Fresh Nonfiction: Writing is Exercise
For the past few years, I’ve had the fortune to help judge area submissions for the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. One of the nation’s oldest showcases for young artists and writers, with a long, long, list of notable alumni, the SAWA is the type of thing I wish (so badly) I’d known about when I was in junior or senior high.
Last year, Idaho Scholastic Writing Coordinator, educator, friend, and all-around wonderful person Nic Darlinton invited me to give the keynote speech at the awards ceremony. I was flattered, obviously, and sweaty and nervous (obviously). But it seemed to play well and I hope at least one young writer in the crowd will, as I often say in my writing critiques, take what’s useful and discard the rest.
Writing is Exercise
Like a lot of writers, I can trace my love of writing back to a specific teacher. Mrs. Bell taught my sixth grade class and, at a certain point, she recognized that I had a knack for writing little stories. She encouraged me to keep at it and even asked me to read some of these stories aloud to the class (which some of my peers probably hated). Maybe most importantly, she sent me to the Oregon Writing Festival with kids from other schools, even some high school students. We stayed in a hotel in downtown Portland for a night, which was a big deal for a lower-middle class kid from a tiny town in Eastern Oregon.
I ended up going to the Oregon Writing Festival two more times, both when I was in high school, but it was that first time that really stuck out in my mind because of a very bad keynote speech a published author gave. Now, obviously, I can’t remember every word of it but the gist of the speech was this: Writing is really hard and if you have any other interests, do those things instead. Even after she started taking questions, her answers hit the same note, over and over: Writing is really hard and if you have any other interests, do those things instead.
I hated that. And, maybe subconsciously, I always thought that if I was asked to give a speech about writing, I’d try to picture myself out there in the audience – a young kid writing about secret agents, time travel, and eating disorders, eager to create something that would slow down the world around me, even for a few seconds – I’d picture that boy and tell him, “You’re doing just fine, kiddo. Now keep at it.”
I always thought that if I was asked to give a speech about writing, I’d try to picture myself out there in the audience – a young kid writing about secret agents, time travel, and eating disorders, eager to create something that would slow down the world around me, even for a few seconds...
After high school, I went to college in Montana and majored in English, with an emphasis in creative writing. I worked dead-end jobs on the side, driving forklift, stocking shelves, things like that. I broke up with my girlfriend, quit college, went back to college, starting dating someone else, finally finished my degree. I moved Portland and worked another dead-end job, ran my first half-marathon, bought a kayak and never used it before selling it a year later. I moved to Boise with my fiancé, in search of something new, something better. And in the midst of all those life events and dead-end jobs and unused kayaks, I continued to write. And it was those stories that got me into Boise State’s MFA writing program, and the stories I wrote there that became the first things I ever published.
I tell you all this because I firmly believe writing is not an either/or experience. When you’re younger, you have this tendency to think writing is like joining a monastery, or the Marines, like it’s an arduous, all-consuming pursuit that exists totally separate from everything else, like, “I can either write or I can get a law degree” or “I can either write or get a job that will support my future family.” But here’s the big secret, here’s the thing about writing that, the sooner you understand it, the sooner your writing and your life will improve. Are you ready? If you keep doing it, writing isn’t actually that hard and if you have other interests, pursue those too, because they will only make your writing better.
Now, maybe it’s because I’m a long-distance runner but I like to think of writing as exercise. In order to stay in shape, as a writer, you need to hit the gym, if not every day, then at least four or five times a week. You need to get in there and bang out a few hundred words, even if you’re feeling sluggish and tired and uninspired. You need to do it so you don’t get out of shape, and we all know how hard it is to get back in shape once you’re out of shape. And here’s the thing: when 99.9% of us exercise, we’re not doing it because we’re paid to do it, we’re not preparing to play in the NBA finals or compete in the Olympics. No, most of us do it just on our own. We hit the gym or go for a run before work, during lunch, or after school. We live our daily lives and we fit exercise into it where we can. Writing is the same way. It’s not joining the Marines or a monastery, it’s not actually that hard, and it’s not something you do instead of your other interests, your other pursuits, your full-time job, your family and friends. Again: If you keep doing it, writing isn’t actually that hard and if you have other interests, pursue those too, because they will only make your writing better.
When you’re younger, you have this tendency to think writing is like joining a monastery, or the Marines, like it’s an arduous, all-consuming pursuit that exists totally separate from everything else, like, “I can either write or I can get a law degree..."
It’s been years since I’ve talked with my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Bell. I don’t even know if she still teaches – she had a tendency to lose her temper and one time locked herself inside our classroom after an assembly, with us all standing in the hallway. The principal sent us out to recess for the rest of the day while he tried to negotiate his way into the classroom. (I still need to write that into a story). But she was the first person who got me writing, who got me running, who got me exercising. And for that I’m both lucky and thankful.
You are all writers. And you all have an opportunity now to keep writing and I’d encourage you to do just that: write in journals and diaries, write bad poetry and show it to no one or everyone, write stories and read them to people until they tell you to stop. Keep your writing secret. Or don’t. Try to get your writing published. Or don’t. (There is no right answer in writing, which is a beautiful thing). Go away to college, break up with someone, get broken up with, major in English, or history, or business, or engineering, or biology, or whatever you’re interested in. Meet new people and buy a kayak but never use it before selling it a year later. Work dead-end jobs, drive forklifts, move to new cities, propose to your significant other in the Portland Zoo after dating for five years, get married in your parents’ back yard, move again. And in the midst of all that, keep writing, keep exercising. Wake up before work, while the rest of the house is still sleeping, lace up your running shoes, pull on your sweatshirt, and hit the road for thirty or forty minutes.
Write in journals and diaries, write bad poetry and show it to no one or everyone, write stories and read them to people until they tell you to stop. Keep your writing secret. Or don’t. Try to get your writing published. Or don’t.
And, if you keep at it long enough, maybe a teacher friend will ask you to give a little speech during a Scholastic Writing Awards ceremony, just like this one. And maybe you’ll agree and a few days later you’ll stand up in front of a small crowd and look for the younger version of yourself, sitting out there in the audience, hoping for a little advice, and you’ll say, “You’re doing just fine, kiddo. Now keep at it.”