I do a lot of writing and I do a lot of running – and it often strikes me that there are significant parallels between the two. I mean, yes, the differences are obvious: for one thing, I sit down when I write, and I rarely get out of breath. But the similarities are there. Honestly.
Here, then, are eight reasons why writing is like running:
1. They’re both about stamina
When I first started to run and to write after a post-school hiatus, I could barely do either. I’d loved both activities in my youth, and I could do both reasonably well – but then I stopped for a number of years because, life. When I tried running again – this was forty years later – I assumed I could more or less pick up where I left off. Dear reader, I could not. I could barely manage a few hundred metres without having to stop and basically die. It was the same with writing. The gap was smaller (fifteen years) but the effect was the same: I could manage only a few hundred words, and then I was done. Running a marathon or completing a novel – both these things were utterly inconceivable.
Slowly, I’ve built up my stamina. What once seemed like a superhuman impossibility is now mundane. My longest run so far is a half-marathon (21 kilomeres) and my longest novel around 110, 000 words. I’m not saying either was a doddle, but both were well within my capabilities. Somehow, over the years, with practice and practice, barely even noticing, I’ve grown stronger at both. What was once impossible became possible. Writing and running are the same: the more you do them, the more you can do them.
2. At their best, they’re both effortless
There are times when I’m running – and when I’m writing – that my conscious mind is barely there. All the nagging worries are gone. I’m in the moment, that state of flow, when everything is effortless and the world makes sense. My legs drift across the kilometres; my fingers rattle out the words that are coming from … somewhere. It’s a joy – although, I may not even notice at the time, because my conscious mind/inner editor is quiet. I’m not doing, I’m being. And yet, somehow, things are happening. I arrive at the end of the run or the chapter and there’s barely any sense of effort being expended. And it feels very good.
3. A lot of the time, they’re both a slog
It’s not always like that, though. In fact, most of the time it isn’t like that. Sometimes, you have to forget about the distant goal, the far-away finishing line, and think only about putting one (metrical) foot in front of the other. And repeating. This. Word. This. Step. Each requires a conscious effort. You want to give up. Sometimes, you do give up and try again another time, but most of the time you battle through, because that’s how you get stronger. Writing (and running) when it’s an effort is where the growth happens. It increases your capacity for the good “effortless” stuff described above. The serious runner/writer knows that you have to work at your craft.
4. Getting into a rhythm is the key
I’ve talked about flow already, and about putting in the work so that reaching that happy state gets easier. This is where it’s important to establish a rhythm. I don’t just mean the small beats of typing words/taking steps – I mean setting aside time to write and to run regularly, to cover long distances/word counts in a single attempt. Write each day, run every other day, whatever works for you. It’s hard to do when life is busy, I know, but both activities become easier when you build them into your day. That way, your subconscious learns that they’re simply what happens and gets on with doing them.
5. They’re both solitary; they’re both social
I love running alone, just me outside in nature, but I do really value the camaraderie and connection of group running, too. Did I mention that I’ve just done my 250th parkrun? It’s the bond of the shared experience. Writing, too, is mostly a solitary activity, but then comes the involvement of editors, readers, publishers, publicists, fellow-authors – and loved ones reassuring you that you’re not the worst writer in the world. Sometimes, it takes a village. There’s a joy in that, as well, the sense of being part of something larger. Maybe that’s not for everyone, but I value it enormously.
6. They’re both lovely when you stop
There’s a famous quote (often misattributed to Dorothy Parker) along the lines of “I hate to write, but I love having written.” I get that, and you could certainly substitute run for write and written in there. A lot of the time, despite the occasional flow, the fact is that both activities can be gruelling – and it feels so good when the run is over or you nailed the chapter. The sense of achievement to both is considerable.
7. Sometimes to do them better, you have to stop doing them
Running puts a strain on the tissues, and you have to give yourself rest days to allow your muscles time to heal and to prevent injury. After a long run – a marathon say – you might take a week or two off. When you come back to it, you’ll be fresher and raring to go. Same with writing: sometimes, it’s good to stop, to step away from the keyboard for days or even weeks. A lot of writing takes place elsewhere anyway, as ideas circulate around the brain. Sometimes, it’s good to let those glimmers simmer and grow before pinning them to the page. A break of a couple of weeks is fine: it doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, it means your susbconscious is being given the freedom to think up new and intriguing stuff. Write/run regularly, but allow yourself the freedom not to if you need it.
8. Both writing and running feel like me
Even when writing and running are hard work, they’re also enjoyable on a deeper level. Enjoyable is a slippery word. Hacking up a steep hill or through a difficult scene might be physically or intellectually uncomfortable, but they can also both (weirdly) be extremely satisfying. They’re something I wouldn’t miss for the world because they connect with (I don’t know) some deep evolutionary or personal need. They both feel good because they both feel like me. It may seem strange to relish running through a soaking rain storm – it seems strange to me – but I do it anyway, because for some reason I want to…
Any thoughts? Do your experiences of writing and running (or whatever your chosen physical activity is) chime with the above?