When I have a story idea, a good story idea about someone who has done something remarkable, I want badly to tell the story well. I long to make my readers feel what I feel — the admiration, the inspiration I feel when I speak to my subject.
For hours and even days after conducting interviews with the remarkable someone and his acquaintances, I linger. I think about how to convey this person’s story but I doubt myself.
It is beyond me, getting these profound ideas into words that will make you appreciate it the way you must appreciate it. And when I fail to adequately relay this subject’s achievements — in the way that thoroughly impresses the reader — I will have failed this subject. He deserves so much better, I think.
I fret and bite my nails over these thoughts. I pick at my skin and pull out my hair over these thoughts. I stare out windows and the weight of my weakness exhausts me, before I even begin to write.
Finally I start typing. I hate every goddamn word. I delete and write, erase and rewrite. I delete so much that the “delete” key on my computer falls off. Then after minutes or hours of struggle, I pluck out a sentence that satisfies. Then a second. These first two sentences give me confidence and I fall into a rhythm of writing sentences. Once I have a page full of words on the screen, I still write bad sentences, but they don’t torture me, because before them stands good, proud sentences — proof that I am capable of good, proud sentences.
I easily recognize and banish bad sentences that pop up, correcting my form and finishing strong. That is, when things go perfectly.
Except sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the rhythm never ensues, or it is interrupted by the awareness that there was a hole in my planning. A question I forgot to ask a source or an angle I overlooked until it was too late. Then I have to go back. Sometimes I have to rework everything. Sometimes, 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”.
A good-enough story is not too bad to scrap altogether, but when presented to an audience it hangs its head in indignity, knowing it could have done better.
Rather than the rush of success, I feel gut-churning defeat. No one besides me might even realize the piece didn’t live up to its potential, but it eats away at my ego and I cringe when I look at that story on its page.
But when it all goes perfectly — when I plan properly and the words, after the inevitable early torture, flow easily and I finish strong and the critics say, “Bravo”, then I feel the high. There is a unique happiness that accompanies success preceded by pain and accompanied by the very real risk that the misery and hard work will not pay off and that failure is an entirely likely option. Only those of us who can endure being intensely uncomfortable for long periods of time will ever know this particular happiness.
That said, I might need not tell an endurance runner how writing and running are similar.
How painful can be those first steps of a training run? How shattering to attempt and fail a particular feat or be left behind in a race or to pull a hamstring and miss several weeks of practice while our competitors run on? How devastating 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, until a new one takes its place. And in the case of the marathon, the next might be months or a year away.
I work painstakingly at my running. I sacrifice comfort, sleep, late-night concerts and greasy foods and heavy drinks. I run when it’s 100 degrees, when it’s snowing, 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 and when I race I want the tireless effort to shine proud in my performance. I want observers to say, “She must have worked hard to pull off that kind of race.” Only more often than not, they see my struggle, my red face at the finish and might, if asked, say, “She probably didn’t practice hard enough.”
I would rather blow a race entirely than be mediocre. The gamble of going out hard in a race entices me. Sure I could start out conservatively and gradually progress and run a good-enough race. But it’s only if I give everything I have and try to hold on do I stand the chance of having spectacular — spectacular being relative — results. A spectacular race gives me confidence like a good opening sentence gives me confidence. But a string of poor performances churns my stomach and steals my strength. Yet I risk misery and shame — which the odds seem to favor in my experience — for that opportunity to be spectacular.
Truth be told, with both the writing and the running, the observers don’t care all that much. They read a story and say, “That’s interesting,” or “That’s dumb,” and move on. They might hear me say I ran a 3 hour 30 minute marathon and think “That’s good,” or “That’s slow,” never knowing that I am devastated because I wanted a 3 hour 25 minute finish.
I am on no Olympic stage or Pulitzer shortlist.
In this life I am a writer and a runner primarily for myself. That doesn’t change the value of my efforts. It doesn’t change the euphoria felt when the gamble and the work pays off and the results meet or exceed the hope. It doesn’t change the devastation of failure.
If I met success with every essay or with every run, well, it would become common and thus would lose its intensity. For that reason I say, bring on the failure. Bring on the defeat. Bring on the misery and the vast discomfort. I embrace it because it readies my psyche to celebrate, sometimes, in a way only those who willingly and gratefully endure these things can know.