Suffering is Optional. So begins acclaimed novelist Haruki Murakami’s love letter to running, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Running isn’t about suffering. For Murakami, “the main goal of exercising is to maintain, and improve, my physical condition in order to keep on writing novels.” What Murakami writes about running, we can’t help but apply to writing itself: “Of course it was painful, and there were times when, emotionally, I just wanted to chuck it all. It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of being really alive… Your quality of experience is based not on standards such as time or ranking, but on finally awakening to an awareness of the fluidity within action itself.” Writing can be painful – especially when we sit in our chairs for too long. To follow, here are some Prime Writers – Andrea Bennett, Jon Teckman, Peggy Riley and Kerry Drewery talking about running – and swimming – and why they leave their laptops for the open road and seas.
“Running,” says novelist Andrea Bennett, “is a bit like writing. Especially in that I prevaricate as long as possible before starting it. There are always other things to do that are not writing, or running. I put it off, worrying that people might laugh at me. And then eventually…I’m off! And after an uncomfortable 10 minutes or so I get in to it, and I think yes, I can do this, I like this, I’m enjoying this!. I run along the coast at Ramsgate. The big open skies, the wind and the sea, and the (slow, plodding) rhythm of my feet really open up my head. Ideas come while I’m running, worries get put into perspective, and sometimes plot lines get explored. For me, it’s an individual pursuit, a challenge to myself to cease procrastination and, well, just do it! And the reward is a calmness, a mental re-charge, a ‘sorting out’ that comes from running, and yes, from writing too.”
Jon Teckman, author of Ordinary Joe, used to run through his writing problems, when he was “stuck on a plotline or couldn’t get to grips with a piece of dialogue, although what I must have looked like to the other folk walking down the canal towpath as I played out both sides of a lovers’ tiff, I can only wonder at.” Recently he has “upgraded to boot camp, the main advantage of which is that as you are being put through your paces by an ex-Army PT instructor insisting that you work harder whilst bending your body into positions which it clearly was never intended to achieve, it is absolutely impossible to think about your novel and all its attendant problems at all. And it is always so nice when it stops, when, after unknotting yourself and soaking your aching, tortured limbs in a lovely hot bath, you can get back to the serious business of inflicting pain and suffering on your characters with a new found vigour!”
Young adult author Kerry Drewery has only recently taken to open water swimming. “I only learnt to front crawl properly about four years ago, and only took my first plunge into open water swimming two years ago. It’s not something I ever thought would have any similarity to writing, or help me with it, but oddly it is, and it does. Swimming, specifically in the open water, must be the most solitary sport – you put your head down, can’t talk, pass the time of day or anything, until you lift your head at the end and get out. While you might see a flicker of people around you as you lift your head to breath, you’re not especially aware of them – it’s just you and the water, you breathing in and out, a glimpse of the sky, a good look at whatever lies beneath you. In that way, it’s the reflection of writing – probably the most solitary career – you put your head down, don’t talk…until you lift your head at the end and step away from the desk. Unlike writing, I don’t have to think though. In fact, I don’t think of anything in particular at all – not what I’m going to cook for tea, or the plot of the novel, or the problems of teenagers – nothing. And that’s how it helps my writing. I come out physically tired, but mentally fresh, as if the water has washed it all from me.” Kerry is taking part in a sponsored 24hr swim in Lincoln this month, and raising funds for Book Aid International. You can sponsor her here:
For author Peggy Riley, running is as important for mental health as physical. “I started running on a fellowship at Yaddo, when I realised the wifi wouldn’t let me stream yoga. First world problems aside, I knew I couldn’t sit down and work hard for five weeks and expect to be able to stand back up.” So began her first hobbling steps through the woods toward becoming a runner, swollen ankles and all; she expected pain – but the pleasure of running was the biggest surprise. “Clearly, I had never met an endorphin. I was flooded, almost instantly, with a sense of well-being, the realisation that there was more to life – more to me – than words. Running helps me to run away from my thoughts, while simultaneously making room for more. Most mornings, I run my way into solution for writing problems when I wasn’t thinking about them at all – and I’m better able to sit down, stay focused, and be able to get back up with a happy back.” Read more on Yaddo and life as a late-blooming runner on her blog:
We hear on the news that sitting is the new smoking. True or not, exercise does help build stamina and discipline for our writing lives. Whether we lace on trainers or simply remember to stand up, moving helps our heads, our bodies, and feeds our writing souls.