Flying

Alex Lockwood is originally from London and is working on his first novel as part of the Creative Writing PhD at Newcastle. He set up and edits Friction Magazine, and helps support the Writers’ Cafe. He won the 2011 Leaf Magazine Microfiction competition with his story ‘Pod’. A former international development journalist, he teaches journalism and media practice at the University of Sunderland and has published academic work on environmental issues, media, place, identity and affect. He is interested in exploring the relationship between movement and writing–particularly walking and running and the experiences of creativity that emerge while moving in these physical acts, and their relationships to words.

I

Four and a half miles into my run and I’m jumping from side to side over the slippery mud track of the Cornwall coastal path, drenched from the past week’s irascible and unpredictable showers. I’ve nearly slipped off the path once, about two miles in, with a hundred foot drop beckoning—more a tumble into bramble than sheer cliff, but worth avoiding just the same.

I take a quick glimpse to my right. There: the glittering sea, two tankers and a cruiser waiting for refuelling, half not there at the waterline in the haze of heat. The levelness of the ocean is like a nod from my granddad: you’re alright, go on with you. There’s hardly anyone on the path—the morning’s heavy downpour saw to that, although now it’s turned sunny—that pinpoint spring blaze that surprises as the sun fizzes from the clouds. Yesterday’s 40mph gales have settled into more subdued bluster. What I’m jumping around and over and almost waddling through is the caramel-coloured aftermath underfoot of a wet weekend on the southerly-most point of Britain.

Every time I put my foot down, the ground under me slips sideways six seven inches. It’s as if I’m running on silk. Bobbly silk, granted. I’m leaping across puddles that cover the whole path; I’m jumbling left right left over half-buried stone and slate; over mounds of trodden clay and lichen-covered branches that blew off in the storms and lie in the middle of the path like lost crooked legs.

I know I could fall at any moment, but I don’t slow down. I go faster. The major slip earlier that nearly took me over the edge shook me in the spot of my fatigue, the middle of my spine through the left shoulder blade, as I shot out an arm to balance, stop falling. Set loose and free. The climber Douglas Scott has felt it on higher and dangerous mountains: “We were frequently right on the edge and at the limits of our endurance. It is then that areas of our being that are normally hidden are revealed.” Being somewhere near an edge, and tending to the danger, but taking it on, going faster, dislodges something hidden and painful about myself.

I jump across a wide puddle. I feel the tug on my hip flexor in the leg I jumped off. But the six weeks of stretching, of core stability, has done its work. I feel it, but it goes. I jar my left ankle on a stiff angled rock, coming out of the path like the end of a buried book, spine out. I feel the flexor, but it’s not injured. It’s strengthening. I go on. I go faster. I taste salt on my top lip. I think: I’m flying. It’s here, on the return of this six mile run, the first serious run since injury, that I realise I’ve stopped counting how far I’ve run. I’m not noticing the distance or how far to go. I’m just running. Not for a race. Not to get fit. Not to get anything or anywhere.

The fear that took me back to bed that morning, four hours earlier, the fatigue I’d carried in my shoulders since I’d burnt out two months earlier, unable to write one more word, was gone. It had tumbled over the edge of the coastal path. In steadying myself to run and run faster I had flicked it out of my arms and away, into the great sea, down below.

II

The relationship between running and writing was well laid out by the novelist Haruki Murakami a few years ago in his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. For Murakami, there are parallels between the two: he does both to reach what he calls the ‘void’. The similarities in what it takes to be both a runner and a writer are patent. Murakami says he’s asked ‘what makes a writer’ in every interview he ever does. “The answer’s pretty obvious,” he says: “talent”. But he also knows what else is needed:

If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value… I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning. I sit at my desk and focus totally on what I’m writing.

And from there, the third requirement is, “hands down, endurance […] What’s needed for a writer of fiction… is the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, or two years.” According to Murakami, “fortunately, these two disciplines—focus and endurance—are different from talent, as they can be acquired and sharpened through training.” Murakami expresses this in a fundamentally embodied way: “Continuing to breathe while you hold your breath.”

Sitting down at the desk every day and concentrating on what you are writing is, for Murakami, the same as getting up every day to go out running. The same training—the same requirement for a bit of talent, focus and endurance. “Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn’t write anything,” Murakami explains, “he made sure that he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated… This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs. This sort of daily training was indispensible to him.”

It was no coincidence that in March I stopped running and writing at the same time. Injuries that meant I had to give both up. For running, it was my calves. For writing, my head. I sat down at the laptop one morning after what Irvine Welsh calls a ‘binge’ of writing and stared at it for 21 minutes before closing the laptop again, and I hadn’t been able to write anything since. Nor run, either.

For my running, though, this has turned into a blessing. I was too frustrated with always getting injured. So I went to a physiotherapist, who diagnosed a misaligned pelvis, weak core, and underdeveloped hip flexor and calf muscles. Rather than run, I was instructed to stretch properly every day, and to exercise my core. Like most semi-serious runners, I already knew this. Unlike most serious runners, I ignored it. But I was fed up. This time, I did what I was told. Stretching every morning, sometimes twice a day, properly (a minute each stretch, and the sciatic nerve twice a day in quick bursts). Focusing on the core, static strength exercises, five or six times a week.

But I’ve not been able to do the same with the other injury. The writing muscle — it’s not so easy to go and see the mind’s physio. Somehow I’ve still not worked out how to strengthen it properly, and give it good rest.

III

That morning I had got up at 602am, like every morning. Did my half hour of stretching, had breakfast, but didn’t feel right. Short of sleep–I stopped sleeping at the same time I stopped writing/running. An average of 5hrs 42minutes last week. It’s not restorative. I’m restricting my sleep as advised by the Glasgow Sleep Centre. It may seem counter-intuitive as a way to rest that writing muscle, the mind, but if you’re not sleeping the thing to do is squeeze out the inefficient sleep, and slowly build back up to a good night’s rest.

Sitting at the breakfast table with my friend, S, who I’ve come to visit, I was short tempered. Already annoyed I could not get out for that 7am run, as I’d promised (promised who? My perfect self, that’s who). I couldn’t go back to bed. So I put my shoes on, packed up my laptop and books, and readied myself to go out. S told me about a new vegetarian cafe. Turn left not right out of the house. Down the first steps, then right, or was it left? I don’t listen: I’m not going to go there. I say it’s a small town, just tell me where it is off the high-street. He sees my short-temperedness, but he shrugs it off, is calm and friendly as he says goodbye. I leave and turn right, like every morning.

In the cafe, I’ve no clarity on what I’m doing. I came to write, of course. It’s what I do every morning, get up, go out, write. For two months it worked well. And then—too many words. Too many projects. Two hundred thousand words in two months. Book chapter, articles, essay, half a novel, flash pieces, morning pages. Not counting the emails, the teaching, the excuses, the corrections.

I try just writing the morning pages, the messy and unfettered journaling that Natalie Goldberg recommends. But I look at what I’m doing and think: pointless. I struggle on for eighty-one minutes. I feel it as a physical fatigue clamped into my back. Then a short lift: the caffeine, some email and Facebook communication. Then a plunge: a contemporary announces the publisher deal for his second novel.

I close the laptop. I pack away my stuff, I can’t breathe into my belly, just a high, anxious grasping of air. I lunge out of the cafe, left, left, left again, up Jacob’s ladder, and into the house. I kick off my shoes, they fly along the corridor, I tramp upstairs without even taking off my coat and climb into bed with the last forty pages of Never Let Me Go to read. Don’t do it, I say to the book and its imaginary world which is just as real if not more real than my own. Don’t do it to them.

The fear is heavier than the duvet. It’s the thing I can’t lift up.

I finish the book and I close my eyes. Just one tear, two. I think of Kathy and Tommy and Ruth in Never Let Me Go. “Poor creatures,” Madame calls them. “Poor Creatures.” A life set out for them. No freedom, kept always in the dark until their bodies are stripped of every usable organ. Without any choice of how to live and grow old.

That’s when I get up.

IV

Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Some days you don’t want to run and you resist every step of the miles, but you do it anyway. You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run. It’ll never happen. But if you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through and ignore your resistance. And in the middle of the run, you love it […] That’s how writing is too. Once you’re deep into it, you wonder what took you so long to finally settle down at the desk.
Natalie Goldberg, ‘Writing as a Practice’

Flying. It lasted for maybe half-a-mile, maybe not even that. But it was enough. At some level, I know it’s chemical: the endorphins rushing through my brain as the physical activity of running boosts my immune system, lifts the mood and the physical exertion takes me out of the cycle. But that’s ok. I’ll take it.

This was the first run of my life when I knew I would run all my life. And if I am running my life—well, the metaphor says it all. I want to write all my life too. How to solve the deeper muscle trauma? What rest, what stretch? How to build up the endurance?

Just as I turn off the coastal path at Swanpool for the short stretch of road before it begins again, climbing up for the round-cliff stretch to Gyllgynvase, I see it, him, her: my first swallow of the summer! It swoops below a bush and then back up again. I follow it and watch it come to land on the edge of a bin, where its partner, I suppose, is already resting. I stop, lift up onto my tiptoes, pause my Garmin, put a hand over my eyes to shade the sun, and stand for a moment watching. The first swallows, all the way from Africa. My six miles seems inconsequential. Good: they are. It’s not my distance travelled in miles that I need to measure.

Then one swallow dips down and up into the eaves of a beach cafe. Good, they’ve found their home. I think the other swallow will follow, but it dips down and then over my head and up into the sky and does a circle first, before coming down and swooping up into the eaves to disappear.

As I’m running back I know I’m ending too fast, that I should keep the even pace of the run, but I don’t care. I don’t think of slowing down. I run on, Swanpool far behind, coming into the narrow concreted path down to Gyllgynvase beach. I’m shouting for a group of three lads to get out of the way, only too late seeing that the one in front is being cared for by the other two, that he has some disability, I just miss him as I twist past, unable to slow down. I’m pounding past a family, mother father two daughters, and onto the flat, and then onto the beach, and the sun is fully out, it’s midday, and I run over the shingle and blood-red seaweed drying like ringlets of radicchio pasta in a thick tidal line, and I’m kicking off my trainers and pulling off the socks that are worn away at the in-step and left me with blisters (blissters…! I’m running again, I was afraid I couldn’t) and I’m walking into the sea. Freezing ankles, then up and over the calves and the knees, and the gentle waves that look barely ripples from a distance are suddenly much larger, more powerful, but still easily waded through, and my hands are up on my head as the cold starts to take my bones. I know, guess, can already feel the swelling being taken out of my muscles by the brine and bream. I keep walking to ward off the worst of the cold, until four or five minutes in, and I start to get used to it, and can stand still and enjoy the air and the glimmer and the peace and the idea that as soon as I am home I will write about this, be able to write again.

Archives of Alex’s work can be found and read at www.alexlockwood.co.uk