The Exercise of Writing

Today’s guest post comes from contributor, Elaine Kehoe. Her short story “Breakage” appears in Issue 12 of The Quotable.

I am a writer working to get better at my craft. I am an occasional jogger lucky just to be able to go out and get my legs to move. Sometimes, on fortunate days, both these personas will meld, and I slip into that blessed state in which words come to me by themselves while I run. A scene or poem or short-short story will spool out almost without my will. I’m excited, pumped with endorphins, and eager to get it down.

Then something happens between mind and paper or screen. The words I’ve scrawled or typed don’t seem as exciting. They’re all there, but I think, is that all there is? It seemed longer, more poetic, better somehow in the immediacy of creation.

Why is it that the thing you thought was so wonderful while you were composing it mentally seems more ordinary when you see it in print?

Those endorphins—the mental energy and “high”—can make our minds run faster than our bodies. When I sit down to write, I pick and choose words carefully, create and discard sentences, think carefully about sentence structure, struggle to get my thoughts down while I’m thinking them, get caught up in recursive loops. When I jog, my thoughts may come in an unstoppable flow. They create a cornucopia of possibilities, all of which are active at the same time and any of which I can choose simultaneously. If I change wording or dialogue, what it was is still there in my mind, accumulating in layers, and the pentimento makes it all seem much richer. I need to form clear images or retrace the words in my mind in order to remember them, so that they stand out in relief and feel more unique and important.

Does just the act of writing it down, looking at it, change my point of view? There it is, and it feels as though it’s open to the world; it isn’t just my secret any more. The tiny beautiful stone hidden under the plant leaf is revealed, but does the sunlight enhance it or bleach it white?

Sometimes those stones turn out to be gems, and I find them through the flow of thought that moves as my body does. Sometimes the gems are raw, and when I hold them, I have no idea whether they have any value. They need to be polished and faceted through hard work before they can show their depths to the world. Writing requires both: easy inspiration and hard work. Like physical exercise, it taxes me, challenges me, and takes me to places within myself that I haven’t been to before. And the longer I do it, the more confidence I build.

Jogging is not a magic formula that makes writing easy. Writing doesn’t just come to us when we want it to. Both exercises are work, and both are rewarding: a healthier body and a mind expanded by imagination. Both are worth it.