Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Exercise of Writing: "Do something fabulous with what you've got."

It's Double Team Day! I'm quizzing Liz here, while she's got me covered at her place.


Hi, folks!...Here I am, jogging alongside powerhouse Liz Garton Scanlon ...(huff, puff)... while she answers my questions....let's see if I can (huff) keep up... (puff)

Liz is the author of A Sock is a Pocket for your Toes (and two other upcoming books,) an inspiring classroom volunteer, a coffeehouse-hosting poetry teacher, AND a compulsive runner and a well-balanced yogini. (Plus, I've got to add: this poet/athlete knows how to throw down a sonnet.)

Here she is in a moment of yogini calm, a photo taken several years ago, in which she describes herself as: "VERY pregnant with baby number 2, doing yoga with baby number 1." And that folks, is how seriously she takes her physical endeavors.

Here we go...

1) About those quotes in yesterday's post. Care to reflect on them? Do you have a part of your body that you feel your writing comes from?

Yep. For me, too, writing needs to be from the body in order to be ‘harmonious’. The thing about writing from just my brain is that it can sound too un-squeaky. All craft, no heart, if that makes sense. For me, there are different stages of writing. Gut, shoulder blades, rib cage. It doesn’t always feel good – I sometimes want to suppress the fluttery feeling or squeeze of it – but I am absolutely certain that there is something rich happening when I’m embodying it that way. When I simply come up with an idea and craft it, without anything that resembles a panic attack or lung constriction, it inevitably falls flat on the page.

2) What's your favorite physical activity and what have you learned from it about life and writing?

I have a dual activity lifestyle – running and yoga. These provide the perfect balance of outdoor and indoor activity, building and stretching, heart pumping and lung opening, extroversion and introversion. I have learned, from running, that a partner makes the effort easier and more fun and gives me something external to live up to. Ditto, having writing partners. And that there is no magic – you put one foot in front of the other, working to go a little further or a little faster week after week. Ditto, writing – one word after another after another. It’s the only way I know to get a draft down on the page. And also from running, that even if I don’t want to start, I never, ever regret it when I’m finished. Ditto, writing. The first five minutes are always the hardest. Yoga? I’ve learned that, in the end, it’s just me – my mind and body – that I’ve got to reckon with and count on. Ditto, writing. The partners and community and support make the long slog easier but it’s just me and my mat, errr – my page, in the end. And I’ve learned that some days are easier than others and sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason behind that. Progress isn’t always linear or logical. I have to meet myself where I’m at each day. Ditto, of course, writing. And I’ve learned that even if I don’t want to start…. Yep. Same lesson as running. And writing. That one needs learning over and over again.

3) Do you feel that exercise is essential to your mental health? (I do!)

Whoa, boy. Don’t even know where I’d be (except that it might have the word ‘institution’ in the title) if I didn’t get my fix.

4) Is there a sport/activity that you want to try, but haven't?

Over the years I’ve tried lots – everything from Nia to Masters’ swimming to climbing fourteeners to pilates. I’d still climb peaks if I lived in the mountains. I wish I like pilates but I’m kind of wimpy that way. I think the answer is, I’ll try almost anything once or thrice but I feel sure that I’ve already found the combination of things that really work for me, physically and mentally/emotionally.

5) Why do you think you're better at certain sports than other kinds? Certain forms of writing than other forms?

The only thing I can’t abide (and I know I’ll probably have rotten tomatoes thrown at me for this) are team sports. My hand/eye coordination is pathetic, which puts me at a disadvantage in terms of any ball sports and I hate feeling the pressure of a team. All my favorites are individual activities that don’t involve hoops or nets or goals. I like to depend upon – and compete against, I guess, myself. Writing – I am better at the lyrical than the narrative. I am more about sound and image and metaphor than I am about conflict. I love characters but I’m not very good at getting them to do anything. Which is kind of ironic considering this series on exercise, isn’t it?

6) Are you competitive? In sports or in writing?

I don’t know, but I wish I could say “no”. I think that feels more yogic. And more righteous. But alas. I always say that my only aim is to finish a race but then I watch the clock and try to shave off minutes in the end. And writing? I’ve gotten better about this. I used to really suffer from jealousy, but now I feel genuinely happy for other people’s successes. I think I am more driven than competitive. I try very much to make it me against me, rather than me against you. Wanna arm wrestle?

7) Is there an athlete or teacher that you admire?

I admire so many athletes who do powerful and beautiful and unfathomable things with their bodies. When I was a kid I was obsessed with the speed skaters Eric and Beth Heiden. I really love the yoga teacher David Swenson for the humor and humanity he incorporates into teaching. And there’s an amazing runner here in Austin called Gilber Tuhaboyne who survived civil war in his native Burundi and now he runs and teaches and inspires people in a big, big way. I love athletes for whom athletics are about big things like hope… peace… community.

8) What's your favorite yoga pose?

Downward dog. It tends to everything that needs tending – back, legs, shoulder girdle. And I get a nice little rosy head rush from it. I love me a little dog… (Me, too, Liz, me too!)

9) What keeps you going when you're tired? How do you motivate yourself?

Kombucha and a handful of almonds? Let me think. Sometimes I guess I don’t keep going. I’m a fan of the 15 minute nap. Motivation, though, when things are going well, just happens. Y’know how you will read until 3 in the morning when the book is just that good. I think work – writing – can be that way too. Even when my eyes are bleeding, I can’t stop. That can make the next morning’s run pretty grisly, though.

10) What would you say to those who hate their own bodies and/or hate their own writing?

Oh, man. I’d say, “I’ve been there.” But. But. I think I’d also say it’s just not worth it. I mean, I know this isn’t deeply and emotionally astute, but self-loathing, on a physical or creative level, is really unproductive. And the real way to talk yourself out of the loathing is to do something fabulous with what you’ve got. That may mean taking a brisk walk around the block or trying trapeze flying or climbing Kilimanjaro. It may mean writing morning pages or joining a critique group or finally submitting something to an editor. Doing something, I think, is always better than doing nothing. There is so much pleasure in discovering what it is we’re all capable of, don’t you think?

I do think so, and thanks, Liz! That was a lot of ground to cover....I'm going to go rest now...

(Don't forget to go to Liz's blog today. I believe I'm booked over there as the half-time entertainment!)


  1. I am enjoying reading your back and forth posts this week. I don't think that writing can come from the body any more than I believed it when the OB/GYN on Oprah told women to smile with their hoo-hoos, but that is simply the skeptic in me, I'm afraid.

  2. What's odd is that although on a conscious level I'm with Kelly (Fineman), in that I don't feel a physical connection with my writing, it's striking when I read my own stuff and see just how prominently the physical is featured. In fact I've done two whole novels now in which the central premise is basically 'physical actions feeding back into the spiritual self' (if that makes any sense!). So at some level I'm 100% behind this concept. I just don't feel it myself. Maybe it's just like not being able to see the back of your own head.

  3. Loved reading all about Liz. I want her to adopt me!

    I can see why Nick and Kelly have a hard time embracing the concept of writing coming from the body. All I know is,any creative act involves a "flow" of energy. Anything we feel or experience affects the body in a physiological way. Our cells are storehouses. Any form of exercise keeps that flow going, and helps to unblock channels.

  4. Ha! Kelly, I musta missed that Oprah, 'cause I wouldn't have forgotten THAT. (Actually, I'm not a big Oprah watcher, at all.)

    And Kelly, come on now...doesn't your marvelous singing voice come from your body? And isn't music like poetry? Why can't they emerge from the same place?

    Nick, I love that last sentence. And your ever-inquisitive attitude toward yourself and your writing...

  5. Jama, I know. Doesn't Liz have room so we can all move in with her? :)

  6. Well, I got off my duff yesterday and .... did laundry, but today I will do a little core work just for you guys!

  7. We're remodeling now, to make room for ya'll ;)
    Thanks for hosting me today, Sara. It was fun!

  8. Amy, yeah for the duff being uh...unduffed!

    Liz, THANK YOU. It was so much fun to have you (and your plaid shirt) on my blog today.

    P.S. I went AAWWW when I heard (at your blog) that the shirt was an old one of your granddads...

  9. What a nice couple of interviews y'all have set forth. And completely fascinating for a sporadic exerciser. (Unless you count showering...) So interesting that the lyrical comes easier for you, Liz. That's the absolute hardest for me.

  10. Music, now... I do see that link. Definitely. And I see music as physical, completely. So obviously I just take a roundabout route.

    I'm so fixed on the link between music and writing that I can't even start writing properly until I've found a set of songs/pieces that 'fit' the story. Sort of like arranging the soundtrack before shooting the movie.

  11. I'm really loving this whole series. I don't feel much of a connection of my body to my writing while writing, but I do think my brain works on stuff without my knowing it while I'm working out. Thanks for all your thoughts!


R-E-S-P-E-C-T (or you will be deleted)

You can receive followup comments to this conversation by checking the "notify me" box below the comment window.