Sunday, October 23, 2016

Running and Writing

I’ve never really identified as a runner.

There have been periods of my life when I have run. Four road races, ranging from 5Ks to Ten Milers, and in each case I made a point of running for weeks if not months in advance to get in good enough shape so I could achieve respectable times.

Throughout my college years, I typically ran on a weekly basis--my only meaningful, regular source of exercise.

But I’ve never been like my friends who will absent-mindedly run sixteen miles when they only meant to run twelve on a leisurely Saturday morning, and running has never come easily enough to me to consider it form of relaxation and a canvas for reflection the way I’ve heard it functions for some true runners.

By the time I lived in Oregon, I only ran for one purpose, though I did it at least two or three times per week.

I ran to catch the bus.

Hefting fifteen pounds of backpack, and more often clad in the dress shoes, khakis, and collared shirts I wore to teach, I made the absurd jog from my apartment at back of the complex to the edge of the parking lot where the bus picked up each day. I had timed myself. Walking at my normal pace, I could make the journey in about six-to-seven minutes. Running as fast as I could, I could get there in just over two. More often than not, I got out my door with only four or five minutes before my the online tracker on my iPhone told me the bus would arrive.

So, I ran.

And as I ran, I recalled advice I’d heard from friends about the emphasis of running to move you forward. How inexperienced runners, and particularly people who had done most of their formative running on treadmills, tended to have a bouncing gait, bobbing up and down with each step. Unnecessary vertical movement that not only looked silly but wasted both energy and time for not moving the runner forward.

On one such morning, as I focused on the length of my stride and remained steady and low, I thought of how the same principles might apply to writing.

Like many young writers, I'd heard the advice to get my butt in the chair and my pen to paper (or, my hands to the keyboards) to get to work. As Ann Lamott approves, shitty first drafts are a way of life. Revision is king. But the first step is simply to do the work.

And I thought of how I have espoused that philosophy. Aiming to write five hundred or a thousand words a day at different times and for different projects, and more importantly getting to work every day, whether I’m busy, sick, or on vacation.

I kept moving forward.

And I've dreamed of those days when pristine prose will simply arrive at their fingertips. When it will feel effortless. And those days do come, albeit few and far between, always the exception and not the rule. Thus, like an experienced poker player grinds his way through hands and waits to strike on a humdinger, and like a hunter doesn’t pull the trigger until she has a clean shot, and, indeed, like a runner doesn’t hit the ground too hard with each step or bounce too high, as a writer, I, too, remain patient and faithful. I wait. And I work.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Make the Choice

I felt a certain level of inevitability as a child. That one day I would go to college. That I would have a job. I would get married and have my own children and my own house. A lot of this sense of the inevitable is rooted in a place of privilege. While I didn’t grow up affluent, I did grow up in a middle-to-upper-middle class household. My parents owned their house and both of them had not only went to college, but met while they were earning their Master's degrees. My father opened a college fund for me before I started elementary school, and filled out the paperwork for me to open a Roth IRA when I got my first job, folding sweaters at a discount clothing store at the mall.

Still, this sense of inevitability wavered. The first cracks--it was around the fourth or fifth grade, at the start of a new school year, and it occurred to me that I might not pass the grade. That there was a lot to learn, a lot of pressure, and how could one successfully pass grade after grade after grade thirteen years running without faltering? While that fear turned out to be unfounded, at the end of my sixth grade year, I asked out a girl for the first time. Not just any girl but the one I’d been crushing on for more or less the entire school year. There was a strange cognitive dissonance to the whole scenario. That the starry-eyed dreamer in me thought that of course we’d end up together. That the budding cynic in me recognized, of course the shy, un-athletic kid whose nose was always running wasn’t going to get one of the prettiest girls in the school to be his girlfriend.

She said no. And while fears of failing a grade dissipated, fears that I would never find a romantic partner took root in my psyche, for despite a series of profound crushes, throughout those middle and high school years, and despite asking these girls to dance or passing along awkward love notes or sending friends to test the waters for me because I was too nervous to talk to these girls (I’m not sure what I thought would happen if one of them did say yes), I never so much as made out with a girl until my freshman year of college.

Besides school and girls, I decided it was my destiny to be a great author, and moreover a great young author. Between the eighth grade and sophomore year of college, I’d drafted five novels. I checked out books from the library about writing query letters to publishers, and began to amass a pile of form rejections in my bedroom.

Like just about any writer who has accomplished anything, I’m proud of those rejections now. Rejections mean you’re trying.

And trying was the corollary to my crumbling sense of inevitability. The realization that I was going to make my own life, and while it was frightening that it wasn’t all going to fall in line with my intentions or my preconceived notions of what a life ought to be, there was also something exciting about that. The prospect that if I kept trying--kept making choices--my life might shift in any number of directions.

Fast forward to my life immediately after college. I was in my first multi-year, live-in relationship. I had a good, stable university job that wasn’t too far from where I’d grown up, so I could still make it home for holidays. I was writing. I had the seeds for some semblance of the life I’d always imagined I might have, and before I knew it, that sense of inevitability had taken hold once again.

The easiest thing to do would have been to have seen that scenario through. To have settled down for a life in Syracuse, New York, to have married this woman, to have kept writing, as time permitted, as an avocation.

Instead, I decided to apply for, and then chose to take a job I’d always aspired to in Baltimore, three hundred miles away. Nine months later, for the first time, I ended a relationship.

I won’t bore you with every personal and professional pursuit that’s passed between then and now. But I will say that I chose to apply for a promotion, and took the job offer when it came. I chose to travel to the west coast for the first time.

I worked with Heather for a summer in California and, at the tail end of that time, had some of the most captivating conversations of my life. When I was passing through her area a couple weeks later, I chose to text to see if she wanted to hang out.

We chose to hang out. Chose to hold hands. Chose to kiss for the first time as the daylight faded, knee-deep in the Pacific Ocean off Black’s Beach in San Diego.

We chose to start a long-distance relationship from three thousand miles apart for our first year together.

I chose to apply to MFA programs. To put my writing first, in earnest, for the first time. And when I was admitted to Oregon State, Heather chose to make the move to Corvallis with me.

I chose to propose. She chose to say yes.

And Heather brought up the point that we should not enter marriage blindly. That we were choosing one another, but it was a choice we’d need to continue to make if we were to stay together across years, across decades, across a lifetime. That people grow apart, or stop growing together. There was something terrifying in acknowledging the truth in what she said. That for the relationship we had built, coming to understand one another’s ambitions and preferences and neuroses, it still might not mean that we'll stay together forever. But there’s something reassuring there, too. To be with a partner who is constantly making a choice to be with me. To know that I am making that choice, too.

Today, we make another choice together. To see through the promise of our proposal, our engagement. To very literally bring our families together to bear witness to ceremonial rights, and to converge on a dance floor.

And for that our first dance as a married couple, Heather and I will dance to this song: