Running Against the Grain

August 14, 2016

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Most mornings this past week, I slipped on my running clothes and headed for the Derbyshire hills.  The sky was cobalt. The sun lit fields into gold.  With the world looking like Van Gogh’s “Wheatfield with Crows“, it felt like a retreat into art.

And in many ways it was.

I was teaching Creative Nonfiction at the Swanwick Writers’ Conference where several hundred writers of all levels gather in August for an immersion in courses by established authors, to make friends and to have fun with theatre, music and more.

And each morning as I tied my running shoes in an attempt to retain some normalcy amidst this creative storm, it occurred to me how necessary are both retreats and running (or any daily exercise).  I’d stash my room key in a rounded boxwood at the Hayes Conference Centre and then set off into the morning, plodding uphill and downhill — even when it was difficult after an evening of sipping chocolate port.

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To the dog walkers who call these fields and hills home, I must have looked like a fish out of water as I flung myself into burpees, push-ups and lunges.  I didn’t care: exercise takes me away from the cerebral and forces me to concentrate on my form, my muscles, my breathing.  The idea is to relax, to go to a different place in my head and when I come back to writing, to see things anew — though the jovial, saliva-dripping black lab who leapt on me mid sit-up didn’t care a wit about such thoughts…

But after the lab attack, it occurred to me that like meandering on a footpath, writing retreats can transport us way from the daily grind and help us see things anew.  Talking and listening and thinking helps us recharge, be more playful, flip our scripts.  Running, cycling, swimming and walking can take us to outdoor havens and internal ones, too.  Physical exercise is a daily retreat for this writer and writing conference can be seen as necessary retreats for the artist and writer.

So valuable, both types of retreats should be part of our routines to help us entertain thoughts that run against the grain, to improve our craft and to approach our subjects with fresh perspectives.

Of course, it’s nothing new. Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau and William Wordsworth were famously exuberant about the way walking coaxes the subconscious to reveal its secrets. Ideas pop. The natural environment invigorates our central nervous system which is why some of our best ideas come while moving outside.

Hemingway was fond of walking out ideas. So was Henry Miller who wrote, “Most writing is done away from the typewriter, away from the desk. I’d say it occurs in the quiet, silent moments while you’re walking or shaving or playing a game or whatever”

Before I head off into these Devon hills for a run, I want to say how much I learned from everyone and that I look forward to seeing you next year. When you’re stuck on your writing, go for a walk or a run — or a dance, even — outdoors. I can promise you’ll find solutions along the way.

Wishing you a productive year of retreating!

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1 Comment

  • Reply Andrew Shephard August 16, 2016 at 2:47 pm

    I so agree. A more-or-less solitary run is the perfect complement to school days spent sitting, writing, talking and eating. And yes, most writing is done away from the keyboard. Ideas come and the tricky bits find a solution even without conscious thought when walking or running.

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