Thirteen years ago this week I was Rider #1514 in the 1998 GTE Big Ride Across America to benefit the American Lung Association. It was a 48-day, 3,254-mile journey by bicycle from the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington to the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. to raise awareness of lung disease. Thirteen years ago today, Day 8 of the ride, we were traveling between Kooskia and Powell, Idaho, but I was not on my bike. I had been taken to a hospital the night before with three other injured or ill riders and crew where I had been ordered off my bike until we cleared the mountains and had crossed into Montana. I was having an asthma attack that had begun two days earlier and would not break.
Before the ride began, I had never participated in any organized rides. I didn’t even have a bike when I signed up for the adventure nine months earlier. So on the first full day of summer, June 22, 1998, I was an overweight, asthmatic, novice cyclist who was already well acquainted with the SAG (Support and Gear) bus as we climbed along the Lewis and Clark trail through Clearwater National Forest toward a small, gravelly, clear-cut lumber camp at the top of a mountain that would serve as our home for the evening. Many of the riders who had a goal of finishing each one of the summer’s miles astride their bikes would no doubt have deemed my first week a failure. Or, perhaps more accurately, they would have deemed me the failure. I, however, had come to terms with my physical limitations early on and decided that the summer’s adventure happened regardless of my mode of travel. I could be as present, as profoundly alive and awake, on a bus as I could on a bike. I was going to make the most of every moment. For me, Day 8 passed in a sunny, joyful moving meditation spent among friends and ended with a rainbow arcing through the twilight as our camp was bathed in deep, orange light.
Today, I am engaged in the process of pushing Your Mileage May Vary, a memoir about the Big Ride, out into the world. I had a finished draft of the manuscript by the summer of 2001, but while I received several letters of interest from agents, no one snapped it up prior to my move to North Carolina in 2003. The manuscript got put away as the more immediate demands of finding a job and a place to live took precedence, but it resurfaced periodically for revisions, refusing to let me abandon it altogether. My husband and my friends have lived with me and this manuscript for so long they are thoroughly sick of us both; yet, they keep urging me onward as I complete each step that will eventually launch it.
I need to get this manuscript out into the world because that is how I will finally finish the trip. Publication Day will be my true Closing Ceremony. I did not ride every one of the miles of the Big Ride, but when I publish this manuscript, I will have demonstrated, if only to myself, a different kind of courage and a different kind of perseverance. I will be making good on a promise I made to myself – a promise I, apparently, can’t bear to break.
The problems arise when I forget one of the best lessons I learned on the Big Ride: comparisons don’t matter. I loved my Big Ride experience and finished feeling proud of what I’d accomplished. But, at regular intervals since the ride’s conclusion, I have jumped perspective and started to judge my experiences, my “performance,” and my choices through someone else’s eyes. I’m never sure exactly who that someone else is, but I feel certain that someone somewhere–potentially many someones–will judge me harshly when the book is released. Since “death before SAG” was a mantra for several Big Riders that summer, it is not a stretch to imagine some of the harshest criticism coming from any of the 729 other cyclists who participated in the event.
The fear of these judgments has been crippling at various stages of the writing and editing process. It has only been made worse by agents and editors asking me to “justify” my manuscript’s validity in the marketplace. How can anyone really say that her memoir fills a gap that no other manuscript has filled or argue for why his memoir is better than all of its competition?
To get through this, I have finally realized that I have to take off one hat before I put on the next one. The Writer has to stop being the Rider if she is going to make the most of the material she is given. She can’t spend all of her time feeling guilty for getting on a SAG bus or regretting a thought that went through her head during an exchange with another rider if she is going to get on with the business of writing. The Editor has to stop being the sensitive, protective Writer if she is to shape the words for their best effect. And, the Marketing Manager has to stop being the embarrassed Rider, the shy Writer, and the constantly tinkering Editor if she is to put the book out in a manner that will garner the largest possible audience. Knowing this and accomplishing this, however, are two very different things.
I am at the Marketing Manager stage and yet I am battling the Rider, Writer, and Editor daily. The Rider wants me to publish the book without telling anyone – especially other Big Riders; she thinks (erroneously) that readers will simply stumble upon the book and happily shell out money to read a memoir from an unknown writer. The Writer wants me to wait to publish the book until she is happily ensconced in the middle of her next project and “won’t care as much” if the book gets ridiculed, or more likely, completely ignored. The Editor is the easiest to manage – all I have to do is keep her from opening the manuscript, because if she reads anything, she will want to change it.
The thought that keeps me going is that I have, at each of the previous stages, done the best I could. The Rider was completely overwhelmed and underprepared for the journey she undertook and yet she stuck it out, in her own way, and found meaning, joy, and long-lasting friendships everywhere she went. The Writer did everything she could to tell the story accurately and honestly, to preserve everyone’s secrets but her own, and to shape the actual events into a narrative someone might actually enjoy reading. The Editor hired someone to help her, researched grammar rules constantly, and did the best she could to preserve the language and perspective of the 29-year-old cyclist, despite the fact that she was getting constantly older and more removed from the events of 1998. And, now, I as the Marketing Manager owe it to the Rider, Writer, and Editor, to bring the project home. The book deserves the best cover I can design, the best copy I can write, a fun and appealing website, and someone standing behind it who believes in it. Someone who isn’t afraid to tell people about the book’s existence, regardless of the outcome.
Yes, as a purely literary endeavor, Your Mileage May Vary may still fail. There’s a chance that my experiences really are not worthy of a book. There’s a chance that I wrote a bad book. There’s a chance that the book still needs substantial editing to be worthy of publication. And there’s a chance that, even if I wrote a good book about a worthwhile journey, there is not a large enough audience for my memoir to make it “viable,” or, worse, that I do not know how to find the right audience for my book even if it does exist.
All that matters at this point, though, is that I continue moving the project forward. The contract I have is with myself alone. I have struggled too long to give up now. So for the foreseeable future, I will be keeping my eyes on my own work and reminding myself that in publishing, as in cycling, your mileage may vary – and that’s okay.