A mentor of mine, an award winning novelist, told me once that writing makes you fat. She said, "I used to be a size nine but look at me now." Of course, through my adoring eyes, she looked perfect: elegant, wise, full of life and sparkle. Then like most people, I associated writing with sitting all day long and smoking cigarettes, drinking black coffee and perhaps forgetting to bathe. Writers were not often associated with great physical health, except for the scrappy mercenaries, journalists and female aviators. The first round of writers I met years ago were obvious alcoholics and spotty eaters. Was not a pretty site. This did not discourage me for what was greater than leaving a memorable body of literature to the world no matter what you looked like?
Fortunately,those images of writers faded away along with fisherman's sweaters and full beards. My generation (baby boomers) became a fitness generation and things one does in lycra an unfortunate preoccupation. I didn't succumb to the popularity of leg warmers and headbands, instead I headed out doors. Never athletic as a child, actually I was in a wheelchair during some key years (rheumatic fever), i found my inner athlete at the MFA program at Columbia. First, I was of the willful belief that I could ride my bicycle everywhere and in any weather in New York City and no one was going to stop me. I became one of those head down, slippery cyclists darting and bolting up and down sixth avenue, seventh avenue, Broadway, going to and from Columbia, my job downtown and my therapist in between dodging taxi doors, bus tails and snarling pedestrians who yelled "Watch it!" as I floated past. Bicycling in New York, those days: three gears, no helmet, was a game of survival in the jammed up, psycho busy concoction of yellow cabs, hansom carriages, smoky buses, and cracked and potholed streets.
But this was my transportation--not really a sport. I wanted a sport, wanted to move and run and do something. One day I walked into a famous jobber store -- one of those crammed places that bought left over stock from businesses on the wane. Hanging on the wall were squash racquets. Wooden, already-strung, and light, they felt easy to hold. I decided to try my first sport in my life ever. Playing squash,writing my thesis, playing squash, reviewing a Renoir film, biking to work--now I had found the formula for balance. First time in my life, I wasn't gnawing with stress. (quit therapy) I thought more about squash than about my poetry--I dreamed of angles to hit the perfect ace, the hardly-bouncing ball rhythmed my day and i wore my blue circular bruises with pride. I sensed a growing addiction.
Squash was first and I won't go into the recitation of the obsessions that followed from aerobics to yoga (I had promised myself to learn something physical new every year). But I will pause at running. Running felt like a dream of a writer's tool. While working on my first memoir, all tied up in knots about representing family characters, I put one of them in my head and hit the trail. Trails were free, they didn't cost anything and they were everywhere. My feet pounded, my body pushed through space, and my mind fell into my work. Answers came somewhere in the run and I tried not to stop until I found it. Once in a while I would end up in unfamiliar territory, a little lost, but also ready to write with the new discoveries of my run. I ran across countries, states, and cities as life moved on. I added weightlifting during the Ph.D. program. Lots of hiking, camping, skiing and yoga first and foremost.
Writing does have a dynamic. The writer does not pound on her brain without accessing her energy and her spirit. Impulses generate the state of grace that allows the writer to sit down and do the work. As much as we need to meditate, we also need to move. Blood pulses through our veins, endorphins fuel the body, the spirit lightens, the muck clears, the channels open, what holds us back except our own complications (mental)? Other great things: our hearts open, they beat well and strong, they lower or eradicate dangerous and cloggy things that make us miserable from cholesterol to alcohol. The solitariness of running can evoke the writing state, can be the perfect transition from thinking to doing.
Of course, this is not as seamless as it sounds--nothing is. The best writing time for me is the morning; the best working out time for me is morning. I negotiate time for both and not always successfully. Thing is, I went a little far with the fitness thing and became an instructor. Seduced by the combination of teaching and working out in one felt swoop, I started getting certified: personal training, aerobics, pre-natal, post-partum fitness, resistance stretching, indoor cycling, strength training, boot camp, weight lifting, water fitness, dance, mambo mania, zone training, etc. And everywhere I went (including Egypt), I found a club who would inevitably hire me and I set up my time charts with blocks: 12-2: body pump; 2-5: writing. i have been accused that this "side" work has become central...thus edging out my writing (not really, but teaching has, eh?) By the way I have an indoor office that holds the computer, printer, weights, roller and therapy ball; and an office in the garden with a heavy weight bag hanging outside of it set up for a set of punches (pow structure, pow transitions, pow pow character authenticity.) Unfortunately working out does diminish the famous "tortured" state of the writer.
Now how do you explain that I'm not a size nine? With all my activity, my lumpy self spreads has a generous lap to hold the computer and key away. Truth is: I don't run any more (adult onset of Asthma) but I do teach at the Oakland YMCA six days a week (spin, body sculpt, dance), take yoga, dance, and workout with my dragon boat racing team. I bike to work, walk the dog in the hills and do various therapies. Inevitably I return satisfied and ready to write. Hours on the couch interrupted once in a while for a downward dog or a walk with the dog. My mind cannot sustain much when my body is folded for hours on end. I count on the fresh infusions of energy and wrangle language with them.
Writers need to free their minds more than use them--the combination of the dynamic, the meditative and the artistic; thinking, moving, breathing, stretching are literal, physical and metaphysical, all vital to our work. And each has its own role in directing the energy from breath to page --this is how one writer cross trains.
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