July 23, 2012
Literary epiphanies while running
by Claire Kelley
After our first long training run this weekend in preparation for the New York City Marathon, the leader of my running group called everyone together to make a few announcements. After talking about nutrition, the workout schedule, and other practical details, she concluded by telling the group that after each long run, she is going to encourage everyone to share epiphanies they have while running. Everyone looked quizzical. “I have an epiphany while running all the time,” she explained. “Like the time I realized I needed to get a new job, or came up with the perfect age to have a child. Maybe you’ll realize how to end the novel you’ve been working on.”
I knew exactly what she meant. James Joyce was fascinated by epiphanies—times when something would inspire a deep realization, a clear and dramatic moment of understanding. He attempted to record and collect his own ephiphanies as fragments of writing, but he would also use them as literary devices. In The Dead, Gretta and Gabriel’s ephiphanies are inspired by sensory experiences—hearing a song, a touch, feeling the cold in the room.
Perhaps ephiphanies are more likely while running because because our sensory systems are hyper-aware and flooded with endorphins. Joyce Carol Oates felt this too, and connects creativity and running in an essay in the New York Times:
Running! If there’s any activity happier, more exhilarating, more nourishing to the imagination, I can’t think what it might be. In running the mind flies with the body; the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms. Ideally, the runner who’s a writer is running through the land and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting.
Running solves problems for Oates, and allows her to experience ephiphanies in her writing:
The structural problems I set for myself in writing, in a long, snarled, frustrating and sometimes despairing morning of work, for instance, I can usually unsnarl by running in the afternoon… Both running and writing are highly addictive activities; both are, for me, inextricably bound up with consciousness. I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t running, and I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t writing.
Haruki Murakami has the same attitude. In his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, he seems addicted to running as a way of training and preparing himself to be disciplined as a writer. “Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day,” he says.
Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.