The Poetics of Running

November 10, 2017 | 5 min read

There has long been an interest in “running” writers. The Atlantic, The New York Times, Runners World, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker have all published pieces exploring why so many writers enjoy lacing up their running flats. For the most part, these articles focus on the ways in which running relates to their writing process. For example, Joyce Carol Oates sees running as distinctly poetic, likening the experience to dreaming. In comparison, Malcolm Gladwell sees running as primarily an opportunity to solve “writing problems” and Andre Dubus valued running for its “cathartic” qualities.

Yet with all the focus on running writers, few publications have explored “how” running is used as a device in literary works. And as an avid runner, I can’t help but notice a few distinctions between the way writers talk about running and the way running is used in literature. Many authors note the mental clarity and routine that running affords them when it comes to their creative work. But the act of running in fiction often symbolizes an attempt to flee the chaotic conditions of a character’s emotional life. Such chaos might take shape as a difficult home life or financial stress. It may be because of a broken relationship, the loss of a friend, or the need to escape the emotional realities of the present.

Take “O Youth And Beauty!” by John Cheever, where running is used to clarify the internal conflict of the protagonist Cash Bentley. Cash, a former track star, is obsessed with proving that he is still young and able. His motives are fairly clear—he is in financial straits and seeks to control his life by taking on the impossible task of fighting his aging body. This is expressed by running laps around the interior of houses during cocktail parties. As he runs, Cash hurtles over living room furniture while the rest of the party guests cheer on the spectacle.

For Cheever, running becomes the ideal metaphor to encapsulate one of the story’s themes: you can’t run from time. Ultimately, it’s Cash’s desperation to find the fountain of youth that leads him into a spiral of depression, and at the end of the story it’s this depression that brings him to his untimely death. The juxtaposition between death and physical health are likewise paramount to the story’s running theme, as it highlights the certainty that sooner or later our bodies are no longer able to perform, and in this decline, Cheever exposes Cash’s helplessness.

coverLinking physical ability to control is of course not exclusive to Cheever. In John Irving’s The World According to Garp, sport makes up a crucial component of T.S. Garp’s life. Whenever placed at a moment of crisis, Garp turns to sport to remove himself from the present through “mindless” activity. Although wrestling is Garp’s primary sport, running also becomes a means of escape in order to find control through pattern, repetition, and routine.

Interestingly enough, it is Garp’s routine that links the way he uses running to the way many of the aforementioned authors talk about running. Like with Gladwell, Garp even turns to running when faced with a “writing problem,” as he is a novelist. However, where Garp’s motivations differ from Gladwell’s utilitarian approach is that his runs are strongly tethered to moments in the narrative where his career is at a crossroads. In this case, running to solve “writing problems” is merely the superficial motive, as sport is primarily used to ground the reader in Garp’s anxieties, particularly at moments when he feels emasculated. Running therefore becomes a physical example of his discontent, and is indicative of a search for comfort in his physical body.

If there’s a common idea in run-centric stories and the way writers discuss the subject in interviews and articles, it’s that running has an inherent physicality to it. In the article “To Invigorate Literary Mind, Start Moving Literary Feet,” Joyce Carol Oates discusses how the mind “pulses” in conjunction with the “feet and the swinging of our arms.” In an essay for The New Yorker, Murakami describes his “pounding heart” and “shaking body” after his first experiences as a runner, and how continued practice led to changes in his physical being.

However, describing the body is not the only way to emphasize such physicality. In some instances, a similar effect can be created in stories by placing emphasis on the tangible world surrounding characters. This can be useful when establishing setting, as seen in Andre Dubus’s story “The Doctor.”

The story begins in late March during the transition from winter to spring, as the weather fluctuates between cold and warm. It is on one of these warmer days that Dubus’s protagonist Art goes for a jog. Here’s a description of what he encounters:

About a mile past the brook there were several houses, with short stretches of woods between them. At the first house, a family was sitting at a picnic table in the side yard, reading the Sunday paper. They did not hear him, and he felt like a spy as he passed. The next family, about a hundred yards up the road, was working. Two girls were picking up trash, and the man and woman were digging a flowerbed. The parents turned and waved, and the man called out, “It’s a good day for it!”

In this case, Dubus uses running to generate a feeling for the layout of Art’s town, and likewise provides a sense of the types of people who make up of the neighborhood. Very little attention is paid to the action of running, but rather, the actions of those Art encounters. This allows Dubus to both imply Art’s movement through space and establish a sense of the community.

Beyond clarifying physical space, Dubus uses running to set up the conflict of the story. As Art runs, Dubus describes his warming body as a metaphor for the changes in the physical landscape as winter gives way to spring. Furthermore, Art’s rising body heat brings us nearer to the crisis, as it’s only when Art leaps into a sprint that we realize the story’s primary conflict: a boy is drowning in a once frozen brook after a slab of concrete from a footbridge falls and traps him beneath its weight.

Like with “O Youth And Beauty!”, death serves as a counterpoint to the able-bodied in “The Doctor.” However, for Dubus it’s the boy trapped under the concrete slab who dies, and it is Art’s inability to lift the slab that demonstrates his failure. In both stories, tragedy occurs because the protagonists overestimate the body’s limitations. This idea is underscored at the conclusion of “The Doctor,” when Art realizes that if he had instead tried to rig up a snorkel from a garden hose near the brook, he could’ve saved the boy’s life. The message: brains over brawn.

Attaching the physicality of running to a mental experience is one of the more common themes in both the way writers talk about running and how it’s used in literature. In an article for The Washington Post, running writer Amanda Loudin says that for both writing and running “you need to consistently show up and practice. You need the mental focus to improve. You need to take risks and face potential failure. And you need to get comfortable with all of the above.”  And while the “comfort” Loudin mentions is not a term readily used in association with characters like Cash Bentley or Art, Loudin’s comments do help explain why these stories are effective. It’s because they are stories about the relationship between mental and physical wellbeing, a relationship that keeps coming up time and time again in run-centric texts.

Image Credit: Flickr/Josh Janssen.

is an instructor in the Writing Program at Rutgers University-Newark and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He has also taught art and journalism in New York City public schools, and has participated in a variety of social justice campaigns with a focus on food access and teacher advocacy. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he is hard at work on a novel and a collection of stories. He has run two marathons and several half-marathons.

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