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Of First Marathons and First Novels

I learned important things early in life. I learned to walk. And talk. And skate. And get my head unstuck from between the grates of the iron gate of my childhood home. At some point, I also learned to run. Perhaps I learned so I could chase my mother as she headed out the door to go to work. Perhaps it was to join the kids playing patintero on the streets. Perhaps it was to scurry away from baths.

...while running on the treadmill, I decided to keep going, to see if I could finally catch up to that man I used to see on campus. I watched the LCD monitor report my progress. Six miles. Seven. Eight. I finished the water from my bottle and kept going.

At sixteen, I used to jog around school campus. Each morning, I saw an elderly man run the same path. For every round I made, he did two. He ran twice as fast, and continued long after I was done. I wondered how an old man had such endurance, and I asked one simple question: "How does he do it?"

Then one day in my late twenties, while running on the treadmill, I decided to keep going, to see if I could finally catch up to that man I used to see on campus. I watched the LCD monitor report my progress. Six miles. Seven. Eight. I finished the water from my bottle and kept going. Nine miles. Ten. Eleven. Could he have run more than eleven?

And then just like that, I ran twelve miles.

Three months later, I found myself with some 40,000 runners at the starting line of the LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon.

*****

I learned important things early in life. I learned to draw. And dance. And write. I wrote my first story at the age of ten, about a young sleuth with red hair, blue eyes, and a cute boyfriend from an Ivy League school. I meant for her to solve a mystery about a missing map, or clock, or a headless horseman, which one I can't recall. My first story never made it past page one. I realized that although I changed a few details, I was simply imitating the books by a certain Carolyn Keene about a girl named Nancy Drew. Just as I marveled at that running man's endurance, I marveled at Keene and the hundred mystery stories in her head.

As I grew older, the thought of writing novels seemed more daunting, so frightening in fact that I pushed all thoughts aside. I dabbled into short stories and plays and poetry, but I left the novel world untouched.

Then one day, also in my late twenties, I found myself writing a long story. I watched the pages fly. One chapter. Two Chapters. Three.

*****

I was an emotional mess. I cried. I laughed. I was a genius one moment, an idiot the next. My brain staged a constant battle between self-confidence and doubt. Good vs. Evil. Rules vs. Instinct. External validation vs. Self Worth.

On the day of my first marathon, I did not know what to expect. My last training run was 20 miles, 6.2 miles short of the actual race's distance. I read enough of other people's experiences to know that I would somehow find the strength to run those extra miles. I read enough to know what to drink. And eat. And wear. I read about chafing. And bleeding. And blackened toes. I read about THE WALL, about that point during the race, usually at mile 20, when you feel like you just can't run anymore. But you can't stop. You have to keep running, and you have to keep hoping that you'll break through.

I read about all these, felt somewhat prepared, but I now know that I had no idea.

The wall, I found out, was enormous, and it dragged on for miles and miles. My knees turned Jell-O. My thighs throbbed. My toes grew numb. I swore then that if I survived that race, I would never run again. My brain froze in some mantra: Left. Right. Left. Right.

*****

While writing the first draft of my first novel, I read a dozen books on writing. I learned to avoid adverbs. Use active voice, not passive. Go easy on adjectives. Be wary of flashbacks. Show, don't tell. I bought the Chicago Manual of Style, and was confronted with all the rules. I read about plot. About characters. About conflict and resolution. I read of statistics based on speculation. Of 10,000 people who claim to have a novel in them, only 1,000 will actually begin to write. Only 100 will finish. Only 1 will publish.

Despite the odds, I trudged on. Three drafts later, I hit the wall.

Again, I had no idea.

The writer's wall went beyond physical pain. I was an emotional mess. I cried. I laughed. I was a genius one moment, an idiot the next. My brain staged a constant battle between self-confidence and doubt. Good vs. Evil. Rules vs. Instinct. External validation vs. Self Worth.

I sang another mantra in my head. Left. Right. Left. Right. Type. Type. Type.

*****

I'm on the third draft, and I haven't hit the wall. Perhaps I will. Perhaps I won't. But one thing's for certain: I completed marathons simply by running; I will complete manuscripts simply by writing.

I learned important things early in life. I learned to walk. And talk. And run. But I didn't know then what I know now. I didn't know that I could run long distance. I didn't know that I could run over 26 miles.

I eyed the finish line in disbelief. The crowd cheered. I passed the mark, and someone put a medal around my neck, yelling, "Congratulations! You did it." I raised my leg up, and someone took the timing chip from my shoe. Someone handed me water, which I barely drank. I wasn't thirsty. I was no longer tired. I achieved my goal. I finished. It was not a great run. I was at the bottom 50% of those who completed the race. But I did it. I completed my first marathon.

As I limped home in my friends' arms, I pledged to return next year.

*****

I declared my first manuscript complete after five drafts. There was no crowd to greet me at the finish line. No one took the chip from my shoe. No one hung a medal around my neck. I looked at what I'd done, and realized it was not good enough to publish. My heart broke, but as I limped away I thought, "I finished this race. I can run another one."

*****

I ran two more marathons after that first one and improved my time each year. By my third marathon, I felt no pain. I didn't hit the wall, either. I knew what to expect at each turn. I knew what my body can and can not do.

Now I think about that elderly man who outran me at sixteen. I wonder if he still runs, and I wonder if I can finally keep up with him. And then I think about Carolyn Keene, and the others who had since replaced her spot on my bookshelf. Bronte. King. Marion Zimmer-Bradley. Tolkien. Joaquin. Dickens. Rizal. Gaiman. Like that running man, they provoke one question: "How did they do it?"

Now I'm completing my second novel. It's better than the first, and the journey is less painful. I'm on the third draft, and I haven't hit the wall. Perhaps I will. Perhaps I won't. But one thing's for certain: I completed marathons simply by running; I will complete manuscripts simply by writing. Dare I hope for a medal at the finish line? At this point, I'll settle for some water, and for someone to take the chip off my shoes.

© Zarina Natividad Docken

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