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.