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Breaking It Down

Wednesday, November 01, 2023

A New York Times bestselling author reinvigorates her creativity through running

By Greer Hendricks

The author Greer Hendricks (right) with friend MZ Goodman (left) at the Brooklyn Half-Marathon

I stare at the pulsing cursor on my computer screen, my fingers frozen on the keyboard. Finally, I compose a few lines. Pause. I type another. I rename one of my protagonists “Liv.” An apartment relocates from Queens to Long Island City. I consider switching the perspective from the first person to the third.

I have co-authored four New York Times bestselling thrillers, but this book is different; it will be my solo debut. I began the story years ago, then set it aside. The characters have preoccupied me ever since. And while I am excited to be back in their world, I’m also nervous to be putting myself out there on my own.

I pick at a ragged cuticle until I feel a sharp prick of pain. When I pop my thumb in my mouth I taste the metallic tang of blood. My nails are a barometer of my stress and, well, let’s just say they do not look good. I rescue a Band-Aid from my bathroom cabinet. It takes all of my willpower not to remove every serum, lip gloss, hair gel, and medication, and reorganize them. Decluttering is one of my favorite ways to procrastinate.

When I return to my desk, I reread the three paragraphs I wrote this morning. I’m about to delete them all. Instead, I inhale deeply and close my laptop. The New York Times Spelling Bee beckons and I spend the next eighteen minutes tapping away at the seven letters in the yellow and gray hive until I get to “genius.”

If only I felt like a genius as an author.

That night, I lie in bed and wonder what’s wrong with me. I have always been a productive person. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, attended Columbia University’s prestigious Journalism program, and worked for years as a top editor at a major New York City publishing house before leaving to write full time. All the while, I encouraged my husband, John, as he built his business, raised two children (and two dogs), volunteered for several non-profit organizations, and still found time to squeeze in a weekly manicure.

But now, in my mid-50s, something has changed. Sluggish and uninspired, I count the hours until I can flop on the couch with John and a glass of chilled pinot noir and binge a series on Netflix.

I want to blame my malaise on a physical ailment. Maybe I’ve contracted Covid and don’t know it. Perhaps I have an iron deficiency? Could this be yet another side effect of menopause?

I schedule an appointment with my physician and, after a thorough exam and reviewing my bloodwork, she declares me 100 percent healthy. Apparently, there isn’t a seven-day prescription for my condition. But there is no denying something is wrong.

I feel rudderless in a sea of molasses. Have I ever felt this way before?

An image pops into my head: 28-year-old me in the Spring of 1996. I am seated on my futon couch, which also served as my bed, in my tiny, studio apartment, flipping through my mail: Allure, The New Yorker, an Ikea catalog, and a stack of bills — ConEd, rent, and Visa. Hands trembling, I withdrew the credit card statement from the envelope and stared at the amount I owed. The numbers began to blur as my eyes stung with tears. It was a lot. Far more than I, as an assistant editor earning $24,000 a year, could ever imagine paying off. I had no savings, and there were days when I would choose between taking public transportation to work and skipping breakfast, or splurging on a sesame bagel and walking the 34 blocks to the office.

I set down the papers and curled my body into a ball on the hard, lumpy mattress. It was more than just the bills I was behind on; it was life. Many of my peers were getting engaged, earning promotions, and booking fun vacations. I was dating someone, but deep down I knew he wasn’t “the one.” I’d recently made a lateral move to a different publishing imprint to escape a difficult boss. My last trip had been a train ride to a comedy club in Wilmington, Delaware, to scout a potential self-help author because that same boss had decided, at the last minute, she couldn’t go.

I needed to shake things up and get out of my funk. But how?

I was ashamed to tell my friends how I felt, and terrified by how disappointed my parents would be to learn about my money woes. Instead, I reached out to my brother, Robert, who lived just a block away from me. We met for dinner at our favorite local burrito joint. He and I have always been close and, after a margarita, I confided in him, confessing both my debt and my despair.

An avid runner who sees marathon training as a remedy to many problems, Robert suggested I register to run the New York Marathon that fall. He had already signed up, and while he was much too fast to run with me, he offered to serve as a sort of coach.

I belonged to a gym and worked out a few days a week, but you would never have found me out jogging early on a Saturday morning, smelling like a mixture of sweat and sunscreen. I would more likely have just teetered home from a bar, reeking of perfume and cigarette smoke. But my brother had always been convincing. And now, years later, his influence was still effective. I signed up.

My first stop was the local Barnes & Noble where I purchased a running book with a marathon plan for beginners. A “to-do” list devotee, I appreciated the specific directives and I followed the program to a tee: eating healthy carbs, drinking lots of water, and putting myself to bed by 10:30 p.m. I scheduled runs on the treadmill and along the West Side Highway, listening to mixtapes with upbeat songs by Madonna, Prince, Jane’s Addiction, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers on my plastic, bright yellow, Sony Sports Walkman.

At first, plagued with side stitches and cramps, I would have to slow down and walk, or, occasionally, stop entirely to stretch. But as time passed I found I could often lose myself to my music, the feel of the breeze on my bare arms, and the beauty of the Hudson River and New Jersey skyline.

Sometimes Robert joined me, jogging backwards and cheering, “What do you do when you hit a wall?” To which I’d respond, “You break it down!”

As the length of my runs grew, I commuted to Central Park and made my way up and down and around the 6.2-mile loop. When I got winded climbing Harlem Hill, I repeated Robert’s mantra and reminded myself to lean forward slightly and loosen my grip, as if I was holding potato chips in each hand.

Not every run went as planned. Sometimes my legs got so tired it felt like I had sandbags attached to them. My Walkman batteries died, and I was forced to jog listening to the sound of my heavy breathing. There were heat waves and downpours. And still, morning after morning, I pulled on my socks over my blackened toenails (gross, I know) and laced up my sneakers.

As summer morphed into fall, my mileage increased, and along with it my confidence. To my own disbelief I ran 12, 16, then 20 miles. I was no longer just running; I was a runner. I might not have been married or a full editor or debt-free, but I had a new identity, one that was also valuable and made me proud.

Marathon Sunday in 1996 was sunny but cool, and my body buzzed as I lined up with the other 30,000 hopeful participants. As we ran over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, through the long stretches of Brooklyn, into Queens, and up Manhattan’s East side, the jubilant crowd cheered.

I might not have been married or a full editor or debt-free, but I had a new identity, one that was also valuable and made me proud.

I had been warned about the fatigue that would hit at Mile 18, the hopelessness that might set in at Mile 20, the cramping at Mile 24. But none of that happened. I crossed the finish line at 4 hours and 35 minutes.

I wore my marathon medal with pride, and even after I removed it, I carried the honor with me. At work, I raised my hand to tackle a challenging editorial project, commissioned a female writer from Runner’s World magazine to author the first women’s running book to hit the market, and asked for—and obtained—a promotion. I also broke off things with the dead-end boyfriend. When one of the books I edited bombed, and a guy I was set up with blew me off, I reminded myself that not every run went well either.

What do you do when you hit a wall? I would think to myself. You break it down.

I tried not to dwell on these hitches, but instead kept my eyes focused on what was ahead of me. I had begun to feel courageous and hopeful.

Now, all these years later, I feel neither.

I stare at my bulletin board covered with inspirational sayings:

You can’t edit a blank page.

Do something that scares you every day.

Confidence starts with the promises that you keep to yourself.

I want to rip them all down. Each adage makes me feel worse than the last.

But then my eyes rest on the famous quote from the Japanese writer and avid runner, Haruki Murakami: “One foot in front of the other. Repeat as often as necessary to finish.”

So simple. So profound. In other words: break it down. A step begets a mile. A mile turns into a 10K. A 10K becomes a marathon. Of course this metaphor about perseverance and discipline also applies to writing. A sentence becomes a paragraph. A paragraph a page. A page a chapter. A chapter a book.

Training for a race saved me once before. Perhaps it could again. I log on to the New York Road Runners website. In eight weeks there’s a 15k race scheduled. I haven’t run that far in nearly three decades, but I feel a spark ignite inside me. I register.

Around the same time, Amazon’s publishing unit reaches out to see if I will contribute a short story to a collection they are assembling. This feels like a good first step towards completing my elusive novel. I draft a pitch, which is accepted. The only catch: I need to deliver the story in two months.

I am a slow runner and a slow writer, but you can’t postpone race day or miss publishing deadlines. I pull out all of my accountability tricks like scheduling runs with friends and committing to meet a fellow writer at my local library. I also reward myself with mini-treats. 15 more minutes of work and I can grab some pistachios. 500 more words and I can take a bubble bath. One more mile and I can have an energy gel.

One thing I can’t control is the weather. The week before the race I obsessively check the forecast. It’s supposed to rain all day. I call Robert to complain.

“I can’t believe I have to run in this.”

“You don’t have to run,” he says. “You get to run.”

All these years later, my brother’s advice is still sage: I get to run! And it hits me that the same is true for writing. I don’t have to sit in front of my computer and come up with stories. I get to. These are opportunities—gifts—not burdens.

Race day comes and, as predicted, it’s pouring. In an attempt to stay dry, I don a flimsy clear plastic rain poncho. The material makes me feel like I’m encased in Saran Wrap. I remove it before I reach the first hill. I try to dodge the puddles, but it’s futile. My soggy feet become heavier and heavier, and my sneakers squish with each step. Looking around at the other runners sloshing through the course, I choke back a laugh, feeling a sense of solidarity in our insanity. I finish soaking wet, but with a smile on my face.

A few weeks later my short story is accepted. The editor likes it so much she decides to move up the publication date and feature it as a solo project, separate from the collection.

Having achieved these goals, I set bigger ones. I re-engage with my novel. I book a session with a trusted freelance editor and we create a schedule, breaking down the unwieldy narrative so it feels more manageable, like a series of short stories.

There is always another jog or blank page to conquer. The only way to become a better runner is to run. The only way to become a better writer is to write.

I run a half-marathon. Then another. I volunteer for Achilles International, an organization that transforms the lives of people with disabilities through athletic programs and social connection. Every Saturday, I am paired with stroke victims, blind runners, and others who need extra support and I guide them on their morning jog.

And the, 27 years after my first and only New York City Marathon, I register to run again to raise money for Achilles.

Running is about putting in the time, then letting the confidence in your body and the force of your will take over. Writing isn’t much different. In both cases you grind away for months or even years without seeing a final result. There are no guarantees on the course or on the page. You might get injured. You might toss out an entire first draft. (I’ve done both.) Not all runs are endorphin-inducing. Not all writing sessions are productive. I’ve learned to let go. There is always another jog or blank page to conquer. The only way to become a better runner is to run. The only way to become a better writer is to write.

Today, I stare at the pulsing cursor on my laptop. It no longer seems to mock me. Instead, it beckons. I take a leap of faith and begin to type.

Greer Hendricks is the #1 New York Times bestselling co-author of The Wife Between Us, An Anonymous Girl, You Are Not Alone and The Golden Couple. Her short story, A Show of Faith, was published by Amazon last spring. She is currently working on her debut solo novel. Prior to becoming a novelist, Greer obtained her master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University and spent nearly two decades as an editor at Simon & Schuster. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Allure, and Publishers Weekly, among others. She lives in Manhattan with her family.

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