The Marathon Man

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. A man who never reads lives only one.
George R. R. Martin

I have a confession to make. I’m having a hell of a time trying to write something that I hope will be persuasive enough to make you care about someone you don’t know and will never meet.

Back in 2012, I was convinced–okay, I had my arm twisted behind my back and make to pinky swear–to take part in the Muskoka Novel Marathon.

I’ll explain this briefly, because every year I have someone ask me how I train for a run of this magnitude, or how many kilometers the run is, or something else along those lines. So, to be clear. I don’t run. Hell, most of the time I don’t even walk. When I participate in the three-day Novel Marathon, I plant my sorry ass in a chair, apply fingers to keyboard, and I write. I write as much as I can.

I’ve done this four times previously. So, this year marks a half-decade of me participating in this event.

That’s not the important part.

Over the past four years, I’ve raised probably somewhere around $5000 in donations from some incredibly generous people. I’ve done well, because I know awesome people.

But that’s not the important part, either.

That money that I raised, along with the 30-odd other writers, all goes toward Adult Literacy programs for the YMCA of Simcoe/Muskoka. So, when everyone says something like, Wow, good for you! Three days of writing? That’s tough!


Colum and his spirit animal.

I disagree. I’m surrounded by a group of other like-minded writers, all supporting each other as we plug away at our stories. There’s an even more dedicated group of volunteers that support us, ensuring we’re fed, we’re warm enough or cool enough, and that we’re happy.

Yeah, I’m in a room for three days in the beautiful town of Huntsville when I could be enjoying the outdoors, but it’s not tough. Not by a long shot.


The MNM 2015 participants

What’s tough is being an adult, maybe a mother or a father, a husband or wife, and summoning the courage to walk into a building and admit to someone that you can’t read well enough, and need help. That can’t be easy.

It’s likely also not an easy task being one of the people who then help that person to improve their skills enough to do what they want to do. Maybe it’s to better read labels when shopping. Maybe it’s to better read labels on prescriptions. Maybe it’s to read well enough to help their kid with their homework.

It’s doesn’t matter what it’s for. What matters is that their is enough support for these literacy programs when someone comes calling. Because imagine summoning the courage to admit that you can’t read to someone, then being turned away.

It would be like calling 911 and being put on hold.

I’m struggling with this message, because I feel like I’ve said it all before. I could tell you about all the successes I’ve seen by being involved with the MNM. I could tell you about the wonderful woman who was once one of those who needed some help to improve and has now, for the past four years, participated as a writer in the marathon. I could tell you a lot of things. Instead, I’ll just ask a small indulgence: if you’ve read this far, I’ll ask you to stop here, just for a moment and consider…

Did you struggle with any of the words?

Did you wonder at the meaning of the message?

Did you recognize each letter?

Think about that for a moment. Go ahead. I’ll even give you some space to do so.




Now, you’ve likely realized that you take reading for granted. It’s like being able to breathe, to see, to hear. You don’t think about it. You just do it. It’s easy, right?

Not for a large section of people. Well over 40% of Canadians deal with some level of illiteracy.

Imagine if you had to concentrate, to really have to focus on breathing.

And if you feel anything for those that deal with this, I’ll ask you to please consider donating to the cause. You can do that here. Don’t think there’s an amount that’s too small. If you donate, I’m happy, no matter what the amount.

And if you can’t donate at this time, I understand. Each of us has our own causes that are near and dear to us. There’s so many things broken in this world and there’s only so much money to go around. But even if you don’t donate, I appreciate you taking the time to read this far. And if you did read this far, appreciate the gift that someone else gave you.

Because reading is a gift.


Donate to Tobin here.

Find out more about the Muskoka Novel Marathon here.

Find out more about how the Literacy programs helped one person to write here.

Read my previous blogs about this here (2015), here (2013), and here (2012).

Are you reading me?

The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.

– Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!

I am roughly ten weeks away from participating in my fourth Muskoka Novel Marathon. For those that don’t know, no this is not a marathon in which I run. Instead, I sit on my butt for as much of the 72 hours my butt can handle, and I write.

What am I doing? I’m trying to write as much of a novel as I can. I usually do somewhere between 150 and 250 pages.

Why do I do this to myself? That’s a fair question, because at the end of the four days (it runs from 8:00 pm Friday to 8:00 pm Monday), I’ve immersed myself into a world of my own creation, I’ve eaten far too much sugar, I’ve slept far too little, and I’m wrung out, physically, emotionally, spiritually. So why do I do it every year?

I write so that others can read.

Some history is likely appropriate here.

Five things have really led to me not only participating in the MNM, but also being a passionate champion of all that they accomplish.

1 – The first is obvious. I write stories. But the other four you may or may not know about.

2 – The second is, way back in the early 80s, when I was in Durham College, one of my courses was a computer literacy course. If memory serves, we were working on Wang computers with big 5″ floppy disks. You know, the kind of floppy disk that actually was floppy.


Anyway, one of our assignments was to write something. I can’t remember the details of the assignment, but we had to write something. Might even have been the lyrics to a favourite song, I don’t know. I remember labouriously typing out…something. Might have taken me a half hour or so.

But there was a girl in the class. She’d always been rather quiet, drew no attention to herself. She could draw, and hell, we were taking Graphic Design, so she was in the right course.

On this day, as I did my hunt-and-peck with two fingers, I remember seeing her pull the Led Zeppelin 4 album–yes, the record album, not the CD, this was the early 80s–out of a bag and open up the gatefold cover. Inside, I knew, were the lyrics to the biggest song on the album, Stairway To Heaven. I remember thinking at the time, man, doesn’t everyone have those lyrics memorized?


She did. But she was functionally illiterate. So, letter by painstaking letter, she had to go to the printed lyrics, then go to her keyboard and search for that squiggle that matched the other, then key it. Then move on to the next.

Almost 1400 times. Imagine that.

It was due to this course that her inability to read and write at even a basic level was discovered. She soon left the course. I don’t know what happened to her.

3 – The third thing was probably, in part, in relation to that college experience. I was recently married, no kids, with some time on my hands. I saw a call for literacy tutors and I signed up. We had to go through a training course, and it was an eye-opener. The two things that really stuck with me were that my general impression of someone who was illiterate was completely false: I pictured the homeless people hanging out downtown. What I was shown was that it was people just like me. People with jobs, some menial, some at higher positions than me. I heard the story of an illiterate CEO that blew my mind.

The other thing that really stuck with me was when one of the instructors flashed the letter b and asked us to name it. Then he flashed a q. Then a p. Then a d. But it was what he did next that opened my mind a bit. He took off his watch, held it up and asked us to name it. Then he rotated it 90 degrees. Of course, we still said “watch”. Rotated it 180 degrees. Still a watch.

“So why,” he said, “do we expect people to look at a watch differently when it’s rotated than we do letters?” And it showed me that this reading thing that I took completely for granted was a tougher problem than I’d ever given it credit for.

I tutored a young man briefly. In that time, I found out he could correctly identify about 18 letters of the alphabet. He really couldn’t read at all, counting on pictures, or trusting strangers to help him out. He wasn’t stupid. In fact, he was likely smarter and much more creative at problem solving than I was. I definitely learned more from him than he ever did from me. And by the way, both his parents were high school teachers.

4 – The fourth thing occurred a few years later. My daughter was born and took to reading much as I had, very quickly and with apparent ease. My son, however, seemed to struggle with it. When we moved to a new house and a new school district, we eventually got a call from his teacher. She’d been concerned with his facility with numbers and letters and reading and told us he was far behind the other kids.

I still remember the absolute fear that clutched at my heart when I heard this. My entire life had been enriched because I could read. At the time we got this news, I made my living from reading and responding to written correspondence from customers. I read for pleasure. I actually wrote stories for pleasure. And there was a distinct possibility that my son might have a reading disability.

Thankfully, the school had an incredible program and, in the span of a few very short months, were able to report that my son had made such progress, through both their efforts and through the homework that my wife and I diligently went through with my son, that he could leave the program. The kid that had been “far behind” the other kids was now reading at a Grade Five level. He was in Grade One.

But I never forgot that fear that I felt.

5 – Then I joined the Muskoka Novel Marathon. And the first year I was there, I met a wonderful woman named Nora. And she is the fifth and final key to my passion for literacy.

Nora had gone through the literacy program that the MNM raises funds for each year. She came in and met some of the writers as she was considering participating in the MNM the following year. She was a little shy, but her big smile cut through any barriers and we all felt we’d made a new friend by the time she left.

And the following year, she participated. And she has participated ever since.

Imagine that. Think back to that person I talked about that had to hunt and peck out Stairway To Heaven. Think about someone like that who might benefit from a literacy program so much that they have the confidence to sit side-by-side with thirty-nine other writers. And write. Personally, I have to admit that, even though I knew about the MNM since about 2002, it took another ten years for me to get the courage up to actually sign up. Nora did it a hell of a lot sooner. She’s a lot more courageous that I’ll ever be.

Whenever I find myself sitting in front of the keyboard thinking, I’m tired. Or, I should pack it in for a while, I look over and I see Nora, either writing away at her own computer, or smiling as she talks to someone. Then I turn back to my own keyboard and I keep writing.

I write for Nora. I write for that girl from thirty years ago that laboriously typed out Stairway To Heaven, character by character. I write for that young man that had to shop by looking at the pictures on the labels and counting on the trustworthiness of the cashiers to give him back the right change.

I write for my son and what might have been.

I write so that others can read.

But to do that, I need to ask for donations, and I’m really not good at that.

So, if you’ve read this far, and if something I might have written above touched you…touched you because you could actually read the words…then I ask that you click on this link and then on the Donate Now button. Donate any amount. It’s all appreciated.

And if you don’t trust the computer donation process, reach out to me at tobin(dot)elliott(at)bell(dot)net and we’ll work something out.

Thank you. For reading.

Books that changed my life: 06 – Cyborg

Note: This blog originally appeared on

This is the sixth in a series of blogs where I go back and examine the books that deeply affected me and became part of the foundation of the person I am now.

Click on the titles to read the others

01 – Chariots of the Gods?
02 – Rocket Ship Galileo / Space Cadet
03 – The Illustrated Man
04 – Childhood’s End
05 – Rendezvous With Rama

After digging into the lighter SF of Heinlein and Bradbury, then going through Arthur C. Clarke’s brand of SF, known more as Hard SF because the science was more accurate, I found I preferred it for the most part.

Of course, SF has been known to stand not just for Science Fiction, but also for Science Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction. The difference is, those last two seemed to downplay the science. I liked my science. The more the better. So, I found myself casting about for more hard stuff.

Steve Austin - The Six Million Dollar ManThen in March, 1973, I watched a movie that knocked my socks off. It was The Six Million Dollar Man. For those old enough to remember the television series that ran for five years, no, this initial offering didn’t deliver the same amount of cheese the series eventually did. You saw no signs of Bigfoot here.

Jaime Sommers - The Bionic WomanInstead, Steve Austin was a little darker, somewhat James Bondish…at least in my four decades removed memory. I instantly fell in love with the character and the two subsequent movies. Then, in January of 1974, Steve Austin got his own series. Then Jaime Sommers got her own series with The Bionic Woman. Then Farrah Fawcett starred on the show. I was in frigging heaven.Farrah Fawcett as...ah, who cares, it was friggin' Farrah!

But I digress.

I was learning to be watchful of certain phrases, or key lines on my television screen. And I saw, with this series, something to the effect of “Based on the novel Cyborg by Martin Caidin.

There was a book? Hot damn! I immediately sought it out and, of course, with the popularity of the series, it wasn’t hard to find.

And what I got was a technically more accurate bionic man. A cyborg, or cybernetic organism. I can’t tell you how much I loved that term.

CyborgThe first half of the book detailed Lt. Col. Steve Austin’s horrific crash in a test flight gone wrong, leaving him with just his right arm. And it detailed the operations that then provided him with a new arm, two legs, a camera hidden in his missing eye, a steel skull plate and a radio transmitter built into a rib. The camera did not help Austin see, so none of that boopboopboopboopboop zoom vision the show is famous for, but he could remove it and take pictures. And he also had a finger that he could twist to arm a poison dart to shoot at someone. How cool is all that?

What he didn’t have was the super-strength of the show. So, no lifting a car with that arm (because it would crush the still-only-bone vertebrae in his back), and no running at 60 mph (because, yeah, anyone that’s stuck their head out of a car moving that fast knows what a bitch it is to breathe…and to keep that perfect Lee Majors hairstyle).

So, he wasn’t necessarily the superman they portrayed on television. And I wasn’t disappointed at all. In fact, I preferred the literary Steve Austin. Not only was he more accurate, but he was a lot darker. He would kill without concern. And he got the women. In fact, when he’s teamed with an experienced female operative (who’s also hot) and she demands to know if he can still function sexually, then beds him to remind him he’s still human, well, my little twelve-year-old brain pretty much fried its circuits.

But really, that’s what the book was about. What makes us human? When much of a human is replaced by machinery, can they still be considered human? The title of the novel was Cyborg, not Human With Some Machine Parts. And the story is about how Steve Austin learns to first deal with, then finally accept the new limbs–and the new abilities–he has. He adapts to a new normal.

How did this book change my life?

Cyborg taught me that a lot of the stuff they threw at me on television was junk compared to the source material. Don’t get me wrong, I still watched every single episode of every bionic person on television through the Seventies. Even when they had Bigfoot. Even when they had William Shatner turn into the world’s smartest man. Even when they had Barney Miller, the Seven Million Dollar Man. Even when they brought in the bionic dog.

I watched it all and loved it all.

But not as much as the book.

And Caidin also eased me into stories involving covert ops.

But most of all, he was the first one to give me a story wrapped around the paradox of being a man in a mostly machine body. Something that would come to be explored again and again, through stories like Robocop (the original movie, not the crap sequels or remake), and even, to a point, Iron Man.

And while this was mostly an adventure novel with a science fiction heart, it was also very much an adult novel. Yes, so were the ones I read by Bradbury and Clarke, but I understood all of this one. I got it all. I caught the nuance. I understood the central who am I? question.

And not only did I understand it all and get the core premise…Caidin wrapped it up in a novel that I enjoyed the hell out of. So much so, I went on to read a ton of his other stuff, mostly enjoying it all as well.

So, this book changed my life because, for the first time, I felt I could read adult novels, and not just ones that were science fiction. I had enjoyed this book, even the second half where he was a spy in the Middle East. If I could enjoy that, what else was out there, just waiting to crawl into my mind?Martin Caidin

Though I’d previously had the universe opened to me, I realized now it was a universe with a very narrow science fiction path. This one opened a side door and let me see into an entirely different world. By taking the science fiction aspect and, instead of travel to a planet or distant star, Caidin instead looked inward to what it meant to be a man, to be human. He made it personal again.

Thank you, Martin.

Did you ever read something that changed your life?

Did you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you hadn’t been able to read those words? What if you couldn’t read? How different would your life be?

What if you couldn’t read Facebook status updates? What if you couldn’t read well enough to Google whatever you need to know? What if you couldn’t read to your kids? What if you couldn’t read a street sign? What if you couldn’t read the instructions on the pill bottle? What if you couldn’t fill out that job application?

What if you couldn’t read?

I’m the person I am now because I can read. I couldn’t imagine a life without a constant influx of words to entertain me, to irritate me, to make me laugh and make me cry.

But I know there’s many out there, and I’m trying to help them. Please, if you read and enjoyed this blog, or if it made you think back to a book that changed your life, please consider helping me help those who are trying to read.

I’m participating in the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a 72-hour event where 40 writers try and write as much as they can, while raising money to fund Literacy and Numeracy programs for adults in the Simcoe/Muskoka area. And the program works.

One of the lucky people who went through their literacy program has now joined our group as a writer. How often can you donate money and look at the walking, talking, reading and writing result?

Any amount is sincerely appreciated.

To find out more about the Muskoka Novel Marathon, click here.
To donate, click here.

Please. Help me change someone’s life through reading.

Muskoka Novel Marathon donation page - just click on the pic

Muskoka Novel Marathon donation page – just click on the pic

Save money on my courses for the rest of this year!


To help me get more donations for the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a 72-hour event held each year to raise money for adult literacy programs in the Simcoe/Muskoka area, I’m offering a way for anyone planning to take one of my Creative Writing courses any time in 2014 to save some money.

Here’s, quite simply, how it works.

1 – Choose an amount you’d like to donate, from $10 up to $100.

2 – Make the donation at this link.

3 – Once done and the amount is confirmed, email me here and let me know which course (Spring/Summer, or Fall). I will count double the amount you donated toward the Spring/Summer 2014 or Fall 2014 Creative Writing course.

So, just to make that clear:

  • If you donate $10, you’ll save $20 on the course.
  • Donate $50, save $100.
  • Donate $100, save $200.

How can you lose?

Note: The Spring/Summer course starts May 14. The Fall course will start around mid-Sept 2014.

Note: I reserve the right to stop this promotion at any time with no notice. I will, however, honour any donations made to that point.