Writing Big Year: Grrrrrizzle

Grrrrr . . . I’ve written before about how drafting a history exposes doubts about what actually happened. Sometime in 1949 or 1950, Russian scientists and engineers started to design a power reactor – a reactor exclusively built to generate electricity rather than to make plutonium for bombs. In 1954 they started up a tiny reactor that did just that, and the following year, at an amazing international conference, the Soviet Union could blare that it had just built the world’s first “peaceful” nuclear power plant.

I possess most of the available research material on this subject. (When I say “most,” I know there are some Russian-language odds and sods I don’t have, but I can’t believe anything new would come from these.) Previously I’ve been through my material in exhausting detail. I drafted the chapter. I plotted it afresh. Now I’m rewriting. And guess what?

Suddenly I’m unclear on exactly what happened as against the story of “Russia’s first peaceful nuclear power plant.” What is truth and what is a tale? Western writers have offered a few variants but who is right? When did the decision really take place and exactly why? It’s vital for me to get this right but all my earlier work is now under suspicion.

So forgive me if I grrrrrumble . . . this will take a day or two, and suddenly my timetable is smashed.

Jogging Big Year: Does it consume too much time?

Can I offer some numbers, please. This year I jogged 170 times, adding up to 177 hours. Unfortunately I only commenced monitoring my gym visits on Strava late in the year, so this next number is approximate, but add 112 hours (at home I hit the gym on every non-jogging day, but when traveling, that’s not possible). Even more time consuming, this year I’ve instilled daily stretching, probably only missing a handful of days, so go ahead, slap on another 350 hours.

We end up with 539 hours committed to the Big Year. Assuming 18 waking hours a day, 30 days or a full month of the year was spent in the service of an obsession.

Whoa, I hear you say, how stupidly wasteful. Andres, I hear you chortle, have you added a month onto your life and if not, aren’t you crazy?

All I can say is that the sums are correct but your conclusion isn’t. If you watch the TV news every night, plus another hour afterwards, you’re in the same ball park. If you read The Age newspaper for an hour a day, you’ve “wasted” three weeks. Anything worth doing is going put a dent in your year. And shouldn’t your year be filled with activities of value?

Writing Big Year: How I cope with seemingly never-ending disappointment . . .

I don’t. Cope, that is. Writing novels used to be easier: miss a self-imposed deadline and I was a couple of months late. But this leviathan of a book seems to never reward but always to crush.

It’s all my fault, of course, as anyone except I could see from the start. I spent far too long gathering far too much material on an expansive topic. I made no attempt to winnow – my mantra was “I’m keeping an open mind.” I drowned myself and now writing is a brain-shredding exercise in slash and burn.

The upshot is that whenever I’ve planned, any realistic plan stretched out to infinity, so my actual announced “plans” have always been dreamy aspirations that quickly soured. Disappointment after disappointment after despondency after dejection . . . you get the picture.

I don’t often chat about this because responses tend to be unhelpful. The reaction I hate most goes like this: “Ah, but you’re keeping yourself busy, it’s clearly a labour of love, thank goodness something interests you, so many retirees get bored.” Find me a steep cliff, I think (but don’t open my mouth).

Luckily, this Writing Big Year spurred me to find mental models and working methods that have sped things up. On a wing and a prayer, my 2017 Writing Big Year (it’s actually 15 months) bestows on me a “plan” that is, I reckon, a real plan.

Jogging Big Year: Success

At the beginning of 2016 I feared I’d break down or give up on the goal of 1,500 kms (later upped to 1,700 kms) over the calendar year. There have been tough periods, including a strange, emotional last three weeks, but today I stretched and headed off in the early Christmas Day light, before the big heat, on my West & Back route. Strava told me I had 1,690 kms. We’re hiking up in the mountains from Tuesday the 27th, and tomorrow involves a big party and drive, so I had to run my final 10 kms today or fall short of the goal. In Big Year terms, today was December 31.

The first thing I noticed was how exquisite the morning was. Often I huff and puff so much that I barely register the world, but today it glistened. A cormorant aired its wings on the lazy Yarra. A coot cackled. The second thing I noticed was how many others were out, exercising before turkey and bonbons and afternoon napping and simmering feuds. Emotions coursed through my body and my mind, at its worst, made matters tough for me. I turned back at the halfway point with a decent average pace of 6:05 but from then on I struggled, slowing and slowing again. Up the rise under the freeway . . . along the flat . . . under the gums . . . discomfort seguing into longing for the finish, then into the regularity of physicality . . . the familiar wrench of the final hill . . . and I was done.

2016: 1,700 kilometres.

Jogging Big Year: Why is too far still too far?

After 170 runs this year, each of ten kilometers, wouldn’t you expect that activity to regularize, to turn routine, to feel free and easy? But no. Each and every jog finds me thinking, “this is too frickin’ far.” I can step back and point to gains – stronger, a tad faster, less prone to injury, much quicker recovering – but moments of mastery are too rare to count. Even now, running hurts.

I’m in Bawa, an airy, efficient barn of a cafe. Today is not a running day but I did hit the gym. Outside the streets are torrid with Christmas shoppers, leaving me proud of my outsider stance. I slow breathing and ease into a more reflective mode: if running hurts, as I wrote above, why the heck do it? Has this Big Year been a chafing exercise in masochism?

And I realize my attitude – asked right after a run, I reflexively sigh, “man, that was slow and tough” – is just a habit, a shitty leftover from pre-Big-Year struggles. Looking at myself from on high, a scientist analyzing an insect, guess what I see? I observe someone who can’t miss a run, who mixes joy with anxiety, who can be caught smiling at least once every outing, who waves support to oncoming runners, who experiences triumph after each sixty-one minutes. Watch this habitual striver put his body through its paces, watch the body do what it should. Even from above I can discern happiness, a palpable joy.

What’s wrong is not the run, not its distance, nor its hills. It turns out that ten kilometers is the optimal magnitude for this non-athlete. No, the fault lies not with the run but with the mode of thought. Yes, I must heave, muscles must pit themselves against gravity, organs must cohere to battle fatigue, but my mind should relax into purring acceptance.

Can I cut the grizzling habit? Not easily. The upcoming Fitness Big Year offers a tremendous opportunity to try. If 2016 was physical training and exertion, perhaps 2017 should tackle the mental, the emotional.

So too far isn’t too far after all. Less far is not far enough.

Jogging Big Year: So close yet . . .

A gorgeous breezy Melbourne day along the Yarra. 30 kms remaining to hit my 2016 target of 1,700 kms. I’m jogging, four kilometres in, hugging the side of the path after being passed by cyclists, when I hear a parrot call in a nearby tree. I spot a guy peering upwards. I crane my head to look and fail to notice how the path’s verge dips into a slight ditch here, and suddenly my left ankle turns and I’m stumbling and I hear a little snick . . .

I run on and none of my immediate fears are borne out, for the next 6 kms flash by without more than a slight tightness across the ankle. 1,680 kms, 20 to go.

Now the foot is sore and hot across the top. Time for the ice pack . . .



Writing Big Year: I’ve failed . . .

The Jogging Big Year: a cinch to write about because I’m on target. Most of my energy, however goes into the Writing Big Year, this book that fires me up but threatens to crush me. And that much grander daily preoccupation has not achieved what I’d hoped and planned.

I commenced 2016 committed to writing daily (lots) in order to finish drafting the book’s 20 chapters by year’s end. Over the past years, I’d often laid out such “plans” and then drowned, just drowned, and so it proved this year. On July 1, I revised the deal to two big years, drafting Chapters 1 to 8 this year, Chapters 9 to 20 next year. Well, on December 31 I’ll have in hand drafts of Chapters 1, 2, 5 and good chunks of 3 and 4. Statistically 2016 has been a 50% failure.

I wish it were otherwise. I wish I had no regrets. I wish I wrote this without a hammering heart.

But the Big Year notion has, in fact, driven huge changes in my writing approaches and methods. I’m doing better and, perhaps naively, have faith in my mind and my pen. On some mornings, a vision of the end flickers before me.