Last weekend, for the sixth time in seven years, I ran the St. Jude Memphis Marathon. The day was cold, but the race went well--for me and thousands of other crazy people who pay money to put their bodies through 26.2 miles. (An even larger number put themselves through 13.1 miles.) Out there on the road for 4+ hours, you have a lot of time to think, and you try not to think too much about how sore you're getting, although it's hard to think about much else once you get to mile 20. (Well, that and "Where is the next #%*!&* mile marker? Shouldn't it be here by now?") Another thing you try not to think about is how much longer you'll be out on the road. For this is the strange, or maybe not so strange, thing about running long distances: If, in the middle of the race, after already running way farther than most sane people ever will, you allow yourself to think "My God, I'm going to be out here for 2 1/2 more hours," you'll lose heart. You might even stop. So you simply can't put it that way. It's probably not wise either to say "Well, 15 more miles to go." The best thing to do is say "Okay, that's mile marker 11. 12 in a little bit." Or: "That's mile marker 22. 23 in a little bit." You get the idea. By not letting yourself confront exactly how much more is ahead of you, you don't stop--and you eventually get there. This is true about my training runs as well. I never ever like to tell myself that I'm heading out into the darkness of a November Saturday morning to run for 4 straight hours. It's a lot more comfortable to think that I'm going to run 20 miles. Or, even better, that I'm just going for a training run.
But here's the thing. It's not just trickery. By not thinking about it, by living inside it, you keep time at bay. You melt it. You bend it. Dare I say, you defeat it. By the time you finish the marathon, it never really does feel like you've been on the road for 4 and a half hours. Yes, the race started at 8:00 and it might be 12:30 at the finish, but it simply hasn't felt that long. Because you've been so busy inside your mind, tending to the business of holding soreness and all those bad thoughts away, substituting any and all thoughts of another kind. Yet there you are at 12:30 with a shiny medal newly hung around your neck and grinning with relief. (See me above.)
And--I'm sure you've seen this coming--how true this is about working on a novel as well. Heather Sellers, a writer and writer-about-writing whom I admire, recalls in her book Chapter After Chapter hearing from so many people who feel like they have to get their books done now. Because time is running out. Because life is running out. Because they have to finish so they can get it to an agent. Or to a publisher. Or to a competition. Or because they are just sick of working on it. But, Sellers suggests, the problem is that many of these people are finishing before they're finished. They are like marathoners who quit at mile 20 because they can't face another hour on the road. Instead of speeding up, Sellers advises, slow down. Be patient. Take all the time you need to get it right. Because you have all the time in the world.
Sellers' advice is so comforting because it's so true. When I started my Van Gogh project I did not anticipate that it would take me 4+ years to complete, although I didn't anticipate a short cruise either. I knew what kind of time and effort novels demand. Mostly, I didn't think about time at all. That was my way of dealing with it. I stayed focused on the work at hand, which on any given day might mean reading more about Paul Gauguin or getting that crucial childhood scene down in my notebook or typing a handwritten draft of a scene into a Word file, or--as now--nailing down some last necessary and crucial revisions. I kept my head down and my shoulder to the wheel; one day I looked up to realize 4 years had gone by. But they really didn't feel that long. Those years feel like mere weeks in retrospect. I know I'm not unique in this regard. This is just the working novelist's experience of time. And, best of all, at the end you've got a finished book to show for it, which is an even greater satisfaction than a big fat marathon medal.