Guest Post, Katie Cortese: In Praise of (Short) Exercise(s)

I don’t want you to keep butting your head against the stone wall of technical problems that are beyond your present means to solve. I’ll admire anyone who does that—and gets groggily to his feet, lowers his bloody head, and runs again. But I know there’s a law of diminishing returns in such blind gallantry. I have a notion that there may be exercises which, sometimes, may point a way around or over the wall.”

R.V. Cassill, “Finger Exercises,” Writing Fiction

I’ve long believed writers are the best sitters in the game.

Sure, there are the 9-5 workers to compete with—their In-and-Out file trays neatly labeled and cubicles guarding them from distraction on three sides—but they are easily lured from their work stations with the promise of snacks in the break room, or a quick smoke out back, and we’re all familiar with the fatal pull of the water cooler.

Bus drivers are a concern, sure, but it takes muscular engagement to keep opening those accordion doors, and the long-distance ones will even exit the bus to help passengers load their luggage. When you think about them as a group, they’re not really contenders at all.

Pianists are decent, especially the composer double-threats, but even they are subject to rhythm. Behinds may not elevate from benches all too often, but all that swaying and bobbing and finger thrumming have to be stimulating oxygenation and blood flow, and even toning lats and abs and biceps. We might as well say it: composers are the athletes of the sitting class.

Writers of all genres, on the other hand, are subject to the trance-like, long-haul, two-ended-candle, sleep-is-for-the-gainfully-employed, just-one-more-page, numb-butt marathon that crafting a poem, essay, story, or novel can entail. There’s no other way to get the work done except by putting fingers to keys, backside to chair, and sticking it out. And that’s on the good days.

I’m here to talk about the bad ones. The days the words won’t flow. The days we sit and type and delete and continue to stubbornly sit, fueled by nothing stronger than blind faith and cold coffee. The days when we should give it a rest and take a walk, but don’t because deep down, in our basement selves where we’ve stashed the shoeboxes full of dried petals from our high-school-wallflower days, where the words from every journal rejection are graffitied across the walls, down in that musty, self-defeating place, we believe rest equals surrender. And whatever else we may be, quitters we are not.

We are being crazy, of course. A walk would undoubtedly help. A banana, too, and some water.

But since writing is no place for reason (at least not until we’ve entered the revision stage), and since most of us will persist in sitting, working, and agonizing over the words that refuse to scan whole and perfect from our crystalline visions to the neutral rectangle on the buzzing screen, I offer this tidbit from a recent New York Times article by Gretchen Reynolds on, of all things, exercise:

There’s very good evidence” that high-intensity interval training provides “many of the fitness benefits of prolonged endurance training but in much less time,” says Chris Jordan, the director of exercise physiology at the Human Performance Institute in Orlando, Fla.

In a rare alignment of transferable truths, exercise physiology finally has something to teach us sedentary mental gymnasts (either that, or I’ve finally grown desperate enough to listen to what the scientists have been saying for years): the antidote for those slugfest writing days is exercise. Or several. But never fear, you need not rise from your chair as you navigate to the toolbar of your word processing program and open a blank page. Below, I will suggest a few easy warm-ups, intermediate techniques, and expert maneuvers to ready you for re-entry into the writing rat race, but first, here are some benefits you can expect from setting aside 5-10 minutes a day to experiment on the page:

  • Practice Basic Skills: Feel insufficient at dialogue? Have a hard time sticking with descriptions of more than one line? Give yourself a task to deliberately stretch your writing wings, and don’t color in the lines. No one ever has to see the results, so flex every feather.
  • No Risk, Big Reward: Writing something of sustained length or complexity is always going to keep the stakes feeling high. While you may be the type not to worry about trashing a failed novel (like Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist Paul Harding, who said in an interview with The Southeast Review: “From my point of view, it did not take any courage to pitch what I saw was a crummy book. Who wants to toil on something that obviously stinks?”), many of us would find that a hard decision. If you write a three-page exercise that never coalesces into something publishable, however, it’s no great loss of time or effort, and the great likelihood is that you discovered something in the process that will come back for you in another way.
  • Save the Scraps: Every time I meet a new challenge in life, before expressing sympathy or advice, my mother always says, “Well, it’s fodder for your writing.” Exercises can work the same way in that the material you discover there enters a storehouse of salvageable scraps to be harvested later, whether it’s a concept, character, or lovely turn of phrase. In his commentary regarding “Encounters with Unexpected Animals,” a story anthologized in the 2013 Best American Short Stories, Bret Anthony Johnston says he had “tried to get the phrase ‘a trickle of water tracking through pebbles’ into just about everything” he’s ever written. He held onto the phrase and eventually, it found a happy home.
  • Stay Loose: To return to some scientific language, you may recall from gym class—albeit reluctantly and through a haze of shame and lingering discomfort—the temporary results of “lactic acid buildup,” which causes in muscles sensations ranging from a tingling burn to a stabbing cramp that makes further exertion impossible. Stephen M. Roth over at Scientific American reveals the reason for this phenomenon: “This often painful sensation … gets us to stop overworking the body, thus forcing a recovery period in which the body clears the lactate and other metabolites.” If a long, serious, emotionally-taxing, or otherwise weighty project is cramping your writing style, an exercise can give you a necessary breather.
  • Play: The brilliant teacher and prolific writer Julianna Baggott has this to say about writers who switch genres: “… the most important thing that writing in a new genre offers the writer who’s been focused in another genre is that it takes you out of authority, lowers the stakes, and allows you to play again. The lessons come in sideways.” Short writing exercises can offer the writer of any genre, I believe, the same benefits. They offer an opportunity to set aside past accomplishments, future goals, and current projects to rediscover the joy in playing, creating, and inventing for an audience of one. If an exercise takes on a life of its own and becomes a short, long, or novel-length work, that’s an added bonus, but the main point should be learning to love the game again so you can look forward to spending all those hours—productive, frustrating, and every one of them worth it—in your chair.

A Week’s Worth of 3-Pager Prompts:

  • Go Back to the Well: There’s a reason Romeo and Juliet works in every time period from the reign of Queen Elizabeth to 1990s “Verona Beach” to a zombie-occupied post-apocalyptic nightmare-scape. Let the Bard, the brothers Grimm, or another classic word-weaver take care of the basics, but tell the tale in the way that only you can.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: If Law & Order can do it (not to mention the likes of Joyce Carol Oates), then we certainly have license to find inspiration in the dramatic doings of those around us. Pillage newspapers of all types, and scan for drama during the nightly news.
  • Found Dialogue: It’s not eavesdropping if done in the service of art. You may not want a whole conversation (most of us have pretty boring ones, filled with “ums” and “likes” and pauses), but the right tidbit can sometimes spark a whole narrative, so listen up.
  • Another Man’s Trash: Annie Proulx’s novel Accordion Crimes follows one green accordion from family to family for generations. Stephen King’s Christine is about an animate, and angry, car. Visit yard sales, flea markets, and secondhand stores to search for things—inventory items—that seem to have lives and possibilities all their own.
  • Dear John: Letter-writing is almost as old as old as written language itself, and one of the first proto-novels, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, was composed in epistolary form. All you need are two characters, at least one of whom has something to say to the other.
  • Mission Impossible: Don’t limit yourself to writing within the bounds of what we know (or think we know) to be physically possible. Write a piece featuring an extraordinary event.
  • Horse’s Mouth: This one requires abdicating your writing chair for an hour or so. Take yourself somewhere you’re likely to find experts in a field you’re unfamiliar with, and talk with them about their industry (it may be necessary to set up an appointment prior to your visit). What does it take to become a cobbler/rancher/carnie/auctioneer/botanist/chef? Write about a person in that profession, or an issue connected to it.

Additional Resources:

Check out these programs and sourcebooks for even more exercises that will spur your writing forward and help you rediscover a love of your craft. Many of them are focused on fiction-writing, but with a little imagination can be applied to nonfiction and poetry as well. I hope you find some of them useful, and in the meantime, I wish you courage, persistence, joy, and a comfortable chair!

Katie Cortese

Katie Cortese holds an MFA in Fiction from Arizona State University and a PhD from Florida State. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Third Coast, Gulf Coast, Carve Magazine, Willow Springs, Blackbird, and elsewhere. She currently teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University where she also serves as the fiction editor of Iron Horse Literary Review. Visit her website for more.

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