I never used to be a runner. In fact, I used to think runners were crazy. As in, certifiably insane. I wanted to attend races with a sign that read, in big red letters, “WHAT ARE YOU RUNNING FROM?” So, I state sheepishly that I have become a runner. It started with 5Ks. That 3-mile race is the marijuana of running. Next thing you know, you’ve passed through the gateway to the cocaine high of a 10K. Then you’re really in deep with the heroin-like addiction that is a half marathon. The real horror? I have ‘liked’ Runner’s World magazine on Facebook.
What’s interesting is that I’ve taken up running during an especially difficult editing phase (and also during wedding planning, which is a different post for a different blog that will never exist because I HATE WEDDING PLANNING). There is something mind-clearing about running. I’m convinced that the pounding on the pavement jogs loose some things in the brain and out come new ideas or solutions to story lines (and centerpieces–GAH).
In the most recent issue of Poets & Writers, I learned I’m in good company with the inspiration-via-exercise technique. According to a little feature titled “Pedestrian Adventures” (author: Celia Johnson), Virginia Woolf’s creative process involved long walks around London and in the country. Woolf wrote in her diary, “To walk alone in London is the greatest rest.”
A study from Princeton University reinforces that a long-term exercise regimen can help relieve anxiety. And most writers have anxiety–either about the real-life events/thoughts/feelings that inspired their work, or about the work itself and its nagging demands and deadlines. Scientists researched the effects of exercise on mice and found that exercise helps the development of new brain cells and makes the brain more adept at handling neurons, shutting them down when necessary to ward off anxiety.
Charles Dickens was another walker. The speed at which he wrote was a direct reflection of his exercise habits at the time: “He blamed his creative difficulties on ‘the absence of streets and numbers of figures’. Without somewhere to walk, it was impossible for Dickens to maintain his daily work regimen.” It is said that he walked as many as 20 miles in an afternoon, at a clip of around four and a half miles per hour. He used those miles to stimulate creativity and relieve stress. “Work and worry, without exercise, would soon make an end of me,” he said.
William Wordsworth was another walker. It’s estimated that by his late sixties, he “traversed a distance of 175,000 to 180,000 English miles.” Other walking enthusiasts: Victor Hugo, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Henry David Thoreau.
Alice M. Flaherty, an expert on creativity and the brain, says that “the default-mode network of the brain could play a role in a writer’s drive to exercise.” She writes: “This is the group of brain areas that are active when you are not concentrating on a goal, but are in a vague day-dreamy state. Most studies of insightful Aha! moments suggest that they arise when people are in an incubation phase of the default mode, and their mental associations are looser… In other words, you might want to spend part of your exercise period reading something relevant, then turn that off and exercise mentally naked.”
I get that mental “nakedness” when I run because, frankly, I find it impossible to think of anything but my labored breathing. That emptiness of the mind is what allows my subconscious to do its thing. The result? By my next half marathon in May, I should be done editing my book.