So I’ve spent the past eighteen months getting in shape. I have a special fondness for that euphemism, because in matters of writing, shapeliness is an important aspect of any story. For a long time, I’ve cared more about the shape of my fiction than the shape of—well, myself, but as it turns out, both fitness and fiction are products of similar mental tools. Both require focus, foregoing indulgences, persistence and hard decisions. Both require ambition and a certain fearlessness. Now, after eighteen months of strenuous workouts, intake control and learning to manage grams of carbs, fat, and protein, my physical shape has improved, but the process of whipping my fiction into shape has been more challenging.
Last month, I decided to become certified to teach spin classes. For those who don’t know what I mean by spin (when first hearing the term my daughter thought I’d be whirling in place, like a dreidel), it stands for pedaling a certain kind of stationary bike in a prescribed manner (usually vigorous), to really loud music, in a room with others doing the same. Cold Play is great for this, so is Tom Petty. AC/DC, as it turns out, is one of the best. Anyway, when I signed up to get certified I wasn’t new to spinning, but like many of the fitness goals I’d set for myself, this one made me a little nervous—as any ambitious goal should. On the day of the class, I packed my water bottle and my spinning textbook (issued in advance), and went to my local studio for the eight hour class. The instructor, who was vastly experienced and knowledgeable in the history, mechanics, and bio-chemical effects of spinning, spent most of the time lecturing on those very points. But twice during the day we rode in a simulated class, and what I learned during those rides, provided me not only with insights on the discipline of spinning, but of writing as well.
In writing, I’ve found that it’s often easy to relax into the process. Words, sentences, scenes, there are days when these can seem to write themselves; that is to say, the writer writes them at a level of engagement that produces a result, but not really an optimum one. In fitness terminology, this is called “phoning in a workout.” You go to the class, you get on the bike, and you follow the instructor’s prompts—speeding up when it’s called for, slowing down, etc. Forty minutes later, you’ve completed the class, but you haven’t done it well. Your focus has been someplace else. You might have burned a few calories (which is better than none, just as writing a few pages is better than none), but you haven’t having risked anything. You haven’t pushed yourself, or sustained a sufficiently intense level of focus so that next time, you don’t just ride, but you ride stronger, faster, better.
I tend to be good at maintaining focus during a workout. I can, as they say, embrace my fear. I’m able to push myself, both in setting ambitious goals and seeing them through. During the actual workouts, I’m able to focus on my form, blocking out distractions and paying attention, for example, to the way my feet are driving the pedals. When the workout begins to feel difficult, I push through knowing that moment is the one that contains the source of real results; knowing that pushing through will not only get me to the end, but also bring optimum results.
Unfortunately, I’ve been less successful applying those ideas to my fiction. I don’t embrace my fear. I do exactly the opposite. I coddle it by focusing on what’s easy for me. By not focusing as intensely as I should, and not pushing myself in the areas I’m weakest.
So, after that recent spin class, I realized I could apply those fitness methods to writing fiction. Having reached that new fitness goal, I newly understood my writing goals must be equally ambitious. During the writing process, I saw that my weaknesses would have to be dealt with. If I was writing quickly, I would have to slow down, no matter how uncomfortable it felt. Or, if I was writing slowly, I would have to speed up. More importantly, if the subject matter made me uneasy, if it felt to close to the bone, I would have push through. Just as I did in my physical workouts, I would have to cultivate a tolerance for risk. In those instances of fear, the pivotal sensation must one of discomfort. It means the writer is pushing herself, cultivating her strengths rather than coddling her weaknesses. It means she is breaking the established threshold in order to write stronger.
The methods that have help me become more fit have made my fiction stronger. In the meantime, I’m still working out, going to spin classes and hoping one day to teach, but more importantly, I’m going so that I stay strong. Because if you’re going to write fiction, the last thing you want to be is out of shape.