Inbreath, Outbreath: Thoughts from a Writing Retreat
‘Focus on your breathing’. It’s the advice given in all sorts of situations, usually ones you don’t want to be in, like having an anxiety attack or holding an uncomfortable pose for an unreasonable length of time. I imagine it was one of the things my friend Lainey told me when we began running together, 12 years ago in London – the first time I had enjoyed running rather than enduring it. Breathing is a distraction. The cool friction going into your lungs, the oxygen blast of relief, the push of the carbon dioxide going the other way. When in a real panic, one of the best techniques I ever came across was to push hard and slowly on those outbreaths to slightly deplete the oxygen in the brain. I’m not sure I’m able to recommend this, but it works for me.
Of course, it doesn’t work when you’re running. But then, it’s rare to panic when you’re running; the body seems to find it impossible. There is too much for it to concentrate on.
It takes a certain amount of confidence to move quickly
It takes a certain amount of confidence to move quickly, beyond the pace of usual movement. If you’re not used to it, or out of practice, it can feel a bit ridiculous, which is probably why I don’t tend to run around where I live. But I took it up again, at first tentatively, in Grez-sur-Loing when I was on the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship. I’m not sure why. I think it was because I wanted to explore the nearby villages without looking like a snooper or a tourist. Running makes you seem purposeful, but you can also take things in more slowly than blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cycling.
Then there’s the idea of interrupted routine. Being in a new place often encourages you to explore a different kind of physicality, without feeling the clash between the person you are in everyday life and the person you are in that new moment. In the same way, artist residencies can push you to take different creative directions. You don’t feel trapped. No one knows you or your work, not the strange new birds camping on your windowsill or the people downstairs at the breakfast table. There are no deadlines, no ‘shoulds’. If you want to read at 10am on a Thursday morning you can. If you want to lie in the sunshine and imagine the dragonflies coming to life, you can. If you want to toss away the story you started because it isn’t working, you can. If you want to run to clear your head and start over again, you can. Creativity is unpredictable, like the body, but creative people, like athletes, find a way through the mess. Through discipline and trial and error. For me, I felt as if I had proved my self-discipline the previous year, by writing The Amber Shadows, to contract, in a year. The RLS fellowship became more about trial and error, finding different ways of writing in a different space. Probably the same reasons why I took up running there.
Don’t think about the ridiculousness of what you’re doing
There are other similarities between writing and running. Both make you – or me, anyway – feel a little bit preposterous. They are unnatural compared to logical, sensible, practical living, and yet there is something compulsive to both. It feels right to do them, even though they conjure up a weird, unnatural, dysfunctional kind of consciousness. In writing and running I also find I hit sudden walls – a whack where you can’t keep going any further – and in both cases the only way through is to grit and push. Focus on your breathing. Don’t think about the ridiculousness of what you’re doing. Then you hit the highs and feel as if you could run or write forever. It doesn’t last. The walls come back.
Put good things in – breathe, read – and keep your focus while you push them out: write, run. You could probably use the analogy of imbibing and vomiting but it’s less romantic than breathing.
I don’t know why I like making comparisons like this but they feel comforting, as if you can learn something from one thing and apply it to the other, or convince yourself to persevere with one because you’re capable of persevering with another. Inbreath, outbreath: simple.
It’s something I do a lot - comparing things with writing. It’s become a sort of hobby, an obsession. Training a rescue dog, looking for a new flat. In the end I think it sums up what writing is to me. Some kind of perseverance whose motivations elude me in a way I don’t really want to fully understand. Why do humans like to move fast? Why do we want to find the limits of our physicality? Why does my greyhound, when I’ve left him on his own for a few hours, express his joy at seeing me by doing nutty loops of the garden? Why does a horse’s body take on such a glorious shape when it begins to canter? Why on earth do we want to escape into fantasy worlds for a good portion of our conscious lives, much less create them?
I did not find the answers to these on my residency. But I had to the freedom to feel as if they were reasonable things to spend time considering.