This week in Women in the Mountains, we sat down with writer and teacher Carolyn Highland, who’s published over 50 articles in print and online. Highland’s new book ‘Out Here: Wisdom from the Wilderness’ is a collection of page-turning non-fiction essays exploring what the outdoors can teach us about the human experience. Joe Connolly photo.
Anyone who's spent time in the outdoors knows that Mother Nature can be an insightful teacher, humbling you through unexpected thunderstorms or moose encounters on the trail. For writer Carolyn Highland, that moment of reckoning came during a sea kayaking program with NOLS. Unpredictable stormy weather turned their month-long kayak into a humbling Type 2 adventure. Finally, after weeks of rain and relentless currents, the sky rewarded them with blissful sunshine. Highland grabbed her pocket-sized notebook to decompress the experience, and the words started tumbling onto the page like a flash flood. She began with a simple but poignant idea: Wilderness equalizes us.
This sentence, and the many that followed, not only comprised her first-ever non-fiction essay but would also inspire her to keep writing. In the eight years since she's penned those words, Highland has amassed a collection of stories exploring similar lessons we can draw from time spent outdoors. Two years ago, she decided to package her learnings all up in a book and recently published Out Here: Wisdom from the Wilderness. The collection of non-fiction essays examines truths gleaned from the wilderness and how they relate to our day-to-day lives. Given that a substantial chunk of the writing is about things we love—skiing, hiking, and camping—we had to learn more. We sat down with Highland to hear more about the stories, and what it takes to get your ideas published.
Could you share a little bit about yourself and your background?
Carolyn Highland: I grew up in Maine and have slowly moved farther West. I studied creative writing in college and have always known that I wanted to be a writer. Since I was seven years old, I've been keeping extensive journals, so it's always been part of my plan to write in some capacity.
But when I graduated from college, I promptly realized that I needed to find something else to support my writing. I got this great advice from one of my professors to not get a job writing if I wanted to write a book. He suggested doing other things and letting those experiences inspire my writing. I took that to heart and pursued my passion for working with children. I ended up teaching English in South America for a while and eventually got my Masters in Education. I worked in Denver public schools for four years, teaching bilingual students. Over time I found myself wanting to do more experiential learning and ended up finding this school in Truckee called Tahoe Expedition Academy and got a job as an outdoor education teacher for 4th graders.
Throughout all this, I've been doing freelance writing since I graduated from college. So I'd say teaching and writing are my two biggest passions when it comes to my career. It's been a cool parallel between the two worlds.
Given the book's big theme about learning, it's interesting to hear how knowledge is such an essential part of your life.
CH: Exactly! I'm really into the whole idea of metaphors, which plays a significant role throughout the book. Primarily dealing with the outdoors, I've always wondered how we can relate these experiences to our daily lives. My brain automatically looks for those parallels, and that's not only useful in writing but for teaching kids, too. For example, I think kids can use the same kind of creative problem solving from a backpacking trip to approach math equations.
Why did you choose to explore metaphors/life lessons in this book?
CH: The book came about in a pretty non-conventional way. I had been writing and publishing these different essays online for some time, and it hit me one day that they kept falling under the same theme. It made sense to me to compile all of them into a collection because they seemed relatable. One story in the book is the dilemma of having to pee in the middle of the night while camping. You know, the internal battle that goes on in your head when you're deciding whether or not to leave your sleeping bag. If someone has never experienced that sensation, they can at least relate to the idea of urgency and putting off something dreadful.
Editors note: you can read the hilarious pee-dilemma saga here.
I think it's just how my brain works. I would be doing something outside and have this kind of "aha moment" because I felt like the experience made for a more important learning lesson. The theme emerged pretty organically, which I think is cool.
What was the process like trying to make a book?
CH: It's been a journey. Publishing a book has always been in my mind but I wasn't sure what kind of book it would be. It was around 2015 when I realized that I had enough essays to have a collection. Two years later, I attended this talk hosted by Steph Jagger, who wrote Unbound, and finally got the inspiration and courage to act on this idea. There was this fantastic panel of women in outdoor media, and I found myself wanting to be up there someday. I thought that this group of women would be interested in my writing and decided to make this idea in my head a reality.
I spent the rest of that year finishing the last few essays and learning that you need to make a book proposal to get published. Despite getting a Bachelor's degree in creative writing, they never told us that. I went through that whole process and braced myself for a lot of rejections. I knew my concept was pretty niche and sent out my proposal for two years. Luckily I'm an endurance athlete, so I was ready for the long haul. Eventually, I sent it to this publisher in Canada that's pretty similar to the Mountaineers Books publishing house based here in the U.S. They were stoked on the idea and I was actually on a backpacking trip when I got the email saying they wanted to buy it. I completely lost it and was so elated.
Great news! The book is available to order here.
Considering that this book was a drawn-out process, how did you pick and choose the different life lessons?
CH: I wanted to write things that would speak to people. I think that my job as a writer is to put experiences into words. I love coming across a piece of writing that articulates something that I've felt and didn't know how to describe.
So I found myself exploring all kinds of ideas. One of the lessons I did was about the Grand Traverse, which is this crazy huge skimo race. The experience was wild, my partner had an asthma attack and had to be evacuated, and it felt obvious to write about that intense experience. So that's a pretty intense narrative, whereas having to pee in the middle of the night is a relatively mundane unextraordinary task. I'm drawn to writing about an experience when I recognize the possibility of connecting that story to a bigger message and audience. You know, this having to pee story wasn't about the most exciting adventure, but that underlying feeling of dread and avoidance is so universal to the human experience.
Whether it’s a story about managing an unexpected medical emergency in a 40-mile ski mountaineering race, or staring down fear and consequences on exposed ski lines in Alaska, each essay featured in the book takes readers on a different physical and metaphorical journey. Joe Connolly photo.
Why do you think writing is such a powerful medium?
CH: I don't think I can answer this question objectively because I love language and words. But, I love describing things in new and exciting ways. I also think there's a lot of power with the things you don't say. Implied moments in writing are my favorite, especially when the reader can connect the dots themselves. Writing is my way of processing life, and I think it's powerful to be able to communicate experiences to people who weren't in that particular moment.
Good writing brings you into that moment and place without having to be there.
Adventure writing can, at times, feel epic and intense, but it's hard for folks outside of that sphere to connect with what's happening. It seems your book tries to be relatable.
CH: Absolutely. Something I’ve thought a lot about in my writing career and my outdoor adventures is that I'm not going to be a professional athlete. I don't see myself competing at a high level or summiting the highest peaks. My goal was to tell stories where the point isn't about getting the fastest time or climbing the highest mountain, but recognize that we all have this connection to the outdoors, and explore what that connection means for all of us.
What's your best advice for aspiring writers out there?
CH: Shit takes a long time. You can't have this expectation that this big goal of yours will be obtainable in like three weeks. The only reason I succeeded in getting this published was that I refused to give up. I made sure not to take rejections personally, and I believed that there was an audience out there and kept going until someone said yes.
I found connections to be super important, and I don't mean simply having them, but taking the time to foster relationships with folks in your industry. I've tried to foster relationships with people like magazine editors, which has really helped me throughout my career.
I don't think creatives talk a lot about the arduous rejections process regarding bigger things like books or films.
CH: It's important to talk about it because if you know that's coming, it's easy to digest that it's not a reflection on me or my work. It's just a tough part of the process. You're going to have to wade through rejections because at some point you’ll find the person waiting for your idea. It sounds cheesy, but I attribute my success in refusing to believe that my goals weren't possible. To put that in a metaphor—because that's what I do—I'm an ultrarunner, and this goal was just another long race. You're going to have moments that suck, and you want to quit, lay down, and eat a pizza. But you're not done yet. If you approach dreams like this, knowing that there will be challenging moments, you’ll ultimately be rewarded with the inexplicable joy that comes from success.
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