Starting Will Always Be Hard: What Running Taught Me About Writing

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

In April 2002 I started running again after a long hiatus. This summer, I ran in three 5K “races.” I didn’t set any records, finish first, or even win my age group. But it was an accomplishment that I’m proud of nonetheless.

Now, I’m sure that there are more than a few people who upon reading that first paragraph thought, “That’s it?” Yup, that’s it. You see, the idea of entering an event before I knew I could run the entire distance without walking was as much of an anathema to me as the idea of soliciting agents with a half-finished first draft of a novel. I wouldn’t do it. It’s just not the way I operate.

Over the last few years, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I will never do things quickly. I’m a slow runner—it takes me 30 minutes to run 5K, about twice as long as the fastest runners—and I’m a slow writer. I will never churn out three novels a year. Angst and perfectionism are real speed bumps. But that’s okay. It may even be better than okay. When I get discouraged at my pace, I like to remind myself that the tortoise won.

The point is, you’ve got to work with what you’ve got. Other people’s ways of getting to the finish line may appear more efficient, but you’re always going to be slamming up against roadblocks if you try to emulate a way of being that you’re uncomfortable with. Stumble often enough, and you’ll probably quit. It’s human nature.

Background Image: Peyton Smith/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Consider this: the prevailing philosophy amongst the running crowd is that beginners will quit unless they join a group, that it’s impossible to start running and keep it up on your own. Notice I didn’t say difficult, I said impossible. Lots of people really believe that. Lots of people would be wrong.

Like the idea of running with a big sweaty talky group of people who are probably all faster than you? I didn’t. It made me cringe. You just know that someone would be designated to hang back and “cheer” you on because if you’re at the back of the pack that automatically means you’re having difficulty, right? Well, no. Sometimes it just means you’re slow. And then there was the fact that most of these groups seemed to meet at 8am Sunday mornings. Um, no.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve had to deal with a lot of socially ingrained notions about what “good” behavior is. Everyone’s heard tales of people who get up at 5am to write or work out. What dedication! Getting up early is touted as the sign of productivity. Staying up late? Well, that’s merely decadent. Not to mention, you must be procrastinating if you’re leaving something to the end of the day.

Well, I won’t deny that I procrastinate. I do. But that’s beside the point. The point is: Don’t try to be a morning person if you’re not. No, really, don’t. This is huge. If I had tried to be an early morning runner, I doubt I’d have made it a week. I’m stiff in the morning and I need at least one cup of coffee before I’m fully awake. Instead, I usually run in the early evening, before supper. At that time of day, I look forward to it. This is key. The same principle applies to writing. Schedule your writing time so it’s something you look forward to, not dread. You know when you’ll be most productive. Don’t fight it; work with it. Setting the alarm an hour early just so you can hit the snooze button six times isn’t going to get you anywhere.

Now running, being what it is, is subject to the weather. There are always going to be days when the weather doesn’t cooperate. In the summer that means it’s too hot; any other time of year that means it’s too wet. This is the West Coast, after all. And there are days when I think, “Bleh, I don’t want to go out in that.” But you know, shit happens. Deal with it. Running when the weather is inclement is what differentiates a real runner from a dabbler. So it’s hot or wet. Go anyway. Of course there are limits. It would be stupid to run in lightning or extreme heat. Similarly, if you’re sick or injured, it’s okay to take time off. The important thing is that if you do have to break an appointment—for a valid reason, not a mere excuse—you have a plan in place for getting back on track.

Just as a real runner runs in any weather, a real writer writes even when uninspired. If you’ve made an appointment to write, keep your appointment. Maybe all you’ll write is crap that day, but so what? Everyone has bad days. At the same time, if you do miss an appointment, let it go. Don’t dwell on your “failure”; concentrate on making the next one. Developing a routine is great, but even more important is being able recover from an interruption to that routine.

I mentioned dabbling. Before I restarted running, I tried cycling and swimming and yoga and hiking and well, you get the picture. Before I restarted writing, I did much the same thing only with photography and graphic design and such. These things were fun; I enjoyed them; some I was even quite good at. But the problem with trying keep up a multiplicity of activities even when they’re fun and you’re good at them is that ultimately they’re all unsatisfying because you never feel like you’re getting anywhere.

However, sometimes it’s precisely that dissatisfaction that’s the kick in the butt you need to quash your inner dabbler and make a decision. What’s your passion? What do you really want to do? Focusing means putting some of your other activities on the backburner. It doesn’t mean you never get to do anything else. Cross-training is great; it keeps you from being bored, it exercises different muscles. But cross-training is different from dabbling. With cross-training the other activities support your vocation; they don’t overwhelm it.

Once you’ve decided what you’re going to focus on, keep it simple. When I started running, I wore an old pair of shoes, old T-shirt, old shorts. I did not dash out and purchase an entire wardrobe of hi-tech running clothes before I’d lifted a foot. There’s nothing more dorky that the person who’s all kitted out but completely inept. You can start writing with a nothing but a pen and a piece of looseleaf. Or type, if you prefer, but don’t worry about special software; Notepad works just as well as anything to start.

And just as a beginning runner should concentrate on breathing, gait, and pace, not looking pretty, a beginning writer should brush up on grammar, punctuation, and spelling and tell stories in a standard, straightforward format, not waste energy developing her “style.” Once you’ve mastered the basics and proved your commitment, you can add to your wardrobe—or your style repertoire—as necessary.

One mistake that beginners (at anything) almost always make is to set goals that are too lofty. Start small. Set realistic goals, that is, ones you know you can meet. Otherwise, you’re just sabotaging yourself.

When I started running my first goal was to run one minute, walk one minute five times. Doesn’t sound like much, but I knew I could do it. And because I’d planned to run-walk, walking wasn’t a failure; it was part of the plan. Once that was easy, I set a new goal, and so on. I also made it a rule that if I ran one day, I got the next day off.

Which brings me to: schedule breaks. I knew if my initial goal was “run 5 minutes,” I could probably do it, but I’d be exhausted and flopping all over the place by the end. By running in intervals, I maintained my form throughout and I felt a lot better about my performance than I would have if I’d pushed straight through.

If you’ve set aside one morning a week to write, instead of planning to plant yourself in the chair for the entire three hours, plan to take regular breaks, say write for 15 minutes, take a break for 5 minutes. But I’m on a roll! That’s great. Stop anyway. When your break is up, you’ll know exactly what you’re going to write next and you’ll be eager to get back to it.

And speaking of goals: Don’t rely solely on external gratification. Set goals you have personal control over. As a runner, I set goals to run a particular time or distance, not to finish in a particular place. Placing is completely dependent on how others do—you don’t have control over it. That’s not to say it isn’t nice to finish in the top whatever, but take that as gravy, don’t make it your goal. Like I said, my goal in my first event was to run the entire distance. I did, and that’s a big deal considering two years ago running one minute was arduous. Sure it took me a while to get there. But I did, because I set achievable goals along the way.

Achievable goals: Write for 1 hour on Saturdays. Finish this short story by the end of the month. Enter 3 contests this year. Query 20 agents about my novel. On the other hand, “Get my novel published” is not. I mean, yes, of course that’s what you ultimately want, but unless you have a lot of clout, you can’t make someone publish you, and if you’ve set that as your goal, when you’re rejected (over and over) you’re just going to end up frustrated. Whereas if your goal was to send the queries, you can think more along the lines of, “Okay, I did that. What’s next?”

What is next? Well, like my running events, your first brush with publishing is likely to be something small: a story in an ezine, an article in a newspaper. And I’ve noticed that people have a terrible tendency to downplay these accomplishments: “just a little magazine” “just paid in copies” etc. But yeesh, how do you think most writers started? Getting a big advance for one’s first novel with no previous credits as unlikely as picking a marathon as your first event and running it in under three hours. You need the “little” credits. They’re perfectly legitimate and they’re important. Don’t damn them with “justs.”

When I ran in my first event, I ended up right in the middle of the pack. The middle! I’m sure no one has ever been happier to find out she was average. Of course, with running, average exceeded my expectations; with writing, I expect more, but the truth is, whatever the game, most of us are somewhere in the middle—maybe a little above, maybe a little below. That doesn’t mean we should give up. You can be successful without coming in first, without being the best writer ever, without writing the Great [insert country here] Novel. It’s okay to simply be good at something. The current media trend to label everyone who doesn’t finish first a “loser” is ridiculous.

If it matters to you, do it, even if no one else cares or they think you’re silly to keep at something that seems so hard. Running is hard. Writing is hard. But that’s why they’re so rewarding. If they came easily they wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying.

Probably the most important thing that running has taught me is that no matter how long you’ve done something and how much you love it, starting will always be hard. Start anyway. If you don’t, you’ll never get to experience that moment when everything clicks and you’re sailing: your feet are flying across the pavement or your fingers are smoking over the keyboard. And afterward, when you’re done? Well, that feeling is sheer euphoria.

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