Writing with my feet (Journeys)

5th December 2015, Saturday

The celebrated author Stephen Alter elaborated on his journey as a writer and the lover of mountains in his session ‘Writing With My Feet’.

Beginning the session with an unusual statement of ‘Writing with my Feet’, Stephen Alter’s witty interaction left a reverberating impact on us as an audience. Mr. Alter spoke at length about his style of writing, what inspired him the most, and what he wished to achieve further. As he began his talk, Alter explained what he meant when he said ‘Writing with my feet’; he spoke about the phrase as explanatory of literary as well as figurative journeys which he had undertaken. “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. Continuing his speech on a positive point, he discussed how setting goals for oneself, retracing journeys and reaching higher goals is what one needs to aim for.

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.  Becoming a Mountain:  Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime (Aleph, 2014) is his most recent work of non-fiction. The Secret Sanctuary (Puffin, 2015) is his most recent book for younger readers.  He has written extensively on natural history, folklore and mountain culture, particularly in his travel memoir Sacred Waters: A Pilgrimage to the Many Sources of the Ganga, which describes a journey on foot along the pilgrim trails of the Uttarakhand Char Dham Yatra.  Educated at Woodstock School and Wesleyan University, Stephen Alter has taught at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, where he was director of the writing program for seven years.  Following this, he 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. Stephen Alter is founding director the Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival, which has brought more than 150 authors, mountaineers, artists and musicians to Mussoorie since 2006.

Nityaasha Foundation