#43: Train Your Weaknesses, Write Your Strengths (What I Learned About Writing From Running, and Vice Versa)
Andy Jones-Wilkins, Paul Terranova, Meg LeFauve, Lorien McKenna, Nick Fuller Googins, my Uncle John
The year I turned 35, I took up running as part of a broader attempt to get in better shape and to address some other health issues. Before that year, I’d never ran farther than a mile—and maybe I had only done a mile twice, once in gym class and once in a high school track meet, during a season where I worked out with the sprinters trying to get quicker for football and wrestling—but I soon found that I liked distance running quite a bit, at least once I built up my capacity. Eight years later, I’d argue that any given day’s first mile is still often the hardest—and when you can only run a mile, that means they’re all hard—but once I could run multiple miles at a time, I found that the middle of a long run could every so often be something close to transcendent.
I completed my first half-marathon a year after I started running, my first marathon a year after that, and my first trail ultramarathon three months after the marathon. (I signed up for that first 50K in part to make the marathon seem less intimidating, a delusional mental trick that worked out just fine.) Around this time, I realized that my daily running was a lot like my daily writing: for me, it’s almost always a challenge to get started, but more often than not I reach a pleasurable and productive flow state if I only persist in the day’s effort.
I’ve since ran another twenty-five or thirty races of varying lengths, and these days I not only spend a lot of time running, but also a lot of time thinking about running, especially how to get better at it. Recently, I’ve put aside the formal plans I once used for each race distance, instead relying on past experience and what my body is currently telling me to figure out how I want to plan my weeks or the next build-up to a race. One of my guiding principles is to try to address whatever hurts me or fails me during my runs with additional work in the gym: when I had lower back pain, I added in exercises to strengthen those muscles; when my knees hurt, I strengthened and stretched my IT bands; when I was cramping more than I liked at the end of very long runs, I added in more core work. There was no theory behind this approach except that it seemed instinctually right: if there was a lack I could identify, then I should try to fix it.
It’s probably obvious, but this isn’t exactly a new idea. In fact, earlier this week, I was listening to a conversation between the ultrarunners Andy Jones-Wilkins and Paul Terranova, where Terranova offhandedly said that one strategy he used was to “Train your weaknesses and run your strengths.” (He’s certainly not the first person to say this, but I had a little trouble figuring out who was. It’s not that important!) I perked up at this aphorism in part because I immediately realized that this is what I’ve been doing this past year: identifying weakness and trying to train it away, all while steadily plugging away at the larger project of prepping for my next race.
It didn’t take long for me to reason that this is another thing I had to learn as a runner that I already did as a writer: as a novelist, I spend very little time thinking about my strengths, even though I rely on them constantly; instead I focus most of my "training”—reading craft books and essays, learning new techniques, scouring interviews and podcasts for process tips, attending book events and workshops—on whatever I perceive as my current lacks. I want to benefit from my natural abilities, but I don’t want to be held back by my natural weaknesses, which can only be improved by addressing them head on.
Probably because I talk about running as much as I do writing on social media, I’m frequently asked in interviews or in conversation about what I’ve learned about writing from running, or vice versa. It’s a question I ponder often, in part because I’m absolutely sure that it’s the mental habits I built to become a writer that allowed me to become a better runner than that slow, slow mile I ran decades ago in gym class might’ve suggested was possible: it’s the brain, not the body. In the hopes that some of the same mental habits that help me might be useful to you in your own writing practice, here are some of my favorite shared tactics from these two obsessive activities of mine:
A race is an accumulation of steps. (Literally.) So is a book. I’ve given dozens of craft talks about novel writing since Refuse to Be Done came out, and one of the most reliably reassuring things I tell people in those talks is that the task on any given day of writing a novel is never to write a novel. A day’s work might be a scene or a chapter; it might be a paragraph or a sentence; it might be outlining or research. Similarly, the idea of running thirteen or twenty-six or more miles is incredibly daunting, even after you’ve done it a few times. (Someone once said that the novel you’re writing doesn’t know about the novels you’ve already written; same goes for races, which give you little quarter for having done the distance before.) But you can’t run even a single mile without breaking it down into smaller parts: the only way to run a mile is to run it one step at a time. When I’m struggling mentally during a run, feeling intimidated by what’s left, I sometimes count my steps to try to stay in the moment: I count one to ten, and then I start again, over and over. I do this because it is sometimes very hard to imagine running another mile, let alone another five or twenty, but it is almost always possible to take ten more steps. And then ten more. And then ten more after that. Same with writing: the idea of writing another hundred pages is sometimes so daunting you might as well give up. But surely you can write one more page. You can write one more sentence. You can write more sentence many many times, if you don’t ever try to do more than that at once—which you can’t do anyway. One step, one sentence at a time. There’s no other way to do it.
Manage uncertainty and difficulty with problem solving. One of the certainties of long-distance endurance sports is that thing can and will go wrong during every event. A 50K run in the desert requires you to pace yourself well for hours, navigate various kinds of terrain (often alone), eat and drink enough to fuel the effort without trashing your stomach, and manage your mental state. Sometimes there’s some route-finding involved. There may be weather to contend with, including extreme heat; I’ve ran at least one long race where the terrain was steep enough I had to run with trekking poles in hand. These are intimidating events, and I bring my own anxieties and worries to them, every time. But part of the pleasure of such events is how you have to problem solve your way through them, a process that starts in training and continues throughout the event. Similarly, writing a novel or even a single story requires constant problem solving, at the level of structure, character, story, and the sentence. Instead of being intimidated by the challenges of the book I’m writing, I do my best to approach the challenges as a series of problems to solve: If my plot has gotten too complex, how can I simplify or streamline it? If I can’t figure out a character’s motivation, can I write some backstory to explore their past? Every finished book is the outcome of a problem solving process, most of which can and should be hidden from the reader.
Achieve outcome goals by pursuing process goals. In the weeks before a big race, I’ll write up a race plan that begins with a series of outcome goals. Usually the first one is a stretch goal time, the second is a fallback goal time in case I miss the first, and the third might just be to finish the race. (For my last ultra, I had two additional outcome goals, to “not bonk,” since I’ve struggled some in the last five miles of every ultra I’ve done; and “have fun,” which is always worth writing down as a goal.) Under each of these, I write my process goals: the pace I’m going to maintain, the way I’m going to approach certain parts of the course, the way I’m going to fuel and hydrate, and so on. Hitting these tangible process goals is what makes the outcome goals possible. In my writing life, if “write a novel” is my outcome goal, process goals might be “write 500 words a day” or “finish a chapter every week” or “revise my outline before beginning rewrites.” Once again, the idea is to make the outcome goal possible by focusing on tangible steps. Importantly, process goals have to be things you can personally control.
Practice positive visualization. I wrestled from age five or six on through high school, starting with youth leagues whose Saturday tournaments were spread throughout rural Michigan, which meant a lot of early mornings in the car with my dad or my Uncle John, the latter of whom had been an excellent high school wrestler and then a beloved coach. I can still remember exactly how my Uncle John spent one of those trips telling me about how to use positive visualization to improve my outcomes: imagining an activity going well, including imagining the steps along the way. I remember this kind of thinking feeling like a magic trick, when I was a kid: I’d lie in bed and imagine myself making takedowns, working toward pins, winning matches. I never really became that good of a wrestler, just a dedicated one—but that positive visualization technique has stayed with me as I moved into other endeavors. As a runner, I frequently watch YouTube videos of courses I plan to race or of professional runners charging over mountain trails with ease, filling my imagination with images of people running confidently over the landscape, images I can draw on during difficult parts of a race; I picture myself powering up hills, flowing down singletrack descents, passing other runners. As a writer, I might imagine myself giving a reading from the novel I’m writing, or how I’ll feel finding that future book on a shelf in my favorite bookstore. Sometimes I just picture myself at my desk, working well. All this positive visualization means that when the time comes to actually do the thing—run the race, write the book, query the agent, give the reading—the task may already feel familiar, completable, and joyful.
Love what you want to learn. A year or two ago, I listened to an episode of The Screenwriting Life, the podcast hosted by Meg LeFauve and Lorien McKenna, where one of the hosts mentioned that she had begun addressing her feeling that she wasn’t good at pitching her ideas by constantly telling herself that she loved pitching. The point wasn’t that this immediately made her good at pitches—although I’m sure that would’ve been nice—but that it made her a receptive antenna for other people’s tips and tactics for pulling off successful pitches. The same thing can work for running or writing. Bad at running up hills? Tell yourself you love running hills and soon you start clicking on articles about how to do it better, eager to hear more about this new favorite activity of yours. Struggle with writing transitions? Tell yourself that you’re a transition connoisseur and soon you’ll find yourself eager to see how other writers pull them off, creating a new form of attention whose findings will eventually trickle down into your own process. This mental trick turns a lack into a joy, a place of positive mental engagement instead of avoidance. Whenever I catch myself being negative about some ability of mine—on the run or at the desk—I try to reframe it in this way, often to surprising effect across the following weeks or months.
Run your own race. Write your own book. Sometimes this is the hardest thing in the world to do, but it’s so crucial. On race day, it’s so easy to get caught up in the rush out of the gate, to find yourself running a pace you didn’t train for or making some other deviation to your plan because of what’s happening around you. And probably everyone reading this newsletter has been made unhappy or discouraged by comparing themselves to the perceived ease with which others are writing or publishing. But so many of the runners who go too hard off the start line blow up later, and so many writers only present the positive parts of their process or their achievements in public (including on social media), then vanish when things are hard. Comparison is inevitable but so often what we’re comparing ourselves against isn’t the truth. Even if it was, it would only help us so much: I can’t be a different runner than I am, and I can’t be a different writer either. No matter what anyone else is doing around me, I have to keep progressing in my own way, which just happens to be the only way I’m able.
When all else fails, find a way to make relentless forward progress. One of the first ultramarathon training books I read was Byron Powell’s Relentless Forward Progress, a title that has stuck in my mind ever since. It’s a good reminder of what it takes to train for and complete an endurance event but it applies just as well to writing a novel. I always hope that this next book will be the one that comes easier and gets finished faster, but all I can control is what I choose to do when the inevitable challenges arise. Ease would be lovely, I suppose, but relentless forward progress gets books written too. It’s certainly how I wrote all of mine.
There will always be a time you want to quit. Don’t. Every race I’ve ever run has included a stretch where I wanted to give up. I have always finished the race. Every novel I’ve ever started has had its own dark days or weeks or months where I wanted to bail. I have quit novels—and for at least a few of those projects, I wish I could take those DNFs back. There are good reasons to bail, but don’t quit just because the challenge you’ve set yourself is hard. It being hard is the point—so many of the good things that come out of completing a race or a book are a direct result of the difficulty overcome.
Novel writing is an endurance sport. So is the writing career. It’s hard to write and publish even a single book. There’s no reason to pretend it’s not. Then, after you’re done, you have to decide if you have it in you to do it all again. There are plenty of reasons so many writers of lauded debuts don’t make it to book five, much less to ten or twenty. Writing is hard. Publishing is harder. Not everything about the career is under your control but you have to find a way to endure what comes. Building up your reserves of perseverance and focusing on the joy of the process instead of chasing the uncertainty of the rewards will see you through better than almost anything else. Or at least that’s what I hope. What I want, more than anything, is to last.
What I’m Reading:
The Great Transition by Nick Fuller Googins. I absolutely loved this book, and I believe it’s one of the most important climate change novels we have right now, in part because it depicts a believable transition away from fossil fuels on a global scale. It’s hard to purposely arrive in a future we can’t imagine, and Googins’s novel will help readers imagine some of the work that needs to be done in the years ahead, as well as what life might be like after. (It’s also a smart, fun thriller, which is its own joy.) Here’s the blurb I wrote, when I first read it last year: “Googins demonstrates exactly the kind of clear-eyed utopian thinking we’ll need more of as we work together to solve our climate crisis, wrapping a call to action, accountability, and mutual aid in a story that’s as thrilling as it is moving. Every worthwhile novel sets out to change its reader—this one sets out to change the world. I hope it does.”
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Matt Bell’s novel Appleseed (a New York Times Notable book) was published by HarperCollins in July 2021. His craft book Refuse to Be Done, a guide to novel writing, rewriting, & revision, is out now from Soho Press. He’s also the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.