Writing, Running and Yoga: The Pain and Possibility of Perseverance
Monday night I went to a high intensity interval training pilates class. During my third minute of elbow planks, I thought I was going to cry. I cried once when I was running a half marathon, when in the last half mile I realized I was going to PR. There’s something about that moment when you think you are reaching your threshold and you just cannot do anymore and then you keep doing it. That moment is where you realize the struggle is mental.
I’m reading Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It also brings me close to tears. Murakami makes me feel guilty for the times I have stopped because of the pain. He makes me feel bad for being a mid-distance runner and not a long-distance runner. In the pilates class, which is grueling and unlike any pilates I have ever heard of, the teacher berates us for giving up. I understand that. Motivate, push yourself. That’s all good. But I had to learn to pay attention to pain in running and to take it easy–to do what looks like giving up, to stop feeling the exercise as demand.
At one point Murakami talks about the one time he ran an ultramarathon. After mile 34 his breathing felt good but his legs wouldn’t work, so he had to propel himself my moving his arms and hands. Then at mile 47, he broke through a wall. It stopped hurting. He kept going. He ran the next fifteen miles unencumbered. I think I know that feeling. It happens for me three minutes into an elbow plank. It’s when you realize that you can persist through the pain if you tell yourself to just keep on.
Murakami compares all of this to writing. I’m in the middle of a book project. I have go through these cycles, where one day I think I’m really on to something and the next day I think the argument will not work and then the next way I think maybe it will, it’s ok, and then the next day I’m back to the beginning. Sometimes the days of thinking the argument will not work outnumber the other days. But I just recently came to a new re-visioning kind of insight so I’m on the upswing. I don’t experience writing like three-minute planks.
Then this week I read this from Murakami:
Writing novels, to me, is basically a kind of manual labor. Writing itself is mental labor, but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labor. It doesn’t involve heavy lifting, running fast, or leaping high. Most people, though, only see the surface reality of writing and think of writers as involved in quiet, intellectual work done in their study. If you have the strength to life a coffee cup, they figure, you can write a novel. But once you try your hand at it, you soon find that it isn’t as peaceful a job as it seems. The whole process-sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of the blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track–requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine. You might not move your body around, but there’s grueling, dynamic labor going on inside you. Everybody uses their mind when they think. But a writer puts on an outfit calls narrative and thinks with his entire being; and for the novelist that process requires putting into play all your physical reserve, often to the point of overexertion. 79-80
I’m not writing a novel. I tend to think novelists who complain about how miserable they are because they must right are being overly romantic about their calling. Still I know what Murakami is talking about here. Funny enough though, just like his discussion of being a long-distance runner made me feel like I wasn’t trying enough, reading this passage made me feel like I wasn’t doing it right, this writing thing, because I’m not miserable enough. No that’s not quite true, not because I’m not miserable enough but because I’m not laser focused or overexerted. I mean, I’m focused. I get up every day during my sabbatical, five days a week most weeks, and I sit in front of my computer and I work. But I still end up feeling pretty good at the end of the day. I don’t think this is going to make me cry.
I was running pretty much on my own and setting my own pace and doing my own thing for a long time until I joined the yoga studio I went to this pilates class at. Then just in the last three weeks going to yoga five days a week I feel my body transformed. The classes kick my ass. They make me want to cry. Which makes me wonder what if I really approached my writing like that? What if I really did three-minute planks, but in writing? I think for me that means not looking at FaceBook or Words with Friends every time I’m not sure what to write or how to write it.
So this morning, I forced myself not to look at my phone for two and a half hours. I wrote almost a thousand words. I realized how much of a habit social media and WwF has become because every time I had to stop and think, I wanted to look at my phone. But I didn’t. I stayed in the thinking. Now I think I might be slightly ADD and so having distractions might actually help me focus, but I have to admit that this was both difficult and better. I think I was more focused and clearer. I could remember better what I had been working on before letting myself be distracted. I could carry several complicated ideas or problems in my head at once. I’m not sure I can keep doing this, but I think Murakami might be right.