I have never run a marathon. The closest I have come is a handful of 10k races back in my 20s. In 1999 I did the Susan G. Komen 3-Day Walk for breast cancer, where we hoofed 60 miles from Fredericksburg, Md. to Washington, D.C. I thought I was going to die. The D.C. area was experiencing a May heat wave. Walking on hot pavement on the side of the highway, with the heat visibly rising from the steaming asphalt, I felt like I was on a forced death march. It was so physically taxing (I did train for it, I swear!) that I barely remember crossing the finish line. I went home and passed out, but apparently not before speaking to my mom on the phone, which I had no recollection of when I woke up.

So the idea of doing a marathon has not exactly been on my short list. That is, until I discovered a different kind of endurance event, one that is a little more up my alley — a writing marathon. It’s called National Novel Writing Month, where sadistic writers commit to writing 50,000 words during the month of November. And we’re not talking about the Jack Nicholson kind of writing in “The Shining,” where the manuscript of his character Jack Torrance consists solely of the sentence “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” typed over and over and over again. (Don’t think I haven’t thought about it. That’s 10 words right there.)

Why would someone agree to this kind of torture? I think it’s the same reason people run marathons or any other kind of long distance competition — to see if you can. To challenge yourself. To take yourself somewhere you have never gone before. And to learn a lot about yourself and life in the process.

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Up until November, the most I had ever written as a journalist was around 2,000 words. My average story for Moonshine Ink is 1,000 words. Back in graduate school, I had written a couple of 30-page papers, but that was a long time ago (plus I’ve tried to block it out). So even though I write for a living, 50,000 words seemed like a lot. Not an impossible amount, but daunting nonetheless. It must be how a novice marathoner feels at the start of the 26-mile race. The finish line seems like a long, long way away.

To get to 50,000 words in 30 days, I had to write a minimum of 1,667 words a day. That seemed doable. It reminded me of the run-walk method some of my friends have used to train for marathons, where they run for seven minutes, walk for one. This approach, which was pioneered by 1972 Olympic runner Jeff Galloway, breaks down the race into segments that make the Herculean feat of completing a marathon seem more attainable both mentally and physically. Alcoholics Anonymous had already latched onto this idea in the 1930s with its motto, “One day at a time.”

One day, a minimum of 1,667 words at a time, was the goal I set for myself. The hard part would be carving out the time. But I realized fairly quickly that even with my hectic life, which includes three little people who demand my attention, once I made writing 50,000 words a priority, I made the time, just like a runner training for a race finds the hours to run five or seven or 12 miles every few days. I uncovered time I didn’t even know I had — from 5 to 7 a.m. when the house was still sleeping, or at 5 p.m. when my husband came home and could watch the kids while I snuck in an hour or two before dinner.

What kept me to my goal were two things. The first was the utter fear of failure, of not accomplishing something I set out to do and had told pretty much everybody I knew that I was doing. The second was something I call the Jenny Craig method of writing. I signed up for a NaNoWriMo class (as National Novel Writing Month is affectionately called) taught by Moonshine’s own Tim Hauserman through Sierra College’s Community Education. The class, which had 11 students, was really more of a support group. It also created some light-hearted competition that worked to keep me typing since we had to report our word count each class. There was no way in hell I was going to be the one person to show up to class with only 3,000 words written on week three when everybody else had 30,000. It’s amazing what a little accountability can do for inspiration, whether it be dieting or exercising or writing.

Randall Wilson, a NaNoWriMo instructor at the UCLA Extension Writers Program in Los Angeles for more than five years, has discovered the same phenomenon. The completion rate for his class has averaged over 80 percent, compared to the finish rate for those who register on the NaNoWriMo website of about 16 percent. In other words, fear of humiliation by your peers is an excellent motivator.

On Nov. 30 at precisely 2 p.m., 10-hours shy of the deadline, I passed the 50,000-word mark. I was a winner! I printed out my certificate from the NaNoWriMo website and hung it proudly on my wall, marched upstairs with my fists raised high singing Queen’s “We are the Champions,” and then I did what everyone else who accomplishes anything in the 21st century does — I announced it on Facebook. Then I fell back in my chair, taking a moment to relish in my success, and to breath a sigh of relief that I had avoided embarrassment at my next class meeting.

And just in case you were wondering, this column is 967 words.

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Author

  • Melissa Siig

    Melissa Siig ditched international politics in Washington, D.C. in 2001 to move to Tahoe, where she quickly found her true calling — journalism. She has written for regional and national publications, and enjoys writing about community issues and quirky human interest stories. When not at her keyboard, she is busy wrangling her three children, co-running Tahoe Art Haus & Cinema, or playing outside.

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