It’s Mental, My Dear

I ran a marathon yesterday, my 37th one. When someone finds out that I run marathons they often react in surprise that anyone would and could run 26 miles on purpose without the prospect of an Olympic medal being up for grabs. Fellow runners are a little more accepting of this especially if they run the distance themselves. There’s a kinship among marathon runners that makes us all feel relatively normal because to the outside world we appear insane. Nevertheless, if those on the outside have one thing right, it’s that the marathon is a mental case, but not in the way they would think, and not surprisingly, this idea extends to writing and life in general.

I would argue that most reasonably fit people can run ten to 15 miles without much of a problem. They may have to take walk breaks or even stop for a sandwich, but they could do it. Beyond 15 or so miles things get dicey because your mind enters into the fray. That little voice inside your head starts talking trash, and either you’re apt to listen or you’re not. Everyone has that annoying little voice in their heads, even long-time marathoners. The only difference between a marathoner and a non-marathoner is that we’ve learned how to put that voice in its place. Most likely, we’ve bound and gagged him and stuck him in a dark corner somewhere in our minds.

In order to do that, you have to really want to reach your goal. In this case, the goal is to reach the finish line. If you don’t really care about the goal, then that voice will overwhelm you and leave you in a heaping mess somewhere around mile 15. The same is true for writing. There are a lot of great success stories about writers. Just about everyone is familiar with J.K. Rowling’s story before she met great success with Harry Potter. Countless other successful writers have similar stories. If you read interviews with them, they all talk about those moments when they thought they should quit. That voice in their heads almost beat them.

Writers have to put that voice in their heads in its place much like marathon runners do if they want to be successful. It’s too easy to let it win. To add to the scrutiny, writers suffer no lack of criticism and negative feedback. That’s something that marathoners rarely, if ever, have to deal with unless there’s some band of roving running critics that I’ve yet to encounter. It’s easy for it all to become overwhelming and seem insurmountable.

I always tell myself to focus on a 10K (ten kilometers) at a time when I’m running a marathon (a marathon is 42K). This helps me avoid becoming mentally overwhelmed by thinking about the whole 26 miles. It serves as a distraction because I can blithely run past the crowds like I’m just running a 10K, except, of course, I’m doing it four times over. As a writer I use the same approach. Writing a novel is like a marathon in that if you think about completing 90 thousand words at once it can doom you from the start, but if you just focus on one chapter at a time, it seems less daunting.

Whether running a marathon or writing a novel, it all boils down to the mental aspects of the task. Both are endurance sports in a sense, and both involve tamping down that annoying little voice in your head. It helps to having coping mechanisms that work for you to keep you focused on your goal and help you ignore the doubts (for there will be plenty). Come to think of it, it’s not all that different from life itself.

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