I’m excited about the new kettlebell my gym has acquired just in time for my New Year’s Day workout. She’s a plump 45 kilograms, or a little over 99 pounds, the perfect companion to restore my good humor after any potential New Year’s Eve overindulgence.
“Well, hello gorgeous,” I might say as I sidle up to her, grab her handle and prepare to deadlift. (I like to humanize my gym equipment in the hope that it will take a liking to me and want to be helpful rather than resistant). Sometimes it works.
Like many people, I started weight training after my second bout of a crippling injury, in my case piriformis syndrome. I knew I needed to do more than the stretches the doctor had given me. They were illustrated by line drawings that had been recopied so many times that they looked as faint as I felt as I lay on the floor of my bedroom woozy from Vicodin and muscle relaxants. Stretching, by itself or with drugs I hated taking just wasn’t going to be a magic cure.
I learned this because having done all the lunges and figure fours to perfection after my first “acute phase,” I thought myself just fine to climb up on the roof and shovel off snow after the second historic snowstorm of the winter of 2010. I was out of work for two weeks, my AP US History students frantically emailing me their assignments and complaining about the substitute teacher. It wasn’t until the end of the semester in June that I could properly walk up and down stairs. It was time for piriformis syndrome boot camp to commence.
After two and a half months of twice-weekly hour-long sessions with my personal trainer, a rehab specialist who I later affectionately referred to as my personal Body Mechanic when I wasn’t calling him other unprintable sobriquets, I was no longer in pain or taking analgesics. Now I was addicted to yoga and weight training.
So here I am, ten years later, no longer “skinny fat.” (I weighed about the same as Miss 45kg then, and 105 pounds now). I’m no longer weak – of body at least. My glutes aren’t imbalanced and prone to injury. If you didn’t look too closely or above my neck you probably wouldn’t be able to guess my age. I am now a member of a different gym in a different city, but the routine is the same: train with a trainer once a week, repeat the session once a week on my own, stretch every day, do yoga three times a week. It’s now such a habit that if I miss a day, or a week as I have recently with a cold, I feel completely unsettled.
The parallels to my writing seem obvious. I like (need?) structure, deadlines, goals, tangible markers of progress. In the gym that’s easy – so many reps at so much weight for so many sets, with the goalposts moved at regular intervals. In my writing life, things are more ambiguous.
Should one measure time at task, number of words written, submissions sent, followers attracted, views and likes logged? To be honest, these things seem beside the point. They measure quantity, not quality.
The real parallels are much deeper. I am a fanatic for technique in the gym. I practice and practice until I have muscle memory. Perfecting a Turkish Getup, I run through a mental checklist before each rep: “shoulder packed, heel and elbow pressing, gaze at wrist, outbreath on the move up, core engaged.” I have a technique checklist in my head as I write, too. “Active verbs, thick description, consistent tense, varied vocabulary, realistic dialogue,” I remind myself.
As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Outliers: The Story of Success, one needs to repeat a practice ten thousand times to be proficient. This is as true of writing as weight lifting. Ten thousand repetitions require not just a habit, but a discipline. And that takes courage, the courage to fail multiple times before anything close to mastery is achieved. Effort is the predicate to achievement, but it is also what catalyzes one’s courage, self-awareness and belief in ultimate success.
Just as my weight training and yoga practices have taught me the value of practice and given me the courage to fail publicly, the Advanced Memoir class that I have been in since March of 2019 has aided me in developing an identity as a writer. We meet once a week, present work once every four or five weeks, and are responsible for critiquing two other writers’ work each session. As a result of this structure I have written eight chapters of my memoir and learned a tremendous amount about pacing, narrative arc, character development. I now feel, dare I use this hackneyed term, authentic as a writer.
And that is what has brought me back to this blog. I need to create the same sense of regularity, of practice, of discipline here that I have obtained through hard work elsewhere. I need to befriend The Memoir Life, to become loyal to it, to see it as yet another exercise in my writing muscle strength training regimen. The work I do here is very different from the longform, researched, deeply reflective work of my book. I’m still learning the technique. I need to find my blog voice. And that will only come with practice. And maybe a little luck?
So, just as Ms. 45kg and I will get to know each other in 2020, I’m wishing you and The Memoir Life “Happy New Year!” in my best blog voice, hoping we will become friends.