Note: This craft article was originally published at The Review Review. This is the second in a series of throw-back articles. This one is dedicated to my friend Becky: runner, writer, mom, teacher – sometimes jerk in text messages.
As a runner, I am unimpressive. Slow. Not middle of the pack slow – back of the pack. I shuffle and wheeze. When I picked it back up as an adult, I couldn’t run a full mile. I was inconsistent and sloppy. I was embarrassed at how out of shape I was. I didn’t even want my runner friends to know I was trying.
But I kept with it and years later, I’ve done three half marathons, too many 5Ks and fun runs to count but most importantly, I’m still running.
That same voice that urges me to run also urges me to write. Running and writing both require mental toughness and discipline. They demand practice and dedication. They can be unforgiving. Something inside me has always told me to go, to run, to write.
When I’m at a low point in my writing – say I’ve hit a 26-rejection hot streak, not that that has ever happened! – or I feel overwhelmed by a project that once excited me, I run. When a story isn’t coming together, I hit the road. When my internal editor decides to get a little nasty and all I hear is, “You can’t do this. No one can possibly do this,” I remind myself that I do hard things every time I go running.
Runners Run – The only qualification you need to be a runner is that you must run. Likewise, if you want to be a writer, just write. Publications, awards, connections – none of those things matter. Call yourself what you are. Define yourself.
Run the Mile You Are In – When I start running, if I think, “Ok, five more miles to go,” I don’t think I’d bother to start. So, I break the run down into smaller, more manageable pieces. I run that first mile, live within that first mile. I don’t anticipate future pain or the enormity of what is before more. Then, I do the next.
Writers think big, it’s our nature. Big ideas get us excited. And, then, those big ideas can start to feel impossible. But what if we just run the mile we’re in? Write the first the line or first scene. Runners and writers are at our best when we let our goals build organically, muscles pumping at a steady tempo. That first line leads to the second and then the third. The first scene blends into another and another until you are home.
You Don’t Have to Go Fast, You Just Have to Go – When I start a run, I usually go a little too fast because I’m excited or too ambitious or, let’s face it, over-caffeinated. I have to tell myself to relax. Find the rhythm. Let go. If I don’t relax, I tire myself out. I might get hurt or discouraged. If I thought I was in a race with every other runner, I just wouldn’t run.
I don’t have to be the fastest runner. I don’t have to be the best writer every single time, either. What does that ever mean? My writing feels the most successful when I focus on my own internal rhythm and relax into it. I remind myself that not every run is a race and not every single thing I write will be published. I trust the maintenance runs to keep my muscles strong and writing is no different. Excellence doesn’t just show up, we have to practice. Even on days we don’t want to. Even when it’s hard. Especially on those days.
Reaching the Magic Mile – If you write every day, chances are good that most of what you write will not be wonderful. But, that’s normal. That’s what revision is for. Nine times out of ten, the things I write come painfully and slow – similar to my runs. Growing is a painful process but we don’t grow as writers unless we put in the maintenance.
Here’s a secret you may already know: something amazing happens on that tenth time – we reach the magic mile. You know what I mean. That day when all your efforts align with the right circumstances. Your internal elements match the external elements and everything just works?
Those days, running comes easy. I can go on for miles and miles and never feel pain. I don’t get tired. The weather is glorious. My legs are strong. My form is suddenly, miraculously, perfect.
In writing, reaching the magic mile feels like your muse has returned. Something foreign is born within you. You write something new and wonderful and it feels like you are a vessel that is being filled by something else. Someone else.
This muse is not supernatural. She isn’t some magical deity. She is you. She is all your hard work and maintenance and all those external elements finally working together. She is the result of your writing muscles knitting themselves into stronger tissue.
It Doesn’t Get Easier, You Just Get Stronger – Remember, not every time you write will feel like the Magic Mile. But over time, the more you practice, the stronger and faster you will feel. But the work never gets easier. When I run the same hill for the sixth week in a row but suddenly feel strong enough to tackle it, it isn’t because the hill has gotten smaller.
The more you write, the more likely it is that you’ll reach that Magic Mile. But as a bonus, you’ll see improvements and gains in your daily maintenance writing. Editing gets easier. You won’t worry about cutting stuff that isn’t working. You’ll feel more confident. Creativity comes quicker. You’ll start submitting more and publishing more. You’ll find yourself moving from the middle of the pack to the front where you belong.