There Might Be a Reason That Writing Feels Like Exercising

An hour and forty-five minutes after my computer nagged at me to get up and do some exercise, I am struck by the parallels between writing and exercising. I’m thinking specifically here of the first-draft phase of writing. For me, anyway, research is fascinating, outlining varies from pleasant to exhilarating, and revising is often where the deep joy of writing lies. But the initial drafting, when one is really just hoisting the clay up onto the workbench, can be, well, work.

These parallels come to mind as I sit a few minutes longer, continuing to avoid exercise:

  • Some days, the first step seems insurmountable, and the body and the mind will find every excuse to do anything else. (You should see how well organized my refrigerator is.)
  • Fortunately, both can be sneaked up on, wherein you engage in a related activity (warming up, fiddling with the equipment, researching, revising a bit of yesterday’s writing), and before you know it, you’ve tricked yourself into doing the real work.
  • Even more fortunately, once the work is in motion, both activities present the opportunity to “get in the zone” or to achieve flow, to use Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s term. This is that almost-magical state in which work becomes not-work and changes from something you do to something you are. In this state, even high-intensity cardio and first drafts become pleasurable.
  • Done well, both writing and exercising are good for you. Done poorly, they can be a waste of time. Or worse.
  • Both activities have to be kept at regularly just to maintain your current level of fitness—and must be hounded after with great diligence to see real improvement.
  • In both activities, there is the endless temptation to focus on strengths, which is usually enjoyable, rather than addressing weaknesses, which generally is not.
  • They have a similar effort-payoff curve: New exercises and new sorts of writing are difficult at first, then become easier as your body and mind develop the specific capabilities required by the task, and then they can become too easy when you’re so specifically proficient that a task no longer presents a significant challenge. The exercise doesn’t do as much for you as it used to, and the writing doesn’t help you grow as a writer or as a person.
  • With both exercising and writing, no matter how much you do and how well you do it, you are going to die anyway. But only by recognizing and making peace with this fact do we become free to live and to write with real meaning.1

And living with meaning does require, at a minimum, that one continues to live.

I have to go now. I need want to exercise.


1. I must credit Bruce Holland Rogers for opening my eyes to this. See the chapter “Death and the Day Job” in his highly recommended Word Work for a thoughtful discussion of this issue. He makes a compelling argument that we can’t write seriously without first facing our own mortality.