Redefining north.

Writers on Writing #115: Brian Oliu

Writers on Writing #115: Brian Oliu


Starting Block

0.1  There is nothing about running that is simultaneous.

0.2  There is a correlation between running and writing: that when we put feet to pavement we put pen to paper—there is an activeness that is unspoken and silent; the way that my nerves twitch after finishing a run, the way that I feel an unseen force on the bridge of my nose on those rare days where the words unfurl themselves without a second thought of how to breathe, how to formulate whole sentences out of partitioned letters. This is what I have been told over and over: that the discipline required to take those two steps off of my front porch, make a hard right, & truly “begin” to run will somehow correlate to the act of “beginning” to write. I am uncertain as to what I should be expecting: is this a natural syncopation of things, or does it require something magical—something romantic—something that allows the two ghosts to keep pace.

0.3  “I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle—it’s a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours. Back into book time, which is transparent—you don’t know it’s passing.” –Don DeLillo, The Paris Review

0.4  To write about running, I must run. When I first started running, I would write: all experiences were new to me—the sound of loose gravel, the lingering smell of exhaust after a truck speeds up to beat you through the crosswalk. This is the antithesis of long-distance training—the idea is to do the same thing over and over again until nothing is new—that when you run your race, no matter how many miles it may be, nothing will be surprising. There has been nothing new to come from any of this—even a fresh blister forming on the tip of my big toe is the result of the same act being repeated over and over again until the friction causes the layers of skin to separate. I have not been surprised in what seems like weeks.

0.5  I have been struggling with the idea of being a runner: that this is something that I could not possibly categorize myself as, despite running. One who simply runs is not a runner in the same way that one who simply writes is not a writer—there is something mythical about letting the action personify oneself, as if what we put out into the world envelops us in a slick film—that somehow the external actions become internalized until we become the thing that we do. I write. I run. I am terrified of my actions.

0.6  The Russian actor Konstantin Stanislavsky is considered to be the first person to describe what we now know as "method acting," that is, attempting to create some sort of theatrical truth: the actor intends to embody the role that they are playing, taking the character out of the frame of the stage & bringing it out into the real world: actors never break character--they order coffee as their current role, they relocate, they live a different life than the one that has been afforded to them. In the same way, I write not to inform, but to make you understand what is occurring at this particular moment—not only what my thoughts are while scraping my heels up a particularly steep hill, but how the hill feels underneath my feet—how this is a merging of two concepts that should never meet.

0.7  “I try not to think about anything special while running. As a matter of fact, I usually run with my mind empty. However, when I run empty-minded, something naturally and abruptly crawls in sometime.” –Haruki Murakami

0.8  My training plan calls for brief walking breaks after I have run a certain amount of miles—I am asked to imagine that I am running a race & that there are tables of water, coolers filled with sports drinks. I am supposed to walk and sip—that when the time comes to actually perform, if I were to run and swallow water, I would take in too much air, that I would cramp up and float apart. Under any circumstance, I am not allowed to stop moving: all grabbings must be done in a swift motion—everything continues as it should. There is no room for an interlude here—no world to shake off in order to inhabit another for a brief moment. All energy is expended creating a future world where I am still running. There are small green cups on a make-shift table. There are large orange water coolers that need to be tipped forward to get the last drops. This is all that I can see. There is no luxury. I do not know what I think until I know it.

0.9  It was foolish of me to think that this would be simple: that the concept of finishing is attainable—I would end a run, & then I would write. Instead, I am both of these things at all times; it has less to do with being exhausted, but more to do with never feeling complete. The crawling is constant—the world described by others provides the artifice of fiction; that the blur of oak trees by the river can be one world, whereas the intricate details of a city that he fabricated can exist as another. I am stuck in the parallel—in the same way that despite timelines ending; despite the fact that it has been over a decade since my grandfather stopped running, stopped writing, stopped being a grandfather, stopped being of a world of which we are all familiar, there is no interlude; no moment where anything is forgotten. The lines are linear; constant. His presence is constant. This occurs over, and over, and over again. And yet there is no deviation—no way for them to ever cross. I am not given the benefit of the void when I run, but when it is over, I feel the heat in my eyes—the pulsating of all of the worlds trying to crawl back in.

Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey & currently lives & teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of two chapbooks & five full-length collections, ranging from Craigslist Missed Connections, to NBA Jam, to 8-bit video games, to computer viruses. This piece is from a memoir in progress about translating his grandfather's book on long-distance running. Other sections from this project have recently appeared in Denver Quarterly, Catapult, Another Chicago Magazine, and The Rumpus.

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