Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 20 Dec 2003 08:13:30 -0500

Writing On

RUNNING COMMENTARY 498

The highest and lowest points of my writing life both came within six days of each other in December 2003. They might have fallen on the same day if I had picked up phone messages while traveling. The thrill of the high helped ease the pain of the low.

I had picked the right writing hero, and visited him at exactly the right time. This is John Steinbeck. I never saw him in life (he died in 1968), but a writer's good words can reach beyond the grave.

Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath was the first book I ever read without it being a class assignment or having sports as its subject. It wasn't his fiction that moved me the most, but his collection of letters and the journals that he kept while writing the novels.

From his informal lines I learned what writing can mean to the writer. With Steinbeck it wasn't a job or ever a career. It was a calling, a passion, even an obsession.

He didn't write because he could but because he must. For every public word he wrote, there were hundreds or thousands that no one ever saw. He felt about writing as I did about running, and would come to feel about running writing.

Steinbeck was born and grew up in Salinas, California. The hometown that once villified him for writing unflatteringly about it now promotes him as its top tourist attraction.

There's the Steinbeck House, the Steinbeck Library, the Steinbeck gravesite and now the National Steinbeck Center. My wife Barbara and I made that tour in December, walking where he walked and sitting where he sat.

We ate lunch in his old dining room, where volunteers now serve meals as a fundraiser to preserve this Victorian house. The narrow, steep stairwell to his room upstairs is closed to the public. But we could see where he'd climbed hundreds of times to the room where he may have written his first sentences.

The nearby Steinbeck Center opened about five years ago as a memorial to his life's work. My big thrill there was seeing pages he had handwritten.

Most of these were photocopies, all encased in plastic. But the words looked to me exactly as they had to him while going down, and I came as close as possible to touching them.

I came home from the highest point in my writing life and plunged to the lowest. This came as a call from the new boss at Runner's World.

He said that my column, which had appeared for 250 months in a row, had "run its course." It didn't fit into his plans for the "new" RW, coming in the April issue, so he was dropping it.

The new editor did offer me the chance to write occasionally in other parts of the magazine (as fellow retired columnist such as Jeff Galloway might). That other writing wouldn't be the same as the columns' regular, personal chats with readers. I declined this offer, so the blame for my disappearance points two ways.

This is not the end of my writing. Not even close.

John Steinbeck continues to teach and inspire me. The final National Steinbeck Center exhibit, posted on the wall at the exit, reads, "I nearly always write, just as I nearly always breathe."

I can say with some certainty that as long as I'm breathing I'll be writing about running, somewhere. These weekly Commentaries will keep coming, I have another book going, and another magazine might find a page for me.

And always I have the daily diary where the private words far outnumber the public. There I write as Steinbeck did, because it's what I must do even when no one's looking.

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