perception of risk because it marks the entrance to their wilderness.

Risk: “There is no guarantee,” says Philip Lopate, “that the personal essay will attain a shapeliness or a sense of aesthetic inevitability…. Even an essay that is ‘well made’ seems to follow a more intuitive, groping path.” (Introduction APE xxxviii).

Risk: More somatic than semantic, the sensation of perpendicular pause before leaning definitively to one reality; a fraction higher or lower than the angle of repose; the possibility and probability of slipping.

Risk: Standing on soft mud in the belly of a desert canyon at the end of an 18-mile day. Ten peers and one professor staring, warily, because it was time to select a campsite, and I held the map and the decisions. This was my apprenticeship, learning to make the moves of a wilderness guide. I heard mutters of blisters and mutiny if we didn’t stop soon. I heard complaints about where we were and complaints about where we were going, and at the end of every choice, someone sulked at me.

Risk: “The world is but a perennial movement,” Montaigne says. “If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions, but it is always in apprenticeship and on trial” (740).

Risk: Wilderness, the “Other” space, the place that borders personal boundaries. Our subjective position relative to the edges around us.

If we decide to venture past the boundary of the known, I agree with Edward Abbey: we “will need leaders. A venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches—that is the right and privilege of any free American. But the rest, the majority, most of them new to the out-of-doors, will need and welcome assistance, instruction and guidance. Many will not know how to follow a trail over slickrock, memorize landmarks, build a fire in rain, treat snakebite, rappel down a cliff, glissade down a glacier, read a compass…comfort a girl during a thunderstorm, predict the weather, dodge falling rock, climb out of a box canyon, or pour piss out of a boot.” Abbey, in his polemic to “save our parks and our people” by getting more people in the parks argues the necessity of guides, and more specifically, the necessity of guides that can model for novices the moves that experienced outdoorsmen make. His approach makes sense: novices become experts by doing what experts do.

You might be thinking that a guide negates the risk-taking that I just told you we encourage, and for the venturesome minority of Abbey’s description, that could be true. For most of our students, though, the presence of an experienced guide enables them to explore further beyond their comfort boundary than they would without a guide. It enables them to start on the path from novice to expert by mimicking the moves they observe. So we don’t design programs that send students into the unknown alone; we don’t assign wilderness as supplemental reading and keep our courses in classroom. Instead, we go together to the wilderness, and some of us act as guides.

Being able to close the gap between novices and experts is important in the context of teaching personal essays too, especially if you agree with the following quote from Philip Lopate: “There is no room for naïfs or solemn primitives in the essay; it’s a performance of extreme sophistication, the argument rising or falling on the basis of verbal nuance, persona pirouette, exposure of unconscious contradiction in oneself and others. There are many think pieces that make a reasonable point but then continue to hammer away; they don’t turn against themselves enough. Still other essays wander into a glade of pastoral appreciation where there’s no tension, the stakes seem insufficient. I [am] on the lookout for the pleasure a mind takes in finding its way through a dangerous thicket” (“Introduction” The Essay Anchor Annual Best of 1997.)

Here, Lopate describes the separation between a naïf or novice and an experienced essayist and calls out one fundamental move of the experienced essayist: the ability to confront perceived risks within oneself, to explore the dangerous thickets uncovered by wandering through the mind. But how is it taught? How does the naïf become anything else? As a new writer, I could not encounter a thicket, assess the risk, and enter confidently. My eyes weren’t trained to read the signs: how long to wander and where to probe; when to retreat or persist. I was often tempted to confuse the moves of an experienced writer—the turning against himself, the delving deeper—with the outcome of his performance: the essay itself, the physical artifact that can be exchanged in workshop classes.

As a junior in college, I signed up for John Bennion’s Wilderness Writing because getting English credit for going camping sounded pretty good. To that point, I had not known any of my professors well, nor seen them outside the context of the university. I was totally unaccustomed to being vulnerable before my peers; risk in a school context meant waiting till the night before a paper was due to get started. School and life were largely separate, and writing belonged mostly to school. Then, the semester passed, and in my final paper, I wrote that “I couldn't keep myself hidden from this class.” My previously drawn lines had faded. I explained that writing my first essay was unlike any writing I had ever done, that I took what felt like greater risks in content and process than I had been willing or able to take before. Looking back now, the outcome of my performance didn’t match that of an experienced writer, but I was beginning to mimic the fundamental moves; the turning, the delving. How did it happen?

I want to explore three possible answers: the wilderness setting, immersive relationships with experienced writers, and writer exercises. First, the wilderness setting, which I’ve already somewhat described. In my experience, the wilderness can be a more competent writing space than a classroom, precisely because both writing and wilderness are edged with risk. “Writing,” says Anne Lamott, “is so often about making mistakes and feeling lost,” and the physical wilderness provides a natural foil to the writer’s experience of retraced steps and misguided wanderings beyond the boundary of the known self. On the first campout, I had a breakthrough. I wrote, “We sat in dirt staring at the landscape around us with our journals open on our laps. I wrote about how the reassurance I found in the huge rock walls was similar to the reassurance I got from seeing married people hold hands. I tried to sketch the massiveness of the distant rock horizon juxtaposed against a tiny and fragile grass right in front of my foot. I wrote about the harmony of this natural system informing my system, and giving me a framework, almost like a code, to understand my world. I saw and felt, and I wrote and sketched; that moment encapsulates my experience in this class.” My words describe how the physical surroundings supported my mental explorations, offered a scaffolding, a “framework,” for personal discovery.

Second, I learned to try mimicking the moves of an experienced writer through a more immersive relationship with an experienced writer. Students of the personal essay, preparing, as they must, to enter the wilderness of self, need leaders, and not just leaders in the classroom, but guides—mentors—in the field, demonstrating the moves by which experienced writers navigate that space. Peter Elbow says, “Most students benefit when they feel that writing is a transaction with human beings rather than an ‘exercise in getting something right or wrong.” (Peter Elbow, qtd in Cheryl Glenn’s St Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing 125). The context of the wilderness, the transferable vulnerability of confronting risk, fosters the possibility for deeper relationships than sometimes occur in traditional settings. Deeper relationships are significant in the wilderness, whether real or figurative, because the more is on the line. Similar to the enabling effect of an outdoor guide, a trusted writing mentor enables the student to confront higher levels of perceived risk to explore more deeply the unknown or complex elements of the self. For the mentor-guide to help a student manage risk, he must know where and when the student’s comfort boundary sounds and when to turn back.

I remember having one of my first writing conferences with John sitting in desert sand under a juniper tree. Without a draft between us and with the vast landscape around us, our conversation was naturally driven to the life moves I was making rather than the words I was putting on the page. Through one conversation that fanned into many across that semester, John helped me navigate the questions of self I was encountering for the first time. I came to feel that he was mentoring me, the writer, not just my specific essays. Because I was able to see him in such a variety of circumstances, I learned from his mode of being, not just from his writing, or his comments on my writing. Of him, I wrote, “John has incredible flexibility as an instructor because his goals are for individual (student) progression. John is a human naturalist—he studies people.”

Third, writing exercises help students imitate the fundamental moves of an experienced writer. Years after my initial Wilderness Writing experience, I worked as a teaching assistant and mentor for INHUT, a course that included an immersive month of camping with 15 students and four professors of English, recreation, biology, and history respectively. Riley, the biology teacher, was an expert explorer of science and self. Most mornings, I’d emerge from my tent to find him sitting a ways off, in a cluster of brush, up with the sun and holding binoculars and notebook, patiently and recording the details of the world: latitude and longitude, visible species of birds, his thoughts on his position relative to the rest. When we were camped on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, Riley gave us a writing assignment: for 30 minutes, only describe what you see.

“To the north, Ben Lomand and Mount Baldy divide Ogden from Preston/Brigham City? To the west, Promontory and the spiral jetty. To the east (if we could see it) the Wasatch range, shepherding Salt Lake Valley. I’m having difficulty describing. I’m just starting to learn what things are, I’m not familiar enough to describe.” I started the writing exercise with confidence, but as I continued, I made a necessary discovery: I didn’t know the details. Through this writing exercise, Riley taught us of the thoroughness that precedes description in essays. Before, I didn’t see the moves Riley was making—the thoroughness, the patience, the loyalty to detail—as separate from the product; I assumed that I could write as easily of my surroundings, having participated in similar experiences. Riley’s exercise isolated the moves from the product and allowed us to practice. This was a powerful lesson on the limitations of my knowledge; it helped me sound out the edge of my unknown.

Another writing exercise that John assigned asked students to explore an experience where they were one way before and another way after, again encouraging the behavior of an experienced writer: identifying the splits of self, the contradictions and complexities. After such a writing exercise, a group of students would hand me their journals and I’d read them at night under my headlamp, only able to jot a line or two of notes. I was a mentor-guide not because I had mastered the moves of an expert, but because I had a little more distance practicing the path. My job was to search for the trends in tone, to read the signs of risk, to find and ask the questions that would push the edges of perception and comfort wider. Writing exercises, away from computers and classrooms, freed students to write without fear, and in our conversations, we’d mine together for resonance.

I’m guessing there is someone here who finds this mentor-guide approach too emotional, too unrealistic for the “real” world of slush piles and rejection letters. Here’s my concession: there is room and necessity or the objective, blind, and distant mentor, who sees a writer’s work as a reader will see it—as the product of performance. But there is also room for the eyes-open, heart-open subjective mentor who witnesses the writer’s efforts to own the fundamental moves of an experienced writer, making them in her own style and voice.

Expert essays ring with authentic discovery, discovery earned by the willingness to risk standing on the perceived edge of self and venture into the wilderness below. In wilderness writing courses, the mentor-guide can walk with you to that edge, help you know how close is too close, hold your ankles, talk you through your fears, and pull you back when the blood starts rushing to your head.