Sunday, November 21, 2010
The Other Shoe
I’ve been promising information about The Running Dream. It should be something I’m dying to talk about, and in some ways it is, but in bigger ways I find myself shying away from it. I don’t even like to summarize what it’s about because the premise sounds so…tortured? It’s not tortured. It’s an uplifting story. I swear! But even mentioning that it’s an uplifting story sounds contrived to me. Like I set out to write some epic tale that will bring you to tears then lift your soul to new, profound heights. Please. I’m not nearly so clever. The only effect I can really gauge is the one a story or character or situation has on me, and the only way I can sustain the energy it takes to complete a novel is if that effect on me is substantial. The main character in The Running Dream is named Jessica Carlisle. She is not me. She wasn’t based, even remotely on me. I ran track in high school, and I ran “Jessica’s race” – the 400 meter – but that is because authors write what they know. I can describe that race with authenticity because I ran it, and remember the pain of the last stretch quite well. But this book was also never a story about running to me. I didn’t set out to write a “sports book.” Running was intended as the vehicle used to present a larger concept. It was like the train that moved me from the depot to my destination. The real story takes place inside the train as it rumbles along the track. But it’s true that the title of the book leads you to believe it’s about running. The track shoes on the cover also give that impression, as does the little detail that the main character is, oh, a track star. So I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise to me that people assume this is a book about running – it’s completely logical. But it leaves me wanting to explain that it’s not actually a book about running, which then gets me describing a story that sounds so…tortured. Which it’s not! It’s uplifting! I swear! Authors are supposed to talk their work up. It’s actually a big part of our job. But if there’s one profession I would never choose for myself, it’s sales. I’d rather shovel dirt for a living. Way. So I’m not going to trumpet the merits of The Running Dream (or any of my other epic tales that will bring you to tears then lift your soul to new, profound heights). But I will tell you that the journey through Jessica’s life had a huge, emotional effect on me, and that during this past week promotional efforts by other people have brought some very strange coincidences to light. Most notably, my track shoes. Let me back up a second and explain that the cover for The Running Dream was presented to me as a finished design. There were several to choose from, but to me, my husband, and my editor, the one that became the jacket was hands down our favorite. It wasn’t the look of the shoes, it was the look and feel of the entire design. I immediately loved it. It wasn’t until this week when there was a request for a picture of my track shoes and I unearthed them from a box in the bowels of my garage that I realized how uncannily like the shoes on the cover they were. It was actually kind of spooky. For a moment I felt like I could have been Jessica. Not her as a person, but that what had happened to her could have happened to me. Because, really, it could happen to any of us. And even though I’d explored this as Jessica when I wrote the story, it made me wonder what life would have been like—how Wendelin would have coped—if it had happened to her. Or, you know, me. And as I sat on the floor in my garage, turning over my petrified track shoes in my hand, I had a fleeting, sort of out-of-body thought that a book like The Running Dream would have helped me through it. As small as a book would be in the enormity of such a crisis, a story like The Running Dream is a reminder that there’s light at the end of our dark tunnels. And light is what we move toward. It’s what keeps us going. Step by step. Thinking all this also made me recognize how grateful I am that—despite the profound effect the writing and research has had on me—I’ve only had to “live” this crisis through Jessica—not live it in real life. So no. Even though Jessica and I ran the same race, even though the shoes on the jacket look very much like my racing shoes, Jessica is not me. She’s just someone who’s run through my life and taken with her a piece of my heart.