Lauren Fleshman’s debut, Good for a Girl: A Woman Running in a Man’s World is part memoir, part manifesto. Fleshman, one of the most decorated American runners of all time, brings the reader on an intimate journey through her childhood and into her collegiate and professional running career, all while highlighting what’s broken for female-bodied people who participate at all levels in sports. Now a coach, activist and writer, Fleshman’s work can be found in the New York Times and Runner’s World. She also hosts women’s wild writing and running workshops called Wilder. Interviewer Paige Kaputch spoke to Lauren on the phone prior to her book release.
Paige Kaptuch: I don’t think I’ve ever read anything you’ve written about your dad before, and you do an amazing job creating such a complex big-as-life character. What were some of the challenges you had writing about him?
Lauren Fleshman: It’s good to hear you say you felt he was complex. It was important to me not to tell people how to feel about my dad, which meant that I had to stop myself or remove pieces over and over again where I was explaining him. I tried to let the reader think what they want and trust that as the book goes on, even if he looks really horrible in the beginning, they’re going to see all the different sides of him. It helped that he’s dead—not every person writing a memoir has that element. I don’t know that I could have written this honestly if he was alive, because we were really close.
Any advice for writers working on memoirs involving family members?
Assuming no one will read your book is the best advice I got so I could really excavate the truth and write about the scariest moments and the hardest things that happened. It felt like having the flu, at least for me… like I was vomiting up horrible, stuck things, but it was very important to do. And I learned that over time that just getting it in sequential order, turning it into words from the feeling soup that was in there, was good for me. One of the great surprises of writing the book was understanding. I really feel like I understand the role my dad played in my life now and the parts of me that I’ve been puzzled about.
What was tough to cut? How did you wrestle with what had to be killed?
Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, I think that because I knew the relationship with my dad was super important to the story, even though it’s so specific, there couldn’t be a more specific part of the book that wouldn’t apply to other people’s lives than my dad. And if you’re talking about writing your memoir and you’re choosing moments that can serve as windows to the wider female athlete experience, my dad isn’t really one of them. So I think that early on, I didn’t know how he fit, but I knew in my gut he needed to be in there. And my editor, because of the way I was writing about it in drafts was like, I don’t think this storyline with your dad is really working. And I would be like, I agree, but I disagree because he has to be in here, so I’m just doing it wrong and I don’t know how I’m doing it wrong. So I probably had written another 25,000 words of scenes relating to him that got cut, because I just didn’t know which ones mattered to the book itself. And it’s so hard to untangle that because they mattered to me, and they mattered to the side of my life that wasn’t necessarily relevant for this particular book. Other things that got cut were a lot more of the kind of scenes in the college running life. A lot of the joy and camaraderie and adventures that I went on with many of my teammates, some of my most incredible friendships are not even mentioned. Those were tough to cut. My editor would be like, you can’t write a 400-page book. I had to make sure I included the joy of running and what I’m actually fighting for.
What was it like to craft a “part memoir, part manifesto”?
I needed to dance between narrative voice, expert voice and soapbox voice. And I needed to tell an individual story in a way where I selected scenes that will also be able to tell, or will be gateways to this larger, female-bodied-person-in-sports story. So, there was the wrestling match of which voice to use when, and how to get that balance right. It ended up leaning more and more into the memoir/personal narrative part because, as you know, if you can connect primarily through the heart, you can paint a really clear picture of a life versus a scientific paper or something like that. I never wanted to get too far away from the pulse of the story, but if it was just a memoir, it wouldn’t have accomplished any of the goals I had for writing it in the first place.
What felt harder to write: the personal narrative voice or the research-expert voice? Was there a voice that felt more natural? If you had a choice on one day of what to work on, where did you find yourself gravitating to?
Yeah, well, what I found myself doing in the drafting process was I would start in personal narrative because that’s what I’m most practiced at—so that part felt easier most of the time. But, of course, there’s some traumatic things in there that I still didn’t fully understand when I started. But in general, I would start with personal narrative, and then I would find myself going into soapbox voice because I had so much anger inside me about how these issues are affecting so many people. And so yeah, I would just end up on this tirade. Later, my editor would be like, Okay, you’ve already said it, we get it. And, I know you really want to say this here, but you actually just need to be uncomfortable and let the reader be uncomfortable and wait to drop this soapbox bomb for five more chapters. As far as research voice—research in general is painful for me. I didn’t have a lot of confidence as a researcher and I faced a lot of self-doubt when I was in those sections of the book. Like, yes, I know these research papers say this, but is there a better research paper that I’m missing because I’m not an actual scientist? Am I going to get just totally thrashed after this book comes out because I missed something important about the research? So that I just had to work my way through. I have a friend who is an MD, Sarah Lesko, who I leaned on to look at the research with me and just be a second set of eyes. That helped a lot.
What does writing like a runner look like to you?
Natalie Goldberg says it best—and I’ll paraphrase off the top of my head—that writing is like running, in that it’s a practice and you don’t wait until you feel good to run, because then you’d never run. And similarly, you don’t wait until you feel good to write or feel like writing to write. You make it a practice and you show up and you do it every day. And that way you’re in shape. You have the consistency, so that when you’re going to have a good day, you’re in shape to make the most of it. And if you don’t write every day, and suddenly feel inspired to sit down and do it, then you’re out of shape. I definitely found that to be true. Stephen King says in his book On Writing, “Writers write. You write every day.” When I was working on the book, I definitely developed that kind of attitude. It got harder to write if I took several days off. Then when I sat back down, it was like, Ugh!
I don’t write every day now. I do plan to get back into the practice of making it part of my day again, but I’m taking a pretty big break.
How did deadlines affect your writing process? Did it start to feel like a performance/competition having those deadlines vs. say, trail running for fun that you write so joyfully about?
Yeah, the deadline energy is very similar to race energy. At least for me, I can get caught up in perfectionism, and you kind of get these grand ideas about what you think you’d like to do in that big wide open amount of time. But then once your race is, let’s say six weeks away, you’re kind of like, okay—whatever my perfect plan was, is out the window. I have this many days, and here’s the realistic situation and here are the must-dos and here are the nice to haves. And then you just reshuffle your priorities. And to me, it’s much more efficient. I wouldn’t have been able to write a book without deadlines.
When you were writing this book, was running part of your writing practice?
Absolutely. Almost every day that I would write, I would run. Except for the early drafting stages when I was depressed, so I had a hard time moving my body and writing. But once I got healthier, I would think of my run as a tool, but also a treat. But I’m not really a scheduled person. I thrive best when I know what things I want to do in the day, but I leave some flexibility as to when I’m going to do them. And then I would run when I needed. When I felt stuck, I would run, or I would run when I finished a certain number of words, or I had to get through a particularly tough emotional scene that I had been avoiding.
I recommend a movement practice for any writer that doesn’t already have one. And I’m sure they’ve heard that a million times, but the research supports it. Plus, the anecdotal evidence of moving your body and getting the brain working and the creative mind working, and just connecting with yourself and connecting with your environment is a good way to ground you when you’re spending so much time in your head trying to make these pieces fit together in a long-form way. It’s such a puzzle. I just have so much respect for writers. Just like this, I’ve learned from them and if they can learn anything from me, it’s to move your body.
What are your hopes for someone who isn’t a runner, who has no idea about this world of competitive running, to get out of your book? How much did audience come into play with your goals for this book?
Yeah, I definitely want it to reach runners. There’s going to be people, young runners who are getting started, who could see some things in there that might redirect their path and for coaches, it could change how they reflect on their coaching. And there’s all the parents that it might help. So, I think there’s those things, but really, I was writing for a literary community. I thought about Lauren Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit for example, and how I knew nothing about horse racing and I don’t care about horse racing, but that book made me care and taught me about the Depression and the human spirit and all these things. And so, while I wanted my book to be a running book, I wanted it to be able to do some of that. But that gets harder when you’re putting these statistics in. The research voice and the soapbox voice can interfere with a literary memoir’s ability to be more universal. And I was aware of that trade-off when I was doing that. So that was part of the tricky dance I was doing, like I need this to be effective for my community, but the writer in me wants to move people beyond running and believes that I can with this story. And some of the readers, there have been some journalists and readers who don’t run and who are men even, that have really resonated with more of the literary elements, the narrative arcs, the way the different arcs interweave, like the pacing, that kind of stuff. And that always feels good because yeah, I’m a writer and I’m a runner, but the writer part of me isn’t like a total Venn diagram circle with the runner part of me. It really has its own identity.
I would love to know—and this goes again into writing like a runner or athlete—how would you define success with this book?
I think it’s actually a pretty simple question in the end, because just like in sports, you can make it as complicated as you want, but in the end, did you show up? Did you do the best you could with what you had, the tools you had at the time? And that’s it. That’s all you could do. And that includes when shit went wrong— did you do your best to adapt to the situation? You don’t have to be perfect, but did you do your best? Did you keep showing up or did you come back, right? And I did, and I finished. The times in my life where I did races, where I didn’t finish when I could’ve, when I let my mind take me out of it enough to stop early. It’s just such a terrible feeling. It’s a terrible feeling. And so I think that yeah, this book is already a success because I wanted to stop so many times and give up. And I didn’t.
Also, in terms of “writing like a runner,” one of the tricky things about being an athlete and trying hard is that, at the end, you’re really going to know. You’re going to know how good you were. Whereas if you don’t try, you can live in this fantasy land of what your potential is in your mind, which is a much safer place to be. But then once you decide to try and you’re out there every day and you’re having the bad days and the good days and the medium days, you’re becoming more and more aware that you’re really going to find out whether or not you could do this thing or if you’re any good at it. With writing it’s similar. That was part of the battle that was similar to my running career—the joy of chasing your potential, but then also the horror that once you actually are doing it, you’re going to find out.
I love that… yes—the horror of finding out!
Yeah, and then that once it’s done, just as in sports, you’ll have to do the mental exercise of removing yourself from other people’s opinions and value of you, and reconnect to your opinion and value of yourself and ask yourself: How did this matter to me?
Interviewed by Paige Kaptuch