Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Blisters and the Battle Within

I'm nearly halfway through my training now, completing a 12-mile endurance walk this past Sunday. I'm learning a lot about myself through this process, including what my body is capable of enduring and how surprisingly quickly I can bounce back from what feels like overwhelming tiredness or soreness.

I have noticed that during each week's long walk, the distance that felt impossible the previous week seems way easier; and it's during the last two miles of any distance that my feet really hurt, my body aches, and I wonder how I'll make it to the finish line. And yet, the following week I'm able to cover that same distance, plus two more miles. The human body is a fascinating machine.

This post, however, is largely about what I'm learning about my brain. One of the reasons I undertook this quest -- other than the obvious ones about fighting breast cancer, and the fact that any excuse to spend time with my friend Dara is a good one -- was that I wanted to give myself the opportunity to add some self-discipline into my routine. Please don't misunderstand, my routine can be pretty grueling and intense on its own, so I am certainly not a lady of leisure to begin with.

That said, I've always felt that personal discipline was one of my weak points, whether it's sticking to a diet, keeping a clean house, or finishing a novel. I'm a high achiever when there are external forces tugging at me, like grad school course requirements, a friend showing up at my door at 5 a.m. with a yoga mat and a smile, or good old fear of public humiliation. It's when I have to tap into internal motivation that I seem to struggle. So part of me was hoping, as I stared down the barrel of Avon's prescribed training schedule, that this process could be a learning experience through which I acquire some personal willpower.

So, I'm following the schedule, more or less, with my primary commitment to myself that I will complete each week's long endurance walk on Sunday, and try to walk as much as I can for the rest of the week. The place where I walk is more or less a 3 mile loop, with some flexibility of distance depending on the route I take. I just repeat the loop however many times I need to complete my goal for the week.

The beginning and the end of each loop brings me close to my car, and therefore, temptation.

So this is where it gets interesting. Or boring, actually. For the first few weeks, I had the novelty of my task and all the initial excitement to keep me chugging along, despite the pain. There's also the fascinating vantage of watching the trail and its inhabitants evolve and change with each passing lap, which could be a blog all its own. This past week, however, the novelty and my interest in everything around me began to wear thin, and I'll admit that putting one foot in front of the other for 3.5 hours began losing its appeal.

Add to that some pretty vicious chaffing and painful blisters, and of course it crossed my mind -- as I rounded on 5.5 miles -- that the car was within easy reach, and I could be home and in a hot shower in a matter of 30 minutes. What's interesting to me is not that I had this moment of weakness (totally understandable, that); but how quickly my rationalizing mind swooped in to support the idea of giving up.

It just happened so fast. I thought, "wow, I don't want to be out here today," and in a matter of seconds, my head was filled with reasons it would be okay to quit. You're in pain, you should go take care of yourself. Who would you be hurting if you go home? No one would blame you. Most people wouldn't have walked 6 miles yet today, you're already ahead! You've done so much for this cause already, it's not the end of the world if you ditch one practice walk. And the eternal classic, the mantra of the procrastinator, there's always tomorrow.

Fortunately for me, I still had half a mile to talk myself out of quitting, and to re-invigorate my own resolve to plow ahead. Just to be sure I would hold true to my purpose, I even cut short a little bit of the loop to keep myself from going too near the parking lot. In the end, I decided to hold my Sunday walk sacred and renewed my commitment to stick with the plan (barring major injury, of course). I did manage to complete my 12 miles, or at least 11.6 or so. And, despite the fact that my blisters and chaffing are way more painful than if I'd stopped, the damage I avoided doing to my pride and sense of commitment far outweigh the temporary physical pain.

It does leave me thinking about that evil little rationalizing voice in my head. The one that can undermine my sense of purpose and allow me to talk myself out of something I've committed to. It's true that sometimes this voice helps me take care of myself when I've over-committed, and helps me sort out my own needs from the needs of others. But there are times when I've set a goal for a reason, for myself, and that cunning little voice talks me out of doing what is healthy or right anyway.

It's no small task, confronting your most automatic and familiar thought processes, and challenging yourself to think differently. I get the sense this is going to take some time.... I guess that's one more good reason to take those Sunday walks.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Advice from the Alphabet Lady

Today I read this interview with Sue Grafton - the author of the alphabet murder mystery series, "A is for Alibi," etc. - and she was responding to questions about her life as a writer. It's fascinating to me, because she's been working on the series since 1982, publishing a novel every two years. At the rate she's going, she'll be finishing up with "Z for Zero" (or something like it) when she's nearly 80. I admire her dedication to the process and her struggle through the challenge and structure that a 26-part series presents.

What caught my attention was a question about retirement. Here's the first part of her answer:
I can’t wait to retire! Everybody I know is retired, and they go on these lovely trips, and I have to sit here struggling with the next book.
What struck me with this was my reaction. I'm mildly embarrassed to admit that my first thought was, "WHAT?!? It takes two years to write each book and you can't take a stinkin' trip whenever you want?" My apologies to Sue Grafton, by the way, in case she should come across this posting in what I like to imagine is a regular habit of googling her own name during fits of insomnia coupled with writer's block.

I think that reaction reveals quite a bit about me. Here I am, raising an almost 10-month old, finishing up grad school, working two days a week, and working on multiple writing projects at once. And I'm still hoping for at least a short family vacation this year. My writing is wedged between changing diapers, completing assignments, working on my therapy practice, keeping up with our often-out-of-control social schedule, and - oh, yeah - trying to keep my marriage happy and healthy. Not to mention the almost-weekly blog entry. Or training for a looooong walk. ;)

And here's Sue Grafton, about whose personal habits I have no idea, but I can only assume that after making it from A through U of successful mystery novels, she probably can devote herself more or less full-time to writing. And I'll hazard a guess that she gets some help with some of the daily tasks that consume my spare time (or would consume it if I had any). And still, she talks about writing as though it were not just a 'full time job,' but a full time job.

This really made me realize how much I'm expecting of myself; and by extension, what a tremendous challenge I have before me. Is it realistic to think I can do everything I want do to, writing-wise, with everything else I have going on in my life? Maybe. Can I finish a novel or another major project when writing is like the putty I use to fill in the little cracks in my schedule? Well, honestly.... Probably not.

Later in the interview, Grafton says that her biggest gripe about new writers is that they don't "put in the time." When I read that, I thought about the self discipline it will take in my own life to finish a single major project. But she went on to talk about how a first book is hardly worth notice, and to her, putting in the time means writing several books before your talent is developed enough to be worth reading. That's a daunting point of view, and I'm trying to simultaneously respect it and take it with a grain of salt.

Everyone is different, of course -- every writer, therapist, mother.... and we all have to create our own paths to whatever we define as success in our lives. But there's no doubt that to be successful at anything, you have to dedicate yourself to it, every day. I do this with my son, regularly responding to his needs before my own. And I would never consider frivolously missing a class or not showing up for an appointment with a client.

So, how to translate that same kind of dedication and structure to my writing, a pursuit in which I am only accountable to myself? Well, I haven't quite figured that out yet. But I suspect realigning those crazy expectations, harnessing a bit of old-school discipline and working like mad are all key components. Maybe after that, you just start with "A" and take it from there.