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Julie Tetel Andresen Headshot

Writing as an Aerobic Activity

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There is no such thing as writer's block. It took me 10 years of writing before I could formulate the idea that writing is an aerobic activity. There is however such a thing as being in writing shape. I remember when I first began writing, I would spend five or six hours on two paragraphs, and at the end of the day, not only were the paragraphs pretty terrible, but I was exhausted by the effort. I clearly wasn't in shape. You don't just tie on a pair of running shoes and go out and run a marathon. You have to be in running shape, just like you have to be in writing shape.

So to me, writing is like breathing. There is no such thing as a breathing block -- except for asthma or having a panic attack, I suppose. For writers, there is only being in writing shape -- or not. If a writer is feeling asthmatic -- to continue my analogy of the breathing block -- then I would suggest the writer read his or her favorite books. Use them as inhalers, opening up the airways. Reading is always a remedy for whatever ails a writer. In my case, so is taking a walk, going to a yoga class, and doing any other kind of physical activity.

I live by Fred Astaire's motto: "If I don't dance one day, I notice it. If I don't dance two days in a row, my audience notices it. If I don't dance three days in a row, I should get another job." Fred Astaire was in great dancing shape.

To me, writing is therefore also a kinetic activity. Although I said I take walks and go to yoga, I'm not much of an athlete. I can't hit any kind of ball to save my life, be it a tennis ball, golf ball, baseball, or whatever. Nevertheless, all of my images of writing are from competitive sports, often ones including balls. I am currently writing a college textbook entitled Languages of the World in Structural, Historical, and Sociopolitical Perspective. I recently told my co-author, "This project has brought us to center court at Wimbledon. We have to get every ball (sentence) over the net and place it in the opposing court exactly where we want it. The opposing court is the blank page, and the spectators are our readers." He replied, "I'm glad my doubles partner is Serena Williams."

Serena Williams, wow! Alright, I may not be Serena Williams, but I can certainly use her for inspiration. What power.

In addition to writing academic books, I also write popular romance novels. My sports heroine for a novel I'm writing is the figure skater Dorothy Hamill. She won an Olympic gold medal some years ago. I remember reading an article about her that described her development in her sport. Apparently she was really good at the long program, the free skate, but she was not good at the short program, the compulsories. She would get her feet all tangled while doing the required axels and jumps and spins. Somewhere along the way she found a coach who untangled her footwork and then came Olympic gold. I've never had an exterior writing coach, but my interior coach still sometimes says to me, "Untie, untangle, get your sentences smoothed out."

In academics there are two horrible genres: The Statement of Purpose for Tenure and The Career Narrative for Promotion to Full Professor. The reason the genres are horrible is because they are one-time writing assignments with narrowly specific requirements that the person expected to write one of them has never before encountered and will never confront again. Last year I was faced with The Career Narrative. I had particular difficulty hitting the right tone (hint: romance writing skills are not helpful here). Fortunately, I had help from friends and received good feedback on several drafts. When I finished my very last revisions, I stood up from my desk, and a very clear image came into my head. I was in a large baseball stadium. I heard my bat solidly connect with the pitch, and then I saw the ball sail toward the back of the stadium. I didn't see where the ball landed, but I felt sure it was a home run. The experience felt coordinated and muscular. The arc of the ball was beautiful.

I read once about a professor of mathematics at Princeton who would take up a new sport whenever he began a new math problem. He said that getting his body into new configurations helped get his brain to work around a new problem. This approach to solving any kind of creative problem makes intuitive sense to me.