Everyone talks about “escaping” into a book, but even as a kid, the escape was never what I looked for. The characters might not resemble me in the slightest, the setting might be totally unfamiliar, but I’ve always hoped to find some new piece of myself–a string of words capturing my own feelings exactly. My favorite kind of reading is like looking through a window at a rainstorm: You’re staying dry, but once in a while, the light might allow you to see your own reflection out in it.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Bought at Chapters on Robson.
Read in November 2013.
I can’t remember where I saw this mentioned, but I’m on the lookout for interesting books about running (which seem to be few and far between as discussed in my post about What I Talk About When I Talk About Running). The problem is most runners aren’t writers so most writing-about-running is a snore. If you’ve ever perused a running forum or blog, most posts about running are race reports that go something like this: “I got up at 3am, put on my clothes that I laid out the night before (detailed list of chosen clothing), ate (something icky), used the bathroom (tmi), left the hotel at 5am, blah blah blah transport to the start, congregated in a sea of humanity, last-minute portapotty break (tmi), mile by mile or km by km reports of condition of feet/legs/stomach, what types of fake food were ingested at what times, how many pitstops were made (tmi) and on and on and on. Finally (you’re asleep, aren’t you?) concluding with time splits for each mile or km, depending on preference, and chip time (woo if PB, sadface if not). The End.”
So yeah. That’s not what I’m looking for. But this book sounded like it might be, so I decided to check it out.
I didn’t know anything about the author, but the cover identifies him as a Tibetan lama. So, when I started reading, I was thrown by the author’s voice. At first I wondered if it was ghostwritten because the voice is so generic North American. My curiosity eventually got the better of me and I hit up Wikipedia (where else?) for a bio. Turns out he lived in the US for the majority of his childhood/young adulthood. Ah. On his YouTube channel, I found a video about the topic of this book:
I thought it was going to be more about running as a form of meditation, but he dispels that idea almost immediately:
People sometimes say, ‘Running is my meditation.’ Even though I know what they mean, in reality, running is running and meditation is meditation. (19)
Basically, his take is that running is for the body; meditation is for the mind. The premise of this book is that running complements meditation (or vice versa), that running is not incompatible with meditation (which I guess some people think). The book is organized in four phases or stages of running proficiency represented by the tiger, lion, garuda, and dragon.
In the Shambala tradition of warriorship, these creatures are called the “four dignities.” They represent the inner development of a courageous individual. The idea is to develop balance and integrity. The result is strong windhorse, lungta—the ability to bring about long life, good health, success, and happiness. (57)
Each phase has a different focus of contemplation:
- tiger = motivation;
- lion = good fortune;
- garuda = love and kindness;
- dragon = compassion and selflessness;
- windhorse = basic goodness.
The writing is serviceable, if a bit choppy. The chapters are blog-post short and there’s quite a bit of repetition. All of this made me wonder if it was a blog-to-book. It reads like that, anyway. While each chapter was fine on its own, as a book, it never really feels like it gets into a flow.
He always refers to people by their full names (and often job description) no matter how many times he’s mentioned them previously. Writing Tip: this is very annoying for readers. As a writer, you must make your characters (even if your characters are real people) memorable enough that you don’t have to re-introduce them every time they reappear.
One of his refrains is friendliness/gentleness, as in being kind to yourself / not beating yourself up for not running or not meditating, but at the same time not letting yourself slack off completely either. As a moderator, I appreciated this:
The wise are balanced, and the foolish are extreme. (82)
Yeah! Have to remember that one the next time someone goes on a “I quit TV/the internet/social media/blogging/vice-du-jour” jag. Foolishness! 😉
On gentleness vs. aggression:
Aggression is a short-term solution for a long-term problem. Gentleness is persistent. Gentleness is therefore a sign of strength, while aggression is often a sign of weakness. Aggression is often a last resort. Where do you go from there? If you become more aggressive, you seem insane, whereas if you have gentleness, you are like a great ocean holding a lot of power. (85)
He touches briefly (very briefly) on walking and yoga. “We should all enjoy a good walk, incorporating the qualities of mindfulness and gentleness.” (90) I love walking (may have mentioned that once or twice), so yes to this. And he says “practicing yoga has provided an excellent balance to running.” (91) Which of course I already know. Running + yoga = the best. But there’s not much more to this chapter than that, unfortunately.
One could say that life is at least 50 percent pain. If we do not relate to pain, we are not relating to half our life. Everything is fine when we are happy, but when we are in pain, we become petrified. The inability to relate to pain narrows our playing field. When we are able to work with pain and understand it, life becomes twice as interesting. Relating to pain makes us more fearless and happy. (113)
So what makes this interesting is that while I was reading the book, I ran across this quote about creativity and pain:
Studies on the nature of creativity have shown that people who consistently come up with more inventive and creative ideas are not necessarily innately gifted, nor are they necessarily more intelligent than other people. They are however capable of tolerating a certain level of mental discomfort.
It works something like this:
When our brains are presented with a problem- any problem- we feel slightly anxious. When we solve a problem, our brains release endorphins that make us feel good. So, we have a problem to solve, we often run with the first answer we come up with because it feels good (literally) to find a solution!
But people who are willing to see that first solution, and then set it aside- delaying that endorphin high- while they continue to search for another answer, and another, and another… until they have compared all possible solutions and then chose the best option- and run with it- consistently come up with much more interesting, creative solutions.
in an interview at Inkygirl
Takeaway: embrace your pain!
[H]appiness is not a goal, but a by-product of mentally and physically healthy activities. If we engage in these, happiness of mind and body will ensue.
Letting yourself become genuinely connected with happiness allows you to also deal with sadness. If your mind is obsessed with happiness, you might react to sadness by getting depressed and angry. I’ve learned that the best way to be happy is not to have happiness as your objective. If you crave personal happiness, it only becomes more elusive. (123-4)
On boredom (which relates to pain, and reminds me of what I wrote about boredom in my post on Eating Dirt):
In relating to pain, it is not so much the pain that is difficult—it is the inability of the mind to handle the pain. In meditation, people are often unable to handle the pain of the posture, disturbing thoughts, or boredom. It is not the boredom itself that is painful but the mind’s inability to handle it. Often, what exasperates the mind is the mind itself becoming hysterical: we are unable to handle both the pain and a hysterical mind. So when pain arises in either meditation or running, we need to feel the difference between the pain itself and the mind’s inability to handle the pain—or, in the case of a trained mind—our ability to handle it. (141)
This was maybe the most valuable section in the book for me. When I wrote about boredom in my Eating Dirt post, I knew perhaps I sounded like I was being melodramatic. I don’t think I was though. Younger-me was terrified of boredom, and I think my ability to cope with boredom (or, really, to not even go there) is a major difference between grownup-me and younger-me. (It’s all a matter of perspective. For me, everything changed when I declared to myself, “I am a writer.” Not the “I want to be” moment but the “I am” moment, which came later. Because if I am a writer, how can anything be boring? Everything is material.)
Anyway, there are some interesting ideas in this book but they’re not explored in a lot of depth. It might be more revelatory to people who’ve never considered running/meditation together before. Or running or meditation at all? I was a little puzzled as to the intended audience for the book. It was shelved in the sports section of the bookstore so I assumed going in it was aimed at runners with the idea of adding meditation to their running practice. But much of the time it seems like he’s explaining the running as much as or more than the meditation, which wouldn’t be necessary if runners were the intended audience. And he does say his impetus for writing it was that some people thought it was odd that he was a runner. So it’s for non-runners and non-meditators? How likely is it that someone who’s not into either thing picks up this book? Not very. So I’m not sure.
In the end, still on quest for the perfect book about running 🙂
In the comments to my writing goals post, Sparky (aka kingmidget — he’s Sparky @ TC) wrote:
I consider blogging to be a distraction from my fiction writing, which is what I “should” be doing. Yes, it’s writing, but it’s not … trying to come up with the right word for this … meaningful.
He goes on to say that taken as a whole he finds his posts meaningful as a record, but maintains they’re a distraction on an individual level.
I disagree, and I’m going to try to articulate why.
Some of my posts are not writing. For example, sometimes I blog a quote or a comic or a video. I do consider these posts meaningful, however, because generally they capture something I’ve been thinking about or meaning to write about or trying to find a way to put into words. For example, if I’ve posted a quote about topic X on my blog (my commonplace book) when I do start writing about topic X, it’s easy to find and refer back to the quote I posted about it, even it was months earlier. Often it’s these bits and pieces I’ve collected that help me work through a topic and pull my own ideas about it together.
Some of my posts are writing (technically) but not particularly meaningful as stand-alones. For example, when I post about a new issue of TC or what progress I made on my dissertation. In these posts, the meaning isn’t in the content (words) of the post, but in what it represents. (Generally: research or writing or editing elsewhere.)
And some of my posts are both writing and meaningful. The ones where I actually write about something. My book posts, for example. I try to avoid calling these “reviews” because they’re not reviews in the strictest sense. When I write about a book, I’m thinking: what did I learn from this book writing-wise or life-wise? how or why did it affect me? what worked for me and what didn’t? etc. These are all valuable things to write down, even if my ideas about them are rough and incomplete.
All writing starts out rough and incomplete. Blog posts are version 1, the first draft. Or even version 0, pre-writing. As Anne Lamott says: shitty first drafts. You might say, but I don’t ever plan to do anything with that blog post. But the point is: you never know. That post might be the start of an essay or an article. It might even be the kernel of a story. All good stories have themes and in writing—just writing—you start to identify what themes and ideas are important to you.
Back in the nineties, the book that was pivotal to reframing myself as writer (i.e. “I am a writer” vs. “I want to be a writer”) was Writing Down the Bones. The most important take-away for me from that book was the idea of writing as a practice, a process, a way of life—rather than just a means to an end. In WDtB, Natalie Goldberg advocates filling notebooks and just writing (i.e. not worrying about the publication aspect) for at least two years after one starts to write. This completely changed my perspective on writing. It wasn’t about sitting down and banging out a complete story in a single draft, i.e. story first, writing last. (Which, by the way, never worked for me. All I produced via that method was steaming crap.) It was about writing. First you write—whatever—and out of that, the story grows. The writing guides you to the story.
Once I started looking at writing this way it made perfect sense. Whatever you do, you have to practice if you want to become good at it. To put it in running terms: it would be silly to say that the only runs that ‘count’ are races, therefore you’re not going to practice because practice runs are just a distraction from the real thing. If you skip the training runs, you’re not going to win the race; you’re probably not even going to finish.
What happens the more you run? It gets easier. You remember that first run, the first time you put on your running shoes and said: ok, I’m going to do this. How far did you get before you were panting and your legs were burning? How long did you last before you had to walk? And now? You’d kick first-day-of-running-you in the pants. Because you put in the practice.
It’s the same with writing. The more you write, the easier it gets. Even if you don’t do anything with that blog post, it’s still practice. It’s still words on the page. You can think of it as a warm-up, like Julia Cameron’s “morning pages.” It’s a way of clearing your mind and opening it to creativity.
And that’s why I think all writing counts.
Clicked on this article this morning…
For true distance runners, to lie about time or distance is to lie to ourselves, to diminish the importance of the many sacrifices we make to reach the starting line. Focus and discipline form the core of a runner’s being; they are what make us put on a reflective vest and run six miles into the sleet at 6 on a dark winter morning.
…which led me to this long and fascinating article. Long read, but whoa:
West Wyoming was Litton’s pièce de résistance, and even his most indignant accusers had to concede their perverse admiration. In this race, the key to winning was ingeniously uncomplicated: Make the whole thing up! For his fabricated marathon, Litton had assembled not only a Web site but also a list of finishers and their times (plus name, age, gender, and home town), and created a phantom race director, who responded to e-mail queries.
I had to interrupt my grading for this Very Special Post.
Today is my 10-year running anniversary. On April 23, 2002, I decided to start running. My first run according to my log: R1W1x5 (1 minute run, 1 minute walk, 5 times). Yes! A whole five minutes of running.
It wasn’t the first time I’d made that decision/resolution. There were several aborted attempts to start running post-cross-country-running-in-PE days. But this time, for whatever reason, it stuck. 10 years and 5 half-marathons (!!!!!) later, I’m still at it. So, yay me 🙂
And yes, I had to pause the grading for a few minutes and go for a short run to commemorate the day. It’s symbolic!
ok, back to grading.
All right, it’s January 1st! Time to set some overly ambitious goals for the new year 🙂
Goal 1: 1hr creative writing 5x/week.
I’ve been successful at incorporating running/yoga into my everyday life, so I’m modeling this goal after my running/yoga practice. I started thinking about why I’m successful at that, but writing always gets pushed to the bottom of the list. The thing with running & yoga is that I don’t really think about product on a daily basis. I know I’m never going to be the best runner or yogi and that isn’t really the point anyway. The point is the practice. If I go for a run or spend an hour doing yoga, afterward I’m satisfied—even if was a crappy day and there will be crappy days—because the satisfaction comes from just doing it. In the long term, daily practice does lead to rewards (like personal bests & the ability to do poses that used to be difficult) but the nice thing is these are a bonus. (Whereas if product goals are your primary focus, you’ll feel like a failure until you achieve them, and if you never do, you’ll probably quit.)
Lately so much of my writing time has been product-focused. When you need to produce a completed piece of writing, you can’t just say “I’ll spend x hours on this” because at the end of x hours, you’ll probably not be done (everything takes longer than you think it will) and you have to keep going until you are done (which is frustrating), but you probably also have a deadline (which is stressful). All of which adds up to a generally unpleasant writing experience. With this goal, I want to focus on writing as a practice, and on shifting my mindset from viewing creative writing as a reward (which is why I always leave it till last—it’s the “I don’t deserve to take time to do this because I haven’t finished x, y, and z” mindset) to viewing it as a necessity, something that will only benefit my other writing. Speaking of other writing…
Goal 2: draft of dissertation by end of year.
Goal 3: blog 3x/week.
Goal 4: 366 project.
…discussion of goals 2, 3 & 4 reserved for future posts (see Goal 3 ;)). Goals 2, 3 & 4 are definitely overly ambitious, but I did warn you.
My 5th half-marathon & I finally achieved the time goal I’d been shooting for since my first (2hrs 15min)! *happy dance* Redeemed myself after last October’s running-while-injured PW 😉 So now I need a new goal. I’m thinking 2:10 or 2:11. I was on track for that up until 15-16k, so I now know it’s doable. I didn’t do any runs longer than that this spring (just trying something different—I know a lot of people max out at ~10 miles in training), so I just got tired at the end. Also the Burrard Bridge at 18k is eeeeevil.
This is an awesome race if you’re looking for one to do. It’s point-to-point, UBC to Stanley Park. Net downhill, but keep in mind most of that is in the 1st half; 2nd half is bit rolling. Plus, you know, the bridge. Anyhow, very scenic and this year, the weather was perfect. No guarantees on that, though. Previous time I did it, it poured buckets of rain the entire time.
This marathon thing is going to suck on so many levels but I’m pretty sure I’m going to do it because someone told me I couldn’t and you really shouldn’t ever tell me I can’t do something. I’ve been told I’ll never publish, get a PhD, and any number of things. I’m the wrong one to dare. It never ends well for the other party. I hope no one ever tells me I can’t fly because you’ll see me throwing myself off a building, arms spread wide waiting for my body to take flight because that’s how fiercely I believe.
So I ran another half-marathon. It was a personal worst, but I expected that going in, so it wasn’t a disappointment or anything. At some point in my training, I sprained my ankle. It’s an inside sprain, which apparently is rare (thanks, Dr. Google). I think I probably incurred it while dodging around people on the sidewalk/seawall who act like I’m invisible and won’t move to the side. Seriously, Vancouverites, what is wrong with you? It’s like a game of chicken out there.
Personally, I treat the sidewalk like a road: keep right except to pass. This doesn’t seem to be normal behavior. There are the meanderers, who do a sort of erratic s-curve thing down the middle, seemingly oblivious to the fact they’re in a public space. There are those who insist on walking three or more abreast, creating a fence across the sidewalk. There are the chatters, who stop and talk in the middle of the sidewalk, sometimes with strollers or bikes placed strategically so there is no way to get around them. But the worst offenders, in my opinion, are the ones that walk to the left, so that they’re coming straight at you, like a car going the wrong way. And then they stare you down and refuse to move. I don’t know how many times I’ve moved as far right as possible without falling off the sidewalk and continued forward, just to see what will happen. And inevitably it’s either I end up having to move off the sidewalk (if this is a possibility) or the other person begrudgingly moves an iota just before walking into me, but not so far that they fail to graze my arm as they go by. I’d love to know what’s up with that, so if this describes you, please enlighten.
Anyway! As you probably know, the cure for a sprained ankle is rest, but since I had this race coming up (it was a Challenge!), I just kept plugging away, albeit more slowly than I would have otherwise. The major consequence of it is that the longer I run, the stiffer it gets. And then my leg gets tired because I’m compensating (trying to not to limp-run and cause secondary injury). So the first half of the race went pretty well, but in the second half I slowed down quite a bit. But, in a curious turn of events, it turned out that both my challengers bailed 😉 (they did the 10k), so despite my really slow time, I won the challenge! My prize? Pancakes & bacon at IHOP.
Now for that much-needed rest. Will be walking in lieu of running until the ankle is healed.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
I think this is where I’m supposed to get outraged and start ranting about people reading it wrong, and so on. But honestly? I find it rather amusing, because they’re so clearly wtf? about the whole thing. Like when Murakami writes about what he thinks about while running:
What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue. … I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void. But as you might expect, an occasional thought will slip into this void. … The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky always. The clouds are mere guests in the sky that pass away and vanish, leaving behind the sky. (p. 16-17)
They’re all like, “But that’s so dull!” But it’s not dull to me, because that’s exactly how it is. As is this:
I don’t even think there’s that much correlation between my running every day and whether or not I have a strong will. I think I’ve been able to run for more than twenty years for a simple reason: It suits me. … Human beings naturally continue doing things they like, and they don’t continue what they don’t like. (p. 44)
It’s a great illustration of the importance of audience. In the opening paragraph of the NY Times review, Geoff Dyer writes:
I’m guessing that the potential readership for “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” is 70 percent Murakami nuts, 10 percent running enthusiasts and an overlapping 20 percent who will be on the brink of orgasm before they’ve even sprinted to the cash register. And then there’s me, the zero-percenter: a non-running Murakami virgin. Oh well. The supreme test of nonfiction is that it be interesting irrespective of the reader’s indifference to the subject under discussion, and a great writer’s work is obviously beflecked with greatness whatever the occasion. So the terms of the test are clear.
Well, I’d never heard of Haruki Murakami before I picked up this book. But I do run. And I also write. And, as I noted shortly after I bought the book, I have in fact actually used running as a metaphor for writing! So when I saw WITAWITAR while browsing the memoir/bio section at Chapters (where, fyi, it was displayed face-out rather than spine-out, ahem), I knew I had to read it. In other words, I think I’m an Ideal Reader for this book, one of the (apparently*) teeny number of people who both write and run. It never would’ve occurred to me that this was a rarity, but not only does Murakami comment on it (apparently he’s popular with running mags for this reason), Peter Terzian’s LA Times review makes note of how unusual it is for writers to write about running [emphasis added]:
In a 1999 essay for the New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates drew a parallel between the tireless walker-writers of the 19th century (Coleridge, Dickens, Whitman) and the contemplative present-day jogger. “In running,” she wrote, “the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain.” An afternoon run allows Oates to untangle the structural problems that bedevil her fiction in the morning.
Oates’ essay aside, the literature of running is as thin as a mesh singlet. Running pops up in fiction and poetry from time to time, from Homer to John Updike, but the sport doesn’t easily lend itself to the dramatic. The vagaries of weather, the joint pains and the repetition of putting one foot in front of the other can’t compete with the traded blows of the boxing ring or a home run.
While reading WITAWITAR, I started thinking that perhaps I should be writing about running—not just in one-offs, but in a more sustained way—but the idea that running can’t compete with boxing or baseball?! That’s like an outright challenge!
Oh, it’s on.
But back to the book. If the ideal audience for one’s book is miniscule, does that matter? Should one try for wider appeal? Murakami thinks not. Before he started writing, he ran a bar where he learned this:
If one out of ten was a repeat customer, then the business would survive. To put it the other way, it didn’t really matter if nine out of ten didn’t like my bar. This realization lifted a weight off my shoulders. Still, I had to make sure that the one person who did like the place really liked it. In order to make sure he did, I had to make my philosophy and stance clear-cut, and patiently maintain that stance no matter what. (p. 38)
I love the 1,000 True Fans concept (i.e. in order to make a living doing something creative, you don’t need a kajillion fans; you just need ~1,000 people who really love your work). Over at TC, I’ve been trying to start a discussion about self-/e-publishing and readers. The point I’ve been trying to make is that if the bulk of your readership consists of True Fans, it’s in your best interest to treat them well (i.e. not try to sell them crap just because you can). Murakami’s idea seems along the same lines.
Oddly, right after I bought WITAWITAR, I saw Kevin Hartnett’s essay about it at The Millions. Recommended. It’s a good essay and a much better summary of what the book’s about than my meanderings. Plus, he’s already sought out Murakami’s fiction, so he’s a step ahead of me.
*I don’t really buy that there’s so little crossover. Do you write & run?