running trails and tales: my creative processPosted: August 19, 2013
Last week I wrote about violence against women in crime fiction and detective shows, and I mentioned that these kinds of stories often lead us to believe that there is always some kind of monster lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike. While most women are attacked by someone they know, we also live with fear of stranger rape as a fact of life. Maybe “fear” isn’t quite the right word. Awareness? We are always aware of potential threats to our bodies–partly because frequent verbal harassment reminds us that violence is not far behind–and so go about the world knowing that horrible things sometimes lie just under the surface of a seemingly pleasant moment: a night out with friends, a quick trip to the store, a walk in a park.
I said last week that even though these threats are out there, I try not to spend a lot of time thinking about them despite what these stories and the media would have me think. Two days after I wrote that, I was lacing up my running shoes and glancing at the local news online. I discovered that a woman had been sexually assaulted the day before at the park where I run several days a week. She was walking a trail with her two-year-old daughter in the middle of the afternoon.
A great deal of cussing ensued in my living room.
Needless to say, many in the community and employees of the park are angry, feeling like an important part of all our lives–where we seek peace, fellowship, and pleasure–has been attacked. I run for release, for serenity. But I also work out a lot of creative ideas while I’m running. I like to run at this particular park because it has miles and miles of trails to choose from–with dreamy sunflower fields, old marble quarries, and lush, tree-covered tunnels that make everything magical.
For me, a good run or long walk is magical. My feet can barely keep up with my imagination as it takes off in different directions, conjuring up ideas, crafting narratives, developing characters. I spend a lot of time just letting ideas percolate before I ever write a word. It’s my favorite part of writing, the wandering mind. There’s something about communing with nature that sets my mind free; I can become anyone or anything in that moment. It’s like lucid dreaming. As long as I’m moving forward, the scene in my head is as vibrant as jewelweed along a stream.
I don’t know what I would do without this part of the process. Granted, it hasn’t always been part of my creative process. I used to write poetry strictly, and all I needed was a pen and paper to make something happen. It might not always be good, but there would be something salvageable to be put to work the next day. When I began writing fiction, however, I realized I needed a different approach. I couldn’t just sit down and write and expect there to be a full narrative, so running and long walks have become a critical part of my life. There’s something about a physical challenge that engages my mind in a way I never would have expected. It also helps me deal with stress, anxiety, or other frustrations.
I’m always aware of what can happen when I’m out there. There’s that word again. One has to be aware. Some of the trails become quite isolated, and I pay attention to my surroundings and sometimes look back to make sure that men who pass me don’t double back. Balancing daydreaming with defensiveness is a complicated act, but I’m sure it’s one that many women are used to.
Every time I’ve gone out since this attack, my imagination has taken me in a very different direction. All the stories and characters are the same: I fight this guy. I win. I stop him. I become like a superhero, a warrior, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Jennifer Garner in Alias. I imagine possessing Buffy’s super strength.
And then I’ve spent an hour dedicated to committing violence. I don’t like it. I’ve run out some of my anger, but my muscles are tighter than usual. So much for release.
My heart goes out to this woman and her family. It could have been any of us, but she’s the one who has to live with it, who has to find a way to make sure it doesn’t haunt her child. The police have released a sketch of the attacker, and I hope someone turns him in.
In the meantime, I will keep running wherever I want. And I will find a way to go back to the kinds of stories I want to create. I won’t let him change my life. Though I may have some tricks up my sleeve if you meet me on the trail.