As the world financial crisis deepens and the G-20 meet in London (and as anarchist protesters angle for a bit of argey-bargey with London’s bobbies) it was at least a lovely spring day in Geneva yesterday.
It found me holed up in my apartment fighting spring hay fever and roughly halfway through researching and writing a history of efforts to address the humanitarian impacts of cluster munitions to be published by the United Nations later this year. The history looks at the earliest efforts to place restrictions on the weapon in the 1970s, as well as the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapon process’s subsequent attempts to engage with addressing the proven hazards of cluster munitions to civilians. But the book’s main focus is on why and how the Oslo process unfolded (which regular readers of this blog will know I’ve followed since its origins) and what some of its lessons might be.
I find writing a rewarding but lonely and difficult business. It’s quite tricky psychologically to keep myself properly motivated and I, for one, tend to get depressed easily about my lack of pace, especially as deadlines begin to loom. All of this, of course, against the backdrop of story of how cluster bombs were banned that’s complicated, fascinating and ultimately inspiring as an example of how the world’s less powerful states, international organisations and civil society can make a positive difference to human security – I have no real reason for complaint!
In the second half of last year I decided I’d get myself into shape after a long and intense period of work on the Oslo process and my UNIDIR research. I entered to run L’Escalade, a 7.5 kilometre running race held every December in Geneva to commemorate an attack by the Duke of Savoy’s troops the Genevois repulsed in 1602. (According to Genevois legend, Catherine Cheynel, originally from Lyons and the wife of Pierre Royaume, ("Mère Royaume"), a mother of 14 children, seized a large cauldron of hot soup and poured it on the attackers. The Royaume family lived just above the La Monnaie town gate. The heavy cauldron of boiling soup landed on the head of a Savoyard attacker, killing him. The commotion that this caused also helped to rouse the townsfolk to defend the city.)
Now 7.5 km isn’t far. But I’d been travelling the two preceding weeks and only arrived back in Geneva from the Oslo signing ceremony for the Convention on Cluster Munitions the previous evening. But I did run l’Escalade despite the dark, the freezing temperature and it being my first-ever running race (being jostled by a thousand bony elbows took a bit of getting used to). I even ran a respectable time (for me!) and managed to overtake some of those sets of sharp elbows later in the run.
In retrospect I think it was good mental preparation for tackling a book – since with researching and writing like this you certainly have to take a long-view and pace yourself, but keep going whatever happens.
At the moment I’m reading a memoir by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. He’s one of my favourite novelists, and a lot of what he says in the book strikes a chord with me. I loved this passage:
“No matter how much long-distance running might suit me, of course there are days when I feel kind of lethargic and don’t want to run. Actually, it happens a lot. On days like that, I try to think of all kinds of plausible excuses to shake it off. Once, I interviewed the Olympic runner Toshihiko Seko, just after he retired from running and became manager of the S&B company team. I asked him, “Does a runner at your level ever feel like you’d rather not run today, like you don’t want to run and would rather just sleep in? He stared at me and then, in a voice that made it abundantly clear how stupid he thought the question was, replied, “Of course. All the time!”Moreover, for Murakami, the motivation to write, just like his motivation to run at least a marathon every year, has to be a sense of accomplishment rather than competition with others:
Now that I look back on it I can see what a dumb question that was. I guess even back then I knew how dumb it was, but I suppose I wanted to hear the answer directly from someone of Seko’s calibre. I wanted to know whether, despite being worlds apart in terms of strength, the amount we exercise, and motivation, when we lace up our running shoes early in the morning we feel exactly the same way. Seko’s reply at the time came as a great relief. In the final analysis we’re all the same, I thought.”
“What’s crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself. Failure to reach that bar is not something you can easily explain away. When it comes to other people you can always come up with a reasonable explanation, but you can’t fool yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike.”I’m neither a novelist nor do I have much inclination at the moment to train for a full marathon.
But I did feel a sense of accomplishment after completing L’Escalade – however modest the objective; one similar to the feeling I get when I finish a piece of decent research. The feeling doesn’t last long, and it always just gets me thinking about what’s next, but for a short while it’s tangible.
I guess time will tell how apt Murakami’s advice is in the context of me getting my manuscript finished by deadline. But it did at least encourage me to gulp down some hayfever medicine and go for a decent run next to the lake yesterday evening as a break from my own historical marathon.
Photo ('Run like hell!!!) of a Baku roadsign by 'Today is a good day' retrieved from Flickr.