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.

Cover Reveal: Burn Baby Burn Baby by Kevin Craig

Not one of my normal blogs, but this is important. Kevin Craig, fellow writer, fellow MNMer, fellow WCDRer, friend, and all around excellent guy, has a new book coming out. This is something special and you should take notice:

Curiosity Quills is excited to reveal the cover for contemporary, young-adult Burn Baby Burn Baby, by Kevin Craig, which is due for release December 11, 2014. The cover was designed by CQ managing partner Eugene Teplitsky.

Burn Baby Burn 1000About Burn Baby Burn Baby:

Seventeen-year-old Francis Fripp’s confidence is practically non-existent since his abusive father drenched him in accelerant and threw a match at him eight years ago. Now badly scarred, Francis relies on his best friend Trig to protect him from the constant bullying doled out at the hands of his nemesis, Brandon Hayley—the unrelenting boy who gave him the dreaded nickname of Burn Baby.

The new girl at school, Rachel Higgins, is the first to see past Francis’s pariah-inducing scars. If Brandon’s bullying doesn’t destroy him, Francis might experience life as a normal teenager for the first time in his life. He just has to avoid Brandon and convince himself he’s worthy of Rachel’s attentions. Sounds easy enough, but Francis himself has a hard time seeing past his scars. And Brandon is getting violently frustrated, as his attempts to bully Francis are constantly thwarted. Francis is in turmoil as he simultaneously rushes toward his first kiss and a possible violent end.

Pre-order Burn Baby Burn Baby from Amazon.

Add Burn Baby Burn Baby to your Goodreads ‘to-be-read’ list.

Kevin Craig - Author picAbout The Author:

Kevin Craig is the author of three previous novels; Summer on Fire, Sebastian’s Poet, and The Reasons. He is a 4-time winner of the Muskoka Novel Marathon’s Best Novel Award. Kevin is also a playwright and has had eight 10-minute plays produced. His poetry, short stories, memoir and articles have been published internationally. Kevin was a founding member of the Ontario Writers’ Conference and a long-time member of the Writers’ Community of Durham Region (WCDR). He is represented by literary agent Stacey Donaghy of Donaghy Literary Group.

Find Kevin Craig Online:

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads

The insanity and magic of reading

Last July, I was pushed, bullied and cajoled into doing something that absolutely terrified me. That pushy, cajoling bully was Pat Flewwelling, who is actually an extremely nice and giving woman who also happens to be a very talented writer.

I scream, you scream, Pat slops her ice cream

I scream, you scream, Pat slops her ice cream

For a couple of years, she kept talking about how much fun this thing was that she did. How the people that did it with her were amazing. How good she felt when it was done.

I almost broke a couple of years ago and went, but decided not to. Then, last year, Pat did the exact right thing…she shot me an email, told me the spots were almost gone and that I needed to make a decision and make it right frigging now.

So I did. And, to be quite honest, it changed me.

So, this year, I am once again participating in the insanity that is the Muskoka Novel Marathon.

Here’s the bare bones of it: 35 writers in a room (with a few more participating remotely) for 72 hours, from 8:00 pm Friday night (July 12) straight through until 8:00 pm Monday night (July 15). In that time, we write. We all write. As much as we can.

Last year, my virgin year, I went in hoping to come out with somewhere between 50 and 75 pages. When I had 40 pages written that first night, I upped that goal to about 100 pages. Long story short (pardon the pun), I completed 252 pages, or about 60 000 words. And somehow, in that process, managed to win the Rookie of the Year Award.


Getting my Rookie of the Year award from the ever-awesome Paula Boon. To celebrate, I haven’t cut my hair since, so this year I’m looking forward to the Wookie of the Year Award. I’ll be a shoe in.

By now, you have to be asking why anyone would want to do this crazy thing. To me, this is akin to laying down on red hot coals, or chopping a hole in the ice on New Year’s Day and going for a quick dip. They’re painful and seemingly provide no payoff. Yes, I got a lot of pages out of it, but I still had to go back and finish the story at a much slower pace, and I still haven’t gotten to edit it.

There is a payoff, however, and this year, it’s more obvious than most.

The Muskoka Novel Marathon has one real purpose and that’s to raise money for Adult Learning courses through the YMCA of Simcoe/Muskoka.

It’s to help adults who can’t read, write or perform basic math skills. It helps them become more computer savvy and gain marketable skills.

They do this through the money raised by those of us crazy enough to put ourselves in a room for three days and write.

I can’t speak for previous years, because last year was my first, but it was magical. The goal was to raise $10K. Lightning struck and we somehow managed to blow right by that and raise about $15K, smashing previous records.

The very strange and obviously sleep-deprived antics of Lori, Sharon and's better if you don't ask.

The very strange and obviously sleep-deprived antics of Lori, Sharon and Sandra…it’s better if you don’t ask.

While it’s a kick to see the page number count grow over the three days, and it’s a blast to step into ad hoc conversations on how you just killed someone off, or see a couple of people, obviously sleep-deprived, pull on shiny capes and pointy hats at 2 in the morning, these aren’t the shining moments.

The shining moments come when you see the organizers of the event revealing how much money was raised, and seeing tears in their eyes. Seeing how much they care about what they’re fighting for. It’s humbling.

We’re just there, doing what we do because we love doing it. But suddenly, through this silly marathon, suddenly our words take on some power, some meaning.

We’re helping others to read.

This year, it’s going to be even more magical, more meaningful.

This year, for the first time, one of the people that has reaped the benefits of the literacy programs will actually be participating in the marathon.

I don’t want that last paragraph to be glossed over. Read it again. Someone who had problems reading and writing before, has now gained enough skills, enough confidence, to actually participate in three solid days of writing.

That’s what these programs do. This is the power and the meaning I’m speaking of. This is the payoff.

It’s estimated that almost one-half of all Canadians are functionally illiterate. For round numbers, that’s about 15 million Canadians. The next time you’re in a crowded room, look around. Look at all the people there. Then, draw a line down the middle of them and imagine that half of them don’t have adequate language skills. Instead, they’ve focused on creating survival skills to hide their disability.Literacy map

  • “I can’t find my glasses, can you read this for me?”
  • “Excuse me, I know I’m probably looking right at them, but can you tell me where the one-inch wood screws are?”
  • “I haven’t had time to read the email, what do you think we should do?”

Any of these sound familiar? I’ve said them myself, and I can read.

These are the simple tricks they use to get around.

The Muskoka/Simcoe programs help about 200 people a year. That’s a drop in the bucket when you run it up against that much larger 15 million number, but it’s a lot like writing that way, isn’t it? I can only write one word at a time, but eventually, one after the other, I’ll ultimately end up with a novel of 100 000 words. These programs do the same thing, helping one person after another.

I’m going to end this the same way I did my post for this last year.

I know that everyone has their own causes and charities that are important to them.  Everyone’s been touched by some adversity in their life and dedicate themselves to trying to help others in the same boat.  And if this isn’t the cause for you, no problem.  I get it.  I’ve had to say no many times myself.  I thank you for reading and learning a bit more about this issue.

But if you can…

I’ll ask you to scan this post, just for a second and marvel at how fast you can light on a word and understand not only what it sounds like, but what it means in and of itself as well as it’s context in the

Think about what that means to your life.

Then I’ll ask you to consider donating some money to this cause.  It doesn’t have to be much.  It can be as little or as much as you can afford.

Here’s what I’ll do to sweeten the pot slightly. Donate $50 or more, and I’ll use your name, or a name of your choosing, in whatever story I write this year in the Marathon. I can’t promise it’ll be published, but hey, I’m on a bit of a roll, so you never know.

Literary immortality. Who doesn’t want that, right?

You can find out more about the MNM and what it’s all about here.  You can donate by going here.  If you don’t like to donate online, you can email me here and we can work something out.

Thank you. For reading.