JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: It’s a Journey, Not a Destination

by Len Joy

Ironman Competition at Lake Coeur d’Alene

At 6 a.m. I wade into the frigid waters of Lake Coeur d’Alene with 2,500 triathletes. I have trained for this Ironman competition for fifteen months. The winds are brisk, the water choppy, and it has started to rain. I have seventeen hours to finish the race.

After years of recreational running, I decided I wanted to become an elite triathlete.  I always believed I could teach myself anything if I just found the right books. I studied the sport, read the inspirational success stories, and developed my own program. For the first couple years I made steady progress, but then I plateaued.  My wife told me I needed help. She didn’t say what kind, but one of the life lessons I’ve learned is that sometimes she’s right.

Samuel Beckett

I hired a professional trainer. I told her my goals were to complete an Ironman competition and finish in the top ten of my age group in the USAT Nationals. We developed a plan. She assigned drills to improve my technique and form, and critiqued my performance both in workouts and races. Knowledge and feedback made a huge difference.  

The year I went off to college, Samuel Beckett won the Nobel prize in Literature and Joe Namath won the Super Bowl. I was more familiar with Namath’s work. I had two secret goals when I left home. One was to play professional football (I saw myself as the next Fred Biletnikoff) and the other was to become a writer.  It didn’t take too many college football games for me to abandon my football goal and only one excoriating critique from my early American literature professor to extinguish my dream that I would someday write the great American novel.

 Joe O’Neil

I went into business and for fifteen years I owned and operated an engine FRED remanufacturing company. I commuted between Chicago and Phoenix, logging over a million air miles. On those long flights I would read literary magazines and novels and sometimes I would write poems and short stories about people I encountered.

Christine Schutt

About the same time I launched my triathlon quest, I began taking writing courses at the University of Chicago’s Graham School and attending summer writer workshops. I took eight courses at the Graham School and participated in workshops at the Iowa Festival, Tin House, Squaw Valley, Skidmore, Norman Mailer, Sewanee and Bread Loaf. I also joined the Zoetrope Virtual Studio. This online community of writers offered me a writing “home” where I communicated on a daily basis with other aspiring writers. Over the last decade I critiqued over five hundred short stories, poems and flash fiction pieces for Zoetrope members.

Robert Boswell

The classes gave me the basic tools so I could write a coherent story. Zoetrope and the summer workshops, in addition to introducing me to many other writers, furnished me with valuable feedback on my own stories and helped me learn how to evaluate the work of others. Sewanee and Bread Loaf provided me the opportunity to learn from established authors like Joe O’Neill, Christine Schutt, and Robert Boswell.

I started submitting stories for publication and had several published. I also participated in the Chicago literary scene, reading at various open mic venues where writers can share their work.

In June 2005 my niece asked me to write a story to be read at her wedding in September. I thought that was a really bad idea and eventually she abandoned the notion, but not before I wrote a thousand word story called, “The Toast.” Eight years later, after dozens of rewrites and professional critiques, that story evolved into the novel, American Past Time,  which was published in 2014 by Hark! New Era Publishing. The reviews were favorable and it was gratifying to have readers tell me they loved the book.

This summer I finished my second novel, “Everyone Dies Famous…” It will be published sometime next year, but I’m not waiting. I’ve begun work on my third novel, as I’ve come to the realization that if I spend eight years between novels, I’ll run out of time before I run out of stories. 

Lake Coeur d’Alene is just like Lake Michigan – cold and choppy. It only takes me 92 minutes to complete the 2.5 mile swim. But on the 112 mile bike course, as I struggle with the last, long uphill climb, the sun melts the clouds, the wind shifts into my face and my “speed” slips from 8 to 7 to 6 to 5 mph.

Most people can walk faster than that.

Then, with sweat dripping in my eyes and my leg muscles burning, I remember the final words of the inspirational video they showed us the night before: “The only thing you can control is your attitude.”

It sounds hokey, but it works. I stop cursing the mountain, which would rise to the clouds if there were any, and instead I gaze out over the valley below. Birds soar effortlessly above a stream that meanders through a pasture while sheep stand around making fun of those nutjobs on bikes.

It is beautiful, and if not relaxing, at least distracting. I know I can finish the race. I am not going to set any record so I order myself to enjoy the ride. I am up and over that final hill before I realize it. And even though I have never attempted a marathon, I run the entire 26 miles.  As I enter the homestretch, which even at the 15th hour is still lined with cheering spectators, I hear the announcer say my name and then do a double take.
“Wow, sixty-one years old! His first Ironman!  Len Joy! You. Are. An. Ironman!”

I have to take a few extra deep breaths to compose myself, then I sprint the last ten yards. The athletes I train with, like my fellow writers, are pursuing individual goals, but we are still a team, united by our common goal. When I cross the finish line they are all there to cheer for me.

I am committed to writing.  I don’t know if there is a finish line. I’d loved to have my novel accepted by a major publisher and have my stories read by thousands instead of hundreds. But I’m grateful for those hundreds of readers and if I’m never discovered by that big house, that’s okay. It’s a journey and I’m enjoying the ride.

The Birdhouse Builder
by Len Joy

We’re in the seasonal interregnum. The last winter snow hangs on in the shadows of my parents’ two-story colonial, while the first wave of migratory birds circle the neighborhood, checking out the accommodations. Dad wants to reconstruct the birdhouse. The son of a farmer, he can fix broken things. Build stuff. Use tools the right way. I have none of those skills. As a boy I was his unhappy assistant. “Hand me the needlenose,” he would say, his arm reaching back, head buried in the bowels of the cranky Maytag washing machine. I would stare at the battlefield of tools surrounding him and try to pick one that resembled a needle nose. I usually guessed wrong.

He has disassembled the remnants of the old birdhouse. Measured the wood slats and created a spec sheet. He doesn’t trust his memory anymore. It’s less reliable than that little boy who would hand him vise grips instead of pliers. When I was a kid these projects would start with a trip to Ike’s Hardware. That was in the small town where I grew up, not this resort town where my parents have grown old. Back then Dad never had a spec sheet – usually just a scrap of paper with a few odd numbers on it. Ike’s was full of open bins of screws and bolts and nails and rolls of sandpaper and shelf after shelf of hand tools. It had a metallic, oily smell – different from a Home Depot or Loews or one of those garden-hardware-lumber behemoths.

That’s where we go now. Krendall’s Home Center. It has patio furniture out front. And a greeter. My dad walks slowly, dragging his left leg. He had a hip replaced ten years ago. The greeter asks me if she can help us. My dad says, “Specialty Lumber.” She smiles at him and tells me to go see Ray in the lumberyard behind the store.

Ray looks just like Ike – sandy crewcut and a red hardware apron. But now he’s twenty years younger than me. Dad would usually tell Ike what he was working on and Ike would nod and maybe rub his chin and then hustle off to retrieve the hardware. Dad tries to describe the birdhouse to Ray, but Ray can’t follow him. I can’t either. There is a thin bead of sweat on his upper lip and I want him to wipe it away, but he just starts over, trying to explain his project. Ray turns away from him and asks me what it is we want.

I’m just the boy. Why is he asking me?

“Show him the paper, Dad.” 

He has forgotten about his sheet. Dad pats his pockets and on his fourth pocket he finds it. Ray looks at Dad’s detailed drawing and the list of pieces and parts and then he nods like Ike.

We bring home a sack of wood slats and black enamel and half-inch wood screws. Dad lays everything out on his work table. He picks up one of the slats and turns it all around. His hands shake and his grip on the piece is tentative as though he doesn’t know what to do with it. My mom calls from the kitchen. Lunch is ready.

After lunch Dad takes a nap. Three years later, after my dad dies and I move Mom to the assisted living facility, I clean out their house. I find the birdhouse parts stuffed back in their Krendall Home Center bag tucked away in a far corner of the garage.

(Originally appeared in  FWRICTION: REVIEW)

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Len Joy lives in Evanston, Illinois. His fiction has appeared in several journals including Annalemma, Johnny America, Pindeldyboz, Hobart, 3AM Magazine, and Dogzplot.
His first novel, American Past Time, was published by Hark! New Era Publishing in April 2014. It was described by Kirkus Reviews as “a well-crafted novel and darkly nostalgic study of an American family through good times and bad.”  His second novel, Everyone Dies Famous… will be published in Fall 2017. He is a nationally ranked age-group triathlete and is a member of TEAM USA which represents the USA in International triathlon and duathlon competition.

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