Birthdays, Marathon Running, and Life

This time last year I turned 49 years old – a few weeks after our youngest kid went to college and in the middle of the FORGE book tour. Immediately I started to think about what it would mean to turn 50.

In the decade between my 40th and 50th birthdays, I wrote and published six novels and three picture books. I also spent roughly one thousand days – 2.7 years travelling to schools, conferences, and on book tour. And I got divorced, remarried, moved twice, took care of dying parents, cheered from the sidelines as our first three kids navigated the shoals of high school and college, survived cancer, and read a lot of books.

I was tired.

As I hurtled towards my 50th, it was time to recover, reevaluate, and regroup. One of the first things I did was to give myself permission to exercise as much as I wanted. Shortly after that, I signed up for a marathon, something that I’ve always wanted to do.

My Beloved Husband is a born runner; he nearly qualified for States in high school, and is not all that much slower at age 53. Me? Not so much. I am a turtle. The back-of-the-pack runner. When God was handing out speed, I was in the library reading. But running does not have to be about winning. Running is best enjoyed when you stay in the moment, the child-like moment of play, heart pounding strong, hair flying, grinning from ear to ear. Zen running. It’s much like writing, when it works.

BH and I decided that we had two marathon goals: 1) to complete the darn thing, and 2) to complete it without needing medical intervention. We decided to try to run the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC.

We headed down to DC well before dawn last Friday. I was nervous. I had trained hard this summer, but had it been enough? I was so nervous, I ordered a big plate of fettucini Alfredo for dinner the night before the race.

I also forgot to eat or drink anything between my 3am breakfast and the 8 am start of the race. I was nervous about everything, but I was super-nervous about the Beat The Bridge rule. Anyone who didn’t make it to the bridge at Mile 20 by the cut-off time would suffer the heartbreak of having to ride the Straggler’s Bus to the finish line.

Given my natural lack of speed, this was a distinct possibility.

And of course, I was nervous about the notion of running 26.2 FREAKING MILES!

Thankfully, the race started before I collapsed from anxiety. It was cool, crisp, and sunny, perfect running weather. The first seven miles flew by, then the fettucini Alfredo kicked in. I will spare you the graphic details. Let’s just say I now hold the record for Number Of Panicked Port-A-Potty Stops During A Marathon.

But racing alongside so many soldiers and veterans, in the capital of the United States, kept my belly woes in perspective. I was surrounded by people who sacrificed more than I could even imagine. It was an honor to run alongside them.

One of the best parts of the day for me was that we shared it with two of our daughters and their partners. This is me catching my first glimpse of the whole crew around Mile 9 in Georgetown.

I ran into my family a few times on the course, which was a much-needed boost, especially between Miles 15 and 19.95 when I was having serious doubts about my ability to Beat the Bridge. But I had no idea what they had prepared for me. They had changed into these shirts….

…..pointing out that 26.2 Is The New 50. I did not start crying until I was past them. I cried because I was so happy. My blessings overflow my cup; love, family, friends, health, country, the chance to do good work, the joy of being very, very alive. I was, and am, deeply grateful.

We made it! Both my husband and I finished the race and neither of us needed medical intervention. The sight of him running down the hill to greet me as I crossed the finish line will stay with me forever.

Running a marathon felt exactly like writing a novel. I was scared. I was exhilarated. I doubted myself. I had supreme confidence. I cursed myself for a blind, arrogant fool. I leaned on my family for encouragement. I whined. I dreamed. I struggled. I took inspiration from the people around me. I laughed. I sang. I prayed. And I celebrated.

Here’s to the next fifty years!!

WFMAD Day Almost The Last

First things, first. As I post this, Muslims on the other side of the world are waking up and celebrating the end of Ramadan. Eid Sa‘eed!

If you are celebrating the Eid, I hope you have a blessed day. I also hope (if you’ve been following this blog for the past month), you’re able to take fifteen minutes to write. That goes for all of you who are not celebrating the Eid, too!

Indonesian Muslim children in a parade celebrating Eid al-Fitr in Jakarta. Photo credit Dita Alangkara/AP

OK, time to change the topic and think about writing.

I live in a rural, poor area that has been hit incredibly hard by the last couple of years. I find myself thinking about poverty, and its causes and effects, a lot. One of the frustrating things about the state of literature (at least in the United States) is that it is largely a product of the middle or upper class. Working people; farmers, carpenters, factory workers – not to mention the chronically unemployed generally have bigger issues to deal with than “My Muse is being a bitch and won’t talk to me.”

Maybe this doesn’t frustrate you. But it frustrates the hell out of me. Hence, today’s prompt.

Ready… If you need some hard numbers to help you think about the class structure in America, check this out. Or read about what America’s economic crisis looks like from England.

Set… “I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all.” Richard Wright

Today’s prompt: Either write about your character coming in contact (and/or conflict) with someone who is from a different economic class than he is, or write about your own class experience. Can you remember the first time you realized that some people have more money than others? Class differences can spark strong emotions, but we are often taught to suppress these feelings and to guard our behavior in these situations. The strong emotional currents this creates provides the writer with a wealth (ahem) of material.


Write about what you don’t know about a social or economic class, or a lifestyle that is completely different than yours.

Scribble… Scribble… Scribble…

WFMAD Day 29 – Slaying Demons of Doubt

I’ve heard from a number of you recently about the struggle to maintain your confidence during the writing process. Many (all?) of you are beset by doubts about your talent, your current project, the competition, the marketplace, your future, and pretty much everything related to being a writer.

So am I.

Frankly, it’s amazing any of us manage to get out of bed in the morning.

I think that being plagued by the Demons of Doubt is the hardest part of being a writer. (Please note – if you are writing, you are a writer. It doesn’t matter if you are published or not.)

So what are we supposed to do?

Ready… We’re just about at the end of the 2011 WFMAD Challenge. If you’re looking for a writing buddy to help you keep up your writing momentum until next year, post your email address and name in the Comments section. Get yourself a new, writing-only Hotmail or other address if you don’t want to publicize your real one.

Set… “It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.” Virginia Woolf

Today’s prompt: The Demons of Doubt will always sit on your shoulders. Sorry. It’s a law of writing physics.

You cannot banish them, but you can defang them.

Think about the best day writing you ever had; that perfect storm of creation during which you lost track of where you were and the passage of time – the best day when you lost yourself in the world of your novel. Write about that day in beautiful, loving detail.

That is your shield. You will wave this in the face of the demons when they rise up and try to infect you with their bile. To hell with them!

Stop thinking about the marketplace. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are. It doesn’t matter if you have an MFA or not. It certainly does not matter if you think what you are writing is any good yet. (You are a WRITER, for the love of Pete! That means you’ll be REVISING. A LOT!!! Stop wasting energy judging your work and then beating the crap out of yourself because it sucks. Instead, use that energy to lift up the shield you just wrote. Fasten onto the memory of your best writing day. Then summon another day like that and get to work.

Scribble… Scribble… Scribble…

WFMAD Day 27 – Go Bag

I think the most striking statistic about Hurricane Irene so far is CNN’s statement that the storm will affect 1 in 6 Americans. (I’m still trying to wrap my head around this.) We are far away from the danger; might get some wind and a little rain. We’re used to losing power frequently, so that’s not a problem. I sure hope those of you who are in Irene’s path stay safe, snug, and dry.

image credit Associated Press

In case your power is about to go out, let’s get busy right away with tonight’s Irene-inspired prompt.

Ready… Make sure that you pack a notebook (the kind made out of paper) and sharpened pencils in your go bag. Natural disasters provide all kinds of inspiration and you need your tools! (It’s easier to write in the rain with pencils than pens.)

Set… “To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power.” Maya Angelou

Today’s prompt: Your character has five minutes to throw his most important possessions into a backpack, because the hurricane has changed course and he and his family must flee. What goes in the bag? Why? And what is hidden in that small wooden box that he pulls down from the top shelf of his closet when no one is looking? Be as detailed as possible. This is a chance to show character by the decisions he makes.

Scribble… Scribble… Scribble…

WFMAD Day 26 – Permission to write suckaously

Several of you asked me to address the universal discomfort of sucky early drafts.

Given the barn floor quality of my early drafts, I consider myself an expert in this area. “Queen of Awful Early Drafts,” that’s what you can inscribe on my crown.

Here’s the thing they probably don’t tell you in MFA school: writing a book that is good enough to be published will always take longer than you want it to. Much longer. As in, it could take years longer.

So what?

You haven’t bet the mortgage payment on being published in the next six months. The health of your children or partner doesn’t depend on how many words you wrote today. And no matter how hard you try, your writing will not change the path of Hurricane Irene.

One of the best things I ever did to help my career was to pay a visit to the Cornell University Library. There, in the third sub-basement, and after surrendering my driver’s license and kidneys to the gorgon guarding the door, I went into a hermetically sealed room, and pawed through the papers of E. B. White.

Guess what? He wrote some HORRIBLE pages in the early drafts of Charlotte’s Web. Stanky! He rewrote the opening chapter something like eight times!!!

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that my writing talent and skills even come close to those of E. B. White. So if he needed time and space to write suckaously in order to find his path to his clear writing and brilliant storytelling, then I sure as hell have permission to muddle and muck around as much as I need.

You have permission to write sucky.

You do not have permission to submit sucky writing.

You have permission to write as many drafts as required to bust out of suckaiousness and into something that readers will enjoy.

You do not have permission to whine because the process takes longer than you want.

Ready… Make sure you have stored one gallon of water for each person in your house for the next seven days. Plus water for your pets. And realize that if the hurricane does mess up your life this weekend, there’s a chance that you might not be able to flush your toilet for a while. (Hurricanes give writers such good material to work with!!!)

Set… “Be obscure clearly.” E. B. White

Today’s prompt: Write yourself a permission note to write less than Newbery- or Pulitzer quality in early drafts. Be sure to note things like the fact that you are not a demi-god, and that demi-gods are crappy writers anyway, and if it were easy, you wouldn’t be challenged and you’d be trying to do something else, like composing duets for harpsichord and spoon. Heap it on. Shovel hard. Try to fill two pages in fifteen minutes.

Scribble… Scribble… Scribble…