Thinking on your feet: writing and my love-hate relationship with exercise

At school I loathed exercise. I had all the left feet possible. I couldn’t catch a ball and I couldn’t see balls anyway without specs. All creatures know when they are disliked, and I sensed how the games teachers loathed me. By the same token, they surely knew I did not hold their subject in high esteem. This is my school magazine. None of these people are me.

Looking back, that might have been one of the first signs that I should be a writer. Writers are creatures of brain and imagination. The sports offered by my school were the opposite – charmless, inane and pointless. Nature abhors a vacuum, or at least my nature does. Especially a vacuum of interest. Nothing on earth could make me interested in netball, hockey, rounders, and the summer torments that involved throwing, jumping and running. Again, none of these people are me.

These days, though, I run or take a class most days a week. What’s changed? Certainly I’ve learned to love movement a little more in its own right. But chiefly I value it as headspace.

Well it’s not news that exercise helps you think. If you want a bit of science, here’s a piece about it in the New Yorker by Ferris Jabr @ferrisjabr. If you like hiking, hop along to the blog of my friend Jane Davis @janedavisauthor , who recently published a collection of interviews with number of writers who walk including Yours Truly.

For me, exercise is a chance to unplug an idea from the clutter of desk life. It’s not just escape. The movement adds its own seasoning. I notice that endorphins make thoughts travel lighter, along straighter lines. I’m more confident to consider radical changes. Fatigue is also my friend. Impatient for a tiring session to end, I discover – and solve – problems I didn’t know were there. Some of the grit drops into my thoughts, adding an interesting edge. Amy X Wang @amyxwang talks about this in Glimmer Train, where the pain of intense exercise brings vigour to the page. Sometimes I find the results, back at the desk, are sublime. Sometimes they are ridiculous, but hey.

The Prime Writers @theprimewriters , on their blog, posted about exercise for contemplation,  inspired by literary running addict Haruki Murakami. Some, though, were looking for exercise to provide a drastic escape from their thoughts. Jon Teckman @jontwothreefour said he started taking military Boot Camp training, because it was so agonising that thought was impossible.

I’ve yet to find that state of oblivion myself. No matter how gruelling the exercise, nothing turns off the tyrant book. Not quivering through my 160th rep in Body Pump. Not pummelling a pair of sparring pads while being yelled at by a boxing instructor. If I’ve got a book in my bonnet, nothing can dislodge it. I can keep the brain in one dimension while the body battles in another. (With just one exception. Riding a horse, you’d better pay full attention or you’re sure of a big surprise.)

If you’re ever in a class with me and I appear to look meditative, don’t be fooled. I had a yoga phase about twelve years ago, which coincided with one of my ghostwritten thrillers. I remember standing and bending through the Sun Salutation, while I figured out what it felt like to drown in an ornamental pond.

Yes, I’ve certainly considered that I might be just as irksome to fitness instructors of 2018 as I was in the Class of 1970-whatnot, because they know I’m only half-there.

And here’s the thing. At school, what I hated was the mindlessness of exercise, the lack of mental entertainment. I need an occupation for the head while the hands and feet are doing their thing. I’m afraid this means I’ll never be the kind of person who seeks a state of mindfulness; it’s not the way I’m wired. But I definitely seek mind fullness. And now, exercise provides a very agreeable space to take an idea for a spin.

Actually, not Spin. I don’t think I’ll ever like Spin.

Tell me your thoughts! Love exercise? Hate it? How does it fit with your creative life?

PS if you want to know more about the books I’m wrangling while I run or test the patience of a fitness instructor, sign up for my newsletter.

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  1. #1 by acflory on May 29, 2018 - 12:09 am

    lmao – high five! I, too, wore specs and couldn’t catch a ball to save my life. I suspect we both devoured books as well. 🙂

    I wasn’t completely sedentary though. Walkind the dog was always my responsiblity, and Dad and I played a mean game of table tennis table while I was growing up, but team sports? Nevah…

    These days I get my exercise by looking after my bush block. That includes a heck of a lot of fire prevention stuff [boring but necessary] and the building of rock terraces [pure zen].

    I don’t know what it is about building low, dry stone walls but I completely zone out. It’s as if the connection between my eye and my hand takes over my brain, leaving no room for anything else. I know I must be thinking about something while I work, but I have no conscious memory of what it is. Sadly, gym type exercise doesn’t do it for me, possibly because I find it so boring. I did try, many years ago, but I’d always have to take a book with me. I was fitter than I am now, but now I’m more ‘balanced’, or at least that’s what I tell myself. 😀

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 29, 2018 - 7:07 am

      Hi Andrea! Team sports …. ugh. I don’t even play board games!

      Your dry stone walls sound good, though. I ‘ve never seen a description of the actual activity but I can imagine it’s repetitively addictive. Carry on!

      • #3 by acflory on May 29, 2018 - 12:08 pm

        lol – it’s actually not that repetitive as you have to place odd shaped rocks together with other odd shaped rocks. Think jigsaw puzzle in 3D. Strangely soothing. 🙂

  2. #4 by Alexander M Zoltai on May 29, 2018 - 4:15 am

    Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Fascinating re-blog from Roz Morris…

  3. #5 by librepaley8 on May 29, 2018 - 9:42 am

    Pretty much hate it, apart from long walks in the fantastic countryside we have here (in the Ribble Valley Lancs.) It almost invariably helps an idea fall into place.

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 29, 2018 - 10:04 am

      The Ribble Valley! Just the name sounds glorious. I couldn’t survive without my countryside. I am so grateful for all our conservation organisations.

  4. #7 by DRMarvello on May 29, 2018 - 1:25 pm

    My wife and I have mostly worked from home since 1994, and we got into the habit of a mid-day walk early on. Those walks became even more enjoyable when we left the city and moved to a home on 40 acres of forest in 1996. Our daily dog walk takes about a half hour and winds through the trees on a series of trails I maintain. We also enjoy weekend hikes on local trails and kayak trips on the amazing North Idaho waterways.

    We’ve always used our recreation time to talk about plans and problems. Both of us are now fiction writers, so we’ve added plot discussions to our repertoire. Some of our best ideas have come from discussions we’ve had while surrounded by nature. There’s something cathartic about kicking up the respiration and being free to explore ideas without the interruption of having to record them. By the time we return home, we usually have good ideas to jot down.

    I’ve never cared much for the pointless repetition and inconvenience of the typical fitness center workout. I try to make exercise accomplish something enjoyable or useful, such as riding a bike, hiking, kayaking, yard work, and any of the dozens of things I have to deal with to maintain a home in the forest.

    • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on May 29, 2018 - 6:39 pm

      That sounds idyllic, Daniel. I didn’t know your wife was also a writer. Dave and I both exercise, but we don’t usually coincide because we like different kinds of workout.

      As to exercise that accomplishes something – yes I like that too. I like to make a journey on foot instead of taking the Tube into town. If there’s somewhere I can change into different clothes, I’ll often do that.

    • #9 by DRMarvello on May 30, 2018 - 12:44 am

      My wife is more of a writer than I am, truth be told. She has a real English degree and everything. 😉 She got her start in nonfiction, self-publishing several books back when POD was new. Writing marketing copy is still her day job. When I went over to the dark side and started writing fantasy, I was having so much fun and learning so many interesting things that I eventually talked her into trying fiction as well. She started writing romantic comedies that prominently feature companion pets (mostly dogs and cats), and she has done very well with them. I got started a little more than a year ahead of her, yet she has now published 14 novels to my 6.

  5. #10 by Theresa Hupp on June 2, 2018 - 1:12 am

    Like you, I have always hated exercise. But I have found that I can read on the elliptical, and so now I have an excuse to read for an uninterrupted 30 minutes 3 times a week. I still hate the exercise, but at least I don’t feel it is wasted time.

    • #11 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 3, 2018 - 10:19 am

      Exercise that allows you to read is awesome! Dave does this. When I’m in the gym I look across and see him on one of the bikes, newspaper or paperback in hand. I call it ‘warming a bicycle’.

  6. #12 by Keith on June 6, 2018 - 11:18 am

    Exercising, walking, DIY, travelling in or on something. Just disengaging from the WIP and doing something else that gives you thinking time and a different perspective is bound to help, and strenuous exercise is a bonus on all fronts. But I never read while exercising — I find it takes away too much concentration from both.
    (And I never read on the motorbike — the pages flap about and could distract me.)

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