Silence amplifies every sound. It is an odd thing, but in the silence you hear the crunch each time a ski pole punches through the fresh, untracked whiteness into old and weathered snow beneath.
You hear the hiss of skis on the surface of the buried trail, and a clatter when the skis cross the unseen ice formed by water percolating out of the hidden soils of the muskeg.You hear the crinkle of the cold-stiffened nylon of wind pants, the jingle of the rabies tag on the dog ahead and the tiny whisper of the wind in the tops of the spruce trees.
And when you catch and pass the old dog at last at the end of the long climb into the valley, and make the turn for the long, fast downhill race back home that forces you to stop occasionally now to wait for him to catch up, you hear his heavy breathing as he comes down the trail, panting in the dark. You hear it long before the beam of the headlight probing the night finds the reflective dots of his eyes, and you shatter the night with your words.
“C’mon, Hoss. Atta boy. Let’s go.’’
And some writers think the great white silence of the north silent.
Almost never is the silence silent. Even when you stand perfectly still to put an end to the man-caused disturbances, there are often sounds. You hear the trees when they pop in the cold. You hear the earthquakes coming, as one did just the other day, seconds before they arrive for reasons not clearly understood. You hear the northern lights crackling overhead. And you hear that wind every time the planet breathes.
When it breathes heavily, you sometimes hear the wind too much. It can become a banshee. I remember mountain biker Kathi Merchant describing how its insistent, never-ending scream almost drove her mad along the Bering Sea coast one year on the Iditarod Trail to Nome.
Sometimes out in the great while silence you cannot escape the sound no matter how much you might wish to do so. Once, out in a white winter maelstrom with a friend, I remember contemplating whether wind noise and a snapping parka hood could threaten one with hearing loss. I actually did a little research later and discovered a study of motorcycle riders concluded wind noise can, indeed, do damage.
The sound at speeds of 65 mph or above can get up around 103dB, whichis normally thought of as the noise-generating territory of chainsaws and pneumatic drills. Some authorities on hearing protection recommend earplugs for motorcyclists, even those wearing helmets. The research makes you wonder if ear plugs might not be a good idea at times for mountaineers at times.
But this isn’t about protecting anyone’s hearing. This is about how we, as writers, see and hear because good writing isn’t really about words. It is about observations. To quote a writer far, far better than me, good writing is about “the good and the bad, the ecstacy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”
Students of the game will, of course, recognize that quote as stolen from the late Ernest Hemingway, a man of simple words and powerful observations: “What was his talent anyway? It was a talent all right,but instead of using it, he had traded on it. It was never what he had done, but always what he could do.”
You have to wonder if Hemingway was writing about himself there in “The Snows of Kiliminjaro.” Good writers are the most insecure egotists you’ll ever meet. It’s somewhat inevitable. It takes great confidence to be a good writer in a world where there is no definition for “good.’’ You can use the same exact words to tell a story that inspires as to tell as a story that bores. It is the reason good writers are always on edge.
I was sitting in the kitchen of one of those writers the other day, drinking a beer while she confessed her fears about how the book on which she was working might turn out to be a flop. It won’t. I know the raw material fairly well, and it is extremely good. And I know the writer. She sees and hears wonderfully, and that is what this is about.
To write well, it is probably best to forget about writing. Get the words out of your head. Let the movies in. Watch them. Listen to them. Try to grasp the feel and taste. Let the the good and the bad, the ecstacy, the remorse and the sorrow of the characters become yours. And then describe it as best you can.
It’s all really that simple; and that damn difficult.
Craig Medred is the author of “Graveyard of Dreams: Dashed Hopes and Shattered Aspirations Along Alaska’s Iditarod Trail.” He was the outdoor editor of the Anchorage Daily News for 20 years and now writes for the Alaska Dispatch. This post first ran in 2011.