June 7, 2011

Writing Is Like Running

Today, I thought I’d spin out a metaphor. Writing is like running because …

First of all, both writing and running are hard, damn hard. You know that old saw, you have to push yourself harder than you ever imagined when exercising? It’s so true. I didn’t know how true until I started running regularly. I try for three miles, and at first I kept expecting it to get easier. It never did. That’s because the hard part isn’t the physical part. Certainly at first it is, but soon your body gets used to it, and it’s the mental toughness that counts. Pushing yourself to run ~ er, jog ~ for 35 minutes, which is what it takes me to go three miles, takes a lot of internal pep talk.

I tell myself, you can do it! I tell myself, you’re paying it forward, and tomorrow will be easier (lies, all lies!). I tell myself, just the next lap. I count down my laps, and my favorite one is the second to last one ~ not because it’s the second to last but because on the last one I push myself as hard as I can and after the grindingly slow pace of before it’s fabulous to be flying but the anticipation of the lap before is delicious.

Writing is like this. You have to push yourself harder than you ever imagined. You have to face your inner slacker and stare him down. It’s all up to you, just like in running, and the world does not care a whit if you finish something. In fact, it works actively against you, as it would rather you were serving its needs, rather than your own. As you work those laps, those pages, you have to find little justifications and tricks to get yourself going and around the next bend. “It’s just one page” and “I’m just having fun ~ nobody will ever see it” and “if you don’t write today, it’ll be that much harder tomorrow.” It’s a combination of carrot and stick, but bottom line you have to push yourself to write every day, to get better, to try harder, to go those places emotionally that might scare you out of your wits.

Running and writing are the same because you have to practice every day if you’re going to be any good or complete any body of work. Because each day you lay off makes it that much harder to get into it. You lose muscle, both body and mind, and you get flabby. The discipline’s the thing. This is particularly important when writing a novel. It’s takes a sustained effort, like a marathon, to finish a novel, and it’s easy to get discouraged. By writing every day, you stay in the story, in the world, and it helps to pull you along, just as by running every day you’re in the habit and it’s not so hard to push yourself to do it. So developing the habit is important.

It’s good to have rituals for both. For running, I like to go about 2:30 in the afternoon. There’s hardly anyone at the gym, and I like solitude. I run on an indoor track at our university gym. I change into my clothes and I always pop in a stick of Trident green apple and pineapple gum ~ it keeps my mouth moist. I go to the alcove with the padding by the track and I stretch, the same series of stretches, and then I start right in. I count my laps on my fingers as I go, single laps on my right, groups of five laps on my left. It’s 10 laps per mile. I don’t listen to music, but I think through things as I run and often obsess about my writing. When I’m done, I walk one lap to cool down and then I stretch and do crunches, pushups, and work my arms. Then I change back.

For writing, if at all possible, I do it first thing in the morning. I try not to check my email more than a glance and do not go on the internet. I start a little free timer on my desktop for 1 hour or 2 hours. I may not look at it again, but it helps to remind myself I can’t switch to anything else unless absolutely necessary while that is running. (I even use this trick for productivity at work.) Then I edit through a chapter or portion of what I wrote the day before up to the point I stopped and then I try to write four new pages. I try to complete a scene or a chapter or something, but some days I only get through the editing part. Then, sometimes in the evening if I’m going strong I’ll try to edit through stuff, but that doesn’t happen very often.

Neither writing nor running was something I was raised to do. No one “exercised” as I was growing up because on a ranch or as a waitress you get all the exercise you need. In fact, it was slightly looked down upon as the inferior lifestyle. I mean, if you did “real work” you didn’t need to exercise. No one wrote either. Many read, but no one was a writer. To arrive at the point of running and writing, I had a long way to go. I had to get over a lot of ingrained notions. Plus, exercising and writing are sort of higher level activities. You know Maslow’s Hierarchy? They are at the self-actualization level, and when you’re poor and live on a ranch, you’re just trying to figure out how to pay the bills, and self-actualization is not something you particularly worry about.

And that’s another thing. Writing and running are about self. Some people are very self-ish, and by that I mean more than simply lacking consideration of others. I mean it in a broader sense, that they are comfortable with self and self-referentiality and being the center of things. Their orientation and life is centered on self. While there are others who spend their whole lives running away from self. I have a great friend who’s working on a memoir, and we just had a long conversation yesterday about putting self on the page and how that’s hard for those who come from a Lutheran/Scandinavian/abjure all self culture. I much admire this person’s bravery at trying to claim self by writing a memoir (and a kickass one at that). My wonderful in-laws are like this. They are anti-self and are so giving ~ to the point that they don’t allow themselves to be creative or anything that’s at all self-referential. I think there’s a balance to be struck here. If you deny self, you can become so miserly and angry that you are never happy. Likewise, if you have too much self, you’re also miserable and solipsistic and hard to live with. In order to be creative or to look after your health, you have to balance both ends.

Finally, both writing and running force you to live your life, to be in your life. I know some argue that writing is secondary and derivative, but I do not believe that at all. You have to be present in your life in order to write about it, and you have to inhabit your experiences, even if they are not spectacular, in order to write about it. You have to process them and think deeply about them. Same with running ~ you have to physically be in your body and experience the world around you. And both writing and running are essential for (my) health, emotional and physical.

Questions of the Day: What activities do you compare your writing to?


Pembroke Sinclair said...

Wow. Very poignant and interesting blog. Everything you said is so true! Great comparisons!

Tamara said...

Thanks, Pembroke! I tell you what - another thing that writing and running have in common is the encouragement of others. And I owe you big time!