Therese here. Today’s collaborative guests do a great job of explaining the genesis of this post in their intro, so I won’t repeat that here. Instead, I’ll tell you a bit about them.
Julia Munroe Martin is a novelist-in-progress, living in an old house on the coast of Maine. She blogs about writing and the writing life, and her Twitter account–@wordsxo–was named a “Top Twitter Feed to Watch” by The Writer magazine (July 2012).
Bernadette Phipps-Lincke was born in the UK, and grew up in California. Her first novel, a paranormal thriller called Burning Lily, will be published in the near future with Freya’s Bower/Wild Child.
Take it away, Julia and Bernadette!
What Working Out Taught Us about Writing OR How We Saved Our Writerly Asses
Let’s face it, we writers spend a lot of time sitting—after all, that’s where most of the work of getting words on paper happens: sitting in front of a computer. And those long hours in a chair can lead to a myriad of problems, from the annoying but relatively benign (like writer’s block) to the life-threatening (recent research shows that sitting for long hours shortens your lifespan).
When Writer Unboxed made a recent pitch request on Facebook, we both replied with similar ideas for a guest post. Turns out each of us have had similar epiphanies about exercise: not only did it make us feel better physically but it actually inspired writing ideas and increased productivity.
Therese asked if we were interested in collaborating on a post about exercise and writing. And so it was that the two of us—writers on opposite coasts who had never met—began a conversation on Facebook. From those conversations we realized that each of us had similar experiences, and through our conversations we were able to come up with four tips: things exercise taught us as writers.
1. Exercise unlocks the writing brain.
Julia: At the end of May I was stuck. I was querying one novel, and I had a great idea for a mystery novel. But I wasn’t writing much. Worse, I was leading a dangerously sedentary writing life, spending way too much time sitting and on the computer. I was pretty miserable—physically, mentally, and emotionally. I knew I had to do something.
Just a few short years ago I was in peak condition. In addition to cardio, I did a lot of strength training—which helped me get in shape and feel great all the time. Even better, it made me feel strong and powerful! But over the years I’d fallen into a sedentary lifestyle. My exercise consisted of walking the dog, and she’s getting pretty old so even that had turned into more of a slow trudge. I realized that maybe it wasn’t just my body stagnating but maybe my brain too. I knew I had to do something. I started taking walks, lifted weights a few times, and I immediately noticed I was more interested in writing again. To encourage myself, I bought an indoor recumbent bike (it allows me to read while I exercise and here in Mainewe have long winters, and I wasn’t about to let that slow me down!). I was putting more words on the page, and—more importantly—I was enjoying writing again!
Bernadette: You can break through your blocks and become a smarter writer. All you have to do is start moving. All you have to do is start moving. Said John Ratey, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in his book Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, “[M]oving our muscles produces proteins that travel through the bloodstream and into the brain, where they play pivotal roles in the mechanisms of our highest thought processes.”
On completing my first novel (after three years and five full rewrites), I came out of the haze of living in my fantasy world to find myself glued to my chair, surrounded by candy wrappers, and pounds heavier. I vowed to start a fitness program to get back into shape. However, pumped by signing a publishing contract, and on a creative high, I placed everything including my fitness plans on the back burner, and succumbed to the siren’s call of my muse. I dived into my new project armed and prepared. I had an intense outline, I knew exactly what I needed to do to get from point A to point B…and I ran out of steam.
Confiding my creative frustrations to my youngest son, Sean, got the ball rolling for me. Sean, the lead singer in a heavy metal band and a vegetarian with a consistent workout routine, claimed that exercise helped him build the physical stamina necessary to unlock the creativity for his craft. With Sean’s encouragement, I joined a gym.
After a week on the treadmill, and of swimming and weightlifting, I began to feel better. In the third week, I had an epiphany in the middle of a stomach crunch that broke through my writer’s block and opened the creative floodgates.
2. Use exercise to tap into the brain’s chemical connections.
Julia: When I wasn’t exercising on a regular basis my brain felt foggy. So much so that I did some research and found this on Livestrong:
Brain fog is more than just a momentary lapse in clarity. It is a mist that clouds your mind, as though someone has turned up the gravity inside of your head.”
That’s exactly what I was feeling. At times I felt so foggy-headed I not only couldn’t write—I didn’t want to write. Turns out that old adage: Walk to clear your head really works. Exercise increases the blood flow to the brain, increases feel-good endorphins. Studies show that blood vessels can grow “even in middle-aged sedentary animals” in response to exercise, which is good news to those of us who are middle-aged sedentary animals. Since I started my regular intense exercise schedule, my brain fog is completely gone. In fact I had totally forgotten about it until I started writing this post!
Bernadette: Exercise stimulates the manufacturing of BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). BDNF proteins are the basis for learning, and memory. Dr. Ratey describes BDNF as “Miracle Gro for the brain”—so, imagine what the stimulation of BDNF can do for your writing.
Since I’ve started my workout routine, my endurance has grown both physically and mentally. I’m halfway through the second draft of my WIP, and before I started exercising I couldn’t even complete three chapters of the first draft.
3. Feel the burn.
Bernadette: As writers, we spend a lot of time sitting in front of the computer. Muscle is denser than fat, and burns more calories when sitting. A good exercise routine that includes weight lifting to build up muscle will help you burn calories EVEN WHILE SITTING AT THE COMPUTER.
Julia: Research has shown that vigorous exercise, aka “feeling the burn” can trigger the release of endorphins—the “feel good” hormone. The endorphins also help lessen pain, and to me that means exercise may help me cope better with the ups and downs of the writing life: the solitude, the rejections, the insecurities. And there’s a writing analogy, too. I feel a “writer’s burn” when I push myself with my writing, do things I’m not necessarily comfortable with, like when I recently took a fiction class. I had to do writing prompts and read my work out loud in class. Yes, I was uncomfortable. Yes, I felt the writer’s burn, and yes, I felt a rush after it was over—not sure if it was endorphins or adrenaline, but it was a rush! And amazingly that class made me a better writer—even though I dreaded going every single time, and felt the burn!
4. Consistency is the key (to working out AND to writing).
Julia: Every day over the summer I followed a set routine: strength training first thing in the morning, write, ride the bike while reading, write again, more bike reading. At the beginning I could barely make it through a half hour on the bike without huffing and puffing—I told you I was in pretty dire shape—although to be fair to myself, I did set the interval training at the hardest setting. But here’s what happened. Slowly, I edged my time on the bike higher—now, most days I ride a total of 60 to 90 minutes or more. And the same thing happened with the weights. I started out with 5-pound dumbbells, doing three sets of 8 (a variety of exercises totaling about an hour a day), and I’m now lifting 10 to 15 pound dumbbells, doing three sets of 15. Similarly my word count increased, starting at about 6000 words a week and ending with a staggering 17,000 words the week I finished the first draft. Day after day, week after week the words racked up and within eight weeks I had written over 85,000 words. I learned when I could push myself—both with exercise and with writing—and the limits kept pushing higher.
Bernadette: Losing unnecessary weight and improving your fitness level won’t happen overnight. It takes a period of time when you’re consistently working out. In addition, to avoid languishing at a plateau, you have to challenge your body by changing up your routine, as well as adding tougher exercises. Once you have reached your desired fitness goal, you have to maintain it with a steady exercise routine.
Just like writing.
It takes perseverance to complete a writing project. And, you have to constantly hone and challenge your skills to maintain and grow as a writer.
Bernadette: As I embrace a healthier lifestyle through exercise, I’ve found it beneficial to incorporate fitter eating habits. I’ve cut down my chocolate intake while writing, by mixing in raw berries and nuts, and I’ve substituted dark chocolate for milk chocolate because it’s healthier for the heart. I’ve also cut out traditional coffee creamers, use almond milk, and limited my coffee intake to two cups a day.
Julia: Clearly these tips are based on our own experiences, things that worked for us as individuals—and each of us has a different approach to a similar end. We don’t claim to be experts nor are we suggesting our approaches would work for everyone. But what we do agree on is that it’s critical that we writers get up and get moving. Hours at a table, writing, can be hazardous to your physical health, your mental health, and your emotional wellbeing. And beyond that, moving your body can be just downright fun, invigorating, and produce great new writing ideas!
Bottom line: Find the fitness routines, like the writing routines that work to bring out the best in you.
What do you do to get moving? Do you see a difference in your writing and/or motivation after an exercise session? What fitness routine helps best with your writing?
You can also follow Bernadette Phipps-Lincke on Facebook.