The Next Telephone Pole. Writing Books by Writing Sentences.

We have a tradition in our house: whenever one of our children turns fifteen, he or she has to train for and run the Music City Half-Marathon with me. It's an opportunity for regular father-juvenile time, but just as importantly it's an opportunity for my kids to experience the truth that they can do something seemingly impossible (running 13.1 miles doesn't come naturally for anybody in the Rogers family) if they start small and keep making cumulative gains.

I came to running rather late in life. I was 38 when a friend and I decided to train for the half-marathon together. We started one cold January morning by running one mile (or maybe it was a half-mile?), and it left us both gasping and wheezing by the end. But we soldiered on and managed to run the half-marathon in April. We were gasping and wheezing by the end of that, too, but still...

As it turned out, that was an important thing for me to do. I needed to try something new, to realize that I could do things I didn't think I could do. I was in the middle of a paralyzing bout of writer's block (which should probably be the subject of a future issue of The Habit), and learning that I could push through to finish a half-marathon helped convince me that I could also push through to finish a couple of books that were bedeviling me. 

Anyway, the Music City Half-Marathon is this upcoming Saturday, and I have a fifteen-year-old this year, so we'll be two of the 40,000 or so people running the streets of Nashville that morning. To commemorate the day, I am reproducing a piece I wrote for the Rabbit Room a few years ago after running the half-marathon with another of my sons. 

 

Last week I ran the Music City Half-Marathon with my fifteen-year-old son. I ran most of it, anyway. Between Mile Marker 10 and Mile Marker 11 I decided I’d had as much fun as I could stand and sent my son on ahead while I walked a little, trotted a little, walked some more.

I was walking, and not very briskly, near the foot of Capitol Hill when I felt a hand on my shoulder. “You can do this,” said a woman’s voice. “Don’t walk. Run.” I looked to see who my encourager was, but I didn’t recognize her as she passed. I could see that she was a few years older than I.

My first thought was, “If this woman can keep running after eleven miles, I can too.”

My second thought was, “I’ve got nothing to prove here. She can run if she wants, and good on her. I’m tired of running.”

My third thought was, “Wait, is she wearing a beauty pageant sash?”

A white satin sash ran across the woman’s torso from left shoulder to right hip. On it the name “Carolyn Corlew” was emblazoned in royal blue letters. I started running again, not because I had the Eye of the Tiger, or even because I was ashamed that I was being outrun by a woman who clearly had a decade or two on me. No, I ran because if I didn’t catch up with the woman with the sash, I would never know her story.

“So,” I asked when I caught up with the woman, “is your name Carolyn Corlew?”

“Yes it is!” she said. “I’m Senior Ms. America! Can you believe it?”

She showed me the front of her sash, in case I couldn’t believe it. Sure enough. She was Senior Ms. America.

“Are you the current Senior Ms. America,” I asked, “or a former Senior Ms. America?” After all, there could be any number of former Senior Ms. Americas kicking around, but only one current one.

“Current!” she said. “I’m Senior Ms. America right now!”

This was her eighth Country Music Half-Marathon, she told me. She was from Mount Juliet, Tennessee, where she worked for Charlie Daniels. She started singing background vocals for him in 1979. To put that in context, when Charlie Daniels recorded “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” Carolyn Corlew was there. I stood in mute astonishment. But only for a second, because Carolyn Corlew was still running, and I didn’t want her to get away from me.

We came to a sharp switch-back. Everybody in front of us was cutting across the sidewalk, saving themselves a few steps. And who could blame them at Mile 12? “You’re cheating!” Carolyn shouted. “I never cheat.”

“Me neither,” I said.

That wasn’t, properly speaking, true, but Carolyn Corlew made me wish I was the kind of person who never cheated. I dutifully ran those extra ten steps with her.

My friend Pete Peterson says that running for fun is insane. Maybe so. Nevertheless, I must say it has done me quite a bit of good to do something hard for which I have no real talent and which I don’t exactly enjoy. It has been suggested that one of the most important things that separates us from the beasts is the fact that we humans can make ourselves do that which we don’t want to do. A monkey or a goat can’t bind his own will. As Chesterton said, “I could never conceive or tolerate any Utopia which did not leave to me the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself. ”

Here in my forties I have gained wisdom from running that I never gained from books. To wit: I have learned never to ask, “Can I run 13.1 miles?” (the answer is probably no). Instead I ask “Can I run to the next telephone pole” (the answer is probably yes).

To apply this principle to my line of work, people don’t write books: they write sentences. Can you write a book, or even an essay, or a short story? The answer may be no. Can you write another sentence? The answer is almost certainly yes. This, by the way, is the central conceit of Annie Lamott's Bird by Bird, my favorite book about writing. You have to break the work of writing into tiny little chunks, and just start writing the chunks. Say what you like about people who can't see the forest for the trees, but when it comes to writing, the forest can be paralyzing until you start seeing the trees.

Here’s another thing I have learned from running: there are a hundred reasons to quit, yet it is surprising what a small reason will keep you going. A small word of encouragement. Curiosity about a woman running in a beauty pageant sash. Long after I thought I was done, I ran two last miles rather than walking them, thanks to the current Senior Ms. America. We crossed the finish line together.