Jacqueline Alnes | Longreads | December 2018 | 11 minutes (2,773 words)
Early in the morning, the light soft and warm and the air cool after yesterday’s thunderstorms, Jaclyn Gilbert runs a new route. From Grand Army Plaza she makes her way toward the Green Wood cemetery, hugging it through the second mile. Around the fifth mile, she passes over a parkway through a cylindrical barbed-wire tunnel, peering down at cars whirring by on their morning commutes, before continuing down Tenth Avenue back toward the park, finishing at Grand Army for a clean seven miles.
“New routes are always my favorite for the maps they form inside me: a series of sense impressions that filter through my memory as the day passes on. When I sit down to write again, these impressions reappear as remnants of light, color, or feeling, making their way into the imaginings of my characters,” Gilbert writes to me in an email. Though we live half the country apart — she in New York, I in Oklahoma — I feel a connection to her. Both of us are former Division I athletes turned writers. And both of us still run, frequently testing our limits; our writing processes are informed by our fastidious need for distance.
Writing and running are dual pursuits that enable the illusion of control, a way of ordering the world through carefully crafted sentences and mile splits. While reading Gilbert’s debut novel Late Air, I saw myself in Murray, a statistics-obsessed coach who attempts to measure grief in the tick of a stopwatch. I saw myself in Becky’s careful peeling apart of a single orange for breakfast, an attempt to chisel her body into something she could believe in. I saw myself as a Division I teammate running a race despite a team tragedy, hoping that even splits would somehow erase the swell of sorrow. Many times throughout the novel, Gilbert’s characters attempt to grapple with the uncertain events of life through running and related means of measurement. But, as I know too well from my own life, and as the characters in Gilbert’s Late Air learn, accidents rupture this façade. In the novel, when a tragic incident sends Murray reeling into his past, he is finally forced to reckon with the fragility of the body in love, loss, and life.
In late September, I caught up with Gilbert about how running and writing have influenced her complicated need for control and affirmation as she explores tenuous boundaries in the body as a dual source of destruction and salvation in her work.
Jacqueline Alnes: Would you mind sharing your history as a runner and a writer? Have they always been paired together, or was there a certain point where you realized they overlapped for you in a certain way?
Jaclyn Gilbert: Since I was a young child, I’ve been writing and running. But it took me a long time to see the interconnectedness of these dual needs in my life. As a college athlete, for one, my schedule was very fixed; it didn’t allow for a lot of space to investigate how my running matched up with my desire to be a writer. Instead, I was more focused on getting all my runs in and turning in assignments, obsessed with not failing at either one.
But I guess there was a moment, after I moved to New York to work in book publishing, that I began to notice writing and running as part of the same whole. Around the financial crisis, I lost my job. I was twenty-five and felt really lost. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. In my heart, I suppose I always knew wanted to be a writer, and working in publishing had, for those first couple of years out of college, allowed me to hide from that secret ambition. It let me feel involved in the writing world even though I wasn’t really writing, at least not as much as I wanted to be.
But one day when I was twenty-seven I came across a copy of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Marukami. Murakami describes being at a baseball game and suddenly deciding that he would quit his job as a successful businessman to become a novelist. The way he described that moment really resonated with me. I knew that if I didn’t just decide to write, there would always be a better time to do it—I might spend the rest of my life putting off my dream. And in Murakami’s book, he talks about how his life as a runner went hand in hand with his writing routine; and his need for the habitual was something I could really relate to. I’d been running regularly already, and I thought if Murakami can make writing and running interdependent in his craft, then maybe I could too.
I’ve always loved the feeling of control — this sense of pushing my body to reach some desired outcome.
How did your own experiences help you craft the world of the novel, one in which running is a central thread for most characters in Late Air?
When you’re running, you feel in touch with your body, viscerally aware of your pain, and also what’s going on around you — the weather, sounds, and smells — and I’ve found these kinds of observations particularly generative for my writing. They help my characters feel more real, their experiences more lived. And I know that the writing I enjoy most is the most sensory and palpable, so I try to translate that joy onto the page whenever I can.
On the reverse side, I find that when my writing isn’t working well it’s because I’m not connecting to my own body closely enough to transfer that awareness into my characters. Writing this book showed me times when I wasn’t paying attention to my pain sensors, pushing my mind and body too far, to the point of chronic fatigue. When I was trying to finish up Late Air, I had a few bouts with dehydration and injury that were a real wake-up call; I realized I had to listen to my body better if I wanted to sustain my art. I had to stay connected to myself, by taking enough breaks and doing body scans, and these body scans became really helpful when I was trying to develop Murray’s character in later revisions; I had to ask, what would it be like to be in Murray’s body, moment by moment, pushing through his bad knees? Or in Nancy’s pregnancy chapters — I never had a child myself — so I really had to try to understand the physicality of that experience rather than rely on research or adopt a more clinical approach.
In the end I’d say that developing greater body awareness of a runner really did help the work to evolve, by showing me when the writing wasn’t working, when I had to take a step back and live and breathe alongside my characters in the moment.
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To me, it relates to the idea of control, too. I personally like running because when things seem murky on the page, or I’m in the middle of revisions, or a daunting section, I can go run five miles and say, “Here are my splits, and here is what I did, and here is my tangible success.”
Murray, in the novel, has this refrain of “stay in control” and I think in writing and in running there’s a tension between staying in control, but then too much control leads you to not the best results.
That’s so true. I think I can relate to this the most when I’m training for a big race. In the last weeks leading up to a race, especially, I tend to go down that rabbit hole, trying to control to the smallest details, logging miles to a T and plotting all the right foods, while still needing to make enough time for sleep, stretching, and strength training. During a race, too, I’ve always loved the feeling of control — this sense of pushing my body to reach some desired outcome. And then writing pushes a lot of the same buttons; when I’m writing, I get hyper-focused at the sentence level, fixated on the flow of thought and action on every page. But I’ve also found that if I’m too rigid in my aims and not listening to my body, or my subconscious, my running and writing will suffer.
My best writing comes when I let go, when I let my mind wander long enough to feel fully present in the writing process. My best races have tended to work similarly. If I can let go and trust my body to do the work I’ve trained it to do, I open up my mind to really listen to it, moment by moment, and I can tap into a confidence that will let me push boundaries without hurting myself. It’s when I get scared, unsure of whether I can survive the pain or reach a deadline, that my body tightens up. I lose my breath and the courage to really explore what’s possible inside the work. And I think the reader can feel that too, my lack of faith in what I’m saying.
I think revision is about learning to let go of all the closed off places in ourselves. It offers a repetition that’s much like doing the same running loops over and over, to the point that you don’t have to think about where you are going anymore, and your mind becomes more free to explore new thoughts and sensations, observations that have been there all along, waiting for you to pay attention. In general, too, I think I’ve always been fascinated by the good and bad sides of control. On the one hand, we live in a world where we want measurable outcomes and ways to mark our progress, and I think success is largely about committing to a goal that will let us reach those outcomes. But there is a limit to it too — if reaching a certain goal becomes too obsessive and all-encompassing, too perfectionistic, you lose touch with yourself, your individual desires and needs.
That’s something I work on a lot myself. I’ll ask, “Am I going to be okay if this is not published?” or “Am I writing this because I want to? Am I running because I want to?”
Exactly. It really does feel like a lifetime sport. Sometimes I think that I have to be okay with myself as if I’m a very old person who cannot physically write or do anything active but who still feels happy within myself, totally alone. I keep that image in the back of my mind. I need to be able to be okay with myself totally in the end, because there is never an end to the things we want in this world.
Perfectionism and idealism can be so blinding: the focus can begin to feel like it’s all about achieving some kind of outside approval and validation, and the question becomes: how do I fit in that picture?
Sometimes I think that I have to be okay with myself as if I’m a very old person who cannot physically write or do anything active but who still feels happy within myself, totally alone. I keep that image in the back of my mind.
I am drawn toward “good” and “bad” extremes as well, I think because running so competitively sets you up to believe you either do it or you don’t, you either hit your splits, or you don’t.
Yes, and the expectations are so high. You can always go harder and faster — there’s never any end to that focus.
And same as in writing. I always think I could keep working on a project for an infinite amount of time and it would keep evolving. I think my background as a long-distance runner has helped in some ways because I’ve learned to pace. When writing, I have a very specific process — ia training plan, so to speak — and I’m usually very measured about how much I want to accomplish in a morning or which part of the project I’d like to engage with.
I can definitely relate to this. I had to embrace my own process and “pace” for getting the novel done. I tried all kinds of things to figure out what stuck — and writing by hand daily ended up being one of those things. I wrote the whole first draft by hand on legal pads. I let the pages stack into sets of twenty, and once I had twenty I’d type them out and revise as I went. I came up with all kinds of weird conditionals to force myself to get the book down, much in the same way I suppose I create strange conditionals to finish a run or race. Just get to that lamp post, or the top of that hill, or pass that runner at a mile point. I think I will always need these incremental mile markers. Setting these kinds goals has made the illusory and fleeting more concrete for me, more generative for my work and self-understanding.
In an email to me, you wrote that you were training for the NYC Marathon while your novel was on submission, and you said, “I’m pretty sure I’ve never muddled my pain boundaries more than through the mixture of publishing and racing adrenaline and the desire for affirmation, all of it fusing together at the same time.”
How do affirmation and chasing down these goals play into both writing and running for you? And how have you learned to find lasting, tangible fulfillment in two pursuits that can often seem so illusory?
My deep need for affirmation stems from my childhood. My father has been an absent figure in my life, and growing up I found that the two ways I could get his attention were either by writing stories or running fast times on the track. But through adolescence, and later in college, this mindset became tricky; my desire for affirmation and need for pain bled together, I think. In college, my relationship with my father ended because of his addiction to gambling. He put demands on me that I couldn’t fulfill or affirm for him without compromising my own safety. I had to renegotiate — and I am still renegotiating — these boundaries of love and self-protection. Writing and running have always been two ways of coping with the pain of my father, mostly because they both allow escape from that loss, a flood of adrenaline that comes like a high and deceives me from my own deeper, less tangible desires and fears. But if I never stop to look at the true source of the wound, I lose touch with my own story, move away from my own healing process.
And I’ve found that the publishing process has been another kind of test of this tricky boundary-making. I’ve learned that if I succumb to my fear of my writing not being good enough, or that my father will be angry with me if I implicate him in any way, I lose touch with my story, my truth. Publishing forces me to interrogate whether I am writing for myself, or for some sort of safer, affirmable outcome that really isn’t safe because it requires self-compromise. Managing boundaries is a life’s work; and at the end of the day, I decided that I need to be open to asking myself a lot of questions, mainly about where my needs for affirmation are coming from.
I think sometimes I chase versions of my past self, like who I thought I was going to be rather than sitting with who I am right now or being happy with me as a runner right now.
That’s a really good point. In the book, I think my characters all function as past versions of myself, and none of them are healthy versions. Murray and Nancy, especially, feel like fragments of the same evolving self I am still trying to make peace with. In a lot of ways, I think my writing is about trying to forgive my focus, my obsession with perfection and control, strange as that sounds. My need for order on the page is at odds with a larger disorder. Sometimes I still mourn the unquestioning drive for perfection I used to have as a younger person, but I know now that the journey is learning to live in that gray space between striving for perfection and forgiving ourselves for failing.
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Jacqueline Alnes is a PhD student at Oklahoma State University working on a memoir about running and illness, and her essays have been published in The New York Times, Tin House, and elsewhere. She writes reading lists regularly for Longreads.
Editor: Dana Snitzky