Walking out of your comfort zone and into fear

When writing about what you don’t know, the best way to learn about it is to experience it firsthand. This might include fear.

When I started writing a novel about three women who were to face their worst fears while hiking in a remote area, I realised I’d only ever hiked safely. Walks on my own are done close to home, and when they’re not, I walk with others. Mobile phone coverage is usually guaranteed. Help or a CareFlight aren’t far away. So how was I going to do justice to the emotional state of these characters that I wanted to place at risk in a remote area and with nothing to rely upon but their own wits?

I knew I had to live it. I had to experience their isolation and self-reliance firsthand. I had to feel their fear at the possibility of someone lurking ahead or stalking behind. I needed to experience the way darkness and the imagination become terrifying bedfellows. I had to hear the amplification of bush sounds and see the way shadows play tricks on the eyes. I had to know fear.

So I borrowed a backpack and a tent and took the advice of as many ‘Hiking Light’ websites I could find in order to fill it. Feeling physically prepared but emotionally ill equipped, I then walked out of my comfort zone and onto a solo five-day hike in a remote area.

But before I’d even taken my first step on the trail I started to collect new material for my novel. As if I wasn’t anxious enough about what I planned to do, others (mainly women) upped the ante further. You’re going on your own!? Have you packed pepper spray? What’ll you do if you get lost? How will you cope if you break a leg?

Answers: Yes. No. Cry. Badly.

But these comments fed directly into themes I want to explore in my novel: that women are sometimes paralysed to act outside the known because of the threat of the predatory actions of others or from a lack of self-belief.

I had plenty of sleepless nights before I left home, kept awake by imagining the worst that could happen to me – death, injury, assault. But as Cheryl Strayed said in her book Wild: ‘Fear…is born of a story we tell ourselves’. So like Strayed, I tried to tell myself a different story, and that was that I had to do this, otherwise I was never going to write about my characters’ experiences with authenticity and the book would fail.

My hike was in a region of Victoria renown for its extreme and changeable weather – gale force winds, torrential rain, deep and lasting icy mists or scorching heat were all on the cards. And there was no crying off the fact that I had to hike up to 20 kilometres a day in whatever weather prevailed.

I equipped myself with the appropriate gear for any eventuality, but carrying all you need to survive on your back is a weighty business. Solo hikers have to carry all those things they might otherwise share with a partner – first aid kit, cooking gear, spare batteries, lighting – and no matter how many tips I took from the ‘Hiking Light’ websites I couldn’t safely get the weight of my pack down.

But it meant the experience of hiking with it was real and tough. The weight of my pack bruised my shoulders and hips and threatened my balance many times. I fell once – a stranded turtle on its back – and for a time I didn’t have the energy to get up again. I lay in the dirt and looked for the silver lining of my new sky view: I hadn’t broken anything.

My anticipation – my characters’ anticipation – of having to confront the worst each day meant that feelings of hope, dread and relief were in a constant combative state. As it was, I copped the gales and rain. I lay awake at night listening to both, feeling the deep chill that comes with sleeping damp, and worried about whether I’d pitched my tent far enough from trees. It didn’t matter that I knew I had; darkness gives free rein to the imagination. But my night-time fears meant I started out each day more and more fatigued, so the increased risk of falls and injury was added to my daytime worries. I felt caught between a hard ground and a thin sleeping mat.

Fatigue also exacerbated the aches and chafes of carrying a heavy load. And just being on the constant lookout for snakes, always anticipating them, was exhausting too, but paid off when I had to sidestep one. I talked out loud to myself often, words of encouragement mainly: Good legs. You can do it. Be brave. No whinging.

As writers we often grumble about how other responsibilities rob us of the time we need to immerse ourselves fully in our writing. I had no such complaint for the five days of my hike – my time was my own and sometimes my thoughts were too immersive. I walked for hours without encountering other hikers, and then suddenly, as if out of nowhere, they startled me on corners or crests or they came up on me from behind. I don’t think these people intentionally moved with stealth but it felt as though they did.

During those solitary hours though, the steady rhythm of walking freed my mind to step into the boots of each of my characters. But as Robert Macfarlane says in his book The Wild Places, ‘…wild land can…be self-willed land.’ This thought could be equally applied to the imagination in relation to wild places. Because before long I was jumping at shadows (often my own) and finding hollows and ledges where I could hide or where someone could hide from me.

Grotesque faces took shape in weathered granite boulders and I saw blood trickling down the trunks of trees (they’re called Bloodwoods for good reason). And in the eerie quiet of night when a gale wasn’t blowing, strange bush noises warped into hissing voices, villainous laughs, creeping footsteps or hands rummaging around my tent. By the end of each night, my heart had been given as good a workout from these irrational thoughts as my legs got walking over mountains during the day.

By the time I finished my hike I knew a lot more about myself, and about my characters. I knew what it felt like to go to the outer margins of my courage, and to spend time in a place where the imagination hijacks reason. I found resilience I didn’t know I had and learnt to trust in my own capabilities. I also learnt that fear is a story we tell ourselves, but that it’s a very useful one if you’re a fiction writer.


First published in WQ Online, August 2016