What Writers Can Learn from Runners

Image: legs and shadow of a lone runner in the middle of a city street
“me myself and I on the road” by adropp is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Today’s post is an excerpt from the new book Our Endless and Proper Work: Starting (and Sticking To) Your Writing Practice by Ron Hogan (@RonHogan).

I’ll start with a story I read in a newsletter written by Terrell Johnson called The Half Marathoner, about how Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in 1954.

I’d never realized that Bannister was an amateur runner and had been competing in races around his schedule as a medical student. Because of that, his training regimen wasn’t all that extensive—as he once put it, “I trained for less than three-quarters of an hour, maybe five days a week—I didn’t have time to do more.”

The first time I read that story, my mind kept circling back to the fact that Bannister didn’t run a mile in three minutes, fifty-nine seconds because he had dedicated his entire life to that purpose, but that he had found time to become a person capable of running at that speed around everything else he had going on in his life at the time.

You can probably see where I’m going with this, because you’ve tried to figure out where in your packed schedule you have time to write. The good news is: that you don’t have to drop everything else in your life in order to tell a great story. You just have to make telling that story a priority in your life and carve some time out of each day (or as near to each day as possible) to honor that priority.

Roger Bannister was able to fit his running practice into a little under four hours a week, and it took him just about two years to reach his goal. What could you accomplish in four hours a week, if you gave your best to crafting a story in those bursts of time? What might you have to show for it in two years?

If that possibility excites you, here’s another question, from a different Half Marathoner essay, this one by Carissa Liebowitz: “If left to our own devices with free time and adequate resources, what would we choose to do?”

If Liebowitz had been writing about writing, she might have continued: It’s a reasonably safe bet that nobody’s going to give you that time or those resources but yourself. Sure, there are residencies and workshops and such, but even those are things you’ll need to apply for. So, one way or another, get to it.

Her essay, however, is about an expedition she took with a small group on their way to a marathon, and she recounts how, after several days together, they began to tell each other about intimate moments in their lives, including what she describes as “darker secrets.” As she writes, “The higher the level of suffering, the more it seems we are willing to open up and offer the true versions of ourselves.”

“I’ve found that I’m the most authentic version of myself in the midst of a long training run or deep into a tough race. The things I might caution myself from sharing with a non-running friend over coffee suddenly fall easily out of my mouth when my legs are tired and my heart rate is high.”

As we look at this as a way to think about writing, I want to address that word suffering. Now, I don’t think we need to make ourselves suffer to produce good writing; we don’t need to inflict pain upon ourselves, physically or emotionally.

In order to get to “the most authentic version of myself,” however, I do need to push myself out of my comfort zone. I need to go places, as a writer, that I’ve never been before, places that have always been just out of reach, and I have to stretch my intellect and my imagination and my emotions in order to get to those places, and, yes, one of the results is that I’m likely to feel drained or exhausted.

At first, you may have to fight for every insight, every bit of writing that manages to perfectly captures what it is you were trying to say. The more time you spend really stretching yourself, though, the more time you spend in those hard-to-reach places, the easier it might become to achieve those insights, to write more and more pages that give you back as much if not more than what you’ve poured into them.

I want to tell you another running story—this one is by Colin Daileda, writing for Deadspin about the Hell Ultra, a 298-mile ultramarathon along the Leh-Manali Highway in India. Daileda focused on two men, Pulkit Jain and Shashwat Rao, both of whom wanted to be the first Indian runner to complete the grueling race. I’m not going to tell you what happened, because you should read it for yourself, but I do want to zero in on this passage at the end:

“Running can obliterate you, because few sports expose people to themselves with such brutality. Its trick is to throw you against the barriers you’ve built for yourself, then step back innocently to ask what you’re going to do about them. Maybe the best way to answer that question is to understand what you want from a run before you begin, and to be prepared to meet something—or someone—out there on the road that can change all that.”

I think what Daileda was describing is something that happens to a lot of writers, whenever we set out to write something and start to discover what’s really pre-occupying our thoughts and emotions. All those times we tell ourselves, “I’m going to write a story/essay/book about this,” and then we realize we’ve been preparing ourselves to grapple with that all along. It can be an incredibly frustrating experience, and then suddenly become a profoundly liberating one.

I’m not suggesting that the point of a writing practice is to make yourself miserable, or that if you’re not miserable you’re doing it wrong. I suppose what I’d say the point was would be to challenge yourself—but that you can challenge yourself without necessarily making yourself miserable, because you know, going into that challenge, that it’s likely to make you profoundly uncomfortable at some point.

Along those lines, I believe the most useful work for us to be engaged in, and what might prove to be the most interesting work, is the work that tests our writing practice to its limits and forces us to come up with something we didn’t realize we were capable of producing until that moment. We chase after those moments because we love doing the writing, even when it’s hard.

Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check our Ron Hogan’s new book Our Endless and Proper Work: Starting (and Sticking To) Your Writing Practice.

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