Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Six words and many miles later

My creative writing students are crafting sestinas this week, and in the spirit of fairness I’m writing one too. I don’t always write poetry, but when I do I take six unrelated words and shove them into a ridiculously rigid form. As I tell my class, nothing will give you writer’s block faster than realizing you can write whatever you want. Give yourself parameters in your chosen endeavor, though – craft a self-portrait in triangles or hike every trail that leads to a waterfall or cook a month’s worth of meals with eggplant as the main ingredient – and instantly become tsunami’d with creative juices.

Here’s my sestina, crafted from words randomly suggested by the class. Unsurprisingly, it ended up being about running.


I think what I like about the sestina as a form is that it’s both arbitrary and orderly at once. A lot of my favorite things are like this, including running. The marathon distance of 26.2 miles does not have profoundly meaningful origins (and no, the first marathon runner didn’t die after completing it, because he didn’t actually complete that particular distance). It may seem ridiculous to focus so much time and energy, so much blood (occasionally, when I trip and fall), sweat (buckets), and tears (more than I like to admit) on such randomness. It is ridiculous. A glorious ridiculous, providing a much-needed break from the serious and mundane. 

A good friend and fellow runner recently ran two marathons on successive weekends. The first was supposed to be her serious marathon, the second just for funsies, and if that seems preposterous to you, well, let’s just say the running crowd either wouldn’t agree or else would and add that preposterous is the very point. As it turned out, the weather was crap for the first marathon, unseasonably warm and brutally windy, and everyone suffered, both in spirit and in finishing time. My friend shrugged it off, ran the funsies marathon as intended, and got a personal best time. Many who congratulated her encouraged her to take this as a lesson in having a more relaxed attitude toward running, focusing on the enjoyment rather than obsessing over the goals. Like most advice, it is sensible and sound and will absolutely not be followed because when have people ever followed sensible, sound advice if they weren’t already doing it?

Personally I have mixed feelings about that advice. Sure, running is a hobby and hobbies should be enjoyable. But we wouldn’t pursue hobbies if we didn’t have some sort of goal in mind, even if that goal is simply to pass the time doing something we enjoy. And the truth is the more time you do something, the better you get at it, and doing things well adds to enjoyment. Obviously you can take any aspect of this to extremes; what I wonder is why enjoyment vs. goal need be a “vs.” at all. 

Increasingly I find myself questioning the unnecessary dichotomy between things we do for fun and things we do for a purpose. There’s this pervasive mentality that we have to work to earn our fun, to earn our anything. Ask a runner why they run (but actually don’t, because then they’ll tell you and you’ll never get away), and chances are pretty good that they’ll say something about proving to themselves they can do hard things. But do you really have to do that? Of course not, not any more than I had to write a poem about a possum. But just as the sestina makes you write something you’d otherwise never have done, the arbitrary goal you set for yourself in other realms gives you an experience you’d otherwise have missed. I haven’t “proven” that I’m a poet. I’ve written a poem. I kind of like it.

Now, you can live quite a wonderful life never having written a poem or run a Boston-qualifying marathon or cooked 31 different eggplant dishes in a row. Having tried and failed at those things doesn’t invalidate your existence any more than trying and succeeding makes you a superior specimen of humanity. In running as in many other pursuits, there’s a strong “you have to want it bad enough” mentality. But what if you decide midway that you don’t really want it all that bad? Being a runner in what is most certainly the second half of your life, I’ve found, means accepting that some goals may always be out of reach, partly because they stop mattering so much. Once I thought I’d never rest until I got that BQ. Now I’m not so sure. The need for a goal to be more about enjoyment and less about validation and achievement has started to take over, and I’m starting to find myself letting go of dreams I once clutched like a life preserver. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Letting go can be calming. It can protect you from being disappointed, even while it engenders its own disappointment like a long, resigned sigh.

I will not be a household name in any realm of writing, certainly not in poetry (this is maybe the fourth poem I’ve ever liked enough to share publicly), nor in novels, which had been my dream ever since I began typing stories on the $3 garage-sale manual typewriter I had as a kid. And I may never run another marathon. That is to say, I may never run 26.2 miles and stop. The arbitrary goal I’ve set my sights on next is a hundred. It’s still random – measuring by miles is distinctly old-fashioned, abandoned by nearly everyone in the world who didn’t chicken out at the thought of learning the metric system and hid their fear under a pose of belligerent swagger – and that’s just fine. It’ll be an interesting experience one way or another.