For writers today, the muse is their running shoes, writes Brigid Delaney in her review of The Long Run by Australian writer Catriona Menzies-Pike. As the newest ‘exercise memoir’ to hit the stands, her book is said to be “a personal and cultural history of women and running”, through which the Sydney-based author charts her journey from couch potato to marathon runner.
Menzies-Pike is the latest in the band of authors who not only run but also consider running an important part of their creative process. In many ways, running offers writers a sense of escape with a purpose – a chance to clear their heads, shake off creative cobwebs, and generally feel more energized to take on a difficult chapter.
When confronted with “structural problems” in her narratives, American author Joyce Carol Oates is known to ease her writing blocks by taking off for an afternoon run. “Both running and writing are highly addictive activities; both are, for me, inextricably bound up with consciousness. I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t running, and I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t writing,” she says in a column for NYT Books.
In fact, Joyce recalls that writers have shared a close connection with running (or even walking) over a while now. “Writers and poets are famous for loving to be in motion. If not running, hiking; if not hiking, walking…. Wordsworth and Coleridge in the idyllic Lake District, for instance; Shelley (“I always go until I am stopped and I never am stopped”) in his four intense years in Italy. The New England Transcendentalists, most famously Henry David Thoreau, were ceaseless walkers…”
More recently, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami explores his intertwined fascinations with running and writing in his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running; he attributes that “most of what I know about writing fiction I learned by running every day”. In an interview with Runner’s World, he tries to explain how the two activities are inextricably connected for him: “The most important qualities to be a…writer are probably imaginative ability, intelligence, and focus. But in order to maintain these qualities in a high and constant level, you must never neglect to keep up your physical strength. Without a solid base of physical strength, you can’t accomplish anything very intricate or demanding. That’s my belief. If I did not keep running, I think my writing would be very different from what it is now.”
It’s not so hard to see why novelists take to running: it offers them a freedom of distance and also carries that literary appeal of solitude — a chance to bounce off ideas in your head, but also to switch off and reboot before hitting the desk again. American novelist Don DeLillo, known for his stunning portrayals of Americana, says his daily work schedule includes running time as well. “This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle—it’s a nice kind of interlude,” he told The Paris Review.
The steady, repetitive movement of distance running—especially when you’re running a familiar route and distance—is not very different from meditation; it can free up the clutter in your mind and allow you to focus. Meanwhile aerobic exercises have long since been proven to have a positive impact on one’s mental capacity, problem-solving skills and stress levels—that feel-good sensation after you complete an hour’s run is real.
In the words of Matthew Inman, writer of The Terrible and Wonderful Reasons Why I Run Long Distances: “I did not become a runner to lose weight, I did it to escape my computer.” Sometimes, the best way you can deal with a writer’s block is by taking it out for a run.
Main image: Haruki Murakami running (Photograph courtesy: Patrick Fraser | Corbis Outline)