Business Musings: Obsession, Delusion, and Writing
I read Runner’s World religiously. I think I got my subscription in the previous century, when I toyed with participating in the local triathlon. I wasn’t running then; I was swimming and biking to stay in shape. I subscribed to some swimming and cycling magazines as well, but those magazines didn’t hold my attention.
Runner’s World did, partly because it’s an exceptionally well-written, well-edited magazine. It’s not just a collection of notes about a sport I’m peripherally involved in.
Over the years, I had health issues that made swimming difficult and I got a second bike injury. I still have surgery occasionally because of my first bike accident at age 9. The second was a warning shot across the bow. If everything ran in threes, the third accident wouldn’t cause an injury; it would kill me.
So I started walking. Then, I added in running. I can’t tell you why, exactly, especially since I used to tell people I would never do it. Now, I run five times per week—or, in reality, I’m working my way back to that after the car incident of a few weeks ago. (Injury recovery: such fun.)
There’s something about running that’s kinda cool. People cheer you on. From a very drunk woman who stood in the doorway of her house and cheered me on like I was leading a race (maybe she saw 3 of me) to the occasional tourist who gives me a thumbs-up, people generally support what I’m doing…which I find really weird. It’s taken a while to accept that this is part of the running experience. No one cheered me on when I swam or rode my bike. No one gave me a thumbs-up when I got on the treadmill at the gym. Instead, in those instances, other exercisers and I would pretend that others didn’t exist.
One particularly cloudy day a month ago, a runner—sweat-covered, going much faster than I do—ran toward me on a long sidewalk near the highway. Just before we reached each other, he switched his water bottle from his right hand to his left, and kept that right hand up. Fortunately, I had a second to realize that he wanted to high-five. We did, and both of us kept going.
Honest to God, if that had been a scene from a movie or a comic book, there would’ve been a spark of light and energy transferred at that touch. Because I had been flagging at that moment, and the positive encouragement, the acknowledgement that we were both doing this, was enough to boost my spirits and keep me going.
Writers support each other too. If you’re lucky, you end up with a great support system, not just from your writing peers, but from your friends and family. They help you clear time to write. They make sure you have the right equipment. They read your work and celebrate with you when you make a sale to a traditional market or post your indie book into all the various retail sites.
But there’s a big huge difference between runners and writers, and I didn’t realize what it was, exactly, until I read two articles back to back this week.
I’m sure you’ve all seen the first. Stephen King wrote one of his every-five-years or so essays defending the prolific writer. His essays are always a little defensive, because he’s writing for the literary crowd, and always a little perplexed, as if he’s not sure why people complain when someone writes fast. (I’m perplexed about that too.)
This essay, in The New York Times, reads like something provoked it. Some authority figure criticized someone he cares about for writing too fast. Or there’s a discussion that I’m not seeing somewhere that he felt the need to respond to. (Oh, God. Another internet fight. [sigh]) And, like so many people, he confuses his personal taste for a solid definable standard of quality. (Although, when he criticizes some prolific writers, he might simply be throwing some meat to lions to keep them at bay.)
But it strikes me that in no other art does anyone have to timidly propose this thesis that King does:
My thesis here is a modest one: that prolificacy is sometimes inevitable, and has its place. The accepted definition — “producing much fruit, or foliage, or many offspring” — has an optimistic ring, at least to my ear.
Pianists practice. Jazz pianists often practice in public, with improv sessions that become legendary. Artists learn their craft by copying old masters, and then, once they’ve done that enough, artists sketch, often daily, sometimes hourly, and eventually put those sketches into something solid. No one ever told Picasso that he painted too much (as far as I know, anyway). And we’re always reading about some new painting, some new sketch, by some famous artist being discovered in an attic somewhere.
I’ve often used sports metaphors when I discuss writing. No one tells LeBron James that he needs to shoot fewer baskets in practice, so that he can save his best work for a playoff game. We get better at something the more we do it, not worse. That’s how human beings are made.
I’ve discussed this before, particularly in the blog posts on perfection (which became a short book: The Pursuit of Perfection.) But I didn’t take the sports metaphor quite far enough, and it wasn’t until I came across the editorial in the July Runner’s World that I realized what I was missing.
It’s an attitude. A reality check, if you will.
Editor David Willey wrote his editorial about racing. I have no idea how many races there are around the country every weekend, let alone every year. Hundreds, maybe thousands. Some of the races are for fun, and some are qualifiers for the bigger races, like Boston. Those qualifiers and the bigger racers have a huge prize pool and more than bragging rights: they’re athletic events that get covered on the news, and recorded in the record books. When someone wins the New York Marathon, that person makes international news. Usually that person is an Olympic qualifier or a former Olympian.
We’re talking superstar athletes.
Around those superstar athletes are average-joe runners. Well, not average-joe in some of those big races, because those runners had to qualify. But we’re still talking a crowd of people. I mentioned New York, which had 50,564 finishers in 2014, which made it the biggest marathon ever. Average “important” marathons usually have 35-40,000 finishers.
That’s a lot of runners, most of whom have no hope of crossing the finish line first.
Note I didn’t mention “winning,” because runners are very clear about the varied definitions of winning. Winning for a non-elite athlete might be a personal best. Or it might be—as it was for me in my first (and so far only) 5K—just showing up. It might be finishing (also a victory for me in that 5K).
Willey discusses that in his July editorial. But it was this paragraph that caught my eye:
In any race, the last finisher is no more a “loser” than one who finishes in the middle, and I have just as much respect for the runner who stops the clock as I have for the one who breaks the tape. First and last are very different achievements, but both require guts, ability, and dedication. A 2:03 marathon (the current world record is 2:02:57) is inconceivable to me. But I couldn’t run for seven or eight hours, either.
I went back and started reading more carefully, and found this nugget as the article’s lede:
I’ve heard a version of it uttered at almost every big race I’ve ever run, usually as a way to calm prerace nerves. I’ve said it myself: “I know two things for sure. I’m not going to win and I’m not going to lose.” In other words, relax, run your own race, and try to enjoy it.
I stopped, and thought about that in conjunction with the Stephen King essay, and had a tiny epiphany about writers.
Writers always expect to win. Because they’re not trained to work, because there are a handful of examples every few years or so of someone who becomes a million-seller with his first novel, writers believe that lightning will strike them as well.
Writers never examine the amount of work that “lucky” beginning novelist has done before the big sale. Often that “lucky” beginner had writing success elsewhere in writing—as a journalist, maybe or in one case I’m familiar with, as a regional playwright. I can’t think of anyone whose very first bits of writing became a megaseller.
That’s like me somehow managing to stumble my way to the starting line at the Portland Marathon and expecting to run it in 2:15:25, the current record for a woman running a marathon.
We all know that it’s ridiculous for a middle-aged beginning runner to run like an elite athlete.
Yet writers expect to have the same success as J.K. Rowling without putting any effort into the ramp-up at all.
And I honestly believe that the attitude comes from the myths. Myths like writers shouldn’t write a lot or they won’t produce quality. Writers should write slowly to produce art. I’ve traced those myths before, and they aren’t in existence for the writers. They exist for the overworked teachers of writing.
The fact that Stephen King feels the need every few years to defend his “rapid” pace which, in the annuals of writing, isn’t that fast at all, should tell you how pervasive those myths are.
So, now, review that Runner’s World attitude. Think of a novel instead of a race. And rather than trying to “win” by making that novel perfect, think of it the way that Willey does before his races.
Relax. Write your own novel. Enjoy it.
Pull the expectations of megasuccess off it. Because if you’re acting out of the myths, you’ll make all kinds of mistakes. To stretch the running metaphor almost to the breaking point, if you go out too fast and hot in a 26.2 mile race, you will burn out or get injured.
Writers won’t write too much, but their expectations could injure them. If everyone who writes a novel expects to be the next J.K. Rowling [insert your favorite highly successful writer here], then almost everyone who tries to write a novel will be disappointed when that novel is finished.
Only a handful of writers every decade get noticed at that international level. And that number might go down as this new world of publishing allows readers to spread out and read things other than the things traditional publishing has curated.
If writers approach writing the way that runners approach running, a lot of things will change. Not just the relax, enjoy, and run your own race thing—which is exceedingly important.
Something else will happen as well.
Because, as I stepped back from Runner’s World and thought about it, I realized the reason I subscribed to the magazine after I had given up on the triathlon and wasn’t running at all was because of the magazine’s attitude.
Runner’s World assumes that runners will be obsessed with running. Not deluded by it. Every issue has articles for beginners, middle-of-the-pack runners, and elite runners. Every issue. The magazine also assumes that there are runners in the world who do not race—like me. (I would have to get up way too early to compete in most races.)
Even so, the magazine’s attitude has an underlying current of obsession. Okay, wait. That’s not accurate. The obsession isn’t underlying. The magazine assumes that runners—even non-racers, even beginners—are obsessed with all things running. That runners will spend time and money training. It also assumes that every runner will hit the pavement several times per week, and try hard not to miss.
It assumes discipline. Or it assumes that the runner wants to learn discipline.
It does talk about quality runs, but it also talks about the value of other types of runs. I just read an article on my break about the different types of training for different goals—you should run differently if you’re trying to lose weight than if you’re running to relieve stress.
There’s an assumption that while all the runners who subscribe to the magazine are equally obsessed with running, they are not equal in any way. They have different goals, different bodies, different desires, and a different way of dealing with everything.
They might be part of the masses of 40,000 runners in a large marathon, but each is running her own race. Striving, at that moment, for a personal best.
Striving. Working hard.
I came away from this particular reading experience with a strange epiphany. Runners who go out every day or every week have no delusions about where they stand. They’ll tell you that they run at a 12-minute mile pace or that their personal best was a 4-hour marathon. They’ll tell you how they hope to improve, what they’re doing to make sure they get out every day, and how they hope to avoid injury.
They won’t ever tell you that they’re going to qualify for the Olympics or that they’ll win the London Marathon—unless they’re elite runners who are actively working on those goals.
Mostly they’ll tell you how they’re dealing with their runs, given their weight, their age, and their years of running. They remind themselves every time they go out that they’re doing the very best they can, and giving it their all, but part of that all is consistency, and yes, practice. Doing it afresh all the time.
Writers, on the other hand, will tell you their delusions. They’ll tell you, upon first meeting, the plot of their novel. You know which novel. The novel that’ll make them millions. They won’t tell you how hard they work. They will tell you how brilliant they are.
The writers who actually work hard have learned to shut up years ago. We don’t talk about how prolific we are—except for me and Dean (and Dean more than me). We get crap for working hard, the very crap that Stephen King modestly proposes we do away with in his every-five-years-what’s-wrong-with-being-prolific essay.
Being delusional gets in the way of hard work. Imagine if a runner who wants to beat Paula Radcliffe’s record for the marathon simply talks about beating it, and runs every few months. Or has run one race in the past two years.
We’d all shake our heads at that runner, and maybe laugh behind her back at how silly she’s being.
However, if that runner was running every day, was following training guidelines that would keep her injury free, was practicing by racing as well as by running the neighborhood, then we would expect her to eventually get into an elite training program, with a good support staff and world-class coach, and maybe, just maybe, have a shot at that record.
We’d expect that runner to climb a ladder of achievement. Sometimes elite runners vault, skipping many rungs of the ladder, and sometimes elite runners slide down the ladder, starting all over again. (Runner’s World has articles about that too, because the best high school runners become middle-of-the-pack runners in middle-age, and it can be discouraging for them.)
We don’t expect writers to climb a ladder of achievement. Oh, we expect them to get into graduate school or something. That’s not what I mean.
I mean, we don’t tell writers that it takes more than a million written words before the writer finds his own voice. We don’t tell them that sometimes it takes several crummy novels before a writer understands the form and writes a passable one. We don’t stress practice. Or obsession.
We stress delusion.
I will never discourage a writer who wants to be the next J.K. Rowling. I do expect that writer to put in the work—the practice— it takes to write novels even one-tenth as good as hers.
And I can already see the comments. How can I say these things about practice when I tell writers who self-publish to publish their first finished novel? How can I say these things about practice when I tell writers who want to be traditionally published to submit their very first novel for publication?
Aren’t I being a hypocrite?
Because I see those acts—self-publishing the first novel or submitting it to a traditional publisher—as running in your first road race. You need to train in all parts of the business if you’re going to be as successful as J.K. Rowling. You need to practice racing. You need to stand at the starting line and see how it feels to be surrounded by others going the same way.
You need to know if you like racing before you decide to devote your life to it.
Same with writing.
Even highly successful writers have discouraging days—or, hell, discouraging years.
There’s a reason that Stephen King writes this essay every five or so years. It has nothing to do with those of us he’s writing for, and something to do with him. Clearly, being a prolific writer in a literary world that does not value the successful prolific writer bothers him on a very deep level. He’s grappling with it in one way or another, and every now and then, we see the result.
I could go on for another 3,000 words stretching the running metaphor to writing. (Those writers who collect writing books but never put a word on paper? They’re like wannabe runners who shop in athletic stores, have great shoes and top-of-the-line gear and leave it all in the back of the closet….and that’s just one more example.)
Instead, I’ll leave you with this.
Be obsessed about your writing. Practice it.
Stop being delusional about your writing. Know where you are in learning the craft and business, and figure out how to get to your goal. If you want millions of readers for your work, study the bestsellers. Figure out how they got there. And then learn how to be the best storyteller in the business.
Do the work.
Figure out your goals. Not just for today or this week. But your ultimate writing goal. Then break it into chunks. Figure out how to achieve those monthly, yearly, five-year, and ten-year goals. Have a plan, and work on it.
If you end up slipping down the ladder because of something, figure out why you slipped, figure out how to avoid doing it again, then start climbing again. Smarter, and with the right attitude.
Because attitude really is everything. And your attitude should include three things:
Strive for a personal best.
Relax and enjoy the journey.
And most of all…
Run your own race.
Even if you want to, you’ll never have J.K. Rowling’s success. Hers was a product of her time and the books she wrote. If you become an international bestseller of epic proportions, you’ll do it because of your time period and the books you write. The books you believe in.
Your definition of writing success will change over time. Once you achieve one of your goals, you’ll look to the next goal as a measure of success. Accept that, and keep moving. Keep practicing, and keep writing.
Remember, that the only way human beings become proficient in something is to do it over and over again, always trying to improve.
Ignore the myths.
Find a starting line.
Run your race.
The more you find your race, your voice, your work, the better you’ll be as a writer.
And most of all, have fun. Because writing, like running, is something we choose to do. If we’re going to choose to do something, if we’re going to obsess about it, then we should be doing it for the love of it. Not because we’ll be famous or renown. But because it’s part of who we are, and what we do.
Each and every day.
I’m back to a weekly blog because clearly I enjoy writing this. If you enjoy it too, please leave a tip on the way out.
“Business Musings: Obsession, Delusion and Writing,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog courtesy © Can Stock Photo Inc. / canphoto