runner's highs and writer's block
I never truly understood certain phenomena until I had experienced them for myself.
I was in eleventh grade when I first experienced a “runner’s high”. I had heard the term many times before that, and had always wondered what made it unique, or relatively so, among sports. I played soccer and football, and also practiced martial arts, but I hadn’t experienced any kind of euphoria like people had described.
Enter cross country. I joined the cross country team going into my junior year of high school, and it was a transformational period in my young life. The discipline and willpower needed to run that far was something I had never had. The time investment was enormous. And dang, did it hurt! If one has never had the pleasure of shinsplints, I would highly recommend avoiding them. But it was during those long runs that I first had a runner’s high. Running along the beach in the soft sand, a nice five-mile jaunt in the late fall in Florida, suddenly all the fatigue and discomfort I felt washed away like the sandcastles built too close to the splashing waves.
I’ve been a runner ever since then.
I was never a very good runner. I never won any races, and I’ve slowed down over the years, as well. I’ve had to supplement running with the elliptical machine and other forms of exercise that aren’t as hard on my joints. “It’s not the years; it’s the mileage.” How true, Indy. How true. But shoving all that aside, I still get out there and put foot to road or trail for the simple fact that I love to do it.
The other experience I want to talk about is the exact opposite. A very unpleasant experience that can be devastating to an author. Writer’s block. I found my love of writing back in eighth grade, when our English teacher made us write a couple of short stories for a creative writing exercise. I wrote a three-part story that in my thirteen-year-old mind was sure to win a Pulitzer! It was about a group of specialists pulled together to help fight the bad guys during Operation Desert Shield. It was all terribly clever, and would lead to a successful career as a writer, I was sure. (Looking back, omg was it terrible, terrible writing!)
I kept writing all through high school, even taking as many creative writing classes as I could. One of my teachers even told me, “Wow, you can write.” That was top praise coming from him, one of the teachers I had always most admired. So, I wrote even more, and never stopped!
Until I finally hit that wall. I was shocked. I stared at the screen and couldn’t write one word.
I had writer’s block.
What was I going to do? I had no training or tools to help overcome the impossible situation in which I found myself! I felt like that Monty Python sketch where they commentate Thomas Hardy writing “Return of the Native”. That skit, by the way, is side-achingly funny. Go find it and give it a listen. You’re welcome. Now where was I? Ah, yes. Writer’s block.
If memory serves, I finally broke through that writer’s block by picking up a book by Orson Scott Card called “How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy”. Being young and knowing everything, I skimmed it and already knew everything one of the masters of science fiction could ever say, and promptly put the book aside. Yes, in hindsight, I’d like to smack the younger me on more than one occasion. However, it did jar me out of my rut, and I got back to writing.
Over the years, I’ve come to develop my own method for overcoming writer’s block. I’ll share that with you now, in the hopes that it might help someone who may be suffering through that same frustration. It starts with the best piece of writing advice I ever received: write two pages every day. It doesn’t matter what you write! Just write.
I painted myself into a corner a couple of times while penning “The King’s Own”. The thing about that, though, was I refused to let it stop me. Paint dries, after all, and while I was waiting for said metaphorical paint to dry, I turned around and painted the walls behind me. I got through those blocks by continuing to write, either another chapter, a piece of another story entirely, or just some nonsense nobody would ever see. I went for those runs I love, and would have an epiphany, something which a few of my early test readers might remember. Not only does writing daily help improve one’s writing skills, it also helps break through writer’s block, not to mention leading to possible future stories to tell. I’m currently working on Samarra’s story, which arose from one of those little side-treks.
The secret to breaking through writer’s block, then? Keep writing. It may not work for everyone, but it sure works for me, even when I have to force myself to do it. Relax and let your mind wander. Write something else. Don’t let the frustration overwhelm you.
Oh, and go for a run. I always feel better after a good run.
The end of the innocence?
I never want to lose my sense of innocence.
I remember my very first kiss. It was 7th Grade, her name was Kim, and we were on a school bus heading back from a field trip. I didn’t even know her really, other than by reputation. She was one of the popular girls. But there we were, in the back of the bus, playing truth or dare with a bunch of other kids. It was a dare for her, and before I knew it, she was kissing me. I remember the sense of excitement and wonder that overcame me in that moment. A great mystery of what it would be like was suddenly revealed!
I remember the first time I stepped off of the back of the C-130 in Afghanistan. The heat, the dry breeze, and the altitude all hit me at once. There I was, in the very land where so much blood had been spilled over the centuries, where the Hindukush met me with a stark beauty.
I remember the revelation that Darth Vader was actually Luke’s father (spoiler alert!), the anxious-yet-eager feeling I had on my first day of high school, and the emotions evoked as I listened to the Carmina Burana performed live in concert.
That’s exactly the kind of innocence I’m talking about here. It’s the sense of newness, of wonder, and excitement. With how the world often works, it seems so many of us become jaded overtime, and we lose that sense of wonder that makes even the simplest things so joyful.
Now, that isn’t to say things can become old hat just because they’re not new. I’ve watched the Lord of the Rings movies dozens of times, and sometimes I’ll even watch the first disc of the Fellowship of the Ring by itself. Seeing the Shire always brings a smile to my face with its simple, quiet life and beauty. I’ve watched the first two Mummy movies (the Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz) a hundred times each, at least. I popped them in whenever I could while I was in Afghanistan; it seemed fitting at the time. Sure, the sense of newness is gone, but the feeling of adventure and excitement is always there.
But then I think back to some of my fondest childhood memories and how the advent of the Internet has ruined so much of it. The NeverEnding Story is a prime example of this. That movie will always have a special place in my heart. I remember watching it with my sister as a kid and we tried so hard to figure out what name Bastian gives the Childlike Empress at the end. We rewound and replayed that scene over and over trying to hear what he yells over the thunder. When that failed, we even hooked up the closed captioning machine and played it again. Alas, all we got was a caption that read [yelling]. And so, for years, the mystery remained.
That is, until just recently. I was lucky enough to foster an awesome dog for a short while, and he looked just like Falcor the Luck Dragon. That brought back all those feeling of wonder and nostalgia from my childhood. On a whim, I looked up the Wikipedia article on it, and right there, no spoiler warning or anything, is the name Bastian gave to the Childlike Empress. In an instant, the sense of wonder was gone. I alternated between disappointment, anger, and frustration. I had an answer to one of my life’s great mysteries, and I felt all the emptier for knowing it.
Maybe some questions just aren’t meant to be answered.
Or is it just that I’ve gotten older and that sense of wonder is fading? Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen and done so much, or perhaps it’s because instant gratification always seems to be less fulfilling that discovering or earning something in due course.
A friend of mine gave me a good perspective. He doesn’t get upset at knowing the endings to books or movies because it’s the journey along the way that matters. I like that attitude, and it fits right in with the entire belief of mine that instant gratification isn’t as fulfilling. I hit that cognitive dissonance, and regret that purchase I just made, or get angry about that spoiler I just read by accident scrolling through Facebook.
I’ve come to the decision, then, that I never want to lose my sense of innocence. I’m going to make that conscious decision to enjoy the simple things in life, and to find joy once more in the things I’ve already experienced. I’m going to keep popping in that first disc of The Fellowship of the Ring, and I’m going to sit down in the Shire, kick my feet up on a bench, and smoke a pipe with Gandalf and Bilbo.
And I’m going to enjoy it just as much as I did the first time.
What doesn't kill me only delays the inevitable...