Write Like You Run

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Mason-research2

These index cards represent the research for 23 books and many magazine articles. Writing is for endurance athletes.

The request came late November. A children’s book packager reached out asking if I had to time outline, right, and research 6 nonfiction books. Oh, and by the by, could I get those done in 6 weeks?

It was grueling work. I rose around 5am every morning. I worked until my various day jobs required me to leave the house. I returned in the early evenings to eat a quick dinner, wash dishes, and then settle back at my desk to resume the project until midnight or 1am. I gathered research facts on index cards which I could easily shuffle into outlined chapters. I drafted crappy paragraphs. I revised them into mildly improved paragraphs.

I repeated the process day after day.

I am no soldier. I moaned and griped when glopping out of bed or trudging back to the desk with the same relative energy and personality of ear wax. I couldn’t do this! I was spent. I’d already had a long day. My brain was shot! I should just forget about it and go back to bed.

That negative, sinister, doom-and-gloom voice every person hears whispering from time to time…. It has successfully talked me out of many accomplishments, big and small, over my lifespan.

But I knew every hour I put off was an hour I could not afford inside this contractual deadline.

As the weeks passed and raw fatigue slobber-gnawed on my spirit, I delighted one evening when a different voice whispered out of the mental ether.

This one had a defiant, dauntless, take-charge edge. It was as warm and steady and confident as the light from an oil lamp. Best of all, I recognized it as the same voice that arose when I started learning how to run longer distances.

20181221_104832I am not a natural or gifted runner. Even so, I enjoy it immensely. I get hours of meditative time out on high desert and alpine trails. Time spent in the precious present moment. No past regrets to haunt me. No future events to boogey-man me. Just the sprawling, limitless now.

Joys aside, I struggled with form and pacing when I needed to attain half marathon distances. Miles short of my daily or weekly training goals, I would often putter out and walk the remainders. Then, one day, when my goal was only 1.5 miles away and my feet were aching and my leg muscles were screaming louder than Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solos and I was on the verge of tears thinking I’d have to yet again quit and fail to reach a set goal…the lamplight voice emerged.

You can do this, the voice said as a matter of fact. You can keep running to that tree. It’s only a few feet away. Try it.

Its tone was so declarative. It neither mandated nor manipulated me with guilt. I couldn’t help but follow its suggestion. Just before I reached the target tree, the lamplight voice indicated another tree further ahead. You can make it to that one. And so I did.

20181223_124551Tree by tree, I hit my goal that day. On future runs, that inner coach always emerged. It was there on race days, guiding me to the finish line.

And here it was again, when all I wanted to do was cry and punish myself for taking on a ridiculous project with a ridiculous deadline.

You can do this. You can do anything for about 30 minutes, it coached me.

Yes, I thought. Yes I could.

30 minutes passed and I had more words on the page. I was also warmed up and on a roll. Now the ideas were flowing fast.

You can do 30 more minutes, the lamplight voice indicated without pomp or demand.

I sure can, I thought.

And by midnight or so, I had a yet another chapter drafted. And at last, the entire project was done. On time.

I enjoyed a brief break for the winter holidays. And then, the book packager reached out again. They had 10 books authored by others in need of a dynamic voice with supercharged language–my specialty. Could I…?

Yes, I replied. Yes I could.

Oh, and could I take on writing and researching 4 other books due in 4 weeks?

Yes, I replied. I absolutely could.

I am not advocating for extreme assignments with catastrophic deadlines. I am, however, here to say that we all have little voices in our heads. Each one tells us a particular story about what is and is not possible. Luckily, we get to choose which voice we listen to.

When the Words Breathe

A five-week beginner meditation class? Right now? In the middle of letting go…processing loss…the death of my wildest dreams?

Yes, please!

For the first class, I and fifty other beginners settled on the zafu cushions at the local Dharma Center and listened to the instructor’s lectures on mindfulness, the Four Noble Truths, accepting the inevitability of suffering as a path to ending pain, and loving-kindness. I spent solid hunks of hours, eyes closed, mind quiet, awareness focused solely on the body and the breath. I knew only the contours of the present moment.

Inhale.
Exhale.
Notice: I am breathing.
Repeat.

Meditation was a cinch!

At the end of class, we novices received a homework assignment: meditate every day. For as many minutes as we wanted. At any time of day.

A week passed and we beginning meditators congregated at the Dharma Center yet again.

“How was the practice going at home?” the instructor inquired.

We all shrugged, hoping to pass off guilt as nonchalance because hardly anyone actually did the homework. Or maybe we did for a day or two, but then…well, a million factors fouled up repeat attempts. A nagging voice owled in the back of the head insisted: there wasn’t time, and besides, what good would it do, and wouldn’t it be more satisfying to binge The Grand Tour?

That was certainly my experience. Meditation didn’t fit in the morning routine. It didn’t slide anywhere into the afternoon. And before I knew it, 11pm haunted the clocks and no way was I going to stay up even later to sit and breathe.

Tomorrow. I’ll do it tomorrow! Cross my heart.

And then…tomorrow’s 11pm arrived with no meditation accomplished.

I marveled at my wild, insatiable inability. Didn’t I feel fabulous after meditating in class? Yes. Didn’t I find a stronger, swifter ability to identify my negative, self-defeating thoughts and habits and work through them? Without a doubt.

So why couldn’t I make the practice happen? Why couldn’t I get it to stick? And why did this mystifying resistance feel so familiar?

Oooohhhh, riiiiight. I had the same trouble, the same reluctance, establishing a reliable daily writing practice.

Plenty of writers struggle with what the pros call “B-I-C,” or butt-in-chair” time. And just like the meditation practice, writing habits suffer from those myriad competing factors.

Time. Work. Family. Pets. Time. Add to all that the inner voice—the one made of turpentine and bolt rust—which hisses: What’s the point? It’s not like you’re any good. No one’s going to bother reading that drivel. Published anything lately? Or…ever?

And yet, in order to succeed (master writing skills, complete a project, or revise a story), the writer must create a solid writing habit. Likewise, if the novice meditator is to ever acquire equanimity (or just a smidgeon of enlightenment), she must develop the practice.

“Even the Dalai Lama practices meditating every day,” my instructor kindly coached.

With only a couple classes left and no still no devoted practice in place, I weaseled the conundrum, ripping it open to find the solution in its guts. Showing up to class was easy. I never missed it. Of course, I had paid for the class; whereas, I paid nothing to meditate at home. Was the solution a penalty jar to which I would pay a fine each time I failed to meditate? Probably not. It hadn’t helped the writing. Pay to take a writing class—hell, go in debt for an entire graduate program—but when the course is over, no one and nothing is around mandating you sit down and write…at home…for free.

What else made attending class so easy? What other factors made the act of showing up to meditate one night a week so intractable?

Well, the “classroom” in the Dharma Center always had the essential supplies set out and ready for use. A cushion was there waiting for me. Also, the instructor always had a topic to explore, a purpose for being there, a technique to try during the guided meditations. Finally, each class always concluded with a spoken reminder—an invitation—to return for more practice. “See you next week. Same time,” the instructor said.

As an experiment, I replicated these classroom facets at home. I set up my little meditation space: a cushion, a blanket, and a timer were now waiting for me. I then considered the purpose of my at-home meditation. I pondered the technique or focus I could apply. Then I designated my class time: the next day at such-and-such time. I spoke the invitation aloud. When the appointed time rolled around, to my delight, I showed up, I sat down, began to breathe, and listened as the bolt rust voice gurgled up and did its best to dissuade me.

I was neither surprised nor discouraged. The voice arose in the actual meditation class, too. The instructor knew it would and told us novices to simply notice it and return the attention to our breathing. As time expanded, the voice diminished. The timer dinged and I voiced the invitation to return, “Same time tomorrow.”

It’s been a few weeks since class ended, but my daily practice continues. It has solidified into my routine. And to my fellow writers, I offer this approach if you are struggling to pin down your own regular writing practice. Set up the writing space and set out the supplies. Make sure a chair, paper, and pen are always there, waiting for you to arrive. Plan your “lesson.” Consider what you will do when you arrive at the writing space. The purpose can be open (I will write) or specific (I will write chapter one). Or, you can experiment using an exercise from a craft book. Then appoint the “class time.” Tomorrow at 6 a.m. or 10:30 p.m. Maybe plug it into your calendar, as you might a real class.

Finally, when the time comes, arrive at your space. Take your supplies in hand. Notice the turpentine talk, and without buying into its narrative, simply write.

Write one word.
Write another.
Notice: I am writing.
Repeat.

Let the words flow as effortless, as limitless, as essential as breath.

Images (from top to bottom): “Meditation” by Worlds’ Direction (PD); “a bit clumsy” by Vicki DeLoach (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); “Meditation” by Scott Schumacher (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); and “Pen” by Jorge Letria (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).