Writers write—and so they sit. Writers also rationalize particularly well. “I don’t need to exercise. My mind is so active, it’s good for my body.” Or: “Hey, Rebecca Romijn lost sixty pounds without exercise, and the ‘Got Milk’ campaign loves her.” That leads to, “I’ll just drink milk and write.”
Three weeks ago, I went skiing with my college-age son, which was great, but the toll of the autumn hit me. Last fall, my teaching schedule was heavy, and I wanted to keep writing my novel, so I thought, “My mother never exercised, and she’s in her 80’s. I’ll just write and exercise next decade.” I didn’t think a step further and consider, “And my mother’s in assisted living and can barely move.” Rather, I made it through my hectic routine and didn’t look back—until I got on the slope.
There’s something incredibly magical about skiing. If you don’t do it, it simply looks insane. You stand on top of a slippery mountain, trees like hammers on the sides, and you point yourself down and go. It’s bizzare.
Also consider the learning curve is huge, and the fright factor is agoraphobia times ten. When I was twelve, my uncle took all his nieces and nephews to Buck Hill outside of Minneapolis, outfitted us with skis, showed us the snowplow stance and how to grab the rope tow, and told us to have fun. I wanted to throw up. The cold air bit through my clothes and chomped on my fingers and toes. Gravity seemed incredibly heavy in that part of Minnesota, and try as I might to perform a crude snowplow, the hill yanked me down. I was Al Pacino falling into the mob.
Explain, then, why I skied several times a year through college, and fear always sat on my shoulder like a gargoyle on Notre Dame. I did it willingly, screaming inside. Yet at the end of the day, I’d smile. I’d survived.
My particular breakthrough in connecting with nature came skiing one foggy day near Lake Tahoe with my former college roommate. The fog only let me see about ten feet ahead, and I had a terrific time. I was an Olympian, carving into the slope as well as Robert Redford in Downhill Skier. Norway pumped in my blood.
When the fog lifted, and I saw what I’d been skiing for hours, I stood stone cold. The hill was incredibly steep in parts. How’d I ever do it? Fear, I realized, was a passenger I could boot out by not focusing on the whole hill. Stay connected to what was just in front of me.
Since then, that’s been a mantra for many parts of my life. Rather than freak out on how I could possibly produce a one-act play festival at USC in a big auditorium on a frightfully small budget, I broke the project down in parts, then acted on what needed doing that day. Concentrate on what’s just ahead.
My recent skiing showed me a few new things. One is that I can’t just sit in a chair. My muscles have needs, and in order to ski as well as I did a couple of years ago, I needed to get back in shape. Because one of the places I teach has a gym and pool, I’ve been going every day since that first ski trip. I look at it like eating—something that happens daily.
While skiing, I also particularly loved my physical being in the world. When I was at my best, I felt like a ballet dancer partnered with the hill to move smoothly, nearly effortlessly. For more speed and control, I’d crouch lower and feel the tension in my legs, feel my scarf flap around my neck, feel the cool wind on my cheeks, and hear my skis slather against the snow. Each pole placement planted my intention to turn, and I’d do it. I was as sure and gentle as a bullet train to Paris.
Only when my legs would start screaming in protest to stand a little higher for relief would I slow down or stop. When I stopped, I’d notice how hard I was breathing, how fast my heart beat, how sore my legs felt, yet that was great, too. I was there in the world. I’d notice, too, the singing squeaks of the chairlift rollers nearby, or the scraping of a snowboarder near me. Big Bear Lake below, surrounded by the bumpy white blanket of mountains, was a postcard. This wasn’t imagination. This was real.
We as writers have to get out in the world. Maybe that’s why Hemingway hunted, fished, and climbed mountains. He connected physically to the environment, and that helped with the prose. I’m finding now that my stamina to write each day is greater.
To write well and long, you have to find your sport.
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