Outrunning your inner critic: what writers can learn from runners


by Prof. Jonathan Butler | Faculty Writer

At some point during graduate school I found myself compelled to run. Although I’d hiked hundreds of miles, I’d never been much of an athlete, and running was about the last thing I’d previously wanted to do. But, soon I bought a pair of running shoes and started making tentative jaunts around the neighborhood. I don’t know what triggered the sudden and compelling urge to run, but I suspect it had something to do with all of the reading and writing I had to do to survive my courses.

As most runners could tell you, running can be a type of meditative activity that gives the mind space to process material. More than once I’ve had a solution to a problem that I wasn’t even thinking about present itself to me during a run. It wasn’t until years later, when I was simultaneously working on my dissertation and starting to push for longer runs, that I started to notice another connection: running and writing seemed to mirror and support one another in some interesting ways. That’s not to say that everyone who wants to write needs to lace up a pair of Nikes, but I think there are a few things all writers can learn from the similarities in the processes.

The first parallel I noticed between writing and running is that neither feels particularly good in the beginning. In fact, you feel like you’re dying. I run between three and eight miles, five or six days a week, and the first half-mile is always a forced, uncomfortable slog. After a couple of miles, however, I get warmed up, and by the end I feel a lot better than when I started. This is in part because during the first mile or so, I’m paying a little bit too much attention to what my body is doing, deliberately adjusting my stride and pace and trying to feel things out.

This involves a sort of critical attention that makes oneself both the subject and object of one’s own observations, and it corresponds to the critical aspect of the mind that makes the first several hundred words of a piece of writing difficult by endlessly interrogating them. This is the voice that wants every sentence to be perfect before moving on. It’s a very useful aspect of the mind, but it’s also a potential handicap if it has too much influence over the process.

After that first mile, I’ve usually relaxed into my stride; I’m still monitoring my body, paying attention to my pace and making little adjustments as I go, but I’ve also settled into the rhythm, and that rhythm is what is missing from the first half-mile to mile of any given run. It’s also missing when you begin a piece of writing: even though I sit down with my notebook or laptop daily, the beginning of each day’s writing feels like beating my head against a wall. The critical mind wants to interrupt constantly to make corrections, and this makes it difficult to settle into a rhythm. In her book “Writing Down the Bones,” Natalie Goldberg gives great advice for getting past this critical stumbling block: outrun it. Train yourself to write quickly, ignoring the critical voice that wants to slow down or go back and make corrections; there will be time for that in subsequent drafts. In the meantime, your goal is to get down as much as you can as quickly as you can.

A simple timed writing exercise will help you overcome your inner critic: set an alarm for ten minutes and then write without stopping or editing until the ten minutes are up. The results won’t be perfect; in fact, they’ll probably be a mess. But, with repetition, this exercise will help you get past the critical voice that always wants to slow down, go back, and attempt to make things perfect before going forward.

In his excellent book “On Writing,” Stephen King describes a similar formula that he follows: during the first draft of a novel, King resists the urge to edit and correct. He just goes forward, without much of an idea where he’s going, until he reaches the end. Then, having finished a draft, he puts it away for a month. After a month, he comes back to the work with a critical eye and the goal of cutting ten percent of the total word count.

Besides outrunning one’s inner critic, another technique to practice is working in uncertainty. John Keats called this “negative capability,” a capacity for “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” It can be scary to not know where we’re going; it can also be exhilarating. Just as, in running, you ultimately have to settle into the body’s rhythm and stop trying to control everything with the mind, in writing it’s useful to develop a capacity to let go of the need to control everything and move toward an established destination.

In fact, not having a particular destination in mind can get us to some interesting places. One of the runners Christopher McDougall describes in “Born to Run,” an eccentric gringo nicknamed Caballo Blanco, or “white horse,” takes great pleasure in using very long runs to explore his surroundings. Far from pounding away at the treadmill every day, Caballo sets out on exploratory runs that take him through terrain he’s never explored.

Part of what works about this is that it stays interesting. I doubt anyone can look forward to running in the same room everyday on the same treadmill. The element of exploration helps keep running vital for Caballo, and this in turn means that he does it often and with gusto.

Stephen King’s writing is driven largely by an interest in seeing where his stories go; he’d probably be a lot less inclined to write them if he already knew how they’d turn out.

You might think that while setting out without much of an idea where you’re going might work fine for a runner or a novelist, it’s bound to get you into trouble with academic writing. It’s true that in scholarly writing it helps to have an idea where you’re heading—certainly research questions are helpful—just as Caballo Blanco sets out with a rough idea that today he might run up a particular mountain, but in scholarship it’s also very important to be open to the twists and turns that develop as you pursue your research and think more about your topic. This is what leaves space for discovery in your writing. After all, if you already knew the conclusions of your research before you started, there would be little point in writing and research in the first place.

Something McDougall emphasizes throughout “Born to Run” is the importance of proper nutrition: if you want your body to perform at its optimum level, you have to give it the right kind of fuel. It’s the same with writing, except that in the case of writing your fuel is what you read. The writers I’ve mentioned so far would all testify that a steady diet of heavy reading is a necessity for a writer; just as a runner needs calories, a writer needs to be fed on language.

Stephen King even includes a list of books that have been important to him as an appendix to “On Writing.” Writers, and especially young writers, tend to make two mistakes with their reading: the first is not reading the genre they’re trying to work in, and the second is reading too narrowly within that genre.

I was once the poetry editor for a literary magazine, and, as I sifted through the many submissions we received, it was always obvious which writers didn’t read contemporary poetry (their work always sounded artificially archaic, since their ideas about poetry were informed by works from the 19th-century and before) and which didn’t read poetry at all (these were strange, mutant specimens of language, and their mutations were not the sort that enhances fitness or chances of survival). Just imagine going for a run after a few days of eating nothing but candy and you’ll get the idea.

I believe I’ve just about run this metaphor into the ground, but my point, on the whole, is simply that, like running, writing can go from being an uncomfortable slog that makes you feel like you’re dying to something you look forward to and benefit from. Give yourself permission to not know where you’re going and enjoy the ride. You might be pleasantly surprised at where you end up.