Editor note: I wrote a similar post years ago. Recently I polished it up a bit to include in a writing workshop submission. I’ve recently taken leave of my job as publisher of the Advocate Magazine in Dallas, where I worked almost 10 years, in order to 1. Help take care of some family members who need me. 2. Work on independent writing projects, including a book. Don’t roll your eyes, haters; I am writing a fucking book. I’m also going to run a 50 miler in February and attempt 100 by the end of the year. (I’ll also get back to writing on this blog, hopefully with an updated look soon. (My job, though I loved it, left absolutely no time for pleasures such as writing about running.)
So, anyway, here’s the essay.
On writing and running
My heart hammers, demanding release from my body, all of its limitations. This poor heart, captive in here some 40 years, never knows what fresh torture awaits.
My muscles are shredded, porous, sponges soaking up lactic acid, slowing my stride. Heat ignites a fire, an inferno now, in my belly. Flames lick at my esophagus.
I need an antacid. I need water, Wait, no. I am going to throw up. But, I’m so fucking thirsty. Have I ever been this parched? My feet. There they are down there, throbbing. Blood. Is that blood on my shoe? Yep — seeping, spreading like a crimson firework in slo mo. This hurts. What am I doing? Why? I chose this. I choose this. What compels me? I might die today.
What was it Orwell said … something about a “horrible exhausting struggle, like a long bout of a painful illness …”? Yes. Yes. His words enter my sizzling brain. “One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
George Orwell meant writing a book, of course.
Were he a distance runner, he might have said the same about that inexplicable compulsion.
What are writers so desperate to expel from inside? What is the runner chasing? Evading?
If Orwell cannot figure it out, my ruminations are of little use.
So I just keep moving, into the agony. With a smirk, it welcomes me, as a dominatrix welcomes a masochistic client, the one who wants to leave bruised and beaten and “surf out of the session on a wave of pain and endorphins … with this beautiful clarity of focus born of the extreme sensations [she] causes.”
(Source: Violet Fenn at Metro magazine, “Why do people visit a dominatrix? Men explain the appeal.”)
I have a story idea. Someone has done something remarkable. I want to tell the tale well. I long to make the reader feel what I feel — the admiration, the inspiration, the wonder or frustrations I experience when I extract answers, those bricks I will use to construct narrative.
But for hours, sometimes days, after interviewing the extraordinary someone and his family, acquaintances or adversaries, I stall.
I think about all the ways to convey the story, but I am inept.
It is beyond me, molding profound ideas into words that will make you appreciate it, understand it, the way you must.
If I fail to adequately astound the reader — I fail those who so generously gave to me their thoughts and quotes and ideas. Sometimes they cry. Blessed be the criers, the honest, the raw. I mean, I really love them. Even if I meet them once, they live in me forever.
The teenager who took his 6-year-old sister to a playground at their apartment complex where — while he shot hoops on the adjacent basketball court, like usual — she was abducted and murdered. How he has fought to tip the scales of justice in his family’s favor ever since.
The 50-year-old lawyer, journalist and “Matlock” enthusiast who, after a year in Ethiopia’s most deranged prison, fled with his family — each of them brilliant, like him — to the States, where he now delivers pizzas to apartments in northeast Dallas.
You deserve so much better than I can give you. Epic Fail. It’s what the kids say, or used to say. Epic Fail. Epic Fail. [You are an] Epic Fail.
I fret and bite my nails. I pick at my skin, gnaw my lower lip and cheek, and pull out strands of hair. I stare out windows and at screens. The weight of my weakness exhausts me. Coffee.
Nothing to it. Sit down at your keyboard and bleed, to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway.
Eventually I start typing. I hate every goddamn word. I delete and write. Delete and rewrite. Delete. Delete. I delete so much that the “delete” key on my computer pops off.
Then after minutes or hours of struggle, I pluck out a sentence that pleases me. Then a second. These first two sentences give me confidence and I fall into a rhythm, writing sentences. (“As word got around, other renters — some who knew the child and her family and still more who did not — emerged by the dozens from their units to join the search.”)
I have a page full of words on the screen, I still write bad sentences, but they don’t torture me, because before them stand good, proud sentences — proof that I am capable of good, proud sentences.
I recognize and banish bad sentences. I correct my form and finish strong. That is, when things go my way.
Except sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the rhythm evades, or it is interrupted by the awareness that there was a hole in my planning. A question I forgot to ask or an angle I overlooked until it was too late. Then I have to go back. Sometimes I have to rework everything. Under deadline, I don’t have time to make things better and I publish an unsatisfactory story. Incomplete. Inadequate. Or worst of worst: Good Enough. Not bad enough to KILL altogether, but when presented to an audience it hangs its head, knowing it could have done better.
Who else realizes the piece didn’t live up to its potential? It doesn’t matter. It eats at my ego. I cringe when I look my words on the page.
But when it all goes perfectly — when I plan properly and the words, after the inevitable early hell, flow and I finish strong and the critics say, “Good Job” — then comes the high, the reckoning.
Only those who can endure being intensely uncomfortable for long periods of time will ever know this particular reward. It requires a heightened tolerance for punishment and relentless pursuit of the thing that exists on the other side of the pain, the kind of pain most people don’t know anything about, with apologies to Barton Fink.
Fink, the Coen brothers’ tortured writer, says something else about pain: “I’ve always found that writing comes from a great inner pain,” he says. “Maybe it’s a pain that comes from a realization that one must do something for one’s fellow man — to help somehow to ease his suffering. Maybe it’s a personal pain. At any rate, I don’t believe good work is possible without it.”
(The conversation ends with another writer’s equally sensible take: “Waaal, me? I just enjoy maikn’ things up. Yessir. Escape. It’s when I can’t write, can’t escape m’self, that I want to tear m’head off and run screamin’ down the street with m’balls in a fruitpickers pail.”)
My dependence on running — traversing long and longer distances in increasingly shorter timeframes — looms in the same psychic place.
Pain announces itself in the early stages of focused training. Sweat in the eyes. Legs like lead. Nausea. Pounding heart. Lungs afire. Imminent hours loom like a prison sentence.
Blisters on the bottoms of both feet, 30 miles into a 50-miler.
Barfing, overheated, just 16 miles into a 50-kilometer race — do the math — 14 miles, more than two hours, to go.
But I willingly advance. For the clarity of focus …
Razor focus on a goal, and on the pain that stands between it and me, makes every little thing — yesterday’s shame, sick mom, sister’s cancer, sister’s kids, dead friend, wayward son, children in need, homeless man on the corner, Trump’s tweets, work deadlines, towering laundry, spousal furies, a hemorrhaging savings account — fade into a blurry background.
But when an attempt results in failure or I am left behind in a race or I pull a hamstring and miss weeks of practice while competitors run on — oh, the outsized misery.
When at mile 18 of a marathon I realize I must have missed something in my preparations and I fall out of rhythm, never to return to the goal pace.
The Finishing Time stares me in the face, mocking me, permanent record, until a new one takes its place.
I run day in and out, with painstaking effort.
I forfeit comfort, sleep, late-night revelries, greasy foods and potent potables. Relationships suffer. I run when it’s 100 degrees, in snow or downpours, when mosquitos are swarming and when my muscles are hurting or when I want nothing more than to watch TV for a couple of hours.
When 26.2 miles isn’t enough, I run 30, 50 … someday soon, 100 miles.
When I race, whatever distance, I want the sacrifice to show — no, shine — in my performance. I want my competitors to say, “She must have worked her ass off to run that kind of race.”
There’s no use pretending otherwise: I am highly motivated by competition. I am. Runners are. Writers are. “There is a real competition among writers,” Hemingway once said.
So when observers see my struggle, my red face at the finish, my mediocre time, I hear them (possibly imaginarily) say, “She probably didn’t train hard enough.”
Still I would rather blow a race entirely than be middling.
It’s a gamble — running hard and without caution in a competition. My cohorts call it “Kamikaze style.”
Kamikaze hurts. There is a line you can’t cross, but it is difficult to see, so it is easy to run right off the cliff and die (metaphorically, that is, except when trail running in the mountains, when this becomes a literal peril).
I could start out conservatively and gradually progress and run a good-enough race. But it’s only if I give everything I have, perfect my pain and hold on — breathe with no oxygen, surge on melting muscles — do I stand the chance of having satisfactory results.
A remarkable race gives me confidence like a good opening sentence gives me confidence. A poor performance churns my stomach and saps my strength and makes me wonder if I am done for keeps.
I risk misery and shame, which the odds seem to favor, chasing the chance to feel mighty for a moment.
I know, I know — in both writing and running, I am the only one who really cares. Is anyone really observing, judging, giving one damn at all? Naturally, no.
They skim a story and say, “That’s interesting,” or “That’s dumb,” and move on.
They might see I ran a 3 hour 9 minute marathon and think “That’s good,” or “That’s slow,” never imagining that, though I am in unrelenting pain, I am floating on a cloud because I have been attempting for years to break 3 hours 10. Triumph derived from torture — the opiate of the masochistic.
No one is watching — I am no Olympian or Pulitzer contender.
In this life, I am a writer and a runner primarily to meet my own needs and desires.
That doesn’t change the euphoria when the gamble pays.
It doesn’t change the despair in failure.
I need both.
If I met success with every essay or article or pitch or with every chase, there would be no magic in it. I need the pain; good work is impossible without it.
So bring on the failure. Bring on the defeat. Bring on the broken ego and battered spirit. Bring on the misery and the cosmic discomfort. The weary eyes, fingers, feet.
Purge. Pursue. What? I cannot name it. All I know is that the chase sometimes is a cleansing (of spirit, mind and body) and, at best, it ends in something like an awakening, the full view, if for a moment, of another realm outside this life and all of its limitations. It hits like that shock of recognition when a piece of art or music moves us, but at a higher voltage. There is a light, a clarity, only those who embrace and endure extended bouts of suffering can know.