Monday, July 20, 2015

Writing is Running

Running before sports bras. Ouch.
I run in what my mother-in-law calls the ass crack of dawn. It's an imperative when you’re a morning person. If you skip that early gloom, you’ve lost the best part. When I stretch and plot my course and scrape my shoes against the pavement, sparrows are having bragging matches. Foxes are still making the crows freak and raccoons are still feasting in the dumpsters behind the H-Mart. The only time I'm more aware of deer than cars. I’ve used that time for different things over the years, but lately, that's the time for my run.

I love running. It’s an old habit I revived when I moved here, when I listened to a friend talk about her runs and realized I wanted to do it again. So I started without thinking: without planning goals, without sitting down and asking how it fit into my worldview or my daily life. One morning, I just put on my shoes and ran. I came back euphoric, and went back out to run the next day.

This was always my approach to running: a kind of knee-jerk reaction. It was never the expected thing. I was a small, slight child with a short stride and reflexes so poor that I had to take special education to learn to catch a ball. Yet when we ran the class mile, I’d end up somewhere in the middle of the pack because I refused to be one of the walkers. Apparently that was enough interest for my gym teacher to suggest I do long-distance running at field events. By middle school, I was on the cross country team.

People tend to prefer things they’re good at. If you’re good at painting and not fractions, you’re going to go for art. If you can spell all of the words in the dictionary but have a hard time conjugating Spanish verbs, you’ll prefer spelling. My spouse and I have the same response when he's faced with camping, sports, and cars, and I'm faced with a kitchen or high heels: NOPE.

I knew my talents, largely in words and art. I wasn’t good at running. Not ever. I was always the last person on the team to cross the finish line. My memories of running are generally of misery: my allergies made me choke, my enormous glasses were constantly sliding down my face, and my newly-grown middle school boobs were like giant globular taunt-me signs. Yet for some reason I just kept doing it, and I didn’t care about other people thought.

It was the opposite with writing. I wonder when I came to think of writing as something you did for other people. Maybe it was the fact that for me, as for most kids, early writing was done for a grade. Maybe because writing contests gave me a sense that easy winning mattered more than the practice of the thing. Maybe because, as someone who would develop agoraphobia, I was always too much aware of the people around me. Suffice to say, I wrote when I was young, but I wrote only to be seen.

In running, I never contended with perfection. I struggled enough with competence. But in writing, because it was effortless at the beginning, I stuck to the amateur level. Getting a B destroyed me, so I happily took an F when I thought something was imperfect, so I could fool myself into thinking I’d have gotten an A if I’d tried. I fretted over accolades, deservingness, what other people would think. I curled my potential achievements to myself, knowing that if I tried for them and failed, that would be the Worst Thing.

If I had treated running like I often treated writing, it would have gone something like this: I’d select a team. I’d scrutinize the people on it—what they wore, what they ate, how they ran. I’d read articles on how to run. I’d speak to the coach about their techniques. I’d go to meets to see how they went. I’d agonize over which running gear to wear. I’d exercise so that I could get the muscles I wanted; I’d stretch. I’d tell people I was going to be a runner. And then I’d run around the block. Once I found I didn’t hit my target number, I’d halfheartedly try again, then quit. The deadline for the team’s tryouts would pass. I’d tell myself I didn’t really have enough time to prepare.

What if, I wondered one day as I ran, I treated writing like running?

What if writing ceased to be for other people, or if I gave them about as much consideration as I gave whatever I wore that day? What if I did it because I liked it? Because of the mental exhaustion and the euphoria? To feel my mental muscles build—imperceptible to others, perhaps, but pleasing to me? To grin at other writers as I passed, but not compare their productivity to mine? To set my own finish line and be fine with it until tomorrow? What if I needed no one cheering me on but myself?

Writing is about doing what you love, telling stories you want to hear. I’ve heard that over and over, but it didn’t really sink in until I thought about it while I ran. While I ran, I wasn’t doing it for compliments. I was doing it for the effort. That’s what any struggle is for. Even a race for a medal is never about the medal. How much more the case for writing, in which the measures for excellence are nebulous* at best? I’d seen it as an editor: no one had an empirical list. And if there was no best, there was also no worst. What was I afraid of?

When people asked The Oatmeal why he ran, he didn’t have a pat answer. He didn’t do it to be healthy or because people expected him to. He did it because of the euphoria, because of mind silence, and because the little creative thoughts are allowed to be. He did it for reasons that are utterly connected with him, not anyone else.

I run because I have legs that defeated injury. I run because the sound of birds reminds me of my grandmother. I run because it tears the reluctance out of my mind in the morning, shuts up the critic. And I work with words because the way they fit together thrills me. Because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be me.

You don’t have to run to get this. Guaranteed, if you’re struggling with writing, you have another skill that is no struggle at all. Maybe you knit. Or skydive. Or play Warcraft. And you do it, not because you’re any good, but because it’s fun. Put your people-blinkers on and tap into that. Tap into the source that is you, heedless of the frowning world.

Why else do you write, really?

* Ha ha. You see what I did there.

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