By Michelle Hebert Russo
Just last week, I had lunch with two of my writing project friends whom I don’t see often enough. Life happens, teaching happens, kids happen, all while time and distance seem to consume the months between our get-togethers. We sat and talked with so much candor and genuineness that it seemed there was never a distance or duration of time between us, and that, I know, isn't because we have so much in common or have spent childhoods together; it’s because we have written together. It’s one of the gifts of the marathon.
Dr. Richard Louth begins each marathon with a quick synopsis of how the writing marathon was conceived through combined ideas from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and a passage from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast:
"The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it. I ordered another rum St. James and I watched the girl whenever I looked up, or when I sharpened the pencil with a pencil sharpener with the shavings curling into the saucer under my drink. I've seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and pen."
While Hemingway’s quote captures the sense of place that is so often found in marathon writing, it is his words, “You belong to me now . . . ” that stay with me as I write. My writing project friends and I have shared memories and moments and stories and words and ideas. And those moments, the complete acceptance of what the other writers are giving us from their pages is only one small part of the writing marathon’s gift to us. They belong to me and I belong to them. The pages of my marathon journals are ripe with words that have been riffed—stolen—from my fellow writers, and in their words, sometimes, as I’m discovering them, I find out a little more about myself.
The writing marathon also gives the gifts of time and presence. When I marathon, I leave my husband, my parents, my unfolded clothes, and my stacks of papers at home and go to where the writing takes me. I miss birthday parties, wedding showers, and book club meetings to selfishly go wander the city with other writers and professionals and escape into my writing. I love the act of writing, but more than that, I love that I get to do it for myself, to sip on the spirit of it all, and to find joy in knowing that the reason I do it is because it is, indeed, for me. Being completely present as a writer creates a calm in my writing as I relax, take the world in, and note that while there may be someplace else I need to be or something else I need to be doing , I am at peace with my purpose as a writer at the marathon.
Additionally, I am lucky enough to have found my vocation in teaching; most writing marathon participants are teachers as well. Despite sometimes wanting to leave the classroom behind us as we write, I often find myself talking and writing among very talented teachers who are innovative and insightful as well as encouraging and uplifting. The marathon gives us a chance to share our stories, insights, and advice in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way because there is only appreciation for sharing at the marathon.
My inspiration, my muses at the marathon, are the gifts: The time I get to take to search for myself, the presence I need to have as I struggle to embrace moments as more than just fleeting, the peace I so often seek that can be found on the page, and the vulnerability that is necessary to create and build lasting relationships. It is truly a wonder how the marathon can provide such nourishment to both my teacher soul and my writer soul.
Michelle Hebert Russo is a 9th grade English teacher and Department Chair at Assumption High School in Napoleonville, LA. She is also a Co-director of the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project.