Why is learning new things so hard?
Plus 5 trail + road races you'll love running in California, Florida, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire + Utah
I don’t know if I’ve shared this with you or not — I don’t think I have, actually — but lately I’ve been trying something new: writing fiction. It’s something I’ve wanted to try since I was a teenager and started reading novels in a big way, when writers like Pat Conroy showed me an entirely new way to look at the world.
But for some reason, I put it off. Even though it was something I really wanted to do, I put that dream on a pedestal, as something I wasn’t sure I was ready to aspire to. I went to college and graduated with a degree in English, which gave me a chance to read many of the greatest writers of all time, thinking that might help ground me in what great writing is, and prepare me to take on what I’d been dreaming of.
Still, I kept putting it off. After college, I got my first real job at a newspaper, reporting local news for a small town in Georgia, near where I grew up. (Nevermind that I didn’t know anything about journalism — I’d never taken a single journalism class before I started that job.)
I studied it, though. Every day, I would scour copies of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, poring over as many articles as I could read. I tried to pick up the rhythm of how their writers wrote, how they weaved a story together, and how they moved it forward. Over time, I got a feel for how you did interviews, how you did research, and how you figured out what was relevant to a story and what wasn’t, what to include and what to leave out.
What I realize now is that I was learning in two ways: through osmosis — just being around other reporters helped make me better — and by loads (and loads!) of repetition and practice. I got better at it just by doing it over and over and over. At the time, I didn’t notice myself learning anything. I was focused only on trying to get my next article written. And then the next one. And the one after that.
As the years went on, I would write for a number of magazines and places like The Weather Channel’s weather.com, where I got to interview lots of the world’s top climate scientists and write things that helped shape how the public sees the issue (I hope, anyway!).
I hope I don’t sound like I’m bragging when I say that, but I include it to say that I learned how getting better was a byproduct of just sticking with it, week after week, month after month, year after year. As the years went on, I got more confident in my ability to tell a (nonfiction) story, which led me to take on more challenges with it.
During those years, I did try writing pieces of fiction here and there. But when I was done and looked at what I had written, it seemed so unequal to what others were capable of that I’d always crumple up what I’d done and throw it in the trash. “Who’d want to hear this from me?” I thought to myself.
My journalism career is behind me now, and that’s fine. I gave it everything I had when I was doing it, and I got to do so much work I’m proud of still. But there’s still that one goal, that one dream that I still want to try — fiction — and to me, it’s like climbing Mount Everest.
The past year and a half has given me plenty of new perspective, as I’m sure it has for you too. I turned 50 earlier this year, which made me pause and think: if there are things I want to do, I don’t need to waste any more time in going after them. Let’s do them now.
So recently, I started working with a writing coach, who is fantastic. He’s coaching me through the process of learning how to write fiction — how to write a scene, how to write dialogue, how to move from one scene to another.
And you know what I’m finding out? It’s hard. Especially at first, it’s really hard. Not because of the task I’m trying to do, but because I spent twenty or so years training my brain on how to do one thing. And now I’m asking it to try do something that’s very different from what it has done repeatedly in the past.
And my brain has rebelled a little, primarily by judging what I’m getting down on the page. It’s telling me that what I’m writing isn’t good enough, and can’t ever be good enough. But what my coach is helping me do is to see past that. To see that if I stick with it, and keep practicing, I’ll learn how to use this set of muscles too.
Now, of course, I can be kinder to myself. I’ve learned — still learning, to be honest! — not to judge myself so harshly, especially when I’m trying something new. (After all, isn’t it just slightly ridiculous to think I can do what Sally Rooney or Stephen King can do, right out of the gate?)
So that’s what I’m doing. Working on it every day — a few hundred words here, several hundred words there. Slowly but surely, one idea has been leading to another, which leads to another, and then another. I’m piecing together a narrative from some threads that had been in the back of my mind for a long time.
I know, of course, that the odds of succeeding at this — meaning, getting good enough to be able to write fiction for a living — aren’t high. But maybe that’s what makes a goal more attractive and exciting, if what you’re working toward is something that’s really hard to do.
I have no idea where I’ll end up with this, but it is fun to step out on a journey like this, and try to follow in the footsteps of this quotation I’ve always loved by the Scottish mountaineer W.H. Murray:
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in ones favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”
And I especially love the last part:
“I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets: ‘Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.’”
Have you ever had a dream you’ve put on hold for a long time — or most of your life — and decided to pull it off the shelf, dust it off, and go for it? What was your experience like?
I’d love to know, either in the comments or in a reply back. As always, have a great run out there — be well, and be safe. 👍
Races you’ll love running
Syracuse, Utah | Friday, November 5, 2021
A gorgeous run along the trails of Utah’s Antelope Island State Park, a 42-square-mile park near the southern end of the Great Salt Lake that’s home to bighorn sheep, antelope, free-ranging bison and other desert animals. The point-to-point route for the race begins at the park’s Fielding Garr ranch and then follow along the hills of the Mountain View Trail, until you make the turn toward the lake and finish at the White Rock Bay trailhead. (Notice that the race will be run on a Friday, not a Saturday or Sunday — due to a huge surge in visitors in recent years, the park has decided not to allow special events on weekends or holidays.)
$65.77 and up | Sign up here
Franconia, N.H. | Saturday, October 30, 2021
A run on paved bike trails through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, when the region’s fall foliage should be ablaze with color. From the lodge at Cannon Mountain, you’ll run almost entirely along the Franconia Notch Recreation Path, which will take you past scenic viewing spots like Echo Lake, Boise Rock, the Basin and the Flume Gorge, where later you can take a two-mile scenic walk into the woods and see covered bridges and scenic waterfalls along the way. You’ll also run past a spot that once attracted countless tourists: the Old Man of the Mountain, which looked like the profile of an old man on the side of one of the mountains within Franconia Notch State Park. Records of sightseers at the “Old Man” date back to the early 1800s, but the formation is no more — it collapsed back in 2003.
$75 and up | Sign up here
Millinocket, Maine | Saturday, December 4, 2021
When the Great Northern Paper Mill closed here near the end of 2014, it left behind a town of some 4,500 people that prides itself as being “Maine’s Biggest Small Town,” grasping for answers on what to do next. The next year, a group of volunteers decided to do what only runners can do — raise the flag about what was happening the town by putting on a marathon and half, and attract as many as possible by making registration completely free. The only catch? That all runners who take part need to spend money in or contribute in some way to the Katahdin Region, a beautifully scenic area in central Maine.
Free | Sign up here
San Rafael, Calif. | Saturday, December 4, 2021
Nestled along the shore of the San Pablo Bay, less than an hour’s drive from San Francisco, China Camp State Park was once a village of some 500 immigrants from Canton, China, who fished for shrimp in its intertidal salt marshes back in the late 1800s. Today, it’s a popular state park for boaters, hikers and mountain bikers, thanks to its extensive trail system that wind through the woods, where you’ll see wild turkeys, deer, coyote, foxes and plentiful birds — and take in panoramic views of nearby Mount Tamalpais and San Francisco Bay. This race, which is open to just 350 runners, unfolds along the trails within the park and features 1,800 feet of elevation change for the half marathon. (The race also offers a 30K, 10K and 5K.)
$65 and up | Sign up here
Ormond Beach, Fla. | Saturday, December 11, 2021
You’ll get to see what a small piece of “Old Florida” looked like when the Seminole Indians lived here at this trail race, among the salt marshes and oak trees of Bulow Creek State Park, where you’ll run parts of the historic Bulow Woods Trail. All three races in the event — which include a 50K ultra and a 4-mile run — will start and finish in front of the 400-year-old Fairchild Oak tree, believed to be one of the oldest live oak trees anywhere in the Southeast and one of the only living things to survive when the Bulow Plantation was destroyed in 1836 during the Second Seminole War. From there, you’ll run among the single- and double-track trails and old plantation roads of this 5,600-acre park, taking in views of some of the last remaining old-growth live oaks in the state.
$75 and up | Sign up here
Bemidji, Minn. | Saturday, October 9, 2021
Nestled in the northern part of the “land of ten thousand lakes,” the small town of Bemidji, Minn., goes by many mottos — from the first city on the Mississippi to the curling capital of the U.S. — and here you’ll run this mid-October race around Lake Bemidji and stretches of the Paul Bunyan Trail. And don’t worry — you’ll catch a glimpse of the famed statue of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe toward the south side of the lake when you’re approaching the finish line.
$80 and up | Sign up here
Words to run by
“I have written my life in small sketches, a little today, a little yesterday, as I have thought of it, as I remember all the things from childhood on through the years, good ones and unpleasant ones, that is how they come out and that is how we have to take them… I look back on my life as a good day's work, it was done and I feel satisfied with it. I made the best out of what life offered.”