As a child, I spent much of my life inside because that was where the books were. My early memories are of reading on couches, floors, beds — I preferred the prone position to the upright because it seemed to signal a longer commitment. I became a connoisseur of light and shadow, the shifting angles of sun as it moved across the windows.
Relatives and family friends often prodded me: "Don't you think you should go run around a bit?"
No, I didn't.Anything that made me put down the book was my enemy. And of course these requests always seemed to come at the book's best part, at the moment I was so deep in the living dream that coming up gave me the bends. I offended more than one adult by staring blankly at them, before managing a "No, thanks" and returning to my pages.
Despite my obliviousness, I couldn't help but notice it was always exercise offered in exchange. (No one ever said, "Don't you think you should play video games for a bit?") So inevitably exercise became associated with resentment and drudgery. Every moment I spent on laps in gym class was a moment that kept me from finishing Watership Down. And for what? My reward was getting sweaty, hot, and usually sunburnt.
Writing, my second love, seemed like a simple extension of my approach to reading: if you sat long enough, if you held still, the story would tell itself. This strategy worked well for my first attempts, which were less than five pages long and usually featured at least one tyrannosaurus. But as I got older and my ideas became more ambitious, I found myself getting antsy and distracted after a few hours, which never happened when I was reading. My words would begin to slow, then peter out. My brain went numb. In response, I made myself sit longer, as though I could will the story into existence through stamina alone. To avoid the constant, looming blankness, I began staring out the window. I remember thinking how nice it would be if I were outside, not trapped at my desk. What I really needed was a long walk.
With a rebellious thrill, I abandoned my paper and pencil and tied on my sneakers. This was before the days of health articles trumpeting the impact of exercise on the brain (or at least, before I was reading such articles). Words like serotonin and endorphins meant nothing to me. But before I had gone 10 blocks, my agitation eased and the blankness began receding. Over the course of a few miles, the sentences and storylines that had been snarled in my head slowly worked themselves loose. I had found my cure.
The years that followed would lend themselves well to a training montage. I joined a gym. I began lifting weights and walking every day. I stopped getting winded when I climbed stairs and managed my first ever pull-up. But most importantly, I was writing. The more I exercised, the more the ideas seemed to flow — new characters, new plot points, new words, all eager to be turned into ink. I was giddy with it, filling page after page as fast as I could.
And it wasn't long before I began wondering: if some exercise was good, then surely more exercise was better. By September of my freshman year of college, I was running almost six miles a day. Not much in actual terms, but for a recovering layabout, it felt like Chariots of Fire. The weather that season was perfect — the apotheosis of New England fall, with sunny days, cool air, and riotous colors on every side. And there, pounding down the streets of Providence, I began writing a novel.
A routine developed: I would run for an hour, composing sentences in my head, then burst into my room, sweaty and gasping to get them all down.For the first time in my life, I felt like a real writer, flush with creative riches, gloating over my growing word count. If I kept up this pace, I told myself, I would finish the book by spring. The flood of words that followed my workouts became so addictive that I stopped writing any other time. Why bother? Sitting down at the computer without running first made me feel dull and plodding. By the same logic, I also stopped going back to edit what I had written. It seemed blasphemous, somehow, an insult to my fleet-footed muse.
When I finished the story, I proudly gave it to my roommate. She read it and, with a superhuman diplomacy that would endear her to me forever, said, "I'm so proud of you for finishing it."
"Did you like it?" I asked.
"It was definitely interesting. But I was a little confused by the thing about the main character's feet. They're possessed by ancient Roman poets?"
"No!" I said. "She just thinks they are."
It had seemed like a good idea at six miles an hour. But leafing through the pages with someone else's eyes on me — and without a single endorphin pumping — I realized how bad the whole thing was. The sentences that had seemed to ring out in my head now read as self-indulgent and scattered, in desperate need of a red pen. The story itself was an absurd jumble. Exercise had provided energy and a good creative tree-shaking, but I hadn't followed it with the necessary slow hours in my chair, examining each and every fruit for ripeness or rot, peeling and paring until they were as good as I could make them.
In the days that followed, I considered trying to save the piece. But the distance between my hopes and reality was too great, and the disappointment too fresh. I closed the file and went back to my schoolwork, to my friends and real life. Next time, I told myself.
Three years later, I once again found myself starting a novel, this time about Achilles. It was a story I was deeply invested in, with characters I loved, and I was determined not to mess it up. Trying to balance my antsy creative id with my sedentary superego was a challenge; it wasn't always easy to tell the difference between needing to work and needing to walk. But slowly, steadily, I piled up the pages. The day I finished it, I thought back to that first book, my juvenile disaster. I was grateful that it would never see the light of day but grateful too that it had existed. The lessons I learned from it about my creative process helped me to do it right the next time. Walk, write, sit, edit. Time to lace up.
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Madeline Miller grew up in Philadelphia and has bachelor's and master's degrees in Latin and Ancient Greek from Brown University. She has also studied at the Yale School of Drama, specializing in adapting classical tales for a modern audience. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Song of Achilles is her first novel.
Books mentioned in this post