Racing and Writing

Between September 16 and November 11 of this year, I completed two half-marathons. Trust me, no one is more stunned than I am that I can write that sentence with any truth. Five years ago, I would have scoffed at the very idea that I’d even consider such a thing, let alone achieve it.

Notice that I didn’t say that I ran in these races. Truth be told, I walk a majority of those 13.1 miles, no doubt slowing down my race partner (my sister, Nicole) considerably. I am slow. There is no other way to put it. But I earned both medals (and finisher tee shirts) by covering each course from start to finish.

I’m sharing these details not because I’m soliciting congratulations with this first post but rather as context for a perspective on writing that my students and I often discuss: writing as practice and/or writing as running.

I’ve used many articles regarding writing in my courses over the years, especially as I’ve fully transitioned to a Writing About Writing approach to composition. I’ve shared an excerpt from Keith Hjortshoj’s The Transition to College Writing several times and focused in particular on his writing as performance art metaphor, with its corollary of drafting as rehearsal. This fall semester, I added Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing as Practice” from Writing Down the Bones primarily for the comparison she makes between writing and running. Many of my students identify with both of these perspectives and now that I have completed these “real” races, I do as well.

Training for a race is a hard habit to develop. In fact, it’s one I’m particularly bad at enforcing on myself. Similarly, writing every day is something I believe in, and have used successfully in the past, but it’s also a habit I all too often let slide.

Then, when I am up against a race or a deadline, I pay the price for that lack of habit and practice. Yet, I also know from experience, with both writing and races, that I have been able to complete “long” projects even without ideal preparation.

During races, the most agonizing miles for me are between 1.5 and about 3. The adrenaline and excitement of the start have worn off, the shin splints have begun, and we have double-digit miles to go before we’re done. And I always wonder during this stretch why I let myself get talked into doing another race. With writing, the moment of doubt is harder to predict but it always comes—accompanied by a sinking feeling that there just aren’t enough hours before the deadline to finish, or that my initial idea just won’t cut it.

At both of these stretches, though, I remind myself that I not only can do it, but I have done it before and will again. My sister reminds me as well, during races and during writing projects. And, so far, we’ve been proven right.

Another aspect of races that I have recently come to relate to my writing is the set of clichés that describe a “sprint to the finish” and warn, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” By the time I cross the mile marker at 12, and especially 13, miles, I have a fleeting thought that I want to “finish strong,” and will even try to pick up the pace—but the energy is rarely there for any burst of speed. In fact, when we download the data from my sister’s race watch, the pace per mile is typically steady, with a slight drop-off as we near the end.

This consistent pacing is essentially the way I handle long writing projects as well. While it is true that deadline pressure does increase my productivity, it’s more a result of setting other tasks to a lower priority than a sudden cognitive burst. In other words, once I dedicate the time to a long project, I write, revise, and edit at a consistent pace, much like I do during a race. For this reason, the National Novel Writing Month is not a competition I would win.

One foot in front of the other and one word after the next. It seems as if the metaphor of writing as running doesn’t only apply to my students any more.

My running partner, Nicole, and I nearing the finish line at the 2012 Jingle Bell Run, a 5K to raise money for the Arthritis Foundation.

My running partner, Nicole, and I nearing the finish line at the 2012 Jingle Bell Run, a 5K to raise money for the Arthritis Foundation.

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