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I started running when I was twenty-one years old by doing laps in my one-bedroom apartment. At the time I was an undergraduate creative writing major at the University of North Texas sustaining myself on a steady diet of Shiner Bock and bar food from the restaurant where I worked, until one day I realized after stepping on a scale that, quite magically, this sort of diet can add thirty pounds. I decided that, along with changing what I consumed, I needed to do something to drop the weight. But I wasn’t sure what. The thought of being involved in a team sport, where others would depend on my coordination for their success, was out of the question, and I could not envision myself in a gym. After much deliberation I chose running, because, like writing, I could do it alone and slowly, which seemed ideal. But I was too self-conscious to run outside. I worried some friend might spot me and pull over his car, throw the passenger’s side door open and yell “Get in!” as if I was being chased. Therefore, I concluded, I would save us both the embarrassment and stick to my apartment loop.

 I consider running to be a central part of my writing process. Initially these may seem like two very different acts, but for me they work together.

My routine was involved. Three mornings a week, I got up, switched on Headline News, and donned my running attire: grey sweatpants, grey socks, and Converse All-Stars, an outfit that I modeled after Matthew Modine’s character in the ’80s movie Vision Quest, about a wrestler who drops a lot of weight so he can fight a guy named Shute. I did sit-ups (about two), jogged in place for one minute, and after that pushed off in the living room, sprinted down the hallway, passed my desk, kitchen and bathroom, and ran into my bedroom, where I tapped the wall, then ran back down the hallway and around the couch and coffee table — twenty-six steps in total, in a circuit I repeated for fifteen minutes. With the heater going full blast, even during the summer. Then I collapsed face-down onto the cold kitchen linoleum.

Over the next few weeks, I upped my time to twenty minutes, and later to thirty. I did this for months, and I started to lose weight. One day a girl noticed, and she asked what I had been doing. I am a terrible liar, so I simply said, “Working out.”

“At the gym?” she asked.

“No.”

“Well then where?”

I didn’t want to tell her the truth, so I shrugged and said, “Just stuff,” which made no sense but got me out of the conversation.

Now with my running time up to forty minutes, I realized I needed to take myself to the streets. Luckily I had recently gotten to be friends with a girl in my fiction writing workshop who also ran, and we started running together. By this point, I thought it best to wear shorts and a T-shirt, and I invested in running shoes. Our loop was maybe three miles, and we talked about our undergraduate lives at the time: others’ stories we were critiquing in workshop, books we were reading in other classes, and the stories that we were writing. Even when she and I split ways and I went to graduate school in Ohio, I continued to run and to use that time to think about writing.

Now, more deliberately — some fifteen years after my first laps through my apartment, passing my writing desk each way — I consider running to be a central part of my writing process. Initially these may seem like two very different acts, but for me they work together.

Running also allows me a way to gather characters and stories. I know of one writer who says the sole purpose of getting away from his desk is to gather material. Like musicians, most writers know it is tough to turn off the machine, and it’s liberating to realize we don’t have to.

On one hand, running works as a way to shake off the stress that comes with writing. As we all know, writing is a solitary act that involves sitting hunched over a desk or a notebook, trying to get everything accurate, from setting to sentences. We spend days on end living the lives of characters caught up in tense moments, and we absorb all that energy. Running helps me sweat that anxiety out. If I never thought about my work while running, it would at least serve this purpose as part of my process.

But running also helps me to get the writing done, to get at what sometimes won’t come when I’m at my desk. I have learned I’m not alone in this, that other writers go on walks or runs either before or after they write, and they use the time to think through their writing. Some writers put together whole scenes while out on walks, reciting entire scenes out loud. Many would never admit to it, but I will. Though I may not say everything aloud, sometimes I do. When I run I let myself be anchored in setting, and I find that I visualize the details more deeply. The surprises come more quickly. If I have a character that’s giving me fits because I don’t know her completely, I use this time to let her step forward, to talk to her and discover what makes her tick, to get the rhythm and the diction of her voice in my head. Sometimes I put the characters in conversation with each other and play out the whole conversation in my head, then clip what I don’t need. On a long run, I can go through whole scenes, quickly adding and cutting, then replaying it until I have it right. Then I box it up and bring it home to my desk where — with my fingers still sweaty and the chair sticking to my legs — I write it all down in one fairly clean sweep. I can honestly say that I have had more epiphanies away from my desk than I have had at it.

Running also allows me a way to gather characters and stories. I know of one writer who says the sole purpose of getting away from his desk is to gather material. Like musicians, most writers know it is tough to turn off the machine, and it’s liberating to realize we don’t have to. We can always stay attuned to the world for fresh material. Luckily for me, I have two things going that help to contribute to my writing, when I’m out running: I’m a magnet for strange people and strange situations, and I live in a town – Tacoma, Washington – that abounds with both. Tacoma is beautifully eccentric, a working-class city on the Puget Sound, just south of Seattle, with a particular history, a strange sense of humor, and an appreciation for the weird. I have a thirteen-mile loop that takes me through different parts of the city, where I encounter all sorts of people. At the park near my home I’ll come across military people from the nearby joint army-air force base running in combat boots, people in sleeping bags sitting up against trees, and couples at benches having picnics or having it out. A different part of the run takes me through a trail in the woods where benches sit alongside the path, and I often run by teenagers trying to hide their joints while standing in a cloud of marijuana smoke, grinning. Once on the trail I passed a man who was sitting on a bench beside his suitcase, staring into the woods.

This is one of the reasons I love where I live, because it is so populated with stories. Over the years the ghosts of people I have come across while running have become markers along my run. They reappear when I pass certain spots, just as their stories – or my version of them – live in my notebook at home. 

Another section of the run is along a four-mile stretch of waterfront. Here I see people fishing off a pier, and I am reminded of the afternoon I saw a woman standing at its railing, dropping roses into the water, and the little girl who walked up to her and asked her why she was crying. I see divers and am reminded of the time that one of them discovered the body of another diver who years before had been presumed lost, carried out to sea. On Saturdays during the summers there is the rollerskater who wears ’70s shorts and tank tops, plays disco cassettes on a large radio, and practices his moves around orange pylons. All people who populate the stories I have written or someday will.

The run also puts me in unique, story-worthy situations. Once I was on my second lap around the park when I realized I had joined a high school cross-country meet. Another time — and this solidly represents the paradoxical nature of Tacoma — a guy out of nowhere raised his fists and said, “Looking good!” which put me in a spirited mood and inspired me to wave at others, until another guy, who was sitting on a staircase in front of a church, responded by flicking his lit cigarette at my legs. Another time while running in the fog I looked up to see an eight-point buck that, once he saw me, started galloping in my direction. I didn’t know the protocol for this situation, but luckily, just as I was about to leap to the side, he crossed the trail and whisked by, a few feet away. Then there was the eighteen-mile run in a downpour, when I glanced up to see a young woman in a slicker and galoshes at a bus stop across the street, who squinted at me, as if at first uncertain of what she was seeing, or why. I was soaked, my shoes were squishing, and I had seven miles to go. I tried to wave, to reassure her that I was fine, and she smirked back with a look of pity, as if to reassure me, “Sure.” I could imagine her later telling someone about me, launching with “Today I saw this idiot…”

Running also reminds me that writing is about not moving. It is about putting myself in a chair and not walking away, sometimes for hours.

This is one of the reasons I love where I live, because it is so populated with stories. Over the years the ghosts of people I have come across while running have become markers along my run. They reappear when I pass certain spots, just as their stories – or my version of them – live in my notebook at home.

Running also reminds me that writing is about not moving. It is about putting myself in a chair and not walking away, sometimes for hours. I live in a region where it rains or is overcast October through June, and I can’t put off running until a sunny day, just like I can’t sit around waiting for inspiration to strike in order to write. In both instances, I tell myself: You have to show up. As with writing, I rarely enjoy those first few minutes, but then I usually find my rhythm. On those days when I’m out and I want to come back early, if I’m not feeling up to it, I keep going, because those tend to be the days when the most unexpected things happen, just like when writing. But of course there are days when I’m deep into a long run, far from home, and nothing is happening except me putting one foot in front of the other, hurting. I’m not thinking about running or writing, only whether I can survive the next few miles, uphill. Then I remember, this too is like writing, and I need to slog through. And like writing, I have never regretted a day of running, because I almost always learn something new, figure something out, or encounter something surprising that I would have missed, had I not gone out.

 

 

Jason Skipper

Jason Skipper’s novel Hustle was selected as a Favorite Book of 2011 by LitChat and as a finalist for the PEN Center USA Award for Fiction. His work has appeared in numerous publications, with awards and recognition from Zoetrope: All-Story, Glimmer Train, and Crab Orchard Review. He teaches creative writing at Pacific Lutheran University and lives in Tacoma, Washington. Follow Jason on Twitter at @jsnskppr.