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Lessons from the Not-Overnight Success

I just got the wonderful news that Bill McKibben has written the foreword for my newest book, Great Hiking Trails of the World, to be published by Rizzoli in September.

I also have a mock-up of the cover (though covers sometimes change between design and production; I am hoping this one does not.)

The book contains essays about more than 30 hiking trails organized into sections focusing on history, pilgrimage, wilderness, mountains, diverse environments, and long-distance trails.  There are also shorter descriptions of another 50 or so noteworthy trails.

The text is full length – some 60,000 words — and the book is chock full of photography that almost leaps of the page to drag you along for a hike.

It is exactly the kind of book that made me cry with despair some 30 years ago, when I was a young editorial assistant at a company that published books about financial planning, insurance, selling real estate, and other subjects in which I had less than no interest.

I always get reflective around the new year, so I’ve been thinking about how things can turn around, even if it takes a long time. This post is what I wish someone had told me back then: If you are passionate about a creative career dream, if you are frustrated because the path ahead is murky, cluttered, and sometimes damned unpleasant: keep going with all your art. Develop the right skills. Work as though it’s the only thing that matters.  Where you are now is not where you will be forever.

I remember my melt-down moment: I was working in Chicago, and there was a beautiful independent bookstore called Stuart Brent’s. Brent’s was a lunch-time hangout for me.  Virtually everything in the store reflected the best of book publishing – books as works of art. The books focused on art, design, photography, nature, history, fashion, art, and travel. You wouldn’t go there to find a Dummies book or a paperback romance.

Making typical editorial assistant wages, I could barely afford to buy anything in that store: The books featured in the window and in the front cases were in the $60 – $80 price range, and this was back in the late 80s. But being a fairly typical editorial assistant – in it for love, not money — that didn’t stop me from spending money I didn’t have.

Browsing, of course, was free.

I would have happily worked on any book that store ever sold. I would have been delirious to get a job at any publisher they carried.

Instead, I was working on cheaply made, shoddily produced books with two-color covers and clunky designs on how to sell insurance or get licensed for real estate. Chicago was not then and is not now a hub of book publishing. The publisher I worked for was one of only a half dozen or so shows in town. None of them produced the kinds of books that would be found at Stuart Brent’s.

Going to Brent’s at lunchtime only seemed to make things worse as I considered the irony of being surrounded by hundreds of books on scores of topics I was interested in, only to have to go back and shepherd another book on business through its hurdles.

I think that as far as my bosses were concerned, the career path ahead of me was well-lit and obvious. I seemed to be well-enough-liked by the various managers, had managed to keep my opinions about business books to myself, and had been promoted several times. But I didn’t want to go where that path went.

The path between then and now wasn’t something I had much control over: An ad in a publishing magazine led me to a job in environmental publishing in Washington D.C. Island Press did not publish the kind of books you’d find in Stuart Brent’s, but they focused on environmental issues, a subject I was intensely committed to. Marriage took me away from that job and into a world of long distance backpacking. Combining my interest in travel and publishing, I became a book author. It’s not a path I would have predicted.

Today, nearly 30 years later, I’m the author of 17 books, some of which would have found a home in Stuart Brent’s – and some of which would not. Part of growing up is learning when to compromise, when to suck it up and pay your dues, when to sign the bad contracts, when to walk away, and when to follow your heart.

My most recent book, America’s Great Hiking Trails, squeaked onto the New York Times bestsellers list in travel and won a Gold Lowell Thomas Award. This next one: Great Hiking Trails of the World, is exactly the kind of books that would have brought tears to my eyes with longing – to go to those places, to write about them, to edit a book about them – anything.

We all have to find, and sometimes forge, our own path through the publishing thickets. Many authors, like me, bounce between editing gigs and writing gigs, sooner or later finding their feet in one or the other. Our journeys are all different, but looking back, I see a couple of patterns that I think a lot of us have in common.

  • Being true to yourself. I knew I didn’t like business books, so I kept doing the things I did like: Playing piano, traveling (as much as possible), volunteering as a leader of a local inner city outings program, editing a local environmental publication, attempting to write a novel. Showing up whenever I could in the subjects I was interested in meant that when opportunities arose I had more to offer than my work experience: I had passion.
  • At the same time, there is a time to shoot the moon, and there is a time to lay the groundwork. I didn’t like my business publishing job, but I did it as well as I could. As a result, I developed skills that qualified me for a more satisfying job.
  • Show up for your life. You never know what opportunities are lurking around the corner. For example, my (failed) novel landed an agent, who placed my first non-fiction travel book.
  • Develop your people networks. It’s best to do this when you can offer something rather than when you need to ask for something. Join a professional association and volunteer to run the seminar program, run for office: anything that connects you with others in your field. Remember that favors and support you give will be returned, though not always in ways you expect or can predict.
  • Develop your skills. I don’t care what skills: Take classes, attend seminars, form a writing critique group. They all come in handy.

Mark Twain once wrote that the “reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” The same, I believe, is true for publishing. Certainly, people have been talking about the death of publishing since I’ve been in it, and that’s more than 30 years. But the human connection to stories and information is as strong as it ever was, even if how we take delivery has changed. Waiting my turn in the doctor’s office this morning, I noticed that every other person in the waiting room had their nose buried in a book.

Publishing still chugs along. At its core, it is an industry that rewards passion married to skill. It also rewards sticking with it, following a dream, and trying to see our old world through new eyes.

Stuart Brent’s is long gone. But they would have carried my most recent book. And my next one.  I wish I could reach into the past and tell that young editorial assistant that.

Growing Above Treeline: The Blog

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Tree line: “The edge of the habitat at which trees are capable of growing…. Beyond the tree line, trees cannot tolerate the environmental conditions.” (Wikipedia).

I have always been drawn to high places. From my first foray above treeline at the age of nine — to the summit of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire,  where my attention was directed to the plaque commemorating all the people who had died on the mountain — I have relished the mind-bending views, the lung-cutting air, the clarity and the perspective. The muscles in my face relax and I can feel my eyes focusing differently, like a camera lens moving from a close-in macro to an all-encompassing wide angle.

It’s harsh up there: As you climb, temperatures drop and winds rise. The trees stop crowding each other out, and they get thin and short and twisted, and then they disappear leaving only shrubs and the alpine grasses. Height is not something to aspire to if you are a plant growing  above treeline.

The descent is inevitable, I suppose. You can’t actually live among rocks and ice with only the occasional lichen to munch on. There is the climb, then there is the summit, and then you are over the hill. All downhill from here.

That’s the clichéd metaphor, isn’t it?  You spend the front end of life   climbing toward some goal — a bank balance, a job, a second home with a pool and a caretaker — you achieve it (one hopes) and hang out a while buying a Maserati or ordering people around or courting skin cancer. And then it’s time to descend, before you have to be carried away. You get to tell stories and share pictures on Instagram, and it’s someone else’s turn to actually slog uphill and savor the view.

But that begs the question: If life is a mountain, what kind of mountain would it be? An active volcano, with huge temper tantrums and unpredictable eruptions and steam coming out of its head?  A giant slab of granite being raised at the rate of an inch a year by tectonic plates? A former towering giant being lowered by wind and water and time? A mondadnock, standing all alone, unconnected to any other peaks? Or one of those endless flat ridges where you almost can’t tell where the summit is?

Above treeline in Italy's Dolomites
Above treeline in Italy’s Dolomites

It’s hard to see,  when you are struggling over rocks and boulders and fighting  for breath,  the exact shape of a mountain.  What is its temperament? How will you feel at the top — Exhausted? Exhilarated? Sick from the lack of oxygen? Will you say “I conquered” — or “I survived”?  And it’s hard to know what lies on the other side. Will the descent be sharp and steep, or long and slow and almost imperceptible? Or will the mountain blow up right when you are standing on the top?  Which trail down would you choose, when it’s your turn to go over the hill?

I live on a mountain these days, and this time I’m talking literally. It’s not a very big mountain;  even so, at the summit, the forest canopy is gone, leaving only stunted dwarf pine and scrub oak interspersed with blueberry bushes and mountain laurel. My life here is a balancing act of travel, writing,  hiking, skiing, playing and teaching piano, photography, and attempting to learn to draw and paint. If that’s hard to fit in one sentence, it’s even harder to fit into a day.

Join me as I explore the treeline… the high places at the edge of comfort. The mountains we climb may be solidly literal, or they may be the airy towers of art and the imagination: Either way,  they offer clear air, challenge, the perspective of horizon-bending views, and the potential to nurture a different kind of growth.