It seems that the older I get, the more integral exercise is to my writing practice. The way they are interwoven has changed with the passing decades, as has the type of physical activity that appeals to me. I no longer exercise to change my appearance (not that this ever was a huge motivation, but I think all young people have at least some small measure of physical vanity). I think more about staying healthy and maintaining the strength and flexibility that allow me to do other things I enjoy — like sitting comfortably while I write, exploring new places…having adventures. First and foremost, however, I like things that are fun. So I’m not going to give you a litany of all the reasons you should exercise to prevent heart disease or stave off Alzheimer’s. I’m going to talk about the ways being active have made me a better writer, in ways that I couldn’t appreciate when I was a newbie.
Once upon a time, I was an active kid. I didn’t think about exercise per se, I thought about playing. I ran through sprinklers, I rode my bike and attempted to roller-skate, I played outdoor games with my friends — tag, Red Rover, hopscotch, Simon Says, jumprope and ball-bouncing games, running around with dogs…but best of all, I acted out the stories I made up, either with my friends or by myself. I think this was my first and foundational experience of how glorious, how unexpected and consuming and enriching story-telling might be. As kids, we threw ourselves into one adventure after another. Granted, much of it was derivative, a sort of live-action fanfic. What we could do physically — climb trees, build snow forts, crawl under bushes, sneak around buildings — we did, and the rest we mimed as best we could. Stories were experienced not just with words, but with our whole bodies.
As readers, haven’t we had the experience of feeling our heart rate accelerate and our muscles tense during a particularly gripping or suspenseful scene? Our visceral reactions intensify the action, helping to link us to the characters and their plight. So many times, I’ve read a passage that skillfully depicts some action and thought, I know what that feels like. I’m in that character’s shoes, or riding boots, or skin-diving flippers, or crampons, or toe shoes.
Speaking now as a writer, it’s one thing to do my research and get the details of an activity right. It’s another thing to have actually done it and to know what it feels like from the inside of my body — those kinesthetic and proprioceptive details that will draw the reader even further inside the scene. Joints flex, muscles strain under heavy weight, body weight shifts, balance centers compensate, teeth slam together, ligaments stretch as they are strained, injuries swell and stiffen. We know the different qualities of pain, for instance: a burn does not feel like a broken blood vessel or a sprain or an abrasion or a puncture or the lactic-acid ache of exhaustion or the throb of a migraine.
It’s unrealistic, not to mention foolhardy and actually impossible, to attempt to experience every action we give our characters to do. As much as I would like to, I will in all likelihood never go into space, and I’m absolutely not willing to go bungee-jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. But the more things I have experienced, the more likely I’ll be able to find an analogy to what I want to describe. Look at it this way: human bodies bend in only so many ways, intact ones, that is. My hip and knee will flex deeply whether I’m rock climbing or using a stirrup to mount a tall horse or clambering up stairs created by alien giants. I have a sense of how I have to shift my weight over the top foot, or take a hop on my standing leg. I also know that my two knees don’t feel exactly the same when they’re bent that far, and I’ve got a hitch in one hip at the extreme range of motion.
As I’ve gotten older, two truths have emerged. One, I don’t have to do it all. I don’t have the time or the free time, and I’ve come to terms with the fact that there are some things I am never going to accomplish: becoming a professional opera singer or an Olympic gymnast, for example. Two, I don’t have to do it all, but it will make my writing as well as my life richer if I keep learning, keep stretching, keep challenging myself physically in appropriate ways. Those ways have changed. When I was a child and then a young adult, I had many more possibilities and far fewer physical limits than I have now. My body requires more care to remain strong and flexible, but my imagination requires even more. It needs not only intellectual stimulation, but new and renewed ways of interacting with the physical world through my body.
In the weeks to come, members of Book View Café will share their own experiences as athletes, martial artists, dancers, you name it, and how these relate to their work. Enjoy!
Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight, also available as an omnibus edition, Other Doorways: Early Novels. You can also find stand-alone short fiction as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe.
Images: “Las Gigantillas,” by Francisco de Goya; “Two Dancers Entering the Stage,” by Edgar Degas; “A drawing of a woman in lotus pose,” from the CDC. All are in the public domain. The young woman skydiver is my daughter, Rose.