Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Trying to Write as I Run

I've been trying to run over the past few months. I have been improving my fitness for about 18 months now, starting with walking on my treadmill. At the beginning, several years of an ultra-sedentary life (due to mental illness and then studying) meant I struggled to walk half a mile. This week, I ran for 30 minutes straight for the first time.

How did I manage to achieve this feat? I followed a programme. I put my faith into a book written by experts (Runner's World's Run Your Belly Off, if you're wondering) and simply put in the time required of me each week. I trusted that walking and jogging alternate minutes would build the foundation for a new lifestyle; that I would indeed be able to run for half an hour eventually, even as I gasped through 2 minutes of running. And you know what? It did.

You may be wondering 'why is she waffling on about running on a blog that's ostensibly about writing?' Fair enough. The reason is that running, in contrast to writing, makes it easy to track your progress. However, there are also parallels that I think could improve my writing. The main one is:

1. Putting in the time is paramount.
The optimal number of running sessions, according to folk who know (i.e. the book), is 3-5 per week. This allows sufficient recovery time whilst ensuring you put enough effort into improving. Confession time: I run 4 times a week. Have done since November. My writing is considerably more erratic - some weeks I'm motivated and write every day,other times I lose confidence and think 'what's the point?' and end up not writing at all. Yet running has shown me that it's vital to put in the hours, even if you're working at a lower level than you're capable of reaching.

2. Focus on time - not distance - in the beginning.
The running programme I followed ignores distance: you work at your own pace for the set time of the workout session. The idea is to build your fitness and muscles without worrying about how fast you can move, since that can be tackled later. The lesson I take from this is twofold:

a). It doesn't matter how many words you write in the allotted time, as long as you show up and pay attention to your writing.
b). It doesn't matter how terrible your writing is, as long as you write X number of words.

These approaches sound contradictory, but they both force you to focus on something other than how bad your writing is and whether you ought to be doing something else. I prefer the first approach for rewriting, which requires more attention to the quality of writing, and the second approach for first drafts, when producing something - anything - is more important than its quality.

3. You're racing against yourself and only yourself.
As beginners, we know it's stupid to compare ourselves to the best in our field. I don't care how I compare to Paula Radcliffe - the difference is so great it would be absurd! I only care that my running improves over tume; that I beat myself. That should be the focus of my writing - everyone's writing. What's the point in comparing yourself to other writers when what you're doing is completely different? Even writers in the same genres and with similar styles vary a lot. We are all at different stages of our careers. We all have different lives.

If you're motivated by other writers' achievements, that's great - but don't berate yourself if and when you fail to match their accomplishments. I love Hilary Mantel, for example, and would (naturally!) love to win the Booker Prize twice, but comparing my writing to hers is pointless. All it does is discourage me. However, comparing my current writing to my writing in past years shows that I have improved, even if it doesn't feel like it most of the time, and makes me determined to continue to improve. That will be true for the rest of my life - even if the quality of my writing reaches such a high standard, comparing it to other great writers will be of little value. Being the best in any given field doesn't matter as much as being the best you can be.

And so I will continue running and writing at my slow-but-steady pace because, as we often forget in the chaos and chatter of life, there is no race. We are racing against ourselves. We can't win; we can only enjoy the running and take pleasure in our improvements.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Powering Through: It's an Attitude

I love to-do lists. I gain enormous satisfaction from untangling my thoughts and then ticking off items as I get them done. I always have at least one list on the go — in addition to a general one, I sometimes have themed lists too, such as tasks related to writing. I have even been known to keep to-do lists from challenging times in my life as proof of my resilience and efficacy.

But none of this means that I always complete my to-do lists within the intended time!

I'm a terrible procrastinator, but I have learnt some techniques to give myself the push needed to get things done. Today, I am using a particularly effective one: powering through. It involves a lot of determination, which can usually be found if I weigh up a day of focused activity against a week or more of lingering uncompleted tasks, but I'm always surprised by how easy it is once I gain momentum. The only rule is that I must do everything on the list.

It really is that simple!

Kind of. I've learnt ways of making it easier, such as starting early and tackling the easiest and/or quickest tasks first, but powering through requires brute force. It needs a kick-ass attitude that accepts no excuses. If you start the day with the mantra 'I will do it' and keep repeating it, you're more likely to get everything done. It's a classic example of 'fake it until you make it.'

And in case you're wondering, I am powering through today and 'post on blog' is one of the items on my list!

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Why 2014 Will Be My Best Year Yet

2013 was pretty terrible. There were highlights and I did achieve a couple of things, but it was so full of stress and grief that most of my plans were abandoned.  I struggled to stay semi-sane, let alone fulfil my goals. Yet, amid all of the pain, I kept writing. Not every day - or even every week - but I completed a 50,000 word novel and wrote the first 50,000 words of a second novel for NaNoWriMo. One of the worst years of my life turned out to be my most productive.

I feel that last year was about laying the foundations for a better future. I have the rough material to finish a novel with market potential, which will hopefully help me get an agent. I spent the year building up a basic level of fitness and now I want to start running properly and get outside rather than sticking to the treadmill. 2014 is about putting myself out there: submitting work, querying agents, running in the countryside without worrying about looking awful or collapsing in a ditch.

I'm determined that this year will be a happy year. I want to get something back for my hard work and the only way that will happen is if I take risks. I need to submit my stories without worrying about them being so abysmal that my name gets put on some kind of writing blacklist. I want to enter competitions without obsessing over what it means if/when I don't get shortlisted. I have to find the kernel of faith I have in my writing and prove it's not misplaced.

And that's what anyone who wants to be 'a writer' has to do. No fairy godmother is going to sort through my completed short stories and tell me which are good and which are crap. No mentor is going to knock on my door offering to help me get published. No cheerleader is going to sit beside me as I write to encourage me to keep going. I have to learn to do all this for myself and I will mess up. I will submit substandard work and I will have days where I despair over whether I can ever find a modicum of success. I will write miles of dire prose full of cliches and adverbs. So what? It's better than never trying to be a writer, never putting myself 'out there'.