Two summers ago, I failed spectacularly at almost every writing project I attempted. I failed at my novel rewrite, opting to not follow my editor’s suggestions (because, you know, even though she was at a major house and even though I’m just a skinny Alaskan, I was sure that I knew more than she did).
I failed at a major freelance job I never should have taken, since I knew perfectly well that it was over my head and out of my area of expertise.
I failed at getting my poems published, my chapbook manuscript published, my essays published.
In that one sad year alone, I racked up over sixty writing rejections.
To top it off, I failed at the ultra-race I had trained for all summer, collapsing at mile twenty-six, four and a half short miles from the finish line. After being released from the medical tent, I sat in the middle of the trail and sobbed. Other runners weaved around me and I stared down at my dusty running shoes and wondered why I even bothered to run at all. Wouldn’t it be easier to just quit?
I didn’t do that, of course. Three days later I was back out on the trails training for another race, another chance. As I spent long hours weaving through birch and alder trees, as I jumped over bear scat and veered around bored moose, I reflected on my goals and realized that training for a long-distance race is similar to writing a book. Each requires that you take it one small step at a time. Each offers a multitude of irritating and annoying setbacks. Each hands out bouts of almost unbearable pain. When you’re racing 31 miles and just passed mile three, the rest of those twenty-eight miles can seem pretty damned daunting (much like finding yourself stuck in Chapter Eight and having no idea how you got there or where to go next).
Ultra-runners have a motto: Forward relentless motion. Basically, if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, sooner or later you’ll reach the finish line.
Last year, after experiencing so many writing-related failures, I decided that it was time to write the way that I ran, and that meant following a training plan. Instead of simply writing when the mood struck, I’d sit my ass down in my chair five days a week and write. And yeah, some of those days would be hard, some of those days I’d barely trudge through a page, and some of those days I’d produce nothing of worth. But the act of writing, much like the value of daily runs, would make me stronger. It would build my writing muscles and help me overcome fatigue and doubt, fear and uncertainty, laziness and bad writing form.
Of course, it sounded much easier in principle than it did in execution. Training for a race or writing a book is hard. Putting in seventy mile running weeks or thirty page writing weeks is exhausting. It demands discipline, something I found easier to muster during runs, probably because it offered an immediate pay-off: the running high.
I didn’t experience a high while writing. I sat in my chair and toiled away, and no one clapped or high-fived me when I finished an especially thorny chapter or finally, after years of anguish, devised the perfect ending to a poem. But you know what? It didn’t matter. I followed my writing training plan, every paragraph, every page another relentless movement, another step forward.
My writing became leaner, tighter, cleaner. I learned to better edit my own work, to more quickly discover my character’s voices, to brush aside ego and write for meaning and clarity instead of publication dreams or audience.
Just as following a running training plan built the endurance and mental toughness to finish 50k races, my writing training plan built the confidence and resilience to finish projects I’d pushed aside. In the past year, I’ve published a multitude of poems, essays, and flash fiction pieces, plus placed in numerous writing contests, finished my second book and started on my third.
Writing plan | Here’s a sample of my writing training plan, which mirrored my running schedule:
Mondays: Rest day (lots of reading)
Tuesdays: Easy-paced writing day, followed by cross-training (editing, researching markets, querying freelance markets, etc.)
Wednesdays: Mid-week long writing session, followed by weight training (submitting work—I aimed for five manuscripts/poems/essays a week)
Thursdays: Easy-paced writing day, followed by cross-training
Friday: Rest day (lots of reading)
Saturday: Long writing day (3-7 hours)
Sunday: Long writing day (3-7 hours)
Cinthia Ritchie is a recovering journalist who writes and runs mountain trails in Anchorage with her dog, Seriously. She’s a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, two-time Rasmuson Individual Artist Award recipient, and recipient of a Best American Essay 2013 Notable Mention. Find her work at New York Times Magazine, Sport Literate, Best American Sports Stories 2013, Evening Street Review, Under the Sun, Water-Stone Review, damfino Press, The Boiler Journal, Panoplyzine, Barking Sycamores, Clementine Unbound, GNU Journal, Foliate Oak Review, Deaf Poets Society, Mary, Theories of HER anthology, Grayson Books Forgotten Women anthology and others. Her first novel, Dolls Behaving Badly, released from Hachette Book Group. She blogs about writing and Alaska life at www.cinthiaritchie.com.