Last year I learned never to think I’m done climbing a hill until I’m actually on my way down the other side.
Which I am not.
I’ve had an article underway on how riding brevets is like writing novels—Where to sell it? Quiet, you!—and I stopped writing it. It wants to be a more ambitious, lethally interpersonal, soul-cauterizing account, the kind you only write if you’re a sociopath. Or anyway, you might write it if you’re not a sociopath, but you certainly don’t publish it.
That this shocking stunner of an essay appeared as a full-blown revelation when I’d reached the transition to the third act of the current behemoth (a third act I could only feel the way dice might feel in your mouth—the tongue rolls the objects, the brain waits) was, doubtless, completely coincidental, and had nothing to do with always getting a better idea around two-thirds of the way through a book. Better ideas are extremely seductive. Unlike the bloated, twitching monster you’ve botched over the last 100,000 words, the better idea, not having been subject to your ham-handed executions, is flawless.
You will cry. I know it. And laugh. And learn. The movie rights will pay old debts back and good deeds forward. It will be the first 20,000-word essay on Kindle to break their Top Ten and stay there for a year. I’ll be invited to speak. There will be stipends. I’ll be one of the people who doesn’t have to fight for the three slots that weren’t already filled the day the anthology submission guidelines were announced. There will be radio interviews, presence in the popular consciousness, and cult street cred.
I must resist it, this siren. Lash me to the mast, boys, and stop your ears with wax and steer us true ’til we’re past that pernicious, ravishing song. And stop the sirens’ eyes too, while you’re at it, because they come to no good end in that story either.
(In a book, I’d either cut that part or change the ruling metaphor from bicycling to sailing, but you’re getting this post for free.)
Now my head is full of siren’s song, and I can’t remember what I’m supposed to be writing.
Oh, the hills.
As climbers go, I’m not necessarily the last one to the top. In late August, when my quads are pumped and my stomach’s near flat, I might even be at the front of the next-to-last group—might even be taking a pull.
On the Hightstown 600K, Sunday morning after my revelation about pain (it was a Friday-night-through-Sunday ride) I was climbing a hill into the last eighty miles or so, and I just knew I could climb pretty much anything. Not fast, not impressive, but put it in front of me and I won’t be gasping when I crest it. I’ll just keep pushing these pedals and inflating my chest, out of the saddle with my arms in the drops and just my gray base layer on my grit-coated torso, jersey rolled in the Carradice loops, rocking the bike with each stroke because I’m big and it feels good, and then at the top I’ll shift up and haul on the descent. And assuming you haven’t already dropped me by half a mile on the climb, being big I’ll probably beat you to the bottom while you’re pedaling and I’m tucked and coasting; because unless we’re in a vacuum, Newton’s Laws favor the Clydesdale.
You only get the downhills if you do the uphills, my more systems-oriented boy likes to recite knowingly.
The transition to the third act is always a big hill for me—the kind that on a cue sheet, says
Mile 127 • Adamic Hill Road • Turn right and CLIMB!!!
But unlike a brevet, a book (or anyway, the kind I write) doesn’t have cue sheets. I don’t even know if I’m someplace where I can get to an end, let alone The End. I spent Act II complicating situations and spinning threads out in wild directions, and this bottleneck, right here, is where something needs to turn and everything needs to start converging toward a point.
Which I didn’t plan. I just don’t outline in advance. I have ways of working through despite this, but when I get to the moment when Act II has to die and be reborn as Act III, all is lost.
All these threads, curling, kinked and knotted in every direction. This time all is lost.
And that’s when I forget who I am.
Suddenly, I become this fretting guy who can’t write until he knows where it’s going in advance. I can’t write a third act on intuition! Nobody can! See, this is why this thing’s not done yet! Because while I’m writing the first two thirds, I don’t know why I’m writing anything (which is true), but I’m trusting that my subconscious is internally consistent, so if I let it lead, what I write will be too.
And then I hit the Act III turnaround and whine But I don’t know how! just like that systems-oriented five-year-old.
Except I do. You push the pedal.
You stand up in the saddle and you rock the bike, and you don’t give a shit that the racer types are forty miles ahead on their carbon frames because you’re not here to win anything. You’re here to finish, and it’s not quitting and showing a little style that counts.
How big and steep is the hill? Who cares, it’s a hill, you climb it. If you can’t, you get off and walk until you can, and then you get back on and climb. How far is the top? Who cares, doesn’t matter, you’ll get there when you get there. Your job right now, this second, is to push a pedal, not to crest a hill. You only get the downhills if you do the uphills.
I push one pedal per night, five nights a week. One pedal is 260 words, which is 1300 words per week, which is 140,000 by New Year’s Eve. I chose 140,000 because it’s either the end or within striking distance of it. But it doesn’t matter if the number’s not perfect. It might be a faux plat instead of the final rise, but who cares? You sit down and go the next wheel-length or two, not the next eighty-mile leg. The hill will happen, and then the leg, and then the checkpoint, and then the next wheel-length, and the next hill, and the next checkpoint, and then you’re done, and people who haven’t done it think you’re nuts but they also know you did something, and the other people who did it too know you’re not all talk, you’ve got a real claim on something, and that’s how you get to the end.
But maybe a shorter one next time.
Just don’t think about it yet.