Writing long, running hard

For Christmas a good friend gave me a book that I absolutely loved and recommend — Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It’s a pretty quick, easy read, but I tried to go through it slowly so that I could savor each section. The book is a memoir, a lovely meditation on long-distance running and novel-writing, and how they go hand in hand for the author. I read Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore last year, but I thought this one was a better book.

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Perhaps I enjoyed it more because unlike with the bizarre, fantastical stuff in his fiction, I can strongly relate to what he talks about in his memoir. So I haven’t ever run an ultra-marathon (62+ miles. Why a human being would sign up for this is beyond me.). I haven’t even run a plain old marathon. And I haven’t yet written a novel. But I do enjoy long-distance running, and I am trying to discipline myself to write more, longer works of fiction. Reading this book, and especially learning that Murakami didn’t start writing or running until he was almost thirty, was inspiring.

I started the book just as I registered for the Brooklyn half-marathon, and it was perfect timing. After a couple of sedentary winter months I’m finally getting off the couch and hitting the pavement, and yesterday I even impressed myself with my distance and time. It’s been many months since that’s happened.

Reading it also gave me some relief as I’ve been nervously awaiting my MFA program results. I’ve only officially heard from two of my ten schools — Minnesota and Iowa, both rejections — but so far the process has been a little discouraging.

My biggest realization while I’ve had to wait is that I am still so new to this whole writing business, at least in the world of storytelling. I put a period on the end of a sentence and think “poetry!”, allowing myself to fantasize about what could happen, and then I come back to the same story the next day and see garbage. Just how do you write what floats around formless in your head? And how do you get others to care about those images and ideas?

I’ve learned that the important thing is not to let doubt and laziness get in the way. Like any real skill, whether it’s becoming an athlete or learning to play Chopin like a pro, writing well is a life-long process requiring an obscene amount of discipline. To pretend to be serious about any of these things without putting in the necessary time is just sad.

No matter what happens with the programs I still have to hear from, I am proud at what I’ve gotten done in the past few months. I’ve published a few pieces of nonfiction, I’ve started and restarted and finished drafts of stories, and I’ve read a lot. I’m still trying to establish a consistent writing schedule, and too often I slack off. But in my stories I hear a faint voice. I think I just need time and faithful practice of the craft, and maybe it will get a little louder and a little more melodic.

Running, as Mr. Murakami discovered for himself, is the perfect companion for the long process of writing. To stay focused, to keep the muscles toned, to be disciplined, I just have to run. And the next day I have to lace up my running shoes and do it again. Eventually it will get easier, and as I build up my endurance, maybe I’ll surprise myself with the results.

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