A ghost in a real setting
May 28, 2011 6:50 AM   Subscribe

Running seems to allow me, ideally, an expanded consciousness in which I can envision what I'm writing as a film or a dream. I rarely invent at the typewriter but recall what I've experienced. --Celebrated author Joyce Carol Oates on the connection between writing and running.
posted by crackingdes (11 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I love to write, and I love to run. Both those facts notwithstanding, I mostly find that while I'm running I'm thinking not about my writing, but about how good it's going to feel when I stop running.
posted by Mooski at 6:58 AM on May 28, 2011 [7 favorites]

Excellent essay. Thanks.
posted by stagewhisper at 7:05 AM on May 28, 2011

Murakami's take made me laugh 'cause he mentions his running soundtrack and it's like RHCP etc.
posted by ifjuly at 7:22 AM on May 28, 2011

Well no wonder she's so skinny!

(I've composed dozens of books while running and they vanish like pixie dust -- or Hollywood money -- as soon as I cool down.)
posted by Faze at 7:35 AM on May 28, 2011

ifjuly, are you referring to this article?
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 7:45 AM on May 28, 2011

The first time I’d ever read anything by Haruki Murakami was his article in the New Yorker on running (unfortunately, it’s only available to subscribers). His book on running, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, is wonderful. It’s written in a very simple, clear style.
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 8:30 AM on May 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Neat essay. I'm nobody's writer but I have solved a lot of programming problems while running or just untangled all of the thoughts in my head. Especially if you run without headphones on, you're forced to live totally in your own head for an hour or so, there aren't that many times in a typical day when that happens.
posted by octothorpe at 8:33 AM on May 28, 2011

I was thinking about this very thing, at dawn this morning, skating in the park. That space of thinking feels similar to the mental clarity you get in the shower, without the guilt of wasting water. I think the physical effect on the body -be it the pleasure of warm water on your skin or the fluid movement of the run-, the fact that you need not think about what you are doing, the solitude....they all take you to a hyper acute point of inner concentration that's perfect for design.
posted by Cobalt at 8:52 AM on May 28, 2011

Oates apparently couldn't come up with a single writer who ran. Dickens, Shelley, Coleridge, Whitman, Thoreau, James -- they all walked, which is qualitatively a different thing. In the controversy over Sarkozy's "un-French" running habit, walking was considered to be the appropriately intellectual alternative. Said one commentator, "Walking is a sensitive, spiritual act. Jogging is management of the body." Running often does seem to make people boring, although, to be fair, writing about writing is usually just as boring as writing about running.

This article made me go back and look up the news coverage in the wake of the Sarkozy jogging dust-up. The French and, mostly, the British seemed to believe that running is a right-wing pursuit, whether or not they saw that as a positive thing. Said one member of British parliament, "I am not deterred . . . by the accusation that jogging is right-wing. Of course it is right-wing, in the sense that the facts of life are generally right-wing. The very act of forcing yourself to go for a run, every morning, is a highly conservative business. There is the mental effort needed to overcome your laziness. " In the U.S., on the other hand, running, and exercise in general, are seen as left-wing if anything, the province of health nut busybodies who want to stop your kids from being cupcakes to school.

The societies where running is considered right-wing have universal health care and strong worker protections. The society where allegedly left-wing elites are consumed with preoccupations like "Let's Move", where they concede that of course we have to muster the discipline to get the government to live within its means (just like a household!), where they view education and job training (a type of "mental effort to overcome your laziness") as the solution to unemployment -- that society does not have these things.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 11:01 AM on May 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wonder if it isn't simply the process of moving - at walking speed as much as at running speed - that gets the creative thinking flow going. Something about getting one's systems going cascades up to a more active mental state. As Lakoff and Johnson's work on the role of metaphor in thought (not just in language) has shown, much of our thought involves spatial and temporal metaphor, and the literal movement through space may itself trigger mental processes that are built up on spatio-temporal foundations.

Perhaps running helps further by kicking in the endorphins at some point (another qualitatively different thing?), but I've always found walking to help whenever I need to work something out mentally and/or emotionally (girlfriend issues particularly - otherwise, sitting at home, I'm likely to spin unproductive circles), compose a first draft of some essay, or revise something in which I've reached an impasse.

All the writers she cites as walking probably wouldn't even have considered running as an activity, since jogging and running are fairly modern pastimes, first of all, and the act of walking, since we tend to do it far more than running, is a much more unconscious, automatic thing than running, the latter forcing one to be aware more of the time of the act itself. Thus, one's entire attention can be directed to one's environment or one's thoughts (which, I suppose, is why it can be considered "a sensitive, spiritual act") rather than one's physical activity.

This, btw, I why I always prefer to experience some new place - a new city or whatever - by walking around in it rather than by bicycling (or even worse, driving), since a bicycle is still a machine which mediates one's experience, which takes some of one's attention away from one's surroundings.

I suppose for habitual runners like Oates, who can run in fairly serene surroundings (with which I'm quite familiar: my hometown, where she's usually listed as living, although she actually lives in an adjoining town, which has even more quiet country lanes and parklands), running can become as automatic and undistracting as walking is for me. This would make it much less a matter of physically self-conscious "maintenance of the body" and more akin to what I and others get from walking.
posted by Philofacts at 11:48 AM on May 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I second or third the Murakami book which is definitive on this subject.

Personally I think it's a lot to do with what happens to the creative mind when in the process of doing some mundane repetition, and that can be anything, including driving or gardening, or brushing one's teeth, which I always spend too much time doing (not good, it wears down enamel), because I begin getting ideas and such.

With running though, the breathing aspect and calibrating it to one's pace, the burn, the endorphine release, the sun the wind and usual the passing of scenery as well as the abstraction of staring at the sky (yes, gazing at the frickin' sky) is one hell of a way to blow the mental and emotional tubes clean of shit thoughts and little obsesions that cloud the mind and weigh down the soul.

Also, oxygen. A #1, oxygen rich blood in the brain and through the fucking heart and through the lungs and back to the brain.

Christ, I love running. But one needs to begin slow, especially if one is carrying a little to fairly not so little spare tire or two, as the back will suffer, and so will the knees and hips. I have no effin' idea how Murakami hasn't had major knee or back problems, and perhaps he won the lotto body wise to that effect as he's a small and sturdy man. With a big heart. A good heart. The kind of heart that makes you want to emulate him and wear a t-shirt that says: WWMD (What would Murakami Do).

But I digress. Someday I'm going to try a marathon. Even if one of my knees decides to explode. Either that or I'm just going to brush my teeth for an hour with a really soft toothbrush. Or both.
posted by Skygazer at 2:55 PM on May 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

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