November 2, 2016KR BlogUncategorized

Writers and Exercise

I’m a writer. I sit a lot. If you’re reading this, maybe you do, too. Now that I’m forty-one years old and long-term planning has replaced brash self-destruction, I have to get up from my desk more to ambulate and to proactively make time to exercise. By exercise I don’t mean taking breaks from writing by walking across the house to brew more tea. I mean turning off my computer and moving my body by going to the gym, doing pushups in the other room, and riding my bike. Meaning: leaving my desk to do something other than write.

As a writer, I’ve built my life around my mind. I’ve trained it. I’ve shaped it, I’ve fed and strengthened and protected it. Braining is my Olympic sport, and I’m always in the game, but to keep reading and writing vigorously and preserve my imaginative capabilities, I had to try to resume using my body as much as I used to. At first I thought this sucked. But it feels good and it sucks, and there’s really no more time to put it off.

“Thinking about age is thinking about death,” writes Lynne Sharon Schwartz in her excellent Threepenny Review essay “At a Certain Age”:

Approaching death: how to parse the phrase? Is it approaching me, or am I approaching it? Either way, will we come face to face in ten minutes or ten months or ten years, and what exactly will be the form of our greeting? Which indignities are in store? Once I thought I’d rather die than live with certain physical humiliations; now I’m more amenable. I could manage, given the alternative.

At this point in life, I know what she means.

I was an active kid. I grew up hiking, biking, skateboarding and boogie-boarding, and I spent my college years hiking off-trail. Sure, I went through smoking and partying periods where I trashed myself and convinced myself to feel proud of that, but I always got it together and returned to hiking and eating healthy veg-heavy food. My body remembers. Muscle memory doesn’t only apply to music. But I need to retrain myself to use it regularly. I like both my inner and my outer worlds, and for the last ten-plus years, I’ve favored the inner. That’s the thing: part of me still loves exercising, and part of me doesn’t want to do it. I like reading and writing, and sitting’s easier than exerting myself, even though too much sitting makes me restless and self-loathing and less creative, never mind all the chocolate I shove in my face to endure the stillness. Creating new habits takes more effort than actually physically exerting myself. It’s the retraining that I’ve loathed. But I don’t want to spend my life seated. First this office chair, then a wheelchair. In certain moods, that’s how I see it. Either I get up now willingly to rebuild muscle, bone density and cardio-strength, or I damn myself to the sitting position in old age.

Not all writers are like this. Many have developed much more balanced lives. They run in the morning before sitting down to write. They write and grade papers, then hit the pool. In The Atlantic, Mohsin Hamid talks about using exercise to reinvigorate his creative life:

I needed to get unstuck. And, nearing the age of 40, I’d already used up many of the usual tricks writers before me had employed to shake things up when they were in a rut: travel chemically, break your heart, change continents, get married, have a child, quit your job, etc. I was desperate. So I started to walk. Every morning. First thing, as soon as I got up, which as a dad now meant 6 or 7 a.m. I walked for half an hour. Then I walked for an hour. Then I walked for 90 minutes. My wife was amused. Goodbye Hamid, hello Hamster—that sort of thing.

Not surprisingly, one quote that stuck with Hamid came from Haruki Murakami: “…writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.”

Murakami, the popular Japanese novelist and essayist, wrote a whole book exploring the ways running, training for races, and discipline shapes his writing life and fuels creativity. In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami says, “I am struck by how, except when you’re young, you really need to prioritize in life, figuring out in what order you should divide up your time and energy. If you don’t get that sort of system set by a certain age, you’ll lack focus and your life will be out of balance.” He runs nearly every day and has run marathons and triathlons. In thinking about exercise, he is right on:

For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary—or perhaps more like mediocre—level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.

Murakami crams lots of quotable jewels in to this otherwise breezy book, which on their own can carry metaphorical weight:

“To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm.”

And:

“Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive then in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—and for me, for writing as whole. I believe many runners would agree”

And about endurance, struggle, and rejection:

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Say you’re running and you think, “Man, this hurts, I can’t take it anymore.” The “hurt” part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand anymore is up to the runner himself.

Although I’ve never enjoyed running, the life of the body clearly effects the life of the mind. When you exert yourself physically, you strengthen your creative powers and imagination. That’s part of the reason many of us do such great thinking when we take long walks. When you move your legs, you move your mind. My long rambles help me think through things I’m working on, and brainstorm new ideas. I see the same happening when I ride my bike and go to the gym.

I like to read. It’s one of life’s greatest pleasures, but you reach that certain age where your committed literacy threatens to damage your body. Your middle thickens. Your muscles shrink. Stairs require a bit more effort and bones ache without even moving. It’s not hard to figure out: you have to ambulate. Build a literary life if you want it, but don’t forget that when it comes to the body, it’s use it or lose it. (Unless you’re Harry Dean Stanton, then you can smoke cigs till you’re ninety. Related rule: ignore the exceptions.) Depending on what you do when you sit, all that movement inside your brain might exist in an inverse relationship to how much you sit, which means that the interior development you’ve committed yourself to—that priceless intellectual life—can be seen as eating your exterior. It’s the classic struggle: sacrifice the body to feed the mind? Read or die, they say. Sometimes I worry that it’s read and die. In my early thirties I was cool with that. Now I’d rather find a way to read and stay fit.

So I’ve accepted that I have to create balance: read, sit, write, and also go exercise. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. I just need to schedule it. And I have. In winter, my other half Rebekah and I joined a gym. We were hitting it pretty hard, three or four times a week, but once summer rolled around, I traded the gym for my bike and started doing pushups in my home office. I’d rather exercise outside than inside, and I prefer the meditative exertion of peddling to the Stairclimber under florescent lights. I definitely feel better working out, though, and if you don’t mind me saying so, my arms look better, too. I’ll go back to the gym once summer’s over. I’m a fair weather bicyclist, I admit.

For now, during my summer days writing at home, I get up at regular intervals and I play guitar. I make tea in the kitchen. I stretch and do pushups and walk the dog in the morning, and we do hardcore yard work on weekends, digging deep holes with pickaxes and hauling heavy bags of soil. I ambulate. Then I sit my ass back down and write some more. Is it cheating to get a standing desk?