I am a firm believer that the essay, above all other types of writing, is something that is very much alive–it is something that constantly weaves and wanders; it changes shape and form, it comes to conclusions that are grandiose yet rooted in the most basic of human elements, yet it also is infinitely malleable: despite a piece of nonfiction reaching its most logical end, it still leaves room for interpretation; for an embodiment by the reader that causes the words to spiral into something brand new that transcends the world that it attempts to create on the page. An essay, in its purest form, is an attempt: it is in the word, “essais”–as Montaigne put it, “to try”–a concept that I find myself returning to over and over again, not just in my writing, but in my life: all of our existence is, in fact, an attempt: we have no idea of the proper way to do anything, but we have some guidelines that we have to adhere by–we have a general amount of base notes that we have put our trust into–that these elements of truth will guide us toward something complete–something enlightened.
For the past few years I have been working on a project that has dictated the majority of my time: I am in the process of translating my grandfather’s book on long-distance running from the original Catalan into English. I am documenting this entire process and have started my own writing project–a series of lyric essays that are made up of smaller pieces–mile markers, if you will; small bursts of prose that, I hope, somehow make up a whole. This is a project that I have been wanting to work on for years, but I could never find a way in. I knew that despite the memories I had of my grandfather standing over the sink gulping water after a run, despite the trips to Barcelona, the time spent transcribing the book into a digital format, to do the project justice, I would have to actually start running: to fully immerse myself in the project, to take mental notes of how my knees feel after a run, to log every thought–to be amazed at how every run brings new material to write about: I thought that translating a book required knowledge of the same language, but I never considered that language to be the physical act–the embodiment of work.
When I first started on this journey, everything was new and exciting: my body was changing at a rapid clip and my fitness was improving to the point where running became routine instead of a brutal triumph that make my body cautious of every slight movement until it was time for me to go to bed. I was writing a great deal about this experience and my technique seemed foolproof–I embraced the beauty of process: my goals as an author have never been to inform the reader, but instead to make the reader understand what is occurring at a particular moment in time and attempt to have them capture a fraction of the emotions that I was going through during that juncture–how I feel while shoving my body through the patterned dissonance. The reader is welcome in this realness: you can feel my hamstrings tighten as I run up a hill in rural New Jersey, you can feel your body press up against an ill-fitting suit. In order to embody my work, I must embody running. In order to embody running, running must embody my work–it must embody me.
If there was a lesson I learned during marathon training, it is that everything eventually slows down. I had great difficulty writing about running while I was in training: my program asked a lot out of me–a slow week still averaged four days of running and 30 miles. The balance had been thrown off: during the height of my training I had stopped writing entirely, even though these were the moments that were the most poetic–that 16-mile run where I miscalculated the amount of mileage I had left and celebrated the conclusion of my run almost a mile and a half too early, the 16-mile run where it started snowing around mile twelve and I felt like I could run forever
This whole process was intertwined with the body and weightloss: in order to even begin running, I had to lose a considerable amount of weight: even now, after losing 100 pounds and finishing a marathon I still do not feel like I am a runner–it is an activity not meant for people like me; an imposter syndrome doubled up–how dare I be an authority on slogging through marathon training, and also having the audacity to think that I could write eloquently about it–that all of the phrases that would come out would be flat footed and heavy strikes whereas the content calls for something much more deft, much lighter than what I can afford. To lose weight is to admit to yourself that you need to lose weight–to be prepared to say these numbers aloud even if you are not prepared to–to stake claim to a body that you are not ready to discuss right now. This, to me, is what a successful essay does: it confesses before the writer is ready–instead of looking back upon a moment in one’s life anf trying to compartmentalize it into a narrative, it is very fluid and of that moment–I am going to talk about these things that I am not an expert on in hopes that I come to a greater understanding about myself & the world that surrounds me.
I wrote and lost weight while wrapped in mystery: I do not know what my body looks like underneath all of these layers. I have never seen what I was originally built for. To build muscle, it must first be torn: it must heal itself in new and innovative ways, it must repair and re-repair. I imagine myself as still large: as never being below a certain shirt-size, of reaching the limits of how small I can become. I do not imagine myself as a runner. I do not imagine that person being there.
In nonfiction there are always discussions about “being ready” to write your truths–has enough time passed; have you “earned” your moment. I find this notion ludicrous–the purpose of the essay, is, again, an attempt–you don’t get just one opportunity to tell your story. You can talk about grief, or loss, or love, or any concept at any juncture as many times as you wish. To think otherwise is to assume that you are afforded that luxury to look back: to not be in that moment it speaks from a position of privilege of someone who has the benefit of ‘overcoming’: whether that is physical, or emotional, or whatever–instead of someone who lives through and carries whatever it is that they carry.
The notion of being “done” with running or “done” with losing weight crosses my mind constantly: when I was 331 lbs, I often thought how nice it would be to be “done” losing weight: to accomplish something grand and put it in my back pocket & hold onto it for later. While running my marathon, I was hoping to have a grand epiphany when I crossed that finish line–that this would be the moment that everything all made sense: that my grandfather’s words would magically come alive at that moment with such beautiful clarity that the language would come bursting out of me: heart first and intelligent and beautiful and as light and fast as air. These moments never came: the week before and after the race I relaxed on my diet and gained 30 pounds–the weight came off just as quickly as it came on, but it was still a shock to the system: hadn’t I figured this out? How unfair is it that two years of sacrifice can be erased in what was supposed to be a celebration? On my first three mile run after the marathon, a kid in a truck rolled down his window and shouted “hurry up, piggy” as he sped past. The body is a constant and unconquerable thing.
There is comfort in that our writing and our work is a constant and unconquerable thing, but still we try to comprehend it–to wrangle it in some mathematical way or hope that some majestic white magic will descend and make our words seem beautiful in the way that we have always hoped them to be. I have begun to refer to my essays not as “attempts” but as “failures”–the Catalan word for “failure” is fracas and the word for “failures” is fracassos which is so beautiful and perfect–this image of pure swirling chaos, an endless banging of pots and pans until it bleeds out into exhaustion. That despite knowing exactly how the essay will end, you have absolutely no idea how it is going to get there–the peaks and valleys, the moments where all things are made clear, if only for a fleeting moment before disappearing into the vastness of the universe. The key is holding dear to those things that you can trust–for me, I know that a marathon is 26.2 miles, and that 26.2 miles is 42.1 kilometers. I know where this body has been. I know what I feel at this particular moment. I know the memory of a space I used to occupy and how scary and close it seems. I know that this is a confession that I am not ready to confess, yet I know I must confess it anyway. I know that how I feel about these memories are real, even if the memories of them are not. Above all, I know that I might never feel that I am complete, but I might just feel as if I am enough.
Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey & currently lives & teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of two chapbooks & five full-length collections, ranging from Craigslist Missed Connections, to NBA Jam, to 8-bit videogames, to computer viruses. He is currently writing a memoir about translating his grandfather’s book on long-distance running.