Writing and Running–The Myth of the Muse

I was hoping to have a blog on more recent events, but I just can’t put my thoughts into anything coherent. Today Facebook reminded me that I wrote this piece two years ago today. So, here it is. It’s aged pretty well. 

Lately I’ve been lamenting the disappearance of my haiku muse, and yesterday I had a bit of an epiphany about this apparent abandonment. I was sitting on the deck, inhabiting my favorite summer writing space—our gazebo or what The Little Woman has dubbed “the man cave” (since I’m the butch in the relationship, and, I guess because I occasionally drink beer out there). Anyhooo—as I scribbled in my journal, writing random lines of bad poetry, revising, creating better lines of poetry, a thought occurred to me. If I were to think about running in the same way that I think about writing, I’d just be sitting around falling out of shape instead of getting fitter and faster.

Which is to say—my running only improves because I am out there on the trails every morning (honest to god, six days a week, 8 a.m., at least five miles each day). Even on days when I don’t want to get out of bed, when I’ve slept like shit, and my feet and calves ache, I hobble to the kitchen, put on the coffee, make a smoothie (or toast), and pull on my running clothes. I tell myself that I will feel better soon. I remind myself that my running buddy awaits, that we will have coffee after, that after the first quarter mile, the aches and pains will shake out. I know that if I can just propel myself around the lake once, the endorphins will kick in and the next lap will be so much easier.

I know these truths about writing too, but for some reason I have more difficulty remembering. As much as I remind myself how good it feels to have a new piece published, whether on my blog or picked up by an anthology, I have difficulty motivating myself to put my butt in the chair and write. And really, the process may look different from running, but they are much the same thing—do the work, reap the rewards.

third place
Third place in my age group!

Last weekend I ran in the Great Sedro Woolley Fourth of July Footrace. After a bit of a dry spell, I have entered a spate of footraces recently—a few weekends ago, TLW and I ran the Camano Crab Dash with our running buddies April and Karen, then the GSWFoJFR with Cami, Bill, April and Karen and some other lovely women from The Fit School, this weekend The Chuckanut Footrace, the following weekend, my friend Cami’s Windhorse Half Marathon, and more into the future. Probably the Bellingham Waterfront 15k, and the Bellingham Bay Half Marathon, Run Like a Girl . . . and so on.

Something happened at the race in Sedro Woolley that I never even imagined might be possible—I placed third in my age group! Like my friend Kari said, that’s some compliment, being told you run fast for your age, but THIRD IN MY AGE GROUP! Usually I’m pleased to run under 10 minute miles and come in in the top half of the total field. Last Friday, I ran 5.17 miles in 44:16—that is smoking fast for me, a series of 8:30-ish miles, sustained for 5 miles! Even on my best training runs, I don’t string together more than one or two sub-nine minute miles but put me in a crowded field and my competitive juices start flowing.

Crab Dash Runners–Karen, Nancy, Moi, April

Along with the competition and adrenaline, there’s another factor:  I tell myself I can do anything for an hour. Anything? Anything. Hmmm, I thought to myself yesterday, maybe that mantra can apply to writing as well. And how had I so quickly forgotten what I could accomplish after two fairly recent months of writing a blog post a day? How did I let myself get so out of writing shape? What might happen, I wondered, if I sat down for an hour every day and just wrote? Might my writing muscles get as developed as my running muscles?

So, I sat longer yesterday and didn’t get discouraged when the muse didn’t show up right away. I kept writing, doing word maps, stretching and challenging myself to find better synonyms, more complex words, words I could use in double entendres.  It’s the same in running—I don’t just run flat courses (though I work one or two in every so often). I generally run terrain that challenges me. My favorite course has two good hills and many ups and downs in between. No matter how often I run there, I still find the hills difficult—some days more so than others. Yesterday I ran about two miles longer than I do on an average day. These runs make me stronger, mentally and physically. When I run a race on the flats like I did last weekend, I can fly (you know, for my age).

Eventually, the muse returned to me yesterday. And here’s the thing about the muse—it’s me. The muse lives in me—she is not some external ethereal creature who decides to occasionally grace me with her gossamer presence. I own her wings and her wand, as much as I own my running shoes and shorts. And just like I drive myself to the running trail every morning at 8, I need to put my butt in the chair and flip open the computer and make my hands move across the keyboard. I need to challenge myself like I did a few months ago with the blog a day or something similar, some writing exercise that will improve my writing, strengthen my storytelling abilities, improve my dramatic arc.

I read enough writing books to know that even the most celebrated authors don’t possess a magic bullet or super secret writing regimen. No writing will occur if one does not sit and write. No running will occur if one does not put one foot in front of the other. I may occasionally find my inspiration outside of myself; I may credit this person or that circumstance for providing an impetus for writing or running, but ultimately I am the one who needs to do the work. Only I can move the words from my head to the computer screen, only I can propel myself down the trail and across the finish line.


Shadows, Poems, & Projections: Just a few haiku

It’s one thing to say I’m going to start writing the truth, as I did in my previous blog. Actually doing it? That’s quite another matter, but here’s a first attempt. When I write these haiku, whom am I speaking to? Who is the “you” in my poetry? As I was reminded in one of my classes last week (rather inelegantly, but still), whenever we point our finger at someone else, we are really pointing back at our shadow selves, those parts of ourselves we are at war with. We are always projecting our fears and hopes, desires and needs onto those around us. And so it is with my poetry. Sure, these may be inspired by a particular person. There’s a muse, to be certain, but on deeper reflection, I am “you.” You are me, and to paraphrase the Beatles, we are all together. Goo goo g’joob.

I loved the way you
Swept the door open and bowed,
Welcoming me in.

We had a language–
an undercurrent, riptide.
I drowned in your words

You bequeathed to me
This gift of desperation
Exquisitely wrapped

Stop outguessing me.
Just walk your way, and I’ll run
mine. We’ll meet midway.

You do walk alone.
Were you breathless, keeping up
With my racing heart?

I’ve been your hostage
Since I read that first poem–
Enslaved by those words.

I am the blue sky
And you are the deep green sea
Breathe the air between

Writing Trouble: A Few Words on Distractions and Truth Telling

Every writer I know has trouble writing. —Joseph Heller

Nearly every night I sit down with my laptop and open it to a blank Word document, convinced that this is the night I will begin my masterpiece, my opus, my version of the Great American Novel. And then I get distracted: laundry, dinner, cats, a funny lump behind my earlobe, the stupid TwoDots game on my phone. Words with Friends. Something. Anything to keep me from putting my thoughts down. There are a million things I will do before I finally succumb to that little voice, that growing voice, that roaring voice, the one that pushes and pulses behind my eyeballs, that makes my heart pound faster. I have to, at some point, listen to that voice, give in to that voice or I will explode. Maya Angelou is credited with saying that there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside. I agree.homework

Another trouble with writing, with being a writer, particularly if one is a writer of nonfiction, memoir, creative nonfiction, is that telling the truth, or our version of the truth, is bound to offend someone. Probably we will offend someone close to us, a family member, a good friend. And we may throw lots of other folks under the bus—there’s an entire cast of characters from which we can choose: teachers, grandparents, doctors, lawyers, therapists, the barista who forgot your regular order. The waiter who seated you near the kitchen. Really. This is an endless list.

And there are so many reasons we need to keep the peace with all of these folks. We need them to like us. And, what we often forget is that the chances of anyone actually reading what we write is slim. Oh sure, our writing group might, and a teacher, if we’re in school. But Grandma? Uncle Ed? The barista? Not likely. So, really, this is not a good excuse to suppress the urge to write.

Never mind the friends and relatives, though. When I think about writing, about what I want to write, an overwhelming sense of responsibility immobilizes me. I can’t write anything frivolous, I tell myself. What I write should be Serious. And Thoughtful. Well considered. And I should have read as much as possible on the topic. I don’t want to offend anyone. What I write should have a moral, a takeaway, but subtly. I don’t want to be too didactic. My prose should be poetic and authentic. My metaphors had better be spot on. My grammar and punctuation, impeccable. Most importantly, I don’t want to be misunderstood.

mass-distraction-rrv33nNo wonder I freeze up. No wonder I’d rather play gin rummy on my iPad.

But no more. This year I resolve to write the stories. And if you happen to be a character in my life, oh well.

You’ve been warned.

More Procrastination Poetry: A Few Forgotten Haiku from July

Yesterday procrastination worked very well for me. After fiddle farting around on my blog, I got down to business and cranked out some good pages for my paper that is due tomorrow. I am hoping the same magic will happen today. I still need to put a few finishing touches on said paper, add some APA citations, and give it a good thorough edit. Perhaps I will post it when I’ve finished. It’s about how my gender identity has developed over the course of my lifetime. Pretty interesting, this unpacking of gender.

I’d rather be writing poetry, but these four forgotten haiku will have to do for now. Enjoy 🙂

What happens if I
Catch the muse, pin her down, make
Her my specimen?

She deposited beach
Words like coins, some IOUs
A cold heart’s ransom

Muse comes, muse goes, but
I own her wand, her wings. I
Am muse. She is me.

I am my only
Competition. The race is
Simple. Head v. heart

Haiku’s Slow Return

They are coming, the words, the syllables. Slowly, five-seven-five. Here are a few of the latest:

How hard must I wish,
To conjure your words from air?
Eyes shut. Hands open.

Life Now
Hot flashes, fever
Spontaneous combustion.
Sweep up my ashes.

They knew no better
Trapped as they were by their times.
How will we be judged?

It occurs to me
This is just fantasy. Still.

Well, That’s A Lot of Words!

This is my first actual week of being a stay at home writer (SAHW, as opposed to a SAHM—an acronym I learned just this morning). I’ve been thinking about writing a lot these past four weeks, but this is my first week at home since I quit my job at the end of July. I’ve been busy flitting about the countryside. And doing other creative things in an attempt to jump start my writing. I made this linocut thingy last night, dabbling in some of my favorite subjects: religion and psychopharmaceuticals.

INRIRX (copyright Pamela Helberg)
In anticipation and in spite of staying up really late working on whatever this is (I’ve titled in INRI RX), I woke up at five this morning, ready to go. But my eyes were gritty and I couldn’t concentrate, so I tweaked my platform a bit (i.e. I monitored Twitter), played some Gin Rummy on my phone, and gave it another shot closer to 8 a.m.  I got a good four hours of work in, a couple thousand words. But, man, it was a slog.
There’s this thing that happens when I write—I tend to get all Hemingway-esque (or so I’m told) and scrimp on the details. When I am sitting there, trying to tap into my feelings, trying to fill in descriptions (of people, the landscape, the room, my state of mind) I think to myself “well, that’s a lot of words. Who would want to read that much about me or what I think?” It’s so hard, this telling of my story, trying to figure out what people need to know, what they don’t. What makes for an interesting tale as opposed to what has actually happened to me. So, I’ve been practicing just writing it all down, every little detail, as much as I can remember, regardless of how personal, how minute. I figure what the hell, at least I’ll have some material to work with.
I pulled out my notes from a few months ago, from when my writing group critiqued this chapter, the one I’m currently working on. Nearly to a person, my writing buddies all said basically the same thing: that it is really three chapters, not one. This is not 15 pages, more like 50 pages.
So I started grinding out the details the best I could this morning, trying to get my first 100 pages reworked in order to send it out to a prospective agent, and a funny thing happened. This huge thematic thread just opened up, burst forth so unexpectedly I nearly wept.
I was just writing along, trying to make my undergraduate years sound somewhat intriguing, getting the words out there knowing that I could go back and add some shape later. That nagging voice (on one shoulder) was nattering away at me the whole time: “who cares that you were an English major? Who cares that you loved your 19th Century Poetry instructor? Why are you writing that? That’s so stoopit!”
On my other shoulder was this guy: “You were so ignorant then. You really wasted your life. What a shame. Too bad you didn’t get it together sooner. Think of what you could have accomplished.” I shoved them both to the background and continued on, writing (inexplicably really, since I haven’t ever written about this) about my English classes, and I came to Victorian Lit and Jude the Obscureand Dr. Meredith Cary, professor extraordinaire.
Jude Fawley. Sue Bridehead. Scholarship. Religion. Sex. Illicit relationships. Depression. I mean, OH MY GOD! Could my muse have whacked me upside the head any harder?
So this is why we sit our butts in the chair and try to quiet those damn voices, for moments like these, when we have all these impossibly unrelated events and plot points and suddenly it all starts to make sense, to coalesce.
(I can’t believe it took me this long to figure it out. Think how much further along I’d be if I’d done it sooner.)