Prospecting for ideas
Words by Adharanand Finn
This story originally appeared in METER, Spring 2020.
The other evening I’d been out for a run and I was heading to bed when I felt the urge to reverse back downstairs and flip open my laptop. It was one of those rare moments where I just had to write. Often this is an exciting feeling, full of crazy ideas and inspiration, but this time it was different. It wasn’t just a creative urge, but a pressing need to put down my thoughts, which had been churning and bouncing around in my head for days. Was this the end of the world as we knew it? How did I keep my family safe? Why was I getting a stronger urge than ever to go out running? And why did I feel so calm after each run, even as the fabric of society was collapsing around me?
For me, running and writing have always had a symbiotic relationship, and this feels stronger than ever right now in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
The author Richard Askwith (Feet in the Clouds) once told me that for him writing enhanced the experience of running. If he knew he was going to write about it, he would become more observant on his run, more present and aware of how he was feeling and of the things around him. But for me it also works the other way around. Running can help spark and stimulate the process of writing. Which is what happened the other evening.
Worries and thoughts about the coronavirus had been preoccupying me for days, getting more and more confusing and making me feel more and more anxious. But while I was out racing along by the seafront, in 45mph winds, the waves crashing against the rocks and spraying over me, everything got shaken up, and the important stuff rose to the surface. Afterwards, as I stood on the shore watching the sky turn pink, I had a fleeting sense of clarity. It felt like a good time to write.
So I sat down that night and bashed it out. Without too much concern for narrative thread, or clever imagery or engaging characters, I just wrote what I needed to write to capture the essence of that sense of clarity before it was gone.
The next day I woke up and my head felt clearer than it had for days. The jumble of thoughts had been laid out in some order. Later I read them back and everything seemed less muddled. Yes, we ran because we still could, and we enjoyed and appreciated it more than ever because we were suddenly aware - in the midst of lockdowns and rising death tolls and an unknown, uncertain future - just how fragile our existence was, and how running connected us with it so fully and immediately.
I felt pleased enough with my words that, with a few minor edits, I published it online as a blog. Maybe someone else could read it and find some value in it. Maybe nobody would read it. It didn’t really matter. Writing doesn’t always need to be read by other people, it can exist and have value all by itself.
Part of that value can be in the act of writing itself. And later, however good or bad the finished product is, when you read it back it can provide you with a sense of objectivity, as though you are looking at yourself from the outside, with a fresh perspective. Even if you then screw it up and chuck it in the bin (or drag and drop it into the trash) it can still serve this purpose and help you cope with things and move on.
I know for some people this may all sound great, but in practice, when they sit down to write, even after a run, they find themselves staring at a blank screen unsure of where to start. My advice is to just start writing, anything, no matter how terrible or prosaic. Not everything I write after a run is any good. But that doesn’t stop me writing.
So if you’re stuck, start with “I went for a run today and …” Anything. Words will come once you open the bottle. Don’t sit there with the lid on, waiting for the perfect opening sentence. Just write. Don’t worry if it sounds soppy, or over-emotional, or under-emotional. For now at least, this is for your eyes only. You especially don’t need to worry or judge because later you get to edit it. Editing is a big part of the writing process, part of this great ordering of thoughts. It’s like a sculptor who starts with the rough shape of the thing he is making. The first draft is the rough shape. Then later you can start chipping away, refining the features, the details, finding the sense and purpose and meaning buried in that first splurge of words.
It’s crucial not to be too hard on yourself, especially at the beginning of your writing journey, because just like running, to get better at writing, it takes training, practice. You can’t decide to start running, do a couple of sprints to the end of the block, and then the next weekend hope to compete at the front end of a major Marathon. Just like running, writing can appear to be a simple activity from the outside, but, like running, it’s actually a skill honed over time, and so you need to start slowly, write regularly, and gradually build up your capabilities.
Once you’ve written and edited something, maybe you’re happy with it and decide you want to share it publicly, perhaps on a blog. This may involve editing it some more, to make it more engaging - for example, try to make sure it’s not too long, unless you’re certain it warrants that much of people’s time. If it’s for public consumption, it’s usually best to give it an extra trim - strip away any bits even you find a little boring when you read it back. (All writers find these bits in their writing, by the way. The key is to recognise them and not to become too attached to them. In general, 90% of editing is cutting things out.)
On the flip side, don't become too much of a perfectionist that you never stop editing a piece. Knowing when to stop editing is also a skill. Not everything you write needs to be a genre-blurring work of gripping literature. Sometimes daily musings, jotted down descriptions of how you feel, where you run, can be like sketches, little vignettes, which perhaps one day you’ll refer back to or weave in to a bigger, more polished piece of work.
But remember that none of it needs to be shared at all. In this time of living our lives out on social media, there’s a lot to be said for the sanctity and safety of a private diary, where you can say what you want, and be as free as you need to be in order to really let loose with your writing and to really clear the clutter in your head. And this is especially true right now.
• Adharanand Finn is the author of three immersive books on running, including his most recent, The Rise of the Ultra Runners. He holds running camps and writing retreats in the UK, Chamonix and Kenya, as well as offering remote writing coaching. You can find more details, and read his blog, at thewayoftherunner.com