What I Talk About When I Talk About Not Running*

My dresser drawers are filled to the brim with t-shirts from the two half-marathons and countless races I’ve run. (What the Peachtree Road Race organizers were thinking with the horrifically ugly shirt they proffered after that 10K, I’ll never know.) After fifteen years of intense training runs and treadmill time, running was becoming a chore, yet another thing on my to-do list. Slowly, I began to hate something I used to love. Like Forest Gump, one day, I just stopped running. Absolutely nothing could get me out there. I was over it for good.

It seemed to happen simultaneously that I had a similar bout with writing. Coincidence?  This was much more troublesome than not running because writing was something I’d been doing since 7th grade when I penned a (very) short story about a girl who leaves a note in a boy’s gym locker. Creative writing is what I studied in school. Suddenly life seemed uncertain and I was embarrassed.  It wasn’t just about finding time to write or dealing with writer’s block.  It was more than lethargy or fatigue. More than simple loss of enthusiasm. It was a desire not to write. I told almost no one; it’s not something one wants to advertise. How could I suddenly be disinterested in what I thought was my life’s purpose? Doesn’t that make me a flake of the highest order?

And then a friend asked me a simple but important question: Why? Why don’t you want to write?  The best way I can explain it is a loosening. The process of writing and running, both solitary endeavors, are, at their core, introspective and selfish experiences. I may jog with a friend around Prospect Park or join a writing workshop, but at the end of the day, it’s me and me alone. Neither are team sports. The runner and the writer are both always (physically, mentally, emotionally) looking inward. And from this loosening, into the breach that was this fatigue, the focus shifted and I began to look out. Not with a snarky, sarcastic eye to the world at large, but with a compassionate one, from a different place. I wasn’t able to wear the compassionate hat of world citizen and the selfish hat of writer/runner simultaneously. It was a one-or-the-other proposition.  Is this making any sense?

Then one day a germ of a story idea came to me like a little sprout. I reached for the notebook that had fallen to the depths of my bag and jotted it down. I wanted to write this story. I started writing as I’d done for many years – on the subway. I don’t know why or how this window opened. Maybe, as with Justin Beiber or the intricacies of the bank bailout, it’s best not to wonder too much about how it came to pass lest you drive yourself over the brink. But I didn’t want the window to close on my outward self either (that’s what I call it, but I’m stuck for a better explanation as in # 1 below). I had to teach myself how to keep both sides open.

  1. Perfection is not perfect. It’s frustrating to realize that I don’t have the chops to tell the tale that is in my mind’s eye. I may never be that skillful, but I guess I’m in good company. Flaubert said, “I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.” Of course Faulkner got more to the point with, “The work never matches the dream of perfection the artist has to start with.”  Same holds true with running. If you envision the perfect race: the temperature is fantastic, etc., etc., what happens when you show up at the start line and it’s pouring rain?

That leads me to…

2. Don’t listen to Meryl Streep. In an interview, the actress said, I’m my own worst critic.” As am I. It is so easy to be mad at myself for not running faster or longer, or not improving at a predetermined rate according to some magazine. There is something to be said for growing and pushing myself as a weekend warrior or a writer. But why not encourage myself rather than berate myself? Only when I stopped wearing my running watch did I remember what it was like to run like a kid again – to enjoy myself. I’m applying that philosophy to writing. As I mentioned I went back to writing on paper and remembered why I wanted to write in the first place (and contrary to popular belief, it’s not for the fame and fortune). Why are we so hard on ourselves? Why can’t we each be our own biggest fan rather than our worst critic?

3. The Hemingway Days. Upon crossing the finish line of the Corporate Challenge, a mid-July 5K during which a thunderstorm unleashed its fury, I grabbed my goodie bag containing one soggy granola bar, squished my way home on the subway and thought, “Well, surely this wasn’t worth the effort.” That’s true for my inward-looking self. Haruki Murakami writes, “To be able to grasp something of value, sometimes you have to perform seemingly inefficient acts. Even activities that appear fruitless don’t necessarily end up so.” You run through the rain to get to the sun. Some days I dance around my apartment thinking I’m the next Ernest Hemingway (Shout out to my mom who thinks this is true all the time), but most days I believe I have just put down the worst drivel ever committed to paper. Writing fiction is the hardest work I have ever done. It is frustrating, miserable, disheartening, aggravating, and sometimes tormenting. The sane question then is: why do it? I do it because they lead to the Hemingway Days. Then it’s extraordinary, bewitching, delightful, rapturous, and transformative. What more could you ask for?

4. Call me Ishmael. Someone once told me that joggers are people who show up at the park on the weekends. Runners are the professional, get-paid-for-it sort. This stuck with me. That inward looking person always considered herself a runner. But suddenly I had to reclassify myself. I was just a jogger. If that was the case, perhaps writers are dabblers and authors are professionals. I certainly wouldn’t introduce myself at a party as an author. It seems untrue. That’s the hang up of the inner viewpoint. In gaining a broader perspective, I’d like to quote Flaubert again, “Faire et se traire,” or loosely translated, “Shut up and get on with it.”

5. Know thy Pequod. It’s important to honor the craft. (Get it? Craft. Pequod. Ishmael. Come on.) Craft is the mechanics. In fiction that might be characterization, dialogue, etc. In running that might be pace, distance, etc. It can take years, sometimes decades, of study and experience to gain strong technique. This is where I had to learn (and am still learning) compassion. Runners (the professional and non-professional kind) honor the craft through experience and repetition in daily practice. Writers honor the craft through experience and assimilating others’ works (not including plagiarism). I echo Stephen King’s words – good writers are good readers.

What I’m hoping and trying to achieve is to become a compassionate writer. I’m not referring necessarily to subject matter. I’m referring to a kind of charity in the artistic process. I imagine it could take a lifetime (hopefully not ending in bipolar disorder).

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m putting on my sneakers to go for a run.

*The title of this post is a play on Haruki Murakami’s memoir, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” which is a play on Raymond Carver’s much-anthologized short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

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