It Can Be No Other Way


Not many people reading this blog know it, but a while back (like, two decades ago, which was probably when some of you still needed a reminder to pull down your pants before you peed and damn but if that ain’t humbling to an ole fart like myself) I was a pretty good competitive cyclist. I raced mountain bikes mostly, in the preferred format of the day, which generally involved two hour, mass start events. At the time, cross country mountain bike racing was hugely popular; it was on the verge of becoming an Olympic sport, and the number of people willing to drive multiple hours so they could saddle their bicycles and pay to ride in circles until they vomited was really something to behold.

I raced at the highest regional level, and while I didn’t win very many events, I was consistently toward the front. I stood on the podium fairly regularly, though most commonly on its bottom step. I think the biggest thing separating me from the absolute best guys was pretty simple: I didn’t care enough. It never really bothered me that I didn’t win very often. In fact, I was always sort of amazed that I did as well as I did, and I couldn’t fathom doing many of the things the guys who were beating me did. Fly to Arizona to train in February, for instance. Or shaving their legs. Eating rice cakes. Living in their parents’ basement. That sort of stuff.

Anyway, what I really loved about riding my bike competitively was that every so often, I’d have a transcendental performance. I mean, I’d seriously be crying on the bike, and not from pain or grief, but from the pure gratitude of being allowed a glimpse of what being human can feel like. Everything would click so perfectly that I almost couldn’t feel the effort being expended, it was as if the bike were racing itself and I was merely fortunate enough to be along for the ride. This didn’t happen often – maybe one out of every seven or eight races – but it happened often enough that I never forgot the feeling. I never thought I wouldn’t experience it again. I just had to keep looking for it.

What happened the other 85% of the time? Usually, it was sort of average. Not miserable, but certainly not transcendental. Just a skinny, lycra-clad dude huffing and puffing and sweating. And on occasion, it was truly miserable. Legs like lead balloons. Lungs burning. Mind fixated on counting down the interminable minutes until the finish line. Questioning everything: the hours wasted training, the self-loathing of knowing Penny was at home, mixing cement for the concrete piers of our original cabin, while I was doing… what, exactly? Riding my bike in circles like a circus monkey and furthermore, spending money we barely had for the privilege? I’d bring her flowers if I placed high enough, lay them right in her blistered hands.

I mention this because I received an email from one of my writing students; she’s struggling with her work.  I mean I know how I want to write, I just can’t seem to get this new way to come out on paper, if that makes any sense, she tells me. Oh, yeah, A, it makes sense. It makes a whole freakin’ lot of sense. It especially makes sense to me lately, ’cause truth is, I’ve been struggling, too. Like this woman, I’ve had the sense over the past couple of weeks that I know how I want to write, but I can’t quite get it to come out on paper. My suspicion is that most writers – even so-called “professional” writers – feel that way an awful lot of the time. They probably don’t want you to know that. We pros like to think there’s something sacred about our craft, that we’re the beneficiaries of a particular genius you poor commoners will never understand. Bullocks. 

Here’s what I think about writing. No, scratch that: Here’s what I think about life. And bike racing, for that matter, which was the whole point of my long-winded introduction. You gotta muddle your way through a lot of shit to get to the sweet spots. Actually, it’s even more than that: You can’t even find the sweet spots if you don’t muddle through the crap. If you don’t hurt a little, if you don’t drag your sorry sick ass outside to do chores on a four below morning, you’ll never fully appreciate those August mornings when you rise at 5 full of piss and vinegar and you’re on the land by 5:30, and the cows are right where they’re supposed to be, waiting for you to drop the fence and the grass is boot-top high and so green you think there should be another word for it. If you don’t stick out the long months of winter, the truck that won’t start despite three – three! – cycles of the glow plugs, the 4:30 darkness, that craving you have for just a glimpse of sun please, please, please but even the long term forecast is all clouds and cold, you’ll never fully appreciate that day in early March when it hits 47 and the sap is running something fierce and you’re down to a tee shirt and sunburned by noon.

To my student, and to anyone who struggles with their writing (and therefore, to myself), I say this: If you don’t write the sentences that, no matter how many times you rewrite and reorder and rework them, never seem to say what you want them to say, if you don’t do that over and over and over again…. well. You’ll never find the ones that write themselves, the ones that fall into place as if they already existed (and truth is, they probably did). You’ll never know how effortless it can be – not always, not often, certainly not as frequently as you’d like. But often enough to keep calling you forward. Often enough that you do what I’ve been doing for the past couple of weeks, lurching along, doing what needs to be done. It can be a little painful. If you’re offering your work for public appraisal, as I am, it can be a little embarrassing.

It can also be no other way.

40 thoughts on “It Can Be No Other Way”

  1. Sorry. Lately, I come on here and write a comment that has nothing to do with the post. It’s just that I recently read Home Grown and it inspired me to re-read Tom Hodgkinson’s Freedom Manifesto. The Freedom Manifesto inspired me to quit my job as a librarian about 4 years ago and stay home with my kids. I am forever grateful to the author. Now that I am re-reading it though, I find a lot of similarities between you and him. I’m sure as a writer and reader you have already read it, but if not, I think you would like it (him).

  2. So true! Life’s rewards reflect what one puts into the journey. No pain . . . no gain. And HOW sweet those rewards can be!

  3. Yeah, you can “keep looking for it” if you want. Or you can just do what you do and let it all go. The more you try to hold any of it, esp. the trancedental the more those moments will elude you. So what? Just keep writing. Just keep truckin. Because so what if you have those trancedental experiences? Why does that matter anyway? Ben, Adya was a competitive cyclist too.

      1. Does it matter to you what I dreamed last night, homie?

        Much love from the mid-west, where we grow real hardwood trees and eat hippies for breakfast…

      2. I always put Sriracha on my hippies (yes, even in the morning). Tulip is mill food. We have to feed the mills something between meals. They are never satiated.

      3. Thank you for confirming, sir. Yes, how could I forget, Sriracha will help add some tanginess to that overpowering hippie sweetness, so it goes pretty well, plus it will fire you up for the mill feeding. Yes good stuff.

      4. I thought that Sriracha useful as both a condiment and a medicine, in that it tastes good and kills all manner of intestinal parasites. I hope that you wash your hippies before you eat them. If not, the Sriracha is something that you don’t want to forget.

  4. I just finished a four-year project that just came together so easily. It was like I just need to show up. Then I started working on a new project more than a year ago, and it just didn’t come out the way I wanted it to. So I dropped it, wondering if there was something wrong with me. But I’m still drawn to the subject so I think I need to get back to it and just slog through it and see what comes, eventually. This is how you know you’re up against the edges of your abilities.

  5. adam had a chance to check out the kingdom trails this summer and is looking forward to more rides in the future. he was pretty amazed by it – he left the kingdom in the early 90s, just before the trails came to be so it was all new for him. we are so starved for vast stretches of land down here, it was really nice to see him revisit those familiar woods in a new (groomed! begging to be ridden on!) kind of way.

    great writerly advice, too. it’s comforting to know even folks like you feel it’s mostly labor and a smidgen of epiphany.

    1. although, maybe the locals are not thrilled with the trails? (his family seems to think it’s great – unlike the windmills across ridge lines.) the bike culture in the village of east (?) burke was pretty great… lots of good people looking to be active in the great outdoors. and they sure brought a few dollars to the couple of stores in town.

      1. My impression is that most locals are pretty happy about the Kingdom Trails. They’re less excited about the regime change at the mountain, though…

  6. Now that is some nice writing!
    Shaving their legs… 🙂 Man, hopefully to be a good writer you do not have to do the equivalent of “shaving your legs” for a winning cyclist. If that sentence even makes sense. . .

    Writing is even trickier than painting or music, I think there are more dimensions to it. Transcendental experiences, like Friday paycheck, keeps you going through Monday and Tuesday, but sometimes even then, everyone needs to take a vacation. Like Kiki in Miyazakis movie, sometimes we just need a vacation to find a purpose to regain that power: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kiki%27s_Delivery_Service
    Sometimes you just have to live a little bit more so you can write about living. Sometimes you can just babble.
    If your student is trying to compare herself with you, Ben, then all I can say, good luck, she is SOL. . .

  7. It seems that as you grow in your craft your problems grow right along with you. My favourite quote from Einstein:
    “Do not worry about your problems with mathematics, I assure you mine are far greater.”

  8. I learned what you wrote about in wrestling, as well as many other life lessons. Competition can have a strange effect on the way things are perceived, nice to hear you were hooked on the feeling. I needed that reminder of struggle being a good thing today. Thanks.

  9. Sending you some of this eternal sunshine (rain please!) we seem to be having here. Grey and cold sounds nice when I’m watering the dry plants in January. Spare the Air days here, so no burning hippies for us.

  10. If in your glory days, Ben, you happened to ride with Floyd Landis and so know him, please email him for me with word that I have not (and will not ever) forgiven him and that i hope all his teeth fall out and are lost.

  11. Been reading your writing here and there, I must say its always an enjoyable read full of common sense and composed in a very natural way.

  12. I, too, like your writing, particularly the opportunity to vicariously live in northern New England without having to physically live there. Like someone once told me during a particularly slow day on the South Platte River near Hartsel, Colorado, “This is why they call it fishing, not catching.”. In your case, writing, not written.

  13. Can someone remind me the title of the book and the full name of “Nick” that Ben recommended a while back? Thank you!

    Still trying to picture Penny mixing cement while Ben rides around in circles like Circus monkey. . 🙂 being stuck in writer’s block is kind of like being stuck in that cement with your bicycle.

    When I do a search on Hewitt in our library tons of Bicycling magazines come up. Will be excited to see the rest of the books added.

    1. Do you mean Nick Neddo and “The Organic Artist?” Just got my copy in the mail today and it is gorgeous. Can’t wait to dive into it and have a whole new appreciation for black walnuts and coyote hair.

      1. Oh, yes. I got that book for my brother-in-law for Christmas. His unicycling (is that a word even?) skills were legendary when we were teenagers. I’m sure you’ll like it, too.

  14. All this is so true, and it felt mighty good to read it. And here’s something else I’ve noticed: now and then I read back to things I wrote a year or two ago, and either feel a) revulsion at ever writing such rubbish and b) wonder that I haven’t written that well in a long time. I think that a break is a very valuable thing to the muse, and yet it’s difficult to take a break when the bills that show up in the mailbox certainly don’t take a break.

  15. Maybe I should apply the logic in Ben’s post to my being sick and tired of this office life (@Bee), counting down the days until I pay off the house… I need to much through it and actively try to learn while doing it.

    If it takes sh!# to make bliss, well, I feel pretty blissfully.
    Modest Mouse, anyone?

  16. I so relate to the circus monkey comment, especially in 1988…

    Chasing Greg Lemond

    The bike,
    two wheels of bliss taking me through dying towns
    Rooster primes in Breton
    with old bent pros
    going for gypsy carnival bells,
    Muddy buckets in Belgium, behind the barn.
    wiping down the grime
    from around dehydrated lips
    Foaming at the mouth
    they are running from the factory door,
    doing whatever it takes
    in a square in a place,
    where old men in hats
    click a silver stopwatch each time you pass by
    and chant allez allez

  17. Man, just stumbled across your blog – and this was exactly what my crazed/frustrated/frantic writer-brain needed. The torture of writing those sentences that JUST DON’T COME OUT RIGHT is some of the worst I know, but the high I get when they finally turn into something good is worth it. Thanks for the reminder.

  18. I had no idea you were a mountain biker, old school at that! I always found the best insights into life while out on my bike, tucked away on some single track far removed from everyone and everything. I don’t get much time for it now, I wish I did. I guess I should make time.
    Should probably make time to write something too, one day.

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