Next week, I will run the Bay State Marathon in Lowell, MA, with a goal in mind – run the 26.2 miles in 3 hours, 38 minutes and qualify for the Boston Marathon.
It’s a specific action with a goal so specific I just got chills looking at my watch: it’s 11:38 a.m. on Oct. 9. In exactly one week to the minute, if all goes well, I will be crossing the finish line.
If only all endeavors were so clear-cut.
I started a new novel this month. With marathoning on my mind (I’ve been training daily for four months) I see some resonance between the two endeavors. My marathon training has gone very well. And more importantly, I’m loving it even though the big event – and the big outcome – are still in the future.
What can I learn from this specific, athletic, amateur activity and apply it to the messy, years-long process of crafting a piece of literature?
I’m in it for the long haul
While poems and flash fiction zip by with the speed of sprinters and essays and short stories saunter at the pace of a 45-minute 10K, the novel, like the marathon, requires pacing, dedication and endurance. And you can only commit to so many each year. Or decade.
A daily plan of action* and daily practice turns into incremental progress.
My favorite part of marathoning is my training plan. Every day, I have a pre-planned workout to accomplish. Some are hard, and others are easy. With few exceptions, I’ve ticked these off as planned despite the excuses that raid my brain: too hot out, not enough sleep, getting a cold. In fact, the runs where I overcame an excuse leave me the most satisfied. The marathon itself intimidates me, but I’ve learned to take the preparation one day at a time. And all those workouts are adding up: I’ve gotten faster and more hardy over the past four months.
I can apply this to writing a novel. I have only 30 minutes a day to commit to the book. That’s not much, but if I stay focused and use none of those minutes wondering what I ought to be doing, I’ll build a book a little bit at a time.
I’ve made the most of my running time by wasting no time giving in to excuses, which are often fears in disguise. For me, fear arises at the point where something I want meets the chance of not getting it. Incremental progress – faster miles, more words – is a matter of overcoming fear one day at a time.
The work is mostly conducted in obscurity
Except for my social media post announcing I’d signed up for a marathon and, maybe, the minute I cross the finish line to the cheers of race volunteers and my husband/coach, all of my marathon from first training run to race day will have been conducted in solitude. I’m one of hundreds running along the Charles River on any given long-run Sunday. I’ll be one of thousands in the Bay State Marathon. My novel writing will, I hope, have more company along the way: close writer friends, my writing group, beta readers, readers of this blog. And eventually prospective agents and editors. Still, the daily grind/daily portion/daily joy is going to be witnessed by me, myself and I. And my husband/coach who asks for details of every run and every writing session.
You have to do it for the thing itself, not for the win. However…
Every metaphor breaks down eventually
Running is a sport. One person wins. And in marathoning, I am not that person. Writing is an art; publication is indeed a competitive venture (only so many publishers can put out so many books every year for so many readers) but the point is to create and communicate, not to conquer. Plus, while I only dabbled with cross country in college (doing a few easy runs with the team but eventually walking away because I was scared) I do have an MFA in fiction and my paycheck comes from putting words together.
However, for me, both running and writing are ways of being. Running: what my body wants to do. Writing: what my mind and spirit want to do. Lately, in running, I’ve learned a great deal about letting that desire out of its box and seeing how far and how fast it will go.
Feeling brave and powerful, I’m going to turn the same newfound purpose to this new novel. The main characters don’t even have names yet. I need to learn a hell of a lot about radio broadcasting, opera, Broadway and in-vitro fertilization and maybe even autonomous vehicles. I know from experience (I’ve written two novels, published neither) how long and draining the process can be. I have many reasons to be apprehensive, but many reasons to relish the process.
I said publish, not finish. In many ways, the publishing is out of my control, while the finishing is. However, there’s a zero percent chance I will publish a novel I don’t finish; there are infinitely greater odds that I will publish a novel I do finish. Succeeding in running has taught me to be brave. Learning to be brave has taught me to state what I want out loud, even if I’m terrified it’s out of reach.
I want to run a 3:38 marathon next Sunday.
I want to publish my new novel.
On your mark, get set…
*Winston Churchill’s mother wrote to him, on the occasion of a bad report card: “If you would only trace out a plan of action for yourself and carry it out and be determined to do so, I am sure you could accomplish anything you wished.” Churchill said later, “Continuous effort, not strength or intelligence, is the key to unlocking our potential.”