The Long Road to Running

By Mary T. Wagner

running-with-stilettos.jpgI didn’t set out to be an essayist, or a blogger, or to have a website, or to publish a collection of reflections ranging from mortality, to gardening, to chocolate addiction, to the view from the back seat of a Harley driven by a man in black leather pants.

I set out years ago to write an entirely different book…but as it often does, life got in the way.
They say that the journey of thousand miles starts with a single step. That’s all well and good if you’re traveling on foot or on horseback or by camel. In the case of a journey through one’s heart and life, though, sometimes it starts with a casual conversation or a single drink instead. And that’s where we’ll start this story.

The road to “Running with Stilettos: Living a Balanced Life in Dangerous Shoes” began in a posh hotel lounge in Los Angeles about eighteen or nineteen years ago. I can’t recall the name of the place, but it was sprawling and luxurious, large enough to accommodate the annual PBS marketing convention attended by many hundreds of people. As a freelance journalist who wrote often about public broadcasting programming for magazines around the U.S., I was spending a couple of days there to make new friends, pass around my business cards, and get a heads-up on the most prominent new shows and series for the upcoming fall season.

After returning from a party held at one of the local television stations, I was having a drink in the lobby and getting acquainted with one of my editors who, up until that moment, I knew only as a disembodied voice on the telephone in Washington, D.C. We chatted about life, and writing, and careers, and television, and at one point he leaned forward and gave me some encouragement and good advice. The encouragement was that my writing was very good, and that it had a certain “verve” to it. I appreciated that greatly. The advice was that I should cultivate it and get myself to a week-long writers’ workshop of some sort to make it even better.

I laughed—Ha!!—at the absurdity of the suggestion. I had three kids home at that time, the youngest being only about three years old, the oldest only halfway through grade school. I had virtually moved heaven and earth to divert enough of my maternal routine to get away to L.A. for a couple of days to promote my freelancing business. Leaving for a week of self-discovery would be impossible! He frowned, and pressed the idea a bit more, but knew that he was on the losing end of the debate. I put the notion of spending a week away from home not just on the back burner, but far beyond the back porch.

Fast forward fifteen years. By this time, I had broken my back in a horse jumping accident, made a (nearly) full recovery, gone to law school, become a criminal prosecutor, left the writing life behind.

Serendipity—or guardian angels, or fate, whichever you believe in most strongly—had me cross paths in the video aisle of the local supermarket with a “soccer dad” I hadn’t seen in several years. We had sons and daughters the same age, and we spent a little while catching up. He mentioned that his retired father-in-law had spent a week at an artists’ retreat called “The Clearing” in Door County, Wisconsin the previous year, and had returned absolutely brimming with new ideas and creative projects to work on. From the depths of memory, something about this sounded familiar, and I eventually recalled the words of my former editor. Huh!

“Tell Sue to call and tell me about what her dad was up to,” I implored him as we parted company. “I should look into this.” Impatient to the core, however, I found the website for The Clearing as soon as I got back home. I applied on-line and was soon accepted to the “advanced writers workshop” conducted by the well-known Wisconsin poet Norbert Blei. My youngest was about twelve, the oldest nearly out of college. I figured that by this age, everybody could make a peanut butter sandwich and wouldn’t starve to death if I was gone for a week.

Driving up to The Clearing was like entering a creative womb. Set far back from the road on the shores of Lake Michigan in woods fragrant with evergreens and birches, it was a welcoming place full of charm and inspiration and peace and quiet. No phones, no newspapers, no radio, no television, no email. Log cabins and flagstones and shady woodland paths and songbirds and fireflies. And three meals a day of fabulous food served family-style at the sound of a dinner bell, with serving staff hovering nearby to bring another platter of hot food or refill your glass of iced tea.

I wrote the first four chapters of a suspense novel in that week, and returned energized and ready to write some more. Did some research and interviews and arranged to take a week and a half off work in the fall, so that I could write during the day when the kids were back in school.

That first morning of that writing “vacation” dawned bright and sunny and full of literary promise. I remember it was just after nine and I was standing at the counter of the local dry cleaner when my cell phone rang with a desperate call from one of my daughters. She was eighty miles away at school, and she felt like her body was “crashing.” I dropped everything, drove like a bat out of hell to reach her and brought her back to see her regular doctor.

I spent the next week in a blur of emergency room crisis and doctor visits and pain and drugs and misdiagnoses and misery. When I got back to the office I claimed the week as “family medical leave” instead and put the book on the shelf. The medical problems continued for nearly the next year, and I found that concentrating on a fictional “whodunit” took a back seat by far to the real mystery of my daughter’s health.

The year after that brought the long-overdue divorce, and creativity took a step back once again to surviving the process and keeping the home fires burning—or a reasonable facsimile—for the kids despite the upheavals. I rented a cabin on the shore of Lake Michigan for a week of solitude nonetheless and wrote another four chapters. But the return to real life closed the door again to focusing on fiction.

The following summer I signed up for another week at the Clearing and started to get my writing things in order for the trip. Notebooks, pens, previous chapters, notes on plot development. And then life threw another curveball into the best laid plans.

Life can really turn on a dime. One warm spring night I was sitting on a bar stool after midnight in a crowded yuppie watering hole in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, a buzz on already from the drinks had earlier in the evening, buying for both my daughters and celebrating the older one’s graduation from law school the next day. We felt like we had the world by the tail. Ten days later I was peeling out of my spike heels and getting ready to leave the office, showing off pictures of the graduation ceremony to a friend in uniform, when my ex-husband called to tell me that my “training baby” had thyroid cancer. Bam, we entered a new universe. I called The Clearing and canceled the week up north.

Both my daughters are doing quite well these days. I finally got back to the Clearing last summer, with all my notebooks and pens and previous chapters and thoughts about character development. The food was just as delicious, and this time I even skipped most of the classes in favor of exploring the surrounding woods and writing whenever I damn well felt like it.

But this time I didn’t come out of there with four more chapters of a suspense novel written.

Encouraged by both a good friend and her “blogger” husband, and a computer engineer I liked at the time, I launched my Running with Stilettos website on New Years Eve, 2006. I looked at it purely as a way to do a little creative venting until I was able to sit down and focus on the novel again. I had no idea how many essays I’d come up with, or how long I could keep a good streak going. But I was willing to give it a try. It was a temporary fix, that was all. Even the signature picture of the stilettos on the beach was captured on the fly, one last shot to try out a different angle of light as I was packing up to leave the shore with my digital camera and my favorite shoes.

Six months later, I was seated on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan at The Clearing, dappled sunlight playing off the water below, a spiral notebook open in my lap, and the only thing that swam to the surface was something for the blog. I knew from past experience that they only way to get rid of an idea was to write it down, so I did. Then I typed it up on the only shared computer available to twenty other students at The Clearing, stored it on a flash drive, and drove six miles to the nearest town to upload it to the website at the local library.

There!! I thought. I stopped at a nearby candy store and bought myself an enormous “bear claw” made of caramel and walnuts and milk chocolate, indulged my bottomless sweet tooth, and drove back to my heavenly forest retreat. Opened my notebook again at another scenic overlook…and the only thing that swam to the surface was yet another essay. I wrote down what I needed to, repeated the “drive to town, upload the data, buy chocolate” process the next day…and found that the cycle kept looping.

By the time I had written my third essay in three days, I realized I might as well go with the flow and quit throwing roadblocks in front of the words that wanted to come out.

The essays kept coming once I returned to “the real world.” The pace of writing ebbed and flowed in response to everything else going on in my life—dating, work, kids, elderly pets, elderly parents. For a brief time I tried my luck at getting an agent with an eye on publishing the essays as a collection, but ran into a consensus that my writing was great…and the book would be impossible to sell since I was an unknown writer.

In the meantime, the essays picked up some journalism awards, and I decided to forge ahead and publish the book myself. I wanted something in tangible form to give to each of my children, for starters. And moreover, I reasoned, better to see it in print while my legs were still in good enough shape to wear those stilettos, then to waste a year or two papering my walls with rejection letters, hoping that someone in the publishing world might eventually deem me “worthy.” As I’ve had any number of personal reminders on, good fortune is fleeting and life is far too short to spend it cultivating misery as a hobby.

Looking back at the road to “Running…,” every inch of the creative journey has been a leap of faith, pure and simple, and has brought me more joy, and fun, and challenge, and adventure than I could have possibly imagined. And whether I’m standing in those stilettos on a marble courthouse floor or barefoot on a beach…I haven’t regretted a single step.