Monday, November 5, 2012
Just over a week ago, for the fifth year in a row, I ran the Soaring Wings Half-Marathon. It raises money for a good cause, an institution that takes in troubled kids and tries to give them structure; it also is quite a challenging course and the only race of its distance in my hometown. I can't not do it. And I'm happy to report that for the fifth year in a row, I met my goal: to finish in under two hours. I even ran faster this year than last! (Okay, so it was only 35 seconds faster, but 35 seconds is 35 seconds!) I'm also happy to report that I managed to finish in the top 25% or so, better than usual for me. This is not to suggest I am a fast runner. No one's ever accused me of that. Fact is, I don't have a natural talent for speed. What I have, instead, is a talent for Keeping Going. Maybe talent is the wrong word to use here. Let's say a disposition--or simple thickheadedness. Which is why the longer the race, the better I tend to do relative to other participants. The longer the race, the more attrition and exhaustion sets in. Inevitably there are runners who don't train well enough for the distance, or who set out in too fast a pace, or whose bodies just aren't up for it that day. You see them walking along the side of the course, hands on hips, head bowed, their faces washed in pain and frustration. Then there are those who simply have the mid-to-late race realization that a) This hurts, and b) I am doing this to myself voluntarily, and thus c) Why don't I just stop? Oh, I can sympathize, believe me. I don't think there's any normal mortal who's ever run a marathon or half-marathon (well, especially a marathon) who hasn't had those thoughts. But so far at least, I've never listened to them. If I start the thing, I'm going to finish it. You just keep going.
I'm set to teach a course next semester called Novel Writing Workshop. The semester's theme and the semester's process will be: Keep Going. I won't be expecting masterpieces from my students, just finished drafts. That is, drafts of novels that meet the word count requirement I set for them. They won't have time for existential crises related to writing because they will have to get a certain number of words down each week. And the next week. And the next. I'm convinced, after several years of teaching, including teaching some truly gifted people, that what keeps students from achieving their dreams of becoming novelists isn't a lack of talent or a lack of good ideas or any sudden short circuiting of their imaginations, or even the business of life; what stops them is an inability to just keep going. Keep going despite the fact that you have other schoolwork to do or your job is calling, despite the fact that you're not sure anymore where your damn book is headed, despite the fact that you don't even like your characters anymore, despite the fact that you suspect this just might be the dumbest novel ever, despite the fact that your favorite movie is on tv or your laundry needs folding or your best friend just suggested dinner out or maybe a weekend romp to Fayetteville. Despite the fact that far from feeling inspired you'd rather be doing anything else than sitting in front of a computer hacking at your amateurish story. Yes, well. Welcome to the writing life. My advice to my students next semester? Keep going. You can't know what you have until it's actually done. Then you can curse at it all you want. Until then, under threat of a F grade, don't you dare stop. (Here's the thing, though: It may actually be a lot better than you think.)
Learning to write even when you don't feel like it, learning to see every writing session as just another one down, another day's work done, may be the hardest but most necessarly lesson for any student writer. I don't know about you, but I've never heard a writer on the radio say, "I only write when I'm inspired," or, worse, "I can't write if I'm not inspired." I've never heard one of the writers who visit my campus say that. Never. What I hear writers say is that they try to make writing a ritual, something as normal to the process of their day as brewing their morning coffee or brushing their teeth. When I was an undergraduate, one teacher insisted that not only should we write everyday but that we should write at the same hour everyday. Over time, her theory went, your body will get used to being creative at that given hour. It will become easier and easier to slip back into your story, even if just before sitting down at your desk your mind is AWOL, three thousand miles away, or simply stressing over the electric bill. This makes perfectly good sense to me now; and given that most people--like most animals--are more habitualistic than they realize or care to admit, Making Writing a Habit is the single most useful way to Keep Going.
A last thought: You can't get too taken up in your good days either, those times when you put down a great scene or a great paragraph or a great chapter. Okay, so pat yourself on the back, give yourself whatever compliments you need, but finally that day's work--or that year's work--is just another day down. When the next day comes, you have to be ready to work then too. Keep Going, remember? I recall something another teacher of mine said. This was years later, in graduate school. He said that it's really hard to be too proud of a book you've just published, because by the time the book comes out and you start on a book tour, reading excerpts to admiring audiences, six months to a year has passed since the thing was finished. Since then you've started your next book, and what's on your mind isn't how great is the book you've just published but all the problems you're having with your current one. He described this as a kind of useful humility. Yes, it is that, but it's also a revelation of a working writer's credo: Every project you successfully complete is just another one down. And then it's on to the next.
After my better than expected showing in the Soaring Wings Half, I gave myself the next day off, but on Monday morning I was out there on Prince Street, shuffling--very sorely--through my usual daily trek. Saturday's race was down; but there was always next year's to prepare for. I had to get going.