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The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

20 April 2024

With SelfMadeHero’s 2023 publication of artist-athlete Mylo Choy’s inspirational graphic novel Middle Distance, an exploration of their path to self-knowledge and self-care, both on and off the track, Martin Dean here reflects on the abiding connection writers have long felt between the lived experience of running and writing. 

Running! If there’s any activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing to the imagination, I can’t think what it might be. In running the mind flies with the body; the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms. Ideally, the runner who’s a writer is running through the land- and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting.

(Joyce Carol Oates, New York Times, 19 July 1999)

What role does the body play in acts that draw heavily upon the mind, like writing? We might consider writing to be an entirely mental activity: having thoughts and ideas – with the body then merely brought in to (literally) “describe” them by typing them up or writing them down, but rarely considered the driving force. It’s often this quality that people find attractive about reading and writing – the escape. A departure from the physical realm or the “everyday” world and a journey somewhere else, to experience something like a dream created by the waking mind.

However, when you consider how important the body and exercise, particularly running, are for many writers (just as they can be to everyone as a means to manage and transcend certain states of mind) it’s tempting to reflect on how this works as part of the creative process. In other words, weather that escape can be in both directions.

Can bodily experience be used to empower the mind to create, or to create in a certain way? It certainly feels appropriate that the process of writing as a creative escape ‘“outwards”’, a departure, an adventure away from the everyday world, can be enabled through a regular return “inwards” of the mind to the body through physical training – running, or whatever it might be. Almost like a ship, long at sea, returning from the open waters of the imagination to dock and return to three-dimensionality and the present – and refurbishment – before setting out again. It’s as though the body presents a place for the mind itself to escape to, from time to time, so that the process of writing can continue.

But where does running feature in the processes of different writers? This is how Haruki Murakami put it:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4 a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometres or swim for 1,500 metres (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9 p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.

(Interview with John Wray, The Paris Review, 2004)

Murakami suggests that he imposes the physical upon his mind to direct it, and even elevate it. It’s a ritual act that gives rise to a certain mental condition, like the rhythmic drumming used in some shamanic rituals to attain a trance state and access to other frequencies of consciousness.

For others, there is a greater emphasis on the fact that the body is finite, material, and located in a certain place, so that the body becomes something like an anchor for the mind, preventing confusion, distraction, or worse. It soothes – or subdues – the chaos of mental activity in order to send it in one direction only: either onwards, through the narrative; or just across the room, to sit down at your desk and get on with it once the voices of doubt or inertia are too tired from that run to bother you.

Carl Jung would often turn to yoga, he tells us, to use the body as a means of re-rooting himself in the world, and preventing his emotions from disrupting his state of balance.

I was frequently so wrought up that I had to do certain yoga exercises in order to hold my emotions in check. But since it was my purpose to know what was going on within myself, I would do these exercises only until I had calmed myself enough to resume my work with the unconscious.

(Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 1961)

The sensations of breath and weight, of three dimensions, linear time, and temperature, can supply a refuge at times when the mind won’t rest. When simplicity and direction are needed, the body can provide these, and eventually an equilibrium is reached between free imagination and the physically lived experience. Then things born of the mind find their way into manifestation, either as a written narrative, or a ten-kilometre journey at pace. (Or, if you’re Murakami, both.)
As we run, and our bodies slowly exhaust themselves, our minds move closer to sleep and the alertness of our waking consciousness further into a liminal state. The experience of the body, of being in reality – of pain, momentum, motion, rhythm – educates our imagination, the automatic narrative inherent in determination subsiding into exhaustion, and the rhythmic changes of that progression with each footfall or repetition populate and punctuate the mind’s activity. (No wonder that a late play by that inveterate walker Samuel Beckett was called Footfalls.)

Both running and writing are acts of self-mastery and sacrifice. Each is a confrontation with oneself, to undergo a process that can at times be as difficult as it is rewarding at others. Mostly, the difficulty and the reward overlap. It demands a will to continue, to allow some physical momentum to override your mind’s occasional (or perpetual) reluctance, and accept the inevitability of pain, in some form or another. It brings with it the understanding that if you just listened to your mind instead of your body, you’d get nothing done, would never push further, and that sometimes, your body is needed to show your mind how to make things happen.

Perhaps some of that reality gets carried across, the momentum infectious, the sacrifice on one plane making things happen on another – in a narrative – wherever the imagination is deployed. It is almost a mystical process, as created characters begin to feel real pain, falter in fatigue, or else push on regardless, driven by momentum born, and experience lived, in circuits around your local park until they feel like extensions of your bodily experience brought to life elsewhere. The poet Charles Olson talks about “the kinetics of the thing”:

A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader... And the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in.

(Charles Olson, Projective Verse, 1950)

(Breath is another Beckett play.) Running could be seen as a means to generate the kinetics required for the work and to breathe sufficient life and reality into it from the experience the body has had. In this way, the runner starts to feel like Joseph Campbell’s monomythic ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’, with the realms of otherworldly wonder to be found on the other side of discomfort or challenge (which can certainly be euphoric) to bring back riches for the mind – things alive with the truth of the bodily experience of reality which can pass that life on to the written experience, the read experience. Writing becomes something like a mediating line between mind and body, a point of meeting between two poles. This is perhaps akin to the place between extremes of mental or physical activity which the author of Middle Distance eventually feels able to occupy.

There are many ways in which running might work for the process of writing: to attain a different state of mind; to exhaust the critical inner voice; to introduce limitations on the mind’s wandering; to experience body, pace, rhythm and time more intimately, and transfer that harmony into writing (‘pace’, ‘rhythm’, and ‘time’ being the pulse of all writers’ work); and to feel what one’s characters might feel and understand the dimensions of their lived experience. There’s one final element though, I think, that isn’t exclusively limited to running, and this is simply the experience of the wanderer, going out into the world with an intention to see:

Promptly at 2:00, Dickens left his desk for a vigorous three-hour walk through the countryside or the streets of London, continuing to think of his story and, as he described it, “searching for some pictures I wanted to build upon”. Returning home, his brother-in-law remembered, “he looked the personification of energy, which seemed to ooze from every pore as from some hidden reservoir.”

(Mason Currey, Daily Rituals, 2020)

So for those without the energy to run, there can be merits to a vigorous walk too – as Dickens here (and, before him, the Romantic poets, too) remind us. Especially if the intention is to bring home the pictures, characters, and settings on which the mind needs to work. Perhaps the very best encouragement – to runners and writers alike – is the famous advice once offered by the Czech Olympian athlete Emil Zátopek (himself the inspiration of another graphic novel by SelfMadeHero): “When you can’t keep going – go faster!”

Best of luck from all of us here at SelfMadeHero to everyone at this year's London Marathon!

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