The swelter is finally receding from the atmosphere here. I waited until nearly 8:30 to start running this morning, but it was still only 72°. I had a nebulous plan: run 3 or so miles, turn around, run back. By the time I finished, slowly, it was nearly 80°, and the path was choked with Saturday strollers, but it was still glorious.
The “out-and-back” is my favorite kind of running route. Loops are nice, if you only have to run them once, since the scenery changes throughout the run. But I prefer an out-and-back because if I can sustain the discipline to get to my intended half-way point, I know I’ll finish no matter what. There’s no shortcut to get back to your home or your car when you’re three miles away. There’s no skipping the final loop when you stop to refill your water bottle at your car and realize you’re really kind of tired; that breakfast sounds good right now; that it would be good to get laundry done posthaste, lest you have to send your child to school naked next week. No, when you’re 3 or 4 or 10 miles from where you started, it’s simple. Left, right, left, right. Until you’re done.
I write while I run. In my head, of course. But I plan out stories, essays, poems, and letters while I run. When I run in a single direction toward a landmark, especially when I make a conscious decision to run slowly, I hardly need to think about the act of running. Which leaves room to write. To solve a character’s problem. To work out a critical bit of dialogue. To find the hook for a complex legal issue. To feel the words tumbling around between my ears, to polish them like rocks.
One of the things I struggle most with as a writer—and as a person, really—is discipline. So many things were easy for me as a kid that I never had to try very hard or discipline myself to accomplish whatever I set out to do. Sounds great until you have to navigate an actual adult life or pursue a dream. I have known since I was 17 and read “On Self Respect,” by Joan Didion, that I wanted to be a writer. But the truth is that there is a difference between being a writer and writing. Because I have always been good at stringing words together in a pleasing way, and because I have always had ideas that other people thought were interesting, I expected for many years simply to be a writer rather than to work at writing. Without ever having to discipline myself to learn or grow or improve. And over the years I made excuses about why another year had gone by and so few words had been written. If it occurred to me that discipline might help me through those shoals, I never pursued that thought. Instead, I waited to become a writer and busied myself with jobs and school and projects that I hoped could fill the void in my life left behind by my failure to be who I was supposed to be.
So, it has been a gift to discover running—precisely because I’m not very good at it. From the very first time I laced up my shoes I have known that if I want to improve—and I do—I have to have discipline. I have to run at least three times a week. I have to push myself to tackle hills that leave me breathless. I have to try from week to week to do something I’ve never done before—to go faster or farther. And because I started running in my mid-thirties, I have always known that each run is a contest against time—against the rotation of the earth, against the inevitability of aging and injury and slowness. For the first few months, each run was a word problem of diminishing obligation: I have run 1/2 + 1/10 of what I need to run; every minute I run, there are fewer and fewer minutes left to run. I could hardly think of anything else. But as I pushed myself beyond that, I found moments of quiet and clarity. Familiar, well-worn paths led me to new ideas, to moments of inspiration. I plotted as I plodded. I felt connected for the first time in my life to the hidden spigot where writing comes from. I didn’t have the courage for months more to record these thoughts, but now it is a regular part of my life.
Of course, there are downsides to writing on the run, chiefly this: after an hour or so, my returns diminish, as I begin to forget what I wrote at the beginning of the run or run out of room for new ideas or get confused. But more often than not the words become attached to landmarks—a line of dialogue is glued to the sharp bend in the road in the last mile; a metaphor becomes lodged in the sense-memory of running past an abandoned cemetery; plot points are affixed to the flashing yellow lights in front of the fire station. I have access to them. I have access to the writer I have always wanted to be.
I only have to write. And run. And write.