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Finding your rhythm: Writing & Exercise

by Molly Moynahan

A bear, however hard he tries, grows tubby without exercise.  ~A.A. Milne

Today I wandered up and down the trails of Griffith Park, hiking the alien paths in the alien territory of Los Angeles. I was aware that my legs were beginning to tire as the third hour approached but my brain was teeming with possibilities for the characters in my novel-in-progress and so the pain in my legs was easy to ignore.

These characters are navigating alien territory themselves, tiring of some of the situations they find themselves in, situations that include death, illness, marriage, parenting and facing choices they’d made in the past.

Being lost and confused on a mountain above Los Angeles paralleled nicely with my main character’s sense of displacement. The strenuous physical activity kept me moving forward while I considered what I should do with the plot. On the plane ride to Los Angeles I had been rereading John Gardener’s book On Becoming a Novelist and reflecting on what he said about what is authentic and what is contrived. It’s difficult to judge whether you have found the truth in fictional characters, whether the way a middle-aged man from Ohio would react to the news of his wife’s cancer is in fact accurate. I am not a man, nor am I from Ohio so I did my best.

I used to regularly swim many laps in a pool, which freed the mind entirely since there was nothing short of crashing into the wall or failing to breathe that required my full attention. I plotted out an entire novel during those swims, locations and events, characters, conflicts, and even dialogue scrolling through my mind. Much of this made it into the final manuscript and a published novel. The rhythm of swimming, the counted strokes and the repetition allowed my imagination to take over. When I read what I had written I feared it might be tedious or lack conflict but there was a web of interrelated characters who had detailed back stories and enough suspense to make it difficult to identify the writer as a bored stiff lap swimmer.    My muscle memory allowed my mind to explore previously uncharted territory.  The repetition unleashed my unconscious and freed me to take risks and cross boundaries.

Writing can be depressing because you just don’t know whether anyone will ever read what you are writing and whether what you are reading is, in fact, worth reading. Exercise is a natural anti-depressant, the endorphins alone will change your mood but there’s also the fact that you are accomplishing something by spending time hiking, swimming, at the gym or in a yoga studio.

So much of writing is ephemeral and open-ended, whether you feel good about your work or not, it’s still hard to consider it a success when you remain in limbo. And writing is never finished or perfect. I can pull any of my own published novels down from the shelf and still find dozens of edits I would perform if possible, changes and tweaks, cuts and additions. Working out is a finite positive act that frees your mind; it’s a reframing of effort that allows the brain to relax.

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