I’ve never been an athletic person. As a child I hated PE lessons: I was the heavy-limbed, rotund child at the very back of the class, chest tight and miserable, suffering in the swamp that is Singapore’s idea of acceptable weather. Every year we had to take a national physical fitness exam consisting of six parts, and every year I struggled to pass the most daunting section of the exam for me: The 2.4-km (1.5-mile) run. Six rounds on the inside of a running track, and I’d start walking in the second round. To pass you needed to finish the run within seventeen minutes; I usually took more than twenty.
I’m not good at running.
I hated running and PE lessons so much that the moment I got into college and exited the regimented timetables of public education, I stopped exercising altogether. For eight years I performed as much physical activity as a sea slug. There was an actual point where my body tried turning itself into one. I had to see a doctor for mysterious knee pains and she told me my thigh muscles had atrophied so much my kneecaps had come loose and were grinding against the bones of my lower leg. Intervention meant doing squats and lunges and other things to strengthen the muscles of the legs. No running.
Eventually, as a working adult, I started going to the gym, doing weights and mat exercises and group yoga classes. Slowly, my fitness level improved. I went from turning into a limp noodle after the warm-ups for dance class, to managing to survive a whole hour upright. I thought, I’m alright at this. Working out is fun! It’s stress relief and I eat and sleep better and my mood always improves after a good hour or so of sweating. I kept at it and it made me happy.
When I moved to the UK, an income-less student clinging to her life savings in a currency half the strength of the pound sterling, I needed some way to work out that involved no money whatsoever. I had my trainers tucked into one of my suitcases. My university has long roads and a sweeping green next to a lake. The answer seemed obvious.
The first time I ran the circuit encompassing dorms, university and lake green, I had to walk down stairs sideways for a week. After that, it got easier. My leg muscles adapted to the new demands I was putting on them.
By the markings on the map they handed out to new students, the route I run is just about 2.4km long, more downhill bits than uphill ones. I run it about two to three times a week, in the mornings when the student body remains stubbornly rolled in their blankets. The lake half of the run is always a delight. There have been sunrises in a hipster’s pastel palette, there have been rolling sheets of fog. In subzero temperatures the spongecake ground firms up and the grass crunches with white frost. I take it easy, slowing on the uphill bits and speeding up going downhill only if I feel like it. Running along the green I always put on the Dragonborn theme from the Skyrim soundtrack to get myself pumped up.
For the first time in my life, I’m enjoying it.
I’m still a terrible runner. I’m slow as hell. 1.5 miles two times a week is practically nothing. Pushing my heart rate too fast will give me a migraine later in the day, so I make sure I never get too out of breath.
This morning, as I ran through a university still hollow and quiet at 7.30am, a man joined me as I hit the last stretch of the route, 300m uphill along the lake green. He was going a lot faster than I was. He came from behind, overtook me, and then continued going, footsteps sure and competent as he drew away from me.
I felt suddenly self-conscious, watching the red back of his shirt growing smaller in my vision. I thought, damn, I should try keep up. This leisurely jog isn’t even proper exercise. You suck at this running thing.
And then common sense took over, and thought, so what? So what if I suck at this running thing. I’m not running a marathon, I’m not training for the fucking Olympics. I run because it feels good and I enjoy it. Why do I have to measure myself against this stranger, who’s probably also enjoying his run?
When I was a kid, I hated running because there was a teacher at the end of the track, stopwatch in hand, timing every round and failing whoever didn’t make the cut. It made me afraid of running because measuring myself against everyone else’s abilities made me feel defective and worthless. The idea that I might just like running seemed unthinkable.
I’m glad I was wrong.
I think the same thing applies to writing. It’s something that I’ve turned over and over in my mind lately. It’s awards season, and that means watching all my brilliant friends win nominations for the amazing work they’ve put out in the past year. It’s a time of great celebration, but also a time of intense impostor syndrome. I feel an immense pressure to keep up, to write that story that will get you on a ballot, get you in a Year’s Best, get your name as a footnote in history somewhere.
But harping on that pressure will send me sliding down a rabbit hole of insecurities that has no bottom. I don’t want that. I don’t need that.
I write because I like writing. I write because I have stories I want to tell. I write because I want to share these stories with people. There’s nothing more to it than that.
If I keep trying to measure my writing up to some arbitrary standard, it’ll never end. There’s always going to be someone more brilliant, someone who writes more poetic stories, someone who writes more crowd-pleasing stories. Wins more awards or wins bigger awards. The teacher at the end of the track will never be satisfied.
I know that if I treat the art of writing like the fucking Olympics it will drain all the pleasure out of it for me. Writing isn’t a sport. There aren’t winners and losers. You can’t come last in writing.
Recently I read an article in the New Yorker where Haruki Murakami talked about his running habits, and how it relates to his writing. It’s a great article, full of lovely insights (as expected of the man), but what I keep coming back to is this particular bit:
I think that I’ve been able to run for more than twenty-five years for one reason: it suits me. Or, at least, I don’t find it all that painful. Human beings naturally continue doing things they like, and they don’t continue doing what they don’t like.
I realised I felt the exact same way about my running, even if what I was doing was on a scale miniscule compared to his (he runs marathons! That’s more than 40 km!)
I keep running because it suits me. And I keep writing because it suits me. If I try to make it anything more than that, I’ll ruin it.
And so it goes.