Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Creative Writing is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

There's nothing like a marathon on a wind-swept mountain to get the creative juices flowing. A few weeks ago, I completed The Black Mountain Marathon, a straight uphill race that then turns sharply downhill halfway through and pounds you until your knees and quads scream for mercy.

I had trained for this race for months. Although, I was always skeptical that my training was not going to prepare me, I pressed on in pursuit of a simple goal: Race the race. You know you won't be first, and pray you won't be last.

I am happy to have finished the race near the back of the middle, and not even close to last. But the most ecstatic moment of the whole experience was the next morning when I just had to wake up early and write my race report. Nothing stood between me and writing. The words flowed right out of me, the imagery was poetic, and the story was all my own. I HAD to tell the tale, and I couldn't be stopped or interrupted.

That kind of drive to write is true inspiration and the kind that had not been striking recently. I took hold of the reins of my running and writing muse and kept typing until my hands felt a bit like my brutalized legs. And when everything was on paper, I re-read and revised. I tweaked and adjusted. I made sure that every word was just so.

And, as I finalized my work, I thanked my sore legs that had reminded me that writing is a long distance race. It may happen in fits and starts, but it truly expresses itself over the long haul. Thank you, Black Mountain.

Here is my race report:

I am writing this report looking out the window of a cabin with a gorgeous view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Yesterday I was cursing those steep climbs, but they are so stunning that I couldn't stay mad at them very long.

The Black Mountain Marathon was my first marathon. I know it may not be the most traditional way to start a foray into longer distance running, but I am very glad I chose this race. The views were stellar, the wind was gusting at over 50 miles an hour, and my hands were frozen solid for most of the ascent. After this, my next race on flat land will feel less daunting.

The racers gathered at 7am on Cherry Street, right in the middle of downtown Black Mountain. After a very brief race update, the race director yelled "Go!" The marathoners and Mt. Mitchell Challenge racers all started the race together. Grit and I ran together for a mile or two as we wound through the roads of Black Mountain and up into the town of Montreat. Lots of local people were out cheering, ringing cow bells, and rolling their eyes at the huge wall of runners taking up the street. Shortly, Grit pulled ahead of me as we turned onto the double-track trail leading straight up the mountain.

After 4 miles of rough and rocky trail, I pulled into the first aid station. It had the usual foods and drinks, but it did make me miss the flavor and energy of Trailhead aid stations. After a brief stop to grab a bite to eat, up the trail I went. Up and up, to the Old Toll Road. Although it once allowed for vehicle traffic up and around Black Mountain, it is now a sunken road with jutting rocks and a lot of twists and turns. The steepness and ice in the shaded areas encouraged me to take it easy and hike many portions. At the next aid station, the wind really seemed to pick up. Only a few more miles to the Blue Ridge Parkway and turn around they said. On I climbed.

Soon, returning marathoners and one crazy Mt. Mitchell Challenge runner started to make their way down. As my hands lost all sensation, I pushed on just to keep my body warm. As I approached the Parkway, it felt like I was literally inside a cloud. The mist and grayness hung low and the Parkway was closed to traffic due to snow and ice. At the turn around aid station, my hands were so frozen that a I had to ask a very nice fire fighter to help me open my calorie gel. After some Tang, gel, and a handful of M&Ms, I turned back down the trail. The promise of easy downhill running egged me onwards.

The downhill miles melted away. I hit my 3rd wind as I roared through the gale-force winds. As my hands slowly thawed out, I was encouraged to keep up a strong pace just to reach warmer air and lower wind. On the downhill, I passed a few people who passed me on the way up. We chatted, waved, and I pushed on. The Old Toll Road now felt warm and welcoming. I enjoyed the fabulous panoramic views of the mountains and even felt some bounce in my step.

Time fast forwarded until I reached the last aid station before the steep descent back into town. Only 5 miles to the finish. I knew I could do it. And then the trail got very, very, very steep. As I picked my way downwards, my legs complained. My ankles whined, and my hips protested. After sliding off the trail, there was more downhill on asphalt. This section was brutal in a way I had never experienced before. Slowly meandering into town seemed to take an eternity. "Three more miles!" a happy onlooker encouraged me. I wished for time to fast forward again, but it did not.

As I continued along the Montreat Greenway, I was slightly refreshed. It runs along a raging creek and features a soft and clear single-track trail. It was the closest thing to Carolina North I had seen all day and I imagined that many of my running friends were there with me telling off-color jokes and talking about fabulous adventures. I turned off the trail and back onto a few side streets in search of Lake Tomahawk. As I approached the lake, I could hear the announcers at the finish. Right there at the final turn were my friends from Cary, and Doug,Spore, and Adra. They cheered as I trotted past. Only a half mile left. Doug jumped onto the trail near the finish to run me in. Finished right at 6 hours. Not first, but not last. And, that's all I wanted to accomplish for my first marathon.

This race tested my resolve, but showed me a view of the mountains I could not have seen anywhere else.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"It's not you, it's me."

Rejection letters from magazines and writing contests can feel like bad break-ups. Vague phrases like "Your story wasn't for us" or "We couldn't find room in our pages for your work" are the absolute worst kind of constructive criticism. The response is formulaic and artless. The editors that only have time to dash off a quick letter of refusal need to re-evaluate the process of creativity and writing.

Any writer who is serious about his work wants editors to tear the story apart. Real comments that reference style, structure, genre, and dialogue are what a writer needs to improve. Scathing criticism fuels passionate revising and the honing of skill. Straight forward reactions to our stories is the most all of us writer's hope for. We want to know the gory details of why the piece of writing fell flat on its face.

Not every magazine and contest will accept everything that lands in the mail. And, they shouldn't. The market needs to thrive on quality writing and well-crafted stories. Some of my work meets the grade, and some does not. But, when I receive rejection letters, I feel cheated if it's an obvious form letter response to my hard work.

Over the years, I have kept every rejection letter I have ever received. Most of the letters are anonymous and disconnected from the real struggles of being a creative writer. But, the select few that directly reference my work, are great inspirations. I reread them on occasion, and once again become recharged and ready to write. The comments may be blunt or even downright harsh, but the editor cared enough to pen an original response.

Keep every rejection letter and frame the ones that are truly inspirational.

Because in the end, it's you, and not them, who has to persevere as a writer.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Short and Sweet

On the cover of a writing magazine, I saw the most inspirational quote from Mickey Finnley. She said,"I am a writer, it is my job not to look away."

Fiction or non-fiction, art is inspired by life. Real life with all its bumps, bruises, pimples, bad hair-dos, and dirty looks. Real life with its awkward conversations, stifling moments of embarrassment, stinging insults, and ugly behaviors. Life is rife with material too good to not be true.

I am further inspired to fuel my literary fire with more people watching, eavesdropping on intense conversations, and studies in mundane absurdity.

You should all do the same. Take notes and keep writing!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Eight Year-Old Storytellers in a Grown-Up Writing World

Eight year-olds are the finest storytellers I know. They don't leave out details. They tell you everything, whether it takes five minutes or twenty minutes to finish their tale. Children gesture and mix up words and talk a million miles a minute. Younger kids only want to hear stories for their own entertainment, but eight year-olds have mastered enough language to want to emerge as their own traveling bards.

Eight year-olds tell the story just like it was. The dialogue rambles and the characters often have no goal or objective. The plot is hard to follow, but there is no doubt that the flight of imaginary fancy was worth the trip, defined story structure or not. Children's stories deal with simple subjects that everyone can relate to. There are no over-arching themes to be analyzed. The stories are told for the joy of telling them just to share. But, of course even eight year-olds have to grow up.

Most adults are too organized, too in control of their own emotions,judgments, and imaginations to write anything real and compelling. It takes a unique grown-up to really see the world just as it is. No prejudices or wounded egos. No bad experiences or bitter assumptions. It then takes this unique adult time to mix all the hard knock experiences of life into the story with maturity and nuance. It takes a great writer to remember how to be an eight year-old all over again.

After the story is written, the real hard work begins for the grown-up part of the writer though. Submitting creative writing is all about rejection. Skinned knee after skinned knee. Years go by and you don't get picked for the kickball team on the playground. The half-finished manuscripts laugh at you like the big fourth graders. And, other accomplished writers seem to always be passing secret notes behind your back about how to get published.

But don't forget, new children turn eight every day. And new writers, with a unique voice and style, are always being discovered.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Reading Good Books Makes You a Great Writer

My collection of paperbacks and hard bound books overwhelms my house. I have a huge bookshelf, piled two deep, and there still is an overflow of pile in a nearby chair. The books are organized more by whim than by topic, and there is very little rhyme or reason to where to locate any one book. I like that it takes me a few minutes to track down a specific title because I inevitably get to remind myself of all the good books I own.

Ah, The Grapes of Wrath. Oh, I forgot about all those Russian plays. It's been ages since I've opened that book of dark and angry poetry. And look, a stack of contemporary fiction novels waiting for me to open them.

Finding a book is like walking down my very own literary memory lane. Every title is important to me. Every book has a direct connection to my life as a storyteller.

As a creative writer, reading is essential. Not only does reading allow my brain to rest from creating, but it also helps me recognize my strengths and weaknesses. Great dialogue always inspires me to make my characters more real in the cadence of their speech. Tightly plotted sections of a novel remind me to keep my stories on track. And, unforgettable characters encourage me to let my imagination run wild.

Without reading, my writing would suffer terribly. I have found it foolish to pretend that I am the only person in the world who has ever put pen to paper. Instead, I voraciously absorb the written word from many sources. Clever phrases get my lyrical mind rolling. Satisfying endings draw me back to the outlines of my own stories. Well-written works encourage me to keep up the reputation of my craft and fellow writers.

Without books to read, I would not be a writer. Because I am a writer, I love to read. It is circular process of course. But, it is necessary, organic process for all of us who are inspired to create new worlds, characters, and stories.

And, if you ever want to borrow a book, just come on over. Good luck finding it!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Horse Training and Word Wrangling

To the average human being, horse training and novel writing have absolutely nothing to do with one another. Both seem challenging, yes, but what do animals with hooves have to do with long works of prose?

Patience. And lots of it. I am being reminded of this lesson on a daily basis as I slowly attempt to complete a novel while also retraining a horse that has been out-to-pasture for over a year.

Even if you have never ridden a horse, I am sure you have seen one in a picture, movie, or petting zoo. You can appreciate their beauty, power, and grace. Horses, real horses, weigh over 1000 pounds. They have ten times the strength and 20 times the endurance of a person. One kick can kill you. One bite can easily draw blood. If a horse is cornered, it will fight or find a way to run away. Horses have evolved as herd animals with a keen sense of fear and personal preservation.

And, even if you have never written a novel, I am sure you have read many. You have appreciated lyrical passages, inedible characters, and heart-wrenching dialogue. Real novels, the kind that stuck with you for decades, are a huge undertaking. Outlines are written, rewritten, scrapped, and dug back up. Chapters dry up and characters suddenly become cliche. Writer's block takes over. Reviewers hate everything about the book. The rejection letters add up to more pages than the finished work.

Why would any normal person, ever, attempt to train a horse or write a book? Is it simply insanity, ego, or boredom? Those may be the reason that a person starts a horse or a book, but it's something very different to finish both tasks well.

Somewhere in between falling off the horse and falling flat with every chapter, the task becomes something more, something larger than the trainer or the writer. The rider and the writer start to hunger for the connection with something outside of themselves. This connection is what makes everything worthwhile.

The horse will soon understand that you are here to help, not hurt. One day, out on the trails, the horse will listen to every little click and squeeze. He will respond just the way he was trained and the day will be unforgettable for decades. Readers will pick up the book someday, they will turn the pages, they will sigh and laugh and cry. Many will appreciate the beauty, power, and grace of your prose. They will recommend the book to a friend or two.

And, at the end of my day today, the horse is still unwilling to canter without a test of wills, and my notes for my next chapter include a squiggly line and a question mark. Back to the training pen and back to the outline I go. Determined to finish, content to struggle, and ready to showoff my hard work and hard knocks soon.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Savor every moment, remember every detail.

Often my blog has information for writer's about their craft. But, recognizing as we all do, that our art and life is woefully and joyfully intertwined, I am sharing some truly inspired moments from my daily life.

My move to North Carolina has gone as smoothly as possible. I started a new day job, found a log cabin to live in, and made some new friends in just four weeks. My home and life in Southern Illinois seems ages ago and far away, now.

A week ago, I was a little homesick for the things I knew so well back "home". Finding light switches in my new place was a dangerous game in the middle of the night. Deciphering the thick southern drawl in my new hometown was a tricky an adventure. And, foreign sights and sounds were not becoming commonplace occurrences very quickly.

But, my attitude was suddenly changed by a gorgeous set of patio furniture, a free beer, and overpriced tahini.

Yesterday, as I flew down a back road with radio up, I noticed something charming and shocking all at once. House after house had gorgeous patio furniture and outdoor seating areas. Not a single home had a fence though. Nothing seemed to be tied down. These people must be crazy to leave such nice items unattended for anyone to steal, I thought. I have never lived anywhere that people blindly trusted their neighbors so much.

With a shake of my head, I drove on to a local bar. I ordered a beer and a sandwich and sat alone. Only a few minutes passed when the bartender brought me another beer. I wasn't ready for a refill yet, and I tried to tell him. "It's from the owner. Free beer to anyone sitting alone at the bar," he explained simply.
For a moment, I was a little insulted. A pity beer? I had planned on having another one anyway, but who gives away free beer?

After I ate my dinner, I stopped by the nearby grocery store for a few random items. Milk, bread, eggs, and deodorant. As I wandered down the cooking aisle, I remembered that I also needed tahini for hummus. I grabbed a jar and headed for the check-out. As the clerk rang me up, I noticed that the tahini was going to cost me five dollars. I balked.

"Five dollars?" I asked.

"It's worth it," she assured me.

"I don't want it." Worth it or not, it was a rip-off.

"You should try it. If you don't like it, bring it back for a refund." With that she put it in my grocery bag. "You're not from around here, huh?"

"No, just moved." I didn't feel like paying for marked up sesame paste or making small talk.

"You're going to have a great time getting to know our little town."

I was a little stunned by her certainty. She didn't know me at all. I paid and walked back to my car. As I turned over the engine, I realized I was no longer homesick. Instead, I was ready to begin learning a new place. I felt suddenly primed for a grand adventure and great new world. The writer in me recognized the transition and change as crossing the threshold into the next act of my personal story. The awkward human inside of me couldn't possibly articulate any feelings right away. But, I knew that I had to savor every moment, remember every detail.

As the late evening light faded, I decided to head back to my new house. I passed the a house with gorgeous patio furniture again. A huge crowd had gathered in the chairs and around the fire pit in the center. People were talking excitedly in the swirling firelight.

I made a turn onto a country road, rolled down my window, and let my hand dance on the updrafts of warm late-summer air. Home was just a mile away and didn't want the drive to ever end.