I was fortunate enough in college to have been in an English program with truly outstanding professors. One of the most brilliant of these was Professor H.
Renowned in her field, Professor H was as hard-nosed as they come. She didn’t allow for average; instead she put the screws to her students and demanded nothing short of excellence out of every assignment. Subtlety was not her strong suit, nor did she want it to be.
She was the English Department’s version of Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase. Brutal. Relentless. She’d tear into and expose any weaknesses she found in her students’ work, calling those weaknesses out directly and requiring the offending students to fix or defend their errors. I’d only be exaggerating slightly if I were to insist these interrogations were conducted with the aid of a bright light and rubber hose – the kind generally found in 1940s detective dramas in which some stoolie gets worked over, but good, until he finally spills the beans.
(To avoid any confusion regarding my feelings about Professor H, I’m proud to have called her my friend over the years, and I consider every bit of the rigor she brought to the classroom to have been profitable. She was keenly dedicated to her students’ success and would do whatever was in her power to help them attain their goals.)
In one of the many classes I took with Professor H (I don’t have the foggiest recollection which), she would have her students read their papers out loud for critique, discussion, and, not rarely, complete obliteration. When I’d read mine, she’d get more and more agitated as I went along, tapping her fingernails on her desk, moving in her chair, and fidgeting in general. Then, invariably, she’d blurt out when I was in mid-sentence, “What the hell are you talking about? Is there a point?”
“Well, yeah,” I’d answer. “I’m getting there. Hang on.”
I won’t recount here what a mistake it was to tell Professor H to “hang on.”
Since this is now the seventh post about running being the “proper” writing addiction, with very little exposition on why that is the case, I can almost hear my former professor screaming across the years, once more shouting, “What the hell are you talking about? Is there a point?”
In truth, I could have made my point in four sentences in the first post in this series and have been finished. Professor H would have been pleased, but I wouldn’t have had the occasion to tell you about Mrs. Roberts, FUBAR, Henry, my journey from dipper to runner, or Professor H herself. What fun would that have been?
It is also worth noting that Polonius’s admonition that “brevity is the soul of wit” was preceded by a rambling and pretentious preamble, followed by a long-winded and imprecise exposition, neither of which was in the least bit brief. Which is to say, I think, that brevity and getting directly to the point is overrated, and I have the personage of William Shakespeare, no less, to back me on this.
But even I think I ought to be getting to the point by now, which begins forty years ago, back in high school…
All of my English teachers at Marina High had one key bit of writing advice, which they didn’t exactly originate because it is a universal fundamental of writing. That advice was to write what you know.
It was hard to know exactly what that meant then because I really didn’t know anything. But over time, I’ve learned this means that to give your writing heart and authenticity, it has to come from experience.
Of course, you can’t always write about what you’ve actually experienced. For example, more than one murder takes place in my novel The Things and Heaven and Earth. But I’ve never murdered anyone, nor have I witnessed a murder. Yet to write about such things, I had to see them.
But how can you see what you’ve never seen, to make it something you know?
Try to bear with me here because how I explain this might sound a bit ludicrous. But…I witness every one of the things I write about while I’m running.
My friend Henry had spiritual experiences when he ran, which he described as “tripping.” The same thing happens to me, but differently. As I settle into a running pace, when my breathing becomes rhythmic, and I don’t have any of the distractions of the world intruding on my thoughts, I can let them roam free, and I fall into a daydreaming state of mind.
When that happens, I can see a scene I will write later play out visually. I can see the sky, feel the wind, and hear the sounds that become part of the setting. I hear the characters speak, listen to their dialects, understand their motivations, and gain insight to the tension they feel. I smell the smells, see the lighting change as the sun begins to set, touch the tiles on the floor. I hear chairs creak as characters lean back in them. I watch as a waitress places an order for the cook in a small café. Most importantly, I see every detail.
Much of The Things in Heaven and Earth takes place on the road on a motorcycle. Since I ride one, I know how it feels, but that’s just memory. When I see the ride while I run, it’s as close as I can get to actually being on the road without being there.
I see the curves, ride into and out of them, feel the rush of acceleration. But it isn’t enough that I’ve ridden my own bike in hundreds of places, through a thousand curves. I have to see that ride, the one in my book, not remember my own rides.
I have to experience the ride the character is experiencing, see the things he would see, feel what he feels, know what he knows. In that surrounding, I place the character and his thoughts, and I watch as he interacts with the tactile world.
Absolutely imperative in this is that I also have to be keenly aware of what the characters don’t know and see that they act accordingly. Accidental prescience won’t do.
For cohesion and logical consistency, I watch it all play out because if I don’t, continuity will be lost like in a bad movie where things that don’t belong pop up on the screen, like a Starbucks cup at a feast in Winterfell. One thing must logically follow the next, and when I am running, I can build the world, so that things are as they should be. If I see a Starbucks cup, I make it disappear.
Sometimes, a scene comes to my mind, and elements or even the entire thing is discarded as I visualize it and see that something is amiss, does not fit, or simply cannot happen the way I thought it might. Other times, I see a problem that must be solved to make the scene work, and my mind ranges over possible solutions, visualizes each, and finds among them one that can solve the problem and become an integral part of the action, once I see how it would work.
I can do all of this running. Perhaps I could write with a cigarette burning in my ashtray, but I couldn’t experience the thing I was writing about. I’d experience hot smoke filling my lungs instead. A few beers, and enough bravado might come so I wouldn’t care about the glaring deficit in the writing, the fact that I wasn’t writing what I know, that I was writing something I had not experienced. But as Lincoln is said to have reflected after giving the Gettysburg Address (though he was mistaken), “That won’t scour.”
Transient reflection won’t cut it; you have to be there to write about it, even if the actual being there is in a running-induced daydream.
Sometimes when I run, I don’t know what I’m thinking about. I’m in a fog, trying to see the scene, or how one builds upon the last. Sometimes the fog lasts a long while, and not much happens. But the more I run, the more the fog clears, and I can see what I have to see.
All of this happens before my fingers get to the keyboard.
That’s why running is the proper writing addiction. It fits the activity. It fuels the mind and paves the way from the start of the story all the way to the end.
I can still remember where I was running when I finally put the pieces together to write the ending of The Things in Heaven and Earth. It was where the path comes out of the woods and runs along a busy highway for a time. I could see where I was, heard the cars passing by; I felt the sun beating down and the sweat dripping from me. But I was also seeing and feeling the final setting in the book, watching as the characters of the novel came together for those final moments. There was no sun where they were, and the heat and sweat I was feeling in the real world were completely absent.
I was in two places at once, tripping.
I’ve said running is an addiction, and it is. But one that lends itself wonderfully to the act of writing.