Not many people reading this blog know it, but a while back (like, two decades ago, which was probably when some of you still needed a reminder to pull down your pants before you peed and damn but if that ain’t humbling to an ole fart like myself) I was a pretty good competitive cyclist. I raced mountain bikes mostly, in the preferred format of the day, which generally involved two hour, mass start events. At the time, cross country mountain bike racing was hugely popular; it was on the verge of becoming an Olympic sport, and the number of people willing to drive multiple hours so they could saddle their bicycles and pay to ride in circles until they vomited was really something to behold.
I raced at the highest regional level, and while I didn’t win very many events, I was consistently toward the front. I stood on the podium fairly regularly, though most commonly on its bottom step. I think the biggest thing separating me from the absolute best guys was pretty simple: I didn’t care enough. It never really bothered me that I didn’t win very often. In fact, I was always sort of amazed that I did as well as I did, and I couldn’t fathom doing many of the things the guys who were beating me did. Fly to Arizona to train in February, for instance. Or shaving their legs. Eating rice cakes. Living in their parents’ basement. That sort of stuff.
Anyway, what I really loved about riding my bike competitively was that every so often, I’d have a transcendental performance. I mean, I’d seriously be crying on the bike, and not from pain or grief, but from the pure gratitude of being allowed a glimpse of what being human can feel like. Everything would click so perfectly that I almost couldn’t feel the effort being expended, it was as if the bike were racing itself and I was merely fortunate enough to be along for the ride. This didn’t happen often – maybe one out of every seven or eight races – but it happened often enough that I never forgot the feeling. I never thought I wouldn’t experience it again. I just had to keep looking for it.
What happened the other 85% of the time? Usually, it was sort of average. Not miserable, but certainly not transcendental. Just a skinny, lycra-clad dude huffing and puffing and sweating. And on occasion, it was truly miserable. Legs like lead balloons. Lungs burning. Mind fixated on counting down the interminable minutes until the finish line. Questioning everything: the hours wasted training, the self-loathing of knowing Penny was at home, mixing cement for the concrete piers of our original cabin, while I was doing… what, exactly? Riding my bike in circles like a circus monkey and furthermore, spending money we barely had for the privilege? I’d bring her flowers if I placed high enough, lay them right in her blistered hands.
I mention this because I received an email from one of my writing students; she’s struggling with her work. I mean I know how I want to write, I just can’t seem to get this new way to come out on paper, if that makes any sense, she tells me. Oh, yeah, A, it makes sense. It makes a whole freakin’ lot of sense. It especially makes sense to me lately, ’cause truth is, I’ve been struggling, too. Like this woman, I’ve had the sense over the past couple of weeks that I know how I want to write, but I can’t quite get it to come out on paper. My suspicion is that most writers – even so-called “professional” writers – feel that way an awful lot of the time. They probably don’t want you to know that. We pros like to think there’s something sacred about our craft, that we’re the beneficiaries of a particular genius you poor commoners will never understand. Bullocks.
Here’s what I think about writing. No, scratch that: Here’s what I think about life. And bike racing, for that matter, which was the whole point of my long-winded introduction. You gotta muddle your way through a lot of shit to get to the sweet spots. Actually, it’s even more than that: You can’t even find the sweet spots if you don’t muddle through the crap. If you don’t hurt a little, if you don’t drag your sorry sick ass outside to do chores on a four below morning, you’ll never fully appreciate those August mornings when you rise at 5 full of piss and vinegar and you’re on the land by 5:30, and the cows are right where they’re supposed to be, waiting for you to drop the fence and the grass is boot-top high and so green you think there should be another word for it. If you don’t stick out the long months of winter, the truck that won’t start despite three – three! – cycles of the glow plugs, the 4:30 darkness, that craving you have for just a glimpse of sun please, please, please but even the long term forecast is all clouds and cold, you’ll never fully appreciate that day in early March when it hits 47 and the sap is running something fierce and you’re down to a tee shirt and sunburned by noon.
To my student, and to anyone who struggles with their writing (and therefore, to myself), I say this: If you don’t write the sentences that, no matter how many times you rewrite and reorder and rework them, never seem to say what you want them to say, if you don’t do that over and over and over again…. well. You’ll never find the ones that write themselves, the ones that fall into place as if they already existed (and truth is, they probably did). You’ll never know how effortless it can be – not always, not often, certainly not as frequently as you’d like. But often enough to keep calling you forward. Often enough that you do what I’ve been doing for the past couple of weeks, lurching along, doing what needs to be done. It can be a little painful. If you’re offering your work for public appraisal, as I am, it can be a little embarrassing.
It can also be no other way.