Becoming a mountain

The physical process of writing has always fascinated Stephen Alter, particularly in books that he would describe as “travel memoirs,” which includes most of his non-fiction. The first draft of these books is completed over the course of the journey itself, as he walks along trails in the mountains, making choices on whether to turn left or right, to go uphill or down, and where to stop for the night. In this way, the narrative grows out of the journey, a selective sequence of encounters and events, routes and detours that begin to take shape even before he commits words to the page.

“The process of writing begins with the first steps of the journeys I take”, says Alter. This statement itself became the crux of what Alter wanted to share of his experiences, and how deeply his writing was influenced through them.

Never quite sure as to where he might end up, Alter’s experiences clearly show his love for adventure, and how travelling through the mountains has shaped his expression of thought. Thoroughly inspired by colors and forms of nature, he finds solace whenever he treks in the Himalayas, his driving force being the sense of exploration and discovery and quiet thrill of an ambiguous destination. He believes firmly that a good story awaits him every time he travels, and an even better one if he loses his path; “Often a better story on a longer route, often a better story if I get lost”, says Alter. His keen sense of photography too, aids him whenever he feels the need to revisit his exploration. Deeply inspired by a few chosen quotes, he proceeded to share with the listeners a quote by Buddha; “You must become the path yourself- become a part of the route that you travel”. Given his leanings towards nature, he finds nature writer Leopold to be an inspiration as well who says, “Think like a mountain”.
Bringing into context the human nature, he laments that humans in fact tend to separate themselves from nature, which they shouldn’t. As an atheist, he is more exclusive about the term ‘sacred’, includes things that others might not and rejects petty ‘pieties and doctrines’. He tends to find the sacred in nature more meaningful. According to him, experiencing the sublime, and becoming aware of one’s own mortality, is what is at the root of all spiritual experiences. In this context he mentioned a terrible attack on his and himself, back in the year 2008, where they were ‘stabbed, beaten and smothered’. They questioned and wondered about what they should do, and a process of recovery from psychological and physical trauma ensued. “Terrible things happen in good places”, says Alter.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Stephen Alter is the author of sixteen books of fiction and non-fiction.  He was born in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, and much of his writing focuses on the Himalayan region, where he continues to live and work. Stephen was writer-in-residence at MIT for ten years, where he taught courses in fiction and non-fiction writing. Among the honors he has received are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Fulbright Program, the East West Centre in Hawaii, and the Banff Centre for Mountain Culture. He is the founding director the Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival, which has brought more than 150 authors, mountaineers, artists and musicians to Mussoorie since 2006.

Read more: Becoming a mountain

Becoming a mountain
By Stephen Alter
Stephen Alter