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Why Authors Need Exercise

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Authors need exercise. Click clickety clacking around a keyboard is not enough.

It's easy to forget as we hover over our hands, slowly working with the forces of gravity to sculpt our spines into bananas, that we really need to move around.

Pushing around 90,000 words of copy is strenuous enough, right? There's no time or strength to push around anything else. But working up a good sweat is what we need, and the reason we need it is not only to fend off writer paunch.

The enemy of all writers, as Old Man Mailer said, is not a flabby gut. It's not carpal tunnel or bad circulation. It is not even physical. It is "a bad mood."

A bad mood is poison to work output. Most often, a bad mood leads to procrastination (how can I work in a funk like this?) but taking a day off is a mild malady compared to perhaps the greatest side-effect of bad mood syndrome: bad decision making. During one funk, I convinced myself at the early stages of the manuscript (and quite foolishly so) to bring J. Edgar Hoover back to life and spent four months reading every book on him, trekking down to the National Archives in Washington to study his calendar during the fall of 1971, then stubbornly continued full hog on the Hoover obsession, penning some 10,000 words before realizing The Director did not fit into the story at all. What did I have to show for all that work? Only the unconfirmed suspicion that Hoover's real killer might not have been a heart attack, as the history books say, but poison planted by rogue agents on his toilet seat.

Bad moods: deadly indeed.

After the Hoover debacle, I learned another pitfall of the bad mood: panic.

Panic sucks. Panic is a production killer. Writing a book is a marathon--it's like a long distance bicycle race that takes place through every part of your head. It requires high levels of endurance, constantly fighting to make it to the next stage of the narrative and through the last part of your brain. The hazards are everywhere, and some narrative stages take longer to finish. The longer they take, the more you feel like you aren't accomplishing much. Feelings of failure ensue, which usher in moments of doubt, and this doubt leads only one way (gulp) to panic.

To deter panic, I had no choice. I had to exercise. To finish the manuscript I literally had to get in shape and make the battle physical. I bought a pair of running shoes and, after finishing a section, set out for a run down the mountain road in the northern Catskills. I had been living in a cabin there. Running down the road, I didn't make it very far. I hated it. The next day, I went a little farther and still hated it. I kept going and finally figured out that what was so crucial about the run.

It wasn't the sweat, but the feeling of accomplishment of getting a little farther. Even if the manuscript wasn't coming along, at least I kept moving.

Slowly, my writing days became interlaced with cheap attempts at getting things done. Making the bed with hospital corners first thing. Leg lifts when I got to the bottom of the stairs. Push-ups every morning as the coffee was brewing. Alone in the cabin every day, with tens of thousands of words or so to go, the deadline lurking, I no longer had to fear getting to the next level. With my exercises, I had already accomplished plenty by the time the coffee was made. I had completed all these (very minor) tasks and felt content with myself for doing it. I was now a master (petty) achiever! I had tricked myself into a good mood. And all I had to do was write.

Geoffrey Gray is the author of the Times best seller SKYJACK: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper, now out in paperback.