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Lift, Squat And Press

Lessons from powerlifting and #100daysofwriting.

Weight training

Most of us know how hard it can be to sit down and write. It’s the effort of opening the laptop, the resistance that comes with getting that first word out. Forcing yourself not to get up and make coffee, do the washing up, read someone else’s writing instead. And all that before the siren call of Twitter sounds. Writing is an oddly physical process for something that’s seen as brainwork. Over the past year, I’ve taken up powerlifting (bear with me), a sport which involves lifting heavy things in three specific ways — deadlift, squat and bench press. It’s hard work, repetitive, and involves going to the gym three times a week. There’s no way I’d be showing up regularly if I wasn’t paying someone to give me a plan, check in with my progress and stand with me at one of those weekly gym sessions telling me I can do this. When I’m there, I often think about how the discipline of exercise can be applied to writing, and how best I can make that happen.

Writing often feels that it has a lot in common with keeping fit: having a regular schedule, showing up, and trying to get through the whole routine helps to build writing stamina and performance, right? And, just as exercise can be self-motivated and carried out alone, for many of us (or at least for me), it’s far more effective and sustainable if you’ve committed to a class and have somebody telling you what to do, or a peer group of fellow exercisers offering encouragement.

There are many equivalent options out there for writers. NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – has been challenging participants to complete a 50,000-word novel in a month since 1999. Their website explains that it ‘tracks words for writers like Fitbit tracks steps’; to me, it sounds more like a punishing month-long spin class than a gentle daily stroll. Partner accountability, at the other end of the scale, is like meeting for a run at an agreed time every week, having a chat along the way and stopping for some cake at the end. A development of this is the informal writer networks many of us have, often in online spaces, where we encourage each other to keep going when the work feels tough and cheerlead when things are going well. Then there are official or contractual deadlines, perhaps working towards a prize submission date as you might towards a sports competition, or even an MA, where you pay a ‘trainer’ to challenge your practice and help you work towards a specific end goal. The ultimate might be a writing retreat, which gives you the permission to do nothing but write and someone else to do the washing up and cooking — a training camp for elite athletes or amateurs taking their progress seriously.

Perhaps we need all of these at different times. But which is best when you hit the wall, run out of steam, plateau? The trouble with setting distances or word counts, weights lifted or chapters completed, is that it’s hard when the other participants are doing better than you, when you feel that you’ve got nothing left to give or reach the point where you want to give in. You could try a boot camp, finding a person or a process which supports you to keep going. Or you could try #100daysofwriting.

#100daysofwriting started out as a gentle personal challenge in the face of writer’s block. Jenn Ashworth was, at the time, the author of four published novels and she’d never experienced any problem with her writing process. Then, a combination of events stalled her in the middle of a project and the ensuing break made her fearful of being able to get going again. Her response? What she calls ‘a whim’, encapsulated in a statement she posted on Instagram alongside a photo of herself in bed with tea and her laptop: ‘This is […] a promise to turn up to my pages every day for 100 days however I feel and whatever happens. And at the end of 100 days I will show the book to someone.’ And, every day, she posted a photo of herself turning up — on trains, amid family chaos, or in moments of peaceful contemplation. The main concept was gentleness — no word counts or specific goals or self-flagellation for missing a day. With it being out there on Instagram others joined in, myself included, and a community of gently active writers was born.

As part of writing this, I’ve gone back into the depths of my own Instagram account, to see how my #100days looked. It’s 2017, another time in so many ways. The posts themselves seem to be mostly about dodging housework, how many pets I have sitting on me, and other things happening in my life at the time. I was editing my second novel, getting ideas for a third, teaching a class at Manchester Metropolitan University, working on the butcher’s counter at Booths. I remember the #100days nudging me towards the writing every day, if not necessarily leading to much of a word count once I was there: some days there were several thousand, other days nothing at all. It didn’t matter — the main takeaway for me was that finding a moment, if that is all you have, to check in with your work-in-progress keeps you in touch with your words, which in turn causes brain cogs to turn, the subconscious to work on character and plot. Here’s an example from a third of the way through: I’m in London and the photo is of our B&B room; the caption reads, ‘Breakfast has been had, now the writing. Day 35? I’m dedicating today to John le Carré, who said at last night’s talk that ‘a professional writer is someone who turns up to write whether they feel like it or not.’ Show up, do the work, see where it takes you.

Four years on and I haven’t yet repeated the #100days, but I still feel a little nudge when other writers’ posts turn up in my Insta feed. I asked alumni of the 2021 intake what it gave to them. Emma Yates-Badley is a freelance writer and literary editor of Northern Soul, and she says that ‘actively stating, ‘this is what I am doing’ (means) I am more likely to follow it through to the end’. This resonates: I’m very prone to put writing time off until later only to find that it’s now a week next Tuesday. The small goal of needing to show myself at work often got me started, sometimes for a moment but often expanding into something more substantial.

Adam Farrer’s memoir in essays, Cold Fish Soup, won the NorthBound Book Award in 2021 and will be published by Saraband Books later this year. As a self-proclaimed completist, Adam showed up for every one of the 100 days, saying ‘the non-judgemental nature of 100 days and the freedom to write as much or as little as I wanted also really helped with that commitment.’ The daily touching of bases (Adam: ‘I liked the community aspect of posting on Instagram…sharing ideas and encouraging/getting encouragement from other writers) and weekly Zooms (Emma: ‘There’s something quite remarkable about the energy created by people actively writing together — even if it’s via Zoom.’) also kept the words coming: Emma is now working with a mentor to shape her manuscript whilst Adam reflects that #100days ‘feels like a blessed process for me — the first time I tried, it created the foundations for my book, which I learned was going to be published during the second time I took part.’

As for me, my life may have moved on from those 2017 #100days but I’m still performing the freelance juggle. What revisiting the #100days approach has reminded me of is that it’s not about beating myself up for not achieving everything I’d ideally like, but about keeping a thread going, reminding myself I’m still a writer in between all the other stuff. That building a book comes via a lot of small steps. Right now, I’m not sure if I’ll ever write another novel, though I have a computer file stuffed with potential ideas. Maybe I’ll join the next #100days to find out what might happen if I took one of them out and made a start. In the meantime, in a pleasing inverse shift, the lessons from #100days played into my powerlifting as well: the week I was writing this article I was all out of motivation and energy and almost skipped my training. Then I remembered the ‘just turn up’ mantra — I went in and ended up getting everything done and feeling much better for it.

I’ve recently taken a step towards some writing accountability, too: a PhD friend and I are planning Writing Fridays, to check in and see how things are going. My next line was going to be ‘and I’ll add a bit of #100days fairy dust once this term ends’ before remembering that the #100days ethos is that I should do what I can now rather wait to do everything later. So, this is it. Day One. Let’s see how I get on!

Sarah Jasmon lives on a canal boat in Lancashire, which is also the setting for her two novels, The Summer of Secrets and You Never Told Me. Her PhD-in-progress explores the canals and waterways of Manchester through creative nonfiction.

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