Sunday, April 26, 2015

Change is a foot

Stylized drawings of the sun usually depict the bright yellow orb with a kindly smile. Today, the orb is laughing, or maybe giving a Bronx cheer. It’s a beautiful sunny day, perfect for running, and so completely not the way it was yesterday when I ran my 23rd marathon-or-longer-distance race.

At various points in the marathon I pondered what I might say for my race-recap blog post. At Mile 17, for example, when I suddenly had one of those weird mid-race surges of energy and started speeding up, I considered making some grand metaphor about how my life has been a negative split—slow and uncertain the first half, confident and assured so far in the second. Yeah, lovely, except I ended up not getting a negative split in this race, and a few other things happened that took this idea completely out of contention.

One funny thing about runners (beside all the other funny things about runners) is that they are often control freaks. They obsess over what to wear for a race. Capris or shorts? It makes a huge difference whether the couple of inches between mid-thigh and kneecap are covered in tech cloth or not. They fret that the aid stations won’t have the flavor of Gatorade they trained with all year, and they freak out when they accidentally pick up that Gatorade instead of water at the precise point when they need to take their Gu shot. They worry that the weather will be too cold, too hot, too windy, too rainy, too much like what weather is supposed to be, which is ever-changing. If the weather stayed the same, we wouldn’t have a name for it—or, perhaps, we might have a less conditional-sounding name for it, as in “whether or not that thunderstorm hits is going to determine whether the race continues.”

This control-freakiness is funny precisely because running is all about things you can’t control.

You may already know that at some point yesterday, the Illinois Marathon was cancelled due to thunderstorms moving into the race course area. When I heard the news, I was at Mile 21. The news changed nothing, really, because I and everyone around me kept running. But it also changed everything, because at that point I wasn’t sure I’d even get an official time if I finished. I also knew there was no chance I’d qualify for Boston, I wouldn’t get a sub-4, and I might not even get a PR. I had to think of some reason to continue.

Another mile into things, one of the pace groups, the 4:10, caught up with me. They were an animated, enthusiastic bunch, so I figured maybe I’d tag along with them and that would provide sufficient motivation to keep going. It seemed like a good idea except the 4:10 pace group quickly drove me insane with rage at all the cliché platitudes they kept spouting off. “In it to win it!” “No pain, no gain!” “Quitters never win and winners never quit!” One guy who seemed to think running a marathon was a patriotic act kept saying “I won’t quit! I won’t step all over the American flag!” I wanted to run faster mostly to get away from them. Annoyance can be a surprisingly huge motivator.

When I got to mile 24 and my right calf started cramping and the rain started pouring and I started to want very desperately to stop moving, my Garmin chose that moment to cut out on me. I wasn’t sure there’d be a clock or a chip mat at the end of my run, so now I wouldn’t even know my finish time. It didn’t matter much—it wasn’t going to be a BQ and probably not even a PR—but still, I like to know these things to satisfy the side of me that needs to put numbers on stuff so they can be organized into charts. At that moment, the 4:15 pacer caught up with me—or rather, her voice caught up with me; the pacer herself was still maybe fifty yards away. When I volunteer to work the finish line at races, people tell me I have an astonishingly loud voice, but this woman probably could out-bellow me. “COME ON RUNNERS! LOOKING GOOD! FINISH STRONG! YOU GOT THIS!” I asked her if she was still on for pacing; she said yes (or rather “YES!!!”) so I decided to run in with her so I’d at least know my time.

I managed to finish a bit ahead of the pacer, who fulfilled her duties and crossed at exactly 4:15. “GREAT JOB TISHA!!!” (I had been mumbling when I ran with her, too tired to work my jaw properly, so I was “Tisha” for two miles.) Amazingly, all those cliché running platitudes, roared at the decibel level of a jet engine, had suddenly become motivational. I finished strong, and I did, in fact, get this.

So it goes with running. Someone tells you you’re almost finished at Mile 18 and you want to punch them in the neck because you know they’re a big fat liar. Someone says “looking good!” the next mile and you want to fall into their arms and weep with gratitude. The day of the race is gloomy, cold and wet, and a thunderstorm shuts the thing down before everyone can finish. The day after the race, the sky is a clear, heartbreaking blue, and under a warm (but heartlessly laughing) sun, all evidence of yesterday’s downpour vanishes. So it goes with running, and with most other things in life, changing in ways you can’t predict, control, or even comprehend.

Control freaks become runners despite the vast number of things they can’t control precisely because running allows you to experience that lack of control in a way that you can’t in the rest of life. The sudden and unpredictable way things change in running doesn’t ruin your life; it becomes something to experience, to think about (and even laugh about) later on. Similarly, a cranky, cheery-aphorism-hating pessimist can become a runner even though running culture is deeply mired in positive attitudes. I’m still a crank. I still firmly maintain that you don’t necessarily get what you want just because you want it badly enough. All the cheerful aphorisms and positive thinking in the world will not get you a BQ if your body can’t handle it. I didn’t BQ last time, I didn’t BQ this time, and yes folks, it’s quite possible that I may never BQ because a lot of people—most people—never do. I don’t know if I can change in that way, if I can transform myself into someone who can run a Boston-worthy marathon. And even though I have a bit of control-freak tendencies myself, I’m OK with not knowing.



Sunday, April 19, 2015

Bad reads

If you’ve known me or read this blog for any amount of time, you probably already know that one of my big themes is the battle between the side of me that dreams big and the side of me that pokes and prods those dreams with the sharp pointy stick of reality. This gets me called a pessimist a lot by everyone except pessimists, who call me quite sensible and intelligent. I, of course, return the compliment.

Part of being a so-called pessimist is assessing personal rationalization—which is a fancy way of making sure your shit-detector is on. It is necessary, I believe, to constantly ask, “Is this really true, or do I just believe it’s true because I desperately want it to be true—because if it isn’t true, the consequences would be unthinkably dire?” It’s about as much fun to do this as you’d imagine, but it has certain advantages, one of the biggest being that no one can ever be harder on me than I am. That, oddly enough, is one key goal of this way of thinking: being so tough on yourself that other people’s slings and arrows feel like soap bubbles on the skin of your psyche.

That is the goal. I am not always successful at achieving this goal.

My new novel is barely a month old and it has already received its first bad review. Granted, this was not an article in The New York Times but rather a brief, semi-anonymous post on GoodReads. GoodReads might once have been a fun place for book lovers to explore all things bookish, but it has pretty much devolved into yet another social media site where the semi-anonymous can exercise their snark muscles. And granted, the “review” didn’t say anything specific but simply asserted strident personal opinion as though that matters more than anything. Yeah, all that granted, but it still hurts to have the word “craptastic” applied to me for any reason, much less to describe my book, my baby, my beloved creation.

My writer friends have told me, very reasonably and logically, to ignore the review. They pointed out it was written by someone whose taste in literature, as evidenced by her GoodReads bookshelves, could not really be described using the words “taste” or “literature.” Besides, they reminded me, good books get dissed, always. You can’t please all of the people all of the time—why would you even want to?—and there are one-star reviews of every great piece of literature in existence. If anything, it’s a sign that you took risks with your writing—which is what good writers do.

I did take a risk, of sorts. One of the better pieces of writing advice I’ve heard is that you should write the kind of book you want to read. And personally, I want to read books that are compelling and memorable but a little smaller and quieter than most of what’s out there. There are a number of popular mystery series I enjoyed for a while and then dropped because their over-the-topness got too ridiculous for me. One heroine in particular used to have to escape from near-death situations at least six times in every novel. And we’re talking really horrible near-deaths, burning and drowning and burial alive, not just little ol’ gunshot wounds. After a while, believe it or not, that gets old.

For my own mystery series, I wanted someone with a small life, not a big one. She would be fairly ordinary, except for one small thing, and that small thing would be more peculiar than powerful or magical. I knew there would be readers who wouldn’t like this; they’d want their entertainment to be larger than life. I get that; it’s exciting. Thing is, life itself is huge; why overlook that fact for overly inflated drama? Add to that the fact that life is made up of more little moments than big ones, so if you only write about the big stuff, you’re missing most of what goes on in the world.

All that seemed to make perfect sense to me, so I wrote a book. The book was published a month ago, a few people have read it, and at least one person hated it enough to call it “craptastic.” But the part of the review that hurt worse than that jibe (which stings the way any slangy insult does, mainly because it’s so meaningless you can’t refute it) made me question everything I’d wanted for this book. The reviewer’s chief gripe, you see, was that she found the book boring—the exact word she used was lifeless. I thought I was writing about life. Someone clearly disagreed.

One of the big bonuses of getting older is being more able to let things roll off you. Things that would have wounded me twenty years ago get a shrug and a grin today. A group of teenage girls could openly mock my hair, clothes, and figure, and I’d feel nothing but pity for them because holy shit you could not pay me to be their age again. And yet of course it is still hard to face criticism, because it makes me ask the hardest question: what if I’m really not that good? In something as subjective and unquantifiable as writing, it isn’t easy to know whether your “talent” isn’t really just the talent to live in denial. What if I’ve lived my whole life in pursuit of a goal that was doomed from the start? We hear all those pithy aphorisms about how you never know until you try, but they tend to implicitly assume eventual success. What if we don’t succeed, ever? Can we really say it was worth it even though we failed? If all this time I imagined I was good at writing—really good, good enough that people would pay to read my stuff—and the truth is I’m really only pretty good, good enough for my friends to enjoy but not to reach a wider swath of humanity—can I really feel like I haven’t wasted my life?

Well, at least there’s always running, which in certain key aspects is not the least bit subjective. I either hit my goal for the marathon this Saturday or I don’t, and if I don’t, all the rationalization in the world won’t change the fact that I wasn’t fast enough … though it could have been the weather … or I might simply have been having a bad day … and who’s to say I couldn’t still reach that goal another day?

Excuse me; I think my shit-detector is on the fritz.


Saturday, April 11, 2015

Too legit to quit ... though I am tempted a bit

I’m not at the AWP Conference right now, where vast crowds of writers famous and unknown are gathering to talk about all things literary. I’m not even at the Local Authors Festival at our public library, where not-so-vast handfuls of writers pretty much unknown in the grand scheme of things but famous for our smallerish college town are gathering to do the same. No, I’m home, watching my neighbor try to figure out how to use his lawnmower. I guess it’s been a while since he had to do this, because the thing’s got him quite stymied. Wish I could help, but I know about as much about lawnmowers as I do about how to be a successful author.

That may sound wrong—after all, I’ve been writing all my life, I’ve had several dozen stories and essays published, and my second novel just had its debutante ball last week. And yet, writing is one of those enterprises where you never seem to reach a point of true satisfaction. When I run marathons, even if I’m having a lousy race, there’s still some satisfaction (and a whole lot of relief) when I reach the finish line. But writing? You get an idea, and it feels great for little while and then you actually have to start writing. You start writing, and it feels great for a while and then you have to finish writing. You finish writing, and it feels terrific and then you have to rewrite. And revise. And scrap a lot of it. And scrap it all. And bring it back. And revise it again. And edit it. And proofread it. And then remember to back up your files because of that one time when you didn’t and you nearly ran out into traffic screaming KILL ME NOW.

And then—well, then comes the best part, if by “best” you mean “worst.” Because then you have to try to get it published. Trying to get a book manuscript published will make you glad you didn’t decide to run out into traffic that one time because now you truly have a reason to wish for a swift and violent death.

And then when you finally decide, as I did for my second novel, to go with a small indy press whose publisher is someone you know will be as enthusiastic about your book as you are, who has a miniscule budget but a big heart, and when you see the finished product and hold it in your hands and see your friends at the launch party eagerly buying up copies and congratulating you, when all that happens you’re nearly bursting with joy but then the burstiness subsides and you realize you have to figure out how to get people who don’t already know you to buy your book … well, it feels like you’ve just entered an ultramarathon without an actual finish line. You aren’t almost there, not even close. You may never be there. Keep going anyway, chump.

I found out about the Local Authors Festival, by the way, not because I was asked to be part of it but because I went to said library hoping to entice the library people to buy my book for their collection. I had a beautiful press release printed up and a copy of the book in hand, and when I finally found the right person to talk to, she listened to my pitch and looked puzzled.

“So … are you donating a copy to the library?”

Well, no, I was kind of hoping you’d, like, buy a copy. You know, the way you do with other authors who have books? The librarian wasn’t overtly rude, but I felt like I’d just pleaded with her to put my book up on her fridge with a magnet. I wanted to scream
I AM LEGIT DAMN YOU and I wanted it to come out in Samuel L. Jackson’s voice. I wanted to assure her that I was not some idiot who had written a piece-of-shit fan fiction novel with barely a readable sentence—but then maybe I should have. After all, they have that book.

As someone constantly accused of having low self-esteem and a bad attitude, I rather unwisely have chosen two passions that are endless excursions in disappointment. My running hasn’t been going so well either, and after my 20-mile slog last weekend, my goals have gone from Boston Qualifier to Sub-4 to Barely-a-PR to Aw-Hell-I’m-Just-Gonna-Enjoy-This-One. That at least is one advantage running has over writing: I don’t necessarily need to have lofty goals when I run, since even my loftiest goals there are still entirely about personal satisfaction. But writing is different. I write because I want to and because I enjoy it, but also because I want my stuff to be read, and that means I have to take it farther, as far as I can, no stopping, no quitting, red wine or black coffee in my writerly Nathan Pack, trudging wearily toward a finish line I can’t ever see.

The good news is I got a great idea for Book 4. You won’t believe what happens to my heroine. The series continues—so I guess I must as well.