“Think about a problem before you sleep,” a writing guide once suggested, “and when you wake in the morning it will be solved.”
Actually, if I think about a problem before I sleep, I’m guaranteed a dark night of insomnia. My brain isn’t the reliable kind of worker you can leave with a job, knowing that it will be finished when you return. The minute I let go of consciousness, my mind jumps up from its desk with a whoop and starts to party. All the things I won’t let it do during waking hours are permitted: it falls in love with strangers, lets the kids drive the car, shouts out rude words in silent theatres, swims in rivers of snakes, smokes pot with cartoon characters.
When I wake in the morning I have a hangover of vague memories juxtaposed in Dali-esque pictures. No shiny solutions. No paperboard presentations of neatly assessed options. The only suggestion from my brain, refreshed from its nocturnal antics, is to stop worrying.
Problems are an integral part of fiction writing. They can involve the plot, the characters, the structure and the language – and we have to overcome them to make the story convincing. I call them ‘challenges’, not problems. This takes the pressure off and makes them fun to work on. And the ideal way to tackle them is to go for a run.
I love the feel-good factor you get after a run. I love passing my favourite tree and seeing its buds become leaves; watching tough vine-wood sprout tender green shoots; smelling lilac and buddleia and lily-of-the-valley as I puff along. I’m not quite so keen on inhaling pesticide spray and exhaust fumes.
But the best by-product of running (if I don’t count the fact it balances my chocolate and alcohol habits) is that it generates ideas. While your body concentrates on oxygen and muscles for an hour, your mind is free to roam. Well, mine would be free if I didn’t order it to stop fantasizing about being a respected&rich&famous writer, and to think through my characters’ motivations and my story plot instead.
A writing colleague recently said that she had difficulty writing because she lacked a ‘room of her own’. It’s true that having a writing place is important. But for me, headspace is the key. My running time is my headspace time. And if I can force my brain to live my story as I run, I cunningly make it forget the effort of struggling up the hills.
Writing the beginning of a short story or a novel scene is like stumbling around in a valley mist. You grope at isolated ideas, feelings and motivations you can barely discern. You search for a way up the slope and out of the fog. If you can reach the top of the hill, you know you’ll see the view. But you need to find a path to lead you there.
I nearly always find that path when I’m running. The hard part is keeping it in mind until I get back to my desk. Once in front of my computer, I follow the path until, finally, I can contemplate the view. Sometimes the view is disappointing and I have to plunge back into the mist: sometimes not.
People are often surprised to learn that I run without music. “Don’t you get bored?” they ask. Bored? I’m far too busy keeping my brain occupied with challenges. I don’t want it smoking pot with those cartoon characters until I’m off the scene.