February is usually the month that I start thinking about running again. I do most of my running in the warmer seasons but I start out on treadmills in late winter/early spring to make my first outdoor runs of the year bearable and, theoretically, to prepare from some of the springtime 5K races in case I want to actually meet that particular New Year’s resolution for once. Also by February I need to introduce a little more variety to my routine between the indoor workout videos on DailyBurn, FitnessBlender, and PopSugar (as much as I love those platforms!).
I think a lot about the similarities between writing and exercise in general but running in particular. I write a lot on this blog about creative writing in a general sense but don’t spend a lot of time discussing my own relationship to writing. So as I gear up to restart my running habit, I thought I’d share some of where my thinking goes on this particular topic.
You don’t need fancy gear or special talent to get started
I listened to an episode of the Stuff You Should Know podcast once about “How Marathons Work.” As part of the discussion, the hosts talked about how running as a form of exercise really took off in the 1970s because anyone could do it. You didn’t need any special equipment to be a runner the way you might to play a sport or lift weights or ski or swim. There were no barriers to getting started.
These days, you can buy all sorts of fancy stuff for running (including an expensive pair of Nike shoes that might give you an unfair advantage in races–yay?) but you don’t have to. All you have to do to be a runner is put one foot in front of the other.(1)
There are a lot of writing books out there that make it seem like you need a lot of knowledge about grammar and mechanics and plot structure and description and whatever before you start to write. And even then you probably shouldn’t call yourself a writer until you’ve been published and sold a certain number of copies and won a certain number of awards. The goalpost is always moving.
But really all you need to do to be a writer is…write. Put one word after the other.
To be clear, I’m not trying to diminish what professional/published writers do. Writing is hard work, especially for those who are talented and successful enough to do it for a living. My point here is that with writing, as with running, there are no real barriers to getting started.
You don’t have to do it every day but if you go 10 days in a row without doing it, you’re going to feel it
Having read about 15-20 writing advice books in the last year or so as part of my research study, I can tell you that a lot of people who write these books have a pretty strict belief that if you ever want to get anywhere as a writer, you must write every day. EVERY DAY. You can maybe skip a day here and there if it’s a holiday or an emergency or something. Even if you have to carve out 90 minutes in the middle of the night to get your 2000 words in, you must write every single day or you fail as a writer.
A lot of times, people believe the same thing about exercise. You must exercise every day. If you miss a day, you may as well give up altogether. You clearly lack the passion you need to care about the health of your own body.
I can run for 60 minutes straight on a good day at a pretty good pace but I don’t run every day.
I can also write 30,000 words a month(2) but I don’t write every day. Some days I write 500 words. Some days I write 3000 words. A lot of days I write 0 words. But I still manage to meet that 30K goal every month and have done so for about five years now. You can debate whether or not I’m successful as a writer (see the last section of this post) but you can’t argue that, at the very least, I am pretty productive, considering fiction writing is not how I make my living.
The argument behind why you should write every day is to build a habit but also to keep the flow of your story going. A lot of writers who share this advice warn their readers that if they stop writing even for a day and then go back to their story, they’ll have lost the thread and there will be noticeable inconsistencies in plot, voice, etc. as a result.
The thing is, they’re not wrong. When it comes to exercise, rest days are necessary. Your body needs time to heal to get the full benefit of the work that you’re doing and so you don’t injure yourself. But if you take 10 rest days in a row, you can’t expect to just pick up where you left off when you finally get back into things. That first day back is going to take a little more work.
I would argue (from my admittedly amateur point of view) that it’s the same thing with writing. You need a rest day every now and then not just because life sometimes gets in the way but also because a little time away can actually be good for you. It’s just that if you take too much time, it’s going to be a lot harder to get back into it and progress will be a lot slower.
The most important days are the days when you don’t feel like it
Writers know all about flow, that state that you sometimes achieve where you’re making progress seemingly without effort. You start putting words on a page and it just seems to pour out of you. Suddenly, you blink and it’s hours later and you’ve written pages and pages of your story. It’s like magic.
Runners know about flow, too. I’ve had some really great runs where it felt like my feet were floating on air and the miles were just disappearing behind me. It’s a beautiful thing.
The thing is, it doesn’t happen very often.
More often than not, running feels like the work that it is, something to get through rather than look forward to. Then there are the days where it’s objectively awful.
Writing is like that too.
It’s hard to feel motivated when you know the thing you’re going to be doing is going to feel like work. But with both writing and running, if you only did it when you felt motivated, you would never get anywhere (so to speak). The benefit of writing every day (or almost every day) is that you create a habit that makes it possible for you to do something even if you really, really don’t feel like it.
The elite versus the everyday
Some runners are elite athletes. They run multiple marathons a year. Some run multiple marathons in a single week. They train hard and have the best gear and they break personal records and win medals left and right. They take running very seriously. It is basically their religion.
Other runners are content to run around the block once in a while in an old pair of gym shorts and a sweat-wicking t-shirt they got for half price during the January So-You-Made-a-New-Years-Resolution sale. Maybe they try out a 5K or 10K every now and then. They might think about a half marathon. But generally they’re pretty casual about the whole thing. They run for the purpose of fun and fitness.
Some writers are professional writers. They crank out novels every few years. Some publish multiple novels in a single year. They write every single day and have their own private offices/writing sheds and they scoff a bit at NaNoWriMo 50K word count goals and appear on bestsellers lists and/or win awards left and right. They take writing very seriously. It is their livelihood and their calling in life.
Other writers are content to nurture what T.J. Berry once called a “typing hobby.” They fit their writing into the cracks of their day, usually plugging away on some idea they’ve been working on for a couple of years and made a resolution to finally finish this year. Maybe they finish something every now and then. They might think about submitting something for publication. But generally they’re pretty casual about the whole thing. They write for the purposes of fun and creative expression.
There are also groups of runners and writers in between these two extremes.
Suffice to say, as a runner and a writer, I identify much more closely with the casual groups than the elite groups. When it’s nice out, I run two miles every morning and further on weekends. Every six years or so I sign up for a 5K and manage not to die running it.(3) I ran a half marathon once and have absolutely no desire to do it again or try running a longer distance. With writing, I spend about 20 minutes on my lunch hour working on a project for the enjoyment of the creative challenge. I do finish things but I’ve never tried to publish anything I’ve written. I’m not saying I never will, but for me that’s not what writing is about, just like running isn’t about marathons.
So some might say that even though I’m pretty productive as a writer, I’m ultimately a bit of a failure because I don’t share or publish my work. I’m okay with that.
The last parallel, then, is that with writing, as with running: your mileage may vary.
(1) I saw it on a t-shirt once, so it has to be true.
(2) I’m referring to the fiction writing I do for fun on my own time. Though I do a lot of writing for work (including this blog!), it’s not counted toward my monthly word count goal.
(3) I actually did run a 5K last year, my first in about five or six years. I didn’t die! In fact, I placed first for women in my age group. Because there were only two women in my age group running in the race. It was a very small crowd of runners. But if you don’t think that medal isn’t hanging in a place of pride in my office just the same, you are sorely mistaken.