It Doesn't Get Easier, You Just Get Stronger: Thoughts on Writing
By Brianne M. Kohl
As a runner, I am unimpressive. I am slow. Not middle of the pack slow - back of the pack slow. My face and chest go bright cherry red after the first few steps. I hunch inwards, my shoulders low. For some reason, my right foot moves pigeon-toed, hitting the dirt in an uneven stride. I shuffle and wheeze. When I started running again as an adult, I couldn't run a mile. I was inconsistent and sloppy. I was embarrassed by what I was doing. I didn't want anyone to know I was even trying.
But, I kept with it and years later, two half marathons and many 5ks and fun runs later, I'm still running. Even if I quit for a while, something inside me always pushes me to get moving again. I am horrible at quitting.
The same electrical pulse in my brain that urges me to run also urges me to write. Both require a mental toughness and discipline. Both demand practice and dedication. Some actions or pursuits cling to us throughout our lives. Something within me has always told me to go, to run, to write.
I know when I am at a low point in my writing – say I'm on a 26 rejection hot streak (not that that has ever happened. Ahem.) or I feel overwhelmed by a project that previously excited me. Maybe a story just isn't coming together or I've sat down to write that novel for the nine hundredth time and all I can think is, "I can't do this. No one can possibly do this." When I hit one of those moments of pain and frustration, I run.
I've read a lot of running clichés in my time. The truth is, running makes you a breathing cliché because it forces you to confront pain and discomfort and move beyond it. When someone proves to themselves that they can conquer something that previously felt impossible, they tend to want to tell the world about it. There is an old joke - How can you tell someone has ran a marathon? Answer: Don't worry, they'll tell you all about it. The only difference with writing is that we know better than to go spouting off clichés, even if we are living one.
Maybe running isn't your thing (I get it, running is horrible. I love it but it can be awful). Running just happens to breed a lot of truisms that can be applied to other creative areas of your life.
Runners Run – The only qualification you need to be a runner is that you must run. Likewise, the only qualification you need to be a writer is you must write. Publications and awards do not matter for you to be a writer. So, call yourself what you are. There is a power in having the agency to define yourself.
Run the Mile You Are In – This is my favorite and I think about it often when I'm on my weekly long run. When I start out, if I think to myself, "You have to run five miles", I'd never even start. So, I break the run down into smaller, more manageable pieces. I think about that first mile and I start moving. I live only in that first mile, it is the only mile that matters. I don't anticipate future pain or the enormity of what is before me. Then, I live in the second mile. I live in each mile mindfully until my feet slap against the concrete pad outside my garage and I am home again.
Writers think big. It is just our nature. Even when we aren't actively writing, we are working poems and stories out in our heads. We write the words of deeply personal essays while we are supposed to be watching television with our spouse because some commercial kicked off a memory. We ponder the rusty swirling colors of spaghetti sauce while fixing dinner for ourselves and our families. Big ideas get us excited. And, then, they make us scared because those big ideas can seem impossible and huge, blowing up inside us until we have to admit that maybe we are not up to the task.
But, what if we just ran the mile we were in? What if we stripped away the bigness of it and we wrote the first line or the first scene? We are at our best when we let it build organically, our muscles pumping in a steady tempo. That first line leads to the second and then the third. That first scene blends into another and then another until your feet are slapping against the concrete pad and you are home.
Don't think you can write 50,000 words? What about 5,000 words? Or, even 500 words? You live mindfully in only that scene or chapter and then you do it again and again. Eventually, you'll find you've gone much further than you realized you could.
You Don't Have to Go Fast, You Just Have to Go – When I start out running, I always go a little faster than I should because I'm excited. I do this because I'm ambitious (and I drink a lot of coffee). I have to tell myself to relax, find the right rhythm and let go. If I don't relax, I run myself out. I get hurt or I get discouraged. If I thought I was in a race with every other runner, I just wouldn't run.
I don't have to be the fastest runner. I just have to run. And, I don't have to be the best writer every single time, either. I have to focus on my own internal rhythm and relax into it. Not every run is a race and not everything I write will be published. But, I have to trust the maintenance runs to keep my muscles strong. Writing every day is no different. Excellence doesn't just show up for us, we have to practice it. Even when we don't really want to. Even when it is hard.
Reaching the Magic Mile – If you write every single day, chances are good that most of what you write won't be wonderful (that is what revision is for). Nine times out of ten, the things I write come painfully and slow - very much like my runs. Growing is a painful process and we won't grow as writers unless we put in the maintenance efforts.
But, something really amazing might happen that tenth time – I'll reach the magic mile. It's the day when all of my efforts align with all the right circumstances. The internal elements match the external elements and work together symbiotically. Those are the days when running comes easy - I can go for miles and miles and never feel the pain. Inspiration has found me.
In writing, when you reach the magic mile, it is like your muse has finally arrived and given you everything you need to write. You feel excited by it. You could go on forever. Something is born within you, something native and yet it feels alien. When it passes, you feel as energized as when you started.
This muse is not supernatural. She isn't some magical deity bestowing a gift upon you. This muse is you - your hard work and maintenance efforts and all those external elements finally working together. She is the result of your writing muscles knitting themselves into stronger tissue.
It Doesn't Get Easier, You Just Get Stronger - It is important to know that not every time you write will be a magic mile. But, the more you practice, the faster and stronger you will feel. The work is not getting any easier. When I run the same hill for the sixth week in a row but suddenly I feel strong enough to tackle it, it isn't because the hill has gotten smaller. It's because my muscles have gotten stronger.
The more you write, the more likely it is that you'll reach the magic mile. As a bonus, you'll start to see improvements and gains in your maintenance writing, as well. Editing will feel easier. You won't worry so much about cutting out the stuff that isn't working. You'll feel confident in your ability to write what you need. Your creativity will come quicker. You'll be eager to share it with the world.
As a writer, chances are good that this urge to create has clung to you through out your life. Perhaps it manifested itself in other ways but it was always there, prompting you to go, to run, to write. It is easy to get sidelined by frustration but the only cure is to do the work. Stick with it. Trust in your ability to strengthen your writing muscles. Know that it takes time and settle into your native tempo. But, even if you do give it up for a time, I'm not worried. You are a writer. You are horrible at quitting.
Brianne M. Kohl writes and submits her short stories for publication from her home in North Carolina. Her stories have appeared in several publications including Spark: A Creative Anthology Volume IV, The Bohemyth, The Stoneslide Corrective and The Masters Review: New Voices. Visit her at www.briannekohl.com or follow her on twitter: twitter.com/BrianneKohl