I’m running the two-track trail through the spicy, bay-leaf scented forest of Point Reyes leading to the ocean. The allure of the surf ahead compels me to go farther than planned. Taking a break from writing, I realize that the process of writing still continues with every step.
At the beginning, my joints feel stiff. My breathing is uneven. Like the first entry into writing of the day, I’m creaky and out of rhythm. How easy it would be to stop. But no. From long experience, I know that usually the rhythm will come after 10 or 20 minutes of one foot after another.
At last, I find my stride and my breathing smoothes until I’m not cognizant of working lungs. I strive to run with my feet landing as light as possible and under my body instead of out in front of me and to engage gravity in my favor by leaning forward just slightly from the ankles and not from the waist. It’s a technique I’ve practiced called “Chi Running.” I want to be cat-like with every step. My eyes travel not to the roots and rocks, but ahead to where I want to land.
That’s easy on this forgiving trail where I can look around easily without tripping. I note the vivid vocabulary of color on all sides. Every shade of green vies for the right word. One cannot say green as in fern green, because the ferns are all shades—some feel mysterious and subdued as if infused with night, others glow with a dash of sun.
In this state of running with a comfortable step, and with awareness yet looseness, I am open to the creative force. I breathe in the exotic scents of a new forest as enticing as some Mediterranean dish. Listen to the trickling creek, a frog croaking and the chip calls of yellow-rumped warblers foraging for insects among leaves high overhead.
Writing beyond paragraphs, beyond five pages, to entire chapters takes so many elements of long-distance running—a belief that the rhythm will come, training for the words to flow, exactness in step to select the right word, yet looseness in limb to fly forward too.
This day I had not set out to run 12 miles, but I could not resist the chance to overlook the ocean and so I did, taking in the great quiet swell of sea below headlands cloaked in high grasses. When writing long, it’s possible to stop typing and say—enough. I’m done. But when you’ve run out to a certain point and have to get home again, there’s no stopping or you’d be stranded.
The book I’m writing has felt a bit like long runs aborted. The whole concept started in 2008 here in Point Reyes. Now? I’ve returned to at last go the distance, to run when I feel like I’d rather stop. It’s my chance to employ the long-distance mindset, to believe in myself, and to apply the tricks of running long. When my monkey-mind starts to take over, I force myself to attend to surroundings—to fragrance, taste, sound and feel of the ground underfoot. I deliberately apply my senses and find my pace again. When writing I can do this, too, as a way to find myself back into the place and enter that world.
Writing can be like running downhill. Words tumble out at high speed and it’s a breathless race to keep up with them. The feeling is euphoric. Let gravity rock. Don’t hold back. Go for everything without any editor on your shoulder adding a critical comment.
Then writing gets harder, like running uphill. Your stride shortens, arms pump a bit harder, and suddenly it’s all about focus and determination. The words do not tumble, but instead come out with deliberation. The sentences cut out all that is extraneous. It’s lean Hemingway writing. The pace is slow, but as you write you know the hill is not forever. Ahead lies the summit. Ahead is the rush of free-flow on the other side.
Sometimes on a very long run, my thoughts filter away altogether. I’m simply there, running, taking in my surroundings and the present moment. How then could this be like writing I wonder? Maybe it’s the ultimate. It’s that loss of self-consciousness that allows the story to go forward as if guided by a mysterious hand, as if in a dream world.
As a run comes to a close, I often pick up the pace in the delight of finishing at last. Will I finish strong? Or peter out? To be strong takes both training and will power, and even a sense of self-competition. As a writer, I have to dare myself to race at the end, dare myself to be brilliant, dare myself to open my arms wide, lift them as I break the ribbon, and hold my head high.
Now that’s a vision to get me going right back to the book. Kingfishers await.