Monday, June 17, 2013
Run, Baby, Run. Write, Baby, Write.
by Amy Franklin Willis
2013, I completed my first half-marathon. That’s 13.1 miles. I am not a runner.
I do not possess the classic “runner’s body”—i.e. all hard, pointy edges of lean muscle and solid compactness. At forty-one, I am round, curvy, soft, fleshiness.
In college I was on the rowing team. But that was twenty years and three children ago. Over the past decade I ran short distances to forestall the middle-age gut intent on wrapping itself around my waist.
As 2012 drew to a close, an ad for the Bay Area women’s running store See Jane Run’s half-marathon featuring Champagne and chocolate caught my attention. Champagne and chocolate are among my top all-time combinations, above Laverne & Shirley re-runs and below “beach cottage.”
When my eldest daughter expressed interest in doing the marathon together, I committed, entranced by visions of us crossing the finish line simultaneously, cue Chariots of Fire theme music. Those visions evaporated in to the mist—discarded next to my fantasies of a perfectly clean and organized home and a bottomless well of maternal patience--when our training runs proved that my fourteen year old ran at a slightly faster pace. In short, she left me in the dust.
For the first half mile, I maintained contact with Georgia, her slender, classic runner’s shape always just ahead in the distance. But then her muscles would warm and her pace would quicken and my muscles would warm and my pace would stay the same and I would have to content myself with a shouted, “Make sure your cell phone is on!”
Two months before the race, we got serious and tackled a nine-miler around Lake Chabot and then a relentlessly boring, unmarked 11.5 mile trail along the Hayward Shoreline—for the first four miles I told myself it was the Cornish coast of England and I was running towards my thatched roof cottage but my rational self caught on quickly and said, that is the San Francisco Bay, Amy, and you are running this trail so you can run the race and not embarrass yourself.
We logged over one hundred and fifty training miles. And during those interminable stretches of aloneness and unpluggedness—running at Lake Chabot offered preening wild turkeys, a great egret surveying the water, and a brush rabbit huddled alongside the trail that distracted me enough not to require pulsing digital beats in my ears—I recognized the singular truth of running.
The only way to fail was to stop.
To cease putting one foot in front of the other.
And, in fact, the only way to rest the burning, fatigued muscles was to run faster, to reach the end more quickly.
Before 2013, I had never run distances longer than three miles but this business of just slogging through, quarter mile after quarter mile, struck me as very similar to writing novels.
Novels are the marathon of the writing world. People, generally short story writers, argue that other types are more difficult and I think this is complete and utter nonsense. Sustaining a coherent and interesting fictional story over the course of eighty-thousand some odd words is a uniquely challenging endeavor not meant for the meek. It takes days, weeks, months, and more often than not, years to get a novel done.
You begin with an idea—a character who intrigues you, a situation that puzzles you, a setting you want to memorialize within a story. The writer has no guarantee she will finish. No assurance the idea can grow and stretch and bear the weight of three hundred pages without collapsing in to the ash of might-have-been stories. One never knows what obstacles narrative will present us. A character who does not perform as the plot requires. A structure that is impossibly complex. An unsatisfying resolution.
In the beginning, the writer can also not anticipate what the outside world will throw at her. She may be diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. She may divorce her spouse. She may lose her job. She may temporarily take leave of her senses. Her children may experience physical or mental crises.
Each one diverts her from the writing. From the story. From finishing.
On race day, the weather report predicted record highs for parts of the Bay Area and, most troubling, no cloud cover. Georgia and I trained in low 70s temperatures with abundant cooling fog. The See Jane Run course was set on the quasi-island of Alameda, a small city attached to Oakland by drawbridges and fragile stretches of land, and thus typically prone to breezes off the San Francisco Bay and the Oakland Estuary.
As I hit the first mile and a half of the race, three truths emerged: in my nervousness, I neglected to put sun screen on either myself or Georgia; the sun appeared intent on burning stubbornly hot and bright for the first half of the course; and lastly, the race was going to be much more difficult than I imagined.
Novel writing is a grind. The only way to complete one is to make the pages pile up. I force myself through this by using daily and weekly word count goals. Printing the pages and seeing their vertical height grow is the only way I know to push forward through the story. It’s the structure I impose on a task that feels all too loose and magic-like, subject to the idle winds of procrastination and despair.
The middle is the worst part. In the race, miles six through eleven felt like twenty. I was beginning to tire—hamstrings pulling ever tighter; multiple water blisters forming on my right foot, disappointment that the course wound through bland office parks and covered acres of steaming blacktop, the sun leaving a swath of my right arm blazing.
Mile thirteen nowhere in sight.
In writing, the middle is where I lose my mind and my faith. It’s the point in the story where everything gets complicated and is not at all like you thought it might be and the ending you originally had in mind is now, clearly, not going to work. The writer may say to herself, What have I done?
And this is the dangerous part. The part where she is most likely to give up. To stop because it has become too hard.
At the start of the race, I found a pacer—a person who carries a sign with the miles per hour pace she promises to keep and who functions as your beacon in the midst of five thousand running bodies trying to throw off your pace. I thought, yes, this is a pace quicker than my usual but surely I can do it. And won’t it be better to run with this group connected to her?
I couldn't keep up. My race pace ended up two minutes slower than my normal training pace. Why? No idea. The heat? Concern about failing to finish?
Around mile seven I settled in to a pace far behind the last of the pace ladies. It was just me and a small Wonder Woman doll tucked in to my belt for inspiration. It was the speed I could manage.
When I hit mile eleven, I rejoiced. I knew I could finish the last two miles. The course curved next to the bay and nearby home owners held hoses over their yards to give runners a cooling mist. A young girl of seven pointed a hose at me and I ran through it grinning, my arms thrown open wide. People held up signs of encouragement as we passed—“U Hella Inspire Me”--and the clang of cowbells rang out. A man in his forties and his teenage son gave me a high-five, yelling, “Finish strong. You’re almost there.”
A novel requires fortitude. And when one passes through the valley of the shadow of the middle, if you can keep going, keep putting one word after another, the end will rise up before you.
If you are lucky enough to have people cheering you as your near it, all the better. If not, you cheer yourself. You see the end coming. You write it. You collapse. You celebrate.
Fifty feet from the finish line I caught sight of my six and ten year old daughters and my seventy year old mother. The long wait finally over, they hooted. They hollered. They jumped up and down. In that moment, the six stinging blisters and the tight hamstrings disappeared from my consciousness, making room for joy.
And then I saw my wife and my oldest. Georgia had arrived fifteen minutes earlier. The “I Ran for Chocolate” medal already around her neck.
Amy Franklin-Willis's debut novel The Lost Saints of Tennessee is out in paperback now. She is writing more and running less this summer.