How a Terrifying Experience Led to a Great Story


(Mark Mainolfi) #1

Mark Mainolfi has a college degree in English and Creative Writing, and is a master’s candidate for TV Writing and Producing.

I’ve never been a terribly outdoorsy person, but I’ve always been one to enjoy forest hikes and rock climbing. When my club in undergrad was going on it’s annual camping trip, as the club’s president I felt that I should go too. I had never been camping before, but I decided a couple days of hiking would be a lot of fun. Turns out, I really only enjoy hiking if I get to go home afterward.

During one of our hikes, we made it to the end of the trail and split up to explore the area. When we regrouped, one of the girls had not come back yet. When she finally showed up, she had a strange look about her. Not in a bad way, she just looked pensive and a bit eerie. Another guy in the group noticed this, and remarked that she looked as if a monster killed her and shape-shifted into her image. For most, this was a passing remark that no one remembered after the initial laughs. But as the writer of the group, this was the start of a story I would be putting together in my head for the rest of the trip.

The girl who’s look inspired this story. Photo by: Emily Moy / Model: Emily Lord

A few things made this trip horrible for me, especially when trying to sleep. It was a cold, wet, rainy night. With all of the layers I had brought with me cocooned around my body, I still shivered through the night. The sounds of trees surrendering to the wind constantly jarred me away from any shut-eye I could hope for. But that night, even when I was wallowing in this misery, I was happy to be away from what had just happened before bed time. I was grateful to be alive after what was the most terrifying experience of my life (and the climax of the story I was still writing in my head).

The dreadful experience I underwent was dubbed the “night hike” by our group’s guide (one of our members actually worked at this forest). What possessed me to go on this peregrination still eludes me to this day, but what was the worst that could’ve happened? My first warning should’ve been that we were told to leave all flashlights at the camp. In any case, our guide, three others, and I then began a long walk through a winding road during which we were instructed not to talk. I was in the back of the group, with my pocketed knife gripped tightly in my hand, constantly looking back at the severe darkness that seemed to inch closer and closer to me.

As we continued our silent march to the night hike, which hadn’t even started yet, the sky began to flash with silent lightning from the distance. The wind started picking up, and soon it was howling through the trees. The trees began swaying and whispering-- the forest itself seemed to be coming alive. My only comfort through all of this were the silent notes I was taking in my head, which I knew I would turn into a story if I got out of this experience alive.

Finally we arrived at the beginning of the night hike-- a small opening in the trees-- and received the most dreadful of all the instructions we were given yet. We were each to make the trek through the night hike alone.

My objections were silenced, and I seemed to be the only one that found issue with this prospect. Our guide would be the last person to enter the hike, the rest of us were simply supposed to follow the trail… this trail being more of a slight implication of what might be a trail. When it was my turn (I went second), I gripped my knife and my smuggled flashlight in each hand, and did my best to follow the pitch black route.

At this point the storm was daring us to stay apart as long as possible. All around me I could hear branches and full trees breaking and falling in the not-so-distant distance. Not using my flashlight except when absolutely necessary, the only illumination came when the forest strobed lightning that was starting to become audible. I knew at any moment I could be swept away by a flash flood, knocked out by a falling branch, or lose the trail and sentence myself to an entire night unprotected from the storm.

I’m going to take this moment to say that, while I believe many of my fears were justified, I know I might be acting a bit overdramatic. I’m guessing that most of you would also be scared in this situation, but I’m sure there are a few veteran campers who are scoffing at my cowardice. To this, I say that I’m a city boy, so don’t expect much (and you’d be stupid if you wouldn’t be at least a little scared if you were me).

In any case, I eventually made it to the end of the adventure, outrunning the flash floods, dodging any falling trees, and somehow not losing the trail. I suffered through the rest of the night, taking notes and reflecting on everything I had just experienced.

The next semester, I ended up turning this ordeal into a short story for my creative writing class. It was complete with a shape-shifting alien, a terrible storm, and rushing through the forest at night with people dying. I revised it for the class, did a complete rewrite over the summer, and ended up submitting the story with my application to graduate school in television writing. I was accepted into the program, and I’m now in the process of turning this story into a TV show pilot

In all the writing I’ve done, I’ve had the most fun with this story. It’s been very successful, and has led to something bigger than I ever thought it would. Just a couple hours in a forest for inspiration, and I have enough story to fill out a TV season.

It’s easy to think of writers as people who stay holed up in their home writing non-stop, but many actual writers will tell you that makes for very poor inspiration. For a writer, the silver lining to any bad event in life is that you can turn it into a good story. Ever run into writer’s block? Try something new or dangerous or stupid, it might just give you exactly what you need for your next story.