The other night, my friend Bill told me I have to write another post because he’s sick of reading about mushrooms every time he clicks on this blog. While I’m flattered that anyone still bothers to come here after I’ve spent so much time away, the truth is, I’ve been feeling as if I’ve written myself out. I’ve finished a draft of “How to Cook a Moose” and am awaiting edits from my editor, and meanwhile, I’m working on a couple of personal essays that feel like the end of this autobiographical half-century-mark phase I’ve been in. I’m good and ready to dive into a new novel I’ve been mulling over, which I suspect my other editor will be happy to hear. I’m excited to leave my own life back on shore and head down into the depths of an imagined world.
One of the essay assignments I’m currently working on concerns the New Nordic Diet, which I’ve been following for a month now, except for a lovely hiatus when I went down to spend four days in Austin, Texas for the Kirkus Award party and panel. Down there, it was 90 degrees and sunny, and I ate barbecue and breakfast tacos and drank tequila with wild, happy abandon; the New Nordic diet advocates eating local food, in season, and when are breakfast tacos ever out of season? And they’re definitely local.
Back in Maine, I’ve been hewing closely to the diet again. I made a hearty moose stew with Maine buckwheat flour, red wine, duck fat, beef broth, and root vegetables; I’ve been eating plenty of late-fall greens and wild-caught salmon and oatmeal with blueberries, and no processed food whatsoever. This is the way I like to eat, anyway, so it’s certainly no hardship. And now that it’s suddenly dark at 4:30 in the afternoon, and the leaves are gone, and the air is chilly and grey, this northern way of eating feels instinctive and comforting. Of course, I haven’t lost any weight, even though I’ve been exercising a lot, but then again, I’m hardly starving myself. The diet doesn’t involve any calorie counting or restricted portions.
Yesterday, as I do fairly often these days, I ran more than five miles without stopping. I’m proud that I can do this. I’m not going to break any land-speed records, but I’m in it for increased stamina and wind. I plug along like the tortoise in the Aesop fable, like the little engine that could, watching Brendan spin off on his long, fast, cartoon roadrunner, 32-year-old legs, leaving me far behind. But then, a couple of miles later, I catch up to him when he’s done sprinting and stops to walk, and then I leave him behind in my slow-and-steady wake for the rest of my run. He’s a sprinter, a poet, a screenwriter; I am a distance runner, a novelist. To each his own style, to each his own pace.
These days, I’m recalling, as I run, what training for the New York marathon felt like more than 12 years ago. I remember how fit I was at 40, how fast I whipped myself into shape to run a sub-four hour marathon, having never run distance before. I was still young back then, and much faster, but I’m stronger now because of Pilates. I can feel my upper back and arms and core working as I charge up hills, feel my shoulder blades spreading like wings as I pump my elbows. My whole style of running has become more efficient and aerodynamic, now that my top half is as strong as my bottom half.
Running is a lot like writing novels: when you get tired, speed up. When you’re winded, slow down. Hydrate, underdress, and don’t think about how far you have to go, just focus on where you are now. Don’t try to go too fast, but push yourself. It may be a stretch, but the parallels are clear and unmistakable to me.
The reason I’m thinking this way is that I’m ready to disappear into a novel again. It’s a whole different way of writing from personal essays, autobiography, nonfiction. Instead of focusing on what’s around me and inside my head, my memories and sensory experience, it requires me to create and build and sustain a parallel life that’s tethered to my head like a balloon I climb up into every day and stay in for hours. Or maybe it’s a bathysphere, to continue my metaphor of submersion in water.
I haven’t written a novel for a number of years, but like running, it’s something my muscles know how to do instinctively because I’ve spent so many sustained months and years doing it. But even so, starting a new one is always hard, like starting distance running after a long time away from it. At the beginning of a novel, I get out of breath easily. I can’t seem to steady my pace. I overheat. I pull muscles and get cramps and often need to take a break. I feel flabby and uncoordinated. I watch faster runners whip by me.
The only trick I know is just to keep at it. As with running, there’s no other way: slow and steady, every day, rain or shine.
Breakfast of Nordic Champions
In a covered saucepan, cook ½ cup organic steel-cut oats in 1 cup of water and a pinch of salt. Add a dash of maple syrup and another of cinnamon. Stir a few times while it cooks, adding more water as necessary. When the oats are almost done, add ¾ cup wild low-bush blueberries and stir well and let simmer a few more minutes. When it’s hot, serve in a big bowl with a handful of chopped toasted almonds.