Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Me & My Beast

"All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up." - James Baldwin

   I haven't done much serious running over the last four months. Which is to say that I've been running all summer, but I've done it sporadically, usually at an easy pace, and rarely for distances beyond eight or nine miles.

   I had been writing a lot over the first two thirds of that stretch, but that has fizzled as well.

   I feel like the two are related, though I'm at a loss to explain that feeling in a succinct manner.

   After I finished the Cleveland Marathon last May, I knew that I was ready for a break. That was my third marathon in eight months, and I was physically and emotionally drained. So I reigned it in. I ran when I wanted to run, and I rested when I wanted to rest. I filled my summer with greasy food and cold beer. I indulged my social life in ways that I'm unable to do while training.

   I very quickly let eight months of work fade away, and let my body go soft.

   But not all of that time went to idle comfort. I spent a lot of time at this keyboard. Some of it for this blog. And some of it for other forms of writing. I dusted off an old fictional character and saw him develop and grow in ways that he never had before. And I saw a new character born as well. I worked through the early periods of gentle exploration with her. Slowly and gingerly seeking to discover who this person is. It feels like watching a bird hatch from an egg. I try to nurture it and keep it warm, while letting it emerge from its shell at it's own natural pace. A beak pecking through the shell here. A wingtip emerging there.

   But after a while the writing grew stagnant. The process became sluggish and cloudy. And my head grew soft.

   I've been picking both of those things back up as of late.

   I'm running the Memphis Marathon in less than three months, and the miles are beginning to pile up again as I become more committed to my training. That is a relatively straight forward process at this point. I know what I need to do, it's simply a matter of doing it. There are frustrations over the degree to which I let myself go over the summer, but I know that I can put that aside. There just isn't anything useful to do with that stuff, so you set it down and walk on.

   The writing process however, is far less straight forward. There are the standard problems of writing to work through. Sorting through the words that stream through the head. Trying to sort the honest thoughts and feelings from the comforting lies. Trying to figure out what fears and disappointments and regrets are lurking beneath those lies. That stuff is always a big part of the writing process. In fact, that is the very reason for writing. Writing is simply searching.

   But it isn't enough to just find those truths or expose the lies. Because the discovery doesn't bring instant resolution. If anything, it breathes life into some things that are big and powerful and at times terrifying. And you find yourself sitting there with this beast, and you know that it has to find a home. It can live, sometimes it has to live, but it can't live with you alone. It'll kill you. So you want to let it out into the world.

   But that's not so easy to do. The beast may belong to me. It may carry my name. But it also knows everybody that I know. And if I just set him free, there's no telling who he'll cross paths with.

   I remember reading Long Day's Journey Into Night in an English class. The story itself was dripping with the tension of desperation and fear and love and suffering. But what really hit me was the story of the author himself. When I learned that Eugene O'Neill had sealed the manuscript and asked his publisher to wait until 25 years after his death to publish it, I was dumbstruck. Not only had he decided to live alone with the beast, he'd agreed to let it climb into his coffin and follow him into eternity.

   Maybe that's where my connection between running and writing comes in. I haven't yet figured out what to do with my beast. I keep breathing life into him. He grows in front of my eyes. And I'm not as afraid of him as I used to be. But I know that I can't live with him forever. So for now, until I find a way to set him free, I take him running with me.

   It takes a while to wear him down. He's a strong runner. But I'm stronger. He grows quiet as the miles add up. And when I get home, there is a moment of peace, I can almost believe that we could be friends. And I can sit in front of this keyboard and breath yet more life into him.

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