At the end of a writing session, I rise from my chair with increasing difficulty. I give into the impulse to slouch, and instead of writing at a desk, balance my laptop on my legs where it jockeys for position with one or both of my dogs. My right hand aches. I make my way to the kitchen to retrieve ibuprofen, and ice-pack, and an IPA.
When I have been the fittest, going to the gym on a daily basis, I have been the least intellectually productive. And right now when I hope to write a draft of a paper over my week-long vacation from teaching, going to the gym or rowing in my attic seem like distraction from where I want to be. But I have hit a point where I can’t simply trade exercising off for writing. There’s no long-term future in that.
Haruki Murakami’s argues that the healthy and unhealthy complement each other, or at least he finds a way to balance out the toxic nature of writing with his physical health . In the Paris Review, he recounts his daily routine:
When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.
Murakami does not view exercise and writing as an either/or choice, but as a necessary pairing, each complementing the other. In the act of writing, a “toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface.” How could an unhealthy body possibly process the toxins reside beneath the surface of our day-in-day-out lives? In his memoir, Murakami explains his philosophy:
But those of us hoping to have long careers as professional writers have to develop an autoimmune system of our own that can resist the dangerous (in some cases lethal) toxin that resides within. Do this, and we can more efficiently dispose of even stronger toxins. In other words, we can create even more powerful narratives to deal with these. But you need a great deal of energy to create an immune system and maintain it over a long period. You have to find that energy somewhere, and where else to find it but in our own basic physical being? (p.97)
I have arrived at a place where I can feel my physical being on the edge of succumbing to sleep, shutting down for a week just to recover from the fast-pace and intensity of teaching. Too often, I fall over that edge and catch up on sleep, but fail to more comprehensively care for my physical being through exercise and a better diet.
Besides making trips to the gym and enjoying the early spring weather in Brussels, my plan for dealing with the toxins of writing includes preparing a proper work-space and taking the time to read inventive essayists.
Throughout the last months of teaching, I have managed to carve out enough time to write essays for my blog. My larger ambition – a scholarly paper that addresses a lacuna in the Educational Technology literature – requires long stretches of time and energy that are not possible at nights and on weekends. So, I have set about using my vacation to read scores of papers from the last 20 years of edtech journals, which makes the act of writing more difficult. My my prose has stiffened and the passive voice emerges, unwanted and unwelcome.
As a corrective, I am reading essayists who populate their writing with the material of their real lives, and juxtapose those narratives with the philosophical. Rebecca Solnit creates a kind of associative splendour that invites re-reading in a way that most academic papers do not. But after a few days of working on my own paper, I find my hands full of associative threads that I have not been able to stitch together as easily as I had hoped.
In her What Should an Essay Do?, Leslie Jamison argues we also need to guard against the excesses of Solnit’s “collage mode” where she uses “metaphor to beckon the faraway closer, fashioning linkages between seemingly distant objects.” Jamison wonders:
“When does associative thinking feel productive—establishing important connections, peeling away layers, dissolving boundaries between registers—and when does it feel evasive, gliding over one idea too quickly in order to tackle the next?”
These are questions that all writer’s need to ask about their work and it’s purpose. Making original linkages between disparate objects and ideas is, like the healthy and unhealthy, a matter of finding connection and balance. Hopefully, the reader finds that we have made connections that are both surprising and in retrospect, strikingly necessary. As I am learning, it takes time and space, energy and a healthy body, to develop the feel for necessary pairings, for the kind of discernment we might otherwise call wisdom.