Watching the London Marathon today, I suspect I’m not alone in finding it so inspiring and uplifting I’ve thought to myself, hey, why don’t I have a go?
Yes, I’ll put my name down for the London Marathon next year. Okay, so I’ve never run anywhere in my life, but look at those bozos at the back of the pack. I must be in better shape than some of them were when they started. A quick google search brings up a number of conflicting articles on why you should and shouldn’t undertake such an endeavour. From the comfort of my armchair, even the most discouraging of them makes it sound irresistibly romantic. The loneliness of the long distance runner. Put yourself to the ultimate test of physical and emotional endurance. Sacrifice all to achieve your goal. Pit yourself against the odds.
But then, a thought occurs to me. I don’t need to run a marathon. I’m already running one. Cue cheesy comparison between running a marathon and writing a novel.
This isn’t the first time I’ve made the rather obvious connection between sport and writing. It’s the same, I guess, for any undertaking that requires commitment over a long period, stamina, self-belief, belligerence and a small degree of madness.
Paula Radcliffe, commentating on TV, offers her advice on survival. ‘You need to stay in the moment and just focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Try not to think about how much further you’ve got to go. Look out for encouraging landmarks along the way. There was one particular red phone box along the embankment that always spurred me on.’
God, do I need the novelist’s equivalent of that red phone box right now? It might look like I’m doing okay from the outside – I’m two-thirds through the second draft of my novel – but I’ve hit a wall.
The first draft is hard enough. That little spark of an idea you thought would make a wonderful novel keeps you going for a while. Then, you start to face problems. Doubt sets in. You plough on, ignoring the inconsistencies and gaping holes in the plotline and the long, boring bits. You think, leave it for now, I’ll fix that in the second draft.
You get to the end of the first draft. A moment of cautious euphoria. It’s an achievement, but you know there’s still a lot of work to do. You take a breath, decide what changes need to be made and dive in. The second draft starts off very well. Those opening chapters fly off the page with the benefit of knowing who your characters are and where they’re going. Gradually, however, as you progress through the novel, things start to fall apart all over again. You tie up the loose ends in the first draft, only for more to appear. As problems accumulate, you start to think, leave it, I’ll fix that in the third draft. Then, you’re two thirds of the way through, struggling up that punishing incline towards the story’s climax and you pause for air. You forget to stay in the moment. You make the fatal mistake of glancing back at an earlier chapter and you realise how unfinished it still is and how much further you have to go. Suddenly it all seems like a complete waste of time.
How decidedly unromantic it feels now. How ridiculous and vain and selfish. You think of all the other, useful things you could have been doing. All the worthwhile challenges you could have taken on that might actually have been achievable. All the shortfalls in your life that could have been fixed, if you weren’t so intent on writing that damn novel.
Do I sound defeatist? Well, that’s honestly how I feel right now. How do I get past this point of despair? In the end, it’s the most banal of motivations that keeps me going: the finish line. I’ve started, therefore I’ll finish. There comes a point of no return, when you’ve invested so much time and effort that it simply seems more wasteful to give up than to carry on.
I’m like one of those marathon runners who’s wobbling all over the road now, legs buckled beneath me. It’s not dignified and it’s not pretty. But I have no real option other than to stagger on. Maybe, just maybe, I tell myself, there’s a red phone box waiting around the corner.