Several years ago, I participated in a writing group comprised of differently faculty members from my university. The group went by the rather creative appellation of "The Bachelor Hotel Second Monday Riding Club" (too difficult to explain). While enjoying conveniently strong margaritas, we critiqued each other's fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. At the time I was working on a (different) novel, and I remember remarking to a fellow group member, a poet, that I anticipated at least two more years of work before I finished the book. The poet was flabberghasted, almost physically bothered. Used to working in short, intense segments, he couldn't imagine such a prolonged, sustained commitment to one creative work. The simple endurance of it. "Yes," I said, picking up on his analogy, "writing a novel is like running a marathon." The odd thing is that when I said that I had never run a marathon before. I had read about running marathons. I had hoped someday to run one. But I'd never actually done it. Today, having trained for and completed five marathons, I can tell you that writing a novel is not just like but almost exactly like running a marathon.
I suppose this connection is on my mind at the moment because I am currently training for another go at the St. Jude's Memphis Marathon, which is held every year on the first weekend of December. (I did a 20 mile training run yesterday morning.) But the connection is also on my mind because it's so true. There are stretches in any marathon race when you feel great, when you feel better than you have any reasonable right to expect, when you tell yourself you've never run faster or sounder, when a PR (personal record) is a sure thing. Too, there are stretches in every marathon when you feel numbed and dully achy and vaguely discontented, when it seems so far from the finish and you know the worst is still ahead. And then there are, I guarantee, stretches in every marathon when your legs gams hurt so bad and your feet are so sore you don't understand why in the world you signed up for the race in the first place. You can think of a million other, better ways to spend your morning than running 26 miles. What's the point? you think. Was I insane? A masochist? The end to the torture seems only farther away, not closer, with each step. Yet there's nothing you can do except to keep pushing on through the pain. One step at a time. But too there is a stretch late in every marathon when you realize you will finish, you'll even finish with some muscle tissue intact, and you start to feel much better. Your soreness all but disappears. You feel a surge of new, unexplained energy, along with a rush of relief, pride, and gratitude that is as difficult to describe as it is profound to feel. Your step picks up and, weary legs and all, you fly to the finish. That's why I signed up, you think as you cross the finish line. That's why.
So too with novel writing--and novel revising, such as I'm engaged in now. There are days when I'm amazed at how accomplished, even profound, some of these scenes are. I read them aloud to myself not quite believing that I wrote them. And there certainly are other times when I'm less than sure about a scene but I know I have to keep going, keep pushing on: editing, fixing, cutting, adding. Whatever it takes. Doing what looks like it needs doing and hoping for the best. And too there have been the sloughs of despond: days in which I suspect the project is a mistake, a waste of not hours but whole years of my life. I don't let such suspicions linger. I push them from my mind, or fight them with some useful facts. I tell myself that the novel has been a blessing. I've learned so much about Van Gogh and about Neoimpressionism. I've been to the south of France. I've learned to speak a little French and will eventually speak more. I've had a hell of time taking a real life and make it imaginary. All that's true, of course, but in those moments I'd feel a lot happier if I could be sure the novel will turn out to be the thing I know it can be. Lately, however, as the final shape of the manuscript comes closer and closer into view, I've felt a deep, resonating satisfaction. In many ways this book is exactly what I hoped it could be when I started. In fact, it might even be better. Oh, I'm not done with it yet. Don't get me wrong. I've still got months, more revising, and many crucial decisions, ahead. But I'm feeling a new energy. The end is finally in sight. And I'm sprinting.