Running Down that Hill: On Trail-Running and Writing

One autumn in the late 1990’s, part of a cross country course in Arizona burst into flames. No one knows how the fire started but it raged alongside the course as high school students stumbled by in the hundred-and-ten-degree heat. Earlier on in the course, half the runners got lost and proceeded directly up a mountain in the opposite direction of the finish line. A trail coated in thorns popped the air bubbles of several pairs of Air Max shoes, leaving the students in question running on one flat tire. Vultures circled overhead, someone puked, and everyone wished they’d had more water to drink earlier in the day.

I couldn’t come up with a better metaphor for the writing process if I tried.

There is no inferred popularity in distance running. There is no status and very little sympathy. But there is pride in the struggle. In getting better every day despite adversity. In standing in a press of bodies at the starting line and sprinting to the finish.

I ran for years and, largely, I enjoyed it. You might infer that I have a great talent for running.

I do not.

I have a great talent for stubbornness. I am not a natural athlete. It was work. It was always, always work. I started at the very back of the pack and, with effort, managed to move my way to the middle. I trained, sweated, and pushed my body to its fullest. I placed second in one race which seemed miraculous. Then I started slowing down. It probably had something to do with the stabbing pain in my knee. Because I was sixteen and thus an expert in sports medicine, I diagnosed myself with shin splints and decided to run through the pain.

I did not have shin splints. I had damage to my ACL which was a season-ending injury.

In the writing world as much as the running one, failure is part of the game, no matter how hard you try. It started with a high-school creative writing teacher who soaked my papers with red ink and accusations of “egregious errors.” It continued with a writing group where an absurdly confident man told me that my fourteen-year-old character wasn’t “attractive” enough. And then I began querying. And kept querying. And queried some more.

But—I was prepared for failure because I spent my life running. Because I know what it’s like to try my hardest, not succeed, and still get up the next day to try anew. I know that, often, you run through the pain (unless it’s a damaged ACL, seriously… don’t try to run through that).

But, accepting failure isn’t the only part. It’s just the beginning. Not that long ago, I was running up a nearby mountain. It was a glorious late summer morning and I was feeling pretty darn good. As has habitually happened in my life, this led to a cocky and ill-conceived decision—running faster. The thing with trail running as opposed to track running is that there are rocks and roots in your path. My foot hit a rock and I tumbled over, skidding back down the trail face-first. A strapping man with his dog was on the way up the mountain. I saw the shock on his face as I plummeted down the slope toward him. I saw him spring into action.

He heroically leapt in front of his dog, protecting the innocent beast from witnessing my flailing, falling body. As I skidded by, wondering if the tensile strength of my pants was enough to withstand the drag force of the trail, he gave an “ugh” of disgust. I survived the fall relatively unscathed (my pants did not), picked myself up, and continued back up the mountain.

You might be asking, “What does your clumsiness have to do with writing?” First of all, how rude. It could have happened to anyone. Second, it has everything to do with writing because it has to do with what happens after a fall.

There may have been a time in my writing career where I made a cocky decision (maybe more than just the one). I suffered many a rejection. Many many. Just so many. And I learned from each one! I wasn’t mountain roadkill, laying on the trail in need of a rescue.

I didn’t need the handsome man to save me. I was able to dust myself off, get down the mountain, buy new pants, and keep going. It isn’t just about accepting that failure happens. It’s about learning from that failure. And I never fell again—on that part of the trail. Every time I picked myself up from the writing dirt, I learned something new that got me farther up the trail.

And that’s the thing about failure and about trails, the uphill part is the longest. The downhill part is the best.

“Wait,” you say, “That’s not how it works. The uphill part is exactly as long as the downhill part.” Well, too bad, this is about symbolism, not math. Anyone who has ever run up a mountain will tell you that the uphill part is the longest. It sure is for me. I sweat, I struggle, I stumble. I’m only like a quarter of the way there. How am I only a quarter of the way? I’ve been doing this for hours. Well… minutes. So, I sweat, struggle, and stumble some more. Maybe I trip over my own feet. I reach the peak.

That’s when the fun part starts.

Top of Bierstadt

Photo courtesy of Constance Fay

It’s time to run down that hill. I’m a gazelle. A puma. A particularly athletic dinosaur. Whatever creature works. I’m athleticism and speed and it’s effortless as walking because gravity is finally on my side. I could do this forever. I was born to do this. I’m suddenly inspired for that chase scene I was thinking of.

The uphill part is longer for writing, too. In my case, I decided writing was fun as a child. I listened to a podcast or two. I thought I wrote something amazing, until I reread it and realized it was garbage (it probably wasn’t garbage, it was at least a recyclable, but I didn’t know that yet because I was still going uphill). I had to learn the craft. And do the work. Unfortunately, I didn’t just get teleported to the top of the mountain; I had to earn it and I could only do that through sweat and effort.

But then, one day, I didn’t even realize it and the slope changed. My stride lengthened. My gait smoothed. It happens in the macro and the micro. For a career, for a series, for every single book. There is a struggle. There is work. And then, when it finally clicks, there is exhilaration.

We fail. We fall. We run up the mountain so that we may run down it. So that we can feel the wind in our hair. So that we can be pumas or dinosaurs. So that we can write, finally, as we always dreamed of writing.

Constance Fay writes space romance novels and genre fiction short stories. Her short fiction can be found in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Catscast podcast, and other publications. She has a background in medical device R&D and lives in Colorado with a cat who edits all her work first.

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