This is the question the writer Varlam Shalamov asks and answers in his tale, Through the Snow*, based on his experience as a political prisoner in the infamous Kolyma gulag.
‘One person walks ahead, sweating, swearing, and barely moving his feet. He keeps getting stuck in the loose, deep snow. He goes far ahead…(selecting) points in the snow’s infinity to orient himself – a cliff, a tall tree. He steers his body through the snow in the same fashion that a helmsman steers a riverboat from one cape to another.
Five or six persons follow shoulder-to-shoulder along the narrow, wavering track of the first man. They walk beside his path but not along it. When they reach a predetermined spot, they turn back and tramp down the clean virgin snow which has not yet felt the foot of man. The road is tramped down. It can be used by people, sleighs, tractors. If they were to walk directly behind the first man, the second group would make a clearly defined but barely passable narrow path, and not a road. The first man has the hardest task, and when he is exhausted, another man from the group of five takes his place. Each of them – even the smallest and weakest – must beat down a section of virgin snow, and not simply follow in another’s footsteps. Later will come tractors and horses driven by readers, instead of authors and poets.’
Shalamov knows how to tell a story, but here he gives us something even more precious - a most eloquent way to describe how a writer and his writing become mainstream.
*from Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov (translated by John Glad)