This Sunday I finished the White Rock Marathon, which gave me an opportunity to reflect on my two favorite pastimes. I could no more not run than I could not write. If I can't get time on a keyboard or on pavement I feel out of sorts, physically, emotionally and intellectually.
I approach writing and running in pretty much the same way. I don't think I have much talent for either. If the talent fairy came to visit, she probably went to the wrong house. I think that writing and running are activities I can master by practice--seat time in the case of a novel and feet time in the case of the marathon. A marathon is not just 26.2 miles, but more like 400 miles of training. The race is just the culmination. Likewise a novel is not 300 pages, but might be thousands of pages, most of which readers never see.
I've now run eighteen marathons. I haven't written as many novels but I do know that a marathon, like a novel, doesn't get easier with each subsequent one.
Waiting in the pre-dawn cold for the starting gun to go off is like staring at the blank page at the beginning of a novel. There's anticipation knowing what's ahead but also some fear from not knowing what's ahead.
In a novel, you never know what your characters will do or say. Some of them surprise you and inspire you. The same with a marathon. Around the ten mile mark, I passed a man struggling up a hill and overheard him say to his running partner, "Since the stroke, I can't walk very well, but it hasn't bothered my running." You have other characters who make you go WTF? Like that guy in the banana costume. At what mile did he realize it was a bad idea?
It's good to have a plan for a novel and a marathon, but you can always expect the plan to fall apart. You reach a point where the right words no longer come, where every sentence is a struggle and every paragraph sucks. It becomes a fight just to put words on the page. The marathon is the same. For sixteen miles, my plan was working. I was keeping the pace, maintaining my energy, and enjoying the experience. Somewhere between sixteen and eighteen, the plan fell apart. By the time I reached mile eighteen, my hamstring felt like it was tied in a knot that got tighter with every step and my heels felt like someone was driving nails into them. I actually thought about a piece of advice from the late crime-writer Stephen J. Cannell. "Finish what you start." It might be bad, but if you don't finish it, you have nothing. So I finished.
What writer doesn't like word play? Almost every writer indulges in it. But in a marathon? Sure. There was the woman whose shirt read, "Put the run back in drunk." Then there's the aid station at mile twenty staffed by girls from Hooters, itself a crude word play. This one was located intentionally at the start of the most challenging part of the course--a pair of hills known as the Dolly Partons. You'd know why if you saw them.
Writing a novel and running a marathon require sacrifices. You have to spend time alone, away from family and friends. You may have to give up some activities to train or to crank out the pages. You might have to get up early or stay up late to fit everything in. You can't do it without support from other people. My wife gave up some Saturday mornings to provide water on long training runs. She and my kids and came out to watch the marathon. Likewise, with writing a novel. Your spouse and kids give you the time and space to write and will be your biggest fans when the novel comes out.
Why go through writing a novel or running a marathon? Because of the people you meet along the way--people who come to your signing and tell you how much they enjoyed your book or who are proud just to know a published author. In the marathon, there are hundreds of people who give up their Sunday to dispense water and Gatorade. There are neighbors getting together in their yards to watch you go buy, and young kids lining the streets to give you a high five. It makes all the sacrifice and pain worthwhile.