I had a minor epiphany this morning: I should try to approach writing in the same spirit I approach running.
I’ve been running fairly regularly for over a decade now. It has turned out to be just the kind of exercise that suits me. Growing up, gym class was always a nightmare for me, from the embarrassment of the changing rooms to the alienating exposure of team sports–and that’s not even getting into the stress of the “Canada Fitness Tests,” with their gold, silver, and bronze levels, which Canadian readers of a certain age will probably also remember. I dreaded every aspect of gym, and as a result, when I was finished with school I shunned every form of exercise. It took me years to get over the bad memories and to admit that getting more exercise would probably be good for me–that I might even enjoy it, if I could do it on my own terms. As a graduate student, I started going to aerobics classes (hey, it was the early 90s–everybody was doing it!); some years after we moved here, when that habit (and fad) had lapsed, I took a beginner’s clinic at the Running Room and I have kept up a running program since then.
This does not mean I excel as a runner. I don’t run very far or very fast. In fact, pretty much everyone else I know who also runs goes further and is more ambitious: many of them have taken to doing “events”–5Ks, 10Ks, even marathons–while I’m happy just to complete my modest route around the neighborhood. When I’m out on my morning runs, I move quickly out of the way when I hear footsteps behind me so whoever it is can pass me easily, which they always do. My intransigent allergies–wholly resistant, as far as I can tell, to all non-drowsy antihistamines–mean I always need to carry a kleenex (how I wish more running gear had real pockets!), and in colder weather especially my eyes water terribly: I’m probably quite a sorry sight!
Why, then, would I want my writing in any way to resemble my running? Here’s what clicked with me this morning, after my run: none of these things about my running bother me, because I get out of it exactly what I want. I don’t feel any shame or pressure about how fast or how far I run; I feel no competitive desire either to race against others or to improve my own “personal bests.” I run for one reason only: because I feel better (more energetic, more focused, healthier both physically and psychologically) when I do it regularly. When I don’t, both my energy and my mood slump, and that prompts me to get back to it. I have set my own standard for success, and the intrinsic rewards are enough to motivate me.
I sincerely hope that I am a better writer than I am a runner. No doubt, up to a point, that’s because I am more ambitious about my writing than I am about my running: I aspire to be an excellent writer, while I have never aimed to be (or imagined I could be) a serious athlete. I don’t want to let go of that ambition. I would, however, like to set my own standard for success in this arena as well. I would like not to be dependent on others to measure it for me, and not to be envious or discouraged in the face of what other writers accomplish. It’s hard, sometimes, to see other writers appear to sprint past me or achieve marathon-like projects while I am (or feel as if I am) still running in circles. It’s also hard not to judge myself by the goal posts other people have set up–even if I am deliberately running in a different direction. (Have I tortured this analogy enough?!) I need to find, in writing, the same sure sense of what I’m doing it for that I have about my morning runs. I need to remind myself–until I don’t need reminders anymore–that a lot of the satisfaction and rewards are intrinsic, that I’m doing it my way for a reason, and, above all, that I feel better when I write than when I don’t.
It’s a good goal, anyway, something for me to think about as I set my priorities, not just for the summer but for the longer term. Changing attitudes is harder than changing shoes, though!
I probably don’t need to tell you how happy this post makes me. Yes yes yes yes yes. This. All of this.
I am now going to try to replicate this very sensible epiphany in myself.
Thanks, Jo. I’m puzzling now about how to reconcile my writing ambitions with this more self-directed mindset. I think there may be more of a tension there than I thought while I was writing this — though I still think there’s something crucial about trying to get rid of “should” in both cases.
I’m currently updating my post about why you need a writing practice and your posts resonates quite a lot so I have some thoughts.
Even those people who decide to run a 5K or a 10K or whatever mostly run because they enjoy it (or enjoy the effect of having run). Deciding to run a race means adapting the regular practice of running to include some things that you only need if you are going to run a race. So building stamina and so on. There are off-the-shelf training plans many people follow so they can run a good race of x length without hurting themselves.
But for most people running a race isn’t the goal when they start. They start like you with a clinic and establishing a practice. Then at some point they think “hmm, maybe I could run a race” or their friend says “do you want to run the 5K on this date” or whatever. And then that specific goal has an affect on what they do in their daily practice.
Your writing might be similar. You write about books. You do that regularly in different ways. I assume some of that writing is only for you; some you put here or in other bloggy places that you don’t think of as “reviews”; and then sometimes you decide to submit something to a particular publication. The latter requires a particular style and format, and maybe requires you to think about the content of what you write in a particular way. Or you pitch a particular angle. Deciding to publish shifts something in what and how you write that particular piece.
But you aren’t writing JUST to have those publications. Those publications are a part of your writing practice and entail that your practice includes certain kinds of activities. But you are going to write anyway.
Also, I think that some of the writing you do is a bit like some of the reading you do. You don’t necessarily have an end in mind when you start it, but you might later come back and use it in some more goal-directed piece of writing. (and it might be part of the spark that suggests a specific goal)