I used to believe that writing was like sex: If you weren’t in the mood, chances are nothing much would happen. Oh, you might struggle out a few paragraphs or fake your way through a page or two. But the good stuff, the sweating and twisting and giving it all you have stuff? The pay-off stuff? That required a little more mental (or should I say emotional?) finesse.
But I was in this writing group, you see. And each month I sat on various couches in various houses as members handed in stories for discussion, and each month my hands slumped empty because while I was working on a novel, I wasn’t ready to see it through anyone else’s eyes (i.e., I was too insecure to let anyone read it).
Finally, I announced that I would hand in work the following meeting. Then I drove home and promptly forgot about my group.
I forgot for three weeks.
Then one evening I came in from a long run. It was early May and the trails were muddy and everything was turning that early green that feels so heartbreakingly hopeful. I glanced at the calendar and suddenly realized that my writing group met in less than a week and I had nothing to submit.
I decided to write something right then, something quick, a page or two, maybe the beginning or a short story or a long prose poem. Nothing much, just something to appease my guilt, you know?
I sat down at the breakfast nook, still in my dirty running clothes, my shirt reeking of sweat, my legs lined with mud. I sat and stared at my blank computer screen and honestly, there was nothing I wanted to write about except running. I was in the middle of marathon training and wanted to talk about how it felt when I ran, the thrill and the pain of it, and how my mind first resisted this pain and then folded around it, much like wrapping a Christmas present, and how I nestled this pain to me, I carried it with me, savored it, enjoyed it in an odd and satisfying way.
I started writing. I sat there in my smelly clothes, my lips coated with salt, and I wrote. By the time I finally looked up, it was past . I threw some vegetables on the stove, let the dog out, fed the cats, and sat back down. I wrote throughout the night. I didn’t shower or change my clothes. I sat there in my own sweat, in my own stink, and wrote one of the most honest essays I’ve ever produced.
Then I collapsed on the futon and when I woke and read over what I had written, I became afraid, the way I sometimes become afraid before I run, the anticipated distance swimming up before me until I am sure, I am utterly convinced that there is no way I can ever run sixteen or eighteen or twenty miles.
That essay, “Running,” written so quickly, so furiously, when my glycogen levels were depleted and my hands were shaking from fatigue, unexpectedly went on to win the 2012 Sport Literate Essay Contest and was recently selected for the Best American Sports Writing 2013 collection.
I learned this: There is no magic writing formula, no perfect time to write. Or, more bluntly, if you sit around waiting for your muse, you’re going to be sitting on your ass for a long, long time.
Yet, most of us do this. I still do this. I tell myself, “I can’t write tonight. I’m tired. I’m not in the mood. My stomach hurts.
Most of us harbor the myth of the perfect writing room, the perfect writing moment, the perfect piece of writing.
But writing isn’t romantic. It’s work, and it’s hard, too. It’s the hardest thing most of us will ever do. (Writing a book is much, much scarier and more difficult than running a marathon, trust me on that.)
The real loss of putting off writing or waiting for the perfect writing moment isn’t so much in the story, essay or poem we never finish so much as the opportunity writing presents, the chance to grow and expand, to connect to both ourselves and others, to look out from our very small space of world and realize that everything is bigger and lusher and more lasting than we had ever imagined.
There’s a saying among runners: You only regret the runs you never take.
Writers need to adopt a similar motto. We need to start regretting the stories we put off for tomorrow. We need to sit down and tell them, today.
Cinthia Ritchie’s first novel “Dolls Behaving Badly” released from Grand Central Publishing in February. Her work can be found at “Best American Sports Essays
2013,” “Evening Street Review,” Mary: A Journal of New Writing,”
“New York Times Magazine,” “Memoir,” Water-Stone Review,” “Sport Literate,”
“Third Wednesday” and others. She blogs about writing and running at www.cinthiaritchie.com.