Sunday, July 17, 2022

Running in the Dark

Jogger running at night
This is a much nicer night run
than you get in a shed.
For my first 5K I trained mostly indoors. My apartment complex had a small fitness center that wasn’t much bigger than a garden shed, just large enough to fit a couple of treadmills, an exercise bike, and an elaborate weight machine that offered a full body workout to anyone smart enough to decipher each of the stations.

My retail job kept me working odd hours, and I was never a morning person, so a lot of my training runs happened at night. The fitness shed offered a quiet place to practice that didn’t require me to run along the side of the road. It was dull, and repetitive, and awfully quiet. I don’t know how many other residents used the fitness shed, but I almost never saw them at night.

Once I got my routine down pat – thirty-minute sessions to cover three miles – I decided it was time to run my first race. Something official, the kind of race that costs money and requires registration and would give me a definite rank.

I found a calendar of events online and picked the one that was coming up soonest, a fundraiser for a cause I no longer remember. The race started in a park then ran along a canal before it circled back to the starting line. My pace was slower on pavement than it was on the treadmill, but I at least finished the race without pause. When it was over, I got my complementary banana and bottle of water, then I drove myself home.

It wasn’t the kind of thing that calls for much fanfare. I didn’t ask my family and friends to come watch, or to cheer me on from the finish line. It would have taken them longer to drive to the park than it took me to run the whole race. My girlfriend was already at work when I got home, so I took a shower and then laid on the couch. Maybe I watched some TV.

So at first blush, this does not seem like core memory fodder. I’ve since run half-marathons and obstacle courses, and while nobody would envy my performance those races are at least notable. I ran them with friends, had family show up, and went out after to celebrate.

But in my personal canon? Of the runs that really mattered, the runs that I now mark as milestones, that first 5K is at the top of the list.

*

When I was twenty-one, I wrote a novella. It wasn’t my first – I’d been working on longer form stories for a while, trying to work my way up to a novel. But this was the first one that worked.

I couldn’t tell you why. It was written after a break-up, so maybe writing gave me something to focus on, but for the first time I could kind of see how it was done, how you could maintain the words of a story over seventy pages and how the right narrator with the right problem could help you sustain it. Though I’d written novellas before, this was the first one I shared with a writing group, the first one I thought might be worth someone’s time.

Six years later, I finished revising a novel. By that point, it wasn't my first, but with this one something was different. I could see how the pieces fit together, how a finished draft could help guide your revisions. Somehow, with this novel, editing a 70,000-word story felt like a challenge instead of a chore. Diligently, I edited the book until I had my first polished draft. But it wasn’t right for submission.

Last year, I sent a novel to agents. It was a polished draft of a book I’d worked over and over again to make it the best that I could. Throughout the submission process, I A/B tested query letters and tracked agents on a spreadsheet and worked my way through an entire copy of The Writer’s Market. I collected a lot of rejections, a couple small nibbles, but not a single acceptance.

What do these three pieces – the novels and a novella – all have in common? Two things, really: They were not published. And yet, for me, they were milestones.

*

Sometimes I think I talk too much about failure on this blog. Writing, after all, is entirely optional. Nobody’s making me do this, and no one would care if I stopped. If I’m going to be all doom and gloom about it, why bother? If it doesn’t make me happy, why do it?

The most honest answer is that I love writing. And like any love that lasts past the honeymoon stage, it’s not always kittens and rainbows. A big part of writing is trying to maintain intrinsic motivation in the face of worldly indifference, not just to your failures but even to your success. If you’re looking for recognition or validation out there, you’re not going to find what you need. It’s a cup that will never fill up.

Yeah, yeah, sure, sure. Everybody knows this stuff intellectually. I’m not exactly breaking new ground by suggesting that writers should focus more on the work and less on results. That’s a theme that’s as old as the Bhagavad Gita, territory well-trod by the Stoics. I can’t say I’ve got much to add.

But putting those ideas into practice is a real motherfucker. That's why I write about failure. “Focus on the work and not the results” sounds good until you’ve collected your hundredth rejection. Then it's back to square one, as they say, except you ain’t getting younger, so you’re actually on square thirty-nine and still have nothing to show for it.

So, like I said: at this point, the honeymoon’s over.

*

To commit yourself to anything is to run in the dark. It is to accept, over and over again, that the work may never be seen. While you’re putting down miles in the fitness shed, it feels like the rest of the world is doing more sensible things, and having more fun. What keeps you going, then, step after step?

If I write about failure a lot on this blog, it’s because I keep asking myself these questions. But it’s not hard to find people with answers. There’s a whole cottage industry of gurus and life coaches and creative advisors eager to offer you help. (Your first answer is free. The rest are by monthly subscription.) A lot of this advice isn’t any more or less sophisticated than Nike’s “Just do it,” which itself can be read as a simplified version of “focus on the work and not the results.”

Except, that’s not entirely right. “Just do it” was inspired by the last words of a death row inmate who was eager to get his execution over and done with. You can hear the impatience in the motto, feel the tug of frustration. They’re the words you mutter as you sit on the couch in your running shoes, scrolling through Facebook instead of driving to the gym. Get up. Get up! The sooner we start the sooner we’ll be done. Because, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, you might hate running, but you love having run.

*

The first time I trained for a half-marathon, my long-distance runs coincided with NPR's pledge drive. Somehow it worked. Somehow, listening to volunteers urge me to donate to my local affiliate station was a better soundtrack for running than any of the music I had.

When the pledge drive ended, I switched over to podcasts, the longer the better. I discovered that if I’m trying to put in ten miles, a three-hour rambling interview beats a curated Spotify playlist every time.

I can’t tell you why this works for me, but I can tell you what it feels like: It feels like sinking in. To run ten miles requires surrendering myself in a way that a three-miler doesn't. For a three-mile run, you can put on fast music and pick up your pace and try to get it all over quickly. That doesn’t work for a long run. Ten miles will always feel long, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Even fast music won’t help.

Lately I feel like I’m writing in sprints. Five hundred words here, five hundred words there, wedged into the rest of the day. Quick bursts, just to keep up the habit and complete a shitty first draft I know I’ll be cleaning up later.

Five hundred words, let’s just get this done, and then I’ll start working on dinner. It’s hard to sink into a fictional world when you’re in that kind of headspace. The words on the page stay inert. You’re not thinking of the result, but you’re not in the work, either. You’re somewhere else, a middle ground where “just do it” means “just get it over with.”

As creative ground, that’s not especially fertile. But as existential ground – trying to find the “why” that keeps you at work with no hope of external reward – this kind of thinking is death.

*

You know what a broken-hearted twenty-one-year-old has in abundance?

Time.

I took time when I wrote that novella. The story was a place I could go, a “somewhere else” when I didn’t want to be around people. I took time with those novels, too. For different reasons, maybe, but both in writing and in the revisions I gave myself the time to sink in for the long stretches needed to spark the “vivid and continuous dream,” as John Gardner calls it.

Lately, I realize, I haven’t been doing that. Maybe I’ve gotten too gun shy, maybe I think too much about failure, or maybe life’s just gotten busy. Probably, if I’m being honest, it’s a combination of all the above. But as I’m asking these questions about motivation, and about how to focus on the work and not the result, I wonder if that's a kind of estrangement. If the question itself isn’t so much something to answer as it is the symptom of not being sunk in the work.

Because I don’t know if you can argue yourself into finding your “why.” But if you keep on in the dark, taking step after step, the answer may find you instead.

Clearing Things Up

We're in the process of moving. It's going to take us a while, but as a part of all that I've spent the last few weekends trying...