Today, November 1st, 2015, thousands of people will run the New York City Marathon and thousands more across the United States and around the world will start writing their first novel for National Novel Writing Month #NaNoWriMo. Most of these people won’t be professional writers, but they have a story trapped inside and this story needs to get out.
Many people say they’d like to write a novel or memoir. Today is the perfect day to start. National Novel Writing Month is the intellectual or creative person’s equivalent of a marathon. I’ve run five marathons and written five novels, and I can tell you they are both tough and rewarding in surprisingly similar ways, and the only way to finish one is to start.
This morning, I woke up early and headed to my writing space at 5:30 AM. I passed cops towing cars along 4th avenue and setting up barriers, venders setting out their pastries and hot coffee. All across the five boroughs, people are getting ready to run the #NYCMarathon. In a few hours, the streets will be filled with runners who have their names written on their shirts. Lining the sidewalks, strangers will be screaming out their names, cheering them on. These runners will push themselves through huge mental barriers to complete the 26 miles, barriers which are similar to the ones every writer encounters when writing a novel.
The process of writing a novel is very much the same as training for and running a marathon. In both, we have to show up in some way for ourselves, every day, with the finish line in mind. We need to push through mental resistance in order to achieve our goals.
It’s not easy. In life, many tasks and obligations push in on the urge to run or the urge to write, other things that feel more important or more urgent, but then we have time to watch television or go on the Internet or go out drinking or do a whole bunch of other activities that in the end don’t give us any satisfaction. In running a marathon and finishing a novel, there are always excuses not to do it, but the rewards are great when we do.
When I’ve trained for a marathon, some days I didn’t want to run. In fact, sometimes it was so bad that running felt like a sort of torture; I’d be panting, my whole body would hurt, I’d wonder if I was getting sick, and I’d think the whole idea of running 26 miles was totally stupid. The same thing happens all the time when I write. Maybe I don’t pant. But the mental anguish, it’s the same. Some days it sucks, I can’t get into the flow, every word feels forced, and the chance of a single beautiful sentence emerging feels remote.
But in writing, as in running, you push yourself through the tough days to get to those beautiful days. Sometimes when I run, I feel like I can fly. The same thing happens when I write. On days when the writing flows and I’m in the zone, it’s magical. When I finish, I can breathe. Every writer writes for these days. We write through the crap to get to that brief moment in which writing feels like running through a field of wildflowers with a double rainbow arching above.
Not every day is going to be this perfect. Not every book comes out perfect. You don’t always get your best time when you a run a marathon. But it’s always worth it.
Out of the five novels I’ve completed, two of them were practice, one was published by Penguin (Trafficked), another novel is in revision and my last one has just been finished. I don’t know if it will be published; I have to send it to my editor to see what she thinks. However, the goal as you write cannot be publication; it has to be writing what feels real and honest to you. Later, you can decide what to do with it.
When you’ve actually written a story that’s been hammering at you from the inside, begging to get out, and finally, it is there, complete, on the page, or rather, is in fact a Big Mac sized stack of 350 pages, it’s worth every single tough day it took to get there, every miserable day of slogging out sentences that didn’t make sense. I would guess every marathoner will tell you that all those days of training through the rain, with bloody nipples (yes this happens), were worth it, in the moment they run through the finish line.
At 9:30 AM, the elite runners will be passing a block away from the Brooklyn Writers Space, where I work. This gives me three hours of writing time to write the first chapter of my next novel. When I’m done, I’m going to walk up to 4th avenue, meet my husband and kids, buy a cup of hot chocolate, and start screaming out the names of strangers who are running 26 miles. They will inspire me, just as walking through a bookstore inspires me.
If writing a novel is on your bucket list, there’s no time like right now to start your personal marathon. You won’t be alone. People everywhere will be trying to slog away in front of a computer to write a book in a month and you can be part of that energy. When you run a marathon, all the other runners are the ones who help motivate you so that you can push through those mental blocks. It happens in the same way when you do National Novel Writing Month.
Throughout November, I’ll be teaching an intensive class to teenagers who want to write their first novel. Their planned stories range from a troubled romance to a gothic thriller to a monster-filled apocalypse. They will need to write 2000 words a day to complete their goal. I’ll be giving them a daily plan with advice and tips here on Medium and I invite you to join us. After you finish this post, don’t keep surfing the Internet. Instead, start a new document, write that first page of your novel or memoir and then, keep writing.