I’ve taken up running in recent years, and it’s done me quite a lot of good. Besides feeling better physically, I have benefitted from knowing that I, an old dog, am still capable of learning new tricks. I’m not a natural runner; cultivating the discipline to do it has taught me lessons that have applied elsewhere in life, including my writing life.
Here’s the most important thing I’ve learned from running: when I find myself miles from home and exhausted already, I’ve learned not to ask, “Can I run all the way home?” The truth is, I usually don’t know whether I can run all the way home. I have learned instead to ask, “Can I run to the next light pole?” The answer to that question is almost always “Yes.” And once I’ve made it to the light pole, I start thinking about the next light pole.
Of the few books I’ve read about how to write, my favorite by far is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. That book has done much to shape my day-to-day approach to writing. Lamott compares writing a book to driving at night. Your headlights don’t illuminate any farther than the next turning. But you keep going anyway, knowing that by the time you make that turn, your headlights will light the way to the next turn. And eventually you get where you set out to go.
Writing a book is a daunting task. Writing, like night-driving or distance running, requires a certain amount of faith. You set out for a destination without knowing exactly how you’re going to get there. For me, at least, it helps to remember that I don’t write books. I write pages. A book is what you have after the fact. On any given day, I’m only writing pages. I’m only running to the next light pole.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Ladder of Saint Augustine” speaks to how incremental efforts are indispensable to attaining the lofty goal. Closing lines:
“The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.”
For the rest of it:
Of course, I’m but a poetry dilettante and have no idea whether true hipster poets think Longfellow is a trite and overrated hack. But I liked this one when I saw it (on a fitness website, further to your point on running).
More succinctly there’s the ol’ “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single footstep.”
Love this post! And I love Longfellow, Steve, but then again, I’m no poetry expert either. 🙂 I think I’ll have to get that book, Mr. Rogers, and read it. I’m having a tough time writing my book.
Steve S, speaking for hipster poets everywhere, let me say with Duke Ellington, “If it sounds good, it IS good.” I thought you were going to say you found those lines from Longfellow on the box of your P90X DVDs.
Oh, and Hannah, I think you’ll find that BIRD BY BIRD has very practical encouragement for a writer.
I will have to agree with Duke Ellington. Weird how many people think otherwise. About the light pole by light pole… that reminds me of a poem (that actually mentions light poles or telegraph poles) but I can’t place it. It also reminds me of something that I CAN place: In THE HEART OF THE FAMILY by Elizabeth Goudge, this idea is addressed. One of the characters says something like, “I have to think of the next thing as if it were the ONLY thing. If I begin to think of everything at once, I find that I can’t go on.” I am sort of paraphrasing there, because I can’t remember exactly what she says, and I am too lazy to go flip through the whole book to find that one part. 🙂
psalm 119:105:Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.
A lamp at your feet just allows you to see a few steps ahead. Lamott’s headlight illustration sounds like the formula for following Christ by faith, one step at a time.
Though I long for a Maglite on my path.
Jonathan, have you read _Born to Run_ by Christopher McDougall? Fascinating stuff. I bet you’d enjoy it.
I haven’t read that, Joe, but it looks very interesting indeed.