The writer's year: April, Philipp Meyer
As we head into April, Philipp Meyer - author of American Rust and The Son, looks at his relationship with the wilderness...
While my workdays are fairly similar — I work seven days a week, with no distinction between weekends and weekdays — my seasons have a distinct rhythm. I associate springtime with work, with writing, with being completely immersed in a project. Fall I work a lot less, because fall is hunting season, the time of year when I’m mostly outdoors. I usually spend about a month in the mountains or somewhere in the backcountry, scouting and planning and finally, hunting. Usually I’ll pack a week or ten days’ worth of food, set up a base camp somewhere far off the trail, close to a stream but far from any human signs and sounds.
This is my recharge time for the year. My conscious mind, with its chatty internal monologue, goes silent. I’m up before sunrise, watching the birds as they wake up; the day is spent observing every sound and movement, every track and mark in the landscape, moving slowly, deliberately, and in silence. It feels like a kind of trance, a complete openness to the world around me. Sometimes I’ll wake up a bit, sketch a leaf or animal track I can’t identify, other times I’ll find a well-hidden spot in the sun to take a nap. But mostly the days are spent in a strange state which is both completely at ease and completely attuned. Your mind disconnects from your body and you can sit without moving for hours; I’ve had a beaver crawl nearly over my foot before realizing what it was; another time a hummingbird tried to feed on me, dipping its beak gently into my ear, thinking my hat was some kind of strange flower.
During spring, I rarely take longer than twelve hours away from my writing.
Around sundown I’ll make my way back to camp, gather wood to get a fire going. I’ll cook my dinner and tend to my gear: what needs mending or cleaning, what needs to be dried near the fire. If I’m not too tired I’ll read a little poetry. I usually bring a little bit of whiskey on these trips, but I almost never drink it. My mind is already silent, my body already exhausted, the alcohol seems superfluous. I used to feel guilty about this time away from writing, away from work, but now I’ve accepted it as necessary to recharge me creatively.
Eventually — though I try to put this off as long as possible — I’ll find my deer for the year and haul him back to my freezer, where he’ll feed me and my friends for the coming months. By then it’s usually winter: Christmas, New Year’s, the associated visiting with friends and family. I still try to write every day, but early winter is, generally, not a very productive time. By February I’m picking up speed and mental fitness and by March, or the beginning of spring, I’m at my mental peak. I will generally maintain this throughout the summer. I’ve found mental fitness to be similar to physical fitness — you gain it with practice, with cycles of effort and recovery, training your mind for more and longer and deeper creative output. During spring, I rarely take longer than twelve hours away from my writing. You train your subconscious this way; ideas will come to you at all times of the day and night, when you’re driving or brushing your teeth or standing in line for groceries. You are seeking a state of total immersion. When I am in this state, my days blur into weeks; the weeks into months. I usually have very little memory of these times; nothing but a tall stack of pages to show I’ve been writing.
Of course there are limits. By late summer I’m approaching burnout, and by September, like an athlete at the end of a long season, my mental fitness has dropped off and I’m already dreaming of being outside, spending my days and nights alone in the woods, far away from any trails or signs of people, far away from my desk.
Philipp Meyer, for Waterstones.com/blog