When I was a little kid, I liked to run.
Running around all over the places comes more easily to small children than it does to adults. I imagine the square-cube law comes into it somehow; their bodies may be less well developed, but they have to do so much less work propelling themselves from place to place. Then there are differences in the energy metabolisms of an explosively growing body and a sedentary adult one. Then there's the simple matter of social inhibitions that grown-ups are more prone to.
Whatever the full explanation, even the most athletic grown-ups can't help but know that they're paying a price when they run. The pleasure of running is even tied to this. You feel the burn. You get a runner's high. You push yourself to the limit, you pay the price for doing so, and you work towards a pay-off. If you're not moving fast enough to cost you anything, then you're not trying hard enough.
Little kids, meanwhile, run around all over the place like it's free. Like it costs them nothing. Like it's a joyous thing to do in and of themselves. They don't have to push themselves to do it. They probably haven't developed the skills to push themselves. They just cut loose.
When I was a little kid, I liked to run. I imagined that I was running really, really fast. How fast? Well, I ran faster than I could walk. I could sort of feel the air moving around my body when I did it, which to me suggested that I was on the verge of tapping into some kind of superpower or something. Ultimately I didn't have any kind of benchmark or frame of reference beyond "fast" and "slow".
Running was fast. I ran. Therefore, I ran fast.
I suppose when I started school I might have acquired some additional data points, if I'd been inclined to pay attention to my peers during P.E. and recess. But like Calvin, I had always been more interested in my own interior world. When we ran a lap around the gym, I was chasing or being chased by creatures unseen by the eyes of others, not measuring my progress against anyone in particular.
Then came a day sometime in the first half of my elementary school career when I became aware of a dispute between some of my classmates. They had been playing touch football or something and were arguing over who was the worst player in the group... not the sort of thing that I'd ever found very interesting. One of the contenders for the bottom spot pulled my attention all the way over, though, by responding to a claim about his slowness by saying, "At least I'm faster than Alex."
My first response was something along the lines of, "What a weird, completely random thing to say."
, but then there was a chorus of agreement. Yes
, it was agreed.
At least he's not
as slow as Alex.No one
is as slow as Alex.
Alex is the slowest
And then the whole conversation migrated over to the jungle gym where I was hanging out to make sure that I knew this.
I disagreed at first, not because I thought I was the fastest but because the comparison didn't make sense to me. It wasn't how I thought, how I saw the world. I couldn't think of "slowest" as a thing to be. Didn't different people finish first all the time when we ran laps? So fastest and slowest weren't really things, were they?
Except, it was pointed out to me, I almost always finished last. Almost always. Different people were the fastest, but I was the slowest, and this was a significant fact. It mattered. A lot.
The conversation didn't open my eyes so much as it pointed them in a new and different direction, one where the point of running wasn't to be faster than walking, but to be faster than the next person, to be faster than as many people as possible. There was no longer any joy in simply feeling fast and free. I didn't understand running as a fun thing that it was possible to do with a pair of legs in moderate working order, but as a competitive endeavor that demanded one to work as hard as possible to be as good as possible, and if one could not measure up no matter how much effort one exerted, one might as well not bother.
And here we come to the point of this post, which actually has little to do with my lack of athletic ability or social awareness
as a child
and everything to do with running around all over the place with a childlike sense of abandon.
I see this attitude popping up a lot in the areas of writing and other forms of artistic expression, that one must be above a certain aptitude level in order for the exercise of creativity to be meaningful or useful or have any point... that if you can't do it professionally, it's not worth it, or if you can't impress the right people it's not worth it, or if you can't do it all day every day it's not worth it.
I think we probably all had moments in our childhood or young adulthood where we learned that it's not enough for an activity to be fun, that if we're not achieving
then we're not working hard enough. As I see it, there are three profoundly negative side effects to this.
One is that the fear of not being very good at something stops us from doing the work we need to get better. I know so many people who show some talent for art or writing, but who shy away from developing it because exercising that undeveloped talent... it almost embarrasses them. They think it's only worth it to create things if they are Great Things
... merely good or decent or acceptable things aren't acceptable, and the risk of creating terrible or substandard or poor or rough things on the way to decent ones is just too great a risk to be borne.
It's basically the equivalent of not wanting to get dressed because to reach for a dresser drawer is to admit that you're naked.
Two is the fact that even if we don't all have it in us to do great things or even good things creatively (or in any other arena), that doesn't change the fact that exercise is good for us. It's a good thing to stretch, whether it's the body or the mind. And it's fun to cut loose.
See, I was never going to be the fastest runner in my class. There are reasons that I was the slowest, reasons that I couldn't have trained around or powered through. I could have maybe been faster than I was, but even if the difference between how I was performing and what I had the potential to become was immeasurably slight... even if I had never gotten better at all... I might have kept running for fun at my natural pace, and I think I probably would have been better for it.
Three is an outgrowth of both one and two: that because of these things, we end up seeing the world as divided into categories: runners and people who don't run, writers and people who don't write, artists and people who don't create. Don't get me wrong, there are people who can't run; as an adult with bad joints and mitochondria that can't keep up with my adult-sized body, I am for all intents and purposes one of them. But I can move and find joy in movement. I lack the coordination and visual processing necessary to ever be a brilliant visual artist, but I can enjoy physical crafts. I can enjoy and have enjoyed messing around with paints even while I'll never be anything like a painter.
Okay, I have a little bit of skill there. But this is the main point I want to bring to this post. I see people rebutting the idea that ebooks and pop lit are going to bring about the downfall of civilization by saying "At least people are reading." But you know what I never hear people say?
"At least people are writing."
Even people who would be so-called real writers
according to any metric anyone might care to name... when they see examples of what they consider great writing, they're more apt to say things about how it makes them feel like a fraud or wonder why they bother than to say something like This. This is why I became a writer.
I've always regarded this as a matter of straight-up impostor syndrome, and I think it is, but I can't help thinking that this is something that we do to ourselves, because as a society we don't value running around aimlessly and pointlessly like small children. We don't value doing things for fun. And when I say "we", I especially mean writers, and I especially mean writing. The feeling of dread we get when we look at a blank page and wonder how we dare think we can improve on it, the feeling of inadequacy we get when we look at those skill and artistry we admire... that's the hurricane we reap when we sow the seeds of doubt in the direction of people who write for fun without investing the same level of work into it, at the unskilled and untrained and untried, or even the undeservingly successful.
Writing is writing. I'm not saying there isn't such a thing as writing that is better than other writing (though I will say that there are "multiple betters", in the same way that there are multiple intelligences
, and that our ideas of what constitute "better" are going to be biased in all the same ways that we are), but I am saying that our response to the people who drabble out bits of fanfic or who can really only write dialogues or sketch out a story in the broadest terms... it shouldn't be, "They'll never be a writer." but "Well, at least they're writing."
I know some writers who fret about anything that makes writing seem like something anyone can do, as they see it as a threat to their livelihood. I'm not aware of any instance of someone taking up jogging in the morning and then deciding that the Olympics are a load of B.S. after a week, though. This isn't about devaluing good writing as a product, but valuing the act of writing as an act worth doing in and of itself.
Or more generally, it's about valuing the act of doing anything for fun or for its own sake... about valuing the act of doing
I don't think we can be a people who really admire good writers and good writing if we aren't a people who love the act of writing itself. I'm not saying that it's impossible for someone who never writes to appreciate the written word, or that it's impossible for someone who deplores amateur writing to honestly appreciate professional writing.
What I'm saying is that if one has, say, a nation of three hundred million people and one wants as many of those people as possible to have a positive love affair with the written word, then it behooves one to celebrate (or at least not disdain) the engagement of those people with the written word. I'm saying that people will love writing more enthusiastically if they are able to celebrate it with a childlike sense of glee.
And if you are yourself a writer, or someone who wants to write, or someone who likes to write even if you don't think of yourself as particularly good at it: remember when you were a child. Remember when you did something with abandon. Remember a time when you were able to cut loose and let go and act without restraint... and then do that, on an empty page.