Exercising to Keep Your Writing in Shape

By DeAnn Bell

Tyrion Lannister said, “A mind needs books like a sword needs a wet stone.” To writers, this means to keep our writing sharp, we need writing exercises, reading exercises, and (GASP!) physical exercises to stay engaged with writing. In a society where time is money, and self-esteem seems indistinguishable from productivity, the practice of practising writing has fallen swiftly out of fashion, but the benefits of exercise far outweigh the time they require. Mental quiet time, physical activity, active reading and creative exploration are necessary to keep the wheels of writing in motion and to prevent yourself from becoming a one-trick pony.

Writing Exercises
From Margaret Geraghty’s The Five-Minute Writer to Tumblr’s blog “Writing Prompts”, the world is filled with ways to stretch your writing muscles. As professional writers, though, we often sit down at the keyboard and expect to compose something that can eventually be sold. Unfortunately, the anxiety of producing this type of writing restricts our creativity. We learn not to experiment because experimentation can lead to failure, and failure equals wasted time. This eventually means that all of our techniques become repetitive. Like a visual artist uses a sketchbook to practice techniques, a writer needs a space to experiment with bits of voices and styles.
The best time for this kind of exercise is either between projects or on those days when your muse doesn’t show up to work.  If you write for a living, consider flexing your creative muscles in ways that are different from your day job. For instance, if you are a prose writer, consider working on exercises dedicated to poetry; if you write only fiction consider working on prompts related to memoir or personal essay. This will help keep your writing exercises honest and encourage you to develop new techniques. Some articles will encourage the Deliberate-Timed-Feedback approach where you set specific goals for your exercises, but this makes an otherwise liberating space a whole lot of work. Use this space to truly write for yourself. Practice what you want to learn for as long as you want to practice it and see where your thoughts take you. As for feedback, it’s important to build confidence in your own opinion. Don’t underestimate asking yourself if it’s any good.

Reading Exercises
Reading is a fundamental part of writing but we can get into passive reading routines where we don’t question what we read or how it was put together. While some passive reading (like holiday novels) is enjoyable, too much can make you and your writing feel like it’s stuck in a rut. If you don’t know where to start your active reading consider picking up a novel from a reading club list. These novels often include book club questions at the end for discussion groups. If you are reading something that doesn’t have questions at the end, consider making a list of five things you enjoyed about the novel, five things that you would change if the novel was yours, and three writing techniques you might try to incorporate in your own writing.
For example, I really enjoyed The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, but where I had read the novel as an exploration of non-traditional families, the book club questions all concentrated on racial identity. The results of these questions were that I had to reassess scenes in the novel for a different level of connectivity and meaning. This reassessment helped me to better construct my own stories through questioning writing techniques. Be brave, choose widely, and don’t forget to include nonfiction.

Physical Exercise
You knew it was coming. Writing is an exercise that can be mentally exhausting, but while our mind might be begging to veg out after we have achieved our word count, our bodies have been stationary in a fairly unnatural position for the entire time. If you give in and stay seated for your leisure time, this can lead to feelings of restlessness, discontent, and sleep disturbances. While reading a novel called Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work by Mason Currey, I was amazed by how many writers split or cap their writing day with exercise. Haruki Murakami, award-winning author of Kafka on the Shore and After Dark, runs 10 kilometres or swims 1500 kilometres a day, and sometimes he does both! While I am not recommending marathon running, exercising when you hit that point where all the words you want seem to be swimming away can provide huge stress relief. There are loads of blogs and academic articles that stress the importance of using exercise for planning your next writing move, but I disagree. Use your exercise time to unplug. Put your headphones on and Rock it Like a Hurricane.
When you begin exercising, the first ten minutes are agony and you will think of a million ways you could be better using this time. Then your brain gives you bits of dialogue, song lyrics you never wanted to know, and epic fantasies of successes and failures. Keep pushing past this phase until your mind clears and all you can think about is keeping your feet under you and taking your next breath. On average it takes me 45 minutes of continuous movement for my mind to take a break and just enjoy the peace. This mental quiet time is important for your writing because it allows your conscious mind to let go of your story so that your unconscious mind can examine it. I find that it is always after I come back from the gym that ways to improve my writing seem to pop up in my mind like daisies.

My final advice about exercising to keep your writing in shape is to avoid multitasking. You heard me. Several of you have already thought of a time-saving way to listen to an audio book about writing exercises while you jog, but layering projects often have the opposite effect on completing tasks. Lisa Quast of Forbes Magazine says that you can increase your productivity by as much as 40% through the act of engaging in one task at a time. Don’t be miserly about the amount of time it takes to practice your new exercise routine. You are worth the time and you will make up these hours by not hopelessly staring at your screen during writing time or hopelessly staring at the ceiling during sleeping time.


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