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I’ve recently been corresponding via email with a friend who is fairly new to personal writing.  He’s sent me a couple drafts of a memoir essay he’s working on, asking for feedback and general thoughts about what is and isn’t working in the piece.  Reading his essay and framing my thoughts has been helpful to my own writing because it’s another way of looking at a collection of words and thinking about what arrangement would best work to pull in a reader and create associations that will resonate.  It’s doing what I’ve told him is the most important thing he can do to improve his writing.  Keep writing and read, read, read.  In other words, practice.

When we think about a musician getting better as an artist, we expect that he or she would practice, whether it’s hours spent at the piano or the guitar or the flute.  We wouldn’t expect a painter to be a good painter the first time oil met canvas.  The same with a dancer or singer of photographer.  But I think writing is often seem more as a talent — you’re either good or you’re not.  That may be true to some extent, but even if you’re naturally good, you’re not going to get better without practice.

Perhaps it’s that writing practice is often all the drafts of a story or novel or poem that no one but the writer ever sees.  Will the 36,347 words I’ve logged so far in this year’s NaNoWriMo amount to anything, or the more than 72,000 total words of the novel so far? Does the instant publication gratification of writing a blog post deem the words written any more worthy than words that fill my journals no one will ever read?  What about the boxes of old poems and stories and manuscripts stored in the barn, or the full file drawer in my study.

In a way, none of that matters.  It’s all practice.  Besides NaNoWriMo, I’m also doing The Grind this month, a practice-based endeavor that the writer Ross White organizes.  Ross sorts Grinders in to groups by genre (poetry or prose, new or revised, or manic mix, which is the group I keep choosing and I don’t want to think too deeply about what that says about me) 10 or 12 per group, then sends everyone each other’s email and you’re responsible to send a new piece of writing every day to each other via email.  You don’t comment on each other’s work or even acknowledge it.  This isn’t about feedback or workshopping, it’s about being accountable to other people, strangers in fact, to practice each day by writing.

Pairing NaNoWriMo and The Grind has worked out well, because I’m working on the novel almost every day.  On days when I don’t get to the novel, I write a poem to send my sister and fellow grinders, or send the revision of a poem I’ve just edited, or a fragment of essay, anything that makes me practice my writing.  I’m getting a lot of practice this month, and I have faith that it’s all going to make me a better writer if nothing else.

Writing this blog has been good practice, practice about practice.  How meta.


Zero Week

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Greeting David at mile 8, 4th Ave. in Brooklyn.

As those of you on Facebook know, I successfully finished the NYC Marathon last Sunday. It was a long journey from my no-running months last winter, due to a sore knee, through physical therapy, 18 weeks of training and then the long trip on Sunday morning, starting with a 5:55 am train into Manhattan, a subway ride to the South Ferry station, and a ferry trip across the Hudson River with the many runners from other states and countries snapping shots of the Manhattan skyline as it receded behind us and the Statue of Liberty as we slapped through the wind-whipped water to Staten Island.

There I got in a long line of people slowly making their way to a long line of buses, waiting to take runners to the start village.  Once there I wandered through the tented areas offering coffee and Gatorade, Power Bars and bagels, waiting until the last minute before getting in my starting corral to shed the extra layers I’d worn to say warm in the early morning chill, made much chillier by a hard, cold wind.

At 10:55 the gun for Wave 4 boomed and the last group of starters shuffled in a mass towards the starting line.  By the time I stepped over the line the mass of runners had thinned out enough that I could actually start running across the Verrazano Bridge.  In spite of the pre-race instructions to leave extra warming clothes in the start village to be donated to charity (or have them transported to the finish line, an option no one seemed to be using) and not to drop them on the bridge, I was dodging sweaters and sweatshirts, hats and gloves, coats and scarves for the first several miles of the course.  In fact, there never stopped being discarded clothing for the entire race.  Why would someone drop gloves 24 miles into a marathon and not just carry them the last 2 miles?

After the fierce wind on the Verrazano Bridge, the sun came out and the buildings of New York did a good job of blocking the wind for much of the course.  I churned along, listening to podcasts and then switched to a running playlist Adrienne had made, and which I added to, at mile 13, in order to pump  myself up for the second half of the race.  The music helped a lot as I finished the long run through Brooklyn, a corner of Queens, and powered up the incline of the Queensboro bridge, then let myself cruise down to the turn up First Avenue in Manhattan.

First Avenue was the highlight for me.  As I started to head north, I looked up at the sea of runners before me, stretching for miles, and the crowds of people along the sides, cheering and shouting and holding signs.  Through the music I could hear “Way to go, Grace,” “Go Grace,” “You can do it, Grace.”  It was definitely a good move to write my name on duct tape across the front of my shirt so I could get personal encouragement.

Knowing I’d see David at miles 8, 16 and 24 helped too.  “Just another mile and David will be on the sidelines,” I would tell myself, and when I turned south on Fifth Avenue at 138th street I started counting the streets in my head, “Just 46 more streets until I see David at 92nd, just 20 more streets, just 5 . . .  .” and there he was, smiling and cheering and holding out a PowerBar in case I needed more to eat (which I didn’t).

As I neared the finish line in Central Park I realized I was really going to make it.  I’d thought all along I was going to be able to finish this marathon, that I’d prepared myself and trained for it.  In the last six miles of running I understood why the training program peaked at a 20 mile run.  The last six miles are pure will and grit — once at 20, I kept going by locking in the one-foot-then-the-next rhythm, focused on the music blasting in my ears, and just kept moving.  Now I could see the finish line and all I had to do was make sure I didn’t stop.

I didn’t.  But now I have.  The Hal Higdon training program that served me so well in preparing for the race has a post-marathon recovery program, and I’m now in Zero Week of that program.  As in Zero running.  The first three days say “No running!”  On Thursday and Saturday you can do a gentle jog if you really need to, but the advice is to take the week off.  Rest!  I’m not good at that but I’m doing it.  My toes are still too sore to do much moving yet anyway.

Going in to this marathon I told everyone, and myself, I was just doing this one because I’d decided doing a marathon was on my bucket list.  Now I’m not sure I’m going to stop at one.  Running 26.2 miles seems like a good deal for an endorphin high that lasts this long.