I have learned recently, being of a tortoise nature when it comes to projects of all sorts, that slow and steady does not always win the race. Sometimes, yes. Often, even. But not always. The parable of the Tortoise and the Hare is deceptive because it assumes that sprinters never act wisely, and lumberers are always doing all they can. Neither of these are necessarily true. I have found this to be the case in how I approach writing. The Tortoise tactic has its merits, but does not always work.
I learned this the way I learn a lot of lessons in my life–not from the actual experience itself, but rather from going on a run and learning it by parallel. For some reason running seems to parallel so many things that I often use it as a tool to figure out something–some struggle or challenge–in real life. Same as writing, actually, now that I think about it.
So ever since having a baby seven months ago, I have been working hard on distance in running, rather than speed. This was for good reason. I planned to run two half-marathons, and I didn’t have much time after the six-week post-partum recovery period to add mileage except at a very strong, steady rate. Speed would have to wait till later, which was just as well, because I’m not really a speedster by nature, and working on speed is much harder (for me) than simply lengthening my runs. This has always been the case, even before having kids.
I have been (relatively) fast in the past, but there were two major causes for this that came somewhat from outside of my own motivational capacity: first the Marine Corps, second my husband. When I was in the Marine Corps, how fast I ran determined what class of Physical Fitness Test score I had (ideally a “first class” score) which, in turn, influenced promotion. Also, nobody wants to be the one to fall out of a run and look the fool. It was to my absolute advantage to be as fast as possible.
Then, after finishing my service, I still ran a lot, but was often shy of really challenging myself speed-wise. Then one day my husband said “I bet you could do such-and-such a distance at such-and-such a pace” and I scoffed. That was way too fast! I’m not that fast, and probably never could be!
But I tried it for kicks. And, ladies and gentlemen, I was that fast. I wish I could say I’m just a ball of raw, self-sustaining motivation and discipline, but that is not the case. Sometimes I need a firm shove, a little extra fire on my six, to stay in gear.
Now that I have completed my planned long-distance races, I’m working on speed and I am out of practice. I start running and I want to slip into that casual, comfortable, just-for-the-sake-of-finishing kind of pace, and then I remember I’m supposed to book it. Or at least shoot for some kind of specific goal. I feel resistant. I try to bargain and say, maybe I’ll do that next run. Next time. Tomorrow. When I feel more like it.
This is no good. And this is how I’ve been with writing lately. I finished this mega long distance run (writing and revising my book and its sequels) and I’ve sort of taken a break. I let my muscles tighten up, and then even atrophy a bit. Now that I want to get back into it, and try new “races,” slow and steady isn’t working anymore. If I approach writing with a “let’s keep a casual pace” mentality, as I have been, I just end up doing almost nothing at all. The equivalent of going on a few short walks. I like walks. But it’s not getting the job done.
I need to do sprints. And I need to combine distance with speed. I need to do a strong tempo pace over some hard terrain. I’ve seen other authors do this and, yes, sometimes they burn out as a result. Then they have to ease back and do some slow/steady work. And that’s fine. You can’t sprint all the time.
But sometimes, if only to get those fires stoked, you just have to grab yourself by the collar, whisper in frustration under your breath (“But I don’t want to do this right now”), and just go hard until your muscles get watery.
Others may have trouble slowing themselves down to take needed breaths, but–at the moment–I’m the one who needs to shed some of that lumbering tortoise mentality and learn how the hare does.
When my husband and I run together we have always had opposite tactics. He goes all out from the beginning, then just keeps pushing himself and sometimes he runs out of gas towards the end. He is much faster than I, as a side-note. I always start very slow, then warm up, and usually blast out all my “conserved” energy at the end. Both these methods work better or worse depending on context and what you’re intending to do.
But my usual method isn’t getting me anywhere right now, in running or writing, so I’m going to have to learn how to push myself again, not later, not further down the road, not when I’m feeling more up to it, but right now. Because, the truth is, my method can be (and in my case probably is) nothing more than a fear of failure. What if I push hard at the beginning and then have to stop and walk? What if I start this new story and I can’t figure it out and it goes nowhere?
What if I start feeling awful and have to slow down? What if I get halfway through the story and realize I’m going in the wrong direction? What if I can never get fast again? What if I just don’t know how to tell this kind of a story?
Well, so what. That’s what I’m telling myself right now. So what if it fails. I’ll have learned something, at the very least.
Whatever keeps me from getting out the door has to be done away with. It’s time to cover some new ground and learn to set a more challenging pace. So what if I have to stop and breath. So what if I get a little lost. In running that can be part of the adventure, why not in writing?