Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Alexa Martin: Base Work

So I’ve been thinking about running lately. In part I’ve been thinking about running because when I'm not impersonating a writer I work at a running store called Route 16. It's my day job but it is also one of my passions. I love turning non-runners into runners and it’s something that I’m good at, largely because I know without a shadow of a doubt that if I can run, ANYONE can run. I didn’t start running until I was nineteen years old, and I still remember how elated I was when I ran three miles without stopping to die. Over the years I've trained myself to run longer and longer distances. First a 10K, later a half-marathon, and then a marathon. 

In my early thirties, crippled with IT band syndrome, I nodded earnestly while the doctor told me I should never run for more than an hour. But I didn't exactly listen. Instead, I switched to trail running, partly because the impact is so much less on your body, but mostly because nothing makes me feel so much like a kid as pounding through the woods on muddy trails. Six months after the doctor made his dire pronouncement I ran a trail ultra-marathon... pain and injury free. I believe in the benefits of trail running, and if ever we meet in person I will tell you everything you never thought you wanted to know about trail running. And I will be so enthusiastic about it that you will probably forget to be annoyed with me and want to try it yourself. And you will love it. Truly. I promise (and if you are a female I will very likely convince you to join the Dirty Girls, my all-ladies trail running group). 

Sadly, I haven't gotten to run much this past year, at least not until very recently--which is another one of the reasons running has been on my mind. We want what we can't have, right? While rock-climbing last February, I took a huge fall and landed on my back and neck. I was hurt pretty badly, although I didn't find out how badly until late this summer when I started losing all feeling in my left arm and went five weeks without sleeping because of acute pain. An MRI revealed that I'd completely shattered the disc between C4 and C5 in my neck. My only option was surgery. To reach the C-Spine with minimal damage, surgeons go in through "the anterior" for an artificial disc replacement. Which is a nice way of saying that the good docs slit your throat and get paid a nice sum of money for the pleasure. Thankfully surgery is behind me now (though the bills keep rolling in like a tidal surge). The feeling has returned to my arm. The pain in my neck and shoulder is gone. I sleep most nights. When people ask me about my scar I tell them that I got into a knife fight. They don't press for details because who wants to piss off a girl who lived to tell the tale of a knife fight? 

On a different note (one that's relevant, I promise) I finished a book earlier this year. It's a contemporary YA novel called Girl Wonder. On multiple occasions in my life, well-intentioned people have tried to discourage me from writing--just as the doctor tried to discourage me from running long distances five years ago. I believe that one of my fatal flaws is that I don't always listen. I also believe that our fatal flaws are also often our greatest assets. Anyhow, in my final round of revisions my editor pushed me to go to the deepest, darkest most wounded places of my psyche. Kicking and screaming and crying I did what she asked. And I'm very glad I did, because ultimately I want my book to do some good in this world and help teenagers to heal from their hurts. When it comes to writing, if we want to offer our readers some kind of salvation we have to bare our own pain, right? But I won't lie to you... I injured myself finishing Girl Wonder, as badly as I injured myself when I fell off the rock wall (though it's harder to point out to the doctors the specific source of the pain when it comes to book writing). 

I am slowly healing from my neck surgery, and have recently returned to the trails. But I'm tired of being wounded and don't want to take unnecessary chances anymore, so I have a running coach now. 

"This fall is all about base work for you," he keeps saying. 

 "Tell me again what base work means?" I ask for the umpteenth time. I mean, I know there's got to be a reason why he has me doing hill-repeats, weight-lifting, and eating lots of protein. 

"Base work is about teaching your body how to endure so that down the road you can push it to do more without getting hurt. Base work is about developing good habits." 

Good habits? 

"You have to work the inside before you can work the outside. Base work takes time. You have to have patience."

Time? Patience? 

"You have to develop your tendons and ligaments and muscles and cardiovascular system before you can really push them. You have to hold back a little." 

Hold back? 

Base work. It's a concept that's hard for instant-gratification me to wrap my mind around.

The final push of Girl Wonder is fading to a blurry memory now. I've recently started writing again. It's terrifying being back at square one and feeling like a beginner. It's just me and the blank page and all these half-baked ideas in my head that mostly slip away the second I try to retrieve them. I delete more than I write. I wake up in the middle of the night suddenly realizing that major characters are irrelevant. I so desperately want every word and paragraph to sound like polished manuscript material. As I struggle to write I daydream about running. My very favorite runs are the ones in which the brush is so thick that I can't even see my feet but I'm not stumbling because my instincts take over, and my body listens to its surroundings and understands where to go and what to do without me having to guide it. It's primitive and primordial and the most free feeling in all the world. It's going to take some serious base work to get back to this place. But it will be worth it. This I know. 

Returning my attention to the computer screen, I realize that base work applies to writing as well. And so I try to trust that even if I delete today's work tomorrow that these words I am writing now are not wasted, that even if I never see them again, that even if no one ever reads them they are still leading me and my story to where we need to go. When it comes to writing, discarded words are simply a part of laying down the base work miles. Sitting in front of a blank page--seat work, I believe is the term--even though it's scary and uncomfortable and feels unproductive is simply mental strength training. 

It's going to take some time before my subconscious takes over for my new book. It's going to be a while before the ideas really start to flow. But I know something now that I didn't know before: I can't skip this part of the writing process, crazy-making as it may be. It will be worth it. This I believe. It's what keeps me writing these days. 

As my coach says, this fall is all about base work for me.

Happy writing, my friends. Happy Trails. 


  1. Hi Alexa,

    As a fellow runner and fellow writer, your post hit me where I live. Thanks and a question--do you work out story elements when you run?

  2. Alexa, I love this most almost as much as I love you! Your a wonderful person and have already enriched my life even though we've only begun to get to know each other. I look forward to lots of base building with you!

  3. This post really makes me want to read your book.

  4. Base work - I never heard that term, but yes, there's a lot of base work that goes on in writing, definitely!

    Great post Alexa!