Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Spreading the Word


Another school mum took up cross-country biking last term.

‘You should come along,’ she said.

‘Can’t,’ I replied. ‘I promised myself this year I’d spend all free time writing.’

She looked me up and down too slowly and said, ‘You really must do both.’

My husband once heard Margaret Atwood read. During questions at the end, someone asked her advice for aspiring writers. Her answer: ‘Take posture lessons.’ As usual with Atwood there was grit behind the wit. The anecdote came back when I took a rare look in the mirror and saw not myself but a copy of a well-upholstered writer friend who went to the doctor half crippled and was diagnosed with the wonderfully vague but ominous ‘premature decrepitude.’ Writing was sending her to an early grave. There can’t be a more sedentary job. Even office secretaries walk to the station. When I visited my friend some months after the diagnosis, she was lithe and vibrant, no longer a woman whose appeal lay solely in the strength of her mind. She’d attacked the gym and the towpaths.

I joined the cross-country bike gang. We cycled bridleways past fields of sheep, up chalky hills. So far, so pleasant. Then our leader shot into the woods where there was no path. Within seconds we were ducking below the handlebars to avoid thorns whipping our eyes, then standing on our pedals to descend steep steps formed by raised tree roots. We cycled the edge of a ravine I never knew existed, across bridges one plank wide with sheer falls of scree either side. The exhilaration and sense of achievement were addictive. Unable to wait for the once weekly fix I go out alone most days now.

Hard exercise connects fundamentally with writing. When writing full tilt we experience the runner’s high but our bodies don’t get the benefit. Matching that mental pitch with its physical equivalent redresses the balance. I’ve not yet experienced the two working simultaneously, where the physical feeds the mental, but can’t wait for this to happen. Oliver Sacks swam a lake shore to shore then wrote a chapter between each crossing. He delivered his manuscript buckled and stained with lake water. I used to wonder how a man as socially gauche as Sacks claims to be could make page-turners of such complex material. He describes here (http://www.powells.com/authors/oliversacks.html) the rhythm of the swim dictating the rhythm of his prose. Murakami runs marathons and has for years. His thoughts go on for miles after most of us would let an idea peter out.

One of the greatest appeals and challenges of writing is in finding balance: balance between editor and creator, story and structure. Sitting all day at a desk, divorced from the world, speaking to no one but my kids and the postman is unbalanced. It wasn’t until the stasis began to show in something as trivial as hip size that I accepted exercise isn’t a skive or a diversion, it’s crucial to a writer’s physical and creative health.

9 comments:

sarah fox said...

Great post - and something very close to my heart at the moment...I do walk a dog every day, but I KNOW I have to start being more active. In fact, inspired by your blog, I'm going to book at a gym today.

A healthy body = a healthy mind! Better writing, I hope!

Samantha Tonge said...

Very interesting post, Susannah.

I swim 30 plus lengths, 2-3 times a week and this keeps me sane. I often trouble-shoot my plots whilst doing backstroke. Without this exercise i'd feel like i was mentally and physcially stagnating. And, of course, it helps fend off the damage done by all those chocolate breaks.

I think it is vital for a writer to, erm, stay vital...

CarolineG said...

I do masses of fast walking and thought I was quite fit...then I tried to cycle up a hill on my new bike recently...was very shocked at how knackering it was!
Good post, thanks Susannah.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

So, so true and wise, Susannah!
I've recently been re-reading Julia Cameron's 'Walking In The World', in which she introduces the daily walk as a task, along with the morning pages. I think the two run in tandem. One moves things along mentally, the other physically. I'm sure that 'writer's block' happens when there's no flow in our lives. I take a daily walk whenever possible, and it so helps to move things through.
Susiex

Bernadette said...

Very good advice, which I really must heed before I need to get my computer chair reinforced (not that far off, I fear!)

There is definitely something in the physical feeding the mental - the last good story idea I had was on a brisk walk to the hardware shop.

Emma Darwin said...

Come hell or high water I do a 40 minute walk every day. I've gone out at 11pm before now, if I couldn't manage it before. But I know that, actually, it's also important to get out into daylight (though it helps that my study now faces south west, not north).

It isn't enough, but it's better than nothing. And I agree, I do my thinking then. Though it had unintended consequences: I took a short story out for a walk, intending to write it for a competition, and halfway through the park I realised it was a novel... Bang went my competition entry.

Susannah Rickards said...

You're all far better organised than I've been.

I knew rationally it was an essential part of the day, but it's odd how the protestant work ethic kicks in, which is counterproductive. I'm learning more about how taking the occasional hour off to do other things feeds rather than hinders the writing.

It's not just that we become ill and heavy quickly (which has been alarming) but the creative connection between the two is really exciting. Yet to explore that.

Glynis said...

I try and walk or swim daily, but sometimes I realise I have sat for a whole day writing. I think I must add a walking programme into my writing schedule for the autumn, winter months.
Thanks for making me think.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Talk about syncronicity, Susannah! Last week I decided I too had to do something about the scales, which have been heading in the wrong direction since last April. I booked an indction session at the gym which takes place today and plan to do swim and gym one day a week and dancerzise one day a week. Hope to see the benefits in my prose as well as in my rear!