John Long: What I’ve LearnedJohn Long, original Stonemaster and climbing's most popular writer, spills his guts.
How do you write lightning and a nocturne onto the same page? That’s all a matter of style, which is all that matters. I can’t tell you how to do it—nobody can—but I’ve learned a few things in my 35-year career.
Structure, voicing, characterization and so forth take ages to master, but these are important only if you get some clarity on style. A person gives off a certain sense of being, a visceral feel. In prose writing that aura is called style. It’s slippery, largely intuitive and includes tone, attitude, temper and half-remembered feelings that stick in your throat. And that’s what you have to somehow hack out onto the page.
A writer working strictly from the mind might have polished form, but might never have style. You know when style works or is lacking, but it’s damn hard to define. Music criticism gets us close.
Consider vibrato, pulsating the pitch above and below a given note, a lot or a little, fast or slow. The aim is to add expression (style) to vocal or instrumental music. Vibrato is so common and seemingly so natural that many consider it the mark of a relaxed and mature style. Yet trumpeter Miles Davis, arguably the greatest stylist in the history of bop and post-bop (Cool) jazz, used to play with little to no vibrato.
Another trumpet prodigy, and a former mountain-biking partner, told me that “Taps,” the solemn U.S. Military melody used for flag ceremonies, funerals and “lights out,” is almost impossible to play because you’re obliged to play it straight. No vibrato.
Why does losing the vibrato make “Taps” so difficult and Miles Davis’ playing so iconic? Simple, said my friend. Vibrato covers the inability or guts to play each note straight up, without the mustard and hot sauce typically used to mask one’s lack of emotional commitment to the music. Vibrato is melodic sap, a method of goosing surface passions. To play without vibrato, you must have perfect pitch. And every writer is a torch singer working an audience of ghosts.
About those torch singers. Most critics feel the truest gauge of a singer’s voice is to stick her with a stripped-down ensemble, just a piano, bass and drums. This lack of accompaniment accentuates vocal gifts and devotion, or exposes a frightened poser.
In literature, vibrato might be a showy word choice, info dumping, brainy references, noodling, commentary or wisecracks. For years I used all of these devices, and it took no commitment at all. But to ever embody the resonance of “Taps,” or Miles Davis’ Porgy and Bess, you have to present with that stripped-down ensemble. You have to step up to the mic naked and let rip a riff, played plainly, sans bellowing and doodads and self-absorption. Whatever style you have, that is how you find it. And once you find it, just as they do in poker, you have to write “all-in.” Not easy.
When I first headed for Yosemite, I was 17 years old and had no idea who I was. Then I met Jim Bridwell, de facto lord of Camp 4. From our first route together, I saw how measured “The Bird” was per the whole climbing process. It took a while, but slowly I stopped muscling through things and started noticing life, in all of its dark and dazzling facets. So ran the process of learning to take myself seriously, of appreciating what the hell I was doing, even as the pitches flew past.
Wall climbing helped shake me awake. I’d tie off taut on a tapering ledge. The sun would set as conversations fizzled, both my feet dangling in the silent night. Finally I’d run out of smokes and would find myself forcibly present, marooned half a mile up a rock face. I couldn’t change channels or even change my mind. When I finally surrendered to the granite bench, the parched throat and the whole shimmering clusterfuck, I’d synch up with my life and for the moment experience freedom while being literally tied to a stake. Later, I’d go way out of my way to make the first and second one-day ascents of El Capitan.
But what I most took away from climbing was not velocity, but the capacity to decelerate into my skin and into my life.
My life is paradoxical, full of discord and not-knowing. But there are also moments on the bed in the lamplight, and you want to show up for these because that’s where the paradoxes resolve themselves, where for the time it takes a tear to dry, we taste the open-hearted freedom. And it’s often just a look, two palms flushed together, all the simplest things.
I’m thinking about one time in the Valley, at the tent cabins over in Curry Village. I must have been a sophomore or junior in college. For going on four years, I spent all 90 days of summer break climbing and carousing in Yosemite. I no longer swallowed life whole, just wolfed it down unconsciously, tasting little. But my relations with girls were still Neanderthal—either wham-bam, or erotic wrestling matches lasting so long the poor, beleaguered wahine begged for mercy, getting none. That night in Curry Village everything finally and mercifully changed.
I pushed away to the edge of the bed and admired my then girlfriend, “Roxanne.” Just this once I wanted to savor the whole shebang. Looking at her—21, tanned, fit, spectacularly naked, perfect in the lamplight— I wondered how much more I could expect from life, and I said so. What a line, said Roxy, and I asked, To get what? I already had the girl. And what might better even look like, if it wasn’t Roxanne all over again, tomorrow night? If she knew, she wasn’t telling. We just hung there in midair. Roxanne was eerily silent.
It likely was her first experience of being totally seen—a relief, she finally said, but terrifying. For the moment, we didn’t want anything else at all. But to answer her question, no, I didn’t know who I was seeing, what was happening on that bed, in that tent cabin, in Yosemite Valley. So I said, You better show me.
She placed both palms flat on my chest—there was strong medicine in her hands. Then she leaned her face over mine. Have you ever tasted a tear? She kissed me and said she could only love for a few hours at a time. But what a few hours. Then she laid her head on my chest and we traveled. That might sound mawkish, but the encounter itself was stripped down, like torch singers in that empty bar, singing a melody so fragile it was barely there. These are the moments that make a life. That much I know for sure.
I grew up with a vastly screwy experience of family. Adopted at two days old from a podunk community clinic in Indio, California—then the low desert asshole of Southern California—I was thrown into a cauldron full of people who looked, acted, thought and felt nothing like me whatsoever. Dad was a doctor, Mom was a scholar. Both sisters were brainiacs. I threw rocks at cars and loved to fight Mexicans, who gave me my nickname, Largo, which is my adopted name, Long, in Español. My family was an amalgam, custom-made in America, combining German-Jewish and dustbowl Okie. Years later, when my adoption papers were unsealed, I discovered I was seven-eighths Irish and one-eighth Comanche (easy on firewater, Tonto). Anyhow, I couldn’t have felt more different and disconnected had I washed ashore on a palm frond.
The first true relative I ever saw was my older daughter, Marianne del Valle, 10 minutes after she was born in the Clínica Maternidad Santa Rosa in Maracay, Venezuela. From the moment Marianne squinted out at me, life was never the same. Finally, I belonged. I had sought and found kinship in the climbing community, but blood is different, preverbal and radically robust.
Like the time I was returning to Venezuela and got waylaid in customs over some document, and from the other side Marianne, then 5, dashed under the rope and past customs, through the special thresholds, tripping various alarms and flashing lights, ran up and death locked my legs. The soldiers just laughed. Marianne (nicknamed Grillo, or cricket, for her boundless energy) refused to go to sleep unless I lay down in the bed beside her. Every night I’d tell her to shut her damn trap and get to sawing that firewood and every night we’d spend an hour talking the most extravagant shit in Spanglish and laughing and arguing about everything.
One time Marianne was pissing me off, can’t remember why, and I let my energy get big and I growled out a few words. Bearing down (I outweighed her by 175 pounds), I watched her recoil and her eyes fill with tears. I felt like dying. I grew up around physical violence and I saw all the accrued fear of those years in a face where I usually saw God. That’s when I understood that aggression, if not channeled constructively, will destroy the greatest things. And aggression is always a fallback position against stepping up to the mic naked and open-hearted and telling the unvarnished truth.
Marianne is almost finished with med school now. She was a foreign-exchange student in Germany and is fluent in Spanish, English and German.
Best of all, she’s not afraid of life.
I recall the early days in Yosemite and doing body recoveries, and how we never could talk to death. Words bounced off the prettiest corpse and the bag of bones as well. We saw plenty of both. Death has its own itinerary, listens to nobody and leaves no one behind.
I was on Half Dome with two girls, bivying on Big Sandy Ledge, when I first realized the absurdity of worrying about death. I spent the first hour worrying about how to get the girls out of their knickers. I apologize to the universe for having such thoughts, but I did. They just popped into my mind like grouse flushed from the hedgerow. The girls didn’t suffer these thoughts, at all, so my mind shifted to the next subject over, death, and all those eons before I was born, and how I never gave a shit about missing them all. So if I didn’t care about existing before I was born, why fret the afterwards?
My life seamlessly blends flux with permanence and the unborn. I feel boundless every time I get outdoors and into the wilderness, or jump up onto a rock monolith, which is time in mineral form. I sense the immeasurable every time I pause and note the person on the bed beside me, and on the other end of our rope. I see something surpassing in the faces of daughters and strangers in need, and in the open eyes peering back from the mirror. My brain is only an evolved, evaluating mechanism and filing cabinet, but my soul can step up to the mic or the cliffside and experience the jumbo love that makes life shimmering and doable. Mysteriously, I can strike “a balanced concord with other voices,” which is the reason for the 10,000 forms as opposed to just the One.
But to achieve that balanced concord, I have to play it all-in, because I am, and sans vibrato, because I can.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 193 (April 2011).
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