After watching some of the events of the Rio Olympics, I’m the first to admit to being totally captivated – nay, bowled over – by Usain Bolt. The man is incredible – not just as a runner, but also as a wonderful example of the Olympic spirit, the camaraderie of the track, and a shining mentor to other runners.
He’s made me think a lot about running, and how much I used to enjoy it. Long before I knew the difference between sprinting and long-distance running, I was entranced by the idea of thrusting one foot in front of the other along an open road, feeling the air rushing through my lungs, my hair, my head and helping my freed brain to invent my dreams and inform my life.
Between the two towns in which I spent most of my youth in South Africa – Pietermaritzburg and Durban – was an annual long-distance road race called The Comrades Marathon. Each year the direction alternated so there were separate records for the “up” or the “down” run. On alternate years we awoke before dawn and drove into the city centre to watch the runners line up and race away. We waved and shouted and wished them well.
The Comrades distance varied over the years, but it was always around 90 kilometres – more than twice the length of a standard marathon. Of course, I never actually ran it, but it was something I aspired to, and my respect for those runners knew no bounds: it was a gruelling race.
Some years back I became a runner, but it was a short-lived activity. I wasn’t very good at it, although I enjoyed the exhilaration at the end of a practice run. It made me feel good, healthy, energised and ready to take on the world, but somehow my knees, feet and lungs had other ideas. My mind had the staying power for it, but my body didn’t.
Fortunately for my poor, aching body, writing ultimately held more appeal than running.
I’ve realised that the life of a writer is not unlike that of a runner. While a short story writer might be likened to a sprinter – at his or her best in a short, controlled spurt of Usain Bolt-like energy – a novelist is definitely a long-distance runner.
Writing a novel is never short, never easy, and sometimes not even that controlled. Think of a marathon: no matter how well you prepare, train, follow a programme of fitness, diet, other exercise, there is always the chance that something unpredictable will change things on marathon day. Bad weather, a head-cold, cramp in a muscle you’ve never been plagued by before – the possibilities are endless.
Likewise, a writer never knows when her characters are going to wrench that leash from her grasp and run off in an unplanned direction. All she can hope is that her research, training and powers of endurance will guide the madness into the place it needs to be in order to finish the race.
While sprinters might relate to the single-minded objective of their sport’s goal for the duration of a sprint, they might not enjoy the marathon runner’s kinship with solitude; the ability to pull back and control the pace, preserve the energy and doggedly stick to the long-term plan for the duration of something as demanding as running a marathon. Or writing a novel.
A novelist needs time to concentrate, to marshal her reserves and plan strategically towards that far away goal. Too much energy exerted in the early part and the race will be over before it’s run. And not in a positive way.
A novelist needs a companionable silence to allow her thoughts to coalesce and form into ideas, chapters, paragraphs and sentences. A novelist needs to hear her own voice, intonation, cadence, her own rhythmic style of writing. To let the voices of her characters form their own words and not blindly follow her just because she’s running in front of them.
The title of this blog-post is misleading. Perhaps it should read: The Aloneness of the Long-Distance Writer because, while others might see us as lonely, novelists enjoy solitude, thinking of themselves as alone, but they are never lonely. After all, we carry so many characters with us on that marathon.