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Sweating It Out: Writing and Exercising

Published 8th September, 2020 in MRP Guest Blogger

This morning, as I cycled a sweeping curve at the bottom of Molesworth Street on Kew Boulevard, I realised the antagonist in the novel I’m working on is too mean. I peddled hard as it dawned on me. Yep, his overwhelming spite is the reason the plotline has been so difficult to resolve. How can my protagonist give this man the benefit of the doubt if there’s nothing in his personality or history which allows her to?

The breakthrough gave me the burst of energy I needed to make the final climb up Walmer Street. This particular climb is a false flat, a hill that appears deceptively horizontal but is in fact a MOUNTAIN in disguise. It is also my least favourite section of the Boulevard, a scenic bush loop in Melbourne’s inner east I ride often, and the favoured playground of cyclists, luxury cars and learner motorbikes. An accident waiting to happen, perhaps, but a route nonetheless where I get my best thinking done…

In the warmer months, I don Lycra (don’t judge me) and ride it often. Take the bike path from home along the creek that emerges at the base of the Boulie, as its affectionately known, before putting peddle-to-the-metal up the first hill. By the time I reach the peak, with its cityscape view, I’ve relaxed into the rhythm of the ride. My legs have found a comfortable rotation and my body moves with the bike. 

But no matter how often I do it, the ride, like writing, oscillates between hard work and easy.  On good days, it’s a pleasure. On the others, it hurts.

Like cycling, writing is generally [metaphorically] sweaty work, but it’s those fleeting Zen moments that keep me hooked. In sports psychology, these moments are referred to as flow. A rare state some athletes experience of complete absorption, or oneness with their bodies and the task ahead. Similarly, writers experience the zone. The head-space equivalent of a unicorn. A rare and magical place that fools us into thinking we’ve reached writing enlightenment. That all those hours spent painfully extracting words from our psyche and ordering them on a page have finally paid off. That from this point on, writing will be easy. For a few self-delusional moments, everything is heavenly. Then POOF! as soon as we’re aware of the state, it vanishes. Gone, along with visions of grandeur. Leaving only the feeling that to reach it again, we’ll have to keep working. 

Abraham Maslow, of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, refers to these episodes of heightened creativity as peak experiences or ‘any experience that comes close to perfection’. These episodes can be triggered by all manner of things, music, love, sex and childbirth. Maslow identifies seventeen characteristics of this cognitive state, including a momentary loss of fear, a greater ability to forgive oneself and others, a richer perception and a heightened sense of wonder and awe. A heady mix, which ticks all our brain’s dopamine boxes.

We could go one step further, and say that exercise itself is capable of inducing a similar creative state. Renowned novelists, Joyce Carol Oates and Haruki Muakami are among those who use physical activity to sharpen their focus and get their imaginative juices flowing. Oates says, ‘[Running] allows [her] an expanded consciousness in which [she] can envisage what [she’s] writing as a film or dream.’ While Muakami goes so far as to say his, ‘real existence as a serious writer [began] on the day [he] first went jogging’, because it gave him the confidence to push himself towards finishing something. I think we can all relate to the relief that comes from successfully reaching the end of a writing project…

In her recent article, Fertile Ground, (The Age, Spectrum, 2/5/20) author, Charlotte Wood, explored the connection between writing and movement, saying, ‘I think this paradoxical fear and need of “emptiness” is why artists have always been such enthusiastic walkers. It’s a useful trick: silent walking allows the mind to empty without the paralysing fear of stillness. A letting go takes place. An easy, featherweight attention must be paid to the material world of the kerb, the footpath, the pedestrian crossing, which then allows the ethereal, invented world to expand inside the mind. This imaginative growth – without hope, without fear, without despair – is the precious fruit of the inner life.’

And so, despite the false flats and dismal Melbourne weather, I cycle… for exercise but also to write. In pursuit of those rare flow or zone moments, but also because the two, for me, feed into each other. When cycling isn’t killing me, it clears my mind so my sub-conscious can get to work untangling plot-knots and sentences. I highly recommended giving it a go … with optional Lycra, of course, although it does make the process more comfortable.

Read Emily’s first blog post with us, ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’.

Emily Brewin is a Melbourne author. Her first novel, Hello, Goodbye, was published in 2017 and her second, Small Blessings,in 2019, both with Allen & Unwin. Her short stories have been published in a number of anthologies, including We’ll Stand In That Place and Other Stories by Margaret River Press and the Bristol Short Story Prize anthology. She has written for The AgeMeanjinKill Your Darlings, ArcherFeminartsyThe Victorian Writer and Mamamia. She is currently working on her third and fourth novels.

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