July 1, 2010
Today, I went for my first walk in six weeks. Six weeks ago I got a stress fracture of my second metatarsal, and have been off my feet for the most part since then. So now, with the pain gone, and because I can stand barefooted without pain, it’s time to learn to walk again.
Yes, that’s right. In six weeks’ time, you forget how to walk. Your gait is off. Your body isn’t used to carrying its weight. Your hands don’t know what to do. You stagger. If a cop passed while you were walking, they might stop you to test you to see if you were drunk.
I’m sure many of you have had to do physical rehab after an injury. And you’ll know what I’m talking about. But for those of you who haven’t, I can tell you, that for me, both physical rehabs I’ve had have been the hardest work of my life. After a few steps, exhaustion sets in. And you become discouraged. Will I ever get my strength back? Will I ever not think about every step I take?
Something like this forces you into being grateful for what you take for granted: our ability to walk from here to there, seemingly without effort. But I can tell you from relearning: walking takes a lot of effort.
Why do we writers think that if we don’t write for, say, six weeks it will be any easier to get back into the groove of writing than if we don’t walk for six weeks? That’s what I thought about today while I was walking. I had my walker; I walked around the corner, saw a lovely front garden, walked back to my house, struggled my walker up the stairs. Every step was a challenge. Every step showed me how much work I have to do to get back to walking the way I used to.
All the while, I said to myself, “Let this be a lesson to you. Lay off writing, you’ll have to relearn to write, and it will take as much time as relearning how to walk.” Which, by the way, takes a very long time. Rehab specialists tell you to begin with, say, ten minutes, and to add on 1% at a time. You can figure out for yourself how long it will take me to do my usual 45 to 50 minute fast walk every day.
If we haven’t written for a while, it might make sense to begin slowly so we don’t get discouraged. I like to think about having a “writing muscle.” It’s a good analogy for me. It reminds me that I have to keep my “writing muscle” in shape, just like I have to keep my body in shape. Can you imagine a dancer, a karate expert, a pianist, a painter, not practicing their skill for a long time and expecting themselves to perform after a long hiatus? Only writers have that kind of chutzpa. We tell ourselves we can stop writing for a while and then pick up where we left off. But we can’t. We’re lying to ourselves. We’re not admitting that writing is like any other art, like any other skill. We have to practice to keep in practice. But writers are luckier than other practitioners of the arts in one way: it doesn’t take as many hours for us to keep in writing shape than it takes, say, a dancer.
Writing is a physical act. Just sitting at the desk and moving pen across paper takes muscle. Just sitting at the desk and typing takes stamina. If we’re away from it for a long time, we’ll lose those skills. Have you tried to write by hand after not doing so for a long time? It takes physical effort.
That’s why I believe in writing daily, or, if not daily, not less than, say, five days a week. If we’re not writing towards an essay or a book, we can write journal. We can write about the books we’re reading. We can record and reflect upon our daily life. (One thing we shouldn’t do, though, is complain in our journals: complaining gets us nowhere.) We can, as I discussed recently, dream books we want to write.
So let’s think about how we have to keep our writing muscles honed. Let’s not expect our skills to be there if we don’t write for awhile. Let’s be kind to ourselves if we haven’t practiced writing in a long time. Let’s understand that it will take us a fair amount of time to get back in writing shape. We can start slow, and like me, we can add on a few minutes each day. We can be realistic – we can’t expect our writing to “sing” if we haven’t worked at it in a long time. But we shouldn’t be fatalistic – “I’ll never write well.”
What if I gave up trying to relearn to walk because it’s really hard? Excruciating, in fact. Getting back to writing might be hard. So what. I have to relearn to walk. That’s life. Sometimes I have to relearn to write. That’s life too. To expect that I can stop writing, and then start any time I want without some “writing rehab” is to engage in an act of hubris. I’d rather be humble about it, let myself start slow, build my writing muscle bit by bit, admit it might be excruciating at times. But one day our writing will sing and we’ll be lost in our world of words, just as one day I’ll be trotting along and I’ll suddenly realize I don’t have to think about every step I take.