The Chicago Marathon is just around the corner on October 9. My brother and his wife will be running it. I think they’re crazy. But, because my plans to hear Charles Alexander of Chax Press talk about Emily Dickinson last night fell through, I find myself thinking about running and not about Dickinson. I was thinking of writing about Carl Philips, Kay Ryan as inheritors of her poetics, of maybe linking that to last night’s aforementioned The Big Read kickoff, but alas. I’m thinking instead of marathons.
The closest I’ve come to running a marathon was this summer when I ran a half-marathon on the Douglas Springs Trail in Saguaro National Park. To the springs and back is just over 13.1 miles with a net elevation gain of over 2,000 feet. I was pretty impressed with myself. I got a Jamba Juice afterward.
But what I wish to say about it is that my brain did a strange thing during that run: it shut off. Usually when I’m jogging (a normal distance), my mind wanders all kinds of places, writes all sorts of incredibly, wonderful poems later to be forgotten, composes music, etc.—it’s a meditation (you can read a related article about exercise and creativity from the Creative Research Journal titled “Aerobic Exercise and Creative Potential: Immediate and Residual Effects” by going here http://www.ric.edu/faculty/dblanchette/exercisearticle.htm). But on that long run up to the springs and back, my brain more or less went silent. I remember thinking how weird it was. I was cognizant of the quiet…but couldn’t instigate thought much beyond the empirical observation of it—of its absence. And when I say thought—I truly mean thought. Other than thinking about placing my feet solidly on the trail, watching for rattlesnakes, and telling myself how much my legs didn’t burn or how thirsty I wasn’t feeling, I don’t remember thinking about much of anything. Certainly no incredibly, wonderful poems were being written. All my energy must have gone to my legs, leaving only that reptilian machinery of my brain fully functional.
Initially I was worried. Was my lack of mental music a sign of age? Was I out of practice? Had the physical demands of the run simply taxed more of the mind than usual, reappropriating available resources? That must be the case, I’m sure. Regardless, this experience has me wondering about the mind-body connection, about—specifically as a writer—how what I do on the corporeal end of things affects how I am on the cerebral end of things. It seems obvious that true physical demands can and will overtake those needs of the conscious, wandering mind, but I’m curious about more subtle activities, the small demands like eating and drinking that many of us—in a fit of writing—can take for granted and, thus, forget. At some point we meet them with a trip to the fridge or the grocery store or what-have-you (if you are a “starving” artist, I implore you to reassess your priorities), but is it possible such habits—such things as routine exercise, diet, routine sleep patterns, and so on—can affect not only our ability to imagine but also our ability to write? They must, but—I mean—what if there’s a recipe for good poetry, and it includes things like—50 sit-ups and push-ups daily, preferably before breakfast, which should be comprised of 1 mango and a cup of Greek yogurt, preferably with a drop of honey, and one 8 oz. cup of medium roast coffee, preferably a single-origin bean from Latin America, all of which should be consumed within 12-15 minutes for optimal imaginative prowess, and so on, and so on throughout the day, each ingredient and the ingredients in tandem resulting in a specific mental effect. What if—worse—that recipe is like a baking recipe, which can’t really be fiddled with or you’ll the ruin the cheesecake, the custard, what-have-you. I know there’s a growing science on creativity and on how genes and the environment interact and on how such interaction affects the brain. What if these researchers discover a formula for the muse? The diet-exercise plan for sonnets? The Shakespeare diet? The Billy Collins Diet? The Ashbery Plan? What if the success of your craft was as dependent on the other mental processes as it was on those related to poetry?
I guess the bottom line is that I know what my writing routine is—up before 4AM, write until the kids are awake or it’s time for work, squeeze in poetry (and other writing/reading) later when I can—and I know how exercise typically affects my brain in the immediate sense, which is positively, but I don’t know how the rest of my day impacts my creativity. And I’m not talking about the anomalies we can’t predict. I’m talking about the routines, the habits, the procedures we engage in daily, that we take for granted. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a daily-living coach out there who could align our habits with our ability to create—and not just create but create well? A coach who knew the equation to highly effective poetry writing with regard to physical activity, eating habits, driving habits, cell-phone etiquette, and so on? Then we could advocate good MFA programs—or at least quality MFA profs—for teaching their students how to live rather than how to write.
Or maybe the good ones already do that. I don’t know (I do know, actually). Currently it’s 5:09 AM, and my 16 month old boy with an ear infection is waking between his fits of cough. I sense a disturbance in the morning force. Time for that mango and cup of yogurt. And so on. And so on. Keep on trucking.