Marathon Running for Would-be Novelists

I could also call this, “Everything I ever needed to know about writing a novel I learned from running a marathon.” Ok, so that’s a wee bit hyperbolic. But just a wee bit.

I’m reminded of this by a combination of taking my morning walk in the rain today and by a question a young writer recently asked me about how to complete the first draft of her novel-in-progress.

The simple answer: just write it. Set a time every day and write.  Anyone who has tried it (even all you NaNoWriMo folks) know that that can be easier said than done. I knew this, on an intellectual level, when I was working on my first novel. (This would not turn out to be my first published novel, The Thorn Tree (MP Publishing, June, 2014).

I began this novel before the births of my two younger children (I have three), and was still working at it, in my spare time when I started to train for the Marine Corps Marathon in January, 1997. In addition to the three children (two of them were still in diapers; one was then four months old), I was a freelance writer.

I already knew that, in order to finish the novel, I needed to write. Just that. I needed to cast aside the critic, the need to wander down rabbit holes of research, to read books about writing, to go back to the first sentence again and again and again and again.

I also thought I needed to be in better shape, to lose weight, to contribute something to the community (postnatal hormones, I guess), so I signed on for Team in Training, to run a marathon and raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

The nine months of training and then the running of the marathon in October let things settle in fully: step-by-step, I pounded the understanding in. I learned that there will be shitty, slow days. Many. I learned that sometimes when my feet felt as though they were flying, my stopwatch said I wasn’t any faster than any other day. I learned to enjoy the sensation anyway. I learned to listen to my own instincts in the face of conflicting advice from people who had run loads of marathons. In other words, I learned to trust myself. I learned that if I skipped a day (I skipped the 16-mile training run three weeks in a row), I was just making the next run harder. (When I finally made myself do that 16-miler, so that I could hang on to the last shred of a schedule, I wept for the first four miles. It was 90 degrees out. And August-in-South-Carolina-humid.) After that, 18, 20, 22 didn’t seem so bad. So I also learned that the middle distance (the center of the novel) is harder than the beginning or the end. Just keep going. Cry if you need to.

When the marathon day came–really it’s an epilogue after all that training–the rain started about 20 minutes before the starting gun fired. And it rained the whole time. I’ve written a good bit on this blog about connections between yoga and writing, and I believe in them, but no-one has ever asked me to hold a yoga pose for four hours (yes, I took me that long to run 26.2 miles). In the rain. I did it. I put one foot in front of the other. Lots of people fell off to the side with cramps, with hypothermia, with whatever else told them they just couldn’t. Lots of people finished before I did. None of those people mattered. And none of the writers who don’t finish should offer you an excuse to abandon your project; neither need the writers who are doing “better” than you cause you to berate yourselves. One step–one word–at a time. Just write. Trust yourself. Cry if you want. But keep going. Develop a mantra: You can do it.

Those of you who have run marathons know that there are other components to training for a successful marathon, just as there are other components to writing a complete novel. I’ll address those in other posts. None of them matters, though, if you skip the act of coming to the training ground when you said you would and doing the work.

What helps you come to the page day after day? What questions does this bring up for you?


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