I don’t know why, but I often find parallels between two or more unrelated concepts. Some call it peculiar, but I call it a gift. During an early morning cup of coffee, as I sat down with my Aurora fountain pen and a clean sheet of paper, it hit me that there are several parallels between writing and working out. Since I am an avid runner and cyclist as well as an author (SYN:FIN) I was surprised it had taken me so long to see the relationship. Let’s take a look at the parallels.
To get good at either writing or a sport requires you have a burning desire in your gut. The kind of desire that gets you out on the road or sitting with a writing device to ply your craft. It isn’t a one time effort, either. Writing and running are lifetime commitments to me. I may finish running a race (jlgrunr.com) or complete writing a novel, but I know those are just milestones along the way. There is more to come and, if you have passion, you relish the idea of what’s ahead.
An emotional draw is only the calling card. To be successful and grow requires discipline. As a writer, if you sit and start throwing words out you may feel fulfilled, but are you creating something of value that is truly the best you can do? As a runner or cyclist, if you go out on the road and cover the same track every time are you really gaining anything?
A long time ago I made an attempt to race bicycles. It was a great learning experience, which led me to improving my riding, even though I never attained much in terms of racing accomplishments. Early on, I went out with some experienced racers on a training ride and got dropped. Twice. Tucking my tail between my legs, I pedaled back to the bike shop on my red Pinarello racing machine and talked to the team manager. After hearing that my training consisted of putting on miles by just riding progressively longer routes around town he told me “You aren’t going to get there by doing what your’re doing.” Those miles were like empty calories.
What he prescribed was a different approach. One that actually had fewer miles with a more focused effort. It made a world of difference.
A Mixed Regimen
For the last several years I have been working on novels. My normal writing time in the morning is either writing or editing those works. That has been a bit of a mistake. It has been through some discussions with other writers on Twitter and Facebook that made me realize the error of that approach.
In running, I learned that I need to do diverse efforts to really improve. The past 7 months have been a little different for my running since I am converting to a minimalist style of running. That has had me going back to square one in terms of form and mileage. It also had me re-gearing my training program. In order to get the most advantage out of low mileage, I did several runs during the week that focused on hills and hill repeats (yes, running up and down the same hill several times in a row). Other times I slowed my pace and went for longer distance or just went out and had fun.
In writing, I am now taking that same approach. I started to write some short stories, a craft that I have a growing respect for. Those shorts are in genres that I don’t normally write in. I penned some erotica or YA fantasy (I’m not combining the two!). I haven’t tried poetry or a screenplay, but they are goals. Hell, practice writing book blurbs or new copy for advertisement. It all applies
As a runner, I have found growth and strength come from changing the level of intensity and the terrain on which I run. In finding that strength, I have confidence to push myself further and harder. You know what? Each time I go to a new limit I discover I have a lot more I can do.
The same with writing. Just in the few weeks that I have started to vary my writing challenges, I am discovering that I can pen my main WIP with more focus and clarity. So go after it. Try something new and totally fail at it. You’ll never get success until you blow up. Jump into a Flash Fiction challenge and see how bad you can write in 15 minutes. Accept a wordmongering challenge from someone, or even throw one out there. I did that a few days ago for the first time and added over 400 words to a blog post I had been putting off.
I am not a creature of habit, but I am one of structure. Seldom do I do the same thing exactly the same way. I have a flexible plan now for my writing, the same way I do for my running. In transitioning my style of running I knew I had to establish some limits on a weekly and monthly basis. To go too fast too soon would lead to injury and a much longer transition. It takes a while to develop the muscles and form.
For writing, I gave myself some targets in terms of words and also made a commitment to try a different style sometime during the week. I knew that by the end of the week I wanted to have achieved some goals, but exactly how and when I got them was more spontaneous.
Focus on Form
As I said, my early running transition focused on short runs following good form. If you haven’t tried a new genre, then take it slow. Don’t worry about word count, worry about quality. Make sure that even if you write only one sentence, that it is a good sentence. A poet friend of mine (Eclipsing Winter) enters contests and writes in forms that she is unfamiliar with. Not everything works, but I have admiration for the way she exercises her poetic muscle.
I do suggest that you don’t delete, just start a new line and keep the mistakes for reference. Once you start to get the form down, you can go longer, faster and with more ease.
My initial focus on minimalist running was becoming more “barefoot” aware. I did a portion of the runs barefoot (it was November and December in New England, so it was a challenge!) because barefoot on the pavement gave the most immediate and effective feedback on form. If you run wrong barefoot, you feel it immediately. As the form became engrained, I ran longer distances and less time barefoot.
Outside Your Comfort
As part of the development, you need some stretch goals. In running, I plan for a run or a race that is more than I’ve ever done or a faster time than I’ve ever done or a more challenging course. There are many ways to vary the effort to make the stretch goal something that will make you reach further than you think you can.
In writing, your comfort zone might be more than just trying a new genre. It might be having a different peer review. Don’t give your work to friends and other supportive writers all the time. Find someone who you respect but have had little interface with and ask them to review. Develop that thick skin that will breed confidence in your prose or poetry. Put yourself out there and welcome the feedback. Post a sample to your blog and invite people to tear it apart, but be sure to ask them why they don’t like it or where it fell short. You want constructive feedback. Ignore the pissants.
I want to encourage you to keep moving forward. Another virtual friend of mine (Marissa) has been challenging herself for fitness and improving her self perception. It has been an up and down roller coaster to witness, but the one thing I see her doing is moving forward. Any step backward is followed by a couple of steps forward. She makes mistakes, but who doesn’t.
Just as in running, there will be setbacks. Early in my transition I went out and ran a lot more than I should have. For two weeks I had massive pain in my calves and it set my transition back about a month or so. That said, I had capped any individual run at about 10 miles the last few months and was still nursing some achilles tendon sensitivity when I signed up for a Half Marathon. I ran that last weekend and pushed past the limit I had set. At home after the race with lots of leg pain I wondered if I was back in the same boat. But, two days later I had no pain, did several runs, including a 9 miler yesterday, and have reached a new level of readiness in how I feel.
There are times when you have to say, “fuck it”, and go past the limit. You need the base before you do, but when you have the base, don’t hold yourself back.
I closing, I want you to recognize that rest is as important as effort. Yep, the key to development is to find the right space to rest. In running, it is pretty common to have a rest day where you do much lighter workouts or a different type of exercise to let you leg muscles recover after a hard effort.
In writing, take some time away from the keyboard (or paper) and spend a day reading, but think like an editor. What would you do differently? How would you improve the plot or characters? What has the author done well and why did it work? You can also watch a movie and think like a screenplay editor, always keeping a critical eye on how to make the work better. Believe me, it will improve your work.
So there you have it. I have had the pleasure and good fortune of virtually hooking up with a lot of authors in a forum that I love. Some are newbie and some very successful. What I have found is that the ones who keep moving forward are the ones who challenge themselves in lots of different ways. They build a discipline around that challenge and then work toward the goal.
Don’t stop writing, but don’t just write.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Please, post those comments. It is all part of that feedback loop!