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Joyce Carol Oates' short story, 'Running'

By The Running Muse, Jul 4 2016 08:48PM

Amen to that! The above lines introduced a 1999 New York Times article entitled 'To invigorate literary mind, start moving literary feet'. Its multi-award-winning American author, Joyce Carol Oates, has only just retired as a professor at Princeton, but the 78-year-old still runs 40 minutes every day and maintains her prolific literary output, which includes novels, poetry, essays and plays across a range of subjects and genres. Once when stuck in traffic in a limo on the way to a radio interview, she simply got out and ran four blocks to the studio!


She can't remember not running, just as she can't remember not writing, and she has had plenty to say about the links between running and creativity. Indeed she 'writes' all her stories as she runs, in what she calls a cinematic process: she 'watches' and edits a 'film' of each one as she jogs along the country roads, often imagining ideas waiting for her at the top of each hill or over the horizon.


Oates only actually begins writing the words when she has finished each 'movie' - 'the sentences of a work are a meditation on the ending.....the first sentence can't be written until the final sentence is written' is her rather Escher-like take on it.



Her short story, 'Running', only has four sentences, three of which are very short, so you'd imagine that she would have completed its composition in one run - until you see that one of those sentences lasts for six pages. It narrates a particular running experience, the rhythms of which are echoed in the structure of the writing, in its very breathings and cadences.


More than that, though, it's a stream-of-consciousness meditation of the kind that most runners would recognise from being out on their own, when random thoughts about one's life or the wider world can erupt and expand and form themselves into coherent ideas, thoughts that maybe wouldn't have announced themselves if one had stayed sat at home contemplating the same issues.


Perhaps this happens in response to the environment, or to the adrenaline, or maybe as a result of the extended, isolated time spent on an activity that requires little attention in itself, thus allowing the mind to wander through the back caverns of one's concerns, where ideas are jumping up and down in the dark saying 'Pick me! Pick me!'


The story here chronicles the thoughts of a woman as she runs with her partner in silence along a lakeside forest trail where it is too narrow to run side by side. When her man stops to sort out his shoelaces, she runs ahead, eventually coming to a fork in the road, where she decides on impulse to veer inland through a meadow.


Whether her partner was going to take that same fork in the path was not now a pressing concern for her, for her thoughts had turned to the relationship she has with him, to her sense of self, to her primitive sense of being alone in a wild environment. Perhaps this is what running diaries should be, not just a listing of the weather conditions and the minutes per mile, but a catalogue of reflections.


After a while, she hears voices ahead and sees a group of bare-chested young men by the side of the path. When they spot her approaching, their raucous laughter instantly quietens as their 'rude assessing gazes' focus attention on her.


One of them steps on to the path, and her heart pounds as she weighs up whether to turn back or not.....

Joyce herself isn't a chatty runner: 'When I run with my husband', she once said, 'we are apart and we never talk. I don't understand people who want to talk when they run. My running is meditation.'


She recalls being told as a child that she runs like a deer, and she felt a 'special solitude' running through orchards and fields and lanes and bluffs. When she couldn't sleep on moonlit nights, she would sneak out to run up and down the driveway, embracing 'a feeling of some strange romance, smelling the fresh air - it was almost unspeakably exciting and beautiful'.


Later in life, as both her writing and her running routines developed, she would notice how 'the mind flees 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.' If she couldn't run in the afternoon, her writing would remain 'snarled in endless revisions', while the locations she did run through would often find themselves worked into her novels.


For Joyce Carol Oates, it seems, a bracing run through the wilderness is a literary stretch and warm-up, a summoning of ideas ready for shaping, almost a spiritual exercise in which the runner 'seems to experience in feet, lungs and quickened heartbeat an extension of the imagining self', as she put it.


My own insights into the human condition whilst out running are usually rather more prosaic, punctuated as they are with 'how many more hills to go?' pantings every ten minutes - had I been blessed by the literary Muses, maybe I could have drafted even these inchoate wheezes and whinges into some kind of sub-Beckettian drama. Fortunately, the world can thrill instead to the exquisite prose of Joyce Carol Oates, literary runner.



You can read 'Running' in Garth Battista's anthology, 'The Runner's Literary Companion'. It originally appeared in 1992 in the Ontario Review (Ecco Press).

While the story is set in the Adirondack mountains, near where Oates lives in New York state, the image of the runner here is actually in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state.



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