I just finished the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed and in it was a quote from Winston Churchill. It said simply, "Never never never give up." It stuck such a cord with me that I stopped reading immediately and typed a few words on my Blackberry, fearing that if I dragged out my laptop I might wake my sleeping dog and husband.
The quote gave me an epiphany. One of the things that I love about marathons is that there is a definite endpoint. If you finish 26.2 miles, you've finished. You're a success. It's done. If you don't, you failed. It's over. Maybe eventually you'll gear up and try again, but that's a different goal and a fresh attempt.
For me, writing (and so many other things in life) can feel like a goal with no endpoint. There is no definitive number of query letters to send out, no finite number of pages to write or edits to make. In running I can look at my watch and see how my pace is, or notice sharp pangs of a sore muscle or a cramp, but writing in solitude doesn't give you that kind of feedback. It's hard to tell whether you're doing well or poorly, whether you're on the right track or the wrong one.
There is no end point in view. Not in 26.2 miles, or a day, or a month, or a year. In fact, you could go on writing forever and not be successful. There is a chance that no one will ever read anything you right, or worse, that your words will never make a single person feel something when they read it. It doesn't matter what they feel--I think books can be like fortune cookies that way, we get out of them what we choose to get out of them at any given time--it could be relief, or distraction, or inspiration, or validation, or joy, or any number of other things. As a writer you just want a reader to feel something. Anything.
It's not just writing. In normal life, very few things have definite end points--finite spots where you can determine whether you were a success or a failure. Maybe that's a nice thing, an opportunity to save or fix something until the very end, but mostly I just find it frustrating. There is no success in a relationship until after someone dies. Morbid, but otherwise there is always room for a problem, a break up, a divorce. There is never an end point for success in your career. There are always more things to aspire to. What is enough? A big enough title? Enough money? Enough lives improved by your existence? When are you a good enough person? When are you healthy enough? When are you a good enough parent?
Part of life is the drive to be constantly pushing and trying to do and be more. But when is it enough, even for a minute? When is it time to celebrate? To take a breath? To say, "Oh well, I tried," and move on?
In marathon running, I know the answer. You pick a race, you train for a few months, and if the date comes and you manage to run 26.2 miles and cross the finish line, then congrats. You did it. You get to celebrate. You can sit in bed for the rest of the day (or heck, the rest of the week) and feel like a brave and strong person. You were successful. In life, there seem to be few such milestones. Sure, there are graduations, weddings, and births, promotions and purchases, awards and accolades, but in adult life these moments seem to be few and far between, and sometimes I can barely resist the urge to scream, "Are we there yet?" from the backseat, or maybe even just, "Am I even on the right road?"