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2007-08-18 11:26 AM
The Writing Race
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I was contemplating where my writing was going, and whether I've climbed the publishing ladder as high as I ever will, when I recalled something that happened during my running days.
For a few years during my mid-forties, before my back had other ideas, I ran in local road races. If I finished a 5k (3.1 miles) in less than 23 minutes it was a big accomplishment...for a former couch potato. A time like that was nothing special. It put me pretty much in the middle of the field and my own age group. The winner, by comparison, would cover the course in a bit over, or under 15 minutes. A huge difference.
Since I trained hard and hurt a lot during races to achieve my mediocre results, I was impressed by just how good those local champs were. I couldn't get my body to move unaided at their speed for twenty feet, unless I were to jump off a bridge.
One summer, during a visit with my parents, I signed up for a race which went 8 miles around a nearby lake. The significance, for me, was that it was the longest course I ever ran. For top notch local runners, however, it was one of the area's biggest events. In addition to all the free food and beer after the run, there were cash prizes and, thanks to the jewelry store sponsor, the overall male and female winners received a diamond ring.
The race attracted runners from outside the area and it wasn't unusual for the winner to be a hotshot from New York City or Philadelphia. On that oppressively humid and sunny June morning runners who had trained hard and driven long distances for a chance at a ring must have been a little dismayed to find out on arriving that they would be competing not just against other locals but against Olympian Steve Spence.
Spence was only a few years removed from a finishing 12th in the 1992 Olympics, having won the US Olympic marathon trials. The year before he'd taken the bronze medal in the World Games.
He was in town for a wedding and the friend with whom he was staying had talked him into running the race on the spur of the moment. Spence certainly hadn't prepared for it and I doubt very much he ran in a manner that would disrupt his training for the national events in which he was still competing, especially under the dangerously hot conditions.
Even so, the story of the race was simple. There wasn't any race. Spence took off and cruised away from the field, ending up with a course record despite the weather. No one challenged him. The amazingly good local champs had exactly as much chance of catching Spence as I had. Which is to say they might have done so if he'd broken a leg.
It's not that the locals weren't excellent runners. The times they managed were inconceivable to average plodders like me. But while they were at the top of the running community, better than 999 out of 1,000 runners, Steve Spence was at the very pinnacle. An elite runner. He could win at the national level.
Many of us who write are aiming ultimately to win at the national level. It's the nature of the publishing industry that you can't sell enough copies of a book locally to make it worthwhile, unless maybe it's a cook book for a fundraiser. The writers we want to join at the big publishers are competing nationally. They are the elite.
Just as there are all levels of road races, so too there are all levels of writing "races," otherwise known as markets. And none of the races are easy. Whether we are for the moment vying to win a spot writing a column for a weekly newspaper, or trying to place a story in a literary magazine or a webzine, or attempting to have a novel published by a small press, there are many other talented writers working hard to finish ahead of us. Winning a "local" writing "race" takes a lot of effort and ability. It's a big accomplishment.
But to be one of the few who can compete nationally is something else again. Just as excellent local runners had no chance to beat Steve Spence, we can be excellent writers without being good enough to compete with the likes of...well, name the bestselling author who impresses you!
Runners know what level they are at and are happy to compete accordingly -- usually against themselves, trying to improve their own times. They simply enjoy running. It doesn't bother most runners that they have no chance to win a local road race and they would never dream of turning up at the Olympic trials. But writers aren't usually content to write. They want to get published. And every other writer is searching for an agent to approach a big publisher so they can write with the elites.
It can lead to a lot of frustration. What if I had got it into my head that I could beat Steve Spence and took off after him on that humid June race day? What if I failed, but convinced that I could have won I spent years and years training to do so, at the expense of family, work and my own peace of mind? To what end?
With writing there is an element of subjectivity that isn't present in running. It isn't obvious who might be able to compete at the highest levels. We can't hold a stopwatch on our manuscript and say, for sure, that it's too slow to win at a New York publishing house.
Unlike runners, many of us will be forever chasing dreams that we can't know are unattainable. That's the worst thing about writing.
Or maybe the best thing.
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