When I started to develop severe neck pain and headaches last year, I visited a physiotherapist. After crunching away at my upper back and making worrying exclamations (‘Yikes! Whoa!’), she advised me that I needed to get back into a regular exercise routine.
For the past several years, I just hadn’t been exercising. Each weekday I drove to work; on weekends I also tended to drive, rather than use public transport, ride my bike or walk to wherever I needed to go.
Later that evening I tried to stretch out my hamstring, watching in horror as my limbs shook. I vowed to start running again.
‘Most of what I know about writing fiction I learned by running every day,’ writes Haruki Murakami in his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.
For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.
When it comes to creative practice, writers’ management of their physical lives is traditionally left unexamined. The myth of the artist – frail and sickly, uninterested in their health and wellbeing, physically inexpert and, most commonly, teetering on the edge of madness – is largely to blame. We’re familiar with the lost life of Dylan Thomas, an alcoholic, dead at thirty-nine; or that of the consumptive Franz Kafka who died a long and agonising death at forty. Sylvia Plath, hardly the picture of wellbeing and happiness, killed herself, aged just thirty, during a particularly savage London winter, an act of such tragic desperation that it ensured her cementation in the popular consciousness for generations to come.
Such suffering perpetuates a misunderstanding around what constitutes an artistic sensibility. Suffering doth not the artist make. In truth, writers need to get up in the morning, remain disciplined and committed to their craft and, perhaps most importantly, maintain a healthy relationship with their own writing.
Writers are becoming increasingly interested in the link between a healthy body and a healthy creative practice. In May, I participated in one of a series of symposiums on health and wellbeing at the Emerging Writers’ Festival in Melbourne. The panel sought to explore the connections between creativity and exercise, as well as ignite discussion about how writers, young and old, often neglect their bodies in pursuit of their art. The speakers revealed that they engaged in a range of different exercises, from yoga to surfing to dance.
But physical wellbeing and literary success have never been mutually exclusive. After all, many of our most celebrated contemporary writers are sporting aficionados – think of JM Coetzee (bike riding), Joyce Carol Oates (running) or David Vann (kayaking). Why, then, are so many of us flailing about in that critical disconnect between the creative self and the physical self?
For me, writing and running have morphed analogously – and getting back into both has proved incredibly painful. After visiting the physiotherapist, I took some time off work and went to the beach for a few weeks to write. I resolved to eat good food, sleep lots and run every night. I planned a modest course for my first time back in my sneakers – just around the block, down to the beach, along the sand and back up to the house – a run lasting around ten or twelve minutes.
Piece of cake, I told myself.
Two minutes in, and not even on the first corner, I was convinced I would throw up. I stopped on the side of the road, gagging and wheezing, spitting long, stringy saliva into the bushes. An old lady with a dog walked past and asked if I was okay. ‘I’m fine,’ I gasped, even as my eyes pleaded with her.
I waited until she was gone before hobbling off, my heart straining in my chest. Twenty-two minutes and four stops later, I staggered back into the driveway.
Later that night, as I sat limply at my desk, glazed eyes staring at my laptop screen, I came across an essay on writing and running by Oates. ‘Running!’ she writes. ‘If there’s any activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing to the imagination, I can’t think of what it might be.’
I don’t know how nourishing those first days of running were for my imagination – I wasn’t writing a torture narrative! – but after a while I could feel strength returning to my legs, my breathing grew deeper and I started to cover a little more ground. I went to the second beach ramp and then to the third. I was pushing fifteen minutes of jogging, and then twenty. When you run at dusk, the sand hard and the ocean wind at your back, you can trick yourself into thinking you’re running faster than you are.
Writing became a little like this, too. After the first few days of stops and starts, straining to write complete sentences or prose that had any clarity – or indeed quality – I began to find my sense of rhythm and words flowed more readily from my fingertips. Sure, it was still a struggle – that is writing. But I began to understand better my own process, to work through the wobbles and uncertainty, and see genuine output, which enabled my confidence and willpower to grow.
How other writers work is always fascinating: their individual processes, their quirks and habits. In researching this article, I spoke with three full-time writers – Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites; Jon Bauer, author of Rocks in the Belly; and Greg Foyster, freelance journalist and author of the forthcoming memoir Changing Gears – about how they keep physically active and how their wellbeing impacts their creative output and writing. The responses were differing, and occasionally surprising.
‘I’ve lost some of my past fitness as a result of working a lot,’ said Kent, ‘but it’s had no direct detriment. That said, a walk always helps me conquer those things that hinder creative output – mindless procrastination, anxiety, self-doubt.’
At first, Bauer was sceptical about a link between exercise and his creative output. ‘Hard to prove,’ he said. ‘But I know (and it has been scientifically proven, over and over) that there’s a direct link between exercise and reducing anxiety, depression, anger – elevating general mood, energy levels … Anxiety, malaise and low energy are the enemies of writing, so in a roundabout way, yes, there definitely is [a link].’
Foyster was confident of a discernible correlation. ‘I am definitely more productive and creative when part of my daily routine involves exercise outside in nature,’ he explained. ‘Exercise helps by reducing stress, which restricts creativity because it makes you scared of taking risks. I don’t think physical fitness makes much difference, but being free of anxiety definitely improves the quality of my writing, and exercise helps me shake anxiety from my body.’
What about the nature of imagination? Years earlier, I had come across Charles Dickens’ brilliant essay ‘Night Walks’, which details the author’s regular walks through London in the dead of night. Dickens, a famous insomniac, tried to cure himself with nocturnal strolls; during these ambles he encountered homelessness, drunkenness and other conditions rarely noticed during the daylight hours:
At length these flickering sparks would die away, worn out – the last veritable sparks of waking life trailed from some late pieman or hot-potato man – and London would sink to rest. And then the yearning of the houseless mind would be for any sign of company, any lighted place, any movement, anything suggestive of any one being up – nay, even so much as awake, for the houseless eye looked out for lights in windows.
‘Night Walks’ wonderfully invokes the image of the desolate man moving through a seemingly inhospitable urban landscape rich in imaginative potential. Imagination itself can be such a slippery, nebulous thing; does this elusive state of mind often thwart our own creative output, I wondered.
For Kent, walking is integral to the imaginative process: ‘I find walking – long, meandering walks through cities or countryside, without time constraints – to be wonderfully useful for reflecting on my work and generating new ideas and approaches.’
Bauer’s activity is more multifarious. ‘Whatever I’m working on takes up a huge part of my psyche,’ he says. ‘I often discover I’ve been writing scenes while I drive, eat, cook, socialise … I’m writing for about a third of the day, no matter what I’m doing. Exercise, after a distance, cleans out your mind, so it can make me even more innovative, but actually I’m exercising for a break from it. I feel we’re too head-focused in the West. And yet, if you think of all the most pleasurable and grounding things, they’re body-oriented. Eating, exercising, sleeping, swimming, sex, massage … Our body is the best antidote to the side effects of writing.’
But some emotions are hard to overcome. Anxiety and fear are writers’ constant companions, their shadows. These states have ‘by now become so familiar’, Kent wrote recently in Kill Your Darlings, ‘that, rather than inducing creative paralysis, they light a fire under me.’
Of course, fear, anxiety and stress manifest for a range of reasons – fear of failure, lack of time and family commitments all impinge on writing in one way or another. There are superstitions and rules and occasional anarchy, depending on the author: everyone’s process is different, and everyone’s ideal writing conditions vary.
Kent, for instance, writes in the morning. ‘I find that I need to start writing early in the morning,’ she said. ‘No later than 8.30 or my focus has already shifted and I’ve lost clarity. I do my best work when I know I have no further commitments that day. I need space and solitude.’
Foyster’s practice is similar. ‘I like writing in the mornings,’ he told me, ‘when time seems to stretch on forever. My ideal conditions for writing are a space clear of clutter and a whole day free to play around with words. This almost never happens, so I have to create the illusion of a clutter-free space and endless stretches of time by clearing my desk and setting a timer for about an hour and a half. Within that hour and a half I have only one task: to write. Once it’s over, I can go back to thinking of more mundane things.’
Bauer, on the other hand, is suspicious of ideal conditions for writing. For him, ‘inspiration is the ideal condition for writing. But waiting for the perfect conditions is as dangerous as waiting for inspiration. It reminds me of when I was studying for school exams and I’d spend decades on my colour-coded revision timetable. But I hated revision …
‘I can write in all sorts of places: trains, planes … busy cafes are preferred. Each setting has its own benefits and limitations. The most important thing is to reduce the level of willpower required, which means making the conditions as unconfronting as possible. For me that’s some sort of public place, with my headphones on. A few welcome distractions and smiles allow me to stay with the work longer than if I’m squished in a small room with nothing but me and the page.’
It is in that personal connection with writing, which is at times robust and at others fragile, where the responses are most divergent. Kent keeps regular, disciplined hours when possible: ‘I try not to become so immersed in what I’m doing that I neglect the wider world. I try to look away from the screen and up at the sky every now and then.’
To keep a healthy relationship to writing is to maintain ‘a healthy relationship to myself,’ Bauer says. ‘I believe that nothing I throw at my writing will be drastically different to what I throw at myself in other areas of life. I think becoming a healthier writer has made me a healthier person, and vice versa. Writing is a profoundly powerful arena when you look at it like that. It’s a quiet, private and therefore lower stakes place to become acquainted with your demon, while slowly letting his air out.’
‘I don’t think that I have a healthy relationship to my writing at the moment,’ Foyster confesses. ‘The relationship is much, much healthier than it was but it’s still a long way from being a model for others to follow – however, one thing I have found useful is to set boundaries on when to start and finish. So, for example, I have to start by 9 am, and I have to finish by 6 pm, no matter what.
‘I sometimes use the Pomodoro Technique,’ he went on, ‘which breaks work into a series of tasks to be completed in twenty-five minutes. Each morning I write myself a to-do list and, on the suggestion of a friend, I’ve recently started writing a not-to-do list, which includes such items as “don’t check email every thirty minutes” and “don’t have coffee after 1 pm”.
‘So I guess, in general, my method of maintaining a healthy relationship with writing is to impose rules on myself.’
My exercise regime has changed since I first started running again nearly a year ago. I’ve not been running as much as I’d like. I also try to swim twice a week, do a session of Pilates, and an evening pump class, during which I stand at the front, among sweaty musclemen, and shamefully lift 2.5 kg at a time (I’m protecting my neck, I tell myself).
The parallels between writing and exercise are obvious to me now: you’re in a constant state of process, battling against your own hopes and expectations. Lately, if I feel stuck or trapped in a segment of words, I refer back to lines from Oates on running and writing: ‘I ran compulsively; not as a respite from the intensity of writing but as a function of writing.’
This usually gets me out of myself and into a pair of sneakers, which is why I like the quote. In a way, you’ve always got to exist outside yourself when you’re writing, even though it’s such an introverted activity. With her typical precision, Oates describes this as ‘the ghost-self’, the figure running along beside you; the one who observes, records, reflects, while you’re wheezing along, pushing a little farther each night.