Preparation is key. Petroleum jelly in the right places, sunblock everywhere. A bandanna covers my forehead, for the sun as well as the sweat. My water bottles are filled and stowed away on my belt, and I strap my timer to it as well. Power gels or gummies are shoved into the front pocket. Everything ready, I stride out the door into the sun.
The first minute is always the hardest. Getting the stride back takes effort through no effort, much like thinking without thinking in Zen meditation. You don’t think too much about moving your feet; after a few minutes, your muscle memory will do the work for you.
I remember to time my breath. In two steps, out two steps, in two, out two. It comes naturally; I don’t break rhythm. If I feel winded or my legs ache, I shorten my stride.
On most days, running liberates me. But not last Saturday.
I began my run. Soon after, my chest tightened. It had given me trouble all week; I donated blood on Tuesday, had a long, bloody appointment with the dentist on Wednesday. I pushed myself too hard, I realized. The tightness wouldn’t be going away. But I kept running.
One mile. The tightness intensified. My breath felt fine, my muscles still responded, but it felt like I had twenty pounds on my chest.
Two miles. My pain tolerance reached its limit. I focused on my steps, on my breathing, trying desperately to avoid the pain in my chest. It didn’t work. My legs faltered, and I fell into a walk.
I stopped. I tried to push onward, to regain my stride, but my legs didn’t respond. The tightness remains. I realized that I would be walking the rest of the way. Not even a quarter into my run I called it quits. I resigned instead to walk the following week in lieu of running; I would still log miles, but at a more leisurely pace. Disappointed, I walk back to my apartment.
The running metaphor for writing was always obvious. Pace yourself. Know your limits. Always write a little, even the days when you don’t feel like doing much at all. Don’t obsess over equipment. Just keep writing.
But what happens when you can’t write?
My bad run earlier this week coincided with a several-week-long writing break. I was preparing to edit Those Who Favor Fire a book I finished the first draft for last year. After an initial read-through, I realized there was a great deal more research to be done, on some esoteric points (pardon the pun!) in superstring theory in particular. I decided to complete this research before going full steam ahead on the edit.
It instead turned into a four-week struggle with material just beyond my talents for comprehension. I found myself gradually less willing to read the research material I had gathered at the library; fifty page reading sprints turned to twenty-five, then ten. It became of game of avoidance, thinking of ways to avoid finishing the research. I did have one hard-and-fast deadline: the return date. Unless I wanted to bother renewing the material, I had to return it soon.
A couple weeks later than I’d have preferred, I finished the book and returned it.
But that manuscript sits on my desk still, like an unopened credit card bill, something I know I must account for sooner or later, something that doesn’t look like much fun. Only I know that it will be once I start. But for now, it’s a loathsome beast that I must slay with a red pen.
I almost didn’t finish Those Who Favor Fire.
I began the first draft during NaNoWriMo of 2008. I had a deep love of the story, but I pushed too hard and too fast into a plot that needed more time to congeal. And there were other forces conspiring against me, including an economic collapse that sucked the will to do anything but watch cable news right out of me. An excellent start to a book was left on my hard drive for months.
I began another NaNoWriMo novel, then put it aside when major story issues cropped up. I started yet another novel, then stopped when I realized I was writing just another YA apocalypse. But when I found moments to work on TWFF, I discovered that the desire to finish was still there, and that I had the strength to do so. I had also learned some things from those false starts that made me a better writer. I finally wrapped up that first draft before the end of last year, almost two years after I started it.
Some days you can’t run at all. There’ll be a thunderstorm, or you’ll sprain your ankle, or your schedule will be too tight to breathe, much less run. It’s okay.
Some days you can’t write at all. Your hard drive will crash, or you’ll have to work overtime that day, or due to a social event or family obligation you won’t have time to breathe, much less write. It’s okay.
All you need to run are a good pair of shoes. A good pair will run $80-$120, more for the fancier pairs customized to unusual gaits or more demanding regimens. You need nothing else to run — all that fancy fitness clothing, gels, energy bars, and so on are just accessories.
All you need to write is a pencil and some paper, or a good word processor (one of the best of which is free). There are more sophisticated word processors, timers, fancy laptops, fancy pens and fancy moleskin journals. These are all just accessories. When you’re stuck in some physician’s office with just a receipt and a pen, remember: you have the pen, and that’s all you need.