Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Mind Over Matter? Matter and Mind

On Exercise and Writing
Share |
Angela Hibbs (left) with Eva Moran

Too busy working on your opus to go for a walk? Suffice to say when you are exercising you are not writing. However, it seems equally logical that if you want the mind to perform, it should be housed in a reasonably healthy vessel. While I am of two minds over exercise as procrastination or exercise as necessary to the integrity of the mood and spine of a writer, it seems fairly safe to argue that exercise can have a good impact on writing.

Can exercise be detected in one’s writing, in terms of quality, rhythm and output? That is an answer that changes over time. In my own experience, the impact of exercise on writing is not noticeable at first. Sometimes one is exercising too much to get much writing done; however, there could be background thinking, subconscious connections being made.

Certainly we are not writing while we exercise, but the thinking that takes place during this time should not be under-rated. Much of the thinking I did toward my most recent book was done while running along St. George’s Bay in Newfoundland, when I was there for a few months in 2004. When place is at issue in a writing project, any exercise done outside — be it walking, biking, yoga, snowshoeing, what have you — will affect the pacing one can capture in the rhythm of one’s writing. Even if you exercise indoors, the description of that interior space can become valuable fodder for a piece of writing.

Mordecai Richler said in an interview that one of the main occupations of the writer is avoiding writing. Does exercise fall into this category? I accuse myself of procrastinating when I go for a run, but since more and more research suggests that procrastination is actually part of the creative process, it can’t be that bad. The characters and scenarios I see on my runs will eventually crop up in my writing. Particularly useful to my writing, I find, is the running quickly towards something, my own pacing affecting my perception of a scenario, the way each scene moves past me is both therapeutic and impressionistic.

Haruki Murakami notes in his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, running doesn’t cost a lot; a pair of sneakers can last hundreds of miles. Like writing, running can be a solitary pursuit. Call me biased, but my hunch is that most writers will seek out individual sports, ones that coincide with the solitary nature that draws one to writing. Therefore, running, walking, yoga, boxing and such activities are the things I expect to find out about when I set about asking writers what type of exercise they do and how it impacts their writing lives.

There are pleasant exceptions to the solitude of the runner’s life. Having a partner to train with is motivating. I owe my first marathon to Eva Moran, author of Porny Stories (DC Books, 2008), who has run several marathons herself and chose a training schedule for us for September 2010’s Scotiabank Marathon. In the friendly competition and sharing of knowledge and experience, in exercise à deux, I find parallels to the writing life. Moran and I meet weekly, like a creative writing workshop, we gossip and even talk some shop.

Indeed, in This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley often compares writing to physical discipline, requiring training, stamina and general stick-to-it-ness. He describes his own practice of writing three hours every day, never taking more than a day off. One must sit at the desk at the designated time for the designated length of time, even if nothing of value seems to be coming out. Similarly, on a day that you have to run eight miles, you have to do those miles even if you’re at a snail’s pace or every muscle and joint are hurting.

A book starts with a word, a sentence, an idea, an image. Same with running, miles are made up of steps. Confucius knew back in the fifth century BCE, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So not only were the long walks Virginia Woolf and William Wordsworth known to take good for circulation and respiration, but also in showing that when the mind is overwhelmed by the puzzles writing presents, the solution will come one step at a time. Neurologists also suggest that walking stimulates all the senses and is “brain food” for that reason.

Sometimes the actual exercise yields subject matter for writing. For instance, when I interviewed Lynn Crosbie for Matrix Magazine (2003), she talked about walking every day while writing Missing Children, using found objects from those walks as starting points for poems for the collection.

Michael Knox, author of Play out the Match and The North End Poems (ECW Press, 2006, 2008), has been boxing for over a decade, beginning in his native Hamilton. Clearly his own physical exercise regime informed his writing practice in terms of becoming subject matter for his writing.

Even if you don’t end up writing specifically about the exercise you engage in, the endorphins released during exercise are a wonderful remedy to the sedentary life of the desk-dwelling writer. Nabokov was known to write at a podium in the morning, to offset the toll of sitting for extended periods of time. As ergonomic as we may try to make our desk spaces, we find ourselves slouching on the couch, our necks at a 90-degree angle keeping our eyes trained on whatever we are reading. I often imagine how much more optimistic a writer’s output would become if their physical bodies were in better condition. William Burroughs comes to mind as an author whose output would be drastically altered by a healthier lifestyle.

From time to time I hypothesize on an inverse relationship between writing productivity and hours put in exercising. For example, the week I ran 100 km, did I get much writing done? How high in quality was the writing? Is this really for me to know? In the time it takes to write a book, many different levels and types of exercise may come and go, and all of those are perceptible to different degrees in the finished product. Perhaps one of the strongest lessons from the exercise life is that you can finish things: goals can be set and met. One may go for a walk intent on thinking about a tricky transition in a short story or a character that is coming off as flat; however, the walk allows time for all types of thinking and not thinking. The walk reminds you that there’s more to life than the piece of writing you are working on and helps change your mindset and take the pressure off.

The more I asked around, the more I found closeted exercisers among my writing friends. The humility of some people! “Oh I only do yoga once or twice a week,” one short-fiction writer insisted. When we sit down to write we are competing with our favourite writers, and when we take ourselves to the gym or roll out a mat at home we are comparing ourselves with Olympians.

Writers contacted during the researching of this article associated anything from chronic back pain to sciatica to herniated discs with extended periods of sitting at a desk. In discussing measures to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome, Stephanie Bolster, author most recently of Pavilion (McClelland & Stewart, 2002), noted that she was unable to type for more than 20 minutes without pain before using “The Original HANDEZE Therapeutic Support Glove.”

A colleague in undergrad had a kneeling chair, and I recently purchased one for myself. It results in guests to my desk/ dining room table frowning and tilting their heads, wondering how to mount the thing. Bolster also noted that writers often defer taking action until they suffer major injury or chronic pain. That I manage to slouch in my kneeling chair only goes to show that no matter what is available to us, we still have to make a concerted effort to be aware of our bodies while we work.

Debra Anderson, author of Code White (McGilligan Books, 2005), said she was hoping to receive a footrest as a holiday gift. The footrest would help with backaches and sciatica. This confirmed my suspicion that writers consider a healthy workspace a luxury, rather than a necessity. Exercise too, is seen as taking away from writing time, especially by the many who work full time in non-writing related fields.

Steven Heighton, whose most recent book of poetry, Patient Frame (Anansi, 2010), includes a poem, “Running With Her,” about running with his dog, says,

For years I've used running at the end of the work day — and sometimes cross-country skiing or swimming or shinny in the park or long walks with the dog — as a way of debriefing my body, so to speak, while keeping in shape for those days at the desk. In the long term, working out is a way to balance head and body, the sedentary and the strenuous... I think my running has made me a better writer, a better thinker. But what might be more important is that by letting me feel the blood moving inside me, day by day, it's made me feel more alive. Come to think of it, that might be how it's made me a better writer.

If you are not reading this from an ergonomic treadmill or space-age workspace, why not go for a meditative walk? We all need time to reflect, after all. Mind the gaps, though; I don’t want any twisted ankles to result from my prescription. Finally, since exercise is known to prolong life, if you need a few extra years to write your masterpiece, exercise may also give you that extra time.

Angela Hibbs is the author of two collections of poetry, Passport and Wanton. Her work has been translated into Russian and French. She was the winner of the Starchie Award, was shortlisted for the Irving Layton Award and holds a MA in creative writing from Concordia University. Her work appears in the Poetry Is Public Is Poetry installation at the Toronto Reference Library. Her chapbooks include The Hunger Girls and Temporary Icon. Her work is forthcoming in Subterrain. She ran the Scotiabank Marathon this year.

Photo of Angela Hibbs (left) with Eva Moran. Photo credit: Rob Kingston.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Openbook: Past Issues
Go To Issue 14 - Summer 2011

Go To Issue 13 - Winter 2011
Go To Issue 12 - Fall 2010
Go To Issue 11 - Summer 2010
Go To Issue 10 - Spring 2010
Go To Issue 09 - Winter 2009
Go To Issue 08 - Fall 2009
Go To Issue 07 - Summer 2009, including the Special Scream Edition!
Go To Issue 06 - Spring 2009
Go To Issue 05 - Winter 2008
Go To Issue 04 - Fall 2008
Go To Issue 03 - Summer 2008
Go To Issue 02 - Spring 2008
Go To Issue 01 - Fall 2007