Professor Wu's Rulebook

The loneliness of the long distance writer


Studying the daily routines of many famous writers, one is immediately struck by how many rely on physical exercise to support their mental cogitations. Kurt Vonnegut, for instance, favoured long swims at his local municipal pool, accompanied by “doing sit ups and push ups all the time”, while author Tim Leach has prescribed rock climbing as a writing aid, noting how “both writing and rock climbing share a kind of rarefied loneliness”. Countless other writers, meanwhile, have found solace in the hypnotic action of racking up mile after mile in solitary, focused long-distance running.

Louisa May Alcott, for instance, thought she “must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run”. Famous misanthropic satirist, Jonathan Swift, meanwhile, would “run half a mile up and down a hill every two hours” during his 20s, according to Samuel Johnson. Then of course we have the novelist Haruki Murakami, who started running to get healthy and lose weight, but who found in running something essentially important to the mindset of the writer, noting how he felt his “real existence as a serious writer began on the day that I first went jogging.”

So what precisely is it, about running, which seems to lend itself so aptly to the art of writing?

Joyce Carol Oates ascribes the twin activities of running and writing “to keep the writer reasonably sane and with the hope, however illusory and temporary, of control”, and notes that she would ease any bouts of writing block with afternoon runs.

Freedom, consciousness and wildness

For Oates and other writers, running is thus a process that proves especially useful for the type of intensive, cloistered work they do. But perhaps it goes beyond that. After all, there seems a natural similarity between the two actions; they complement each other, seeming to be the natural extension of the other. The steady accumulation of miles mirrors the accumulation of words on the page, and both aspire toward a clear finishing line: either the end of the run, or else the end of the novel. Equally, while both are challenging, they can also invoke a sense of joy and elation – heavy physical exercise releases endorphins, while the rush and exhilaration of finding a writing rhythm and flow similarly brings forth feelings of ecstasy (no wonder Vladimir Nabokov described writing as “a drug”).

Both Leach’s “lonely” rock climbing and long distance running, therefore, offer a combination of freedom, consciousness and wildness – an ability for writers to escape their surroundings with a sense of purpose that is necessary for cultivating deep thought, or working out constraints and challenges within their writing.

Running is important to writing, then, because it opens channels. It expands our potential and helps us grow – to better understand the world. Our minds are free to linger on thoughts they otherwise would not; in a kind of simulated – but nonetheless stimulating solitude that helps us better understand who we are, at our very deepest levels, as human beings.

Perhaps nowhere in literature is this crucial aspect of running captured better than in Adam Sillitoe’s short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Famously, this work began as two alliterative lines of verse, written by Sillitoe upon being struck by the serene calmness of a young man bedecked in a running vest and shorts trotting past his cottage.

Sillitoe’s short story focuses on Smith – a working class teenager with bleak prospects in life and few interests beyond petty crime – who turns to long-distance running as a method of both an emotional and physical escape, and as a means of mental reflection. As he runs and thinks alone, Smith – perhaps inevitably – turns to writing; and it is he who narrates his own story, in a perfect summation of the symbiotic relationship between writing and individual cogitation on notions of ‘the self’ during bouts of solitary exercise.

Expanding consciousness and self-education

This idea is expanded upon by Oates, who in 1972 began keeping a journal to accompany a new-found “compulsive” need to run. She writes: “[Running] is not a respite for the intensity of writing but is a function of writing […] running seems to allow me an expanded consciousness in which I can envision what I’m writing as a film or a dream.”

Don DeLillo echoes such sentiment, as he recalls the transporting effects of running after his morning writing sessions in an interview with The Paris Review: “Running helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle – it’s a nice kind of interlude.”

The solitary exercise of long-distance running seems, in many ways, to be part of self-education – and indeed of self-revelation; just as writing is. This is pointed out by Murakami in his book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, as he attributes “most of what I know about writing fiction I learned from running every day”. On the one hand, running is about constantly striving for new challenges and fresh goals – competing ever longer distances in the quest for better conditioning of our bodies – and on the other hand it helps us better express how this makes us feel through our words; supporting us in writing as we seek to better condition our minds and souls.

This isn’t simple conjecture based on hearsay from other creatives, either. Indeed, there are an increasing number of scientific studies that show a connection between aerobic exercise – which increases the flow of blood to the brain – and enhanced mental capacity. For example, a study by Oppezzo and Shwartz demonstrated that walking boosts “creative ideation” both in real time and shortly after (though this effect can also be induced by other activities, such as knitting).

Perhaps, then, the perfect daily routine for writing should include both long periods of solitary exercise, followed by periods of writing interspersed with periods set aside for knitting. Or perhaps the clue to the perfect daily routine for writing actually lies in those crucial words “daily routine”. For composition and writing is so rarely sustained by one momentary act of inspiration; but rather by daily perseverance and steady progress.

When creativity flows, it really flows; just like an invigorating run where you finally “hit your stride” – and it is no coincidence that this same phrase is used by writers and runners alike to describe the moment when work becomes joy.

But of course, simply running regularly will not be enough on its own to invoke the muse of creativity. It is not necessarily an instant cure for writer’s block. Yet it is through the same effort, determination and repetition of the act necessary to perfect the running process and push ourselves toward our long-distance goals that we must bring the same commitment to writing; turning up day in, day out, regardless of weather, or whether we feel “inspired” enough; and sitting down at our desks and putting word after word and sentence after sentence, just as we place one foot in front of the other out on the road.

In a 2004 interview with Runner’s World, Murakami sums this up pretty succinctly:

“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.”


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