I've been trying to run over the past few months. I have been improving my fitness for about 18 months now, starting with walking on my treadmill. At the beginning, several years of an ultra-sedentary life (due to mental illness and then studying) meant I struggled to walk half a mile. This week, I ran for 30 minutes straight for the first time.
How did I manage to achieve this feat? I followed a programme. I put my faith into a book written by experts (Runner's World's Run Your Belly Off, if you're wondering) and simply put in the time required of me each week. I trusted that walking and jogging alternate minutes would build the foundation for a new lifestyle; that I would indeed be able to run for half an hour eventually, even as I gasped through 2 minutes of running. And you know what? It did.
You may be wondering 'why is she waffling on about running on a blog that's ostensibly about writing?' Fair enough. The reason is that running, in contrast to writing, makes it easy to track your progress. However, there are also parallels that I think could improve my writing. The main one is:
1. Putting in the time is paramount.
The optimal number of running sessions, according to folk who know (i.e. the book), is 3-5 per week. This allows sufficient recovery time whilst ensuring you put enough effort into improving. Confession time: I run 4 times a week. Have done since November. My writing is considerably more erratic - some weeks I'm motivated and write every day,other times I lose confidence and think 'what's the point?' and end up not writing at all. Yet running has shown me that it's vital to put in the hours, even if you're working at a lower level than you're capable of reaching.
2. Focus on time - not distance - in the beginning.
The running programme I followed ignores distance: you work at your own pace for the set time of the workout session. The idea is to build your fitness and muscles without worrying about how fast you can move, since that can be tackled later. The lesson I take from this is twofold:
a). It doesn't matter how many words you write in the allotted time, as long as you show up and pay attention to your writing.
b). It doesn't matter how terrible your writing is, as long as you write X number of words.
These approaches sound contradictory, but they both force you to focus on something other than how bad your writing is and whether you ought to be doing something else. I prefer the first approach for rewriting, which requires more attention to the quality of writing, and the second approach for first drafts, when producing something - anything - is more important than its quality.
3. You're racing against yourself and only yourself.
As beginners, we know it's stupid to compare ourselves to the best in our field. I don't care how I compare to Paula Radcliffe - the difference is so great it would be absurd! I only care that my running improves over tume; that I beat myself. That should be the focus of my writing - everyone's writing. What's the point in comparing yourself to other writers when what you're doing is completely different? Even writers in the same genres and with similar styles vary a lot. We are all at different stages of our careers. We all have different lives.
If you're motivated by other writers' achievements, that's great - but don't berate yourself if and when you fail to match their accomplishments. I love Hilary Mantel, for example, and would (naturally!) love to win the Booker Prize twice, but comparing my writing to hers is pointless. All it does is discourage me. However, comparing my current writing to my writing in past years shows that I have improved, even if it doesn't feel like it most of the time, and makes me determined to continue to improve. That will be true for the rest of my life - even if the quality of my writing reaches such a high standard, comparing it to other great writers will be of little value. Being the best in any given field doesn't matter as much as being the best you can be.
And so I will continue running and writing at my slow-but-steady pace because, as we often forget in the chaos and chatter of life, there is no race. We are racing against ourselves. We can't win; we can only enjoy the running and take pleasure in our improvements.