Jason Okundaye On Riding Through The (Writer’s) Block

In his 2007 memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, the novelist Haruki Murakami analogises the process of writing to that of eating a fugu fish, saying “the tastiest part is the portion near the poison.” Similarly, Murakami believes that while surfacing our creative instincts within the process of writing, what also rises within us is “a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity.”

While this toxin is dangerous, it is essential to literary craft, as without it “no creative activity in the real sense can take place”, and so the task of professional writers is to develop “an autoimmune system of our own that can resist the dangerous toxin that resides within.” This is how Murakami developed a relational thesis between writing and running; he began jogging and marathons in 1982 and feels that the energy we need to expend, in order to create this immune system so that we are undestroyed by poison, is best found within our own physical flesh. It’s a palliative technology rather than prophylactic – indeed there is no antidote for the tetrodotoxin toxicity found within fugu fish and that toxin beneath the skin of humanity is something writers must come face to face with each time they pick up the pen.

This analogy is quite dramatic, and Murakami asks that we excuse him, but what he says about the relation between writing and the body speaks to me. I don’t know what exactly he means by “toxin”, but for me it’s this fluttering, nauseous, caustic feeling that sits within me sometimes when I attempt to write. It makes me restless. It makes me feel like retiring to bed. And it also makes me want to put my headphones on and dance or go for a long walk and break into a run where I just don’t stop running. This might be better explained by an attention deficit diagnosis from five years ago, but Murakami is perhaps right to say that writing is “unhealthy” and “antisocial” work. While I am not (or at least not yet) a novelist, I am soon to be an author, part way through writing a non-fiction narrative book which requires some of the same literary and artful instincts of fiction.

The acknowledgements pages of books, as mine will be, are full of thanks to others and platitudes about how books require effort from everyone in your life, but the truth is that book writing, all writing, is necessarily solitary work. Even where you’re interviewing and engaging with others for research, the major activity, the writing, can only be done alone and it can make you feel sick. The “toxin” it surfaces can be paralysing and mean that, at times, you sit at your desk for hours and hours with nothing coming out on to the page because these feelings, these chemicals, are rushing around your body and making you feel woozy. It’s also the quietest kind of chaos – at once you’re thinking about everything and nothing. There are figures and thoughts, but they are all clouded by thick brain fog, and having a cloud expand within your mind every time you try to write something is frustrating and upsetting. There’s no medicine I take which helps me to complete the task so, like Murakami, I look for answers by taking flight.

What writers say about the comparison of their profession to running feels revelatory. The novelist Joyce Carol Oates says, in the New York Times, of her lifelong pursuit of running: “In running, the mind flies with the body; the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms. Ideally, the runner who’s a writer is running through the land and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting.” I can’t tell you what running does for me, because I don’t run, but I do cycle. Though I feel like a fraud in saying that because I don’t, yet, have a bike and I rely on public bikes, mostly those Santander cycles dotted around inner and central London. I only started cycling properly as a new year’s resolution, too, after I embarrassed myself on a date with my now-boyfriend last November. He had suggested that, after drinks in Clapham, we could take off on those public ‘Jump’ e-bikes and ride from the Common through to Battersea Park. I’d told him I’d not cycled since I was a child, certainly never on London’s scary roads, and so, not taking his threats of a cycling date seriously, I had turned up wearing Homme Plissé Issey Miyake pleat trousers. If you’ve ever owned a pair or brushed past them at a department store, you’ll know how delicate and intricate they are. The unique craftmanship of Miyake pleats requires 3D-computing technology, and so without proper care those pleats can become undone and can’t simply be woven into the garment again.

Anyway, wearing these pleats, I crashed at least three times: on to the pavement, into the bollard posts (ironically there to protect cyclists by separating them from motorists) and into him. As we cycled down roads, he looked back at me often with an expression which told me I’d never see him again – though I was wrong, and he reassured me later it wasn’t so much that, but genuine fear that my next crash could cause serious injury. Even while I was terrified, whizzing past cement trucks and feeling that I might find myself wrapped around a motorbike with the next wrong turn, I felt a strange sense of peace and clarity when I returned home from the date, and after a week of writer’s block I penned at least 3,000 words of my book in the middle of the night. It seemed that cycling could be more than a clamour of car horns, traffic lights and road rage – it was an opportunity to really focus my mind and body on a singular activity and slowly absorb the brain cloud which had been obfuscating the narrative threads, details and complexities that were presenting in my work.

I forgave myself for panicking on this date. Most people know that London’s roads are dangerous for cyclists and, though I cycled as a child, it had only ever been through the cracked pavements of my social housing estate in Battersea or through the local park with my father and younger brother. When I was around 14 or so, my father got into an accident on the road while cycling home from work. I can’t remember the exact details, but it had something to do with an idiot on rollerblades, who, to his credit, escorted my father to the hospital and then brought him home to us after he’d been stitched up. Seeing him bruised and bloodied, I didn’t ever feel like cycling again, and when my father traded in the bike for running only to die while on a morning jog when I was 19, I felt that any kind of endurance activity could only come with danger and decided to restrict my exercise to weightlifting with maybe five minutes of HIIT. My university town, Cambridge, was famously a ‘cycling’ town and yet I avoided it all three years that I was there. So, to have associated cycling with bad omens for so long, it took not wanting to disappoint one boy on a date for me to finally see why my father had loved it so much, and realise how much it could enable my own professional and intellectual pursuits. The relationship between the mind and body is too often seen as antagonistic, but for me they are complementary and essential to each other – the urge to get up and go while writing isn’t a strategy of avoidance, but a desire to cultivate the energy to develop that autoimmunity which keeps my thoughts clear.

These days, cycling is the best way for me to stay off my phone. Twitter and Instagram are never a cure for writer’s block and yet God knows they’re what we run to first – cycling means that instead of losing myself to digital worlds I’m able to glide into those cityscapes and settings which can inspire the best work. Rather than finding London roads scary and cacophonic, I’m finding them strangely peaceful. The book I’m writing, Revolutionary Acts: Stories of Love, Brotherhood and Resilience from Black Gay Britain, is a Black gay social history set in Brixton through the 1970s to the 1990s. And so, like the reverse of Oates’s ghost, I like to unlock a bike and glide through time in the district like there are apparitions present of its past scene – old gay venues that are now private members’ clubs, public toilets that were once cruising grounds, now boarded up, and streets where house parties full of gay men used to take place. When I cycle through Brixton I always have to race back home because so many thoughts and ideas have surfaced, and I’ve connected threads that haven’t appeared to me even when I’ve been sat in front of the words. I like to cycle through my old neighbourhood and observe its changes and think about what I might one day write about gentrification and the shifting relations between communities and the towns in which they grow up. As Murakami says, “For me, the main goal of exercising is to maintain, and improve, my physical condition in order to keep on writing novels.” It might not be a permanent cure for the “toxin” of writer’s block and exhaustion, but I’d say it’s the best therapy I’ve got.

Photography by Anna Stokland. Taken from Issue 56 of 10 Men – PEACE, COURAGE, FREEDOM – on newsstands now. Order your copy here. 


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