My sixteen-year-old, 5’7″ 105-pound son has found his sport: Cross Country. And holy singlets and short-shorts, are XC meets ever fun! We parents stake out our viewing spots at the starting line, then at the crack of the gun, we hold our breath as the mob bursts forth. We cheer and scream, searching for our own fast-skinny sons amid the herd, such a knobby-kneed-and-elbowed wave of boys. The moment our sons sprint past, we beeline for viewing point #2 for our next glimpse of the runners, after which we hustle ourselves–often through mud or a gravel parking lot or even a wooded section of the course, to catch glimpse #3 before we book it to the finish line to cheer our boys into sprint mode.
These boys, faces red and slick with sweat, race wing-footed toward the finish line with burning lungs and heaving breaths. They call it the finish line, but it’s really the starting point, the moment where the runners start to realize just how terribly-awful they feel. After crossing the line, some runners double over in pain or lift their arms over their heads, hoping this will help their lungs absorb unused molecules of oxygen.
At this finish line, the scene is primal. No shortage of body fluid. Some boys puke. Some blow snot or cough up gross stuff. Some nearly cry, and some do cry. Some fall over in a faint, causing the finish line marshals to rush to their aid, moving them to the side of the chute so they won’t get trampled by runners just coming across the line.
It’s a marvel to witness. It’s a torture to run. Or so it seems.
Tell me then, dear son: what makes you log so many grueling miles, day in and day out, rain or shine? What makes you choose a sport so solitary? Sure, you train with your teammates. You race with your teammates. You strategize how you and your teammates can get a good jump at the start, how you can keep yourself from getting knocked down or tripped up in the chaos that ensues at the starter’s gun, how during the race you can form a clump and fight to stay in that clump, silently willing your teammates to stay on pace, to push each other to near-exhaustion, saving just enough juice for the kick at the end, all the while, jockeying for ways to hunt the rival clump that’s six or eight or twenty strides ahead of you. And to stay in front of the rival clump that’s only a few strides behind.
But mostly, you’re on your own.
Some days, do you wish you had the physique for football or baseball, some sport where you’re not so alone? The one you’ve chosen only requires running shoes and tenacity. You run nearly naked, just a thin singlet and such short shorts, hardly anything to protect you from the weather and mud and elbows. I wonder: do you wish you’d chosen a sport with cheerleaders, with pads and helmets?
I really want to know: Why do you run?
After last week’s race, after you catch your breath and wrap your skinny body in a fleece blanket, after you tell me about how you paced yourself, how you knew, even in the second mile that you’d PR, you pause and shake your head. “This is the hardest sport I’ve ever done,” you say. “No one understands how hard it is.”
“So why do you do it?” I ask.
“Not sure,” he says. Then he shrugs. “I guess I love it.”
You, dear WU-er, must see the analogy.
We writers train alone. When we are lucky, we get to train alongside a clump of fellow writers, equally creative and crazy folks who push encourage cheer celebrate empathize alongside us. We write even on days we can’t bear the idea of sitting tush-in-chair, even on days when the weather’s not conducive to writing, when our schedule’s too packed to write, when we’d rather forego early-morning writing and sleep that extra hour before we head to work or wake our children. We write even when non-writers invite us out to do something that’s likely much more fun than wringing story droplets onto the screens of our laptops.
Sometimes we find ourselves in a slump, in a season where we don’t have the time for daily trainings at our laptops. Some days we wish we had never fallen in love with such a grueling task. We wish we had an easier passion: gardening or wine tasting. Maybe pickleball or bridge, something where we’re not so alone in our training. Something that doesn’t require the discipline to sit in solitude, carving stories from a block of what some days feels like steel, and other days feels like under-chilled Jell-O.
But here we are. And here’s the truth. My son doesn’t run a 16-minute 5K unless he trains six days a week. We don’t write a novel unless we return daily to our laptops, determined to log miles and miles of sentences.
Here’s another truth: Even if my son trains every day, he might not finish the season with a 16-minute 5K.
And we might not get published in the way we want or at the time we want, even with the discipline we have.
Nevertheless we persist. Through slumps and tedium. Through emotional injuries and a downpour of rejection. Why? Because the rhythm of a XC runner’s stride, of running shoes on trail and gravel, is the rhythm of our writing, is the rhythm of our fingers on our keyboard, is the rhythm of our heartbeat. There’s nothing like the Flow of a good day of writing. There’s nothing better than needing to write because we need to see whether our protagonist is going to be OK. There’s nothing more wonderfully odd than loving our characters as if they were our own children. We love our characters, the accomplishment of kneading the alphabet into stories. Sure, kneading can be arduous and tedious. And, watching a gluey blob of flour, yeast, and water rise into something so life-giving? Magical.
That’s the tension of both writing and running. There’s the tedium and the magic. The pain and the reward of post-run endorphins.
United States Poet Laureate Kay Ryan captures the complicated feelings of both writers and runners: “I like to run. Actually, I don’t really like to run but I’ve done it for a million years.”
Yes, that sounds about right.
What is my finish line? What 5K time am I chasing? I only know I’m in a season of writerly slump, but only because full-time teaching and family adventures slurp up all but a few of my once-free minutes.
But Thanksgiving break is coming, then Winter Break and Spring Break and summer. And on my breaks from teaching, I’ll get back on the trail. Until then, I’ll happily admire the XC runners as they train in Seattle rain, racing with their shoes pounding through sand, mud, gravel, and grass. I’ll be watching them chase their PRs, inspired by their desire to do something they love that feels so terrible.
What about you? What keeps your fingers racing over the keyboard? What do you do to stay in shape when you find yourself in a slump? Do you have any tips for writers experiencing shin splints or pulled hamstrings?
Thank you for reading and commenting, dear WU-ers.
Photograph compliments of Flickr’s Paul.