Friday, June 27, 2014

Of Runners and Writers

This recent piece on the parallels between running and writing has been getting a lot of praise in my online circles recently, and deservedly so. In spite of the fact that I know a lot of academics/writers who have been drawn to running--and often at precisely those moments when their writing practice becomes most difficult or intense--I also have the sense that most of us cannot clearly articulate the link between the two activities, and often feel at pains to defend our running habits against the perception that they are distracting from our real work. My own experience of the disconnect between the two nearly led me to abandon running early on. I would justify the time I spent running by telling myself that getting away from the computer was just what my mind needed to work through that piece of the argument that wasn't quite clicking; what I found, though, was that running (usually) made my mind go completely still, sending me into a kind of objectless focus that's probably perfect for Zen meditation, but less so for carving out one's niche within a contentious field of scholarship. What's worse, I found that I even liked this effect, began to crave it, secretly ran in order to get back to it. It had to stop.

But what I noticed was that the effect of this "distraction" was precisely the opposite of what I would have expected. I wrote more clearly. I wrote with less hesitation. I wrote right through problems, picking them apart one step at a time, rather than skirting them, or dismissing them, or skipping of to check my email in the face of them. I even began to write with greater pleasure. Maybe that's why lines like these rang so true for me:

"Running has made me a more disciplined writer, and writing has reminded me to be brave when racing. I’ve learned—I’m trying to learn—to keep faith in the face of flagging mind, body, spirit, and confidence. I know that any valuable achievement will require that I make myself uncomfortable and may well hurt. I’ve learned to recognize the pain: 'Here we are again. This is the part that sucks. This is the place where I want to give up.'"

And that, contrary to what the headline suggests, strikes me as the crucial insight of this essay--not that running and writing merely have something in common, but that each practice promotes and solidifies the other. Will running make me a better writer? Only in the sense that "done is better than perfect," a lesson every runner must be reconciled with (nobody wins every race!). Will writing make me a better runner? Only in the sense that the road to improvement runs directly through miserable failure, something that every writer re-learns daily. But neither of those lessons is inconsiderable. Running is a much more mental activity than non-runners could ever hope to understand, and writing is a far more bodily enterprise than our cliches of the writer as disembodied recluse, fueled only by intellectual passion (and perhaps alcohol) will ever let on. Computers may be able to string words together into coherent sentences, but only a body can write.

All of that said, I can't get around the fact that my gut reaction to the essay's main contention consists of two seemingly incompatible responses: "Not really," and "Duh." Let me see if I can explain. (to be continued!)

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