On Writing and Running
I’m not much of a runner. In fact, it’d be more correct to say I’m something of a slow and reluctant jogger, and a pretty amateur one at that. But I do run (or jog), and have been doing so for about three days a week for the past few years – incidentally, around the same time I started writing a novel.
Running is far from the top of my list of things to do at the start of any given day. I’m not a morning person, which means I’m also not a morning jogger. If anything I tend to prevaricate and postpone to the nth degree. But, slowly, as I spend yet another hour in front of my computer, not having written anything much and feeling increasingly sloth-like, I do feel the need to get up and shake some of the gravity away. Eventually, I’ll lace up my runners, stretch, pick up my music and head outdoors, trying to avoid the groups of schoolkids and dog-walkers also wandering through the park in the late afternoon.
From word of mouth and a quick google, I know I’m not the only one to incorporate running or some other form of physical exercise into their daily routine – many other writers do it too and do it much better. In an essay in the June edition of Meanjin, Ben O’Mara described his typical morning like so:
These days I rise at five-thirty every morning for a 45-minute run. One of the few things I can appreciate from all those years of Catholic indoctrination is the power of discipline. It gives me a big engine for writing. I hit the pavement for a solid hour in the crisp air before sun rise and I lose myself in the tunes and the rhythmic pounding of feet on asphalt. Often, the dramatic logic of a story I’m working on falls into place, or an ending I’m struggling with arrives quietly and without fanfare. Then I write for a solid hour before work starts.
Haruki Murakami is perhaps one of the better known authorities on the subject. I recently finished his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, in which he describes taking part in at least one marathon and one triathlon each year. His daily routine comprises of getting up at 4am, working for five to six hours, and then going for a 10km run or 1500m swim (or sometimes both). I found this book, which is part-memoir, part-training diary, part-philosophy, surprisingly enjoyable, not in the least thanks to his many insights into exactly why running and writing pair up to well.
One of the first things mentioned is the importance of establishing rhythm and routine. Murakami argues that a lot about being a novelist is similar to building fitness as a runner. You need to start out slow, then gradually build up the pace, flexing your creative muscles until it becomes natural and unthinking. Like running the less you do it, the harder it gets.
Jeff Sparrow, interviewed on darkly wise, rudely great, echoed this sentiment:
Writing is like exercise. Now, no-one – no-one I know, anyway – actually likes jogging, at least not in the sense that they wake up on a cold drizzly morning and think, hurrah, I’ll soon be shuffling around a football field. But if you do it often enough, if you build it into your daily routine, it becomes something that you miss when, for some reason or another, running is no longer possible. Without exercise, you become twitchy, irritable, strangely dissatisfied.
If you write every day, the same thing happens. It’s not that writing becomes any more enjoyable. You don’t look at the blank screen enthusing about the prospect of filling it up. The empty page remains just as hateful as ever, possibly more so, but in some way, not confronting it becomes less possible
Angela Meyer also added that exercise can provide the mental clarity for ideas to take shape.
In yoga you’re taught to acknowledge a thought but not hold on to it. You’re allowed to let it go and have faith that if it’s important, it will come back. Sort of trains you to let the unimportant things pass through, and helps clear the fog. I don’t know what it is about walking, but walking is definitely the exercise most conducive to the symmetry of previously unrelated ideas. Other things like weight-bearing exercises help to tune balance and focus both physically and mentally, I think, but not so deliberately as yoga.
Another thing that struck me in When I Talk About Running were Murakami’s thoughts on creativity and health. There is, he says, particularly in Japan, an assumption that writers must conform to the stereotype of the degenerate, tortured artist in order to produce good work. People of ask whether he will be able to continue to write such dark, eerie fiction if he continues to run marathons. Murakami concedes that writing can be an ‘unhealthy’ profession, in the sense that in involves confronting some of the darker aspects of human nature. I liked the fugu fish analysis he uses here – ‘the tastiest part is near the poison’. Yet at the same time, he argues that in order to engage with such ‘toxins’, a writer also needs to be as healthy as possible:
[A] healthy soul requires a healthy body. This might sound paradoxical, but it’s something I’ve felt very keenly ever since I became a professional writer. The healthy and the unhealthy are no necessarily at opposite ends of the spectrum. They don’t stand in opposition to each other, but rather complement each other … When the body disintegrates, the spirit also (most likely) is gone too. I’m well aware of that. However, I’d like to postpone, for as long as I possibly can, the point where my vitality is defeated and surpassed by the toxin. That’s my aim as a novelist … Which is exactly why even though people say, “He’s no artist,” I keep on running.
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29 Jul 10 at 6:01
Nice post, Jess. I really enjoyed Murakami’s book: both as a glimpse into his psyche, and as a meditation on the ties between physicality and writing.
And so nice to see my ‘Write Tools’ series doing its job.
For what it’s worth, here’s me on running, on the ABC: http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2930556.htm...
29 Jul 10 at 14:41
Interesting article Jess. It made me remember in school being told that the mind deteriorates (at a slow rate) from the age of 25, with exercise being the only thing that can offset that (I don’t have a scientific source to cite, but it seems plausible). As writing is an activity that requires an agile mind it makes sense to keep it fit (paradoxically, through physical as well as mental activity!).
Doesn’t Adelaide-based writer Brian Castro have a love affair with cycling? I remember him saying that the bicycle liberated from crushing melancholy. I think there’s an extended meditation on cycling in his novel The Bath Fugues. I’ll have to check out Murakami’s book on running!...
29 Jul 10 at 14:59
Cheers for the article Damon (and for your Write Tools series).
Interesting – I didn’t know that about Brian Castro. Reading the Murakami has made me all the more curious about other authors who combine writing with exercise, and how....
30 Jul 10 at 19:09
Another local, Tony Birch, loves running, and walking. I took one of his classes and there were so many essays in the reader on walking, walking and creativity, walking tours of cities. He kept asking if anyone had been on a good run.
Murakami’s writing/running cycle shows astounding discipline but I find Ben O'Mara’s inspiring because of the implication that he has a job (full-time?) to contend with and gets in running and writing before the “day” has even started – I think I’d take that as a model rather than Murakami’s!...
31 Jul 10 at 11:45
Oh that’s right – I remember taking one of his classes also and he’d talk about how he loved running the rain, and would eagerly wait for forecasts of showers. Strangely enough I agree – especially in summer, nothing beats running in a good downpour.
You’re right in saying that while Murakami is incredibly disciplined, he also has the luxury of being able to write full time (he states that he’s well aware of this in the book). Trying to get a rhythm for running and writing while also balancing full time work is another thing in itself....
01 Aug 10 at 6:05
Cool post Jess. What I’m having difficulty with at the moment is managing non-running periods. I need to learn more about recuperating from injury. Last week, I strained the calf in my left leg. This is very frustrating because I am icing, elevating and resting, but I miss the mental clarity and bolts of creativity that come with my early morning runs. I’m also in training for a half marathon in the St George’s Melbourne Marathon and want to stick to the plan. Plus I gain weight just by looking at a meat pie or chicken parma.
I’ve been writing quite a lot recently. The main difference is that the writerly slog is more difficult without running. It feels like I have to fight for every sentence. I’ve also become more impatient and self-critical. Those perfectionist tendencies have been playing havoc with my head. I believe in rigour and creating high quality writing but my writing process requires spaces for half formed and shitty paragraphs – those trapdoors, alleyways and wrong-turns of prose that often don’t appear in the final manuscript but are important during drafting. Running not only helps me to go easy on myself, but to imagine new connections and breakthroughs in the craft of story.
The plan now is to prevent injuries not just for my health but also for giving me the best platform to write. I’ll have to check out Murakami’s book. I’ve found it better to run first thing in the morning, but sounds like a good read.
Prithvi – great to hear the running gig might be useful. I find running actually improves my ability to manage the full time job and my writing. Of course, I’d much rather be writing full time. The other cool thing about running when it becomes an essential part of you life is that you can take it anywhere. I was working in Pretoria, South Africa, late last year and had some amazing experiences running around the Union Buildings early in the mornings. Great creative fodder. Johannesburg is a crazy but inspiring place....
01 Aug 10 at 23:02
Hi Ben – just curious about whether you run even when it’s cold and raining – or does the weather adversely affect your running (and consequently your writing)?
By the way, have you ever done it in places where it isn’t common or where there’s a different exercise culture? For example I’m remembering jogging around the streets of Sri Rangam in Southern India. Sri Rangam is centred around a Hindu temple and the streets run (as would you if you followed them) in concentric circles, round and round the temple. Sneakers are sold there, but to locals I’m sure the running looks mad; I guess that’s fodder for writing too!
I’ll look up some photos of Johannesburg. I’ve heard that Cape Town is also beautiful....
02 Aug 10 at 12:03
Hi Prithvi, I run in all weather, even when it’s pouring rain. In winter I ‘suit up’ in skins, extra t-shirts and gloves. Some mornings it’s been 1-2 degrees and the first 5 minutes is a bit crappy, but then I warm up. The only thing that stops me at the moment is injury. The weather doesn’t adversely affect my writing at all. I just love writing and feel happiest when I’m in the thick of a new story. And I always feel amazing after a run so that drives me to get out of bed at 5:30am everyday.
Your experiences in Southern India don’t surprise me. My old boss warned me that I might get weird reactions when running in some countries. Some of my work takes me to places and communities where exercise has a different meaning – it’s more associated with work. For example, many people will walk long distances to work or spend more time on their feet looking after family etc. Time when you are not working is meant for resting or other things.
That said, in Pretoria there were hundreds of South Africans running around the Union Buildings every morning and it felt great to run along side them. Many people I met were very friendly and helpful about where to run and what was good etc....