1 000 WORDS, 20 000 STEPS
Mis à jour : avr. 19
How many times had I heard writing’s a job - you don’t always feel like going to work but you do it anyway? This unforgiving and uncomfortable idea morphs itself into more and more negative ones. Not only do writers ignore their feelings, they also ignore their health and surroundings. They are messy. They live on cigarettes and coffee and alcohol. They have all sorts of health problems and physical ailments. They write anyway. I felt like if I was serious about writing, I should be able to ignore all other concerns. Ignore that I felt sleepy and heavy and lethargic. Ignore that the house needed not only cleaning but decluttering. Ignore that my clothes were falling apart and not waste time trying to mend some and replace others. These were all just excuses to procrastinate. I shouldn’t be so delicate. Tough. You have to adapt. That’s life. Do your work. I berated myself over and over. I felt guilty about wanting “perfect conditions” for writing, but I also knew that I worked best when I felt my best, felt happy - so why not set the stage for it?
March 1st was a wonderful date; not only was it the beginning of the month that housed the beginning of Spring, but it was also a Monday - the perfect starting day for putting writing plans into action. In preparation, I spent the short month of February turning around my eating, sleeping, exercising and writing habits. By the last week, I was sleeping at 9pm and waking up at 5am. I’d restored intermittent fasting, I had added yoga and weight training (on alternating days) to my daily stretches, and I’d started notes toward drafts of projects in addition to the daily journaling I’d been doing since the start of January. (I’d journaled last year too but not consistently).
Everything was in place for the start of March. I thought I would start with blog posts planned around the same time as Swim Therapy, but then I decided to write about the intersection of health and writing instead. I’d been wanting to do so for some time, and reading about Joanna Penn’s treatment of it in her Books for Writers series prompted me to bring it to the forefront.
Two of my New Year’s resolutions had been to get back into shape and to get back into writing. Putting New Year’s resolutions into action rarely happens at the start of the new year. The month of January always seems to be a busy time closing things up from the previous year and getting the new year into motion. Committing to health and writing isn’t a question of doing something once and for all, but of shifting habits and creating routines that last. I gave myself the month of February to start moving away from all my old habits, with the goal of having new routines firmly in place by the start of spring. This post tracks the process of getting to these routines.
WEIGHT It may not be true for everyone but for me, my weight is a quantifiable way of seeing how I’ve been treating myself. Life decides to pick up its pace, leaving no time for reflection, and I find myself dealing with things as they come up, not noticing - or noticing but ignoring - that I’m progressively feeling unwell. Until the day my pants don’t fit and even PJs feel uncomfortable and I can’t ignore it anymore. No surprise. I’ve stopped exercising or I’ve been doing it inconsistently. I sleep 8 hours and I wake up tired. My movements are sluggish and everything all day feels like an awful chore. I don’t want anything except to sit in front of the TV with a glass (or many glasses) of wine. And even that’s not a pleasure but waiting to go numb. I’ve been through this before and I know it’s so much better on the other side.
EXERCISE Past injuries to my hip and recurring pain in my knees and shoulder meant I couldn’t do a hardcore workout 5 times a week and get my figure and sense of well-being back in 6 weeks (like I would whenever I got off-track in my 20s) - this time, I had to go for a slower, gentler approach. I liked specific targets I could reach and check off each day - I liked the idea of 10,000 steps - but since so many kinds of fitness, like hot yoga and swimming, were not available with COVID around, I decided to double that to 20,000. I also wanted some strength training and thought back to the exercises I’d picked up in physical therapy. I started with an 18-minute stretch sequence. That was the only requirement per day. Stretch every day and not think too far ahead about other kinds of exercise. After a while (a couple of weeks), I wanted to do more. I added on some strengthening exercises like planks and resistance bands and another set of stretches (all learned during physical therapy, some online). I read and watched carefully what I was bringing in from online and carefully experimented with it. If it disturbed my knee or shoulder in any way, I cut it out of the program. The program eventually went from 18 minutes to 30 minutes to 45 minutes to 1 hour. But I didn’t rush things. By the time my program was one hour long, it didn’t feel any more difficult than the initial 18-minute routine. About half or a third of the exercise was a series of stretches. This maintained/improved flexibility and prevented injury while I was building strength.
When I felt like I wanted more variety, I added weights exercises from The FIRM. These were hour-long videos from the late 80s (hello leotards and big hair!) combining weight training with cardio that I used to shed the baby weight in my 20s and that I returned to time and again to get back into shape. They were usually part of my regular at-home exercise program, but all their squats and lunges while lifting weights were now too hard on my knees and shoulder. I started to use their routine with weights while sitting on a stool. It didn't get sweat rolling down my forehead and back, but I could feel my muscles working. Twice a week I started doing the weights workout (one day upper body, one day lower body), three times a week the strengthening routine from physical therapy, once a week an 8-minute abs routine I put together from internet articles - each of these ending with a 17-minute stretching routine made up mostly of yoga poses. I continued doing the initial 18-minute stretching routine every day, though not always at the same time as the day’s exercise routine. I continued to adapt and switch things up as each week of exercises suggested what might be better for the following week. Now I do the upper body weights routine standing up - it’s more challenging but it doesn’t hurt my knees. And I do the weights sequences twice a week (2 days upper body, 2 days lower body for a total of 4 days of weight training), the physical therapy strengthening exercises twice a week, and the remaining day the 8-minute abs routine. Again, each of these routines ends with 17 minutes of yoga-style stretches, and I still do the initial 18-minute stretch routine a few hours later. At first, I was wary of working out 7 days a week; I’d always been cautioned to leave at least one day for rest. I read up on it, and I came to understand that it’s okay to work out every day if they're not intensive, strenuous workouts. These are short, moderate routines - the whole workout takes about 1 hour (about 45 minutes first thing in the morning and the 18-minute stretch sequence later), but most of it is stretching - the core workout routine is only 15-20 minutes.
STEP COUNT I get most of my step count from reading. Yes, reading. Winter was still here when I put this program into place, and bad weather meant it was wet outdoors. Even when it wasn’t raining or snowing, there were muddy paths or icy streets. Now I’m going outside more. But so is everyone else - especially on the Voie Verte…
Please bear with me while I digress:
The Voie Verte is an awesome construction of over 5km of straightforward route connecting Geneva to Annemasse so you can avoid the traffic from cars on the road and from people shopping the store-lined streets. There’s nothing there except one bike path and one foot path framed by grass on both sides. I try to avoid the times when it’s swarming with kids on bikes/ trikes/ blades/ scooters, their slow moving parents behind, followed by clusters of teens… I feel like a grumpy old person just writing that. I can just hear myself saying in a cranky voice, in my day we took our kids to the park. The Voie Verte is a voie; a path, a lane. People use it for a destination or a purpose. Traveling to work or home. Running or jogging. Walking dogs. In short, the same things you’d see on a regular street except vehicles like cars have been replaced by bikes and electric scooters. Letting kids ride their tricycles and mini scooters on this path is akin to letting them play in the street with oncoming traffic. This much seems obvious to me. The hordes I find on the Voie Verte don’t seem to share my opinion.
… I never knew I could get so claustrophobic outdoors on an ordinary day (Christmas Eve at Rockefeller Center doesn’t count). So now I walk outside when the weather is less nice but still tolerable. Other times, I walk indoors. I watch Netflix on my phone and walk, text and walk, make grocery lists/ to-do lists/notes-to-self on my phone and walk, Kindle and walk. That’s how I get in my daily step count. The word count is another story.
WRITING When I haven’t written for a while, the first practice I put into place is journaling because it’s unthreatening and unintimidating. Just like my workout which consisted at first only of stretching and not “real” exercising, my daily writing consisted of journaling and not worrying about when it would lead to “real” writing.
The other thing I do when I haven’t written for a while is to start reading about writing. Something motivating that is also full of practical tips - tips that may be familiar but that I’ve lost touch with. Usually that meant rereading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, but I had it practically memorized and I wanted something new. I started reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (a book I’d avoided for years because birds terrify me) and a couple of Joanna Penn’s books in her Books for Writers series. I started to think more and more about the writing projects I’d had in mind, in what order I might work on them, how long each might take.
But I still wasn’t sitting down to write - because I was walking at that time. I wouldn’t sit down to write until my 20,000 steps were done. I’d optimistically, unrealistically (crazily?) thought I could do them before breakfast. I was having breakfast at ten and I was waking up early so it’s not as farfetched as it sounds - but most days I wouldn’t get a word down until almost 3pm. And that’s when I would have to stop to go teach.
Why was I procrastinating so much?
For one thing, there was the problem of competing priorities. Both getting fit and getting writing were major goals. Exercise was a lot easier to put into place than writing after a long absence from both. Exercise set the stage for writing - better sleep, being more alert, clear headed, focused - but it also took the time that could be used for writing. And then, there was the fear.
I was so afraid of what a return to writing might bring. I was afraid of it being a bad experience and almost equally afraid of it being good. If it was bad, if I couldn’t think of anything to write, then maybe all I had were ideas but I was incapable of executing them. If it was good, it’d take over my day and I had so much other work to do. I’d so carefully crafted this schedule, organized my time so neatly — everything was going so well and it might’ve gotten messed up again.
And then, there was coming off the high — the high of generating ideas. Before I started writing, I could see the project as a whole. It’ll be about this, organized in this way… it’ll be like this in the beginning and follow through talking about this and this, and finish like this. But when it came time to fill in all the “this” I drew a blank. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. Another idea seemed more promising, one where everything would keep pouring into my mind and I’d keep pouring out into writing without these difficult parts. Where I couldn’t wait to get to my desk everyday… It was an illusion that any project would work out this way.
Ironically, I was expecting the writing to come easily while at the same time unnecessarily making it too hard. I kept remembering times when writing just came together in my head and flowed onto the page. I wanted the same thing to happen with the new project. But when I actually thought about it, I realized that “the flowing thing” happened when I’d write a lot and regularly. Usually things I didn't want to write, then my head would get all creative and distract me with a nice long piece that would pour out instead of what I should’ve been working on.
I’d forgotten that the flowing moments of good writing came with regular practice. I’d also forgotten that though writing required hard work, the actual steps were simple. I’m the one who made them too complicated. I put too much pressure on the daily writing sessions. Because I came up with my titles when I got the ideas for projects, I felt like I should begin drafting “content” right away. But I needed to take steps before that - just gathering words, ideas, notes, free writes before even attempting to draft sentences. Trying to write sentences right away was too much. Even with the knowledge that the draft would be revised, even with giving myself permission to write horrible sentences, sitting down to write the draft brought enormous resistance.
Once I got over my resistance to reading Lamott’s “bird” book (I knew it had nothing to do with birds but it still kept me away), I found something very useful for breaking through writing resistance in her chapter on short assignments. She described a 1-inch frame that she kept on her desk, which reminded her to break down whatever she needed to write into the smallest possible assignment that she could complete right there. I loved this idea of a physical reminder to work on one small part of a project. These parts build up to the whole project over less time than one would think. Lamott’s miniature frame reminded me of a little tree I unwrapped from last year’s Advent calendar. That tree reminded me of a scene from Calm (a meditation app) that I used during the process of writing my dissertation. I would open the tree scene on Calm, take out my pen “bouquet” (a glass jar filled with different colored pens) and start writing. It was relaxing and inspiring at the same time. The advent tree didn’t look at all like the Calm tree but it provoked the same kind of feeling. Of wanting to write. Its actual appearance - a sturdy little base of turquoise colored rock, a trunk and branches made of twisted coppery material ending in little stones of jade that were supposed to represent clusters of leaves - was a metaphor of a tree that became a metaphor for the project. It reminded me to just think of one leaf and write on it. And so a ritual was born. Every morning after that I would take out my pen bouquet and place this little tree in front of me.
I was thinking that I would make it my goal to write for at least two hours every morning when I came across Joanna Penn’s idea of writing at least 1,000 words a day. It was so measurable. I liked the idea that I could count my words like I counted my steps. I’d already made a deal with myself that once the morning walk was over (10,000 steps of reading), I’d complete a task, then take a ten-minute break to walk (about 1,000 steps at a relaxed pace). Now I could say 100 words, then 1,000 steps. Repeat ten times.
Okay, so I didn’t actually write 100 words, then get up to do 1,000 steps. I write by hand most of the time and all over the place. I might do a timed free-write on one section, then go back and add ideas to the general outline, then some lines will pop into my head for a different project… it would be too time-consuming to stop and count words. But the idea of 1,000 words, 20,000 steps got me writing as regularly as I’d been walking - not as frequently because I walk all day but I only write in the mornings - but as consistently and predictably. My mornings became routine: exercise, meditate, journal, read & walk, write. I didn’t even think about whether I was going to do it - this routine was the reason I was getting up early - there wasn’t much else to do while everyone was sleeping anyway - and because all of it happened before “business hours,” there were no other distractions. Eventually I typed up my notes and saw that two pages front and back in my huge quadrilled notebook equalled about a thousand words - so now I try to “eyeball” how much I write and not stop until I’ve written that much and/or all the pieces add up to the equivalent of those two pages. By the time I started drafting this blog post, all the short pieces of free-writing inspired by the little jade tree had filled out the outline of the overall project I had in mind. And I’m looking forward to the next steps.