Outside our house, they are cutting down a very tall pine tree. It’s rather terrifying from in here, aside from being a rather loud nap environment for the boys. Every so often, we hear from outside, “Whoops,” which is not what you like when you are lying in bed not the height of that tree from all the action. Lengths of rope stretch the four or five stories to the top of the tree. Sawdust falls from the sky like cardboard snow that someone forgot to paint. These guys have been at it all day, first removing the limbs, themselves as big as trees, littering our yard with branches and pine cones and shouting.
I’ve been thinking about exercise. Thinking about exercise; perhaps my life goal is to be sure that this is not an apt title for my memoir. Because thinking about exercise is a lot like thinking about writing. Or thinking about having children. Even thinking about thinking is a poor substitute for thinking, as David Allen, guru of getting things done, will tell you.
I’ll tell you what the guys out in the neighbor’s yard in their yellow hardhats will not be doing after work today. When they’ve wrestled this giant old pine to the ground and hauled the logs and rounds out to the truck and raked the debris from our yard and the one next door, they will not head over to the gym. Do some laps. Take in an exercycle class or monitor their heart rates as they jump aerobically.
Exercise used to be a part of all our lives, essential to all our survival. It still is essential to our survival, but by dint of trying to survive we do not all get the workout these tree climbers have.
I propose that creativity–storytelling, imagining, asking and answering the questions whose answers we do not know–used also to be integrated daily into our lives, accomplished by the very mechanics of our survival. At the very least, we did not have earphones and iPhones as we gathered and hunted. We had only the bare world and what we made of it plus our own invention. Imagine if we had to create as much entertainment/ information/ ideas as we currently consume on the internet, on television, on the radio, in the newspaper, in books, email, magazines, on the kindle . . . It’s not so different from looking in your refrigerator and imaging that you’d planted and harvested, raised and slaughtered everything you find there. You sure as heck wouldn’t need to go to the gym.
But my point is not that we should all wander around trying to find something edible and avoid our hip-hop dance classes. No way. I think it’s great that we’ve developed ways to make up for our new sedentary lifestyles. (I will say that having a baby is a great way to stay in shape right up until they start running around on their own and you can stay at a distance and watch them, eating chocolate to stay awake. Then it all goes to hell in a gym bag . . . ) So we join gyms, sports teams, dojos, baby brigades, dance classes, pilates studios. We get personal trainers, have coaches, teachers, life guards and workout buddies. If we don’t, it’s usually not on principle. If we can go it alone and do, great. If we don’t, we feel proud to get ourselves into an activity that gets the job done.
Then we go home and think that we should do our writing all by ourselves, that it should pour from our pens already perfect. But writing is not an olympic performance; writing is exercise. If you break a sweat, count the session a success. If you ache afterwards, know that you are getting stronger. If your heart races, if your breathing deepens, you are doing well.
Imagine an athlete going out to learn to skate and expecting to pull of an Olympic performance. Hell, Olympic performers don’t expect to pull those off in the rehearsal the day before. But writers expect this of themselves. We sit down to write and we are looking for those sentences to shape up something like Garcia-Marquez or Morrison or Dillard. What we really need to worry about is this: are my fingers moving at the keyboard (or holding the pen)? Am I reaching for an image, pressing a moment to the page and then another? Forget Hemingway and Faulkner and Junot Diaz. They didn’t write like Hemingway and Faulkner and Diaz on the first draft, or on the second one, either.
Hemingway rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times. An interviewer asked him, what was the problem? I couldn’t get the words right, he said.
You are warming up. Getting strong. Building muscle. We’re lucky in that if a little piece of pure Olympic gold slips out, we can important that into a more virtuoso location, save it for when the judges and the audience come out and we change from our sweatpants into our sequined, backless mini-dress. But right now, we are running laps. Stretching. Doing jumping jacks. That feeling that the writing sucks? Think of it as the good, good ache you get when you work out harder than you have in a long time. Yeah, it hurts. Good.
Revision workshop starts January 15. There are a couple of spaces left.