I was running uphill into the wind for a few kilometres yesterday* when this blog post started writing itself in my mind. This often happens to me when I run. Creative hares are startled out of their usual forms and my brain takes off on tangents previously unknown. I suspect that it’s partially disassociation; after all, running can be somewhat uncomfortable at times. I think, though, that there’s a distinct parallel between the creative process and physical training that shows up when the goin’ gets tough.
There comes a point in the design and construction of every really challenging and involved work of art in which the artist steps back from the design wall and says, “What the hell am I doing?” This is often followed by the, “This isn’t working. This is crap,” self-talk. I don’t know at what stage other artists hit this “wall,” but for me, it’s often about two-thirds of the way in, once a real investment of time and energy has been made. When you’re first starting out, of course, this scares the willies out of you. After all, you’ve sketched and planned and worked and studied and the result looks… awful.
This is the turning point of the work and if you’ve been around for a while, you know it for what it is, a moment of truth and decision and it doesn’t scare you quite so much. This is the point at which all of the deficiencies in design coalesce and become obvious. Any construction hurdles suddenly become very real and can appear very complicated. Basically, this is the point at which your goal contrives to scare the crap out of you using all the tools at its disposal.
When I was about half-way up a jeezly-big hill yesterday (still going into the wind, thanks for asking!) I had the same sort of a moment in a physical sense. The hill was really big. The wind was just plain mean. My legs were burning because I had been going fairly fast leading up to the hill (this was the training plan). I got about halfway up and my brain said, “This sucks. We should go home. The wind would be at our backs and it would be downhill.” In other words, it was the, “What the hell am I doing? This isn’t working. This is crap,” talk all over again.
If I had only been running for a few weeks, I’m not sure I could have talked myself out of that one given how horrible my body was feeling, since it felt like I was using legs of leg to propel myself two steps forward and one step back. After all, developing the ability to argue with oneself (and win) is, perhaps, the real thing you train for as a runner. Every really good run makes you ask some fairly substantial questions of your self, your commitment to your goals, your realistic abilities and your dogged determination to be bloody-minded about the whole thing. You learn to use tools like breaking the hill down into smaller pieces (“I’ll just get to the next telephone pole. Then the next.”) You also learn that the actual answers to the important questions “Why are you out here?” and “How badly do you want whatever you’re training for?” are the fuel that will gun you up that last hill in a way that no mental trick can.
Not every run is like that, of course. Some are perfectly pleasant and flow along tickety-boo without effort, just like certain pieces of artwork almost seem to create themselves, using your hands and eyes as merely the vehicles by which they spring into the world. These fleeting moments of grace, in which the creative spirit flows without hindrance or in which your feet barely touch the earth while you glide along the trail, are borne of the hard questions that never go away and the firm answers that build in strength each time you find them.
* Since I live in Torbay, “uphill” is pretty much a given and being in Newfoundland, “into the wind” happens more often than not, although this run was in 70k/h gusts. I choose to believe that this builds character.