During lockdown, I took up walking. County Durham is blessed with beautiful countryside. Finding it such a tranquil diversion, I started to look for greater challenges and spectacle further afield and have since taken on a few summits. The longest walk I did was 25 miles, including three peaks. The last of the day was Ingleborough from the north. I didn’t know until I got there that the ascent from this direction is an almost sheer vertical. It can be done without specialist equipment but required a very careful climb up the rocks which are formed into a sort of pathway, though not like any I’ve trod before.
Exhaustion had set in by then and, even after the summit, there was another 6-mile walk to get back to base. I found that the ascent was of such difficulty that I had to fully concentrate on every step I took. It was necessary to look for each potential foothold and just be in that moment alone. The next step was the only one I could take and thus I couldn’t think about any of the subsequent ones, or the descent to come, and it was good that I didn’t. One step at a time.
Since completing the walk, and others, I’ve reflected on this as an approach to any large and long-term project, such as writing a book or developing an academic career as a whole. Writing a book might sound, if you haven’t done one before, to be such a large and intimidating task that it’s hard to know where to start. It looks like it involves so much work; and, in truth, it does. Typically, there are years of research, thinking, drafting, redrafting, presenting, checking, indexing and proofing to come. In my own case, I think of a research monograph as a task of around five years, though it can vary. My forthcoming Absence and Nothing completes thinking that began 32 years ago.
The way of working that is best for me is to plan a book carefully so that I can break it down into much smaller and less intimidating tasks. If I have a plan, then in writing one chapter or sub-section, I don’t have to worry about all the other parts that I have yet to write. And this is effective. In a sense, no one can write a whole book. All that you can write is the next sentence, and if you repeat that task, you will eventually have a section. Keep going and you will get a chapter. But, all the time, focus on the current task. Be in that moment. The book is what you get if you persist until your plan is complete.
I know this can sound glib. One step at a time is a cliché. Taking on the challenge of a major walk had me consider it afresh, however. It’s not only about completing big pieces of work. Life is full of trials and difficult periods, which everyone will experience at some time or other, be it bereavement, anxiety or illness. In those times, just getting through the day is an achievement. In some circumstances, merely taking the next step is all that you can do. Our lives are our greatest and most difficult challenges of all. There will be days when you feel tiny and overwhelmed by the task ahead. But you can do it, one step at a time.