Tuesday 13 September 2022

Lapping the Lough by Sheena Wilkinson

Like most writers I do a lot of teaching, of both creative and academic writing. I do it because it pays the bills more reliably (and generously) than book advances and royalties, but also because I enjoy sharing skills and knowledge. 

I’m always on the lookout for helpful images to illustrate insights about writing, and for years I’ve wheeled out my old friend the mountain. I’d explain to students that writing a story or an essay was like climbing a mountain: you had to get all your gear together (planning and researching), and then clamber as best you could up to base camp (writing the first draft). Subsequent edits, for structure and style, got you in stages to the top. It’s a good clear image and I’m sure I’ll keep using it. 

The road where I used to live: you can see
why the mountain image came so readily. 

But recently there’s a new image in town! A fortnight ago I participated in my very first sporting event, a 90-mile cycle around Lough Neagh, known as Lap the Lough. As regular readers will remember (only joking: I wouldn’t expect anyone to remember what I blogged about last month, let alone in 2020), I bought myself a bike in lockdown, not having cycled since I was in my early twenties.  (https://awfullybigblogadventure.blogspot.com/search?q=two+wheels+good) What a shame, I said, that we can’t do Lap the Lough. How disappointed I am!  I said it, dear reader, safe in the knowledge that organised sporting events were all cancelled for the duration.


Well, you can guess what happened next. This spring, when entries opened, my husband said, So we’re doing this, aren’t we? (He has done it many times, but he is a Crazy Person who has cycled up actual mountains.) Of course! I said. And the end of August seemed ages away, like when you have a year to write a book and it feels like d-e-c-a-d-e-s.

In Donegal in 2020; the mountains are purely for background effect -- I am neither mixing my metaphors nor suggesting I could cycle up more than a small hill. 


Until it doesn’t. We started off well, though it felt weird to unsporty me to say I was training for something. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to head off for a cycle picnic because it was a good day; we had to cycle regularly even when it was windy, or we were busy and didn’t feel like it. I actually never really felt like it. It reminded me of when I started to take writing seriously, about fifteen years ago, and prioritising it instead of writing when I felt like it. And yes, in a way some of the joy was lost, but in its place was a sense of satisfaction. Last week I couldn’t cycle twenty miles without a break. This week I can. I felt myself get fitter and stronger, just as I could see results when my writing started to improve. 


As with writing, there were setbacks. Covid robbed me of a month of cycling. I fell off one day and bashed both my body and my confidence. I’m training for Lap the Lough, I told people, but I’m not sure if I’ll actually be able for it. By mid-August I was cycling 45 miles comfortably, and no longer whingeing at the hills, but 45 miles was not 90. What if I needed the loo? What if I fell off? What if I just stopped with exhaustion and cried and disgraced myself forever? (All these things had happened in training.) 


It was like when I lost confidence in writing. I know I used to be able to write, I’ve often thought, but I don’t know how to write this book. 


But my husband, and my own inner Sensible Voice, which isn’t nearly as vocal as my Catastrophising Voice, told me to relax. It’s essentially four cycles, Seamus told me, because you stop three times. And each of those cycles is under 25 miles, which you know you can do easily. After all, nobody knows better than a novelist how to break something down into stages. OK, I might get progressively tireder, just as, towards the end of a writing project I can lose momentum and enthusiasm, but it was a helpful way to see it. 


And the analogy with writing and editing was closer than I realised. The first fifty miles were on roads I didn’t know. The first draft! I was fresh, and had the enthusiasm of novelty, seeing a new landscape and feeling part of a big, popular event.  Getting going after lunch was, as I had always known it would be, tough, even though people cheered us up the main street in Randalstown as they sat eating ice creams outside a cafe. My back and shoulders were aching and I wasn’t looking forward to getting to the third stop. This was in Ballyronan, which is the village where I live. How could I, after seventy miles, drag my aching bones back on to the bike and cycle another twenty-odd miles, when home was a tempting 0.7 of a mile away? 

The Lap the Lough route


But that would be like giving up on a book when I’d written it, just because I couldn’t be bothered to edit. I couldn't let Seamus carry on alone: that would be like abandoning my characters! And in fact the last twenty miles were just like those final stages of editing. I knew these roads so well; they were the roads I cycled all the time in training. I knew where there were potholes; I knew where the donkeys were that I always said hello to; I looked forward to the place where you could freewheel all down one hill and be taken most of the way up the next. I had thought familiarity would make this part of the cycle difficult, but the reverse was true. I was even able to encourage other people. There’s a lovely downhill coming up, I told a portly male cyclist as I passed him. 


I had been dreading the last mile because we had driven it and it had looked like a long drag uphill – just as I often dread a final edit or proofread when I am too tired even to see what I have written, and familiarity had bred too much contempt for my words.  I should have remembered the adrenalin effect – elated with triumph, I managed to fly up that hill, passing lots of other cyclists and, I think, surprising my husband. 


Not as much as I surprised myself. 

at the finish line


Last week I did four days of essay-writing workshops for sixth formers, funded by the Royal Literary Fund. It was a tough week – I wouldn’t normally do four days of all-day workshops back to back – but on the second day, as I struggled to make the group understand the principle of breaking writing down into manageable stages, I remembered that day in late August, the anxiety, the bone-aching exhaustion, and then the final, exultant pull up the hill. It had given me a great sense of achievement, but it’s also given me a great image to use for the future. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That's a memorable blog of a very big cycling day. Days of huge effort definitely stick in the mind and give satisfaction many years later. Thanks.