Today, as I was nearing the five-mile mark of my run, a woman yelled out at me, “Step it up! Step it up!” Of course, I know this was just good-natured joshing, but on this morning, when I was feeling every bit of my almost 65 years, it was the last thing I needed to hear. On a good day, I can sometimes run a nine-minute mile, but for the most part, thanks to arthritic hips and sciatica nerve pain, I simply plod along. The woman who yelled at me had to way of knowing how far I’d run or how much it hurt to keep putting one foot in front of the other. She was merely being friendly.
We writers should never expect others to know what we go through to put our words on the page. If you’re in this writing game hoping to get sympathy, or even appreciation, you’re bound to be disappointed more often than not. Our craft is one done in solitude. It asks us to wrestle with our shortcomings, our demons, and all that mystifies us about this complicated world that can be terrifying, beautiful, obscure, and clear at the same time. Our art is one of expressing the contradictory nature of the human life. We tell stories, we write essays, we write poems. We spend hours alone in a room following imagined characters, exploring our own complicated responses to our subject matter, and working with image and language in order to discover, to dramatize, to think, to feel, and, above all to find some resonant truth that wouldn’t be possible without our artful shaping. We write to entertain, to interrogate, to observe, to touch something nearly unsayable and by so doing to invite readers to take a closer look at themselves, those around them, and the world at large. We write in hopes of being amazed by all we didn’t know. As difficult as it may be at times, really how else would we choose to spend our hours?
So, yes, to the woman who yelled at me this morning, I’ll step it up. I’ll ache and rise the next morning and stretch and go out to do it all again. I’ll keep doing it as long as I can because it’s the life I committed to nearly forty years ago. I’ll keep doing it because I’m stubborn and to quit would be to deny who I am. I’ll say the same about my writing. It’s not a hobby or an avocation or a sideline. It’s my identity. It’s the way I engage with the world around me. Without writing, how would I ever be able to understand what I think and what I feel? How would I ever be able to have empathy for those around me, even the woman who yelled at me. I have no doubt she thought she was being supportive in a good-humored way, and indeed she was. Still, I wonder whether she had any thought about what it took for me to run those five miles, a run I’ll make time and time again as long as my body allows me to make the effort.
I write this not to complain about aging or to plead for sympathy for the runner or the writer. I write this to say to those of us who labor in whatever way we choose to keep going. Step it up. As long as you know why you do what you do—as long as you know the disappointments and the rewards—the path before you, no matter how solitary or challenging or underappreciated will always be one for you to cherish. Give thanks for all the minutes you have to spend at what sustains you. Put your head down and go no matter what someone might be yelling as you pass by.