I am not sure why it should be surprising, but trying to make endurance sports seem interesting is fucking impossible. I read You Are an Ironman to try to get some ideas, thinking, like, hey creative nonfiction about a long chunk of insanity. Should be interesting. Suffice to say, #DNF. I mean, I did skim most of the book, and I gave it my full attention for some chapters. Maybe I’m just not an empathetic person, but the small grind of other people’s lives is just that: a small grind. And if this is what dramatic tension looks like in a sports book, I am in big trouble drama-wise. I was expecting maybe something closer to The Long Walk. This was, like, your annoying aunt’s incessant complaining about her minor health issues and eternal home decorating projects no one cares about.
But, as a writer, we have to ask: why didn’t it work? Part of the problem, I think, is that I really didn’t invest in any of the characters, maybe? Like, obviously you have to establish the meaning of an inherently meaningless activity1 to your characters in order to make your readers invest in that activity. And at least for a few examples, that basic starting point was accomplished. But then you also have to get your audience to invest in the characters themselves, and that can be hit or miss. It was pretty much a miss for me across the board.
That’s not a personal judgment on the people portrayed in the book, or even really a criticism of the text. Obviously this book is part of a network of materials that a lot of people have used to help them accomplish things that they themselves find meaningful, and cyclically2 there is a readership primed to see the goals of these characters as meaningful without any dramatic prompting. But I would say, overall it’s more of an “it’s possible” book, than an “it’s exciting” book, and in fiction I like to think we work with the gripping, the unputdownable, the heart-wrenching, and the beautiful. Creative nonfiction is such a bitch, too. You have to walk such a careful line. And I fully admit that part of it is that I’m not enculturated3 into any system of sports, so I can’t really judge this book within its own genre. Who knows, maybe it’s better than most.
The sucky thing is, you’d think the answer would be simple: just rely on good ole stream of consciousness. But the truth is, what I think about while running4 is usually something along the lines of, “Man I wish I wasn’t running right now,” or, “Where is my other brown shoe? It’s been missing for like three months,” or, perhaps most frequently, “Oh look, a dog. I should get a dog.” And I have a feeling that’s pretty normal. Helpfully, people like to write race reports that kind of give me a sense of what people think they thought about during a race.5 And even with heightened stakes, you can only have profound thoughts for so long. And that is just bullshit for dramatic tension. How do you convey the length, the drag, the boring slog, without making it actually boring?
Anyway. That’s what I’m thinking about. I’ll get back to you when I have an answer. Maybe I’ll just pull a Stephen King and put a bunch of soldiers or a deranged clown behind the race. NOW IS IT DRAMATIC? NOW ARE YOU INVESTED?
- Pretty much everything that isn’t life or death (or arguably love) is inherently meaningless. The reason The Long Walk works is because it’s life or death. That’s just true in general. I actually ran into this in Treasure Island not that long ago. Like, we’re after treasure, but why are we after treasure exactly? Treasure is just a bunch of metal if you don’t make it personally meaningful to your characters. This is also one of the really impressive things I’ve noticed about Frasier, which I’ve been guiltily indulging in recently: that the writers can convince us to invest so completely in something as frivolous as a wine tasting or a fine fountain pen.
- PUN ALERT PUN ALERT PUN ALERT
- Spellcheck says this is not a word, but it is a word.
- Based on their inability to stay the fuck out of traffic, I feel like most runners in DC are probably just thinking, “Doot doot doodle doot doot dooooooo.”
- Obviously people are not good observers of themselves, especially not when editing through the high of endorphins and hindsight.