I agreed to write the memoir of former marathon champion Dick Beardsley, even though I was afraid. I'd never written a book before. What made me think I could do it?
Dick's probably most famous for his second-place finish in the 1982 Boston Marathon, and that's the chapter we worked on first. The night before our interview I had an anxiety attack. What could I say about the race that hadn't already been described in great detail in dozens of newspaper and magazine articles?
The next day I told Darrell what I planned to ask Dick. How did he sleep the night before? What's the first thing he thought of when he woke up that morning? What did he see when he looked out the window of his hotel room?
"That's how I know you can do this," Darrell reassured me. "Those are great questions."
I got forty-two hours of interviews on tape, eventually, and transcribed every word of them. When it was time to write the lead for the book, I was paralyzed with fear again. The lead. For a book! I imagined people opening it, reading the first sentence, and deciding whether to buy a copy based on that. My entire career depended on the sentence grabbing them so hard they couldn't help but fork over the twenty-two ninety-five.
That's how it felt.
"I think it's great you're afraid," my friend Jamie said. Huh? "It shows you're stretching yourself, that this challenge is worthy of you." I'd never thought of fear that way, as a sign I was on the right track. A little while later, doing dishes, the lead came to me. When Dick was growing up, he loved to hunt, fish, and trap animals--and would check his trap lines on the way to school. The book is written in first person, and the lead was going to be: "I was never the teacher's pet, but I probably smelled like one."
Dick loved it. Darrell loved it. I loved it, too. Staying the Course: A Runner’s Toughest Race doesn’t open with it, but that’s another story.
I don’t get scared anymore when it’s time to write. Well maybe a little. Just enough to remind me how much I care about my work. Life coach Martha Beck said it better, I think, in the magazine Real Simple several years ago: "Every time I sit down to write something that matters to me, I'm never sure I can do it right. But I also feel pulled toward the experience, as though the sirens are singing from the very place I'm most afraid to go."