In some sublime sentences the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima once likened writing to farming. Both required vigilance, daily grind and unceasing dedication, he wrote. Yet at the end of a long season of indefatigable labour one could do no more than hope for the harvest of a plenteous crop.
For Mishima, writing was a relentless whip that brought with it struggling nights, desperate hours and endless toil, the memory of which, by his own admission, would have driven him insane had he ever paused to seriously reflect on the totality. But for all the pain, fear and uncertainty he could acknowledge there was no other way for him to survive but to go on writing one more line, one more line, one more line … ! Therein, perhaps, lay a certain joy.
If I were to choose an analogy I would liken writing to running. Throughout the otherwise meandering track of my life both have formed parallel streams. On an almost daily basis since my late teens, I have taken to the waters of one or the other – and frequently both in quick succession on the same morning or afternoon.
Where athletes were concerned, I was most in awe of marathon runners, whereas amongst writers it was novelists who truly captured my imagination. The novel was the broad canvas I wished to work upon, regardless of how hard it might be to construct a good novel, and I yearned to experience the ‘other world’, as the great Czech Olympic distance runner Emil Zatopek once referred to it, of the marathon.
Suitably inspired, I set myself the twin goals of writing a novel and training for a marathon around the same time in my twenty-first year. Adhering to Mishima’s daily vigilance, I achieved both before my twenty-first birthday. But, inevitably for one as young and inexperienced, when I began the separate but intertwined journeys I encountered obstacles that at times seemed insurmountable. Many years later I still recall the struggles of the time and everything I learnt, and continue to put into practice, as a consequence.
I caught a glimpse of the immense pleasure to be had from setting down a sentence, combining several to form a paragraph and shaping a number of paragraphs into the ‘long-distance writer’s’ pride and delight, none other than a chapter. What satisfaction can be gained from rereading something that has been worked on unstintingly in the past! How thrilling to marvel at the rhythm or the fact that one has said exactly what one aspired to say with the means at hand!
On the evening of the day on which I completed my first marathon, basking in the heady achievement, I reflected ruefully on the fact that I had run unhindered every step of the way. The weeks spent in training had been vastly different. Who among the spectators that morning would have guessed that during the long weeks of training leg soreness often reduced me to an ignoble parody of a runner’s gait? Who, for that matter, among readers can envisage the heartache often at the root of a novel or other piece of writing?
Marathons, like novels, were a hit or miss affair. There were no guarantees. A sore spot might flare up on the last training run or on the day itself. Inspiration might go missing on the final page. The onus, in that case, lay on the practitioner to proceed one step, one sentence, at a time, to render each as adroitly as possible. Viewed from such a perspective, joy was there for the taking. Every moment writing, running, living would then never be less than joyful.