Friday, November 15, 2013

The Best Writing Lesson

The best lesson I ever learned about writing I got from running.

When I was in my early 30s, I realized that drinking five or six days a week was not a particularly promising health regimen, so I joined a gym. There was one in the building where I was working at the time, in Jersey City, N.J., and it offered a corporate discount. It was a fine, modern gym,with all the fine, modern features. But I realized pretty quickly that I had no interest in weights, or spinning classes, or personal trainers, or much of anything there. The only I really like was the treadmill. I enjoyed running on the treadmill.

That realization led to another one: What did I need with a gym if all I was going to do was run? I could do outside for free. I quit the gym, and started running on the streets of Jersey City.

What's this have to do with writing? I'll get there.

Downtown Jersey City was a surprisingly good place to run. From my apartment, I could run down to the waterfront, around the neighborhood, or I could run past some old factories, across a little, uneven wooden footbridge over a creek into Liberty State Park. I could run into Hoboken. Being down by the water, it was all very level, and you could just kind of go and go.

Running on the street was more difficult than the treadmill, though. Two or three miles on the latter was easier to accomplish than two or three miles on the former. It was hard at first to set a goal, and hit it. I wasn't a particularly good runner, or athlete for that matter. I was a rather accomplished drinker, which didn't help either. So, I'd set a goal for myself, say, x miles, and if I had trouble hitting it, well, I had trouble hitting it. It became mentally self-defeating, and more hindrance than help.

Then, I said to myself, look, screw goals. Set one goal, and only one goal: keep running.

So that was my goal. Keep running. Some days I'd run three miles. Some days one. Some days less. Some days I wouldn't run at all. But the goal was always the same: keep running. How many miles didn't matter, how often didn't matter. Whether it was a good run or a bad run didn't matter. Whether I ran five times a week or once. All that mattered was that in my mind I was going to keep running.

I did. I kept running. I was running four miles. Then five. Then seven. I ran in the sun. I ran in the rain. I ran in the heat. I ran in single digits, in the snow. I ran three times a week, then four, then six. I'd run into January, and then pick it up again in March.

I remember one night, a Monday night, going for a run before the Giants opened their season against the Broncos in Denver. I wanted to get a couple miles in before the game, and went over to Liberty State Park. There was a storm blowing in, and I remember the lightning and thunder, and the clouds hanging over Manhattan across the river. It all looked very ominous. The date was Sept. 10, 2001. You all know the rest of that story.

What does this have to do with writing? I make for myself the goal for writing that I had for running: keep writing. It doesn't matter if I write one page, or four pages, or two paragraphs, or don't write for a week, or two weeks. The goal has been still the same: keep writing. So I did, and I have.

The only real key writing to far as I can see is to keep writing. Write in the heat, write in the cold. Write one page or four or 10. Write 30 words. Write two words. Write before football games, write on the bus, write when everybody clears out of the house. Or don't write at all. Just always, always, go back to it. Don't worry about goals for writing, don't worry about word counts or page counts or hour counts or any of those little mental tricks. Just don't ever, ever stop writing. Keep writing.

My body eventually betrayed me. I started having throwing my back out. Bad discs. So I had to give up running, which is a pity because I really enjoyed it. Actually got in a lot of quality thinking, and to my surprise found that it was actually stimulating mentally as well as physically. I don't know, it opens up your brain somehow.

I imagine some day my mind will do something similar, give out like my back did, and I won't be able to write. But that isn't liable to happen for decades, God willing. In the meantime, I just stick to my one goal.

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