Creative Nonfiction by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle
There is a point when you have to let off the brakes for your own safety. Every action you must take is contrary to everything you’ve ever known about self-preservation. Careful can get you killed.
Speed up when a branch blocks the path in order to hit it head-on. Stand, instead of crouch, when feeling out of control descending a mountain. In order to have the power to push forward, pedal backward. And when conditions get too slippery, yield your control to Mother Nature’s design.
This is flexibility. This is freedom. This is mountain biking.
Turns out, this is also writing. A few years ago, the two converged for me and led to an unexpected discovery.
I had been a damn good basketball player in high school and continued to be involved with the sport working in my university’s basketball office and coaching at various levels after graduation. But because of this life-long dedication, my knees were shot. So, after having my second child, I was pretty miserable. In my head I was still an athlete, but my body was overweight and my energy was drained.
Additionally, my first novel manuscript had apparently also chosen a sedentary lifestyle without my consent. After years of near-miss publication, I was burned-out on pitching this passion project. By my mid-thirties, I began to wonder if it wasn’t time to just accept and settle on all fronts. I needed a change. I needed a new opportunity. I needed to start training again as both an athlete and a writer.
Coincidentally, my tribe, the Eastern Band of Cherokee, was building a world-class trail system for hiking and biking, Fire Mountain Trails, in my home of Cherokee, North Carolina. I had been the Executive Director at the Cherokee Preservation Foundation when the planning grant was funded by our organization. The whole concept of climbing mountains, especially on two wheels, seemed both impossible and intriguing.
So, I handed the basketball off to my sons and I let off the brakes. Almost simultaneously, I enrolled in a writing workshop called, “Get ‘er done. Write your novel,” shelved the first manuscript, and started renting a mountain bike from a local cycling shop.
In the process of learning to ride a mountain bike, I lost over 60lbs. I won races and gained strength. But more than anything, I met friends, life-changing friends, and I started seeing the world around me differently. I was writing a fresh new novel and learning a brand-new sport. Writing and riding became inextricably linked.
This confluence of paths, writing Even As We Breathe and becoming an avid mountain biker, put me in uncharted territory. I would become the first member of my tribe to publish a novel, so there were no comparative experiences to learn from, no advisers to call on without dialing long distance. The mountain biking world is sparsely populated by Native women and is notorious for having a “bro mentality.” When I began cycling, there were no other women from Cherokee who were riding consistently enough to mentor me. I cast broad nets in search for community with the hopes that I could one day help to build community on both fronts back home.
During this time, I returned to teaching English at Swain County High School and I rode with friends from work. These women were all older than me (in some cases, a couple of decades older than me) and all balanced children and careers. They consistently kicked my tail. On our rides, we had plenty of time for them to counsel me as I caught my breath. On one such summit, my friend asked me if I was able to think about writing when I rode. I assured her that all I could think about when I climbed was which was louder, my heartbeat or my breathing; but on descents and on levels paths, I could write in my head. We decided I would do that for the last leg of the ride. I did it a little too well, taking my sweet time catching up with them; but it worked. It gave me metaphor. It gave me a whole new writing process.
I started seeing the divots in a path and the way the woods look and feel different every season, sometimes every day. I gained insight from the curves of a mountain and rock patterns in a creek bed. And mind you, I ride the same trails over and over again. I am on a literal path, but the end is not the objective and my personal ride time is not the purpose. I have become more human when caked in mud and laughing with friends as I slip my way down a path in a race to beat the lightning.
I become more human when I meet a rider who has battled cancer and makes no excuses for climbing slow. I am more human when I race with my former student and cheer him on to victory while he cheers me on as well. And writing is nothing if not an exploration of humanity.
When you go on group rides, it is always fun to follow a rider who is better than you. You literally follow their line–as if on that tight rope. You are so close to their back tire that you can’t necessarily see the trail before you the way they can. But you can see the line they take. You can see how they swerve to miss a loose rock or hit a fallen limb straight on without braking. You are propelled into their high lean on a berm or know when to lift from the seat for a descent.
You are watching the rider more than the trail itself. Your body becomes an extension of theirs. And you learn from that. Your body adopts it. It is spellbinding. Perhaps you are even leading the group ride the next time. This is what literary characters can do for you. Take you on a group ride of sorts. Show you their lines.
Consequently, this is the elasticity of empathy and why we write. We provide experiences that give readers insight into the life lines of others.
Yes, I have a whole list of examples to complete this literary conceit. And it is a cheesy one. Super cheesy. But then again, I did take a workshop titled “Get ‘er done,” so it should be expected.
Both practices, writing and riding, taught me the value of surrounding yourself with experts. Whether they be literary mentors and teachers or more skilled riders, we cannot learn in isolation. We will never know our own potential if we do not study the skill of others. And when you do find these exceptional teachers and allies, close your mouth and listen. On a ride, if my mouth is agape, I am going to run out of breath and swallow bugs. If I spend too much time listening to my own self-talk when working craft, I am going to do something very similar.
There is an inherent vulnerability in both riding and writing. So, it is always a good idea to tell someone where you are going. They don’t have to know every turn, but it keeps us from getting lost in the woods for too long. Sometimes it keeps us from giving up too early, afraid of the difficulty ahead.
Pain is inevitable. Wear your scars like a badge of honor. Rejections make great stories. Your ass will be sore at first, but with a little cushion and time (maybe some adapted numbness), you will adjust.
Sometimes you have to tweak your saddle to get a better perspective on what lies ahead. This can mean taking a completely different approach to a topic or considering another voice to the tell the story. What works on one ride doesn’t always work on the next. In a similar fashion, don’t be afraid to explore new trails, new genres. Change gears as needed, not as prescribed. Only you know when you need a different level of resistance.
Most importantly, I have learned the value in being willing to support others and teach so that the community will grow. It will make you a better rider and writer. It will remind you of skills that may have become dulled over time and light that flame that may be merely smoldering.
Getting deep into the work is like getting deep into the woods. It requires you to linger when otherwise the tendency is to simply pass through as quickly as possible. We can bring these extended experiences to our readers by imparting the physicality of a reading experience. We ask to readers to climb with us, but finding a rhythm for them is just as crucial as finding a riding rhythm. No one wants to climb without respite or the promise of an exhilarating descent. And if the descent is too long and too intense, your hands will cramp from squeezing the brake. Squeeze for too long and you’ll careen out of control.
This attention to motion becomes a landscape for literary structure, but also informs line crafting. I love to work a single line over and over in my head as the wheels of my bike turn. It connects the rhythm of the landscape with the rhythm of the words that will eventually be penned to paper. Because it is impossible to write these notes while riding, I am forced to hold the words, the syntax, and repeat the rhythm with each rotation of my tires so I don’t forget them. In doing so, I polish the words until smooth.
I no longer travel to writing retreats without my bike. It has saved me from a blank page more times than I can count. However, a bike is not the only tool capable of connecting the writer with physicality. I know writers who run or play tennis or hike or practice yoga or hunt or fish.
Mostly, I know writers who laugh together—who build community around a metaphorical campfire. They tell stories that leave my stomach aching in amusement. My throat grows sore from long nights of porch-sitting story-exchanges. After only an hour of discussions, my head is heavy with new understanding. A gathering of writers is a bonfire of energy that melds community together. While it may not be Fire Mountain, it is a mountain of fire.
And when I really think about, I believe that is why mountain biking at Fire Mountain has become a craft workshop for me. It’s a forged relationship with place and how that place has made its people. It may be a combustible relationship at times, but one that always gives light to hidden stories.
Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle
Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, a citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, resides in Qualla, NC. She holds degrees from Yale University and the College of William and Mary. Her debut novel, Even As We Breathe (UPK 2020), was a finalist for the Weatherford Award, named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2020, and received the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award (2021). It also is the first novel published by a citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. Clapsaddle’s work appears in Yes! Magazine, Lit Hub, Our State Magazine, and The Atlantic. She teaches secondary English and Cherokee Studies, is an editor for the Appalachian Futures Series (UPK), and serves on the board of trustees for the North Carolina Writers Network.