7 Things I Learned About Writing… From the Gym
by Jenn Polish
Writing and gymming. Gymming and writing. I don’t know how to separate them.
For me, writing is just as an embodied experience as lifting; for me, lifting is just as mentally taxing (and energizing) as writing.
Right now, I’m starting a new phase of training at the gym in prep for ClexaCon, and I’m also starting my long-simmering superhero novel about a trans boy who’s part of a long line of superheroes who have empathic and telekenetic powers (except he doesn’t know it yet).
To me, these two processes are not at all disconnected.
I’m not sure what kind of writer I would be if I were still not allowed to lift (but that’s another post entirely), and I’m not sure what kind of lifter I’d be if writing didn’t orient my focus, my discipline, my dreams, my passions.
So, below, I’m listing out some of the biggest lessons my gymming has given me for my writing. Shoutout before I dive in to the #DVsquad, especially Karen Strong (@karenmusings) and fellow NineStar author J.S. Fields (@galactoglucoman), for our antics about #DVsquadGymGoals. Seriously yall, let’s make it A Thing.
Time off can make you grow
Imagine me with a chest cough. (*Jane the Virgin Narrator Voice*: It should be noted that J is extremely susceptible to chest coughs.) Don’t imagine it too hard, because it’s gross and painful and not at all fun.
But, reliably, at least twice a year, I have to stay away from the gym for a week or so because who wants to have their chest cough become pneumonia? Not this nerd.
And, reliably, at least twice a year, I panic because I don’t want to lose my #gains.
My poor fiancee has to keep reminding me that my health is more important than my gains; that I’m not less important as a person even if I do lose some gains (see the last and most important lesson on here for more on that); and – the one that comforts me most – resting actually improves my body composition, my muscle mass, my strength.
Because taking off from the gym – a day, two days, three, sometimes even a week – lets your body rest, your muscles recover, your stress hormones calm down, and your strength (perhaps ironically) increase. My muscles get sharper, bigger, stronger, when I let myself… rest.
The same goes for writing. Take some time to rest, to live your life – to explore new things, to think new thoughts, to dive into new adventures, to watch new TV – and, when you come back to it, your writing muscles will often, also, be sharper, bigger, strong.
Community is essential (but not always the way you think)
I love, cherish, and eagerly anticipate the occasional workout with one of my best friends, but he lives too far away to make our delightful gym dates a daily or even monthly occurrence. So, I don’t have a gym buddy. I don’t take fitness classes (hello, social anxiety). In fact, my gym time is carefully guarded, just for me: often, the only “me” time I need aside from writing.
But I also know the people at my gym. We exchange breathless, silent nods; bro hugs; spots; and the occasional compliment on a super tough lift, the occasional filming of a PR in the making. We don’t really talk – I don’t really want to – but they are my community, and I miss them when I’m away from home and have to work out in a lonely hotel gym or my fiancee’s parents’ back yard.
I also have friends I can text about my gym goals, about my best lifts, about my lifting fails. Some of them – my fiancee included – barely know the difference between a deadlift and a hammer curl, but all of them, invariably, are affirmative and are excited for me when I’m excited.
I am very intrinsically motivated, both with the gym and with my writing; but both suffer when I isolate myself too much. Both suffer when I neglect to reach out; when I try to both fail and succeed alone.
So, even if gymming with a buddy – or writing with a buddy – isn’t your thing, don’t forget that community can look different for different people, in different moments. Gymming or writing, it’s hella important to find yours.
Many bodies adapt to routine. Quickly. Five sets of five squats gets too easy, too quickly, even if I’m lifting heavy. I need to shock my body – surprise my muscles, give my brain something new to grapple with – with pause squats, lower weight higher reps, on and on. Otherwise, I’ll plateau. Otherwise, I’ll fizzle out.
Same with writing.
YA high fantasy is my thing (hello, debut novel!), but sometimes I need to write YA sci fi (hello, debut novella!). Supergirl fan fiction is my thing, but sometimes I need to write for The Bold Type. And, always, I need to be reading different things – even things like adult contemporary. I need to keep expanding my skills, even when it’s scary; especially when it’s scary.
Without the gym reminding me of that – without glancing over and seeing someone working a pushup variation I haven’t seen before and making a note to try it myself – I fear that I would forget to read other things, to write other things. To slip out of comfortable, familiar choices and into… well, risk. It makes me a better lifter, and it makes me a better writer (here’s hoping).
It’s tempting to show up to the gym and just… lift. Just like it’s tempting to sit down and just… write.
But for me? I need goals. I need goals and I need guidance within myself; something to strive for, something to be excited about. Something to congratulate myself on.
I’m terrible at calisthenics; I have process goals, now, to integrate a certain amount of calisthenic work into each training session, and I have product goals, now, to be able to perform certain exercises with a certain level of endurance by a certain date.
Process goals; how much and when will I write?
Product goals; what is it all for? By when am I trying to produce what?
It works in the gym, and it works in my writing. Big time.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
Muscles don’t grow when they’re starved for water. It’s as simple as that.
Writing-wise? Too often, we write with too much coffee and not enough water. We forget to eat and we don’t stop long enough to hydrate. We forget our bodies while our minds bring dreams to life on a page. But the whole premise of this post? Is that writing is in the body, and the body is in the mind.
So hydrate. Simple as that. Nuff said.
Protect Your Time (and find people who support your self-advocacy)
I said it before, but it’s well-worth saying again; most of my biggest gym cheerleaders are people for whom I have to demonstrate what a deadlift is (literally pickin it up and puttin it down). But when I’m happy, they’re happy. They remind me to hydrate and to eat – the know about those things – and they remind me that they’re proud of me, that I should be proud of myself when I hit a new PR, when I crush a killer training session, when I sprint a certain total mileage.
My biggest supporters often aren’t gymmers themselves. But they’re an integral part of my gymming goals.
Same with writing.
If I don’t set gym time – if I don’t set writing time – I’m not going to gym, and I’m not going to write.
And I need to surround myself, as much as possible, with people who don’t only support my goals in theory. I need to surround myself, as much as possible, with people who know that I won’t be home to start cooking Sunday brunch before noon, because I need to spend at least three hours in the gym Sunday mornings. I need to surround myself, as much as possible, with people who know that I’m never going to be available to go out Monday nights, because Monday nights are my write-all-night nights.
Even if these people aren’t lifters or writers, they need to help me guard my time.
Your self-worth is not the total of how much you can lift (or write)
Best – most important – for last.
Too often, in the gym we beat ourselves up for hitting a plateau; we hurt our bodies, push ourselves past health, to get temporary gains while only hurting ourselves in the long run. Too often, we tie our self worth (or lack thereof) to every lift success, to every missed lift, to every new goal achieved, new program crushed.
We do the same with writing. We wrap our self-worth with our publishing credits, how we’re feeling about our latest draft, whether we hit our word count goal for the day, the week, the month.
In the gym, we have to train ourselves to gain confidence from our best lifts and lessons from the ones we miss; otherwise, we’re setting ourselves up for injury (both physical and mental). With our writing, we have to do the same: reminding ourselves that our self-worth is always greater than the sum of even our best writing accomplishments.
You are never worthless or a failure because of rejection letters, rejection letters, rejection letters, missed lifts, training plateaus, and – have I mentioned? – rejection letters.
You are always worth more than the greatest sentence, the greatest novel, the greatest lift, the greatest training session, you’ve ever had.
This has been the hardest one for me to learn, but the more time I spend in – and away from – the gym, the more I’ve been able to grasp it in my writing life.
Where do you learn life lessons about writing? What life lessons does writing teach you?
About Jenn Polish
Jenn Polish is a YA fantasy author and instructor of English and Theatre at CUNY LaGuardia Community College. Their debut novel, LUNAV – a lesbian fairy tale set in a world where dragons hatch from trees – is set for release with NineStar Press in March 2018. When they’re not teaching, writing, or working toward their PhD in English from the CUNY Graduate Center, they’re probably fanbying over a wide array of comic books or hitting the gym.