How a Middle School Track Meet Informed My Writing

In the seventh grade, I signed up for athletics. I lasted for one season (skinny, asthmatic kids are better suited for things like Drama), but I stayed long enough to experience a powerful moment.

After one look, and a few practices into the school year, the coaches figured out that I was C-team material. I was too short to spike a volleyball and couldn’t complete an overhand serve if my popularity depended on it (which it did). I was easily run over in basketball and was given an alternate uniform that screamed “sub.” During games, I took my seat at the bench. But during each practice, I did the drills and ran the laps. When track season rolled around, Coach Lewis looked at me and said “long distance runner.” He signed me up for the 400 meter race.

We didn’t practice with Coach Lewis often during track season, which made him all the more intimidating when he did show up on the field. He barked orders, shouted praise, laughed once in a while. On a particularly chilly Saturday morning at a track meet, he said the one sentence that has stuck with me ever since.

“Quit your coughin’, Craig!”

Cold weather aggravates asthma, and during the middle of the 400 meter event, I started wheezing, sputtering, slowing down. I jogged in the outside lane. Coach Lewis didn’t like that. He walked up to the chain link fence that surrounded the track, stuck his head out like a snapping turtle, and hollered.

“Quit your coughin’, Craig!”

I was shocked. Had he forgotten I had asthma? Where was the sympathy? Too scared to stop and ask him, I picked up the pace. I took the deepest breaths I could manage and the longest strides my chicken legs would take. I merged into the inside lane, rounded the last turn, and passed that tall girl with the mean eyes. I focused on the white lines that marked my lane and tuned into the sound of my shoes hitting the asphalt of the track. I pushed myself, into fourth place, earning a ribbon and a big boost of confidence.

“Quit your coughin’, Craig!”

Coach Lewis’ words flashed through my mind last week as I experienced the same shortness of breath and sluggish feeling. This time, it wasn’t my asthma slowing me down, though, it was fear. I had reached a familiar point in my novel draft, the place in the story where ideas  scatter and plot weakens, the moment where I stare at the blank screen and worry if what I write next will kill the energy in the work.

Barbara O’Neal calls that place “The Slough of Despond.” In her post on Writer Unboxed, O’Neal says:

This is the [place] on the old maps, the murky, muddy spot where quicksand sucks at the feet and demons overtake the heart.

I’ve been here before, with this same story. In the past, I’ve faltered and quit – full stop – and gone back to the beginning to rework chapter one. But, this time is different. I’ve got Coach Lewis breathing down my neck. And, I have a few other incentives to keep me moving forward.

1. The Radio. I recently read my story, “Red Velvet Sunday,” on WUWM’s Lake Effect program (click here to listen). Nothing makes you feel more like a writer than answering questions about the craft and having the honor of reading your work to a new audience. The experience was like a shot of adrenaline, and it was a reminder that good things do happen, usually at just the right time — like during a writing lull when you wonder if you’ve got it in you to succeed.

2. Jody Hedlund. In her post, “How to Beat the Fear of Being a One Book Wonder,” she talks about old self-doubts that resurfaced while writing her second novel. Her thoughts on how to move through those fears apply to writers at any phase.

3. Ira Glass. In his video on storytelling (part 1) (the link found via a post from Jane Friedman on Writer Unboxed), he talks about “the anecdote” as a sequence of actions that move a story forward one moment at a time. That’s how I can get through this next section so that, as Barbara O’Neal says, I’ll “eventually…have a finished draft. To rewrite. So goes the game.”

How about you? What memorable moments keep you from coughing and sputtering your way to “I quit?”

Coach Lewis

Me, bottom right corner, finisher.

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21 responses to “How a Middle School Track Meet Informed My Writing

  1. Christi, I know others will have the same experience I had in reading this post, remembering back to those grade school moments that stay with us for reasons we don’t even understand and later inform who we become. You’re made of stronger stuff than I am. Seriously. :)

    So much good stuff here. I’ve bookmarked the links to indulge in later today. Congratulations on the Flash Fiction reading and interview!

  2. I needed to read your post this morning…It was inspiring. I too was always on the “C” team…but I realize that I can quit coughin and run as well!
    You are a wonderful writer Christi. I love you!

  3. Oh thanks so much – you’ve got me pondering important coaches in my life too — I heard your piece on Flash Fiction Fri. — well done!

  4. Christi,

    This is just perfect. I prefer not to talk about athletics in regards to myself at all. Yes, it was that bad. And lately, I’ve let current events steal me away from writing those stories that need to be told. Besides, lately, you’ve been my Coach Lewis!

  5. Although I have plenty of moments from elementary school (being told I wasn’t suited to choir four words into the first stanza, singing with two others!), the memorable moment that keeps me from quitting is this:

    When I first cautiously admitted I wanted to write fiction. An older relative said, “Edna Bxxxx got up early every day for years to write and nothing ever came of it.”

    Interesting that I still remember the name of the “failed” writer.

  6. I think running and writing pop up again and again — they both require such high levels of self-motivation and endurance. Thanks for sharing this message.

    Also, I LOVED listening to your reading. Wonderful story, and just so interesting to finally hear your voice. Well done! :)

    • Amanda,

      I use that connection – between running and writing – often to explain to my husband my passion for writing. He runs ultras, which isn’t that far off from trying to write a novel — hours of grueling exercise.

      Also, I’m glad you enjoyed the story. Thanks!

  7. You’ve done it again, Christi. This is a terrific post!

    What keeps me from coughing and sputtering is the memory of waking up in the ICU and being grateful that I was alive — that’s when I promised myself I’d not waste another moment of my life, however short or long it might be.

    • Thanks, Beth. Yes, your story is so inspiring and miraculous and reminds me of the quote from Henry David Thoreau: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined!”

      Don’t waste another moment. I love that.

  8. It’s usually when I remember a time I thought everything was over, or I had proven myself a failure for good, and then considering how things turned around eventually–at times, I was able to claim success for good. In terms of writing–four or five years ago I think I was ready to quit for good, when some encouraging words from a stranger helped keep me going.

    • Thanks for stopping by and sharing, hubzbubz. Those moments – when life surprises us with the perfect words from a stranger (or, for me, often from my kids) at exactly the right time – always amaze me. One of my friends calls that “God with skin on,” which is just a spiritual way of saying something out there is guiding us, even when we’re not paying attention.

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