The Writing Life (5): “The Writer as Athlete (and Not)”

Photo Credit: Tom Sandler

A rough patch: all those January plans and nothing adding up. No money coming in, no big thoughts, not even small ones that are all that interesting, and a newspaper editor who’s sat on your good piece for six weeks and counting. Not even yours truly would run it now. My major obsessions these last couple of weeks? The Olympics, of course, there’s a distraction from having to see the bank manager about extending the line of credit and a leaking bathroom that has cost me twelve hundred dollars for four plumber visits and isn’t fixed yet. More folk asking me about the next book. A nice two sheets of plans but bad days, plenty of them.

About those Olympics: Alistair MacLeod, in his wonderful story “The Closing Down of Summer,” writes a paean to the coal miner as silent athlete, the mountaineer who works under, not over, the ground but who pursues his excellence to no applause. It is an elegy to physical work as it used to be performed, and MacLeod’s miner laments, with a certain irony, the sort of work that the subsequent generation does. The sons and daughters have become “successful” in a material manner in which the miners who made it so are not. Work of the physical kind has become, for the newer generation, a pastime—something that is done at the gym. They are doctors and lawyers and dentists moving “their fat pudgy fingers over the limited possibilities to be found in other people’s mouths.”

Or they are writers such as this one, realizing in a bad moment that that they have been sitting not for days but years at a desk and that, in my case, the father who was the example died at seventy because his atrophied body simply packed it in; that it has not so suddenly come to that point where exercise as something that might have occurred in the ordinary working day has not been a fact of this writer’s life for a couple of decades. Time to look around for something more to feel shitty about, which is not hard—not on oneself, anyway, but tough on the loved ones around you. Think, for instance, of François Hamelin skating his way to lithe and speedy victory on the short track and Marianne St-Gelais, his silver medalist partner, wildly applauding his success from the stands. “Now how come you don’t cheer like that when I finish an article?” I say to the wife—a joke of course, though maybe a fantasy, too, from time to time, and funny enough. But shit, did I really have to blow up and make a fool of my stupid selfish self when I told the kid in the morning that not quickly washing a dish that she had only used for a slice of toast, instead of putting it in the dishwasher, was pathetic? Man, I have to learn to keep this misery to myself.

Lumpen I may feel at times like these, in more ways than one, and so it was that I did eat humble pie and take my wife’s instruction and go out and get a little exercise. Let the cold morning air do what I’ve been depending far too much on shorter and shorter espressos to do. Certainly, exercise helps. It gets the blood rushing and improves the mood, if not the thoughts.

And as I head to the gym myself, one of MacLeod’s city Canadians whose privileges have estranged him from physical work, it strikes me that there is at least one way in which writing is actually quite like an athletic endeavour after all—though I think less of the mountaineer than of the baseball or hockey player in a slump. Hitting badly. Not scoring goals. Only nobody’s going to bench me but myself, and there’s no one else on the bench to come forward. So what can you do but keep playing and shoot through it. Exercise, sure, but keep writing. Find the groove again. Endure the bad days. Believe there are more good ones around the corner.

What you can’t do is quit.

Noah Richler is a writer and broadcaster. His book, This is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada won the 2007 B.C. Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. He blogs for Wordfest and his column,“The Writing Life,” appears here and on roverarts.com.

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