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Novel writing not nearly as painful as a marathon

September 20th, 2011 · No Comments · Blog, Writing

Rochester Marathon

A poseur and a real runner near the finish line.

Rah-rah writing coaches are fond of equating writing a novel to running a marathon. The two are alike in only the loosest metaphorical sense. Both require commitment and discipline, but one can be done from the comfort of an office chair and the other demands hundreds of hours of grueling training. This is where the analogy falls apart.

Athletes building up endurance for a marathon run 35 to 40 miles a week, or more. For the vast majority, who are not world-class speedsters, some of those training runs can take four hours or longer, often in inclement weather. There aren’t many things I like to do for four hours at a shot, especially in the rain. Any list I could draw up sure as hell wouldn’t include running. Then again, as much as I like to write, I can’t picture emptying my brain into a keyboard for four solid hours either.

My dad ran his fourth 26.2-miler this weekend, finishing the Rochester Marathon in four hours, 34 minutes and change. I, with virtually no training, ran the last mile or so with him, meeting him at the Ford Street Bridge, ahead of the 25-mile mark, and peeling off just before he ran through the gauntlet of cheering race fans and across the finish line.

For at least the first quarter mile I glanced over my shoulder occasionally, vigilant for any over-eager race officials bent on horse-collaring me and hauling me off their course. I felt like Rosie Ruiz, jumping in just before the finish, garnering cheers from strangers along the route under false pretenses. I wanted a t-shirt that read “Just here for my dad. Not really insane enough to run a marathon.”

I kid my dad continually about kicking back and enjoying retired life instead of punishing himself with all this running. For some reason he honestly seems to like it. He’s running another one next month in Albany and has qualified for the Boston Marathon next spring, after which he’ll fly out to California to run Big Sur for the second time. This is all by choice. No one is forcing him to do this. It’s not part of any community service or anything like that.

After his first couple of marathons, he would tell us he wasn’t going to do another. A few months later he’d be training again. He’s like running’s Brett Favre. We don’t believe him anymore when he talks about giving it up and dropping back down to the half marathons on which he cut his teeth. For all of the threats to have him locked up in a mental institution, I admire him for his commitment. It must be a tremendous sense of accomplishment to cross that finish line after running for four and a half hours. That’s a feeling I’m almost certain I’ll never know.

He goaded me into running a 5K a few years back. I vowed then I’d never do it again, then did it again a couple years later because I always had this nagging voice in the back of my head taunting me for having had to walk part of the way. I won’t rule out ever running another 5K, but I just can’t foresee any longer races in my future. It’s too boring and it makes my legs hurt.

Writing novels is more my kind of endurance challenge. I go at it slow and relatively steady, viewing it as a long-term project. I can’t do the whole NaNoWriMo thing, or sit at my computer for 13 hours a day like Amanda Hocking allegedly did on her alternative route to publishing glory. I find myself thinking about writing a lot more than actually writing. I need a clear visual of my next scene, or it’s a slog at best and more likely I’ll only spew out sludge that will later need to be eradicated.

I suppose running would give me plenty of time to mull things over. But from my experience, all I ever think about on a jog through the neighborhood is how much I hate running. A stitch in my side, my lungs plead for air as Everclear’s “Strawberry” loops through my head to keep myself from slowing to a walk (Chorus: “Don’t fall down now, you will never get up”). The song was written about drug addiction, but running seems at times to me to be nearly as abusive as a heroin habit. Much like an addict, I make bargains with myself, rationalizing my choice to give up. Run to that street sign and you can walk for awhile, I tell myself. Then run another block and a half and walk some more. It would take three days to finish a marathon that way.

VacationI think a better comparison for novel writing is a long road trip in a car. Some folks plan out every stop along their route, others just jump behind the wheel and start driving. Either way you sit on your ass for a long time, steer your vehicle down whichever route suits you best, and visit new worlds and the people within them. There’s virtually zero chance of pulling a hamstring, but you could always run off a cliff if you don’t pay attention where you’re going.

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