I am not a sporty person. Never was, never will be. I will not bore you with the humiliations galore I suffered through in PE as a kid. Suffice to say that all the leisure activities I have really enjoyed throughout my life have involved cosiness and curling up somewhere with a cup of tea. However, I recognise that exercise plays an important part in keeping our bodies healthy, so I do make an effort. I ride my bike to my day job most days and in the last year or so, I’ve taken up running. Again, I’m not going to bore you with the details of this. But, for some reason, I’ve found that my attempts at improving my fitness through moderately energetic exercise have had a positive impact on my writing – both my creativity and the way I think about the challenges it poses me.
Getting the creative juices flowing
It is a very tried and tested piece of writing advice: if the Muse is stubbornly avoiding you, get away from your keyboard/notepad/dictaphone/etc. Get out of the house and get moving. Walk or run, either works. I often have great ideas or come up with great solutions to tricky plot problems while I’m running. It’s weird, coz it doesn’t happen so often when I’m on my bike. Perhaps because when I’m on my bike I’m either going to or coming from work, so my brain might be more focussed on work issues. But I run in my spare time, when my brain is almost exclusively consumed with writing stuff; maybe that’s why. But it works for me.
Oh the epiphanies I have experienced.
Never when I have a pen.
This stuff ain’t meant to be easy
A thing running has taught me is that it doesn’t get easy. Which is not to say it doesn’t get easier. But easy? Nope. It’s always hard to drag myself off the couch, to get out there into the winter chill, or the summer heat, or the still-dark, early morning streets. Guess what else doesn’t get easy? Setting aside the time and dragging my arse to the chair in the study to do the story work and pound out the wordage. In both cases I have to battle that sense of exhaustion that comes even before you start – just from contemplating the task ahead. In both cases, though, if I push myself, if I make the effort, I always find I can do the thing.
The importance of stretch goals
This is a really interesting thing running has taught me: Set stretch goals. Then (this is the important bit), don’t just sit there looking at them; give them a go.
Because I’m so unathletic, when I decided to try to get into running, I decided to get into it gradually, alternating intervals of running and walking. Going from running in 90 second stretches to a whole 3 minutes was pretty daunting. Then going from 3 minutes to 5 minutes to 8 minutes… Every time I level up, I always wonder if I can actually do it. But every time I actually can, and every time it feels awesome to have challenged myself and found myself up to it.
And I’ve found this applies to writing goals.
There’s something to be said for applying for something like a residency or a competitive grant or a selection-based professional development course even if you’re not sure you’re ready, because if you get in, someone else clearly thought you were. If you only ever apply for this sort of thing when you know you’re good and ready, you’re not pushing yourself. You might be moving forward one step at a time (and setting one-step-at-a-time goals is also very important), but you’re denying yourself the exhilaration and gratification of taking a flying leap forwards. That sense of achievement you get when you’ve really challenged yourself and risen to it. (Note: when I say “you”, feel free to imagine me giving a stern pep talk to myself.)
Measuring your progress
One thing I learned after I had my first story accepted for publication back in 2011 was that I had just stepped onto the bottom rung of a ladder that just goes up and up and up and up. Every time you climb to the next rung, you look up hoping to see the top, or at least hoping you’ve reached the point where you can poke your head through the thick layer of cloud obscuring your vision of the top. It’s hard to feel like you’re getting anywhere when there always seems to be so far to go.
With my running, I find I’m much less about “Will I ever run a marathon?” (perhaps because I can answer that question straight off: No. Zero interest.) My fantasy goal is more about being able to run for a whole half an hour without stopping for walking breaks, and being able to do it every day without feeling like I’ve broken something. But I also find myself able to stop and look back down the ladder at what I’ve achieved so far. A few months ago I thought running for a whole 3 minutes was a challenge. A few weeks ago I ran for 20 minutes without stopping for a break – probably for the first time since I finished high school.
So there’s my last lesson. Stop and look back down the ladder. Admire the view from where you’re at. Bask in the sunshine of your successes.
Here’s a picture of duckies enjoying running. You’re welcome.