Running and Writing: Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together!

It’s been a long time since I had a running post, and I wondered if I was done with them. After all, this is primarily a blog about the writing of novels and the tribulations of a writer of novels learning that he doesn’t actually know very much about the writing of novels. What does running have to do with that?

Well, a lot, actually.

I take a bit of a Dirk Gently approach to life, always trying to keep in mind the interconnectedness of all things. A hummingbird flaps its wings in Taiwan and creates a hurricane in Florida, or an angry old man sends back soup at a deli and the next thing you know, skinny jeans are going out of style and cats are scooping their own poop.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing, it’s that it’s hard. Really hard. I’ve called it a Sisyphean effort before, and that’s not hyperbole: take your eye off the work and it can backslide on you, rolling your project and your will to work on it all the way back down to the bottom of the hill you spent five months climbing. And that’s when the wind is at your back, when things are going your way and you feel really truly in touch with what you’re writing.

But those are the rare days.

A lot of writing (the biggest part of writing, of late) is writing when your heart isn’t in it, when you fear the work is crap, that you’re crap, that every idea you’ve ever had or will ever have is crap, and that the paper that might have been used printing out your manuscript would be better used as paper that’s actually designed for cleaning up crap. Authorial self-doubt, the fear of rejection, an inability to find the time to focus or the right circumstances to concentrate… all these can add up to make the prospect of writing as daunting as an ant deciding it wants to cut a tunnel through the Rocky Mountains. On those days, you really have to be clearheaded, you have to train your mind to block out all that negativity and self-sabotage.

Which is where the running comes in. Say what you will about the dubious benefits of prolonged cardio exercise or how bad it is for your knees (or better yet, don’t, because I will just laugh at you), but any activity that gets the blood flowing to your body proper is by its very nature going to get the blood flowing to your brain. All that fresh, hot, oxygen-laced, endorphin-riddled blood hitting the brain is like a cool breeze in the middle of a Georgia July, like stepping into a heated storefront after being out in a New York winter, like the first pop in a fresh roll of bubble wrap. It gets you focused, it gets you clear-headed, it gets you calm.

Add to that, of course, the fact that with running in particular, it’s just you and the road (or trail or track or whatever) and the low, rhythmic shuffling of your feet. If zen masters advocate focusing on the simple infinity of the “om”, then there’s a wealth of universal truth to be found in the relentless slap slap slap of your feet on the pavement. There is no better way to get some alone time with your thoughts than to lace up your sneakers and go out for a few meditative miles.

If you’re a regular reader, you might know that I’ve been struggling with a foot injury for the last year and a half that’s made it difficult for me to fully enjoy my runs. It’s been impossible for me to cover long distances or to push my pace much above a brisk jog without setting myself back something horrible. But I’m muscling through, perhaps idiotically so (especially if you ask my wife) because of one thing:

I write better on the days when I exercise than on days when I don’t. I write better on days that I run than on days when I “work out”. I’m clearer, more at peace, less stressed, less consumed with doubt. If I can start the day with that one accomplishment under my belt, it makes any other goal — from writing a few hundred words to grading a stack of horrible essays — seem that much closer to my grasping hands.

Problem is, there’s only so much you can say about running, right? I mean, sure, every run is different: the melodies of the birdsong, the low lullaby of the cars rumbling past, the poemic abuse from passing motorists weaves itself into a unique symphony every time you step out. But by the same token, of course, every run is pretty much the same: laces on, one foot in the other, tromp stomp tromp stomp, have a shower, go on with your day.

So on the one hand, I hesitate to write too much about running, because I fear it gets monotonous. Then again, I wonder if I don’t beat the writing about writing horse to death, as I fear I may have done of late.

Nevertheless, running, as I said before, is a part of my process. Which means it belongs here.

Oh, and: I went for a run yesterday. It was good. Probably go for one tomorrow. I think that one will be good, too.

Image from Avicii’s Levels music video.