balance · body · grad school · health · running · writing

Bird by Bird

I ran 16 kilometres yesterday. Even though it was my feet hitting the pavement, my breath making clouds in the cold air, that statement still shocks me a bit.

You see, it was only a little more than a year ago that I started running at all. I was out of shape (life of the mind, and all that) and just so envious of all of the local runners I saw out and about. I wanted to do that–to be a long-distance runner–and I was genuinely unsure if I could. Would I hate it? Would I be terrible at it? Would I fail?

Like any good student, I did the obvious–sought out a teacher. I enrolled in a Learn to Run class with the Running Room. Goal race: a Christmas 5k. The idea of running 5k was intimidating. It seemed unattainable. But we started small–we ran for one minute and walked for one minute. Then two and one. Then five, and eight, and ten minutes, with a one minute walk in the intervals. And we just kept stringing together those ten minute intervals. 3k. 4k. 5k. 6k.

I ran my 5k race, and had a blast doing it. Then I ran a 10k, and loved it too. And now I’m training for a half-marathon. I ran 16k yesterday. But what I really did was run for ten minutes, then walk. Over and over. Little by little, I ate away at those kilometres until there weren’t any left. The idea of running 23k (our longest training distance for the half-marathon) is still terribly intimidating, but ten minutes? I can do that.

It look me awhile–and the purchase of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird–to realize that in my running was also the answer to my search for a sustainable academic writing practice. With my dissertation proposal approved, the idea of writing an entire dissertation was terribly intimidating. All those pages! All those ideas! I found the scope of it difficult–and sometimes paralyzing–to wrap my head around.

But reading Bird by Bird (which I feel like I was the last writer on the planet to do) made me realize that ten-and-ones worked just as well for writing as for running. For those of you who haven’t read it, the key message of Bird by Bird is to break down large writing projects into small chunks–tiny ones, even–and tackle them one-by-one. It seems commonsensical, but when faced with writing a book, common sense sometimes flies out the window. But I got it–I didn’t have to write a dissertation. I just had to write for twenty-five minutes–one Pomodoro. And then do it again. Little by little, I’m eating away at those pages until there won’t be any left. The idea of writing an entire dissertation is still terribly intimidating, but writing for twenty-five minutes? I can do that.

So I’ll keep writing my Pomodoros and running my ten-and-ones. And little by little, my dissertation will get done, and my kilometres will add up. And who knows? The dissertation is definitely a marathon, but maybe I’ll run an actual one of those too.

What about you? What strategies for a sustainable writing practice do you use? How do you tackle projects or goals that are ambitious or intimidating?

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