A writer's pen is a muscle: take it to the gym

Monday, January 28, 2019
by Trenton Joseph McNulty
muscled man holding large pencil

I was not an athletic child. Never one to break out a ball on the playground, never one to try out for teams or clubs. I exercised when I felt like it, which is to say I barely exercised at all. Yet strangely, I was proud of it – or at least my ability to stay skinny without really trying. From pre-school until undergrad, my high metabolism made me as lithe as a lamp fixture. “Why should I exercise?” I’d say. “Gross.”

Naturally, my writing habits were much the same. I’ve always been good at it, so I never really had to try. When I did write, it was in the Romantic mode, in a fleeting uprush of powerful emotion. I needed to be inspired, and inspiration was divine, God-given, something that came to me from the ether and left just as quickly. As you can imagine, I didn’t write much.

When I got to university, I discovered a terrifying truth: the freshman fifteen is real, people, and it showed on my stomach. For the first time, I looked in the mirror and saw my dad. I was horrified. Faced with this stark reality, my problems with writing seemed less urgent: too often my nights were sleepless and my days hurried and wasteful, but I was still successful insofar as I did well academically.

As I began to exercise, however, I realised the process was almost identical to writing. One stretches the mind and the other the body, but they’re both a grind. It’s difficult to start, and painful in the moment, and often you don’t see the fruits of your work for days, weeks, even months. As much as I enjoy putting together a good sentence (I am an English major, after all), the only real satisfaction comes to me at the end, as I stare at the finished project.

If I was to survive university, I needed to reconceptualise writing not as something done only when necessary, but as a serious part of my lifestyle. I needed to be a warrior. I imagine the same is true for you, dear reader – no matter your academic background. If you want to be an efficient writer, you need to get yourself to the gym

Discipline, not motivation

My first tip to becoming a better writer is a conceptual one, and one you’ll see on every fitness website across the internet: motivation is fleeting, discipline is not. If you rely on feeling to get you out of bed every morning, most days you’ll stay in bed. If you tell yourself, “Oh, I’ll work on this tomorrow,” you’ve already lost. Block off times for writing in your calendar, and work when you need to – whether you want to or not.

The trick is in knowing that there is no trick to this, no fancy way of pushing yourself to do better. The action comes before the feeling. Sow an action, reap a habit. Do something often enough, and eventually it becomes automatic.

The most important part is showing up

When I first started exercising, I tried to be patient with myself. Every morning as I stared in the mirror curling dumbbells, I told myself: “You don’t have to do your best. You don’t have to push yourself too hard. If you set that as your benchmark for success, you’ll fail, you’ll be disappointed, and that will only make it harder to come back. You’re building a habit, not running a marathon.”

Some days, I would go to the gym and get nothing done. Some days, I sit down at my laptop and edit the same sentence for an hour straight. And those days are frustrating. But writing something is always better than nothing, and if I ever skip a day entirely, it will only make it easier to quit in the future.

You’re going to feel silly at first

As I stood holding those dumbbells, I felt ridiculous. I didn’t know what I was doing. And all around me were hulking, grunting maniacs infinitely more skilled than I was. I’ll never compare, I thought. They’re all judging me. I can’t even picture them in their underwear they’re all half-naked already!

Likewise, it’s easy to feel ridiculous as a writer. English may not be your first language, and you might have friends or follow artists who seem infinitely better than you’ll ever be. It’s okay. Accept it, because it’s not going away anytime soon – no matter how good you get.

As Kurt Vonnegut (author of Slaughterhouse-Five) famously said, “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.”

The helplessness we sometimes feel is not a reflection of reality, but of the insecurity we all have.

Break-up your workout

There are two types of workouts: full-body and split training, The latter isolates different body parts to different days of the week. Monday? Shoulders. Tuesday? #legday. By breaking things up, you reduce the overall strain on your body, and give each part time to heal.

The same is true with writing. Cramming an entire assignment the night before feels daunting, almost impossible. You’re stressed, and the entire piece suffers. Isolate each section – set a planning day, a drafting day, an editing day – and you'll feel the weight lift from your shoulders (literally!).

Click the "STARTING YOUR ASSIGNMENT" heading on our Resources page for tips on breaking your work up into more managable chunks. 

Get yourself a spotter

If you go to gym with a friend, you keep yourself accountable. “I want to stay in bed today,” you might think, “but I can’t – it wouldn’t be the bro thing to do. I’ll let my boy Chad down. He’ll know I gave up, and I’ll never hear the end of it.”

Likewise, writing with others creates social pressure. Make plans to meet up with a writing group every week, and you’ll never dare come without something to show. If you and your friends have the same assignment, work together (without cheating, of course).

Looking for people to write with? The Writing and Communication Centre hosts Grad Writing Cafés and an Undegraduate Write Club.

Gains happen in the space between workouts

After an intense workout, the average Chad kicks back on the couch with a protein shake in hand, basking in endorphins as torn muscle tissues repair themselves stronger than ever.

Likewise, the key to writing lies in the rest-days between sessions. After staring at an essay or report for hours on end, you loose perspective. You can’t see it as clearly as someone else would. Put it away for a day or two and come back later. In the meantime, maybe take the literary equivalent of a protein shake: a book.

As Stephen King said, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Reading between writing sessions gives you a familiarity with the written word, making it easier for you to write and revise on your own. 

muscular woman holding two stacks of books

It’s all about the grind

I look back on the person I used to be and I empathize with him. I still am that person more often than I’m willing to admit, in both my fitness and my writing. But marrying the two – approaching my work not as a Romantic poet, but as a hard-line warrior with a job to do – it makes things easier. Or at least gives me the strength to do what’s hard.