Over the last month every time I sat down to write, all throughout the editing process, and even after I finally washed my hands of an article and published it, I would think back to a curious analogy I happened upon a few weeks ago while writing a particularly long and challenging piece. As I wrestled to clearly and with great concision convey my thoughts in that since-forgotten post, I realized that writing — for all its apparent ease — is every bit as hard as the most intense of physical exercises. Obviously in a slightly different way, using another set of muscles, but just as difficult nonetheless.
In the world of weight lifting, the bench press is arguably the hardest exercise one can undertake with free weights, and resultant of this prestige one of the most popular as well. To its credit, this activity is also very simple: you load heavy plates onto either side of an approximately six-foot-long bar, lay beneath it, lift the bar off the rack, and then proceed to let it down and push it up for between eight and ten repetitions, or “reps”. Although relatively straightforward when taken at face value, “benching” becomes exponentially harder as the load bearing down on you grows. What’s more, as that pressure increases, so too does the challenge of performing this exercise well: throughout this process, you must also successfully navigate a number of critical points of failure in order to ensure not only your physical safety, but to retain the integrity of your workout too.
Prior to starting, preparing for the bench press invariably involves a certain number of fiddly steps prompted by a faint and often unacknowledged sense of uncertainty. Situate yourself on the bench just so, make sure to space your hands appropriately, loosen all the right muscles, roll your shoulders, and adjust your grip over and over again until, finally, you feel comfortable enough to start with a liftoff. Right before the bar leaves its rack though, that nervous feeling reaches a fever pitch seemingly in accordance with the upwards force you exert. Regardless of how often you may have succeeded at this before, there is no guarantee you will this time. In reality, it is actually quite likely that you will fail. Fortunately, by the time these misgivings peak, it’s too late to turn back.
Unlike the rest of the bench press, the liftoff predominantly makes use of your back and shoulders rather than a combination of those two muscle groups, your chest, and your arms as is the case during the majority of this exercise. Given the small subset of muscles required to lift the bar off its rack, this step often proves quite challenging. Once free of its constraint though, that iron-laden bar affords those beneath it a certain clarity of thought in revealing a simple, straightforward decision: either give up and re-rack the weight, or begin lowering it; assuming you opt for the latter, once started you will have no choice but to see the rep through. So you push and struggle and grunt and strain and wonder why you ever decided this was a good idea, until suddenly the rep is done and you find yourself back where you started: with a heavy bar suspended two feet above your chest by two increasingly weary, possibly even wobbly arms.
With a single rep under your belt, you have another difficult choice to make before your resolve fails: continue, or give up. You must always press on. Especially in the face of every incentive encouraging you otherwise, maintain your determination and continue. Between a respectable eight and ten repetitions later, only then can you in good conscience re-rack the bar and let a weary satisfaction set in for a precious few seconds before laying back down and doing it all over again. There is, however, one exception to this multi-rep requirement: when bench pressing your max — that is, loading the bar with as many plates as you can possibly manage, and then trying your hardest to actually lift it; in this situation finishing more than one rep is not a sign of strength, but instead an indication that you did not load the bar with enough weight. If you truly set out to bench your max, you should struggle to successfully complete even one rep, with any more than that proving impossible. The frequency at which you undertake this incredibly strenuous form of lifting, then, ought to be inversely proportional to the effort required to complete it, and the same should go for normal reps as well. To use less convoluted terms, in order to grow stronger you ought to find yourself handling a manageable weight much more often than your max.
Contrary to what I may have alluded to up until now, you should not do any form of this exercise — whether lifting a lesser weight or struggling beneath your max — alone: anyone of any measurable intelligence bench presses with a spotter; in fact, many gyms require that you have one. In addition to ensuring your safety should you find yourself unable to completely re-rack the bar, thus facing the grim possibility of calling for help as one, two, or maybe even three hundred pounds crushes your chest or stomach, spotters fulfill the additional role of acting as a source of motivation. With a friend there to push you forward and past your own notional limits, you will grow much faster than otherwise possible.
Out of all the arts writing has the broadest appeal, and arguably the highest barrier to mastery. Unlike music and dance, for example, both widely respected yet very subjective art forms, writing has much less room for artistic interpretation; more often than not, it gets taken at face value. Quite unfortunately, I might add, as many authors labor with the intention that their work will receive more than the cursory glance preluding ultimate dismissal. To further compound such challenges unique to craftsman of this trade, prose by definition suffers from a greater dosage of the author’s potentially polarizing opinions than is the case in other forms of artistic expression: you could hardly say something inflammatory in an orchestral number, after all, and a ballerina can only gesture so effectively. To its credit though, this task is also very simple: anywhere you can collect words, from a text editor to the back of a napkin, you can write, edit, and craft that jumbled mass to perfection. Although simple when considered from a high level, writing becomes much more complicated in accordance with the pressure to create good work. As that burden increases, the temptation to devolve into sensationalistic headlines above trite “articles” full of sentence-long paragraphs grows, all in service of reaching some misconstrued version of success. Throughout this process, then, you as an independent individual taking pride in your work must split your focus between crafting great prose and navigating the pitfalls many others fall prey to over the course of their literary careers. Only through this difficult balance can you ensure not just the quality of the end result, but your integrity as a writer as well.
Before you even start though, preparing to write almost always involves a certain number of fiddly steps prompted by a faint, often unacknowledged, and unshakable sense of uncertainty. Get your fancy chair situated, make some artisanal coffee, grab a pair of expensive headphones, and launch your favorite distraction-free writing program. No matter how many times you may have done this in the past though, that nagging fear of failure never abates. In fact, the closer you get to actually beginning, the stronger these misgivings become until, coffee, headphones, and your text editor of choice at the ready, they have the ability to halt your creative process altogether.
Relative to the rest of the writing process, starting takes an inordinate amount of determination. Over the years countless articles, websites, and entire books have devoted themselves to helping writers overcome this difficult challenge, yet few have made significant progress in this area. Ultimately, it comes down to a simple question of willpower: is writing what you actually want to do right now? Truthfully answer that question, and you will take a huge step towards dispelling the mystery of writer’s block.
Once you gather the requisite determination to start and get that first draft or outline pounded out, the threat of an unfinished article hanging over you lends itself to a certain clarity of mind in revealing two distinct choices: give up or buckle down and finish writing; assuming you opt for the latter, as soon as you take a step in that direction you will have no choice but to see the project to its conclusion. So you push and struggle and grunt and strain and wonder why you ever decided this was a good idea, until suddenly the article is finished and you find yourself back where you started: with a sprawling mass of jumbled ideas all clamoring for your attention.
With one article under your belt, you have another difficult choice to handle before your resolve fails and you end up watching an episode of Downton Abbey: continue, or give up. You must continue. Especially when presented with every possible distraction, maintain your resolve and press onward. Ignore Twitter, the temptation to tweak your editor’s color scheme, and the position of that navigation bar; pursuing the “perfect” environment does not a good writer make. Rather — and this may come as a shock to some — actually devoting some time to this profession turns mediocre writers into good ones; it is only through this act that anyone can hope to reach any semblance of excellence in this field. So write often, and prolifically: perhaps even eight to ten somethings a day, where those could be anything from paragraphs summarizing your favorite news stories to a simple commentary on someone else’s work; yes, I’m talking about linkblogs. Because only after shouldering this burden over and over again, learning to deal with its effects, and fostering the skills to push past them can you ever hope to grow as a writer.
There is, however, one exception to this multi-something requirement: when writing a long form article — that is, a sprawling diatribe born of your own interests rather than another’s; in this case finishing more than one piece every short while is more likely an indication that you could have devoted more time to polishing that first article than something to take pride in. If you truly set out to create great, original work, this goal will necessitate an effort of herculean proportions all throughout the process of creation and editing both. Attempting such a feat multiple times in the same day, then, ought to prove more than daunting, and in reality impossible. The frequency at which you undertake this very strenuous form of writing, then, should be inversely proportional to the effort necessary to complete it, and the same should go for shorter pieces as well. To put it simply, in order to grow as a writer you must strike the difficult balance between short articles of arguable importance such as those the linkblog format begets, and creating your own original content in lengthy posts such as this one.
Contrary to what I may have alluded to up until now, you should not go about the writing process alone: anyone of any measurable intelligence seeks feedback on their work either during the creation process or shortly after publishing. This feedback serves the dual purpose of ensuring literary excellence, and keeping the writer on topic — a tendency we as members of this profession have a propensity to eschew. With an accomplice there to prompt you towards better writing, you will undoubtedly grow much faster than if you decided not to care what anyone else thought of your work.
As you grow stronger, bench pressing your max does not get easier. Although the difficulty of lifting one or two hundred pounds might, your max will — by definition — always hover at the very edge of your ability regardless of the hours you devote to this exercise. Yet some people become incredibly adept at it, and eventually possess the strength to hoist a literal ton above their chest and lift it just as you or I might a meager tenth of that weight. These individuals do not gain this impressive capacity because benching such incredible amounts magically gets easier after a year or two, but because time allows them to become better equipped at handling the crushing weight and resultant strain doing so inevitably entails. Similarly with regards to my hobby of choice, time alone does not a good writer make, just as pursuing the perfect environment will not further your abilities in this area even one iota. Rather, good writers are born of poor ones who stick around long enough to develop the same resilience fitness aficionados build through years of dedication and hard work. Authors must possess a deep understanding of lexicon, a strong grasp of the mechanics driving their chosen language, and the capacity to craft compelling narratives in order to produce acceptable prose. In order to create great work, however, that designation will only fall to those who engage in this task not only aware of its inherent difficulty, but confident in their capabilities to mitigate and overcome it as well.
When I started writing this, I opted for the title “Insanity” planning to draw a parallel between the tendency of weight lifters to continually return and attempt benching their max, and the writer’s tendency to willfully subject themselves to the crushing weight of an unfinished article. In each case, both repeatedly approach the same task in a similar way expecting a different result. And as a particularly astute individual once said, that is the very definition of insanity. Maybe, then, these two traditionally divergent camps are not as dissimilar as we may have thought. Both come back time and time again expecting something different from the activities that served as such a pain point in the past, after all. Perhaps, but such a comparison belies a misunderstand of both processes: weight lifters grow stronger with each and every lift, just as writers get better with each and every article. And therein lies the secret to achieving excellence in either field.