It has been said that I have a penchant for big dogs. Actually no one ever has said that and I don’t expect them to. “Penchant” is one of those $20 words you just don’t hear every day. Not everyone has twenty bucks to buy a word and not everyone has a penchant for using them. I did as a young person. I had a definite penchant for words like “bellicose,” “enervate,” and “sturm and drang.”
There’s a young guy whose blog I read whenever I get the chance. I love what he does, his pictures are incredible, but his writing is still in the verbosity stage. I want to teach him. I want to say, “You’re writing about landscape. Don’t alienate people. Let them IN. Why write if you’re not going to? Clearly you want to share this experience.’
But I’ve done my time as a writing teacher, and I don’t want to insult him or make him feel bad (he should NOT feel bad) so I don’t say anything.
I think about this because I’m still working on my hiking book. I don’t think any project has meant more to me, and I’m not even necessarily planning to sell it. I even found a photo of me with legendary climber and egoist, Reinhold Messner to include to give me some creds.
One of the best lessons in writing I have had was reading The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen and absolutely loving it. It is a first-person narrative of Matthiessen’s experiences going with George Schaller into the Himalaya where Schaller was studying the populations of Blue Sheep on the Tibetan Plateau.
Then, some years later, I read the same story in Schaller’s Stones of Silence where it is related completely in one chapter.
Matthiessen’s book is focused on his internal search for peace and religious truth; it’s a spiritual quest. Schaller’s chapter is about looking for blue sheep and having the good fortune to see a snow leopard. Because Matthiessen did not see the snow leopard, the book would have to be about the quest. There’s definitely that, but the effect of the two mens’ penchants makes the difference. Schaller is a wild-life biologist; his concern is landscape and animals. Matthiessen is a writer who might go into an experience with the intention of writing about it afterward. That means he has already decided how, what, he will see; he knows he’s bringing back a story. Schaller might go out and come back with nothing. Still the point is clear. If you want to see a snow leopard, you have to go either to a zoo or to the place where they find food. Once you are there, you must stay a long time out where the food is. And, for your own peace and happiness, you must not be invested in the outcome.
Stones of Silence is one of my favorite books and in the great book purge of 2017, it stayed on my shelf. I don’t have The Snow Leopard any more. Still, it is in print and Stones of Silence is not. I think this is because a quest is within everyone’s reach. I can’t say the same for blue sheep and snow leopards.