• December 21, 2014

What Writing and Running Have in Common

At the beginning of every race and every book project, the same thought occurs: This is impossible

What Writing and Running Have In Common 1

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

When people ask me what running and writing have in common, I tend to look at the ground and say it might have something to do with discipline: You do both of those things when you don’t feel like it, and make them part of your regular routine. You know some days will be harder than others, and on some you won’t hit your mark and will want to quit. But you don’t. You force yourself into a practice, the practice becomes habit and then simply part of your identity. A surprising amount of success, as Woody Allen once said, comes from just showing up.

Or perhaps I’ll mutter something about sought-after outcomes: You want to nail it; you want, if nothing else, to beat yourself, to beat your best self. You want something to show for the effort. You want the applause that comes when you’ve finished, and finished well. You want the markers of achievement—you’d like to think you are just doing it for you, but most of us are not that self-realized. The material rewards mean something.

When I think harder about it, what I believe running and writing have most in common, at least for me, is the state of vulnerability they leave you in. Both require bravery, audacity, a belief in one’s own abilities, and a willingness to live the clichés: to put it on the line, to dig deep, to go for it. You have to believe in the "it," and have to believe, too, that you are worthy.

That is hard because the results always seem impossible. At the beginning of every track practice, when the coach gives us a workout, I think: I can’t do that. No one could ever do that. When I line up at the start of a marathon, I imagine driving from Hopkinton to Boston or from Staten Island to Central Park and I tell myself that’s too far to run. At longer races, when I know the unimaginable elevation of the peaks I’ll have to climb and descend in 30 or 50 miles of tough trail, I wonder what’s wrong with me to believe I could do something so challenging. It’s too hard, I think. I can’t do that.

Which is exactly how I feel when I’m starting on a book project. It’s impossible. I will not be able to make it the whole way and will need to quit, probably somewhere in the middle, and I’ll be left with nothing, depleted and humiliated. Who am I to be pitted against that Herculean task? I’d rather muck out the stables.

So I trick myself. If I really believed I had to run all the way from Hopkinton to Boston, I’d bring money for a taxi or the T. Instead I tell myself I have to run only one mile. I know I can do that. For a runner who’s properly trained, the right marathon pace should feel doable, if not easy, for most of the race. Just one mile. Then the clock on my watch starts over.

"One true sentence," Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast: "I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written."

One mile. One true sentence. You go on from there.

That Hemingway’s quote has become a chestnut doesn’t make it any less helpful to me when I get stuck on the page or quake at the starting line. Simply covering the distance or finishing the book isn’t enough to feel successful. I will wish I could have gone faster, could have written better. But at least I will get it done and learn how to improve. After four books and something like 50 or 60 marathon-length or longer races, I still feel like a novice. You’re always beginning over again. A new blank page. A new starting line.

A slogan adopted by many cross-country teams is "My sport is what your sport does for punishment." There’s an idea among those who play with balls that running is a necessary evil for staying fit, not something you need to excel at or enjoy. I think about this each time an academic says to me, "I need to finish this article/book, but I’m not a writer."

They say it the way I say I’m short or I have green eyes. My height and eye color are immutable (except, of course, for the shrinkage that comes with aging). When I say I can’t parallel park, it’s a whole different story. Clearly I have chosen not to pay enough attention to the fundamentals of parking to be able to pull my car into a space without having to wriggle it near the curb. I don’t need to parallel park that often. When I do, I can get the job done in a serviceable (though I suspect, in some cities, ticket-worthy) fashion. It’s likely there are people who could show me tricks that would make the process a whole lot easier. Or I could practice. But parallel parking isn’t a skill I value enough to take the time to master.

Some people, when they hear about my running habit, say, "I could never do a marathon." Hooey, I say. Anyone can run a marathon. It requires a commitment of time, energy, and a willingness to get through the parts that aren’t fun. You need to run when you don’t feel like it. You need to set a reasonable, reachable goal. You need to break it down into manageable chunks and build up your strength.

And I need to remind myself of the same thing when I think I will never be able to write another book. Or finish an essay.

Done is better than perfect, I tell myself, though the overachiever in me bridles against that. I know when I’ve "finished" something too soon, and I can’t bear to reread it in print. Sometimes at around mile 21 you want to quit. Sometimes at mile 8 you think, "18 more miles? Are you kidding me? No way."

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."

It doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes I can’t hold the pace and finish far past my goal time. Sometimes I look at a manuscript and put it away—maybe forever. On days when the track looks too big to get around it even once, I tell myself, "One true sentence." And then I run.

Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’. Her website is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com. Her first novel, On the Road to Find Out, was published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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