Writing lessons from trekking in the Pyrenees


writing, writer, writing tips, Loretta MilanMy feet are throbbing as I free them from my walking boots, tip my bottle and savour its final drop. After a tough afternoon of trekking, we’ve arrived at a gite, 760 metres up in the Pyrenees. The view is breathtaking. Clear sky, a garden of exotic flowers, wooded peaks all the way to the horizon, a reminder that tomorrow’s stretch of the Chemin de la Liberté (Freedom Trail), will demand even more.

The trail is one of the toughest WW2 escape routes from France into Spain. It’s hard to imagine how people, some carrying young children, walked this route at night in everyday shoes, fuelled by an occasional scrap of bread or cheese, desperate to find safety.

As the smell of meat and garlic wafts from the gite, I know I will be grateful for every morsel I eat tonight. I also feel privileged to be carrying things in my backpack I’d not considered luxuries until now. Despite how remote we are — if I’m silent, I can hear crickets and birds of prey calling in the distance — one of the things I have is an iPad and full internet access. With a few taps of my fingers, I can find out what weather we’re to expect, stay in touch with friends back home and, best of all, access my novel in progress. Walking today has freed my mind from its everyday thoughts and, in their place, are new snippets of prose, lines of dialogue and inspiration for events which I can integrate straight into my novel before they evaporate into the night.

Six writing lessons from the trek

Loretta-Milan-Pyrenees-2As I tap away on my iPad, I realise I’ve also learned a lot about writing successfully from today’s trek and the eighteen months of training preceding it:

  1. Commitment: Once I’d signed up for the trek, paid the deposit and told friends I was doing it, I was committed. I had an unmovable date, a vision for what I could achieve and an idea as to what I’d need to do to prepare. Likewise, having a writing goal and a rough idea for how you’re going to get there can keep you motivated and focused especially when you feel you’ve lost your way.
  2. Pacing: There’s one thing I knew. Trekking to heights of 2,500m in temperatures pushing into the thirties would be far from easy. Training couldn’t be left to the last minute. I walked every day with a backpack full of my favourite hardback books in the run up to the trek. Then, when it arrived, I knew it would be detrimental to go too fast at the beginning as I’d be too fatigued when facing the later stages. Pacing is just as critical when writing. A little written on a regular basis can be more effective than inconsistent practice. Plots have to be paced too. It helps sustain readers’ interest.
  3. Guides: We had a team of great guides on our trek. They helped ensure we were prepared for every day and packed the right kit, kept us on track and pointed out moving tributes along the trail. Guides are also useful for writers too. We all need pointing in the right direction from time to time. Writing guides can take the form of books, courses, videos or, best of all, a mentor or tutor who gives individual attention and tailored support. After all, every writing project is unique.
  4. Perseverance: Certain parts of our trek felt unconquerable. I’d look up and think, ‘How am I ever going to get up there?’ To get through these stages, all I could do was focus on each step in turn, counting from one to three hundred and repeating it over and over until we got there. Equally, the thought of finishing a long piece of writing, like a novel, can feel overwhelming. But, if you break it down into chapters, paragraphs, sentences and even words, each step can feel more achievable and it’s easier to find the motivation to take on the project. I talk about this more in an article which takes inspiration from Anne Lamont’s ‘Bird by Bird’ here.
  5. Camaraderie: One of the best cures for the pain of trekking is laughter. A motivational word in your ear is pretty powerful too. I trekked with a great group of people. The team support (and our stashes of sweets) carried us all through doubt, exhaustion and fear. Writers also benefit from camaraderie because the journey can be long. The right writing group, workshop, festival or event can help surround you with the motivation and support you need along the way.
  6. Enjoy the view: Of the many rewards trekking brings, the views are probably the ultimate. Early on in the trek, we walked uphill through a forest seeing nothing beyond the canopy and a few metres of path ahead. After several hours, we emerged from the trees, and the Pyrenees opened up in front of us. Pain and fatigue were forgotten. Witnessing beauty was worth it all. I could also see back to the point from which we’d begun, realising just how far we’d come. Savouring success and reflecting on the journey is crucial for writers too. When you’ve written a wonderful piece of prose, take a moment to savour it. Print it off and pin it to your noticeboard as a reminder of what you can do. It’ll help you when you’re blocked or you’re doubting yourself. Equally, take a moment, now and then, to look back at old drafts and acknowledge how far you’ve come. Writing is a journey, not a destination, and we’re growing all the time.

Embracing detours as a trekker and as a writer

Our trek was going so well. Then, part-way through a particularly difficult section, my partner pulled a muscle in his back. He tried to work through the pain, but it was unbearable. We had no choice but to come off the mountain so he could get medical treatment. He received physiotherapy and medication which made him feel better. He wanted to keep going but the doctor advised him not to rejoin the trek as carrying a heavy backpack could make the injury worse. So, for us, the trek ended there. There was no way I was going to leave him behind.

writer, writing, writing tips, Loretta MilanInitially, we felt despondent. Then we remembered that we were still in the beautiful Pyrenees. We should make the most of being here. Richard, the guide who’d taken us to the medical centre, came up with an idea. He sorted us out with a hotel in a town called Foix. That evening, as we enjoyed a drink while listening to live music in the market square, we worked out the route to a castle, towering over the town, using a map he’d given us.

As we stood in the castle grounds the following day, we spotted a cross high up on the other side of the river so we chose to scale up there too. When we reached it, we met a renowned Jazz violinist who’d had the same idea. He invited us to his concert that evening. The music was fantastic and gave me some extra inspiration for my novel. Bonus.

Loretta-Milan-Pyrenees-3The next day, we travelled by train to meet Richard then walked to cheer on the rest of our group during the final stage of their descent from the mountains on the Spanish side. We felt delighted for them and, to our surprise, we didn’t feel we’d missed out quite as much as we’d thought. Like jazz, there’s magic in the unexpected and it’s fun to improvise. At the end of it all, each one of us had so many stories to share.

If you’re struggling to move your writing forward, renew your commitment to yourself, set a fresh goal and persevere. Doubt is normal but you really can do it. Don’t forget to look out for extra inspiration in unexpected detours, experiences and opportunities too. If you embrace them, you’ll discover the surprising destinations they can take you.

Have you found any of these tips helpful? Have you picked up any other writing advice by walking or travelling? If so, why not share your thoughts by commenting below? And, if you were inspired by this article, please subscribe on the right so you don’t miss out on future articles to encourage you with your writing.

We booked our Freedom Trail trek with Discover Adventure. If you’re interested in finding out more about the picturesque Pyrenees, especially the Ariège region where we spent much of our time, I recommend checking out Richard’s website here. It has lots of tips on where to eat, stay and walk.


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    By: Loretta Milan

    Loretta Milan is the founder of Literary Lightbox. She works as a professional writer and also has a novel in construction. She is a graduate of the Faber Academy and Curtis Brown Creative’s three-month novel writing programme. Her writing is fuelled by too much tea.

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