Somerset Maugham once wrote that in each shave lies a philosophy. I couldn’t agree more. No matter how mundane some action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act.
Sometimes I wonder how many miles – and in how many cities – I’ve run in the past 15 years. It began in San Diego as a high school student. I have great memories of running cross country in high school. Those trails throughout northern San Diego County – San Elijo Lagoon, Kit Carson Park, San Dieguito Park, the Encinitas and Carlsbad coastlines, the Eucalyptus-lined backroads of Olivenhein and Rancho Santa Fe – remain some of my favorite runs in the world. But I also think back fondly on my favorite runs in Buenos Aires, Monterrey, Santiago, Flagstaff, Cambridge, Kathmandu, Zagreb, Indonesia, Seattle, Cape Town and so many other places. Running has allowed me to see places that I otherwise would have never come across.
Running routes are much like friendships and relationships; every day you discover something new. Some of these things you enjoy, others you don’t, but it’s this blend of discovery and stability that keeps you coming back. Here in Linz I have four standard runs, but I never follow the exact same route twice. There’s always some variation. Inevitably I encounter cul-de-sacs and dead-end streets, but I also stumble across hidden ponds, fields of grapevines, and ripe fruit trees.
Lately I’ve been running longer distances – 10 to 15 miles at a time – probably because I’ve been reading this book. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, but if you’re a fan of Haruki Maurakami, or of running or writing, then it’s well worth the two or three days it takes to read.
If, like me, you’re a fan of all three, then it’s a must-read.
Is there a natural relation between running and writing? I’m not sure. Many writers I know – Cesar, Patti, Alex – are dedicated runners. The two activities intertwine in their identities. But if I really think about it, I probably know more writers who would prefer to do just about anything but put their bodies into forward motion. Still, here is an anecdote that supports Murakami’s claim that, for some of us, our writing and our running are indivisible.
It was nearly a year ago and Gideon and I were in Maine to do a workshop on digital storytelling for last year’s group of PopTech fellows. We both enjoy running and we took the opportunity to explore the colorful canopies and crisp air of New England’s autumn. The following week, during the conference, Gideon’s then-fiancee-now-wife was in town and so I kept on running, but by myself. One day I was coming back into town after an exceptionally long run when a gliding, auburn-colored afro passed right by me. It took me a few seconds to realize that it was Malcolm Gladwell, the prototype of prolific writing. I studied his stride. Gladwell used to be one of the fastest runners in Canada and he certainly does have a natural runner’s physique: lean, muscular, and agile. In running shorts and a tank top his hair looks considerably more substantial than the rest of his nimble body. And Gladwell is fast, damn fast. But here’s the thing that caught my attention: his running isn’t effortless.
You can tell he’s really working at it; that, like all the rest of us, he has to convince himself that going for a run is in his own best interest. And this is where Murakami’s hypothesis about writing and running comes in. Almost everyone would like to one day write a novel and would like to one day run a marathon. The difference between those who would like to and those who do comes down, mostly, to endurance. Of course both writing and running come easier to some than others. Talent is requisite. But ability and accomplishment are distinct and what stands between are will power and a whole lot of hard work.
Earlier this week it was raining in Linz. I had to make a decision: either take a day off from running, or brave the constant drizzle. I decided to go out, but figured I’d only run a few miles and come back to take a shower. Then something happened. I was listening to the second half of Scott’s latest podcast and an unmistakable feeling came over me … that feeling during the one-second pause between having reached the very top of the roller coaster and its free-fall descent. I was overcome by rhapsody. I felt light and strong, and I picked up my pace. It felt like I was sprinting but without the shortness of breath and the strain. I was like Forest Gump, flying through the fields of the Upper Austrian countryside. Those little moments of rhapsody are, for me, one of the great motives to go on living. I have long ago given up on trying to figure out the formula behind their impromptu appearances, but I have noticed that running and living healthily can help.
Still, runs like that are by far the exception and not the rule. Mostly, like this morning, I am panting, cursing the hot sun, and wishing my legs didn’t feel like concrete. But I’m not miserable, never that.
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
If there is any cheap, one-line conclusion to Murakami’s book it is that running, writing, and life are difficult, but how you deal with that difficulty depends completely on your outlook. True.
During one chapter of my life I would like to be a novelist. I don’t want ‘novelist’ to be my life-long title, but for about ten years I would like very much to write – and perhaps even publish – three to five works of fiction.
During the two-year period that Murakami wrote this little book he was also working on the Japanese translation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which Murakami considers one of the great works of literature. He expresses his amazement that Fitzgerald was able to write such a creative and considered novel at the age of 29. But, elsewhere in the book, he also points to the many writers, like Fitzgerald, who used up all of their creative energy in their youth and then burned out. He feels that a writer’s imaginative creativity is most assertive in her youth, and that it then starts to slowly corrode.
I have had the same feeling. There is something about the brashness, lack of responsibility, and skepticism of youth that makes for wonderful writing. Many writers, after they reach a certain age or have published a certain number of books, become … well, in a word, boring. So this is something I have been considering – when is the ideal age to begin my 10-year career as a novelist? I’m in no hurry. I think that maturity, experience, and insight are just as important as imaginative creativity, but preferably I will pull out my pen and ink at the point where muse and maturity intersect.