Thursday, October 7, 2010

All the Tricks I Know

Writing and running have a lot in common; each is a mental battle more than a physical one. Each requires discipline more than stamina, pure plodding rather than short bursts of speed (or inspiration).

It's easy to forget that if you tune in to any media outlet. Writers in interviews on my local public radio station are speaking of books they've finished; I don't blame them for sounding jubilant. Sure, they mention the length of time it took to finish (often, 5 - 10 years), but they also mention the sheer exhilaration of finding the right word or story. The pain and frustration of the actual work is not forgotten, only dimmed from the distance that's created by success. Best of all, for me, is when they speak, as Chinese-American writer Wang Ping did recently at a reading, of how the stories write them, not vice versa. I accept without flinching that that's the ultimate goal, to be picked up and flown around by a muse or a spirit of inspiration or creativity.

It's even worse in the athletic world. You can't talk for more than 5 minutes with a runner before you hear about the "high" that comes, the feeling of flying along on clouds, a euphoria that begins to seem as natural as tying your shoes. Competitions raise spirits; post-performance, winners talk about being "in the zone," a place where the body moves as if possessed, moves without pain or effort or even concentration, moves because that's what bodies seem designed to do.

My whole experience defies these easy philosophies. Yet, they cause a yearning in me so strong that I think I may be drawn to that possibility as much as anything. I long to run as I do in my dreams, endlessly, tirelessly. I long to finish each poem, sit back, sign, close my eyes, and fill the room with the sheer delight spilling out from my skin.

That sounds dramatic, but then fantasies often are. I fly along about one run out of ten, and that ratio gets worse the older I get. For a joke, I used to tell people, "I'd hate running if I didn't love it so much." Only, I wasn't really joking. Most of my writing flows out only by force; wait, that's not accurate. "Flow" doesn't describe the nearly backward progress that comes from writing one word and erasing three, or abandoning poems after an hour, never returning to them later. The backspace/delete keys wear down faster than any letter on my keyboard.

No one really believes that running or writing is really easy, producing the most dewy and fantastic feelings all the time. So why don't we talk about the pain more? I mean the mental effort, the stubborn will that seems to produce nothing at the time.

If I ever get interviewed (for my writing--seriously, who would interview me for running?), I will talk about that. I may even talk only about that, it's been so important to me lately. The "tricks" I use to get myself to bypass the mental crossbars that come down when it's time to get to work. You can't crash through those things; well, you can, but that means you have to admit your own resistance, which is akin to failing. I really don't want to write--wait! I'm a writer! I'm not supposed to think like that. I think like that; I must not be a writer.

That's why I transform resistance into something else. I trick myself, bargain with myself, and I do it with great pleasure.

1. I'll do some revising and see what happens.

2. I'll try some freewriting, starting with that image of a squirrel's tale, backlit with sun, delicate as lace.

3. I'm going to read now, because reading is a form of writing.

4. I won't write about this painful experience with my son; I'll describe the yard approaching winter.

5. It's Friday night. I'll pour myself a glass of wine and sit down at the computer to read Poetry Daily.

6. I'll write the same essays as my students are writing.

7. I'll borrow a line I read from someone else's poem.

8. I'll write a blog entry.

All this just to keep going, to keep the fingers clicking away at the keys. I want to write. I fear writing. Writing is such hard work, with so little tangible reward. And I feel the same way about running, develop the same system of tricks and distractions to bribe and goad myself to keep at it.

1. I do not have to run faster to make it up this hill; I just have to push off my back leg.

2. That wind that's slowing my stride will be pushing me all the way home.

3. If I get tired, I can always walk (I never do).

4. Here's the last half mile; I could make it that far even if I was sick.

5. When I get home, I will reward myself by drinking water and sitting down to stretch out.

6. If this is the hardest thing I have to do today, at least it's almost done.

7. I'll bet I can recite the Prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales by the time I get to that stoplight.

8. If I can see the end of the route, I'm practically there already.

My impulse is to measure my progress by impossible standards: editors seek me out, instead of vice versa. I run so far and so well, Nike wants to sponsor me. That's an impulse arisen from a supposition that productivity needs recognition, and it covers up the panic that lurks just under the surface of rational thought:   I can't do this. I'm not good enough.

But that's not how my world works. I don't work for money, nor write for fame, nor run for praise. I do it because of the occasional thrill of accomplishment, the finished poem, because of the possibility of the next run, because there's a deep joy that comes, sometimes, that reminds me of a favorite line from Wordsworth: "effort, and expectation, and desire, and something evermore about to be."