January 21, 2008

Swimming as Process, Writing as Process: Part II

The question driving this inquiry is this: How can I transfer the motivation and commitment I have for swimming onto my writing practice? Since I already have the advantage of demonstrating commitment and progress in one area of my life, it is (simply?) a matter of looking at what has worked to make swimming a success and then apply those techniques to writing. Then, bam, I'll have a successful writing practice! So what has worked to make me a committed and successful swimmer?

First, I do it every day. Even on the coldest, wettest, earliest mornings I'll be there, suiting up and hopping in. Second, I hold myself publicly accountable. I swim with a partner, which means I don't want to let him down and I don't want to let him beat me or get faster than me. I also post and track my workouts publicly against many other swimmers around the world. I try to stay ahead of rivals in Florida, Seattle, California, and Brazil. Next, I set goals. I swim in meets. I swim in open water races. I have a goal for yards per day, per week, and per year. I have goal times. I have expectations. I know how fast I am and I know how fast I want to be. Fourth, I design creative workouts. I create daily workouts that mix things up. It's rarely the same twice. Finally, I love the process. It's not the races or the meets that motivate, it's the daily sense of accomplishment; it's the awareness of my body as I move; it's my mind as it thinks in my hands, my feet, and my hips for every single stroke. Races merely reinforce the need to practice and they help identify and focus those practices; it's the process that I love.

At bottom, though, is a basic and fundamental belief that each and every stroke I take not only makes me faster for meets and open water races, but every stroke also makes me a stronger, smarter, and smoother swimmer overall. There is never a wasted moment in the pool. Warm ups, cool downs, the easy interval between tough sets, the drills, sprints, and long distance, each of these pushes me in different ways, challenging me to be better swimmer.

How does this apply to writing? It's almost exactly the same. Every word I write might not make it into the dissertation or the conference paper or the publication, but ever word I write, every sentence, makes me a smarter, better writer. It clarifies my thinking and sharpens my ideas. Warmups, like free writing and brainstorming, prepare me to write effectively. Writing sprints push me to work through an idea. Outlining necessarily pulls me back to see the big picture. None of these activities is wasted; they're all part of the process of writing.

So generating a successful writing practice out of my experience swimming yields these five features:

  • Daily practice. This is the most important step. Set aside a time and place to actually sit and write. Do it. Daily.
  • Logs and public accountability. Have a writing partner, a writing group, a mentor, an advisor, anyone who will ask you, "Have you written today?" Log your hours and words written. If you outline or brainstorm, log the time; if you write words and keep them, log the number. Make this public if you can. Post it on your blog. Send regular emails to your writing group. Tell your mom or sister or best friend. Log them, see the progress, and know that each word is building something.
  • Goal setting. Set daily, weekly, and yearly goals. Use conference deadlines to prod you on. Set hard deadlines (those set by your univerisity) and soft deadlines (those set by your advisor or writing group). Make these goals public.
  • Creative workouts. Writing doesn't have to mean sitting down at your desk or in front of your computer and starting with the first word and ending with the last. Start off in an easy chair with some coffee and brainstorm or free write. Warm up! Then sit down, set your goals for the "main set" and finally, have a cool down where you reflect on what you did, set goals for the next session, or write something fun, like a letter to your aunt or a blog post about your shoelaces.
  • Love the process. You're in this profession because you love to write. So write! But learn to love the process. Make it a ritual. Love the moment when you dive in. Enjoy the click of the keys or the scribbles on the paper. Watch your mind as it fumbles and finds words, as sentences come together, as ideas form paragraphs, and as your language is loose and tight in turns. Revise and clarify. Outline and love the clarity that follows. And never forget: writing happens in an environment, so claim your space. Get a comfortable chair, set the mood with the right lighting, find the paper and pens and pencils that make you happy.
Posted by at 5:07 PM