How The Practice of Running Every Day Can Help Your Writing
On the surface, Haruki Murakami’s What I talk about when I talk about running seems to be about running. Haruki runs on average, 26 miles every week, and has set a goal to run a marathon every year since the age of 33. And most of his book chronicles his training, journey, thoughts and experiences as he prepares for the New York Marathon (and his training for a triathlon). But as I re-read this book this past weekend, I realized there are many parallels between running and writing, and much to learn from the acclaimed Japanese novelist in his book.
These parallels include:
- ‘Winning’ at running (finite vs. infinite games)
- Ultramarathons (pushing yourself)
- Running and walking (rules)
- Finding the positives (small wins)
- The evolution of fitness (the concept of flow)
- Swimming coach (being a beginner and unlearning bad habits)
Let’s explore their implications to writing, shall we?
‘Winning’ at running (finite vs. infinite games)
Maybe Haruki was competitive when he was younger, but at his age (40s/50s), he does not consider himself a competitive runner. If you are competitive, that’s great, but know that time is not on your side — as you age, there are younger, faster, and stronger runners coming all the time.
Instead, Haruki runs for his health. He runs so that he can run every day. He doesn’t run in marathons or races to be the best (though he does try to beat his PRs), he runs for the health benefits and runs in a way so he can keep on running every day.
Think about your writing for a second. Are you writing so you can get a viral hit? Or are you writing so you can improve your craft and focus on your writing practice? With the first, you can win, but you will likely ‘lose’ a lot of the time (other writers will have more viral hits, be more popular, get better book deals, etc. — and there’s no way for you to control or affect that). With the second, you will always win, as long as you keep on writing.
In essence, this is about playing finite vs. infinite games. With running, Haruki runs so that he can run every day. With writing, you can focus on your writing practice because really that’s the only thing you can control.
Ultramarathons (pushing yourself to the limit)
Just to see if he can do it, Haruki participated in an ultramarathon. While it was a grind, he did it. A funny thing happened after Haruki participated in the ultramarathon — he never wanted to run again. But that feeling goes away after a few days, his body recovers, and he gets back to running every day again.
I think there are two takeaways for me as it applies to writing. One is to experiment with how much you write. In this case, if you normally write a thousand words, see what it feels like to write two thousand or five thousand words. Double or triple your typical out. You want to see IF you can do it, but sometimes, pushing yourself past your limit can be an interesting experiment in itself to see how you deal with it and what you come up with.
The second takeaway is that Haruki has the same feeling I have every day I write. After every book, I’ve published (and I’ve self-published seven books), I feel like I don’t have another book in me. And then a few days pass, I think about the books I have written, and get back into writing another book. If you get that feeling from writing books, articles, essays, etc., take a short break and I think that feeling will go away.
Running and walking (rules)
Haruki has a rule when he runs marathons: never walk. He can stop to tie his shoe or take a break. But he will never slow down to a run. He says it himself that if he breaks this rule, he will break other rules and that is not a slippery slope he wants to start on.
Steve Kamb, the founder of Nerd Fitness, has a nice ‘hack’ for getting out of things you don’t want to do, like drinking alcohol or going out to clubs. All you have to say to the other person is “Sorry, I have a rule that I don’t …” People usually do not question you and then you aren’t bothered about it again.
What I like about setting rules is it is a lot easier to follow rules and guidelines than it is to have a wide-open free-for-all. Setting the rule is a way for telling your body or mind to stick with something painful, and to minimize the decisions you have to make (of which, there are bad decisions you could take).
For example, some of my writing rules include:
- Write without editing
- Read the article out loud to check for spelling and grammatical mistakes
- Hit ‘publish’ when an article is good enough, not perfect
These rules make it easier for me to write and publish articles.
Finding the positives (small wins)
Haruki likes running in Boston because he runs along the river where there are many pretty blondes with ponytails running as well. I found that funny, but I liked the greater message here: find the small wins in the things you do. For him and running, it’s about seeing attractive females running (as a writer, he spends most of his day indoors and he is married so he would not otherwise see these attractive females anywhere else).
You can apply the same principle to writing. Find your small wins. Did a reader leave a comment? Applaud for your article? Did you get a new follower or subscriber? Congratulate yourself on those small wins. Without those small wins, writing for a long time becomes a drudgery. I’ve had several existential moments questioning why I write, who my writing is for, what my end goal is for writing, etc. and keeping in mind all of the small wins I have had help motivate me to continue writing.
The evolution of fitness (the concept of flow)
In the book, Haruki talks about how he has started to train for triathlons, which add a biking and swimming component to his already established running practice. My guess at Haruki’s motivation for completing a triathlon is he wants to challenge himself. As he runs, he gets in better shape, but with triathlons, he can not only challenge himself further but also practice and challenge himself with different skills (i.e., biking and swimming).
With writing, it’s essential to challenge yourself with different types of writing assignments. For me, that’s writing every day (and experimenting with different forms of writing), and then also writing a book at the same time (which is like writing every day, though with an overall narrative or theme in mind).
Because I write every day, I like to run experiments. Sometimes, I’ll use a Q&A format for my articles. Sometimes, I’ll add more stories or research. Other times, I’ll explore different types of resources (YouTube videos, books, other articles) and analyze the takeaways from those other resources. And sometimes, I will experiment with vulnerability, and how much I share about my life. Each of these experiments helps me learn what resonates with readers and what areas I could explore with my writing.
Swimming coach (being a beginner and unlearning bad habits)
When Haruki was training for the triathlon, he felt his swimming was not optimal. He knew how to swim, but he realized there were a lot of things wrong with his form that could be tweaked. He tried to find swimming coaches, but the problem with some of the coaches was they were good at teaching a new swimmer how to swim, but they were not good at teaching swimmers with ingrained habits how to change or tweak the bad habits. Finally, his wife recommended a swim coach that was able to make adjustments to his bad form. For example, Haruki had problems with rotations when swimming. So his coach asked Haruki to do drills that strangely, were not focused on rotations at all. But as he unlearned his bad habits through the drills, and started to piece together what he learned into swimming, he found that his form improved.
Although I consider myself a writer, I don’t consider myself a good writer. I am continually taking writing courses, reading books, and learning how to improve my writing. Even though I have self-published seven books, I don’t consider knowing it all. Before embarking on the next book, I revisit the many writing courses and books I have in my repertoire.
And since I’ve written for several years, I certainly have many bad habits and make mistakes other beginner writers would not make. I use ‘that’ too many times. I use three words when two will do. It’s hard and repetitive work to unlearn my bad habits, and that’s what I tell myself: keep at it, and one day, it will magically happen. It’s like stretching: stretch every day, and one day, you will find a magical breakthrough.
- In the end, what does running have to do with writing? A lot, apparently. But you can also replace ‘running’ with whatever practice you have: weight training, reading, painting, walking, etc. Here are the principles I’ve taken away about the writing craft:
- Focus on your craft. Improve every day. Get it out (publish, sell on the market) before it is ready. Get feedback. Improve more.
- Experiment. Take risks. Try new things.
- Don’t worry about the results or outcomes. Concentrate on what you can control.
- Celebrate the small wins and use them to motivate and push yourself.