Last year, when I developed severe neck pain and headaches, I decided to see a physiotherapist – a fresh-faced, nubile young woman with posture fit for a princess.
‘Yikes, yep – woah,’ she murmured while happily crunching away at my upper back. ‘You’ve got a lot of tension all through this thoracic region. You sit at a desk a lot?’
A jolt of pain. ‘Ugh,’ I spluttered.
‘Do any exercise?’
‘Hnnnh. Well, I walk … argh … my dog…’
‘Uh huh. Anything else?’
But that was it. I just didn’t exercise. Each morning, I drove to work; in fact, I drove pretty much whenever I could. My face squished against the treatment table, I did a quick calculation of my daily walking distance and a quiver of panic made its way down my tender spine.
When she applied pressure to the base of my skull, a series of primitive grunts clawed their way out of my mouth, and searing pain shot to the front of my head. ‘Yeah,’ she said carefully. ‘You’ve just got to exercise.’
Later that evening, I changed into a pair of leggings and did a few exercises in my bedroom. As I grasped the back of my legs to stretch out my hamstrings, my limbs shook pathetically. I looked like an overturned foal. How had this happened? I’d run a marathon once, for God’s sake. And so, that night, I made a vow to start running again.
It was around this time that I also made the decision to focus more on writing, and in particular start work on a longer writing project that I’d always told myself I would do, at some stage. But now, I was gripped by the terror of never finding time; of being a ‘gunna do’ when it came to writing. But as soon as I made that commitment, I grew scared. Once I’d written every day, out of love of the process; now I only write when I need to. I was out of practice. And so it came to be that resuming writing was fairly analogous with running – painful.
Last winter, I went down to the beach for a few weeks to write. Here, I resolved to eat good food, sleep lots and run every night. I planned a modest course for my first time back in the sneakers – just around the block, down to the beach, along the sand and back up to the house, lasting around ten or 12 minutes. Piece of cake, I told myself.
Two minutes in, not even on the first corner, I was sure 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. My eyes pleaded at her, but I gasped: ‘I’m fine.’ 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 Joyce Carol Oates, that doyenne of literary prolificacy. ‘Running,’ writes Oates. ‘If there’s activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing to the imagination, I can’t think what it might be.’
I don’t know how nourishing those first days of running were for my imagination (unless I was writing a torture narrative), but after a while I could feel strength returning to my legs and my breathing stopped growing so shallow, and I started running a little bit further. I went to the second beach ramp, and then to the third. I was pushing 15 minutes of jogging, and then 20. And when you run in the 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. Even if what I was writing was later whittled down, discarded or, occasionally, laughed at.
‘I ran compulsively; not as a respite from the intensity of writing but as a function of writing,’ Oates writes. I like this – as I think you’ve always, in a way, got to exist outside yourself when you’re writing, even though it is such an introverted activity. 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 further each night.
Rebecca Starford is the Editor of Kill Your Darlings. She was deputy editor at Australian Book Review and is now associate publisher at Affirm Press. She regularly publishes in The Age and The Australian.